As some of you may remember, I put up a post in June when I was halfway through a reading challenge: to read 50 books in 2021. I am proud to say that I achieved this goal on 31st December 2021 and can now review the other books I read last year. This will be done with a little help from my Goodreads profile. As usual, I’ll go backwards from my most recent read.
The Tinder Box by Hans Christian Andersen – 3/5 Stars
Guess I didn’t love this one, probably because I’m not into fairy tales. But it was the shortest book I could find at short notice so that I could complete my reading challenge on the last day of the year! Big Klaus and Little Klaus was my favourite tale because it had a logic to it, rather than just being bizarre characters being bizarre like the other stories.
The Bookbinder’s Daughter by Jessica Thorne – 5/5 stars
I’m intrigued by books about books, and this was no exception. I found it more accessible than The Binding; with more in-depth family history that helped the reader make sense of the present characters. I enjoyed the ever-mounting mystery around the elitist, enigmatic library-world that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality.
Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk – 4/5 stars
Did I mention how much I love Rachel Cusk? Saving Agnes is her debut novel, and though it was one of my least favourites to read, it still intrigued me and contained Cuskian (I’ve decided this is now a word) flashes of heart-breaking wisdom. Agnes is a delicate character who has somehow made it into her 30s despite her inability to cope with people and the world. She is decidedly unlikeable; a snarling, snobby social justice warrior from a middle-class background, and yet I found myself loving her. The reader lives very much in Agnes’ head for the duration of the novel, which is exhausting and sad, but so expertly done that I had to commend the quality of this book with my rating of four stars. The removal of one star is purely due to my lack of enjoyment of inhabiting the sorrows of such a miserable character.
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura – 4/5 stars
This was a very unique read about a 36-year-old job hopper with some interesting values. The quirky main character really made this story. A novel which focuses entirely on someone’s working life runs the risk of being very dull, but this story strangely was not, although it was perhaps slightly longer than it needed to be. I would recommend it as a lightly entertaining read for a rainy day.
I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron – 4/5 stars
Nora Ephron is supposedly a Hollywood legend; she wrote Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally. I was less intrigued by that than the fact that this collection of essays was introduced by Dolly Alderton, a favourite pop culture expert of mine. I did enjoy this book, I think. Ephron’s forthright opinions on absolutely everything (love, homesickness, handbags, death, bath oil) were highly entertaining. And they hit hard. Maybe too hard. I appreciate candid observations on life but couldn’t some of them have been candidly optimistic? I hate platitudes, but I would have liked to hear one good thing about getting older – rather than being urged to enjoy being young because it only gets worse from hereon. Plus, we’re in a pandemic and it already feels like I’ve lost chunks of youth and fun so my overriding feeling on completion of this book was anxiety, and vanity. Should I be looking for lines on my face at the age of 25? At any age, I would hope I, and indeed women of all ages, would have more important things to do. I recognise Ephron was a woman of a certain era and status, having the wealth and privilege to be entirely preoccupied with her appearance, so I won’t hold it against her. Her deeper observations on the elusiveness of home and approaching death saved this collection.
Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston – 4/5 stars
A fun and pacy tale of romance, politics and ways the world can change if we let it. Deep and mysterious English Prince Henry is an endearing love interest with a lot of heart. The Texan protagonist Alex (First Son of the fictionalised Madame President) is annoying but also endearing. The uplifting story, bouncy dialogue between the characters and the fun, current pop culture references were what made this book and forced my hand to give four stars for enjoyment even though there were many, many issues with the writing that I won’t bore you with (but you can read on Goodreads profile if you’re interested). A lot of people critique this book for being silly and far-fetched, but I don’t see that as an issue for this particular story. It’s an enjoyable, rosy, escapist novel that was perfect for me at the end of a long term.
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman – 3/5 stars
I didn’t like Anxious People as much as Backman’s A Man Called Ove. I enjoyed some aspects which were similar, like the quirkiness and silly dialogue. But it was just way too cheesy for me. There were too many characters to care about, who weren’t especially deep, so I guess it all felt a bit melodramatic. I cringed every time somebody gave way at the knees or the author decided to with-hold information that wasn’t very interesting and then suddenly reveal it as if it was. I think Fredrik Backman has a knack for warm and fuzzy comedy, and it worked well with sweet old Ove but not so much for a big crowd of characters with different bizarre, and stereotyped motives. Maybe Anxious People just all felt a bit try-hard for me. That said, the concept of an unsuccessful hostage situation with a contrary group of people was strong and there were a few moving lines that resonated with me. I will probably watch the Netflix adaptation to see how it compares on screen.
