Reading has long been one of my favourite companions – the joy that has accompanied me on relaxing holidays, helped me get through longhaul flights, comforted me in difficult times and educated me. It has opened new worlds to me and taught me things about myself.
I still recall my joy as a tiny tot on first discovering the treasures of our local library, and it was no surprise that I started my career working in public libraries – oh the riches to enjoy. And yes I can still remember the first book I ever borrowed; The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss, in fact I can see the cover and remember how big it was (I was quite small ;-)).
my favourite reads of 2021
Reading continued to be a valued companion in 2021, whether for escape from the realities and the challenges we have been living with, or to educate myself on subjects close to my heart – in this case women’s rights and stories have featured strongly, but not exclusively. I read over 30 books and I am sharing my top 10 here in the hope that you might find at least one book that appeals to you.
I’m not the world’s most serious or literary reader, but I have found myself reading some quite gritty fiction as well as non fiction – is that a sign of the times?
I have ranked all of the following, except Night Train to Varanasi, 5 starts out 5, and that makes me happy, I hate to waste my time on books I don’t find rewarding. I hesitate to use the word enjoy because one in particular was a really tough read, but definitely a 5 star all the same.
I share my reads on Goodreads which provides me both with a record of what I have read, but also recommendations from friends. It’s a great site to use.
MY BEST FICTION BOOKS 2021
THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN, BY LISA SEe
This was my absolutely favourite book of the year, adding to my desire to visit South Korea (and the Island of Jeju) when we can eventually travel again. As soon as I finished it I passed it to Rowan to read, he also loved it. It is a captivating and multi-dimensional story
Goodreads says “Set on the Korean island of Jeju, The Island of Sea Women follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds, as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. Over many decades—through the Japanese colonialism of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, the Korean War, and the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers—Mi-ja and Young-sook develop the closest of bonds. Nevertheless, their differences are impossible to ignore: Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marking her, and Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers. After hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point. This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a unique and unforgettable culture, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives”
My review was “I couldn’t love this book more. So many layers; the haenyeo story, the social structures, the personal story of the main characters, the history of South Korea. So beautifully written with extraordinary sparseness of words capturing each moment and situation. One to savour slowly.
infinite splendours, by sofie laguna
Sofie Laguna is one of my favourite authors, but not always an easy read. I have previously read two others of her novels, “The Eye of the Sheep” and “The Choke”
Goodreads says of Infinite Splendours ” Lawrence is a bright, kind and talented boy of ten years old when he is groomed and raped by his damaged uncle. The act severs Lawrence from himself. Like the stammer Lawrence develops, where words collide and are blocked, so is he. When Lawrence reaches early adulthood, he starts a friendship with the son of one of his workmates. He connects with the boy he once was, damaged beyond repair. At the heart of Lawrence’s desires is the longing to be made whole. But after he is savagely beaten by the boy’s father and his workmates, Lawrence decides to retreat from the world. He stays on in his mother’s country home, and lives as a hermit for the next thirty years. When a single mother moves into the abandoned farm next door to Lawrence with her teenage daughter and ten-year-old son, his isolation is shattered and he withdraws completely. But the mother asks him to get back to work on the vegetable garden he’d been tending on their land before their arrival. Her boy David is left alone at home a lot, and he and Lawrence begin a friendship.”
My review was “** spoiler alert ** I absolutely loved this book, which seems a strange thing to say given the subject of mental health and paedophilia. Sofie Laguna is a beautiful writer who really gets inside the head of her characters. Her ability to describe both the torture and the beauty inside the mind and life of Lawrence is exceptional. I was held spellbound and fearful until the very end and I loved the epilogue with its flickback to some of the tortured minds of the old masters who were brilliant artists. Steel yourself and read it.”
THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE, BY ABI DARe & RONKE ADEKOLUEJO
Another ‘women’s story’, this one set in Nigeria. A much less factual base than The Island of Sea Women but still a dip into another culture. An easy read with a compelling story line and a reminder to all women that we have the right to be heard.
