I’m aware that the number of books I read pales in comparison to most, but I read more in 2021 than I did in 2020 so that’s a win. I’ve chosen 9 favourite books and 4 of them were re-reads for me. Because I enjoy re-reading and also because it’s just been that type of year. So without further ado, here are the books I enjoyed the most in 2021.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier I first read Rebecca about 10 years ago, so I was moderately apprehensive that it would not live up to the memory that I had of it. Thankfully, it was still filled with the tension, darkness, and stunning prose that I remembered. This time I also noticed the implied queerness of Rebecca that I had never picked up on before, which added a layer that I had not been expecting. The edition I read had an afterword by Sally Beauman that was fascinating. The real question: why had no one had previously informed me that du Maurier was bi?
Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad by Alice Oswald The Iliad is, quite simply put, the most important tale of all of human history. Alice Oswald strips back the poem, leaving behind only the skeletons of its characters. Every death is recounted. And, like in Homer, the lives that they led before the war are spilled on to the page. I will never tire of this poem.
The Paths of Survival by Josephine Balmer More poetry! Balmer traces back Aeschylus’ Myrmidons from the fragments left to us today, to when Aeschylus first wrote it. It’s about loss and memory and life and death. To me, it is also about queer love persisting through the ages, despite destruction. It ends with Balmer’s translation of Aeschylus’ Myrmidons , which is sublime. Fun fact: I attended a talk about this book by Josephine Balmer herself where she also read some of the poems. It was wonderful.
Now Is the Hour by Tom Spanbauer My eternal gratitude to Bert, who introduced me to Spanbauer back when I worked in Waterstones many moons ago. A queer coming-of-age story about escaping the confines of a conservative, strict, Christian household. Spanbauer’s writing is at times short, abrasive, and crass; at others it flows with poetry and sadness. It’s not for everyone, but it is for me.
New to me
Country by Michael Hughes Thank you, Rachel, for always having the best Iliad re-telling recommendations. Who knew that picking up Homer’s poem and putting it down in Northern Ireland during The Troubles would work? Well, Michael Hughes knew. Not just a favourite of 2021, but a favourite of all time.
The Dumb House by John Burnside I remember this book doing the rounds on BookTube several years ago, but I do like to be late to the party. Our narrator carries out his own version of the experiment of Akbar the Great to determine whether language is learned or innate, and how it relates to the human soul. This was utterly twisted and disturbing, all while being told in a calm and beautiful manner. I was hooked and had such a fun time.
An Oresteia by Anne Carson This is not Aeschylus’ Oresteia (as might be suspected from the Goodreads entry), but a collection of three plays that follow similar events: Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Sophocles’ Electra, and Euripides’ Orestes. Carson breathes such life into the characters of these plays and I devoured it. The plays themselves are outstanding and, let’s face it, it’s the events of the aftermath of the Trojan War so it is entirely my jam. The combination of such tragic tales with Carson’s sublime translation is a match made in heaven.
The Rules of Revelation by Lisa McInerney The third and final book in the trilogy that began with The Glorious Heresies. Where the second book, Blood Miracles, focused solely on Ryan Cusack, The Rules of Revelation brings back the characters that we got to know in the first book, along with a couple of newbies. I’d been long awaiting this book and the darkness, humour, pessimism, and grief that I loved so much in the first book were still there. There were also themes of gender identity that affected me deeply, but I don’t have the words to explain it. Nothing could live up to how much I adored The Glorious Heresies, but this came close.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers, #4) by Becky Chambers These books are so much fun and so soothing and just like being offered a hot mug of tea and being given a reassuring hug by a close friend. It was lovely in every way. A comfort series for sure.
Homer’s Iliad is one of my favourite works and I have always been particularly drawn to the scene where Priam sneaks into the Greek camp to beg Achilles for the return of the body of his son, Hector. I have always loved the humanity that is present in Homer; how he focused on the individual lives of those who were fighting the war. It is this episode that sums up what Homer does so well. Here we have two men, caught up in their aching grief and sharing that with each other as equals. It is in this moment that humanity shines through this bloody war of the gods.
In Ransom, David Malouf has taken this scene and transformed it into something new. The book mainly follows Priam, as he makes this unprecedented decision from the depths of his grief. Malouf shows us that whilst mourning is something that we will all have to go through at some point, we experience it differently. Priam cares deeply about all the sons he has lost to this war, but when he talks to his wife, Hecuba, he realises that she mourns for them on a different level. She remembers them as children. She remembers carrying them in her womb, teaching them to walk, the toys with which they played. Priam feels his loss deeply, but these are not the memories that he holds of his sons. He also grieves for his city and the dangers that the deaths of his sons may bring on his people and remaining family.
As for the grief of Achilles. Well, his grief for Patroclus is transformed into rage. If his lover is dead, then the world should die with him.
The ancient playwright Aeschylus once wrote a tragedy about the star-crossed lovers, Achilles and Patroclus. This play was called Myrmidons and, excepting a couple of fragments, it is now lost to us. We know that it followed Achilles when he was refusing to fight for the Greeks during the Trojan War, a decision that ultimately leads to the death of his beloved. The fragments we do have are filled with lust, love, betrayal, anger, hatred and despair. There are so many works from antiquity that I wish we still had access to, but I particularly feel the loss of this one. Thankfully, in The Paths of Survival, Josephine Balmer brings this work to life in an innovative and evocative way.
This collection of poems starts in the present day, at the Sackler Library in Oxford where Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2256 currently resides. Amongst these scraps of papyrus are some lines that are believed to be when Achilles’ is lamenting over the dead body of Patroclus.
[…For soon I will follow you do]wn Into darkn[ess]…
A Man Called Ove is yet another book that my mother has repeatedly told me to read, but which took me a long time to get around to reading. A Man Called Ove (originally En man som heter Ove) was first published in Sweden in 2012 and was translated into English by Henning Koch.
