The end of the year is almost upon us and looking back over 2021 I’m surprised to find I’ve read more books this year than for several years. Were they better books, faster reads? Surely not, more likely I was more motivated to read, and found – or made – better reading space in my life. Whatever the reason, I’ve been rewarded by rich and varied reading in the last 12 months, including more non-fiction than I’ve enjoyed for a long time.
The Man Next Door by Britt Holmström (1998)
I’m always in awe of an author who can write with such mastery in a language other than the one they were born into. As a first novel written in English, this is outstanding. But it is not only the accomplishment that makes it worth reading: it is a good story well told, full of that particularly dark Scandinavian foreboding. It’s also a study of mental instability, full of that awful tension that comes with watching someone teeter on the edge of the abyss. Find a copy and read it.
Pontoon by Garrison Keillor (2007)
This was a return to the once-familiar. Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon world has provided many happy hours of reading, now Pontoon joins that collection. Pontoon is a thoroughly enjoyable stay in Keillor’s fictional Minnesota town, always with a wry and acutely observed take on small-town America. If the series is new to you, don’t worry, you can pretty well dive in anywhere and lose nothing. Never laugh-out-loud for me, more a continuous smile, which is a very good recommendation. One day I’ll go back to Minnesota for more.
In The Shadow of Agatha Christie edited by Leslie S Klinger (2018)
This is a collection of crime/mystery short stories by female writers, who for the most part have disappeared from the history of the genre. The stories read today as curiosities, as momentary insights into what might have entertained Victorian readers. These tales have not aged well (as the likes of Sherlock Holmes have) and offer little to the modern reader beyond academic interest. Even without the incomparable Agatha Christie these authors and their work would likely have been long forgotten.
Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner (2005)
Did this lose something in translation? Is it a particularly French-Canadian take on life? Whatever the reason, this story spluttered like a misfiring engine, now running smoothly only to falter at critical moments, despite having an interesting premise (and so far as can be told, being well translated). Mine must be a minority view since it was well enough received to win a prestigious award. Which only goes to show that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the reader. It’s tempting to say don’t take my word for it, try it and make up your own mind, it does, after all, come highly recommended.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018)
An outstanding story told by a master among writers. It resonates all the more since it describes some of the postwar landscapes of London that were still recognisable to me in my youth. The characters of Warlight are not immediately familiar, and yet in a short time they become so. The reader quickly understands Nathaniel and his family, even though they’re highly unusual, all shaped and disfigured by their experiences of war and each other. The reader suspects that even without the war this family would have had another, similar, fractured history to relate.
The Wild Ass’s Skin by Honoré de Balzac
Picked up on a whim motivated by a moment of perceived self-improvement, this proved to be a difficult read, but ultimately worthwhile. It is surely a good thing to stretch your reading limits, and this certainly does. What does ‘well read’ really mean? Many would claim to be so, yet most of us have glaring gaps in our reading, particularly among the classics. This is a moral tale of excess in France of the 1830s, and full of melodrama. For today’s reader the form is too wordy, too laboured in making its points, yet it still manages to evoke sympathy for the main protagonist. Balzac was once ‘one of worlds’ greatest novelists’: of his time, perhaps.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
An astonishing novel, even half a century after it was written. This is an intense, sometimes excruciatingly raw account of a young woman’s life of pressured excellence. She’s a top student, fêted and acclaimed, yet that very success and expectation constrains her and leads to mental instability. Her breakdowns surely reflect the author’s own struggles, sometimes in agonising detail. This was purchased in order to plug another perceived gap in my ‘well-read’ credentials. It turned out to be so much more.
Superb. Read it.
The Piano Teacher by Janice Y K Lee (2008)
Prior to reading The Piano Teacher I knew nothing of Hong Kong’s story in World War 2 or in the years immediately following. This may be fiction but it certainly has the cold ring of truth about it. Beautifully written and rich in fully rounded characters, this is a story of unexpected love, deep hate, of quiet heroes and barbaric cruelty. It is also a story of intense loyalties and the inevitable betrayals. Highly recommended.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (in English 2014)
‘A Brief History Of Humankind’ is a short description that covers a lot of ground. In fact, it covers everything we’ve done since the dawn of man, which is no mean feat. This is no ordinary history, this is perceptive, incisive and hugely readable. Anyone who takes the trouble to read Sapiens cannot fail to understand more about themselves and the society they live in. The writing is excellent, the teaching is never force-feeding. With history texts like this even I might have gained more from my education. It’s never too late, read Sapiens.
Underland by Robert Macfarlane (2019)
What an extraordinary and unexpected gem! This is the apparently unpromising exploration of the worlds beneath our feet, the hidden and often unknown underworlds of mines and caves, of potholes and nuclear storage, of secret rivers and ancient art. And it is marvelous from beginning to end. The author has such affection and understanding of landscape, both above and below ground, has such a way of writing – of teaching – without once lecturing, that the reader is delightfully transported to unimagined places. Thank you for taking me where I would never dare go.
The Case Of The Murderous Dr Cream by Dean Jobb (2021)
There are many good things about Dean Jobb’s latest in-depth inquiry. Not least amongst them is the amount of research and investigation he’s clearly done: there can hardly be an aspect of Dr Cream’s life and crimes not covered. And it’s well written, giving the impression of witnessing events without straying into embellishment bordering on fiction. If there’s a criticism it concerns repetition. Too often events are retold as if new to the reader, too often you might wish for better editing. But it’s still a good read.
The Great Halifax Explosion by John U Bacon (2017)
The Halifax explosion of 1917 has become a study on mine recently, partly for my own writing research, which explains the presence of two such titles in my year’s reading. It remains a fascinating subject. In modern times the details have become little known, even among Haligonians but it is an incredible story. Many books have been published on the catastrophe but the source material is finite, so there is little that is original in this, as with other works. But it’s none the worse for that, it’s a good read and far better than some that cover the same subject.
The Halifax Explosion by Ken Cuthbertson (2017)
Published on hundred years on from the disaster that befell Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917, this is one of the best books on the subject. Not only does it include some unique source material, but it also adds a very human touch to the events and the main protagonists. It manages to retell the whole story from the most compelling point of view, that of the people directly involved. Here at last is an account which puts flesh on the bare bones of the catastrophe. Well researched, well written – if you read only one book on the subject make it this one.
There were also other, less remarkable, books in my year: One Good Turn, the slightly nerdy history of the screw; And Nothing Remains, a limp collection of short stories; The Art Flogger, a soulless tale of sex and violence.
But overall it was a year of excellent books, which makes choosing the book of my year all the more difficult. In fiction The Man Next Door and Warlight come immediately to mind, even though I read them early in the year. In non-fiction, Sapiens and Underland are both masterpieces, not only of writing, of research and knowledge, but of great readability. By the narrowest of margins the book of my year is Underland which took me to places I’ll never visit and never dreamed of, physically and figuratively.
Already waiting for 2022 are A Certain Justice by PD James, Final Spin by Jocko Willink and Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield. There’ll be other delights, as yet unknown, as well a smattering of duds, either way there’s much to look forward to.