We asked some of our contributors to choose the best book they read in 2021
Burntcoat, Sarah Hall (Faber)
After a few years in which I neglected to read contemporary novels, I wrote my own, Delphi, this year (coming out in 2022), so I’ve been catching up, and I’m pleased that novels seem to have slimmed down in the last decade. My favourite by far has been Burntcoat – an intense, feverish novel inspired by the pandemic, in which an artist is locked down with her lover. It has some of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read, but also confronts the stomach-churning truth that those we love are mortal.
Picked by Clare Pollard
Roland In Moonlight, David Bentley Hart (Angelico Press)
Ostensibly a series of conversations between the philosopher-author and his dog, who turns out to be not only a sentient being but an enlightened one, this book is a thrilling introduction to the insights of one of the most stirring and readable public intellectuals at the height of his powers today, and a reminder that we urgently need to perceive the world in radically refreshing ways.
Picked by Mark Vernon
Better To Have Gone, Akash Kapur (Scribner)
An enthralling and sometimes shocking account of the birth and uneasy growth of Auroville, a utopian village in south India. The author and his wife both grew up in Auroville and were surrounded by idealism and tragedy but, perhaps surprisingly, were drawn back there after spending some years in the orthodox world. It should win an award: a gripping tale.
Picked by Tom Hodgkinson
Hogarth: Life In Progress, Jacqueline Riding (Profile Books)
I live not far from Hogarth’s House in Chiswick and it was fascinating to read this new account of the remarkable artist’s life and work. It’s an absorbing read. Riding gives a vivid insight, not only into Hogarth’s life but also the world he inhabited, Georgian London – the city was his inspiration and the subject of his considerable legacy. Honourable mention to English Pastoral by James Rebanks, the paperback of which came out in September.
Picked by Georgina Williams
Sterling Karat Gold, Isabel Waidner (Peninsula Press)
Isabel Waidner’s third novel explores the effects of state violence on gender-nonconforming, working-class, migrant, and black bodies, and does so in a literary style which – infused with surreal plot twists, alternative histories, and electric prose – stands as a direct and creative response to the absurdity of that structural aggression. Remarkably inventive, it approaches the form of the novel with a completely fresh perspective, and for this was recently announced as the winner of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize. Honourable mention goes to Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden, which I also loved.
Picked by Rob Greer
A Swim In A Pond In The Rain: In Which Four Russians Give A Master Class On Writing, Reading And Life, George Saunders (Bloomsbury)
Cancel that extortionate creative writing course and beg, borrow or steal (or just buy) this book. Saunders presents a selection of Russian stories and then unpicks their methods and meaning, revealing their secrets with humility and humour. His joy at reading and writing about the stories is obvious, and infectious. Frankly, I’m surprised the university he teaches at let him publish this book. It’s a redistribution of knowledge in real time. A real treat for Russophiles, too.
Picked by Florence Read
White Spines: Confessions Of A Book Collector, Nicholas Royle (Salt)
Writer and publisher Royle combines a meandering book memoir focusing on collecting white-spined Picadors from the 1970s to the 1990s with his flâneur’s tour of England’s secondhand and charity bookshops. A likeable read for those of us who need reassurance we are not alone in our obsession with books. Honourable mentions to Mark Diacono’s latest cookbook Herb and Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker.
Picked by Alex Johnson
The Duchess Countess, Catherine Ostler (Simon & Schuster)
Welcome to this riveting story of racy society beauty and Georgian bigamist Elizabeth Chudleigh, who ended up running a vodka distillery in Estonia. She was a woman ahead of her time, someone who rose above her reversals of fortune. Her story shows the strength of the human will, and is an inspiration for anyone facing their own struggles, be they psychological or physical.
Picked by Rachel Kelly
Voyeur, Francesca Reece (Tinder Press)
I read this debut novel – which moves between Paris, London and the south of France – during lockdown, when I hadn’t really left my home in months. It was totally transporting. Voyeur is told from the perspectives of Leah, a directionless twenty-something, and Michael Young, a middle-aged author who employs her to transcribe his diaries. What follows is a smart, sultry and unsettling interrogation of desire and memory, set against the backdrop of 1960s Soho and Mediterranean summer heat. I also thoroughly enjoyed Free, Lea Ypi’s brilliant memoir of growing up in communist Albania.
Picked by Cathleen Mair
The Best Of Jamming!: Selections And Stories From The Fanzine That Grew Up, 1977-86, Tony Fletcher (Omnibus Press)
Jamming was one of the first punk fanzines I ever bought (apart from Sniffin Glue), setting me on my own voyage of DIY writing and self-publishing back in the late 1970s. Schoolboy editor Tony Fletcher had the front to successfully approach anybody for an interview, not caring if they were Crass, The Fall or Rudi, or big stars like Pete Townsend and Paul McCartney. Most of my actual copies are now long gone, so it’s great to see the stories reproduced once again in their full glory.
Picked by Graham Burnett
The Island Of Missing Trees, Elif Shafak (Penguin Books)
At the heart of this story is teenage Ada who finds herself screaming in class like Edvard Munch’s painting. The stories unfold of her Cypriot migrant parents. Can Ada’s inherited trauma be healed? I learnt about Cyprus’s civil wars, about propagating trees, about the strains of being a migrant and what it must feel like to be a teenager plagued by social media’s viral gossip. History, politics, ecology and psychology are crafted into one beautiful page-turning story. In Elif Shafak I have found an author I trust.
Picked by Victoria Hull
Faster! Louder! Boff Whalley (Great Northern Books)
The true story of how a young punk rocker from Yorkshire became British Champion Fell Runner. The whole idea of fell running makes me feel sick with exhaustion (see: the 24 Peaks Challenge) but Whalley’s vivid narrative and engaging philosophy behind the subject makes you wonder, “Y’know, if I had my time again…” Big Paul Ferguson of Killing Joke agrees.
Picked by Christian Brett
James Rebanks, the author of English Pastoral, is tonight’s special guest on A Drink with the Idler, 6pm-7pm. Register here – it’s free for members.
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