What I read in 2021

I had more spare time in 2021 than I’ve had for the past several years. So I read more books! Here are all 60 plus one that I started but didn’t finish.

Book covers 1-36

Book Group choices

  1. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. Tricky. A home-grown success story already beloved in Glasgow. I thought some parts well written and very visually striking, and the relationship between Shuggie and his mother is very touching but I found the overall context somewhat sentimentalised and often a bit unconvincing.
  2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. A good solid skilful novel about the resonances of the Transatlantic slave trade on contemporary life. I think I wasn’t quite in the right mood when I read this so probably didn’t appreciate it enough.
  3. Luster by Raven Leilani. Brilliant piece of work and a very original voice. A tense but funny story of a young black American woman in precarious employment and relationships. Highly, highly recommended.
  4. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Poetic, sad story of trauma and immigration. Seemed rather like two separate books – one, the story of a boy and his mother, and the other, the story of a boyhood friendship and opioid addiction, and I’m not sure the two stories really mesh.
  5. A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann ni Ghriofa. Again felt like two slightly separate stories; one, about the author’s fascination with an old poem about the grief of a widow, while she (the author) has several children; the second, the author’s delve into archives to learn more about the people in the poem. Lyrical and rich but self-involved.
  6. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. Homage to classic ghost stories which we read for Halloween. I found it spooky despite having read it before, but it’s a slight piece.
  7. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Disappointing story of a an old-style film star. I didn’t quite get the twist but by the time it came along I wasn’t interested in any of the characters so really wasn’t bothered. An example of the ‘Netflixisation’ of novels: where there has to be a twist that makes people say ‘you’ll never get it’ and thus fuel sales. Shallow and rather tedious.

My choices

8. Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar. Fab 1950s film noir-type thriller in a small town in Michigan. I loved the writing, the characters, the plot, the setting – I read it in an instant!

9. The Harper’s Quine by Pat McIntosh. Law student Gil Cunningham investigates a murder when a body is found at Glasgow Cathedral on May Day 1492. Enjoyed the late medieval Glasgow setting and a reasonably satisfactory mystery but not compelled to read more.

10. The Reek of Red Herrings by Catriona McPherson. Lively mystery set in a small fishing village in north east Scotland where amateur sleuth Dandy Gilver investigates a grisly crime. I enjoyed the location and period, and the characters are engaging: an enjoyable distraction.

11. London Society Fashion by 1905-1925. The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank by Cassie Davies-Strodder, Jenny Lister and Lou Taylor. All about an archive collection of Edwardian clothes created for a debutante whose family later lost its money. Really interesting details about the clothes and how they were chosen to create an image for her.

12. From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming. The first Bond I’ve read. Less action and more musings than I expected. Quite enjoyed it but not sure I’d bother with another.

13. Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones. A childhood favourite set in a boarding school in a world where witchcraft is punished by burning – despite which there seems to be a lot of magic about. Funny, exciting and touching.

14. Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon. Introduces Detective Maigret in a seedy, sordid, smoky post-war Paris. The details of the case passed me by but it’s a very quick read, packed with atmosphere and delightful moral ambiguity.

15 & 16. Brighton Belle and London Calling by Sara Sheridan. Solving crimes in glorious 1950s frocks: a lot of fun! And a comment on 1950s Britain. Will read more of the series.

17 All That Remains by Sue Black. Autobiography of a leading forensic anthropologist, I found this is a really fascinating book about death, what it means to confront it, and live with it.

18. Pachinko by Man Jin Lee. Complex, inter-generational saga about a Korean family in Japan which was a well-researched and interesting read. But ultimately not that gripped.

19. Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan. Emotional story of male friendship; I found the final section a little unconvincing in parts but it’s a beautiful piece of writing.

20. Business As Usual by June Oliver and Ann Stafford. This was so good! The 1930s tale of a young woman who decides to work in a London department store for a year before getting married. I loved all the details of the department store, the employees and the little things like what she has for lunch. And there’s a very modern romance facilitated by the inter departmental memos!

21. Don’t Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford. As well as being riotously funny this is a masterclass in craft: all the threads weave together for a perfect conclusion. Tip-top!

22. A Tomb with a View by Peter Ross.  A lovely book about places and practices of death and mourning. I love cemeteries so it is was right up my alley.

23. The Bamboo Blonde by Dorothy B Hughes. Entertaining hardboiled crime thriller seen from the perspective of a wife on honeymoon, whose husband keeps disappearing off on unexplained errands, while she’s stumbling into the mystery.

24.Wives and Lovers by Margaret Millar. Interesting psychological novel about the relationships of several couples in a small American town in the 1950s. I found it very satisfying.

25. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Came to this a bit later than most and was rather flummoxed by it. I was quite taken with the device of the housekeeper narrating the tale, as if it was too intense to be told first-hand. It’s very striking but also draining; it feels that everyone’s unpleasant and doing horrible things, and I didn’t really enjoy it.

26. In Praise of Walking by Shane O’Mara. I finished this in 2021 because I’d taken it out of the library in The Before Times (March 2020) and had stalled but was embarrassed to take it back 15 months later unread! Very accessible. Though I don’t now remember the details of the science it argues – convincingly – that walking is good for us, physically, mentally and emotionally.

27.The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz. This was actually quite a stressful read as the main character criss-crosses Germany by train in increasingly desperate confusion about how to deal with Nazi oppression. Stressful but compelling.

28. Daisy Chain by Maggie Ritchie. Historical story following two young women – an artist and a dancer – in the early 20th century, and has lots of details of Glasgow and Shanghai. I wasn’t totally convinced by all aspects but it was a colourful tale of women’s lives and careers.

29. Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin. I read one Rebus novel 20 years ago which I didn’t really enjoy but as people love them I thought I’d try again. Perhaps I shouldn’t have picked one far into the series, as I found it rather plodding and dull. Maybe I’ll try one more in another 20 years’ time…

30. To the End of the World. Travels with Oscar Wilde by Rupert Everett. What a hoot this was! Rupert Everett’s account of trying to make a movie about Oscar Wilde, it’s a wild ride though the film industry but also a reflection on his life – opportunities taken, chances missed and lessons learned. Funny and touching.

31. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell. A series of interlinked short stories to do with power of life and death, choices and the influence of ghostly presences on human beings. Beautifully written, and so intricate – like watching the movement of a delicate, complex clockwork machine.

32. Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. Super! With a varied array of characters, this is a well constructed, , mildly subversive, slightly exaggerated take on modern life with a cheerful conclusion. What’s not to like?

33. Mistress of my Fate by Haille Rubenhold. Historical romance written by a historian. Drama, sex, adventure and philosophy. Enjoyable journey into love, jeopardy and excellent clothes!

34. Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz. This was quite a good read but like all novels where the twist is the selling point you spend the time trying to work out the twist – which I did to a certain extent, though not the full picture. And then it’s always a bit disappointing. This one’s nicely done though.

35. Murder at the Mela by Leela Soma. Crime novel set in Glasgow and featuring a Scottish Asian detective. The charm was mostly in the local details for me as a resident of Glasgow, and the gossipy Asian ladies.

36. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett. I have a couple of later Terry Pratchett’s that I re-read often but this year decided to start at the beginning of the Discworld series. This is a delightful comic novel. It may be set in an unbelievable fantasy world but the characters are very human and endearing.

37.The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett. More of the above and some of the same characters but this time about how to deal with the end of the world…

38. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake. A picture book about living with grief. Exceptionally good and full of true insight.

39. Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett. This time he tackles sexism and the seductions and nature of power. This had a slightly different flavour to the first two of the series – there’s sparky dialogue and excellent jokes, plus the introduction of the awesome Granny Weatherwax – but also a narrative darkness and references to our world which removes you from the total immersion in the fantasy. It felt like he was trying out a new approach but it doesn’t completely work.

40. Sorry For The Dead by Nicola Upson. ‘Golden Age of Crime’ type mystery featuring crime novelist Josephine Tey. She has to re-examine a death from her past to discover if it was murder and if so, who was responsible. As she seeks to clear the clouds of suspicion from herself she has to delve into 20-year-old passions and grief. Very gripping and moving.

41. Mort by Terry Pratchett. Death takes an apprentice, which proves a bit tricky. You feel he is really getting into his stride here; it’s funny but touching, and Death is one of his greatest characters. A good thing about Pratchett’s writing is that while Discworld is fantastical the stories are logical within their own boundaries. All his books conclude satisfactorily – characters behave characteristically, situations are resolved, loose ends are tied up, and everyone learns something, usually about themselves – which, quite aside from the jokes, makes the books immensely cheering.

42. Rizzio by Denise Mina. Top notch historical whydunnit focused on the famous murder of David Rizzio, secretary and friend to Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s very short, very pithy, comic and brutal and brings the humans involved in this horrible political act vividly to life. Recommended!

43. Blood Legacy by Alex Renton. Fascinating account of a journey into a family’s past operating a plantation and chattel slavery in the Caribbean. And how a modern Scottish descendent understands and deals with the growing knowledge of what his ancestors did. Very accessible and revealing.

44. She Died a Lady by John Dickson Carr. A 1940s mystery novel with a mildly intriguing puzzle but the detective was annoying, and none of the other characters made up for him.

45. Sourcery by Terry Pratchett. An adventure centred on the exercise of magic on Discworld but also a story about parents and children; both distant or abusive and nurturing relationships. But jokes a-plenty, as well.

