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December 2021: Our Favourite Books of the Year

By - 20 December 2021 - 10:51am

A twist on our usual 'Currently Reading' post

As the end of the year creeps ever closer, we’re compiling a list of our favourite reads of the year instead of our usual ‘Currently Reading’ post. What have been your reading highlights this year? Have you read any of the books that feature on our list?

Sian, Festival Director

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. Epic in every way - great storytelling and a lovely twist at the end. Her travel writing skills are evident in this global novel. Well-deserved Booker shortlistee.

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles. Having loved A Gentleman in Moscow, I finally read his first. Wonderful depiction of New York society between the wars with memorable characters. The intro really pulls you into what happened to the man in the photograph.

The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett. Thought-provoking exploration of our divided society, the implications of our decisions and the lies we tell.

Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam. Unnerving novel about what the end of the world might be like. Written before the pandemic, it really resonates.

Daisy Jones and the Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid. Written as an interview with the band members, it is based on Fleetwood Mac’s turbulent relationships. Not my usual choice and can’t now remember why I read it other than I kept on seeing mentions. Unputdownable for me.

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro. Not really my genre, but it is a fascinating and moving novel dealing with AI and its implications.

China Room, Sunjeev Sahota. Wonderful storytelling with two parallel, interlinked family stories set in India in 1929 and 1999.

Gini, Festival Manager

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett (2019), Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens (2018), Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead (2021), The Midnight Library, Matt Haig (2020), Oh William! Elizabeth Strout (2021), Klara and The Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro (2021), Still Life, Sarah Winman (2021), The Offing, Ben Myers (2019), Wintering, Katherine May (2020).

Sue Wall, Derby Book Festival Trustee and Interviewer

One of my most memorable reads of this year - China Room is a delicate, haunting book which lives on in your mind. I am a Sunjeev Sahota fan; with all his books, I am instantly immersed in the setting, the atmosphere - and the lives of the people. This is no exception - and the characters remain alive in my memory long after I’ve finished reading. Not necessarily an easy read, but subtle, entrancing, gripping - a deep insight into life in the Punjab, in modern times and in 1929.

Another book which stays with me is This Lovely City by Louise Hare - a murder mystery? A romance? A slice of Social History? A fantastic debut novel, about a Jamaican immigrant living in post-war London, and I still dwell on the final twist in the plot.

Rather more challenging, but again a book which stays with me, little scratch by Rebecca Watson. If you thought there was nothing new to be discovered in the world of writing, no new novel form or structure, think again! You are taken absolutely, directly, and instantly, into the thoughts inside the writer’s head, as she struggles to deal with memories and trauma. It is not a comfortable read, but gave me some insight into self-harm, and the working world of young women today. Definitely worth a bit of effort to get into this. No need to read it all at once either - dip in and out and you will still really appreciate the quality of the writing and the emotions underlying it.

There are so many more, but just a couple of mentions now. No surprise, given the unremitting depressing news, that both are retreats into “comfort reading”. The first surprised me. I saw the 2015 film of Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy, on the BBC recently, and decided to re-read the novel. I was completely gripped, absorbed, transported into the world of Wessex. Yes, a comfort read, and a return to English Literature at A level over 50 years ago, and yet it felt very fresh, and relevant today.

Finally, my “Go To Book” in a difficult year - E. M. Delafield and her Diary of a Provincial Lady. Forced to stay in touch with friends by Zoom over the summer, I introduced them to this classic - and had them laughing and forgetting Covid for a while. For younger readers (!), who enjoyed Lucy Mangan’s Are we having fun yet? at the Autumn Derby Book Festival, this is in the same genre, without the sharpness of modern life. Delafield takes you back to a safe world of servants and hats, where the biggest crisis is trying to find a new kitchen maid. Far enough removed from modern life to be pure comfort reading, and yet so many strands are relevant today - motherhood, marriage, not enough money, disapproving neighbours - some things never change.

Keith Donald, Derby Book Festival Trustee and Interviewer

Novel of the year:

My shortlist is between Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney. Both outstanding, both moving and both with characters who are challenging and entertaining. I learnt so much from both books. However, I have opted for Rooney’s book which I could not put down; the characters were mesmerising and alive and so relevant to us now. Rooney is becoming the Elena Ferrante of those writers whose native language is English. If you’ve not already done so, please read both novels ...

