A brief overview of our favourite books of 2021.
2021's Best Reads (According to L&L)
The winter holidays are fast approaching; it’s the season of gift buying and frantic preparation, followed (hopefully) by an opportunity to curl up with a good book. To help inspire your choice of reading material - or for those of you who are desperately looking for a last minute gift for the book-lover in your life - we asked everyone at L&L for their favourite reads of 2021. The resulting recommendations span everything from old classics to new writers, and cover a real variety of genres. We hope they provide some inspiration - let us know if you have any 2021 favourites of your own.
Alex - Tech Support
If you’re into YA, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner really snuck up on me this year. This is a novel about three troubled friends who are forced to confront the inevitability of endings as they approach high school graduation. Warning: it will make you cry. If you’d rather laugh and you’re a fan of footnotes, check out Jenn Lyons’ A Chorus of Dragons series. This witty epic fantasy saga about a street-urchin-turned-long-lost-prince takes place in a richly imagined world full of morally grey characters, delicious conspiracy, and of course, mythical creatures. Here’s to more dragons in 2022!
Kirk - Podcast Host and Contributing Writer
For the first time ever, I kept a list of the books read during the year. At the time of this writing, I'm at 128, with two weeks to go.
Several books stand out for me, starting with a pair of books that I reread. The first was Dai Sijie's charming 2000 novel Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress). I knew Dai when he was a student in Paris in the late 1980s, and this wonderful novel shows the power that great books can have to a threesome of young people in rural China during the cultural revolution.
I also re-read Julian Barnes' 2008 memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which is one of my favorite books about life and death. In this memoir on mortality, Barnes discusses the loss of his parents, his growing up, and his becoming an atheist ("I don't believe in God, but I miss him," is how the book begins), and he deals with the subject often with the deadpan humor he is known for in his fiction. The audiobook is especially interesting, as it is read by the author.
In contemporary fiction, I enjoyed Dave Eggars' recent The Every, about a tech company that creates apps that have profound effects on people's lives. A sequel to his 2013 novel The Circle, this novel acts as a warning about big tech and its pernicious effects.
David Hockney's Spring Cannot Be Cancelled is an illustrated book, written with his friend and art critic Martin Gayford, describing how, just before lockdown, Hockney bought a house in Normandy, planning to create a series of iPad artworks as spring arrived. The book became a reflection on life, art, and pandemic, and its companion volume, The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020, is a lovely catalog for the exhibition of these works at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Finally, I was entranced by Maggie Shipstead's Booker-shortlisted novel Great Circle, a novel of love and loss and adventure, focusing on a woman pilot in the early days of flying, and an actress portraying her in the present. It was a pleasure to discuss the novel with her on an episode of the Write Now with Scrivener podcast].
Vicki - Tech Support
I’ve been devouring romantic fiction this year because I haven’t been able to face anything without a guaranteed happy ending. One book that stands out for me is Take a Moment by Nina Kaye, featuring a heroine whose life is turned upside-down by a devastating diagnosis. Nina Kaye handles a difficult subject with a deft touch, not flinching from the realities of coping with a life-changing illness yet creating an uplifting, warm and witty read. Overall, a story that will stay with me for a long time.
Although Pride and Prejudice is one of my favourite books, I’ve been hesitant to read the various sequels that have appeared in recent years. I don’t know what made me pick up The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow, because of all the Bennet sisters, Mary – the heroine of this book – was my least favourite. I say ‘was’ – thanks to this book, she’s now second only to Elizabeth in my view. It’s fun to read the familiar story of Pride and Prejudice through Mary’s eyes – the introverted, unlovable and unloved sister. Yet the story really comes into its own when the events of P&P finish and Mary is faced with making a life for herself on her own. The story moves to London and the Lake District, and it was a sheer joy to follow Mary’s story as she emerges from her shell and learns that maybe she does deserve love after all.
Ruth - Tech Support
P. Djeli Clark's A Master of Djinn returns readers to the author's steampunk version of Cairo circa 1912. In Clark's debut novel, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities tasks dapperly dressed Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi with investigating a murder. The novel mixes characters from Middle/Near Eastern mythology with pre-World War I global politics and magical machines. If readers enjoyed Clark's two novellas set in this world, this novel gives them more to explore. For readers looking to expand their fantasy reading list to include a more diverse worldview, Clark's book will offer a fresh take on speculative fiction.