Goodreads says of this book “The unforgettable, inspiring story of a teenage girl growing up in a rural Nigerian village who longs to get an education so that she can find her “louding voice” and speak up for herself, The Girl with the Louding Voice is a simultaneously heartbreaking and triumphant tale about the power of fighting for your dreams. Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her path, Adunni never loses sight of her goal of escaping the life of poverty she was born into so that she can build the future she chooses for herself – and help other girls like her do the same. Her spirited determination to find joy and hope in even the most difficult circumstances imaginable will “break your heart and then put it back together again” (Jenna Bush Hager on The Today Show) even as Adunni shows us how one courageous young girl can inspire us all to reach for our dreams…and maybe even change the world.
My review said this “I loved this book; the peek into another culture and a woman’s story, the uncertainties and the journey.”
the rain heron, by robbie arnott
Whilst I didn’t love Flames by the same author, I really loved this book. It’s almost impossible to summarise the plot line, but this is a great read by an Australian author.
Goodreads describes The Rain Heron “Ren lives alone on the remote frontier of a country devastated by a coup. High on the forested slopes, she survives by hunting and trading—and forgetting.But when a young soldier comes to the mountains in search of a local myth, Ren is inexorably drawn into her impossible mission. As their lives entwine, unravel and erupt—as myths merge with reality—both Ren and the soldier are forced to confront what they regret, what they love, and what they fear.”
My review “Oh my goodness, it is impossible to explain the impact this book had on me. It is searingly ugly and beautiful and confronting all at once. Incredible writing and a delightfully different non-formulaic plot. Totally refreshing, just read it. Meanwhile I will be thinking about it for quite some time.”
LOVE STORIES, BY TRENT DALTON
This is the third Trent Dalton book I have read. I loved “Boy Swallows Universe”, thought “All Our Shimmering Skies” too long, and really found “Love Stories” to be a beautiful heart warming read.
Goodreads says “Trent Dalton, Australia’s best-loved writer, goes out into the world and asks a simple, direct question: ‘Can you please tell me a love story?…..A heartfelt, deep, funny, wise and tingly tribute to the greatest thing we will never understand and the only thing we will ever really need: love”
My review read like this “If ever there was the perfect antidote to the world we are currently living in; this is the book. I’m not a huge fan of the short story genre, and this could be described as such. But in this case the format worked perfectly. This is a book to savour slowly. It may not be the author’s finest work but it gets 5 stars for being the book we need right now.”
Shuggie bain, by Douglas stuart
This was another gritty read and I was unsure how I felt about it at first; the introductory paragraphs were not enticing to say the least. But I ended up loving it and being so happy I persevered. It’s really a story of finding oneself despite very trying circumstances, and it is beautifully written
Goodreads says “Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings. Shuggie’s mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie’s guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings……”
My very brief review “There’s nothing comforting about this book, but the writing is superb and against the odds I loved it”. I think to write a lot more gives too much away. Give it a go.
The dictionary of lost words, by pip williams
Rowan read this first, really enjoyed it, and passed it on to me. I’m so glad he did, it is a book I would happily reread. I could imagine myself sitting in the Scriptorium. The story is based around the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the main character’s discovery of discarded words; words important to women but discarded by men.
Goodreads says “…..Set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It’s a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape the world and our experience of it.”
My review was “I absolutely loved this book; the beautiful sparse writing, the intertwining of fact and fiction, the background of emancipation and the suffragettes. Fabulous!”
my best non fiction books 2021
See what you made me do, by Jess Hill
Three books made it onto my non fiction best books list. I read quite a few more non fiction books, but honestly there is a lot of rubbish being published. I’m going to start with the most difficult book I read, perhaps the most difficult book I have ever read. I don’t do that to put you off but because I believe this to be a book everyone should read – women and men, and yes Rowan read it too.