Still Life by Sarah Winman – 5/5 stars
If you’re going to take one recommendation from this list, let it be this one. This was a vivid, immersive, lovely novel with a great cast, including a wise parrot. It could have been a play it was so theatrical. But not in a melodramatic way; in an epic, lifelike way. It helped that the story spanned nearly a lifetime, following the ups and downs of several larger-than-life characters that felt like long-lost friends. The book begins in the second world war, with a young British soldier, Ulysses, who befriends an older (awesome) art historian, Evelyn, in front of a painting in Italy. The overlapping paths of both their lives and loved ones are followed in East London and Florence for the remainder of the book. That’s it really, but it’s brilliant!
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – 3/5 stars
This book had everything I would normally like, in theory. It was an intimate study of a small Ghanaian family struggling to integrate with life in the US, following several interesting narratives on religion, addiction, academia, family, race, identity and grief. But it just didn’t come together for me. The main character was bland, and I knew exactly what her nasty ex-boyfriend meant when he said she wasn’t real. I think the structure was a big issue; I don’t normally mind plotless books but I didn’t feel any conflict or stakes until right at the end and even then it was too disjointed to engage with. That said some of the writing was beautiful and profoundly captured the near impossibility of being religious in today’s world.
The Personal Is Political by Martin Milton – 5/5 stars
I read this for my doctorate as it’s about approaching wider socio-political issues in therapy. However, I think this book would be interesting for anyone struggling to reconcile functioning in the modern world with overwhelming issues like sustainability and social justice.
The Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa – 2/5 stars
I wanted to love this book, but I just didn’t! It’s about a boy dealing with loss and trying to run his late grandfather’s bookshop, whilst rediscovering his love for books with the help of a talking cat. Cute right? But unfortunately, it was just way too cheesy for me, and all the cutesy observations were so over-written that they felt trite rather than profound. More subtlety would have made it better. I get that it was more of a children’s story, but I think children still, and maybe especially, benefit from being able to use their imagination. I appreciated the translator’s note at the end and maybe the story does just read better in Japanese. Really disappointed as the concept and cover seemed right up my alley.
A Passionate Man by Joanna Trollope – 4/5 stars
Joanna Trollope consistently gets 4/5 stars for me. I think it’s because she’s very reliable in delivering steady middle-class family dramas that wrap up (too) neatly in a few hundred pages. However, with A Passionate Man I think Trollope took some more risks, which was enjoyable. I felt there was more depth and nuance to the characters and interactions. The village setting was claustrophobic and interesting. I think I dropped a star purely for the final chapters. I won’t spoil the content but it all just felt entirely implausible and ended in a flat, unsatisfying way.
Beautiful World, Where are You by Sally Rooney – 4/5 stars
As usual, Rooney captures the failures in human communication with expertise. The romantic relationships are real and agonising; and we ache with every misunderstanding and character flaw. Rooney tries an omniscient voice in this book, for part of it, and it’s a solid attempt, bringing out the brilliance of her masterful dialogue in reflecting the character’s realities. However, I think the between-chapter “emails” between two of the characters in first-person voice almost felt like a bit of a cop-out; like she missed writing in that voice. So, I got a bit frustrated with the lack of commitment to form there, although I did enjoy these email discussions of work, climate change and body clocks that distinguished the age and generation of Rooney and her characters.
Overall, I recommend. I didn’t fly through it in the same way that I did with Normal People or Conversations with Friends, and I personally found it less relatable. I think the omniscient narrative required a little more focus from the reader and I was ill while reading it, which slowed me down. But this was an intelligent, well-structured novel with a lot to say about life.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik – 4/5 stars
Am I defaulting to four stars in the second half of 2021? I think I might be…Anyway, as established in my review of The Binding, I am very wary of fantasy books. As expected, all the rules of the world and magic systems explained in the first third of A Deadly Education nearly led me to give up. But then I got really into this unique story about grit and alliances between teenagers enrolled in a magic school plagued by monsters. It didn’t really matter that I never got the concept of “malia” (I think I just about understood “mana”) because the novel is very intuitive and a lot of it is left to the reader to imagine. The protagonist was fabulous; an irritable, no-nonsense girl who will do just about anything to not follow social expectations. And not for no reason…her family history and deadly powers all lay the groundwork for considerable conflict and soul-searching in the story. It took a while to get going but I loved it by the end and feel it will be an interesting series!