Jen - Tech Support
In a world where magically gifted children are hunted by malicious creatures who want to suck up all of their mana, parents have two choices: 1) take your chances in the outside world and keep your children as locked away as you can, or 2) send your children to the Scholomance, a boarding school for magical children where many children still die, living conditions are terrible, and the students won’t be able to see the outside world again until they survive graduation. If you’re lucky enough to get a limited spot in the Scholomance, you choose option 2, because even though it’s not a good option, the first option is a death sentence.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik is a first person novel following El, a girl with a powerful and destructive magical affinity. Her sullen personality may not win her many friends or favors in a school where friends are favors are almost a requirement for survival, but her power may be enough to help her pass her deadly education and get her back home.
I fell in love with El’s rich voice, nuanced personality, and propensity to explain everything—this is not a book that waves a hand and uses magic as a generic explanation! Novik weaves a complex, interesting, and relatable world of high stakes, flawed relationships, and important life lessons. Books 1 and 2 are out, but the final instalment is forthcoming.
David - Director, Sales
Following Bill Bryson’s thorough investigation into A Short History of Nearly Everything where he shines an elucidating light onto subjects ranging from spectacularly tiny quarks to the creation of the universe, he goes inward with The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Truth be told, I’m only marginally over two-thirds of the way through this journey, but I’m not anticipating any unsatisfying plot twists or a less than fulfilling ending. Bill’s books are always a joy to read whether his topic is Shakespeare or the quirks of Great Britain, and The Body is no different. Learning how to build a human (or the monetary worth of the elements that we’re comprised of), reading a footnote regarding 20/20 vision, getting a better appreciation of exactly where the heart is positioned (not that far left), or a starter on the immune system in these trying times (I’ll add another recommendation of Immune by Philipp Dettmer), when time permits The Body is a wonderful diversion. I’m looking forward to some downtime over the Christmas period and finally finishing the sections on conception and birth, nerves, pain and diseases. A cheery finale! Recommended stocking filler if you happen to have a sizeable stocking to fill.
Julia - Director, Marketing and Strategy
Not one for everyone’s taste in the midst of a pandemic but excellent nonetheless is Christina Sweeney-Baird’s debut thriller The End of Men. Completed just before Covid hit, it’s an exceptional and eerily prescient account of the response to and effects of the outbreak of a killer virus - in this case, one that wipes out 90% of the male population. Spanning six years from first outbreak to post-pandemic, the story is told from the perspective of several narrators, each as interesting as the next - a narrative device that’s often hard to get right. Yet each character is both believable and sympathetic and the plot is very tightly written, keeping the reader interested until the very end. Both heart-rending and uplifting with its message about the various ingenious ways people can salvage joy from the ashes of even the bleakest situations, as a first novel it’s superb. She’s definitely an author to watch and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking to be transported elsewhere (and especially if you want to feel slightly better about your own holiday / vacation situation), Summerwater by Sarah Moss is a collection of linked narratives from the point of view of the various inhabitants of a rather bleak, rain-swept, run-down and wish-you-weren’t-there collection of Scottish holiday cabins. The various characters, each with their own worries and hidden motivations, give us an intimate insight into the dynamics of those within each cabin, tying together as an undercurrent of mistrust and intolerance builds to a climax.
Ian - macOS Developer
Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science by Stuart Ritchie (published: 2020)
The sciences - and academic psychology in particular - have been getting attention in recent years from people pointing out that various scientific 'findings' may not be so much 'found' as 'made up', sometimes deliberately but more often because of mistakes, short-sightedness and sharp practice. Ritchie, a psychologist, takes us on a tour of dodgy findings and over-interpreted results, as well as providing pointers about how the situation can be improved; these boil down to lessening the pressure to publish and educating scientists about how research methods can be used and abused. This isn't a dry read; it's punchy and filled anecdotes. Wait till you hear how far former social psychology professor Dederik Stapel went to make up his data. And, of course, it’s timely. If ever we need people to collect and analyse data correctly, it's now.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (published: 2021)
Clarke recently revealed that she has been living with chronic fatigue syndrome, which explains the relative dearth in her output since Johnathon Strange & Mr Norrell, a book that burst onto the scene in 2004 with praise from, among others, Neil Gaiman: "I loved the things she said and the things she did not say". Piranesi is not a sequel as such. This wonderful, slim book deliberately eschews painstaking world building for an intriguing and creepy tale of an amnesiac trapped in a sprawling, Georgian mansion--endless in all directions--that stands in an unrelenting sea. I won't say any more for fear of spoiling it. The book reminded me of Alexander Sokurov's film Russian Ark, Flowers for Algernon, and The Museum of All Shells from Richard Dawkins's Climbing Mount Improbable. And a certain Italian architect.