46.The Women in Black by Madeline St John. Fabulous, funny, warm, touching and even inspiring. The story of different women working in ladies fashions in a department store in Sydney in the 1960s. Cannot recommend it highly enough!

47. Hurdy Gurdy by Christopher Wilson. Sadly disappointed by what was billed as a hilarious pandemic novel set in medieval England. The central character was the main joke, repeated over and over again via his foolish thoughts and actions. Very put off by some tedious monologues of visions of the future where ‘everyone is glued to little flickering screens’ and an ‘orange man yells at people in a box’. Yawnsville…

48. The War of the Poor by Eric Vuillard. A short story about the leader of a peasants’ rebellion in medieval Germany against the powers-that-be, including the Church. About insurrection, martyrdom,  and how the poor are continually sacrificed for the rich. Very well written and obviously modern parallels are intended.

49. My Five Husbands… And the Ones that Got Away by Rue McClanahan. Well, this was a rollocking read from The Golden Girls’ Southern belle Blanche, and that’s just the stuff she tells us about! A tough life, but also joyous and unrepentant about her – often bad – choices.

50. Dune by Frank Herbert. Loved the movie, so went back to re-read the book. Loved it back in the ‘80s and loved it again. Ambitious and absorbing environmental sci-fi.

51. The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. Set in the near future, the story of the global fight against climate change led by a UN agency. Though this sounds pretty dry, it’s actually fascinating and quite gripping. And optimistic.

52. Why You Should read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old And Wise by Katherine Rundell. Wee essay about why children’s literature is worth reading at any age; liked the general thrust but I thought the references to Brexit angled it to a certain demographic which was unnecessary and a bit disappointing.

53. Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson. Near future political intrigue on the Moon – colonised by America, China and others, and host to a libertarian commune. The schemes and struggles reflects political battles back on Earth in China. Lots of great ideas and interesting relationships.

54.The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. I was so frustrated by The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo I went straight to the motherlode for Hollywood glamour, sleaze, ups and downs. Never disappoints; one of my favourite books!

55. The Comforters by Muriel Spark. A writer begins to hear someone typing a novel featuring herself, while a granny runs a diamond smuggling ring. Clever, comical and so sharp it’s a wee bit scary.

56. Expectation by Anna Hope. How the lives of three female friends don’t turn out as anticipated and how they deal with it. Spoiler: not always that well. Interesting and well written, though I thought the conclusion was all a bit too tidy.

57. Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper. The first in The Dark Is Rising series, so re-reading it before going on to that specific book. But it’s very worth reading in its own right.  A classic children’s quest / adventure story but the adversaries are really very menacing and creepy – all the more so because the action takes place in the bright days of a summer holiday.

58. The Dead Zone by Stephen King. This was great. It’s a slice of 1970s America, an intriguing  ‘what-would-you-do’ sci-fi story but very human and touching. And there’s an interesting portrayal of the rise of a populist politician.

59. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. I read this every year, and started as always on Midwinter’s Eve to read in real time with the story. But then I faltered. Normally the return to this old favourite is a comforting ritual, a sign of the seasons turning, but perhaps because 2021 had been so like 2020, only more grinding, it wasn’t right to re-read it this year. My need to revive old magic was met by Over Sea, Under Stone and that will keep me going until Midsummer.

60. Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Absolutely raced through this tour de force! Unreliable narrators, identity, madness, psychiatry and a 1960s setting. Its brilliant and I’ll go back and read it again soon to appreciate it better.

61.When Justice Sleeps by Stacey Abrams. A political thriller by the former Georgia state representative and voter rights activist, credited with turning the state for the Democrats at the last election. A little over written in parts, it’s tightly plotted and has an engaging heroine in law clerk Avery Keene, plunged in a legal and political morass by her boss, a Supreme Court Justice. It’s a pretty complicated riddle incorporating law, government, gene therapy, and chess, all of which seemed authentic to me. I was slightly less convinced by the technology aspects, which seemed a bit ‘seen-it-in-a-movie’ but all in all this was exciting, pacy and entertaining. Perfect for the last days of the old year.

Book covers 37 – 61

My favourite reads

Of all the books that I read for the first time this year these are the novels that I most enjoyed; others on my reading list definitely have greater literary significance but these are my personal top ten (in the order in which I read them) for 2021:

  1. Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar
  2. Luster by Raven Leilani
  3. Business As Usual by June Oliver and Ann Stafford
  4. Wives and Lovers by Margaret Millar
  5. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
  6. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake
  7. Rizzio by Denise Mina
  8. The Women in Black by Madeline St John
  9. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
  10. Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet

And so on to another new year of reading: always exciting!


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