A Year in Books: 2021


'Bloomsbury stack final version'. 28x35cm. Oil on canvas by the outrageously talented Janie Longmore @janie_longmore

"If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. Don’t let them explore you until they’ve explored the secret universes of books. Don’t let them connect with you until they’ve walked between the lines on the pages." - John Walters

My reading year in 2021 was significantly lighter than previous years which did mean I could spend more time reflecting on and untangling my thoughts about each book I read, over rushing into the next one. It's something I'd been thinking about for a little while and although it wasn't entirely intentional, my workload led to me walking the walk I'd previously written about.


It was my first full year as a book reviewer for Aniko Press, whom I joined in 2020, and it's been a delight to grow as a reviewer (and author interviewer!) under the helm of our delightful Editor, Emily.


As always, I sought ways to grow the diversity and intersectionality of my bookshelves, but I wasn't always successful, being drawn primarily to works by authors who I felt represented me and the ways I view the world (in various ways, consciously or otherwise). For 2022, I have a few areas in mind where I'd like to challenge myself and my reading and invite a greater breadth of perspectives into my life - I know this is vital for developing as an individual and a human being.


And while the quantity may have been relatively light, I definitely found some remarkable gems (if you've chatted with me about books at all in the past year, I will have likely already chewed your ear off about this - see this as your final note from me to get them on your bookshelves).


 

Fiction


Every Day is Gertie Day by Helen Meany

“There’s still no avoiding young Gertrude’s unsettling stare, however, as she clutches the skeletal animal and scowls out at the world, as if everything - the left side of her face, mangled and scarred, and those huge pointed ears, the fact that she’s there on a bag at all - are somehow all your fault.”

Every Day is Gertie Day caught my eye simply from the beatific cover art. I picked it up as my last read of 2021 (after a little run of dud fiction) and it blew me away. Funny, intelligent and provocative in all the right ways - this stunning little novel is hard to explain in a way that will tempt you, so all I can simply say is; read it. It is about so much more than you will expect.



Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

“How many generations of women had delayed their greatness only to have time extinguish it completely? How many women had run out of time while the men didn’t know what to do with theirs? And what a mean trick to call such things holy or selfless. How evil to praise women for giving up each and every dream.”

A feminist narrative that unpacks the dearth of motherhood AND involves dogs? OF COURSE I was going to love this. Yoder's debut full-length novel had its glory moment earlier in 2021 and with good merit. It's a bizarre and engrossing tale, viscerally unpacking the transformation of self and identity when one woman becomes a mother. Nightbitch is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. While the themes are well established, Yoder’s exploration of them is utterly unique and compelling.



Weather by Jenny Offill

“And then it is another day and another and another but I will not go on about this because no doubt you too have experienced time.”

I adore Offill's words. Weather actually sat on my bedside table for longer than usual because I wanted to wait until I had the chance to savour it (and then promptly devoured it in a day). Lizzie Benson is an 'accidental' librarian, caught up in a moment of time where nothing feels stable. Comprised of scattered thoughts, observations, mundane details, memories, everyday relationship situations, what-ifs, what about, and how comes - the beauty in Offill's narratives is the collection of insights and soundbites she offers. It often feels like a dip into my own brain collated on the pages. Offill's writing style is not for everyone but for me, it offers something fresh and vibrant on age-old ideas.



Assembly by Natasha Brown

“Be the best. Work harder, work smarter. Exceed every expectation. But also be invisible, imperceptible. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t inconvenience. Exist in the negative only, the space around. Do not insert yourself into the main narrative. Go unnoticed. Become the air.”

The debut novella by British writer Natasha Brown, Assembly is told in a highly effective and vibrant, fragmented style. Brown’s writing is stylistically akin to Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill but offers a much deeper perspective into one woman’s life in the face of Britain’s colonial legacy. Through dedication to her education and working up the ranks within a prestigious investment bank, our unnamed narrator, a black British woman from a working-class background, has done all the things she was told to do to be ‘successful’ - but finds herself questioning, at what cost? This is a precise and intensely self-aware exploration of the entrenched inequalities of our modern societies, exposing that success for one is not the same success for the other. A must-read.


The Sitters by Alex Miller

"A narrow, vertical painting, tightly enclosing the scene. Her pale arm and her pale thigh. Viewed at a diagonal through an exceedingly tall doorway. just a glimpse of something."

This was a slim novel, that took me quite by surprise. Our narrator is an ageing painter who specialises in portraiture. He meets a woman at his university & is immediately drawn to her, but he resists the connection at first. When he’s asked to sketch her for a university project, he can’t help himself & asks her to sit for him further. This is a deep dive into a painters thought process, and Miller does a brilliant job of evoking emotions, blending nostalgia & trauma to tell the stories of both the narrator & his sitter. The prose is sparse but more than enough to drop us down into the lucid world of the painter as he attempts to find what he’s looking for ~ which we learn, is rarely what’s right in front of him. I loved the connection between knowing the sitter in order to paint & how a portrait can be so much more than simply a copy of a person. Well worth reading if you’re interested in art ~ and even if you’re not.


