Well, we all know that 2020 was a terrible year, so there’s not much need to explore why! While very fortunate in being financially stable and healthy during the pandemic, I have also obviously experienced the same restrictions and frustrations as everyone else, and have also felt sad because I don’t fit into the traditional ‘nuclear family’ model (with access to car!) that UK government policies seem to be targeted towards. After a very successful 2019, it’s been difficult coming to terms with the fact that I haven’t really been able to achieve anything ‘external’ this year: no publications, no conferences (after March), no visible progress towards a deal for my novel, no travel, no chance to really get to know colleagues at my new job. Even my roller derby has been cancelled indefinitely….
Snaps of a strange year. Peanut butter brownies by post in the spring; working on my time travel novel in the park in summer, thrilled to be allowed to sit (rather than just exercise) outside again; attending a Zoom cocktail party in December.
However, to be honest, I have found unexpected upsides during certain periods of the pandemic. Again, I recognise this is because of the sort of person I am and what I happen to be good at, rather than suggesting I have any kind of special resilience. My sister and I lived in rural Wiltshire during the second half of our childhoods, and often spent weeks seeing nobody other than our parents and each other, so I guess I have some experience in drawing on my own resources. Being forced to come to a halt in March made me realise how close to burnout I was with all my work and social commitments. I now can’t imagine going straight back to the life I used to lead, and I think that will be good for me long-term, however hard things are now.
One benefit of having to focus on internal validation, rather than external achievements, is that this has been potentially the best writing year I’ve ever had. (The only competition it has is the academic year 2004-5, when I was in my last year of sixth form and adopted a committed, daily writing-and-meditation routine that led to me producing two-thirds of my first serious novel, but it’s hard to compare the two, as then I was really inventing myself as a writer for the first time). This year, I’ve rewritten my time travel novel in response to my agent’s feedback to the point where it’s ready to submit to publishers, completely rewritten and restructured the first serious novel I mentioned above (cutting 40k words so it’s now a sensible length!), which is set in late nineteenth-century England, and knocked out 50k terrible words of my brand new Antarctic novel. (I imagine blog readers are either writers themselves, and so might care about my WIPs, or don’t care at all, but in case anyone wants to know more, I have brief summaries of each of these up on my Fiction page. I tend to refer to them as ‘nineteenth-century novel’, ‘time travel novel’ and ‘Antarctic novel’, but their proper working titles are, respectively, Of Others And Elizabeth, The Forest That Eats Bone and Old Ice.
Anyway, onto the books…
A couple of caveats: I have collected a LOT of 2021 proofs and e-ARCS that I’m super excited about, but I don’t like to include books I already own in this list. So don’t think that I’m not excited about Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew, Lisa McInerney’s The Rules of Revelation, Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising, Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual, Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl, and Megha Majumdar’s A Burning (among others), because I definitely am!
In this post, I’ve picked twelve 2021 releases that I am particularly looking forward to – almost all from the first half of the year, for obvious reasons – then, as always, added a further eighteen books that I want to read in 2021, whether they are new this year or not. There are a few I didn’t read from my 2020 list that I’m still keen to get to, so those are included in the last eighteen.
Anna North, Outlawed (January 2021). Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark was one of my top ten books of the last decade, so unsurprisingly I’m excited about her next novel, even though it sounds totally different. This follows a teenage girl who becomes an outlaw in the 1890s Wild West. The only reason I’m a little hesitant is because the last time I was super excited about one of my favourite authors unexpectedly writing a ‘feminist Western’, it didn’t quite work for me (Tea Obreht’s Inland). But I’m still very keen!
Erin Kelly, Watch Her Fall (March 2021). My usual Erin disclaimer: Erin tutored me on the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course I took in 2015-16, and has been so supportive of my writing ever since. However, fortunately I don’t have to be at all tactful when I talk about Erin’s books, because I genuinely love them. Her last novel, We Know You Know (previously published as Stone Mothers) was one of the best thrillers I’d read in a long time, and I can’t wait to read Watch Her Fall, which focuses on a ballerina who has somebody watching her from the wings…
Angeline Boulley, Firekeeper’s Daughter (March 2021). It’s very unusual for me to include a YA novel in this part of the list, but I’m so intrigued by Boulley’s debut, which focuses on an Ojibwe teenage girl who’s caught up in a covert FBI operation on her reservation. And what a stunning cover!
TL Huchu, The Library of the Dead (March 2021). I mean, this just has everything: a Zimbabwean teenager goes ghost-hunting in Edinburgh after a child goes missing, and discovers an occult library along the way. I sometimes find ghost stories ponderous, but this sounds like it will be offset by our protagonist’s cynical voice. First in a new series.