I was going to vote for Stuart’s book because of the missing “?” in Rooney’s title, but then some friends let me know that that would just be churlish. If anyone knows why the question mark is missing, please try to let me know.

The other books on my long list were At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, Sandro Veronesi’s book Hummingbird, and little scratch by Rebecca Watson. Rebecca was due to attend this year’s book festival, but that was cancelled; I hope to see her next year.

I discovered John Boyne this year, and I shall read more of his novels in 2022.

Non-fiction work of the year:

I read a lot of books on politics and quite a few autobiographies. I was gripped by Michel Barnier’s My Secret Brexit Diary, (which was not so secret), Samantha Power’s autobiography, The Education of an Idealist and Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. Power’s book is aptly named; her writing is crisp, open and honest and it is a gripping book.

However, my winner is Keefe’s book, which I finished last night. It is about the rise and fall of the Sackler family and the influence of their company, Purdue Pharma, on addiction to opioids, mainly in the U.S.; it is so well written, and often terrifying and sad, (usually at the same time). One of the lessons for me from the book, (and probably for all of us), is just how important it is to have independent regulators who oversee such important matters in our lives.

On the long list was Gordon Brown’s Seven Ways to Change the World.

Two quirky books got my attention this year too. I’m passionate about dogs and I loved Andrew Cotter’s book Olive, Mabel & Me. I could not put down Alistair Moffat’s book The Secret History of Here, a history of the area where he lives and since he lives just a few miles from me, Alistair was writing about the land where my dogs and I walk every day. (My dogs have yet to read it.)

On my list reading list for Christmas are There is Nothing for You Here by Fiona Hill, and Bewilderment by Richard Powers. I can hardly wait to dive into them.

Best Bookshop of the Year:

“Main Street Books” in St. Boswells is my choice for the breadth of the books in stock, the helpfulness of the staff and the general ambience of the bookshop. If ever I am feeling low in energy, I drive across and either do some retail therapy or sit in the delightful café and read. In fact, thinking about it, I tend to do both. It’s a delightful emporium of books; just to be there lifts my spirits, even if I did not think that they needed to be lifted. For those who cannot visit the bookshop, Main Street Books provides an excellent postal service. See for all the details.

Bookseller of the Year:

Ms. Vivian Bannerman, the assistant manager at “Main Street Books”. Through Vivian’s passion for reading, and her curiosity about literature and publishing, I have discovered many books which I would not have come across in my day to day reading. (Even The Guardian’s reviews are limited in number.) I’ve been a customer for several years and it’s great for me that Vivian and her colleague, Fran, know my reading habits so well by now.

Helen Bauer, Shared Writing Project Manager

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. The Winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction this year. As you would expect from the author of Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell, an intriguing and otherworldly story based in an amazing imaginary world.

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. A wild and wonderful exploration of all things to do with mushrooms, fungi, and lichens.

The Valley of Bones, The Soldier's Art, and The Military Philosophers' by Anthony Powell. After years of prevarication, I decided to read through the whole of Anthony Powell's 'Dance to the Music of Time' sequence as a summer reading project. The ones that stood out for me most were the trilogy set during the Second World War. I believe these were based on Powell's own experiences and they seemed to capture something of the reality in a way I had not read of before. Not much of the heroic here.

The Ratline by Philippe Sands. His follow up study to East West Street, based on the private family papers of Otto Wachter, who, as a high ranking Nazi officer from Vienna, oversaw the deportation of the Jewish population from parts of Poland and the Ukraine. The book follows the story of Otto and his wife before, during and after the war and also looks at how their legacy affected their family.

Felicity, Festival Administrator

It’s been a real reading-mix bag this year. I thoroughly enjoyed Expectation by Anna Hope. I couldn’t put it down. I adored The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. It’s a beautiful retelling of family life. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell was a haunting read that stayed with me long after I read it. The Mothers by Brit Bennett was everything I hoped it would be, and more. Know My Name by Chanel Miller was a sad but important read, I highly recommend it. Lies by T M Logan helped me out of a reading slump that dragged on throughout Autumn. If you love thrillers, T M Logan is the author for you.

What books are on your radar for 2022? We'd love to know your highlights from this year and what you're looking forward to. Let us know via our social media channels.

We'd also like to take this opportunity to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year!

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