We first meet Ove, a 59-year-old grumpy man, in a computer store as he tries to buy a laptop. Or a computer. Or an iPad. Why are there so many different options? He doesn’t trust any of them. The sales assistants are rightfully annoyed and a little intimidated by his aggressive attitude. Despite this rather negative introduction to Ove, I couldn’t help but warm to him immediately. His demeanour made me smile. We follow Ove as his repeated attempts to end his life are consistently thwarted by his neighbours, who seem hellbent on interrupting him from this task. And how is he meant to kill himself when the circumstances aren’t correct? Gradually, we learn more about Ove, how he has ended up in this situation, and the impact that he has on the lives of those around him.
Sometimes, when life is stressful, you need a book that talks to you about trees and valleys and water. When I sat down on my lunch break and read the opening sentence of Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, I knew I had chosen the book that my soul needed:
The wind was rising, so I went to the wood.
Such a simple sentence. But one filled with such comfort.
In The Wild Places, Macfarlane sets out to discover if there are any truly wild places left in Britain and Ireland. Spoiler: there are. Each chapter focuses on a different natural form, beginning and ending with a chapter titled “Beechwood”. The chapters all follow a similar pattern and explore similar themes. Macfarlane tells the reader how different landscapes came to be, gives brief histories of different areas, describes his experiences of the wild place he is in, and touches on personal anecdotes from his life.
Having read and adored Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, I was in the mood for another re-telling of the Trojan War told from a female perspective. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes has garnered a fair amount of attention and I was drawn to the concept of focusing on several women’s stories, not just one. It’s a brave endeavour, but I don’t think Haynes managed to pull it off.
A Thousand Ships opens with a chapter told from the point of view of Creusa, who wakes in the night to find that her city is burning to the ground around her. She does not know the whereabouts of her son or husband. One can only imagine the panic that would be coursing through someone in this situation. However, what should have been an intense, frenetic start to this book lacked any urgency within the writing. Haynes told me that Creusa was scared, but the text did not show this. An otherwise frantic scene was reduced to a matter-of-fact narration.
Emily Wilson is the first woman to have published an English translation of Homer’s Odyssey and it is an exquisite piece of work. Before reading it, I had already read several of her twitter threads about the translation process. She discusses some of the challenges she faced during the translati on process and examines the choices that different English translators made in their versions. In these threads, she often brings to light the misogyny that runs through the previous translations by men. I’ve wanted to read this translation since its publication in 2017, so when The Silence of the Girls put me in the mood for some Homer I knew the time had come to re-read this epic tale.
The Odyssey is set after the Trojan War has taken place and follows the Greek soldier Odysseus on his adventurous return home to Ithaca. The Trojan War lasted for ten years. It takes Odysseus another ten to return home to his wife and son. Odysseus angered the god Poseidon, who punishes him by filling his journey with danger and treacherous obstacles. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, Odysseus’ wife Penelope has had her house overrun with suitors who, believing Odysseus to be dead, are pressuring her to choose one of them as her husband. Penelope faces her own battles as she struggles to keep the suitors at bay and longs for her husband to return.
There are some books that you know you want to read even though you can’t remember who recommended it. Books that maybe weren’t even recommended directly to you, but they’ve worked their way into your consciousness anyway. Maurice is one of those books. A cornerstone of Western queer literature that I had to read at least once in my life. I had high expectations going into this novel, which were only raised by the 4.02 rating on Goodreads. Thankfully, it did not let me down.
Maurice follows the titular character of Maurice Hall from his teenage years into adulthood, as he comes to terms with his sexuality and the effect that it has on his life. Maurice realises at a young age that he is attracted to men and he enters into his first homosexual relationship whilst at university. We are privy to the highs and lows of Maurice’s life and we discover with him how he is to live happily in this world as a gay man. In Maurice, Forster has written an affecting account of what it meant to be a gay man in Edwardian England and how difficult, but worthwhile, it is to learn how to accept yourself.
Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third book in the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers. This instalment follows a new set of characters in a different place in the universe. I loved the first two books in this series (although I did find A Closed and Common Orbit to be a little heavy-handed at times) and plan to keep reading them. Chambers’ art of focusing on the universal themes of friendship, loyalty and compassion in a futuristic, sci-fi world is heart-warming to read.
The first two Wayfarers books had little plot and focused more on the characters. Record of a Spaceborn Few followed in these footsteps and then some. What is this book about then? It is about people growing and learning and trying to find their place in the universe. We follow several characters who are all linked to each other in some way, although they do not all meet each other. Each character is struggling with the concept of who they are and what they want out of life. We grow with them as they make mistakes, try new things, meet new people, and gain a deeper understanding of what it means to belong.
I adore The Iliad. It is one of my favourite pieces of literature and holds a truly special place in my heart. In The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barkerre-tells this myth from the female perspective of Briseis, instead of focusing on the male characters’ stories. The character of Briseis has interested me for a long time, so I knew I wanted to read it at some point. Listening to Jean Menzies’ podcast episode with Pat Barker where they discussed the book (listen here: https://soundcloud.com/user-591915376/women-in-wartime) was the final convincing factor, so I was delighted to receive it as a Christmas gift from my parents.
Re-telling classical myths with a focus on female stories is a trend that I am all too pleased to see taking place. I hope that it continues. In The Silence of the Girls, Briseis is married to King Mynes of Lyrnessus. When their city is sacked by Achilles’ during the war, she is captured and becomes enslaved to Achilles. His war prize. Having lost everything, we follow Briseis as she learns to live in her new reality. We see her grief and her strength and are reminded that the stories of women are just as important as the stories of men.