Books read in 2021

John Sutherland How to Read a Novel

Clive James The Fire of Joy

Rachel Kerr Victory Park

Chessie Henry We Can Make a Life

William Boyd Trio

Jonathan Coe Billy Wilder and Me

Peter Godwin When the Crocodile Eats the Sun

Samantha Ellis Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life

Matt Haig The Midnight Library

Margaret Laurence Jest of God

Anna Quindlen Nannaville

David Lodge Writer’s Luck: A Memoir 1976 – 1991

Sally Beauman The Visitors

Robert Galbraith Troubled Blood

Hilary Mantel Mantel Pieces

Fiona Kidman All the Way to Summer

Deborah Moggach The Carer

Martin Walker A Shooting at Chateau Rock

Charlotte Grimshaw The Mirror Book

Jonathan Franzen The Discomfort Zone

Caro Fraser The Summer House Party

Alexander McCall Smith Emma

Maggie O’Farrell I am, I am, I am

Sarah M Broom The Yellow House

Michelle Obama Becoming

Stephanie Johnson Everything Changes

Joanna Orwin Shifting Currents

Antonia Fraser A Tartan Tragedy

Caro Fraser Summer of Love

John Banville Snow

Anne Tyler The Amateur Marriage

Writers as Readers: A Celebration of Virago Modern Classics

Michelle Langstone Times Like These

Donna Leon Trace Elements

Eva Ibbotson Madensky Square

Marlene Hobsbawm Meet Me in Buenos Aires

Sarah Gainham Night Falls on the City

Hella Pick Invisible Walls – A Journalist in Search of her Life

R C Sherriff The Fortnight in September

Kate Atkinson One Good Turn

Patricia Grace From the Centre: A Writer’s Life

David Roberts Sweet Poison

Gabriela Garcia Of Women and Salt

Martin Walker The Coldest Case

Sarah Winman Still Life

Rumer Godden Listen to the Nightingale

John Sutherland Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me

John Galsworthy Maid in Waiting

Sue Orr Loop Tracks

Rick Gekoski Guarded by Dragons

Peter Ho Davies A Lie Someone Told You about Yourself

Edmund de Waal Letters to Camondo
Jane Harper The Survivors

Anne Glenconner Murder on Mustique

Dolly Alderton Ghosts

Rhoda Janzen Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Ash Davidson Damnation Spring

Anne Glenconner Lady in Waiting

Ann Patchett These Precious Days

Rose Tremain Islands of Mercy

Nickolas Butler Godspeed

Chris Hammer Treasure & Dirt

In a year when I spent more time at home than any other year (except of course, for 2020!) I have read 62 books. As one of my very good friends and fellow bibliophile remarked I’m going to get through the lock-down by reading.

I seem to have got through an unusual number of whodunits (nine). I enjoyed, as always, the engaging characters of Bruno Courrèges (Martin Walker) and Guido Brunetti (Donna Leon) with their idiosyncratic ways of solving crimes in their respective well-drawn settings. I can also recommend the Robert Galbraith (who is of course, J K Rowling) – this is the first (out of a series of five so far) that I’ve read, though I’ve enjoyed the television series that have covered the first four. I would avoid the Antonia Fraser, the David Roberts and the Kate Atkinson if I were you. The first two are terribly dated and the last disappointing. Jane Harper is an accomplished writer in this genre and her novel is understated but powerful, with a very strong sense of place. This could also be said of Chris Hammer, coincidentally also Australian.

Memoir and biography feature strongly in my 2021 list (20). I had avoided Michelle Obama’s autobiography because of all the hype but am very glad I didn’t miss out – she is a remarkable woman and her book is extremely well-written. Her fellow American Sarah M Broom’s The Yellow House is an eye-opening view of her native New Orleans. Still in America, I highly recommend Ann Patchett’s collection – beautifully written, emotionally evocative essays. Erstwhile Zimbabwean Peter Godwin’s follow-up to his first autobiographical volume is highly recommended and they can be read separately, though I would advise reading them both. I also thoroughly enjoyed John Sutherland’s account of his interaction over many years with Monica Jones and Philip Larkin. It cast the couple in a different light and helped address some of the controversies that have emerged in recent times.

But it was the New Zealand biographies that entranced me this year – Chessie Henry (almost unbelievably written by a 29-year-old and including a riveting account of the Christchurch earthquake and its effects), Michelle Langstone (who is a well-known actor and has written these exceptional autobiographical essays, one of which movingly describes living through the first Auckland lock-down), Charlotte Grimshaw (who is C K Stead’s daughter and every bit as good as writer. This memoir may change your mind about him though!) However, my stand-out non-fiction pick for 2021 is From the Centre: A Writer’s Life. And this being New Zealand with its two degrees of separation, my daughter teaches at the same college that Patricia Grace once did, where her niece also now works. So I have a treasured inscribed copy: For Jane, very best wishes, Arohanui Patricia Grace.

That leaves the fiction (27). I have read several once out-of-print novels that have been revived in recent years (by the likes of the delectable Persephone Books ( e.g. The Fortnight in September) and really enjoyed them. While I do not recommend the Caro Frasers or McCall Smith’s insipid rewriting of Emma, I highly recommend Sue Orr’s Loop Tracks and Ash Davidson’s Damnation Spring – one set in contemporary, pandemic-affected Wellington, the other set in 1970s rural California both addressing urgent issues in unexpected ways.

But my stand-out novel for 2021 is Still Life by Sarah Winman. It encompasses everything that is vital to life – love, friendship and community; music, art and literature; food, wine and conversation around the dinner table; the beauty of the natural and the created world. It is filled with unlikely, memorable characters, one of which is a quotation-spouting parrot, who meet and part and meet again in a series of Dickensian coincidences. I defy you not to enjoy it!