What I read in 2021

Closely stacked, second hand books with colourful spines.
Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

My 2021 reading in review

As for many of us, and in many ways, 2021 did not turn out to be the year I hoped it would. I’m not going to dwell on this too much, mostly because you will all know exactly what I’m talking about and what I mean, but let’s just say that the stresses and strains of the year meant that I didn’t quite pull off my reading aims. I set myself lots of reading goals related to my 30 before 30 list, and not many of them came off. But as the year came to an end my reading really picked up, so in the end I read 14 books in 2021. A big drop from my previous year’s 29, and certainly not that impressive in the grand scheme of things, but good for me given the year that it was. And amongst them were some new favourites, which I’m pleased to have discovered.

Without further faff, here are the books I read in 2021, with some brief thoughts on each, presented in chronological order.

The Secret Life of Cows, Rosamund Young, March

The start of my year was overshadowed by a very sudden and painful bereavement at the end of 2020, and I just found it impossible to pick up a book for a while. When I did, I needed something comforting, and perhaps something to satisfy my desperate homesickness. This certainly did the job. A gift from my mother (who appreciates my love of cows), it’s a charming little book about Young’s farm, and her relationships with the generations of cows she’s raised. It would be hard to read this book and continue to eat cows – it really confirmed my sense that our divisions between animals we keep as pets and animals we eat are totally arbitrary. The cows all come across as unique characters, full of personality, and at times wisdom. A short, easy and very comforting read.

The Salt Path, Raynor Winn, March

This was another read that seemed to find me at the right time. I’d had it for a long time, but hadn’t got round to reading it. Winn’s account of overcoming a terrible situation by embracing the freedom of walking the South West Coast Path was just what I needed. I can imagine this being described as a book that ‘restores your faith in humanity’, but more than that I think it restored my faith in human resilience. But it was the fact that its setting was so familiar to me, and described many places dear to my heart, that held me most.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith, April

Quite a different tone to my previous read. You can tell that I must have been starting to feel slightly better at this point, as I was trying to get back into the BBC’s 100 Novels that Shaped Our World reading list. I found this novel quite hard to get into, but once I did I really enjoyed it. It was less ‘serious’ than I was expecting, very funny in places, but still with so much to say. It covers a long period of time, and is quite a hefty read, but if you’re struggling to get going with it, I’d persevere. I was sorry when it ended, and it’s definitely one I’ll be reading again.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, June

A bigger gap between these ones, as this was certainly a very substantial read. I’d set completing it as one of my 30 before 30 goals, as I’d tried several times over the years and never really got into it. So I’m really glad that I finally saw it through. I can understand why younger-me had a bit of a hard time getting going with it, but it wasn’t as relentlessly miserable as I was expecting – there’s a lot of humour and humanity in it. Of course I’ve seen numerous adaptations, and new the major plot points, but it was the spaces in between that I found most endearing. Bronte’s Jane is really surprisingly relatable, even at such a historical distance, and it is often the seemingly incidental moments I enjoyed most. The gothic elements added an exciting ‘page-turner’ aspect, and I did indeed find myself struggling to put it down, snatching moments to read it whenever I could. So, all these years later, not only can I say that I’ve finished Jane Eyre, but I can also say that I understand the hype!

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler, July

Firmly back on the 100 Novels bandwagon, this was my next attempt. On the surface very different to Jane Eyre, but I suppose they both have a mystery at their heart. I’d never read a Chandler novel before, and indeed haven’t really read much crime fiction either (Christie aside). My sister and I used to spend our weekends watching old movies on TCM, and this felt much the same as that. Not quite a comfort read, but there was a pleasing familiarity to it. Very much of its time, but still with something to draw a modern reader. I wasn’t rushing to find the next Chandler, but I can certainly see myself reading more in the years to come.

