My favourite reads of 2021

Usually at this point in the year I’ve run out of chocolate, but this year I am still piled high with the good stuff. Brilliant! It’s a strong start to 2022, along with a magnificent pile of book presents to keep me company while I eat. I will say – watch out when you combine chocolate and books. I’ve already managed to get it on one page.

Before I dive in, I’ll do my usual end of year mentions to the books that really meant something to me this year. I’ll start back in January, when I read three books in succession that I think must be the best reading streak I’ve ever had: Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, followed by The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath, then M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. Absolutely amazing. What a way to get through January. I wouldn’t have said these three have a lot in common (apart from incredible writing) but the more I think on it, the more I see connections in their women narrators standing alone, trying to make sense of the world.

Looking back at it, it wasn’t just January that was filled with great words. I went on to really enjoy Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, which I’m still thinking about now, and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, which I gave as a Christmas present because I liked it so much. Quiet, slippery places in fiction really called to me. Madeline Watts’ The Inland Sea and Munich Airport by Greg Baxter. A Separation, by Katie Kitamura. Benjamin Myers’ short novel The Offing was moving and evocative. Gary Budden and Maxim Griffin created an illustrated fiction/non fiction book called These Towers Will One Day Slip Into the Sea that I loved. It’s so good about places that we think we know, and places that are strangers.

I made lots of new favourite authors, but stayed true to my classics, of course, including the obligatory mention of Richard Brautigan. I took a trip to The Bearded Badger Bookshop in Belper, Derbyshire, and while I was there I bought a copy of In Watermelon Sugar. It sits next to the rest of my Brautigan collection now, inviting me to read it again.

I’d never got around to Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist for some reason, so I grabbed it from the library shelf one day got totally sucked into that. She has such clarity to her voice. Rupert Thomson’s Barcelona Dreaming is just about perfect. And I read a collection of Ursula Le Guin’s novellas called The Found and the Lost; I found one called Old Music and the Slave Woman that will affect me from now on.

If you’re a short story reader, please do check out Malcolm Devlin’s Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land. Walking to Doggerland was, I think, my favourite short story of the year. And if you write short stories I can’t think of a better guide than George Saunders in his book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It had an impact on me, and I’ve taken some of his advice very much to heart, and made a note to reread Chekhov’s short stories in the coming year.

Two final recommendations for my favourite horror reads of the year – I did an event with Caroline Hardaker last year, so got to read her novel Composite Creatures, which charmed me, as well as making my skin crawl. And I read a new edition of Joel Lane’s The Witnesses Are Gone (from Influx Press). I don’t think it’s out for a few months yet. Not many things bother me on the page, having spent my time thinking up lots of horrible things to put in stories for years, but this one got into my brain.

On that disturbing note, I hope you had a fun reading year, and found many stories that will stay with you. I love that moment when a book comes back to you, prompted by some small thought or event, and you revisit it, and maybe even come to some new revelation about it. Thanks to all those writers who have given their time and energy in 2021 to making such stories. This is much more interesting place to be because of you.

Back to the chocolate and the books! Right… what to read first?

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