Maki Kashimada trans. Haydn Trowell, Touring The Land Of The Dead (April 2021). Kashimada is a well-established Japanese writer who won the Akutagawa Prize for this novella in 2012. This focuses on a wife who takes her damaged husband away to a luxury spa where her mother went when she was little. This Europa edition also includes a second novella by Kashimada, Ninety-Nine Kisses, about a younger sister obsessed with her three older sisters, which I think sounds even more interesting.
Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd (April 2021). I have an uneven track record with Kushner as a novelist; I was impressed by The Mars Room but struggled with The Flamethrowers. This collection of essays promises a selection of Kushner’s non-fiction over the past twenty years, including an essay on her experience competing in the notorious Mexican motorbike race, Cabo 1000. As a fictionalised description of this race was far and away my favourite part of The Flamethrowers, this grabbed my attention.
Jessie Greengrass, The High House (April 2021). I loved Greengrass’s autofictional Sight, which remains one of the best musings on motherhood I’ve ever read. The blurb of The High House wouldn’t appeal to me if it was written by somebody else: it looks at a family building an ark in a holiday home against the threat of climate change. I tend to avoid these kinds of stories simply because I’ve read so many of them, but if anyone can make this fresh again, it’s Greengrass.
Arifa Akbar, Consumed (June 2021). This memoir recounts the sudden death of Akbar’s sister from TB, and how Akbar later travelled to the places that she and her sister had explored, from Rome to Pakistan. There’s still too little written about the grief you feel for a death of a sibling, and although happily my only sibling is alive and well, it’s a subject that interests me because my time-travel novel is about the loss of a sister. No cover yet.
Becky Chambers, A Psalm For The Wild-Built (July 2021). I’m a big fan of Becky Chambers, so it’s great to see she has two new SF books out this year; the novel that concludes her Wayfarers Quartet, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (my review coming soon!) ,and this book, which starts a new series about robots living in the wilderness of Earth.
Nina Mingya Powles, Small Bodies of Water (August 2021) Powles, who is Malaysian-Chinese, won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize, which aimed to highlight the work of writers currently under-represented in nature-writing, for this book. I love the blurb: ‘From the rainforest waterfalls of Borneo to the wild coastline of New Zealand and the Ladies’ Pond in Hampstead Heath, this book explores migration, food, family and the bodies of water that separate and connect us.’ I’m keen to read more nature-writing that’s not by white people; I’m also very excited about Rahawa Haile’s In Open Country, which is about her experiences as a black woman walking the Appalachian trail, but I can’t work out when it’s getting published. No cover for Powles yet, either.
Lauren Groff, Matrix (September 2021). OK, this is the book that I’m most excited about this year. Just when I was saying I wanted to read a good novel about nuns, THIS came along, with the best blurb: ‘[in the twelfth century] seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey… at first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions.’ I’m so keen to read a book that explores how entering convents could help medieval women gain more autonomy, and books about all-female communities in general. My usual concern with a book like this would be that it would be overwritten and too weighty, but Groff’s sharp, contemporary prose should be the perfect match. No cover yet.
Bridget Collins et al. The Haunting Season (October 2021). I can’t get over how good the line-up in this collection of new ghost stories is: including Bridget Collins, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Elizabeth Macneal and Natasha Pulley! (I’m assuming because of Covid-19 they didn’t actually get together in person to discuss this book, but how much would I love to hang out with these people collectively). There are also a couple of writers I’m keen to try: Sara Collins and Jess Kidd. And as for Andrew Michael Hurley and Laura Purcell, who I haven’t had the best of luck with so far, perhaps they’ll pull it together for this anthology as well. No proper cover yet.
The Rest Of The List
Miriam Cohen, Adults and Other Children
Derek Owusu ed., Safe: 20 Ways To Be A Black Man In Britain Today
Kristen Schilt, Just One Of The Guys?: Transgender Men And The Persistence of Gender Inequality
Bruce Holsinger, The Gifted School OR Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman, Girls With Bright Futures (February 2021) [I want to read one book about pushy parents and school admissions, but probably not two!]
Emily Bernard, Black Is The Body
Martha Wells, All Systems Red
Charles Yu, Sorry Please Thank You
Mark O’Connell, Notes From An Apocalypse
Ben Lerner, The Topeka School
Julianne Pachico, The Anthill
Harriet Alida Lye, Natural Killer
Regina Porter, The Travelers
Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home
Nisi Shawl, Everfair
Hao Jingfang trans. Ken Liu, Vagabonds
Namwali Serpell, Stranger Faces
Caoilinn Hughes, The Wild Laughter
Carmen Maria Machado, In The Dream House