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi, August

What an incredible book! There is no denying that it is pretty harrowing at times – there are some pretty rough sections. But the way the story is carefully weaved across generations, exploring centuries of well-researched history, is just breath-taking. It’s hard to believe that it is Gyasi’s debut novel. It covers a part of history that is not just overlooked but deliberately ignored or hidden away, and the book would make a great addition to any high school literature course. Each chapter focuses on a different family member, at a different point in history, and I was at times frustrated or disappointed to leave them behind. It slightly interrupted the momentum of my reading, but Gyasi quickly re-aligns you with her well-written, insightfully developed characters.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, Sue Townsend, August

This is an absolute classic of British literature, and it’s kind of amazing that I had never read it before. It’s a ridiculously easy read (I think I got through it in less than a day), but that doesn’t detract from how great it is. It didn’t make me laugh out loud quite as much as I was expecting, but the characters are brilliantly observed, and it is an oddly melancholic snapshot of a kind of childhood that just no longer exists. Adrian’s obsessions are timeless but set in a very clearly realised time period. There is nothing malicious or sneering in its humour, even when it is in Adrian’s, and it is the realism of the characters and their stories which elevates a ‘kids’ book’ into something worth reading at any age.

The Talented Mr Ripley, Patricia Highsmith, August

August was clearly a big month for me. I’d been trying to find a digital library copy of this book for a while, but finally gave up and bought myself one. I’ve watched the Anthony Minghella adaptation loads of times, and knew it differed from the book in a number of ways, but felt fairly confident of what to expect from this book. The film softens many characters, including Ripley himself, while heightening others, so as to make us empathise more strongly with Ripley’s actions. The characters of the book are all less likeable, most of all Ripley. By most accounts Highsmith herself was a pretty awful person, so it is perhaps not surprising that her characters are altogether less charming than their film counterparts. Ripley of the book is more a true anti-hero, and while it can’t quite be said that you root for him and his villainy, his story is still incredibly gripping, and it’s hard not to want to find out what he will do next. The book is the first in the series, and I can see myself picking the rest up at some point, when I want a bit of an escapist thriller.

A Monk and Two Peas, Robin Marantz, September

The only non-fiction book to make it to my completed list this year tells the story of Gregor Mendel, and his discovery of the processes of biological inheritance, as well as the rediscovery of Mendel himself in the early 20th century. It’s something I’m sure we’ve all read about at some point in our schooling – the monk and his peas – but Marantz’s book brings a level of human interest that makes it far more memorable, and really emphasises the human politics behind the idea of scientific ‘discovery’. At times she drifts slightly too far for my liking into that sort of speculative fiction that some biographers fall into (telling us about what the subject was thinking or feeling at a given, undocumented moment), but overall there is a good balance between storytelling and information sharing. I’d really recommend this to anyone with an interest in science or gardening – it is a fascinating and surprisingly gripping read, which kept me happily engrossed (and made me look at my own pea plants in a new light!).

Swimming in the Dark, Tomasz Jedrowski, October

As I faced the reality of not having completed my 30 before 30 reading goals, I decided to embrace the freedom of not reading from a set list. I’d seen this book recommended a lot when it came out, including by people on my Instagram feed, so thought it would be a good place to start. It was a really great read, telling a story in a thoroughly unfamiliar setting, but with such an – at times poetic – attention to detail that it still felt very real and crystal clear in my imagination. Definitely one I can see myself revisiting, and worthy of all the praise it has received.

Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney, November

I’m not quite sure whether I’d call myself a fan of Rooney, but I do find her writing interesting. You can check out my review of Normal People for further thoughts, but I was surprised to find I actually enjoyed this book more. The characters felt a bit more relatable, and the central female friendship was more inherently interesting to me than the tortured love story of Normal People. As I’m writing this post I’m in the middle of Beautiful World, Where Are You, so my thoughts are probably being a bit skewed by that, but I do look back to reading Conversations with Friends with basically fond memories. Doubtless more thoughts to follow when I’m finished her latest.

The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett, December

Weirdly, I had kind of resisted reading any Terry Pratchett for a long time. When I was a teenager he had such a devoted following, and there was something about the sense of humour in his work I just found a bit off-putting. Many years later, and having watched the brilliant TV adaptation, I gave Good Omens a go, and again, while I enjoyed it, I found it strangely hard going. But I thought it was time I give some pure Pratchett a go with The Colour of Magic, and I’m glad I did. It had all the elements I enjoyed most in Good Omens: it’s clever without being pretentious, light-hearted but with a sort of cheery cynicism, and just a great story. In short, I really loved it, and I can see why he has such a loyal fanbase. I liked it so much that I immediately downloaded the second book in the Discworld Series, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it.

