NWN’s Books of the Year 2021
As we come to the end of 2021, it’s time to roundup our reading year. We asked our staff here at NWN for their Book of the Year, as well as a book that’s on their Christmas list.
I think this has been the best reading year of my life (very much emphasis on the reading) and it’s hard to narrow down my favourites amongst all the brilliant books I read. However, the top spot must go to Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. 2021 was the year that I completely fell in love with Ward’s work. I had previously read her memoir Men We Reaped (also excellent) but over the past twelve months I’ve read all three of her novels for the first time. They are all stunning – set in the town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi she writes haunting family dramas with lyrical, searing prose – and Salvage the Bones is my favourite. Set across twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, we follow fifteen-year-old Esch and her three brothers. This book feels like a future classic, dreamy but dramatic, uplifting and utterly heart-breaking.
Come Christmas morning, I’m hoping to find some Patricia Highsmith hiding under the tree. I can’t believe I still haven’t read any of her work and the festive season feels like the perfect time to read something a dark and cosy. Hopefully I’ll ring in Christmas Day curled up with a mulled wine and a copy of Deep Water.
Once again, reading has been such a solace for me over the last 12 months and I’ve read so many brilliant things that I find it hard to select just one book of the year. A series that has provided me with the escapism I’ve craved, has been Nicola Upson’s historical crime series, which features a fictionalised version of the real-life Golden-Age crime author Josephine Tey. There are currently 9 books in the series (a new instalment is to be published by Faber in the new year), which begins with An Expert in Murder, set during the West-End run of Tey’s acclaimed play Richard of Bordeaux (a real life theatrical sensation in the early 1930s). The inter-war period detail and characterisation across the series is beautifully crafted, with a supporting cast of characters, ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to John Gielgud. If you’re looking for historical escapism over the Christmas period, I couldn’t recommend this series more.
A book I am very much looking forward to reading over Christmas is Lily King’s new short story collection Five Tuesdays in Winter. Lily King is an extraordinary writer and her last book Writers and Lovers was one of my favourite books of last year. These short stories have been recommended by Ann Patchett and Madeline Miller and if you like their writing, I think you’ll like Lily’s too. I’m lucky to have an early proof-copy but it will be realised in January.
The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa (translated by Louise Heal Kawai) has to be my book of the year. A charming story of the power of books and friendship, the tale is a sweet, easy to read, modern fable full of reminders of what’s important. I read this in a night as I couldn’t put it down! The book that is top of my Christmas list this year is The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill. A micro-history of a family tragedy is used as the lens to a society terrified of witches in the beginnings of colonial America, caught in transition between supernatural obsessions and the age of enlightenment. I can’t wait to dive into this micro-history to gain a view of a community influenced by a collection of aetiologies into a witch hunt.
My book of the year is My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley, it’s a short novel about a mother-daughter relationship. It is acutely well observed and (I like to think) nothing like me and my mum… but really I defy anyone not to recognise something of their own relationships with their nearest and dearest in it. You spend the first part of the novel admiring Bridget (the protagonist’s) tolerance of her needy, passive aggressive mother, then as the novel progresses you start to wonder which one of them, if any is reliable. It’s one of those books that is so startlingly acute in its portrayal of the minutiae of human behaviour that it seems universal. There is also a monstrously egotistical father in it – he is so awful yet fascinating and Riley’s handling of the relationship with his daughters is bleakly funny. For Christmas I have put Claire-Louise Bennet’s Checkout 19 on my list, it traces a woman’s life in 7 sections through her relationship with books and reading. I want something salacious and gossipy too – I read Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia over the Christmas break last year and loved it.
I’m going to go for two books of the year. The first is Jenn Ashworth’s novel, Ghosted, which I absolutely loved and was totally drawn into. Set in a North West city, it reads like a modern gothic novel full of claustrophobia, mystery and dark humour. I found the distillation of deep-laid trauma in the novel moving and real and the characters utterly memorable. Jenn Ashworth is such a wise and brilliant novelist and this book builds on her ever-growing range of achievements. The second book is a poetry collection – Poor by Caleb Femi, actually published in 2020 and rightly acclaimed and recognised in several prizes. I found it mind-blowing, vivid and original and returned to these fragmentary poetic narratives of South London neighbourhoods time and again.
