Like everyone else, I didn’t find 2021 the easiest year. As I pushed my way through it (much as one might hack through relentless thornbushes: with a lack of verve, but a certain sense of grim resolve), I found ways to take care of myself amid the sheer exhaustion. I threw myself into short power walks before collecting the children, and let wind and rain return the colour to my face. I baked: sweet, tangy blueberry cake, gently spiced carrot cake, chocolatey brownies and pizza dough were among my favourites. And, as always, I read prolifically. I found the library van early in the year and after a while the librarian and I began sharing recommendations. One day, I shared my table in Tesco cafe with the lady behind me in the queue. She noticed my book and we got talking about poetry and other things, too. And, as usual, there were all the online recommendations and reviews, also.
I read a lot this year, so narrowing it down to twelve favourites felt ruthless. But here they are:
For perfect recipes for blueberry muffins, chocolate brownies, cupcakes and more, the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook is pretty much unbeatable. I find these recipes both easy and delicious.
Another one for foodies is Grace Dent’s brilliant memoir, Hungry, which I wrote about here. She writes about her life with tenderness, tenacity and humour.
Whilst on the subject of memoirs, Xiaolu Guo’s Once upon a time in the East, (which I wrote about alongside Dent’s Hungry), was admirable, combining sophisticated writing with a fascinating story of strength and determination.
Rachel Held Evan’s Searching For Sunday is another memoir of sorts, in which she explores faith, doubt and the church. In it, she expresses so well her frustrations and disappointments as she fought to reconcile her values and questions with her experience of some versions of Christianity. I recommend this skillfully written book to anyone who has experienced faith and doubt, left a church or joined one (or led one, for that matter). Rachel died in 2019, and will be warmly remembered for her advocacy for the LGBTQ community, as well as her honest, vivacious writing. You can find out more about her and read her blog at http://www.rachelheldevans.com.
I was excited when my brother’s book came out back in May, partly just because my brother had a book out, and partly because of the book that it was. Regeneration, by Andrew Painting is a challenging, hopeful testament to the hard, long-term work of regenerating natural habitats, for their own sake and that of the wider world. I wrote about it here.
Being in need of comfort reads, armchair travel and escapism, I also read a lot of novels.
I have continued to work my way through Alexander McCall Smith’s charming series, The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, with its inimitable protagonist, kind, practical Mma Ramotswe. Set in sunny Botswana, these books feels like the literary equivalent of tea and cake, which Mma Ramotswe and her friends would very much approve of.
A novel that moved me was The Phone Box at the Edge of the World, by Laura Imai Messina, which I wrote about here. It’s a very human, hopeful book about grief, life and love.
I was drawn to a lot of books set in Europe, often in wartime, and one such book was Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot See. I was blown away by his writing and this beautiful, sad story will stay with me for a long time.
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole is a wartime romance told exclusively through the letters the characters write to one another. I was dubious about this form, but was proved wrong; I quickly became immersed in the story and barely noticed the form at all. I was impressed that it rarely felt overworked or contrived. The story itself has a beautiful mix of wildness, sadness, simplicity and sweetness.
Another European escape was A Song for Summer, by Eva Ibbotson, a romance set in Austria, told well if simply, with characters you root for throughout.
Notable for the timing at which I came across it, The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, by Deborah Rodriguez is a story about women finding their way in Afghanistan after Taliban rule. The news of the Taliban’s return to power a month or two after I read it was achingly sad.
Purple Hibiscus, a coming of age story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, found its way straight into my list of favourite books. Adichie is an exquisite story teller. Her characters are drawn with nuance and depth and everything is described so vividly. I love how human her writing is.
What were your favourite reads of 2021? What’s on your tbr pile for the new year?