Domestic violence is a crisis in Australia, and I suspect the rest of the world, but we tend to focus on physical violence and ignore coercive control and the other power plays that can be a gateway to physical violence. And yes women are also perpetrators.
Whilst I think everyone should read it there is obviously a trigger warning for sufferers, and I would also suggest you do not make this your bedtime read – it is way too disturbing.
How Goodreads describes this book: “In this confronting and deeply researched account, journalist Jess Hill uncovers the ways in which abusers exert control in the darkest – and most intimate – ways imaginable. She asks: What do we know about perpetrators? Why is it so hard to leave? What does successful intervention look like?”
My review read like this “This is such an important book, but not an easy read. I have read it in short bits because the subject matter is so harrowing. Jess Hill has left no stone unturned in her search for understanding of domestic violence; talking to victims, perpetrators, service providers, legal representatives. Everyone in Australia who cares about a decent society should read this book.”
Daring to drive, by manal al-sharif
There has over recent years, been plenty of media coverage about attitudes to women in Saudi Arabia and that they are not free to drive. Interestingly the author explains that, at least at the time of writing, there were no actual laws against women driving, but rather the fundamentalists choose to jail women such as Manal.
Goodreads describes the book as “Manal al-Sharif grew up in Mecca the second daughter of a taxi driver, born the year fundamentalism took hold. In her adolescence, she was a religious radical, melting her brother’s boy band cassettes in the oven because music was haram: forbidden by Islamic law. But what a difference an education can make. By her twenties she was a computer security engineer, one of few women working in a desert compound that resembled suburban America. That’s when the Saudi kingdom’s contradictions became too much to bear: she was labeled a slut for chatting with male colleagues, her teenage brother chaperoned her on a business trip, and while she kept a car in her garage, she was forbidden from driving down city streets behind the wheel.”
My review was brief “This is such a great read. I have long been fascinated by the Middle East, and particularly Saudi Arabia and the lives of women there. In a past life I also had some dealings with Saudi Aramco, the Company Manal worked at for many years. An incredible story and one to make me count my blessings.”
If like me you find the Middle East fascinating you might enjoy this book. Whilst it is awful in parts it is also incredibly illuminating. Ms Al-Sharif is now resident in Australia and describes herself as a liberal Muslim.
night train to varanasi, by sean doyle
I travelled in India in 1978, with a friend. We caught the train from Varanasi to New Delhi, so the title of this book immediately captured my attention, and I’m glad I read it. Whilst I only gave the book 4 stars out of 5, I think it is a worthy inclusion on my list, particularly if you have been to, or are interested in, India.
Goodreads has this to say “Travel writer and editor Sean Doyle has loved India for decades, so when his first-born, Anna, finishes high school, they set off on a two-month trip. She wants an adventure; he wants a holiday. But India is no cakewalk, especially for women: he’s nervous.
Night Train to Varanasi showcases Sean’s ability to reflect on his lived experience, shape it into a compelling narrative, and write in such a way that the particulars of his life become universals we can all relate to……”
My review was this “Reading this book is a bit like being in India; unwieldy, all over the shop, and in parts irritating. But like India it gets you in, gets under your skin. Part travel, history, religion and culture, part amateur philosophy, part family relationships, part self indulgence. Worth a read”
The year isn’t quite over so I’m hoping to finish one more book before tomorrow night. It’s “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles. I stopped reading it halfway through because I wasn’t loving it and I wanted to read Love Stories. I’m not sure how I feel about the Towles book, I am enjoying it more now that I am back into it.
Meanwhile I have 3 library books and 2 more Christmas gift books sitting by my bed. And I have 120 books in my ‘Want to Read’ folder on Goodreads. I wonder how I will go? I set myself a target this year of 30 books and have read 32 so far. Can I manage 40 in 2022?
Why do I think reading is important? Well not only for the entertainment and education, but also because we all need something to look forward to, and a good book can be just that 🙂