Here are the books that I enjoyed most in 2021. You can read about those I liked best in 2020 here.
The Element of Lavishness, Letters between Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell was a Christmas present from 2020 that got shunted into the waiting room while I read her letters to and from David Garnett, which were quite indigestible. These letters, on the other hand, are absolutely wonderful. They cover about forty years of correspondence between Warner and Maxwell, her editor at the New Yorker, and are warm rather than in the violently effusive mode that was rather unconvincing in the Garnett-Warner letters. They are about life in all its dimensions, very rereadable, and full of gold nuggets of Warnerism.
Paula Byrne’s The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is my Biography of the Year: written by an expert, and very much needed. Pym’s friend and sister have already done their best to write her life, but it was obvious that a lot was missing. Byrne does a clever thing by comparing the limited extant letters and un-torn-out diary pages with the novels that Pym was writing and revising at the time, and achieves a highly plausible parallel interpretation of Pym’s life. It reveals probably more than Pym would have wanted, especially about her Nazi period. Colm Toíbín’s Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush came a respectable second in this category: very short, beautifully written, and taught me lots about the Irish Civil War and the character of WB Yeats by exploring the ambiguities of the famous Lady Gregory.
My prize for Vintage Biography of the Year goes to Elizabeth Jenkins’ Jane Austen, which is still a masterpiece, which very few biographies are. Beryl Markham won Vintage Autobiography of the Year for her West with the Night, which was a revelation. I’ve gone on about why in the main blog post, but I am still thinking about it, months later. Her writing style is what impresses me most, for the work it does while appearing to do so little. A magnificent memoir and a work of art. Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature left too much unexplained but was also a seriously enjoyable autobiography. (Also surreal: Handheld received a book order one night from someone I had just read Jarman writing about.)
Toby Faber’s Faber and Faber. The Untold Story wins my Publishing Memoir of the Year, because it is so accessible, and so integrated into British history, literary culture, social mores and celebrity. What a treasure house Mr Faber has unpacked, and how well he has done it. Hadley Freeman’s House of Glass is a group biography so wins History of the Year. I’ve said loads about it in the linked blog post: do read that.
Eleanor Wylie’s The Venetian Glass Nephew is stunning. It’s an astonishing piece of 1920s whimsy, long out of print except (possibly?) in anthologies, but is far too short to republish on its own, and her other stories are not as good. So I am still waiting for an opportunity to bring this marvellous novella back into print. Imagine Ronald Firbank and Hope Mirrlees creating a perfect, fragile, frosted miracle of a story about a man made of glass, who falls in love with a flesh and blood girl.
Isaak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales were a big surprise, because I had never heard of them before. Rather long, but astoundingly inventive, and ought to be well known in fantasy circles since they predate most modern fantasy writing.
Katherine Addison brought out a sequel/parallel novel to her magnificent The Goblin Emperor, The Witness for the Dead, which I gobbled during my summer holiday and reviewed for Strange Horizons: ‘it’s about compassion, and the societal bonds and obligations that make living in a civilised manner desirable for all. Addison is working in the same space as the “hopepunk” of Becky Chambers’ science fiction, placing emotional integrity at the centre of a plot that takes the reader forward rather than inward.’ The Witness for the Dead is very, very good: social democratic fantasy written beautifully.
This year’s Terry Pratchetts were The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith (a good refresher in Tiffany lore), The Colour of Magic (a bit better than I remembered but still pretty poor: this was the Pratchett that almost put me off reading any others, and still would if I read it first), The Light Fantastic (persuaded by Helen O’Hara in Desert Island Discworld to give it another try, still think it’s not great), Mort (excellent), Pyramids (patchy), Guards, Guards (landmark of genius), Wyrd Sisters (chaos of delight), Eric (decent jokes buried under the tittering), The Last Continent (so bad I gave it away), The Fifth Elephant (one of my top three, utter genius), Going Postal (fires perfectly on all sixteen cylinders, also in my top three), and Making Money (less good because it’s too overstuffed with plot, but still very good, obvs).
Liz Williams’s Comet Weather was unalloyed pleasure all the way through. I sank happily into a world of witch-adjacent Somerset sisters who live in a house inhabited by stars, and whose grandfather is still available for friendly chats in his grave. One sister is in a relationship with a dead Elizabethan sailor, and after that revelation the novel just gets better and better. I loved this so much I bought and gobbled the sequel, Blackthorn Winter, and Williams’ hilarious Diary of a Witchcraft Shop, which she wrote while running said establishment in Glastonbury.
Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday is one of my top three Ransomes, the others being Great Northern and Coot Club. I love how the title evokes the feeling of cold toes in wet socks and sledge marks in snowy grass. As a child reading this novel for the first time I puzzled for hours over the semaphore picture, and was so pleased when I worked it out. As an adult I am slightly appalled at the risks the children took, and the terrifying blizzard-driven journey by sledge-on-skis over the ice to the head of the lake at night is just breath-taking, in almost all its aspects. (What did they think they were they DOING??) A magnificent novel about creating adventure when you think there isn’t one, and then finding it anyway.
I rediscovered Leon Garfield in a box set I bought in Wigtown, and read Jack Holborn for the first time ever (I had read Smith at school and thoroughly enjoyed rediscovering it). Devil-in-the-Fog was also very good indeed. Garfield was a magnificent writer, and how interesting that he stuck to the late eighteenth century, immersing generations of children in that period to get them ready for Treasure Island.
Old and new fiction
Bernadine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe kept me chuckling at night, unable to go sleep until I’d read just a bit more. Hugely enjoyable novel about a black British girl taken up by the Emperor in Londinium, and then she actually falls in love with him. Proper writing, proper storytelling in blank verse, with Latin patched into modern slang and teenage sarcasm. Also a massively welcome reassurance, amongst a string of really dud reads, that good writing still exists in modern novelists.
Zona Gale’s Miss Lulu Bett was sent to me by David Vlazny, an extremely generous correspondent in California, because someone in the US wrote a newspaper article about how good it was, and he wanted me to read it because that’s the kind of chap he is. I’d already tried some short stories by Gale but didn’t enjoy them (though I could see what an excellent writer she was). Miss Lulu Bett is a perfectly constructed novel about lies, oppression and escape by marriage from a suffocating 1920s household in small town USA. Gale also wrote plays, and her skill in plot construction and economy of characterisation is evident: what a great novel.
Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost: how many times have I read this? I love the Augustus John-esque community, the unquestioning devotion to art, the bizarre and pretentious Donna Beatrice and why she is permitted to live, Belle Darling’s boundless generosity and patience, Allingham’s superb plotting and structure. It’s her best pre-WW2 novel, always a pleasure.
William Golding’s The Spire was part of my journey of discovering Golding this year. It’s the novel I was most gobsmacked by, for the sheer skill in the writing as well as the ideas and the story behind the construction of a mad medieval spire-building project. His The Double Tongue – about a Delphic seer – was also a terrific read, though sadly unfinished.
Alice Jolly’s A Saint in Swindon is a tiny novella written for the Swindon Literary Festival, about how books make people behave, and the misapprehensions of reading, which creates beliefs wildly at odds with what the books were intended for. Fantastical and dystopian, very enjoyable.
Ben Smith’s Doggerland was also a blast of discovery: a magnificent novel of three men and a ghost in a field of wind turbines in the North Sea, possibly the last humans left alive. It’s Ransome-like in that you just have to take the engineering and sailing lore on trust if you don’t know any, but the novel is darker and wetter and much more dangerous.
Nature and society
I really enjoyed John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland, which describes a year in the life of a Herefordshire meadow near the Welsh border, making it a nice parallel read to Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, which must be located in a nearby valley. The lives of birds, insects, plants, crops, and the daily round of farming and the weather are all covered in a simple and engaging style. The author is such a good writer, with no pretensions and no false deprecation where it isn’t needed. A great about the processes of looking and waiting, and observing, so it’s a naturalist’s book as well as a book about nature.
Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life was also greatly enjoyed. It’s very sciencey, but he works hard with anecdotes and case studies and interviews to narrate the denser parts in different modes. I was particularly struck by the idea of fungi in attack mode: slow-motion engulfment and destruction.
Kassia St Clair’s Fabric. The Thread of Life was one magnificent chapter of discovery after another. I’ve read a lot of the recent crop of books about textiles (wool, silk, thread, knitting etc), and this is the best one by far. Every chapter had new information I did not know, and – more importantly – it joined dots for me, connecting textile history to social and political and economic development. The chopped-up style of many short sections in chapters made it effortful to read, but it was wholly enjoyable.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year for our Racism and Quakers reading group, and my top read so far is Akala’s Natives. Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. He’s a highly skilled writer: the first page draws you in with a mixture of personal story, realism and fact. Some books explaining racism to white people are, quite reasonably, furious and exasperated. Akala’s book is made an easier read by combining the exasperation with an emotional response that makes the white reader part of the story, not always the enemy. He somehow combines other isms and minority experiences with his own to show that we’ve all experienced oppression to a greater or lesser degree, when growing up wherever we did, and the tiny amount that some sectors of the white population have experienced might help them empathise more productively with what non-white people have been enduring for centuries. A good and helpful read.
That’s all folks! See you in 2022.