2021: the year that books weren’t everything (reading year review)

I read 36 books in 2021 – probably the lowest yearly amount I’ve ever read, and certainly since I started using goodreads in 2013.

Although there were plenty of excellent reads this year, when I look back at 2021’s list I feel a little uninspired. Near misses and minor disappointments were padded out with self-indulgent rereads of favourites from my childhood and adolescence.

Despite this, there was still lots of celebrate and mull over this year. A few memorable new reads, a deep dive into some old favourites, and a surprise appearance from some music tracks in the midst of a book blog!

Stats!

Of my 36 reads this year, 10 were rereads and 26 were new to me. This is quite a low ratio; last year’s was 9:31. I started my first full-time job this year and often turned to reading as a source of easy escapism and enjoyment. I found myself often alternating new reads with old favourites, long tomes with short ones, or challenging or disturbing subjects with the light-hearted, funny or romantic, or even children’s books.

5 stars: 7

4 stars: 17

3 stars: 9

2 stars: 3

My average rating was 3.8, and the books I read were on average 332 pages long – relatively similar to last year’s 3.9 and 352 respectively.

An absence of 5-star reads (and finding new depths in music)

Last year, I only rated three new reads with five stars. I thought that was low. But this year, I didn’t give a single new read full marks.

It may seem harsh, but I stand by my decision. As the year wore on, it dawned on me that I hadn’t handed out the big five yet, and I began to select titles from my to-read pile which I thought might have the best chance of success (notably The Queen’s Gambit, The Secret History and Heartburn), approaching each book hopefully but warily, moving from page to page as if across stepping stones, hoping I could make it the full way across while remaining in the golden, bathing light of a perfectly pitched novel. But something always hid a dud note – the pacing or the plotline or the emotional punch that cuffed me on the ear instead of knocking me out like I so wanted it to.

Now I think about it, I feel as though 2021 was the year that music began to step up and do for me what reading has always done. I would never before have considered that books and music could ever be any kind of equal in terms of meaning, emotion, complexity and potency.

But this year, the music of Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey has come close to meaning as much to me as a favourite book. Taylor’s story of liberation and sovereignty, demonstrated powerfully in her rerecordings of her old albums, has been inspirational and moving. Folklore and evermore revealed new depths of what she is capable of, while the new 10-minute version of All Too Well took what was already one of the best songs she’s ever written and added a hundred extra layers of anger, pain, revenge and redemption. (If I had to name my favourite book of 2021, it would probably be the 10-minute All Too Well). Meanwhile, Lana’s music has always been special and intoxicating to me, her ethereal voice and relentlessly captivating melodies taking me to heavenly places no other artist can. Chemtrails Over The Country Club was a fantastic album, with the title track, White Dress and Wild At Heart all powerful, all-encompassing visions of a woman entirely liberated from the opinions of others.

Four-star reads that came close to perfection

But enough about music. The reads that came closest to five stars were probably Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I’ll speak more about The Secret History in a minute, you can read my in-depth review of Rooney’s latest here, and although what I do remember of Klara and the Sun is stellar, it feels foggy and far-away in my mind, so it’s probably best I held back.

(Klara and the Sun was borrowed from the library so I don’t have it to take a photo of)

Nostalgia overload: 5-star rereads

2021 was the year of the reread for me. No new read stood a chance against such stiff competition as Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables – each utterly flawless jewels of their genre.

The standouts for me were Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now by Lauren Child and Wishing for Tomorrow, Hilary McKay’s sequel to the classic A Little Princess – both children’s books, but both head and shoulders above anything else I read this year. The former is expertly plotted; against a backdrop of pre-teen discontent, misery and angst, the intertwining recurring motifs, with their tense linguistic repetition, create a suspenseful atmosphere that culminates in a dénouement that is genuinely surprising and climactic.

Meanwhile, the latter might just be my book of the year. A Little Princess, itself easily a five-star golden oldie, has always been my favourite children’s classic. Atmospheric, drawn-out and redemptive, it has the build-up and pay-off of a fairy tale. But perfection is improved upon in Wishing for Tomorrow. McKay retains the atmosphere and period details, the climactic pay-off at the end of the novel, the justice duly served in the final chapter. But where A Little Princess races through the years, McKay’s sequel painstakingly portrays the day-in, day-out mundanity and discontent of the side characters in the three months after the main character departs for her happily-ever-after. Already memorable characters are given new depths, backstories and plotlines that are at once new and entirely consistent. The story is situated more firmly in the early twentieth century when women’s education was in its rocky beginnings. The zoomed-in focus allows for delicious details such as biscuits hidden in curtain linings, Sunday afternoons writing letters home, piano practice and late-night reading and half-chewed hair ribbons and cats purring by the fireside. But McKay expertly combines this descriptive and atmospheric detail with a plot – barely perceptible at first – that gathers pace like a steam train until it explodes over the page, taking every character, however minor, with it.

My 2021 reads by decade

Last year, one of my reading resolutions was to read at least one book from each decade from the 1870s to the 2020s.

While I didn’t quite achieve this, I only missed out a couple of decades. I never like feeling tied down to reading certain books, so when the end of the year drew near and I had slots missing, I decided to say goodbye to this goal.

However, I still had a great spread, particularly across the most recent five decades. One of the reasons I love reading old books is that they’re one of the closest things to time capsules we have. So I’m proud of the diversity of dates I read from this year.

2020s – 6

2010s – 4

2000s – 5

1990s – 5

1980s – 4

1970s – 2

1960s – 2

1950s – 1

1930s – 2

1900s – 2

1880s – 2

1870s – 1

How did I do with my book-buying ban?

You may remember that another of my bookish resolutions for 2021 was not to buy any new books. You can probably guess how that has gone. These are the books that were just too tempting:

  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – a book club pick bought from The Bookish Type in Leeds
  • Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall – another book club pick, bought from BookLove
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – at a charity book sale in the canteen at work
  • The Enchanted Waltz by Barbara Cartland and Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy – at my favourite bookshop, Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland
  • Harriet by Jilly Cooper – at a charity book sale in Fort Augustus, Scotland
  • Daniel Deronda by George Eliot – at a second-hand bookshop in Pitlochry, Scotland
  • Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales – at Daunt Books, Marylebone, London
  • Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney – a book club pick bought at my local bookshop, Castlegate Books in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire
  • SPQR by Mary Beard – at Blackwell’s in Oxford

I can’t say I regret any of these purchases. Having a to-read pile that steadily grows year-on-year is not the worst problem to have.

I read 3 books in 2021 that were published in 2021

Last year I managed 9 books from the current year, but with my overall total down, I think 3 counts as a decent attempt to keep up with the times (and I did read several others from 2020 and 2019, too). These three 2021 reads were some of the biggest titles of the publishing year, and I have to say that they were all excellent and deserving of their hype.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Best New Discovery

I’m going to go with The Secret History by Donna Tartt. As soon as I opened this book I knew I was in safe hands – calm, assured prose with tension and foreboding running consistently under it. The monotonous pace of the middle section ruined this sense of delicate control somewhat, but aside from this I could barely fault the novel and would love to reread it at some point. One passage in particular was so vivid it made me feel faint, and I had to stop reading. I’m keen to read more by Tartt, starting with The Goldfinch, which has sat on my to-read pile for far too long.

Most Unforgettable

The Secret History again, mainly for the aforementioned gory, other-worldly passage.

I must also give an honourable mention to Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You. The argument it sets out in favour of a focus on the ordinary, the interpersonal, the emotional and the hopeful was hauntingly self-assured. It felt as if a beam of light was shining straight from the author’s mind into my own. Again, its self-interested and liberated attitude is reminiscent of Lana Del Rey’s recent music (see here).

Most Forgettable

My two most forgettable books both fell into the two-star category: Public Library by Ali Smith and Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams (the third book in the ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series). I remember enjoying some sections of Public Library and of course agreeing with its advocation for libraries, but it really is very fuzzy in my memory and I wouldn’t hurry back.

Meanwhile, the ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ series deteriorated rapidly for me. The first book is fantastic – a hilarious, deadpan, heart-warming and endlessly creative romp around the limits of a sci-fi imagination. The second continued that trajectory but began to feel a little tired and aimless. I have to admit that by the third book I lost interest. Some things are better quick and spectacular, like fireworks, rather than drawn-out and rambling, like dinner parties.

Biggest Disappointment

Hallowe’en Party must be the first Agatha Christie book I’ve rated three stars, but I’m sorry to say it deserved it. It was interesting to discover that Halloween is a relatively recent phenomenon – in this 1969 novel it is approached as a niche American novelty. However, this did mean that the spooky vibes the title promised were quickly dampened into chilly wanderings around a village where everyone seemed to repeat themselves. As usual the solution was ingenious, but the melodramatic ending came out of nowhere, and not in a good way.

Most Fun

I said earlier that in 2021 I turned to reading for escapism and enjoyment. Nowhere was this more found than in E. by Matt Beaumont, a fast-paced and hilarious story about a chaotic advertising agency, told entirely through internal emails and published in 2000. I raced through this and enjoyed every minute of it. One word of warning, though: the acerbic style is all too tempting to adopt in one’s own work communications, so take in small doses.

Let’s hear a little commotion for the blog

I also wanted to mention that 2021 was a year in which my blog (modestly) took off, as you can see below. 3,445 views in a year, mainly for a few successful reviews: Dolly Alderton’s Ghosts, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart and André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name.

I’m hoping to post regularly in 2022, so stay tuned!

My reading plans for 2022

See below a photo of my current to-read pile (as usual it is organised in chronological order of publication). It’s currently clocking in at 58 books.

There are loads of fantastic books here, and I’m excited to get started. Weirdly, the ever-so-slightly lacklustre nature of my 2021 reading year has got me raring to go, determined to enjoy myself more than ever between the pages of books old and new. I’d like to rely less on nostalgic rereads and fall in love with some new favourites.

Some books I’m most excited to get my teeth into include Piranesi and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford, My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope, Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence, and Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales.

Reading resolutions for 2022

  • Read 40 books
  • Once again I will aim to read at least one book from each decade from the 1870s to the 2020s. Hopefully this will naturally fall into place!
  • I would say that I will attempt not to buy any new books, but I will undoubtably, and very cheerfully, fail. So I will aim to keep book-buying to a minimum and try to make a good dent in my to-read pile. I’m going to optimistically aim to have the pile down to 30 books this time next year (allowing for the inevitable influx at Christmas and my birthday) – hopefully sans many of the above-mentioned titles.

To keep up with my reading, follow my blog, either with your email below or by following me on twitter, where I share my posts. You can also follow my goodreads account.

Let me know in the comments how your reading has gone in 2021, and what your plans are for 2022!

And if you enjoyed this blog post, please consider buying me a coffee. Thank you!

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