Thursday, January 27, 2022

My Top Ten Books of 2021

Finally sneaking in just before the end of January. I like looking back on what I've read in the previous year, there are the obvious books that have never been off my mind, the ones that with hindsight really stand out, already half-forgotten gems that are a delight to be reminded of, and the overall sense of the last year that it gives me.

2021 was a roller coaster. My mother bookended it with a hip replacement late 2020 and a broken ankle late 2021 both of which meant lots of dog walking for me (the silver lining), I thought for a while that I might ever find a job I would like (or at all), then found a job I liked within a couple of weeks of getting engaged (after almost 15 years together that was more of a surprise than the job). The new job has bought new friends, and I've had plenty of opportunities to appreciate the kindness and all-around brilliance of old ones. 

All of it has been overshadowed by the pandemic and that's reflected in my reading with a whole lot more comfort books this year, not all of which I read, and much less reading generally than I should have done. The longlist for my top ten books had a lot more food and drink titles in it, another pandemic hangover and symptom of generally shot concentration. 

Advent - Anja Dunk. Without a doubt my book of the year, this is everything that was positive about 2021. It's full of love, enthusiasm, and knowledge. It absolutely makes you want to share what you've made, gave me the best comfort food of the year (roasted cinnamon almonds). Being able to make and share is a not to be taken for granted pleasure these days, I love the recipes and I love the spirit of the book. It's advent specific and already I'm anticipating getting stuck into it again next year. 

Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails is another wondrous book, and one I'm really pleased to have. It's chock full of interesting things, beating not just Richard Godwin's 'The Spirits' (very good cocktail making guide) to my top ten, but also knocking The Golden Treasury of Scottish Verse out of the running for best book to dip in and out of. Honestly, if you have even a passing interest in drinks you really need this one. 

Sunless Solstice edited by Tanya Kirk and Lucy Evans. Another Christmassy title, but such a good collection of ghost stories ranging from funny to really dark, and for all the weird I read in the last year - which was a reasonable amount - it was definitely the best collection, although Cornish Horrors from the same British Library collection was a close contender. 

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker is definitely my discovery of the year, and one that I wish I could persuade more people to read. It's dark, funny, tragic, and brilliant. It deserves to be the kind of cult hit that Shirley Jackson's books are and if our reading taste coincides at all (I assume it does or you wouldn't be here) please take a look at it. 

Dreaming of Rose - Sarah le Fanu. Books I didn't expect much from seem to have been a real feature of the last year. I approached this one in a spirit of mild interest and ended up racing through it. I even bought some more Rose Macauley on the back of it (still mostly unread). It's a wonderful book about writers, writing, and everyday life. Sarah le Fanu's excitement when things are going well (such as finding herself in the same hotel that Rose wrote about) is irresistible. 

The Eternal Season. I really like Stephen Rutt's writing, and from the occasional Twitter interaction, he seems every bit as great off the page as on it. His books are interesting, timely, and accessible. I really like the way that he focuses on much that's local or a day trip away to illustrate the wider points he makes. it's important for a whole lot of reasons. He's also very good at explaining complex things in a  way that makes sense but doesn't feel dumbed down. That's a gift. 

The Flint Anchor I continue to be surprised by Sylvia Townsend Warner, maybe because I was initially underwhelmed by 'Lolly Willows' which is so often held to be her best book. It's great, but this examination of love and duty was even better. I came very close to missing out on her altogether (thanks to Helen's reading weeks I didn't) I'm very grateful I didn't. 

What White People Can do Next - Emma Dabiri. Short book, big ideas that go far beyond the immediate discussion of racism. I read this in A&E and hardly noticed the wait at all. It's full of clear good sense and I really think a lot of people could benefit from reading it for the way she discusses performative allyship against genuine coalition. 

Tales from Russian Folklore - Alexander Afanasyev. I can't resist a good folklore collection and this one is a peach. Russian folk tales have had a moment here in the last few years with lots appearing in translation and a couple of very successful fantasy books based on them. This is a thoroughly enjoyable translation that I keep going back to. 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - Simon Armitage. Christmas and January are a busy time in my line of work, there's very little time off, and it all flies by. I had meant to read another translation of this in its proper season this year, but haven't yet. The joy of just how accessible and funny I found Armitage's version to be has sat with me all year though. The best thing bout books is how they'll patiently wait for you to discover them when the time is right.


  1. A wonderful collection of favourites and books by much loved and new authors: all noted down! I must mention 'O Caledonia'because it is a favourite book and this is the first time I have read of another person loving it too. Oh that she had written more.

  2. It was a revelation. I wish I'd found it years ago - clearly loving it is a mark of distinction!