If last week’s data-driven post was challenging to write (so many numbers!) this one might be even harder (decisions!). Why do I do this to myself? According to Goodreads, I rated 25 books with five stars last year, so narrowing that down to the ten best reads of the year is – well, it’s going to be difficult. As always, this is a list of my favorites read in 2021, not necessarily published in 2021; I don’t think I even read ten books that were published in 2021, let alone rated them all five stars. I’m not making it any easier by continuing to ramble on, so I suppose I’d better just pick, huh? In no particular order:
My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell – This lightly fictionalized memoir of Gerald Durrell’s time on Corfu with his eccentric family had me in stitches. Between Gerry’s constantly rotating menagerie to the exploits of his siblings and the local characters, I think I laughed until I cried on at least every other page.
Few Eggs and No Oranges, by Vere Hodgson – One of Persephone Books’ “important” titles (although I’d argue that all books are important in their own ways), Vere Hodgson’s Blitz diary is a fascinating and compelling picture of London, and the indominable spirit of Londoners, during the darkest days of World War II.
A Winter Away, by Elizabeth Fair – This wasn’t the only Elizabeth Fair title I read this year, but it was my favorite. The story of a young woman who escapes to the countryside for a winter, lands a job as a private secretary and library organizer to a curmudgeonly old gentleman, and falls in love, was such fun. I couldn’t stop turning pages and I was genuinely sad that it had to end.
Where Stands a Winged Sentry, by Margaret Kennedy – A compelling memoir, taken from the diaries of a writer at the absolute height of her powers, of the tense days of the “Bore War” before World War II got started in earnest. I read it in one day, because I couldn’t put it down.
Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, by D.E. Stevenson – I love D.E. Stevenson’s writing, and had Mrs. Tim on my list for ages, but it never seemed to cycle to the top. I’m glad it finally did in 2021, because I absolutely adored every word. Hester Christie is one of the truly delightful heroines of mid-century middlebrow literature.
Subpar Parks: America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and their Least Impressed Visitors, by Amber Share – I’ve been a fan of Amber’s work for a couple of years now, since I first found her on Instagram. If you’ve not yet heard of Subpar Parks, it’s a hilariously tongue-in-cheek project in which Share, a graphic artist, plucks phrases out of one-star yelp reviews of the U.S. National Parks (and more – she finished America’s national parks a couple of years ago and moved on to state parks, other public lands, and the national parks of the U.K., Australia and New Zealand) and juxtaposes them against travel poster-style illustrations. It’s eye-rollingly funny (what are people thinking?!) and also a good reminder to not take criticism too personally, because some people are just never happy.
Business as Usual, by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford – You know I love an epistolary novel, and this is such a good one. A young woman in the 1930s gets the radical idea that she’ll spend the year of her engagement – gasp! – earning her living. She moves to London, gets a job in the book department of a thinly-disguised Selfridges, and details her exploits in pithy letters to her intended (who is unimpressed by her choice to be a working girl, to say the least). Ann Stafford’s delightful illustrations are the perfect pairing with Jane Oliver’s warm wit.
The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey – I’ve been meaning to read more Tey, and what better place to begin than with her best known book? Inspector Alan Grant, laid up in hospital after a serious injury while taking down a crook, occupies his mind by trying to solve the historical whodunit – did Richard III really murder the Princes in the Tower? And if not, who did? This was so much fun.
Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison – I’d read some of Morrison’s essays before, but never tried her novels. This is a family saga with a heavy dose of magical realism – and you know that I usually don’t like either of those things, but this beautiful book worked for me; I was entranced. If that’s not a testament to Morrison’s power as a writer, I don’t know what is.
A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr – This slim little novella is absolutely pitch perfect from the first word to the last. It’s gorgeous, and poignant, and… well, it’s just perfect.
2021 was a wonderful year of reading – although these are my ten favorites, they’re the tip of the iceberg. I read some really, really great stuff last year; may the trend continue.