You know, I read so many great books in 2021 that coming up with five favourites has been very hard. I was almost tempted to take a leaf out of Fiction Fan’s book and do a whole elaborate awards ceremony with several categories, or at least fiction and nonfiction lists, but I have resisted. I read 52 books – which is peanuts compared to some of you, and not as much as I usually read, but I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I actually feel like I had a great reading year, in terms of quality if not quantity, and that’s what counts, right? Work projects have taken up a lot of time this year, and I also did Nanowrimo for the first time in about a decade – unfortunately November was my month of illness so I didn’t win, but I’ve produced about 55000 words of fiction over the course of the past few months, which is more than I’ve written in a very long time. So I read less, but I did other things – and I’m happy with the balance.
Shards of Honour – Lois McMaster Bujold
I really, truly loved this space opera – partly because it accomplished the rare feat of getting me to invest in a romance, but also because of the wonderful worldbuilding, and the integration of political and philosophical debate with a page-turning plot. It has something of the feel of a really good episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which probably tells you whether you would love it or hate it. I have the next book lined up to read soon, and I’m looking forward to it so much.
The Anthropocene Reviewed – John Green
Green’s essays about “the human-centred planet” have stayed with me in a way that few books ever have. I have been reminded them of in different ways and at different times ever since I read them, most recently when I was seeing family and friends over the Christmas period. (Any comments about this being irresponsible should be directed to email@example.com). I love this time of year, and having friends round for a big meal is nearly as important to me as seeing my family – in 2020 neither was possible. Spending Advent and Christmas alone in 2020 was one of the most challenging parts of the year for me. I think the way Green wrote about his primary relationships, especially his friendships, genuinely helped me to pay attention to the time I was spending with my loved ones this year, rather than fretting about what might be around the corner. For all that it’s a cheesy phrase, I think that reading The Anthropocene Reviewed has made me more mindful – more apt to think about the moment I’m living in – and for that I will always be grateful. I also have to say that I think this is probably my favourite review of the year – not because I think the post itself is great, though it’s definitely on the more personal side, but because I really enjoyed the discussion with you all in the comments, and so it became more of a shared experience.
A View of the Harbour – Elizabeth Taylor
I love Elizabeth Taylor’s writing – so restrained and quiet and minimal, but with a great deal bubbling underneath, all loss and loneliness and love. A View of the Harbour is basically a character study of a fading English seaside town in the 40s, and it was just beautiful and captivating. It’s difficult to summarise, but it makes me eager to get to more of Taylor’s work. Wonderful characters, beautiful prose, and a world you want to spend time in even as it falls apart on the page.
The Butchering Art – Lindsay Fitzharris
Joseph Lister is a long-time hero of mine, and I loved this biography of him, which focused primarily on his contributions to the development of antiseptic technique and safer surgery in general. Fitzharris also did a great job weaving in the many different professional and scientific arguments that dogged medicine throughout the nineteenth century, as well as inter-city beef between Glasgow and Edinburgh – a lot of very complex issues were integrated into the biographical material, without ever derailing it. If you’re interested in medical history but don’t know much about it, this might be an interesting place to start, since a lot of the debates we’re having now had their origins in the arguments of the nineteenth century. (Though please heed the word “grisly” in the subtitle, and approach carefully if you’re squeamish).
So Big – Edna Ferber
Normally I say that these five favourites are in no particular order, but this year it’s not completely true. The first four took almost no deliberation, but for this fifth and final, I was torn several ways. Why did So Big edge out The Whale and the Cupcake, or The House of Mirth? Ultimately, it’s because I love Ferber’s writing so much – her characterisation and scene-setting are second to none. This story, which follows Selina Peake from her teenage years through to her fifties, is a complete delight. Selina is just such an enjoyable person to spend time with. She’s clearly cut from the same cloth as all those other early 20th century Independent Woman Who Has Fallen On Hard Times heroines (including others by Ferber), but she’s so fabulously well-written that she really takes on a life of her own. This is certainly a novel I will be revisiting.
So there we have it – five favourite books from a year that, at the very least, contained a lot of great reading. I never count rereads in these lists, but if I did, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South would be my runaway book of the year. It was so very good. I also have to give an honourable mention to Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent, which I have thought about very regularly ever since I read it. I don’t think it will ever be a favourite book, exactly, but I think it’s probably one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Happy New Year, everyone! I’ll have a post with my plans and priorities for the upcoming year up soon, and I’m looking forward to getting started on what will hopefully be another year of great reading.
I always feel like it is some kind of black magic that makes a book stick with us. Why one book and not another? Even books I’ve hated have stuck with me in more detail that books I love, so I know it’s not just that it’s well written. Perhaps what I’m doing or what is happening in my environment at that point in my life influences what sticks with me.
I also saw family for Christmas. While I felt personal trepidation, I also knew I was going and nothing short of knowing someone was covid positive would stop me. Like you, I did not see family members in 2020. Was I selfish? I don’t know, maybe, because the dominating thought was, “I did ALL the right things last year, and I didn’t get a family Christmas. Now it’s MY turn!!”