Born into this by Adam Thompson

“It took a while for the fury to find me, for it to settle like a cold bullet in the chambers of my heart. It’s still there. Most days, I can ignore it. But in the grip of a terrible hangover, when the black eye opens up, it comes to life within me. And I wonder, then, which old fella it was who I killed. I wonder how much of my life, after that day, was shaped by that action.”

The debut collection from Adam Thompson, an emerging Aboriginal (pakana) writer from Tasmania. These sixteen short stories are wild, sharp and incredibly nuanced. Thompson writes boldly about the colonial Australia we live in now, with no margin left empty. Many of Thompson’s stories use the backdrop of homeland and Tasmania to build a strong sense of place, traversing land and sea. The Australia he writes about is set in the modern-day, but the historical and longstanding attachment to land are never far from many of his characters’ minds. Thompson knows what he’s doing, and with the subject matter he tackles, this collection could have easily slipped into a dark and depressing place. Instead, Thompson expertly uses wit and a healthy dash of humour to keep the reader invested - and he succeeds. This was one of the most compelling collections I’ve read in a long time.


 

Non-Fiction


Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent by Katherine Angel

“But speech and truth-telling are not inherently emancipatory, and neither speech nor silence is inherently liberating or oppressive. Consent, and its conceit of absolute clarity, places the burden of good sexual interaction on women's behavoir – Woe betide she who does not know herself and speak that knowledge.”

Drawing on Foucault's teasing proclamation that 'tomorrow sex will be good again', Angel tackles the looming concepts of consent, sexual desire, autonomy, sexual identity, pleasure with brevity and fierce insight. Blending research, psychology, philosophy alongside societal expectations, changing cultural beliefs and thought leadership, I found this to be one of the most relevant, revealing and contemporary takes on female desire I've read to date.


handiwork by Sara Baume

“And it seemed to me, then, both obvious and strangely surprising - how my world appears to order itself around these poetic coincidences, whether I search for them or not; how a planet so overstuffed and complicated can so keenly configure itself in response to my flights of thought, my flock of connections.”

Oof. Give me a slow, deliberate, mulling over life, love, grief and creativity any day of the week and I will be yours forever. Baume does just this. Through vignette prose and pondering, she talks us through her own history of art, writing and creativity, building on the memories of her father and grandfather - both men who worked with their hands, crafting in different ways - and how this has influenced her own pull towards craftwork and handiwork. The slow, looping contemplation of handiwork feels just right for a world going through its own forms of repetitive standstill. In posing some of the most urgent questions around art, life and creativity, Baume reminds us that sometimes it is the sitting and reflecting that is far more important than any answers we may draw.





No Document by Anwen Crawford

“I believe in all of us. I don’t see how anything can change if we don’t.”

This is a book of many parts – part poetry, part memoir, part protest, part extended elegy for a lost friend and kindred soul. Crawford dismantles capitalism, borders, carceral systems, and the insidious, dehumanising rhetoric and politics that sever empathy and devalue art-making. Utterly unique & cumulatively devastating. Akin to Han Kang’s The White Book ~ a perfect blend of form and thought. A piece of art in its own right.


On Connection by Kae Tempest

“The work that I do on myself may not be evident in my daily exchanges, but little by little, if I continue, I hope that my actions will reflect my changing mindset, and next time, I promise myself, I'll do things differently. Getting on top of my shortcomings is not immediate; it's endless.”

I've serendipitously ended this list with the first book I read in 2021 (after starting with the last book I read). I'm enjoying this unplanned structuring immensely. When I finished Tempest's book, I immediately scribbled down about it - Magnificent. Heart affirming. The healthiest book I’ve read in a while. I can't embellish on this any further. Tempest reminds us of the role of connection in our lives, across our creative endeavours and in general. She builds her manifesto with personal and intensely relatable experiences and insights. It had me in tears. It motivated me to keep working, challenging, changing, moulding, moving, seeking and loving. Everyone should have this on their shelves.


 

It strikes me that many of the stand-out non-fiction reads for me this year had a sharp focus on connection and creativity. Throughout 2021, I felt distant and isolated as the reaches of the pandemic kept extending. I also decided to take a step back from my creative outputs; I stopped writing fiction. It makes me smile to see that I was still reaching for these cornerstones of life while feeling unsure how to fully live into them.


Fiction wise, debut releases reigned, and I adored discovering new authors as well as using my role as a reviewer to bring them to the consciousness of other readers. Feminist narratives also seemed to take a priority, which makes sense to me as I emerge into dusty corners of my own understanding and question marks around what feminism means for me.


As it stands, I'm already six books into my 2022 reading year, with some enlightening and absorbing reads - exciting considering I'm only just getting started!


Here's to creativity, connection and untangling the question marks of life - and, as always, a hearty book pile next to the bed.

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