Dan Carpenter: In a year of absolutely fantastic books, including Nadifa Mohamed’s Booker shortlisted The Fortune Men, Jon Walker’s Christian Weird novel The Angels of L19, and Kylie Whitehead’s bizarre, Cronenbergian Absorbed, the clear highlight for me was Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless. A haunted house novel, a work of genuinely radical horror, structurally playful and unabashedly political, it’s a real work of genius.
Lucy Chatburn: I had recently started a new job when I read Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, and had a bad case of the worm (read the book), which it jolted me out of. Who said art is definitionally useless? Plus, post modernism meets gothic with spot on social dynamics. The one I will re-read is The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin. It’s slyly subversive, but so understated that you don’t realise where it’s going until everything slots into place. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell was an immersive sixties pop nostalgia trip that I didn’t want to end. In the eerily pre-emptive The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, bits of life disappear one by one, and soon you forget they ever existed. Here’s hoping that something better takes their place.
Richard Clegg: Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Vol.2 by Ivor Cutler: A favourite from many years ago. I went back to this after reading David Gaffney’s micro-fictions. Comical, grim, child’s views of a strange life in Scotland. Lauded by Robert Wyatt, John Peel and me. Should be in print. The Martin Honeysett illustrations are magnificent too. Flickerbook by Leila Berg: Memoir of her Jewish upbringing in Salford. Sharp fragments of a life filled with misconceptions, written in short paragraphs, so you can read it again in different sequences. Funny and astute. Published by one of the most innovative publishers, CB editions. An Overcoat by Jack Robinson: CB editions again. Stendhal in the modern world. Nimble, quick writing that is very clever and very readable. Some hilarious sections, especially the footnotes.
James Doyle: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: In 1985 an Irish coal merchant is troubled by the possible abuse of young women by the nuns in the local convent. Over the course of a few days in December, he tries to ignore what is going on. The simplicity, apparent simplicity, of this premise is perfectly judged. By the end of this novella, which reads like a more contemporary version of the classic Christmas movie ‘It’s A Wonderful Life‘, the entire structure of Irish society has been stripped of all illusion. Yet, Claire Keegan’s quiet probing leaves unsaid all that we already know about the historical reality of such cases. Instead Small Things Like These achieves an almost impossible task, to quote Hilary Mantel: ‘every word is the right word in the right place.’ It is a moving meditation on the darkness at the edge of every life and an assertion of the difference an individual can make to someone else’s life. As heartwarming as the end of A Christmas Carol. It will also draw you to Keegan’s other masterpiece, Foster.
Carola Huttmann: The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is one of those books which only come along once in a decade. Reaching back into America’s legacy of slavery during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it’s the story of the divide between African-American and indigenous people and the whites. The novel’s narrator is Ailey Pearl Garfield, the daughter of bi-racial parents. The reader follows her path from high school student, to college where she has to deal with the racial prejudices of her mainly white peers. It takes Ailey a long time to find her path in life. It is not until she is in her thirties that she decides go to graduate school to study African-American colonial history in order to research her own family history and its links to slavery. This is an outstanding novel, well worth seeking out when it is published in January 2022 [ed. when we’ll be running Carola’s review!]
Jackie Law: A particular highlight of my reading year was Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. It brought to mind another book I enjoyed, Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin, as both deal with the tragedy of how the Catholic Church regards the children of mothers who do not follow the strictures of the faith. Despite the subject matter, these stories are beautifully told – nuanced and character led. On a lighter note I must mention The Last Resort by Jan Carson, interlinked short stories that are a must read for anyone who has ever holidayed in a caravan – bittersweet and highly entertaining. Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters by Jane Ions had me laughing out loud in places with its depiction of a mother dealing with the curveballs thrown by her grown children. Finally, Pupa by J.O. Morgan is a wonderfully eerie and engrossing tale that holds a mirror to many human behaviours.
Scott Lauchlanford: History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera: Adam Silvera has sky-rocketed in popularity within LGBTQ+ YA books, with adaptions of two of his books starting production soon. Despite the recent runaway success of They Both Die At The End, it’s its predecessor that really grabbed me this year. History Is All You Left Me is a beautifully honest portrayal of grief, of spiralling amidst unravelling memories whilst trying to make sense of something lost and coming to terms with our own, complex relationship to those memories. Some books hit home with such a profound, personal impact that recommending them is a surprisingly vulnerable gesture. You find so much of yourself in the pages that reading becomes an intimate experience between you and words leaping off the page. It’s a rare and precious experience to find. It’s what makes books so powerful and it’s what makes this the easy choice for my best read of the year, and maybe longer…
Sarah Manvel: I read over a hundred books this year, including all twelve of the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser. They were exactly the distraction I needed from this plague year: war and action of every kind, betrayal, catastrophe, adventure, globetrotting, and the slow morphing of the series over the decades from an unironic celebration of the British empire into a not-very-thinly-veiled attack on the Iraq war. The way the racism of the times was handled became more thoughtful as the series continued without losing any of the sting (which is the series’ major flaw as well, of course, but this brutal unpleasantness is more honest than the revisionism so often seen in historical fiction). Anyone looking for escapism will absolutely find it in them.
Valerie O’Riordan: I’ve read a lot of absolute belters this year, but top of the pile would have to be The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye: an aboslutely essential read for any body with any interest in social justice. Faye’s writing is accessible and persuasive and her framing of the grace situations faced by trans people here in the UK (and beyond) makes for a very sobering read. One to give your TERFy relatives this Christmas.
Fran Slater: Probably the most affecting book that I read in 2021 actually came out towards the end of 2020, but Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan definitely deserves a mention here. I don’t want to give too much away to those who haven’t read it, because there is a turn in this book that makes it magnificent, but never before has the conclusion of a novel left me so emotionally spent. Really powerful stuff. I must have been in the mood for an emotional battering this year, because a 2021 novel that also had me in bits was Lean, Fall, Stand by Jon McGregor. He is already a favourite author of mine, but this one felt like his most intimate and focused novel so far. A story about the way that illness can creep in and change everything, it handles its subject with a delicate honesty that has to be commended. And maybe it’s partly because I became a father myself this year, but Nikesh Shukla’s Brown Baby has stuck with me in a way that not many books do. A memoir about bringing up a daughter, teaching her the truth about the world, and trying to keep hold of yourself in the face of a tragedy at the same time. It’s the best book of his impressive career so far.
Peter Wild: Lots of books I’ve enjoyed this year – Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen, The Every by Dave Eggers, Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder, Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, All of the Marvels by Douglas Wolk, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days by Rebecca Donner, Panenka by Ronan Hession – but Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker just pipped them at the last minute. I don’t think I will ever get over the joy of the surprise book, the book you weren’t expecting to blow your socks off, the book you squeeze in almost as an after thought only for it to deliver the goods and then some and then some. Treacle Walker is an absolute blast and I’ll be reading it again in the coming weeks, as well as going back to the start and reading me some more Alan Garner.
Thanks for reading Bookmunch in 2021. We’ll be back in the new year. Please stay safe, be considerate of others, and look after yourselves.