Novel Readings 2021

I have done a year-end round-up of my reading on Novel Readings since I started blogging in 2007. Since Owen died, a lot of people have suggested to me that routines and rituals have value, and I am also trying to make myself act according to the principle I mentioned before, that “if something was worth doing before a crisis, it remains worth doing”—which is not to say that a post like this, or any individual post, is in itself especially worthwhile, but that perhaps Novel Readings itself is worth sustaining, and might be sustaining for me in some way as well. So in that spirit, here is a look back at the highs and the one big low of my reading in 2021.

Author of the Year

This doesn’t happen often for me, but it’s so much fun when it does: I read one book by an author that’s so good I promptly work my way through their other books and those are all really good too. Sarah Moss was an author like this for me a few years ago. In 2021 it was Jo Baker‘s turn. The first book of hers I read was actually The Body Lies, for my book club in February. I didn’t love it, but I found it really interesting, especially as a potential candidate for my seminar on women and detective fiction, because it is as much about the problem of how violence against women is represented in crime fiction as it is its own example of the genre. Our discussion piqued my interest in A Country Road, A Tree, which I loved, and that in turn convinced me to finally try Longbourn, which, against the odds, I also loved. Since then I have also read The Telling and The Undertow, and if her other two novels were more readily available in Canada I would have read them by now too.

Novel of the Year

The standout single book of the year for me was unequivocally Lonesome Dove. It gave me the kind of reading experience I am always looking for: immersive, affecting, thought-provoking. Close seconds were Whereabouts and Piranesi (neither of which, it’s worth observing, could be less like Lonesome Dove!) and maybe also Great Circle.

Non-Fiction of the Year

The best non-fiction I read in 2021 was Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five; a close second here was my colleague Dean Jobb’s The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream. Both writers impressed me by their ability to tell a sensational story without themselves sensationalizing it. Rubenhold especially is committed to freeing her subjects from the pernicious and voyeuristic glamor that too often surrounds their killer, restoring them to us in the clearer light of their own humanity.

Most Fun Reading Something Together

A great summer project was reading Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale along with Dorian and many others. An unexpected perk has been the lasting connections made with members of the Arnold Bennett Society.

Late to the Party

After giving up on Conversations with Friends back in 2019, I had something of a conversion to Sally Rooney in 2021, starting with Normal People (for me, the difference was ‘hearing’ it in my head in a lilting Irish accent) and then extending to Beautiful World, Where Are You, which I appreciated very much as a novel about people trying to think seriously about serious things.

Gentlest Novel

If I were going to recommend just one book I read in 2021 to as many people as possible, Leonard and Hungry Paul would be the one. What a lovely novel, sweet but not saccharine, funny but soft. I didn’t write much about it myself, but my post links to Dorian’s much better one.

Most Unlikely Success

A Trollope novel but with dragons? It shouldn’t work, but somehow Tooth & Claw does—it was lots of fun.

Best Re-Read

Affinity: it remains my least favorite Sarah Waters novel—but because she’s so brilliant, that still means it’s better than most other novels.

Absolutely, hands down, the worst book I read in 2021

Lucy Ellmann’s Things Are Against Us.

I read plenty of other books too; another year-end ritual is updating the Novel Readings index, something I’ll probably get around to before too much longer, as it’s just the kind of relatively mechanical task that appeals to me right now.

If December had ended differently and I had completed this post ‘on schedule,’ I would have concluded it, as I usually do, with a look ahead at some of my most anticipated reads of 2022. For the first time in my life, however, I am not really feeling like a reader. It’s not just that I’ve been having trouble concentrating since Owen’s death: it’s that, for now, the lure of books is, not gone, quite, but very faint. A couple of days ago I decided to practice reading again with a book I’ve loved for decades, Dorothy Dunnett’s Pawn in Frankincense. I think it’s working, sort of: at any rate, looking at its familiar pages reminds me of loving to read, which is a start. Beyond that, I’ll just have to see how things go.

8 thoughts on “Novel Readings 2021

  1. Rebecca H. January 18, 2022 / 10:52 am

    Yay for Leonard and Hungry Paul! I’m so glad you loved Whereabouts too. At some point, I will pick up Lonesome Dove. It’s so different from what I usually read, but I don’t think that matters — I have a feeling I’ll love it too. I’m glad to have read your round-up and hope that writing it and writing here are helpful for you.


  2. Peter Leyland January 18, 2022 / 10:59 am

    I’ve always wanted to read Lonesome Dove Rohan and you have convinced me to look out for it. I published an article at the end of last year on ‘The Companionship of Books’ about how we can turn to novels and poetry in times of trouble and I’m sure you know this idea well. Keep reading. Peter


  3. ecshowalter January 18, 2022 / 11:17 am

    Have you read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles? Absorbing, distracting.


    • Rohan Maitzen January 18, 2022 / 6:29 pm

      Not yet: the first volume was actually on my Christmas wish list and a kind friend has given me a gift card to a local bookshop that has it in stock in the pretty new edition, so maybe I should go get it. Thank you for the suggestion.


  4. mementominnie January 18, 2022 / 2:29 pm

    Try Learwife for an absorbing ,poetic,violent,occasionally funny story of grief and betrayal.Queen has been exiled in a convent for fifteen years..ostensibly for failing to bear a son.But with the death of the King and all her daughter’s she wonders why she is still being imprisoned.By involving herself in the election of a new abbess Queen hopes to find out.Do try it..will take you out of yourself for a couple of hours.


  5. Colleen January 18, 2022 / 2:34 pm

    I very much appreciate your yearly roundups, Rohan; you’ve introduced me to more than one author I now count among my favourites. I am going to hunt down copies of Leonard and Hungry Paul and A Country Road, a Tree; especially the first one for being sweet and gentle. I’m reading a relatively sweet and gentle, second-tier Victorian novel right now: The Astonishing History of Troy Town by Arthur Quiller-Couch; I’m happy to send it to you when I’m done if it remains so.


  6. kerryclare January 18, 2022 / 5:10 pm

    For the record, I agree about THINGS ARE AGAINST US. I really liked her DUCKS, but this book was awful, self-indulgent, and I could not be bothered to finish it. So I didn’t!


  7. susan messer January 21, 2022 / 4:06 pm

    There’s something so comforting and centering about compiling a list. Thank you for doing this.


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