Pretending by Holly Bourne – 3/5 stars
Brace yourselves because I had a lot of thoughts about this book: We follow April, a thirty-something woman who has given up on men and quite literally hates them. This comes across as merely cynical comedy at first, but when we find out April was a victim of an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship everything becomes a whole lot darker. After many unsuccessful dating attempts, April decides what men actually want is a “perfect” woman who never mentions previous “damage”. April decides to embody this woman in the form of “Gretal”, a sexy, light-hearted diva who wants to travel to Africa. As “Gretal” she catfishes a man called Joshua. Predictably, Joshua turns out to be quite a nice guy and April starts to wonder if she’s been wrong about men all along.
The arc of this story made sense in terms of the journey April goes on away from man-hating trauma towards love and therapy. However, I would say this was a self-help book/memoir posing as a novel. I never felt April or any of the characters were very real. If was like reading a manual about a victim of sexual assault, rather than about a real person. This could have been alienating for some readers, including those personally triggered by the content because it all felt a bit “textbook”. Nevertheless, I appreciated what the author was trying to do, and I’m sure this book would help many women feel understood. It was also easy to read and this accessibility means the book is likely to reach more women in need of a voice for their experiences.
I would add that I struggled a bit with the tone of this book. I thought I was picking up something warm and fuzzy with nuggets of wisdom – perhaps more like “everything I know about love” by Dolly Alderton, which there were hints of throughout in the funnier bits of Pretending about hen-dos and dating. But, not unlike Alderton’s own novel Ghosts (which is definitely my least favourite of Alderton’s works) a lot of it was just very cynical and bland. Not all men are the same. Not all married people are the same. Not all rape victims are the same. I felt Bourne had reduced a lot of things to their bare bones and sometimes it was on the money but mainly there was a lot of repetition of outdated clichés. There were also many (quite triggering) depressing monologues that didn’t add much to the story. We never really got the backstory about the protagonist’s abusive ex; we just knew it had happened because she kept mentioning the same vague references and emotions over and over. The world just wasn’t quite all coloured-in for me. But again, it was a solid effort from the author, so I still felt three stars was deserved.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – 5/5 stars
I found Doerr’s prose phenomenal, with intricate, visceral detail throughout. Despite the gritty realities of the second world war, which were not skipped over, themes of beauty, light, bravery and hope sustained the whole story. I could feel all these threads connecting the characters through the horrors of war. I liked that we had a Nazi and Allied perspective. I liked that the main characters were French and German, despite the American author. The suffering felt so much more intimate in the heart of the devastation in France. Sometimes I felt the book was too long but by the time I got to the end I saw why it had to be to get that immersion and sense of coming out of the other side of tragedy. Would definitely recommend if you can stomach a demanding epic! I’m definitely going to pick up Doerr’s new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, when I’m ready for another reading challenge.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – 5/5 stars
Brilliant. The great thing about this book was how totally readable it was. I’ve never seen such smooth prose. Then of course there’s the intrigue of separated twins; and separation by choice rather than the usual “at birth” cliché. There were interesting family dynamics and histories, as well as compelling and well-differentiated characters. The efficiency of the writing meant that every detail was significant. It was exactly as long as it needed to be, and I still wanted more.
Working Hard, Hardly Working by Grace Beverley – 4/5 stars
This was a thoughtful exploration of current work culture, with an emphasis on toxic productivity and social media, and what the combination of these things has done to us and our mindset at work. I thoroughly enjoyed it and found the chapters on deep work and creative flow particularly interesting and novel. The only thing I disliked was that the author often seemed insecure about what she was saying and tended to circle a point for too long in an attempt to not come off as privileged, arrogant or wrong. I hope the success of this book will give her the confidence to make points more assertively in future, and she clearly has a bright one as an inspiring leader for the Gen Z/young millennial workforce.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith – 5/5 stars
Zadie Smith always delivers, or so I am coming to learn. This novel was broad, challenging, fiercely interesting and immersive. Set in London, New York and West Africa, but loyal to a single protagonist’s voice and worldview (something I haven’t seen Smith do in her other works but of course she does it masterfully), this story is essentially about a friendship with deep roots. Toxic, haunting and dynamic, this childhood friendship takes over the protagonist’s reality as an adult in an achingly realistic way. Mothers, fathers and bosses also play an integral role in the unravelling of this tale, which I worried was going off the rails until right at the end when everything came together beautifully. The final scenes are particularly touching and I’m glad I stuck with it. I learned a hell of a lot about dance, race, politics and power as well.