This year I’ve been loving the big picture – sweeping narratives, epic landscapes and thought-provoking structures – mainly in the form of Barkskins by Annie Proulx. I tumbled through its 800 or so pages, despite having been quite intimidated by such thick spines since the pandemic. But this was special. The sheer scope of what Proulx must have researched, and the gumption to do something so ambitious with a single novel, had me in awe. I learnt a lot about trees, and about North-American settlement and deforestation too. My family have formed an orderly queue to read it next.
My wishlist for next year doesn’t stray too far – the latest from Sarah Moss would be a joy to find under the tree. After Ghost Wall and Summerwater, I’m certain that The Fell will have me transported once more – and in excellent literary hands. I’ve been really drawn to those clever books which combine ‘human’ and ‘nature’ in telling, sometimes searing, ways.
My favourite book this year was Radio Silence by Alice Oseman. This is a really lovely YA novel about a girl navigating sixth form. It was so refreshing to read a YA set in the UK, and one that didn’t focus on romance; the star of the show was the friendship between protagonist Frances and podcaster Aled, which was wonderfully sweet and saw them blossom as they became comfortable to be completely themselves around each other. When so much media focuses on romantic relationships, I loved this story that affirmed the value of friendship. It also felt really genuine and authentic in the ways the characters interacted.
After reading some fantastic books this year, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to read next, so my Christmas list is lacking in books. I will be asking for The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward, which I discovered at Durham Book Festival and am really intrigued by. But really I’m in the mood for some fantasy – I’ve felt a little lost since finishing the Throne of Glass series earlier this year, and am craving another complex and exciting world to fall into.
Two books that I feel are of their time and very cleverly capture something of the culture of the moment are Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler and No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. They are all novels about real life and life online and how these separate sets of consciousness are interconnecting and messing with us. Fake Accounts is also a genuinely hilarious novel, and the second half of No One is Talking About This is completely devastating – real life is so messy and emotional and-in-your-face than life online. The book that I have already given and will probably give more is Andrew Hagan’s magnificent novel Mayflies, that made me want to be 19 again and which explores love and friendship across a lifetime with aplomb. I’ve also just read Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney and was blown away by the intensity of her understanding of the human heart and by what is said and unsaid in relationships and will now be giving that too. Please don’t buy me any books as I’ve saved three huge novels to read over the holidays: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen, The Every by Dave Eggers and Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, so will be busy!
I’m supposed to be writing about my Book of the Year, but I’m being greedy and instead talking about my Books of the Year, which have to be all five of the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. These novels were initially recommended to me by colleagues here at NWN, and they’re so brilliant that I was amazed I had never come across them before. The first (The Light Years, published in 1990) introduces us to the multi-generational Cazalet family on the brink of the Second World War, and over the next five books we grow up with the characters, charting their loves, losses and culture shocks as their world of servants and weekends in the country shifts towards a more modern life. The characters are incredibly well observed; Howard takes on an impressive number of perspectives from children to elderly governesses, all written so convincingly that I now feel as though the characters are old friends. The books brought both laughter and tears multiple times, and I’ve since recommended the Cazalet Chronicles to friends and family; I’m sure I will be returning to them in future for some much needed comfort reading.
Books are always high up on my Christmas list, and to opt for something more modern, this year I’m hoping for Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You. I’ve been divided on her novels in the past, having really enjoyed Normal People but struggled with the characters in Conversations with Friends, so I’m looking forward to finding out how her next offering measures up!
At the beginning of 2021, when winter had become tiresome, and a third lockdown felt inevitable and indefinite, I decided to use my time to read more Frank O’Hara. I’d recently learnt about how he would write quickly, in notes to himself and friends, kept in pockets and drawers, which felt like an intimate, and do-able way of writing. So, my book of the year is The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, which I bought second-hand around the same time I watched as many films set in 70s New York as I could find as a form of escapism. My current favourite O’Hara poem is ‘Walking’ – written in 1969 about walking through New York streets.
I’m hoping someone will read my mind (or this) and get me Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob for Christmas. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is one of the best novels I have ever read, and I can’t wait to read more of her work.