Billy Summers by Stephen King (published: 2021)
Being a Stephen King completist, I would be reading this whatever the reviews, but they happen to be stellar, and this is indeed a star turn. King has been writing high-quality genre fiction since he was a teenager and Billy Summers displays his absolute mastery of the thriller form while adding a satisfying and thoughtful post-modern spin. The setup is simple: nice-guy-but-is-an-assassin Billy Summers is persuaded to do one last hit on behalf of a criminal gang. As cover, he takes on the mantle of a would-be memoirist writing his life story, and finds friendship in the community where he lives in the months leading up to the hit.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (published: 1926)
I'd been saving this one for a while; it's the last of his works published in his lifetime that I hadn't read and, spurred on by the recent six-hour documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, I thought it was high time to read it. You either love Hemingway's prose or you hate it. I love it, and this book is full of it. The story follows a group of ex-patriots travelling from Paris to Pamplona, Spain, for the fiesta. Apparently, it's based on a real trip that Hemingway took in 1925 with some friends. I do wonder if they remained friends, given their thinly fictionalised and somewhat brutal treatment in this book. Still, it might rank as one of the high points of twentieth century literature; it's compelling, well observed, beautiful and bold, and seems to achieve Hemingway's aim of making the reader feel like they are living as the characters.
Astrid - Tech Support
2021 turned out to be rather a disappointing year for my reading. Acclaimed masterpieces of modern literature fell flat, lightweight bestsellers failed to engage, and personal recommendations seemed off-kilter somehow. Then eye surgery ruled out recreational reading for a while, although I hope to make up for that over the festive break. Standing out from the general sense of anti-climax, four books in particular really hit the mark for me. I’d highly recommend the following, all of which I found engrossing and memorable in their own distinctive ways, and all of which I plan to re-read in the future:
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
Doggerland, by Ben Smith
Pompeii, by Robert Harris
The Reader on the 6.27, by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent
Keith - Director, macOS and iOS Developer
As usual, this year’s reading has been a mix of newly-published books, older books read for the first time, and re-reads.
Of the books published this year, my favourite is perhaps the word-of-mouth hit of the summer: Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, about a young woman with an unnamed (and fictional) mental health issue and its effects on her relationships. That makes it sound like heavy reading, and yet it somehow manages to be very funny. The warm humour and likeable characters put me in mind of David Nicholls, and also of Lisa Owens’ Not Working.
In a similar vein, I enjoyed Emily Austin’s Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, the comedic tale of a depressed atheist lesbian who, through a misunderstanding mainly of politeness, finds herself in a job at a Catholic church and begins to suspect the priest of having murdered her predecessor.
Elsewhere this year, even though I may have wanted to pitch at least three of the four main characters into the Irish Sea, I could not but admire some of the writing in Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You?, in particular the elements cleverly borrowed from film and TV, such as the zooming in from the end of a street to the characters’ bedrooms, and the same-paragraph montages that flit between Alice and Felix’s everyday lives. Based on its opening chapters, I expect Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water will belong on this best-of-2021 list too, once I have finished it.
I’m a sucker for interrelated short stories such as David Szalay’s All That Man Is and Turbulence, so Sarah Moss’s Summerwater, about a disparate group of tourists staying next to a loch in post-Brexit Britain, was right up my street, as were Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout, which I somehow only discovered this year. I look forward to diving into the Lucy Barton books in 2022.
Silas Marner was the classic I read and loved for the first time this year (perhaps surprisingly given that I was born in a hospital named after its author) and Emma my re-read of the year. Mrs Elton’s strawberry-picking speech makes me laugh every time.