Thursday, 16 December 2021

Books of the Year 2021

2021 been another incredibly difficult year for so many. Some of our Books of the Year confront those difficulties head on - others offer a glorious escape. All are jewels in their own right.  

With links to our full reviews.


Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden



How do you even begin to talk about a book like Mrs Death Misses Death? It is a book that defies description, let alone comparison.

It is, at its core, an uplifting meditation on the nature of death. Structured more like a mind-map than a novel, it branches out in multiple directions, using poetry and prose, narrative, monologues and conversations.

The book captures the sense of existential crisis so many of us felt, even before Covid-19 took over our lives. “What is wrong with everyone?” Wolf rails. “I am not catastrophising. This is a f*** catastrophe. […] Maybe I’m crying because you aren’t crying with me right now, because you just aren’t mad enough.”

But the book is also incredibly life affirming. Because if life is short and death is inevitable, then is up to us to live it in the best way be can. As Mrs Death exhorts us, “you all need to be heroes, to step up, to speak up, to support each other.”

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/02/mrs-death-misses-death-by-salena-godden.html



And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando



And The Stars Were Burning Brightly shows, with deep compassion, how suicide, especially unexplained suicide, tears a hole through the hearts of friends and family. