My Best Books of 2021

2021 has been a tough year for me and my reading has ebbed and flowed along with just about everything else, I just couldn’t seem to find any equilibrium and some of my choices were suspect. Today I’m only going to share with you the best of the books I read this year. Some, and one in particular, I really wouldn’t wish on anyone. Those I’m sharing however, I recommend whole heartedly and without reservation.

One of the things that has been constant during 2021, with a few interruptions due to varying colours of lockdown here, has been my volunteer work where I have been helping set up a local community library here in Siena. Having catalogued a couple thousand books in the last year my connection to books and a lifelong love of reading has been restored and restorative.

As you may know from my ‘About me’, I am an affiliate of which means that if you purchase books as a result of my recommendation via the links below I get 10% of the cover price, at no extra cost to you, and as importantly, so does a brick and mortar local bookstore. This way you can support my work here on the blog, but also the work of local bookshops on UK high streets.

If this is not for you, if you have one, you could go into your local bookshop and buy directly from them. Alternatively, and again if you have one, you can also support your local library by borrowing these books from them or, if you prefer, many libraries also ‘lend’ electronic books’.

Whatever way you like to read my job here is to encourage you to do so by whatever means are available to you. If you click the links below you can access the synopsis for the book. Here I’m sharing my reflections rathe than plot outlines etc. and don’t worry, there’s no spoilers!

So here goes with my favourite reads of the year:

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong

This is a truly remarkable book.

There’s so much in this book it needed to, and has, sat with me for some time since I finished it. First off, the writing is hauntingly beautiful. The scope of the book is deceptive. While the cast of characters is tight, and the form a letter to a mother, the narrative ranges and reflects on some huge themes with a deftness and control that feels quite remarkable.

However, to read this book is not simply a ‘mental’ endeavour but a visceral experience. I was completely taken by how the book renders a story of intergenerational trauma across individual, family, and nations. How it conveys the everyday violence of the ‘immigrant experience’. However, this is also layered within a context of the violence done to those on the margins, as seen in the multiple loses to drug overdose within marginalised communities, transcending ethnic backgrounds. This then intersects with sexuality, and we see how the various characters negotiate, enact and deny them selves; how the fear of discovery and potential rejection inform action and relationships.

It’s a lot, so very much that I have barely scratched the surface here, but it is simply wonderful. There were times when I found it almost too much in this most challenging of years and set I it aside, but I longed to be ready to come back to it and it was easily my best read of the year.

Clap When You Land

Elizabeth Acevedo

I really enjoyed this and would happily recommend it. A classic tale of how circumstance drives opportunity and is dictated by global inequality. The real strength of this book, I think, is the characterisation. The plot isn’t particularly complex, the set up is pretty simple but it is the richness of the characters that draws you in. The complexity, nuance and vitality of this book is in the beautifully drawn narratives and experience of the characters. In retrospect, it strikes me as a deceptively straightforward narrative. It’s only afterwards as the story stays with you that you truly recognise the layers in this book that keep you thinking about it long after the final page is turned.

Love and Other Thought Experiments

Sophie Ward

I found this book both engaging and thought provoking. A nicely crafted narrative, the characterisation in the first few chapters is also really strong. Here we are introduced to an ensemble cast of characters through a series of what appear to be loosely linked vignettes; you could almost mistake the opening chapters for a series of short stories. As the book progresses there is a slight shift in gear as it becomes more conceptual and the material previously laid out becomes the terrain across which these concepts are explored more fully. I don’t want to say much because I don’t want to drop any spoilers, but I’d happily recommend this book. 

So Long, See You Tomorrow

William Maxwell 

I wasn’t sure why I had this in my kindle app and a couple of times my partner denied any knowledge of it so I thought something must have sparked my interest, perhaps i’d heard it spoken about a podcast? n the end it turns out it was my partners purchase but I’m so glad that their initial denials made me think I’d chosen it and therefore that I should read it! It’s a beautifully written and beautifully observed book. Like the lives of the characters, there’s little fat here and little sentimentality. The characters are drawn so deftly, they have a nuance and depth the belies the brevity of the book, as does the complexity and interweaving strands of the narrative. It’s also a interesting reflection on memory and on the recollection of the relationships of childhood. This is another book where the layers of narrative and meaning continue to unfold even after you’ve finished it.

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood

Fatema Mernissi

Where to start with this one, it is simply such a rich experience. Mernissi speaks of being brought up in a storytelling tradition and with this book she continues that tradition admirably. It’s wonderfully written, playful, insightful, informative and so very enjoyable. There are so many things that I could pick out as highlights but here are just a few.

I particularly liked the references to dress and how shifts in dress reflected wider social change. Mernissi talks about how dress codes signified urban/rural and class distinctions, with more restrictive dress for more affluent mostly urban families, those in which women were not required to work.

The impact of Moroccan Nationalism in the period she is writing about brings about a reduction in women wearing the veil, the broadening of dress convention and the wider education of girls, which may be seen as contrary to current nationalist trends. Referring to such changes and differences as ‘fashion’ usefully reminds us that they are specific to time and place and are changeable rather than fixed.

Attention is also drawn to the greater religious mixing between jewish and muslim communities in Morocco in the time covered by the book, including those jews fleeing the anti-Semitism of Europe, prior to the formation of the state of Israel. 

The discussion of early Islamic feminism and political representation was also new to me and it was interesting to effectively eavesdrop on the discussions of the women featured in the book, of their seclusion, restriction and potential for political agency. It was also chastening to consider how short lived some of the progressive feminist aspirations for their children have been. 

Both in the period covered and the wider history drawn upon, the book generally speaks to a different and changing balance of secular society and religion. It’s sometimes easy to see this in societies with which we are less familiar but it is no less so in those which we know well. 

The references to dress, religious co-existence and feminism are good reminders that religious observance and acceptance are not fixed or static but subject to constant change within wider socio geopolitical processes. 

I would wholeheartedly recommend this as a memoir, for its storytelling and for anyone interested in the history of dress or of islamic feminism and the place of women in Islamic societies

This book isn’t available on but there are many used copies on abebooks at great prices.

Under the Jaguar Sun

Italo Calvino

A slim volume of 3 short stories exploring the senses I really enjoyed this, especially the first story for which the collection is named. Written in 1982, the story focusses on taste and the comments on how we know and ‘digest’ the places we visit through eating local foods. These foods also a particular form of consumption of the flora, fauna and culture and practice of place, an observation which struck me as particularly prescient in the age of ‘gastro-tourism’. Envisaged as part of a larger collection that was never realised due to Calvino’s death, I also found the notes on framing at the end of the book really interesting.

Invisible Cities

Italo Calvino

I’m so glad I was prompted to re-read this book. It’s many years since I first read it and then it set me off on a bit of a Calvino binge and I fear it may have done the same again this time around (see above). The prose is simply beautifully poetic. Polo effectively deconstructs the urban form focussing on key urban characteristics and traits to shape a narrative of imaginary cities. Whether these are all aspects of one city, of Venice, is not clear. Whether they reflect the differing perspectives of Polo and Khan of a shared city, or whether they refer to foreign explorations is not certain. What is clear is how each vignette reflects on how we live in cities and society, how the urban form functions, how we stretch against the limits of our spaces and resources. I’m sure everyone has their favourites, for me it’s Dorotea, after which I named my Dorotea cowl knitting pattern, and Leonia which is such a vivid imagining of the consequences of consumption, and how we may be engulfed in the waste we create if we had to actually live with it rather than shipping it elsewhere and thus exporting such consequences. So prescient and timely despite now being 50 years since it was first published, I hope the half century leads to a rediscovery and celebration of this book.

So that’s my top 7 for the year. Taking a little time to reflect on these books has fanned my enthusiasm for them all over again, and I can’t wait to see what the coming year brings. Having left it until almost the end of January to complete this review, I have already finished 3 books this month. January is the perfect month for curling with a good book and one has already met the criteria for inclusion in my best books for 2022 and I’m excited about the books I have lined up.

If you want to link up on Goodreads, I can be found there, and you can browse my bookshop here. If you have any books you loved in 2021, I’m open to recommendations and if you have books you’re excited for this year, please do share.

All the best,

Tess xxx

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