One of the books I thought about most after reading it in 2021 was House-Bound, which I didn’t like at all – though I did think it was very well-written, and timely given everything that has been going on in the pandemic. I think that the books which stay with me tend to be the ones that have changed my perspective in some way, even if that’s small. House-Bound really gave me a different view of what the home front was like in some circles during WWII, so even though I didn’t like it, it did teach me something.
Obviously I have a vested interest, but I don’t think it’s selfish to want to see our loved ones! There’s been a very nasty, sneering sort of narrative by some in the UK over the past few months about people who are still socialising at all – “if you love people you love them enough to not see them” without any definite cut-off date for the isolation. The thing is that we are social creatures by nature, and loneliness and isolation have actual, measurable impacts on physical as well as mental health, child development etc that (for many people) are worse than a bout of covid would be. People with chronic wounds have a quicker healing process and report less pain if they have a social network beyond their immediate household, and IIRC they also have lower hospital attendance – and I believe this effect presents across a lot of different long-term conditions, though I don’t know the outcomes as well for non-skin stuff. So, to cut this rambling short, seeing your family (while taking sensible precautions) is good for both your health and theirs!
You’re the first medical person that I can remember saying that there are worse things that covid, but also not downplaying how serious disease as a result of the virus can be, and for that I am appreciative. There’s a whole lot of virtue signaling from folks who haven’t left their homes since March 2020, and it’s exhausting. Probably the same people who keep saying we’re on our 3rd year of the pandemic despite not having hit the two year mark yet.
It would be impossible for me to think otherwise, to be honest, given what I’m hearing from students on clinical placement. The effects of multiple lockdowns on child health have been devastating in the UK, especially in regard to abuse and mental health issues. I am exhausted and frustrated by the people clamouring for more and more lockdown, irrespective of the effects on a whole generation of young people – all for the sake of avoiding what is now likely to be a fairly mild illness for most vaccinated people. (For what it’s worth, most of the nurses and teachers I know – who have seen the sharp end of the pandemic – feel the same!)
I know that right now people in the U.S. are in a panic because children are going back to school, and some parents are keeping their children home regardless of what the school district says. The new mayor of New York City has caused quite a stir (and he’s only been mayor for 5 days) because he wants kids in school. He said that if little Johnny isn’t in school, he isn’t in his bedroom, he’s on the streets. It’s interesting that this man has been villainized for saying this.
Happy New Year! I love what a varied collection you have here. I didn’t read as many books in 2021 as I’d hoped to but I agree that quality matters as well as balance with what else you’re doing in life.
Thanks, you too! Yes, I always love compiling my list at the end of the year and seeing that I’ve read a real mixture of things.
I have Shards of Honour on my (Audible) to buy list. I’ll get there one day. The rest I don’t know at all. Glad you got to see family this christmas. Mine was relatively quiet. But it included grandchildren which is the main thing.
Glad you were able to see your grandchildren this year! I hope you really enjoy Shards of Honour when you get to it.
Thanks Lou. I appreciated your commonsense reply to Melanie. I hadn’t really thought about Covid/Omicron as a mild disease though it is clear our maybe exaggerated response in Australia is making it impossible for hospitals to function properly.
I should probably clarify that, as my mum likes to remind me, nurses define “mild illness” differently from normal people – I tend to think of any illness that doesn’t require medical intervention as mild, no matter how horrible I feel while unwell. Some vaccinated people will still feel pretty terrible for a few days – it’s just that they’ll get better on their own with rest, paracetamol, and fluids. And for many it’s now just cold-like symptoms, or no symptoms at all.
We are having capacity issues in the UK too, but I am hopeful that the contagious nature of the variant means it will be bad for a few weeks and then resolve quickly. This by the BBC is a pretty good commonsense read about how the pandemic has changed in nature, if you’re curious: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-59862568- (it’s England-focused but it has wider applicability I think).
Haha, thank you for the promo for my awards ceremony – maybe I’ll tempt you to go for it next year! 😉 An interesting selection here, none of which I’ve read but I remember enjoying your reviews for some of them, especially the Lister book which I hope I may get to some day (skipping over the grisly bits)! I have North and South on my new CC list and am hoping to get to it this year. On a different subject, I didn’t know you were writing! Tell me more!!
I don’t think my average number of books per year lends itself to an awards ceremony, but if I have another 90 book year like 2019, maybe I’ll give it a go!
As for the writing, it’s only a hobby and I doubt I’ll ever produce anything publishable – but I have a secret dream to one day write novels set in the weird and worrying world of Victorian/Edwardian medical research, because that has so much potential that has been largely unexplored in fiction. Most of what I write is therefore geared towards that end – who knows, maybe one day something will come of it!
That sounds like something I’d definitely be interested in reading! I shall keep a reserved spot on my TBR, just in case… 😀
I added The Butchering Art to my list thanks to you – glad to hear it ended up being one of your favorites of the year as well!