The Reading Life: 2021

December 10, 2022 | No Comments

I was already compiling my booklist from 2022 when I realised I had forgotten to post this list from 2021 due to… well, who knows what? Apathy? Melancholy? Forgetfulness? Rage? The Plague?

Almost three years ago, during late February of 2020, I caught one of the last flights out of the USA, having spent fourteen divine days at Yaddo, anxious about the sudden rent in the world’s fabric, but filled with enthusiasm for an ongoing writing project that was destined to hit a wall due to the ensuing intersection of Covid with family health issues. I finally caught that blasted plague while doing the first draft of this list (around ten months ago), but it wasn’t so bad, given what so many others have suffered.

When I look back on 2021, everything blurs into a tangle of homeschooling and gardening. (Yet, surely life had moved on from that? Nope, no idea what I did in 2021. I remember little beyond organising birthday parties for the lassies and the rash purchase of a trampoline.) The homeschooling I could live without (it’s not one of my skills) but I can’t complain about the gardening. The garden, I think (as for so many people) saved me. It’s such a cliche to be saved by nature, but there it is.

Revisiting this list from 2021 has given me time to consider which books have ‘stuck’ and which haven’t. It’s curious (worrying) how many of the titles listed below I can barely remember the details of now. Perhaps if I picked them up, flipped through a few pages, it would all come back. Nevertheless for a good number of them, I know how they made me feel. As you can see, it was a fiction-heavy year, with reliable authors such as Denise Mina, Colm Toibin and Andrew O’Hagan once again coming up to par. I’d put off reading Adler’s Speedboat for a long time, nervous about it failing to live up to its reputation, but I needn’t have been, it was superb. And how had I not known that A Rage in Harlem would be so funny? 

I read a lot of 2021’s ‘It’ books, the titles everyone was talking about, and many of them written by women, but when it came to choosing a favourite, so many of them slid off the table without leaving a smudge (it’s not you, it’s me…) unlike the authentic Who Was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns, her absolute belter from 1954, which pretty much blew the current smart set out of the water.

One the nonfiction side, I finally (finally!) read The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (she’s on Scotland’s fiver for heck’s sake!), and I’m relieved to report it was evocative, almost spiritual.

Now for the stats: of the 90 books read during 2021, 58% were written by women, 41% by men, and 1% by non-binary. As always, an accidental rather than intentional split, nevertheless I found works by our sisters particularly impressive.

If I could be bothered I would take a look at the split between new and older releases but I can’t make up my mind where the cut off point should be. Because I read so much 19th century fiction and classics in my youth and early twenties, I tended to consider anything published in my lifetime as ‘contemporary.’ Given my advancing years, I’m not sure I can get away with that anymore! Only two categories though, wouldn’t cut it. How about three? ‘New’ books, being those released within the last 2 years, ‘modern’ being those from 1920 onwards, and everything prior being ‘old?’ A question for another time…

Despite post-Brexit malaise, the ever-changing occupancy of No. 10, the ongoing war in Ukraine, etc, reading can still feel––simultaneously––pointless and the most important thing in the world.


  • Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
  • Piranesi by Susannah Clark
  • The Silence by Don DeLillo
  • The Bell by Iris Murdoch
  • The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Trevis
  • The Confessions of Frannie Langston by Sara Collins *
  • Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
  • All the Hidden Truths by Claire Askew
  • Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan *
  • The Wall by John Lanchester
  • Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns *
  • The End of Days by Jenny Ephenbeck
  • Melmoth by Sarah Perry
  • My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal *
  • The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen
  • The Levenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green
  • The Siege by Arturo Perez-Reverte
  • Devoted Ladies by Molly Keane
  • A Place of Execution by Val McDermid
  • The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Guilland
  • The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter
  • Elmet by Fiona Mosley
  • The Less Dead by Denise Mina
  • The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
  • The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
  • Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan *
  • The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donaghue
  • Summerwater by Sarah Moss *
  • Second Place by Rachel Cusk *
  • The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
  • The Magician by Colm Toibin *
  • The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun
  • The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers
  • Writers & Lovers by Lily King *
  • The Appeal by Janice Hallett
  • In the Cut by Susannah Moore *
  • A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes *
  • The White Garden by Stephanie Bannon
  • ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
  • The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier *
  • There’s Only One Andy Garvey by David F. Ross
  • Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes
  • Duck Feet by Ely Percy *
  • Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart *
  • Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
  • Long Live the Post Horn by Vigdis Hjorth *
  • Checkout 19 by Claire Louise Bennett*
  • The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey
  • Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan *
  • Assembly by Natasha Brown
  • My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley
  • The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill 
  • Lewis Percy by Anita Brookner
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  • The Boarding House by William Trevor
  • Still Life by Val McDermid
  • Speedboat by Renata Adler *
  • Rizzio by Denise Mina *
  • Pounamu Pounamu by Witi Ihamaera
  • The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor *


  • The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd *
  • Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper *
  • Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
  • Island Dreams by Gavin Francis
  • Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera *
  • Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites by Lucinda Hawksley
  • The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm *
  • Real Estate by Deborah Levy *
  • SAS Rogue Heroes by Ben MacIntyre
  • The Devil’s Workshop by Adolf Berger
  • Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
  • To the River by Olivia Laing *
  • Mantel Pieces by Hillary Mantel
  • What Artists Wear by Charlie Porter
  • Just Us by Claudia Rankine *
  • How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed*
  • Lowborn by Kerry Hudson
  • Radical Attention by Julia Bell
  • A Reader on Reading by Roberto Manguel

Poetry / Plays

  • The Half-Finished Heaven by Tomas Transtromer *
  • Selected Poems by Adam Zagajewski
  • Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas
  • Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot
  • Grimoire by Robin Robertson *
  • Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
  • The Republic of Motherhood by Liz Berry


* Smashing! 

* Top Fourteen if my arm were twisted! 

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