Happy New Year! I’m celebrating the start of 2022 by having a look back at my favourite reads of 2021. Those I rated between 10 and 6 can be found here. On with the Top 5!
5. The Echo Chamber – John Boyne (Doubleday 2021) (Read and reviewed in July)
No stranger to my end of year Top 10, John Boyne wrote my 2017 book of the year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017) was runner-up in 2018 with “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” (2006) and also made it to 4th that same year with his 2018 “A Ladder To The Sky“. These were all very different books and this biting comic satire was also very much a departure and inspired by social media response of his YA novel “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica“. This is an author who loves to take risks and I like that. Reviews, have unsurprisingly, because it is such a departure, been a little mixed and I can understand why some people have thought this fell short of what they were expecting from Boyne. I however, stand by my description of it as “a great comic novel of our time which should provide a great tonic for these strange times we live in“.
4. Many Different Types Of Love – Michael Rosen (Penguin 2021) (Read and reviewed in March)
This was the best non-fiction work I have read this year. I’m not sure how ready I am to read about the Covid-19 pandemic, it might still be a little too much too soon but I was certainly prepared to make an exception for this collection of prose poems from a writer I very much admire who nearly became a Covid death statistic. His writings on his illness and recovery are interspersed with extracts from a diary those caring for him maintained to show him how much they cared. I said of this “These people were exhausted, often redeployed from their usual job and no doubt stressed beyond belief but they made the time to communicate with this comatose man in this way and these diary entries form an extremely moving section of the book.” There’s much humour in the darkness and when I read this on the anniversary of the first lockdown I felt strongly that; “When we are moaning about lockdown restrictions and posing conspiracy theories it’s important to feel the voice of those affected and Michael Rosen’s experience speaks for the thousands who have been similarly affected and for those thousands we have lost.” This was a title I had highlighted from the start of the year and I did think it would end up as one of the year’s biggest sellers, with numbers comparable to Adam Kay. This hasn’t happened which suggests that maybe we are not all totally ready for this yet but it will be a lasting testament both to the man and the times in which we have been living.
3. The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (Dialogue 2020) (Read and reviewed in June)
Here’s one I kept flagging up before I got round to reading it. I featured it in my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” post and in my “Looking Around” post so I was building up the expectations. It delivered. Two twin girls escape their small time life for a new home in New Orleans. One eventually returns to her home town whilst the other is “passing” as a white woman in a decades-spanning saga. I felt that “There are so many discussion points in this novel regarding identity that one might expect it to feel issue-driven but no, plot and characterisation are both very strong and that together with its immersive readability provides an extremely impressive rounded work.” Over the past year I’ve selected it for reading groups and have recommended it probably more than any other book. I always ask what people think of it and it’s always a thumbs up- however, there are often reservations voiced about the ending, and I do agree with them.
2. The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021) (Read and reviewed in January)
An astonishing debut. When I read it I was convinced that this would be my book of the year and posted it within my “100 Essential Books” strand. It’s a book which has got the odd nod from awards committees but hasn’t swept the board winning awards as I had expected it to. I was convinced a Booker nomination would be assured but it was not even longlisted. The paperback is expected in the UK in late January and hopefully this will generate the serious sales this book deserves. I said this slave plantation-set novel “could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.” Don’t just believe me, check out the Amazon reviews where it has 61% five star and 22% 4 star which is excellent going for a book which is demanding, poetic and at times overwhelming. Extraordinary.
1. Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2020) (Read and reviewed in April)
2020 was the year that the Booker Prize judges got it exactly right. I’d become a little wary after the year they awarded it to “Lincoln In The Bardo” (I must stop harping on about that!). I featured this in my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” but this year this book’s reputation has continued to grow as more and more people have fallen in love with it. It’s another I’ve selected for reading groups throughout the year and admittedly, some people are never going to give it a go, put off by its working class Glasgow 1980’s setting but those who do generally praise it to the skies. And deservedly so, as this study of a relationship between Shuggie and his mother has provided us with two of the most memorable characters in modern fiction. I said “It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.” I cannot wait for this Scottish author’s second novel “Young Mungo” which is due in April. This is the first time in nine years I have awarded my Book Of The Year to a UK writer. Douglas Stuart deserves his place in my own special Hall Of Fame. Here are my other top titles going back to 2008.
2021- Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (2020) (UK)
2020 – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018) (USA)
2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)
2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)
2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)
2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)
2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)
2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)
2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)
2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)
2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)
2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)
2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)
2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)
Special mentions for the three five star reads which did not make it into the Top 10. “Next Of Kin” by Kia Abdullah (2021) just missing out on two consecutive Top 10 recommendations by the narrowest of margins, Bryan Washington’s “Memorial” (2021) and “Love After Love” by Ingrid Persaud (2020).
Here’s to some great reading in 2022.