Animal by Lisa Taddeo – 5/5 stars
I was having a really good run with top-quality books last summer. Maybe it’s because I was writing lots and choosing inspiring pieces. Animal was stunning. I’ve never read a writer who writes pain so well. It’s visceral and nail-biting. The protagonist, though sharp, rough, spiky and all the things that should be off-putting, is highly lovable and I almost fell into her mind. The suspense and intrigue in her backstory was masterful. All the twists and turns were shocking and yet I just felt “of course” every time one of her miseries was revealed, which is a testament to how real she felt. Not only that, but every character we encountered was vivid and unique – and yet familiar from life. I loved Animal probably about as much as Taddeo’s Three Women, and it fascinates me that the drama was just as heightened and heart-wrenching in the fiction of Animal as in the true stories of Three Women. Please, Lisa Taddeo, write more. Tell us more about women. I loved the author’s note at the end of Animal as well, particularly the part about her intentions to help people feel “seen”. Very rarely is an author so candid with their intentions, even when they are obvious, and I honestly felt warm and loved after this little piece that wraps up the novel so well.
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke – 4/5 stars
This was a well-structured and honest account of losing a mother to cancer. As one might expect with a memoir, there were points I found extremely relatable and others that were frustratingly individual to the author. I sometimes felt alienated in these parts, which was not the author’s fault but just a reason I often struggle with memoirs. The bits I found most useful were the reflections on grief itself and the fact that we heard all about the gruesome parts of cancer in the first part of the book. This is something that it’s hard to talk about unless you’ve gone through it so the mere act of reading these memories was quite comforting.
The Valley of Secrets by Charmian Hussey – 4/5 stars
A wonderful, magical story about a boy finding adventure in the quietest places (like Cornwall). I read this as a child but enjoyed it even more as an adult. I wish we’d had a bit less in the first half and a bit more at the end (e.g. who was the girl – she felt a bit thrown in!??).
Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien – 4/5 stars
A thoughtfully put-together collection of five overlapping stories set in Germany; exploring themes of love, womanhood, grief, sexuality and parenting. Some of it made me feel downright depressed, especially in the first three stories. There was an eerie loneliness to all of these characters, and it was done well and uniquely in each case. I liked the last two stories the most, with the interesting political undertones, the quirky children and the heart-warming way two very different sisters helped each other. These women seemed stronger and more healthily inter-dependent than the first three solitary figures. Sadly, five acts did not equal five stars for me in the end though, as the last story ended on a very off-beat note.
Second Place by Rachel Cusk – 5/5 stars
Of course, I had to pick up Rachel Cusk’s most recent novel, which has subtle allusions to lockdown life. It was a slow burn that captivated me by the end. As with each one of Cusk’s novels, this piece took on a totally unique voice. The protagonist’s first-person perspective was an intimate lens into the many possible ways to be obsessed with a person, and how destructive that can be. Not only that, but there was a real growth/self-awareness character arc that I haven’t really seen in Cusk’s writing before and was pleasantly surprised by. This was on top of Cusk’s usual precious nuggets of mind-blowing reflections on life. I honestly cannot get enough of her.
Insta-Style for your Living Space by Joanna Thornhill – 4/5 stars
A bit of a random one to end on. This was a fun little book with quirky design ideas. But I did think it over-promised on “easy” up-cycling suggestions. I’m just not the sort of person who has giant wine crates and planks of wood lying around, or power drills. Plus I’m not very handy so the many-stepped instructions confused me. If you are a more ambitious DIY person this would be more for you. I definitely preferred How We Live Now by Rebecca Winward, which was less intimidating.
Well, that’s all, people. Hope you enjoyed and let me know what you’ve been reading down below!