Circe, Madeline Miller, December

I’d read lots of rave reviews of Miller’s The Song of Achilles, so thought I’d give this, her more recent novel (released 2018) a go while I waited for my reserved copy of Achilles to become available. I studied Classical Civilisation at A Level, including The Odyssey (in translation, I hasten to add), so felt fairly familiar with the source material. At that time I had also read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, so I again, I felt I was in fairly familiar territory. While this background helped with some superficial aspects of the novel, Miller has definitely made this story her own. I was engrossed, unable to put it down. Her story intertwines elements of realism and the supernatural seamlessly, and the characters all have a recognisable humanity (even the non-human ones). It did have a slightly Second Wave, ‘feminist reimagining’ feel to it, but not in any way that detracts from the overall experience. I was gutted when I finished it, and I can’t wait to read both what she writes next, and what she wrote first when I finally get my hands on a copy of The Song of Achilles.

La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman, December

I absolutely adored the His Dark Materials trilogy when I discovered them, probably when I was in my very early teens. I absolutely hurtled my way through them – I have strong memories of a family holiday punctuated by a trip to a bookshop to get the next one as I’d got through the one I was reading so quickly, utterly captivated by this fascinating world and the unique vision of its author. I picked up Northern Lights again in 2020 when I was in search of a bit of comfort reading, but surprisingly had not picked up either La Belle Sauvage or The Secret Commonwealth when they came out. They were published at a time when I didn’t do that much reading for pleasure, and somehow I just let them pass me by. Couple that with Pullman’s involvement in the incredibly disappointing Kate Clanchy business, and I wasn’t really rushing to engage with his work.

But when the Christmas holidays came round again this year and I was looking for something to once again satisfy that need for comfort and a call-back to time spent with family, I thought I would finally give them a shot. La Belle Sauvage is set about ten years before the events of His Dark Materials, and tells the story of (to cut a long one very short) how she came to be in the care of Jordan College. The story is pretty linear (almost literally, as much of it follows the course of the Thames), and it drags in places, but it is a worthy successor to the earlier books. There are certainly some eyebrow furrowing, if not outright raising moments and passages, but I have come to expect that of Pullman, so I can’t claim to have been surprised. It is set in Oxford, and in a part of Oxford I am particularly close to, having lived there for many years, so I could picture all the streets, pubs and walks he was naming, which certainly added to my enjoyment. The priory which is one of the primary settings of the first half of the books used to be my turn-around point on my running route! All in all I enjoyed the book far more than I was expecting to, and I went straight on to The Secret Commonwealth, which has now become the first book I finished in 2022. I cannot wait for the third instalment!

So that’s it: all fourteen books I read in 2021. I certainly gathered speed as we reached the end of the year, and ending on some books that I really enjoyed has filled me with enthusiasm for the year ahead. Being freed from following someone else’s list and embracing spontaneity in my choices helped too – I could choose novels to suit my mood, and reading felt like more of an unadulterated pleasure. This is definitely a feeling I want to preserve as we go into the coming year. It’s not looking as if its going to be any easier a year emotionally or otherwise, so I’m keen to use all of the time I can to cultivate a sense of quiet, stable contentment wherever possible. I know that reading will play a big part in that, and I’m looking forward to discovering lots more great books.

Thank you so much for reading this post about my reading. I’d love to hear what you enjoyed reading this year, and what you would recommend I read this year! I think I’ve in some ways reconnected with genres I always knew I loved, at least in December, as I got back into reading fantasy. But there were so many great books from authors I’d never read before in my 2021 list, it would be great to push myself to try new people and genre again. I’m still doing almost all my reading on my phone, swapping time spent scrolling through Twitter or Instagram for time in a good book, which has been one of the biggest and best changes I’ve made in the last year or two.

I’d love to hear what your favourites were in 2021: were they what you expected, or were there some surprises? If you’ve got any books you think I should give a try, please share them in the comments below!


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