My Top Ten Books of 2021

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2020 post here, my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

A note: I feel like 2021 has been one of my worst reading years for a long time, not in terms of the number of books I read, but the quality – or perhaps I was just very bad at picking books that suited my mood. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was struggling to find books for my top ten rather than struggling to choose between them. These books are still all great, but I’m hoping to have a better reading year in 2022.

In no particular order…

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1.My Dark Vanessa: Kate Elizabeth Russell. I held off from reading My Dark Vanessa for a long time, convinced that there was nothing new to add to the vast number of recent novels that deal with coercive, abusive relationships. But this collaboration between Russell and her teenage self made a huge impact on me. I reviewed it here.

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2.Light Perpetual: Francis Spufford. I loved Spufford’s clever and inventive Golden Hillbut I thought this was even better. Many readers and reviewers seem to have misunderstood its ‘alternative timeline’ conceit; it’s not a Sliding Doors type book, but kills off its ordinary protagonists at the beginning so we can feel the weight of their loss, even though they make no direct impact on history. I reviewed it here.

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3.A Deadly Education: Naomi Novik. Novik’s Spinning Silver was one of my favourite books of 2020, and this very different, but utterly delightful novel took me back to being a pre-teen reading the early Harry Potter books for the first time, although the narrative voice also reminded me of one of my adult SFF favourites, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. I reviewed it here.

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4. In This House of Brede: Rumer Godden. 2021 was the year of novels about nuns for me, and although there were some other nun novels that I really enjoyed (such as Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts), this was the best of the bunch. Set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s, this novel centres on new recruit Philippa, but expands outwards to give a portrait of the entire community. I reviewed it here.

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5. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: George Saunders. This is probably the best book I’ve ever read about fiction-writing, even though it’s centred on a series of classic Russian short stories which I am not especially interested in. I’ve now signed up for Saunders’s online writing course on substack, Story Club.

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6. Slow River: Nicola Griffith. Nicola Griffith can’t put a foot wrong with me; this is the third time in a row she’s appeared on my top ten books list (after Ammonite in 2019 and Hild in 2020). Slow River is not only the best SF novel about sewage treatment I’ve ever read, but features a truly compelling central character and a skilful back-and-forth structure. No idea what’s going on with the cover of this edition.

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7. Transcendent Kingdom: Yaa Gyasi. What an incredible, cerebral, emotional novel. It’s brilliantly written, handles so many interesting ideas, and yet is so vibrant and human. I loved the protagonist, Gifty. I reviewed it here.

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8. Little Gods: Meng Jin. This is another one with a great, complex protagonist, which seems to be something I’m really looking for in novels at the moment: Su Lan is only the more fascinating because her story is told through a series of other narrators, and we never hear from her directly. I reviewed it here.

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9. Breasts and Eggs: Mieko Kawakami. This took me such a long time to read, but it was such a worthwhile experience. This strange, meandering novel about lonely writer Natsu has a great deal to say about parenthood and our responsibilities to the next generation. I wrote briefly about it here.

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10. In The Dream House: Carmen Maria Machado. Squeaking in just under the wire… I raced through this memoir between Boxing Day and New Year, hugely impressed by Machado’s ability to weave together self-narrative, fantasy, and academic reflections on how abusive relationships between women have been (not) written about before. Everyone who recommended this to me was right.

Reading Stats

I read 153 books in 2021. Slightly more than 2020, but quite a few less than my 2019 record, 175. This is pretty much where I want to be, so in 2022, I’ll again set a target of 150. However, I’d also like to start keeping track of how many books I re-read. This year, 11 of the books I read were re-reads, and I’d like to see that number go up in 2022.

I read 125 books by women (including one trans woman), 27 books by men, and 1 book by an author who identifies as non-binary.  This means I read the same percentage of books by men as I did in 2020 – 18%. I usually say I don’t care about upping the number of books I read by men, but this article has made me realise that I really want to read more by men of colour. Therefore, I’ve tried to include lots of books by men of colour in my 2022 Reading Plans, which will be up tomorrow. I also still want to read more from trans men, despite reading 0 books by trans men this year!

I read 43 books by writers of colour and 110 books by white writers. This means the percentage of books I read by writers of colour has dropped a little since 2020, to 28%. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2022.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

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19 thoughts on “My Top Ten Books of 2021

  1. so glad you loved In the Dream House! i have such distinct memories of reading (and loving) it at the end of 2019 (simpler times ..). also i havent checked out anything by Nicola Griffith before, though ive had my eye on Hild for a while 👀 (mostly intimidated by its length lol). i hope you have better luck with your reading next year!! ☺️

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  2. Such an interesting top ten. I couldn’t get on with the Saunders, but I’m a reader rather than writer. I liked the Spufford – rather than misunderstanding, I didn’t initially see why he bothered killing them all off, but upon reflection – I’m with your description of it.

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    • It’s a bit of a weird one as the first, shorter section was originally issued as a stand-alone novella, then the second, much longer section was added. The same protagonist links them but there’s not a lot of follow through with some of the other characters. Then, in the long section, there is a central thread about motherhood and sperm donation, but I wouldn’t call it a plot as such 🙂

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  3. An excellent list! I have to get and read Transcendent Kingdom in 2022. Once I’ve dealt with some of the more frightening excesses of my TBR. You’ve reminded me I have a nun book on the back shelf I need to get at, too (Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden). Happy reading in 2022. Some books by Black men on my blog that might interest you. The new Black British Lives Matter ed. Lenny Henry looks really good for an overview, although you’ve undoubtedly made your list by now (I have Fallen Behind because I had a day with a slightly scary optician appointment and a dilated pupil afterwards which ate into prime blog reading time (I’m OK)).

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    • Ah, I tried Black Narcissus and found it utterly different from In This House of Brede, and couldn’t get into it. I hear Godden has written even more nun books though! Transcendent Kingdom is just fantastic, I can’t recommend it enough. Black British Lives Matter looks like one for my book club, will make a note. Glad the optician appointment was OK in the end!

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  4. Lots of books on here that I love, and a lot I need to check out! You’ve convinced me to give Light Perpetual a try. And I’m right there with you in having a relatively underwhelming reading year in 2021. Fingers crossed 2022 brings us better things.

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    • Yes, we definitely seem to have had a similar experience! I feel like I have a lot of exciting reads lined up for January, so hopefully that will be a good start.

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  5. Pingback: July Superlatives | Laura Tisdall

  6. Pingback: August Superlatives | Laura Tisdall

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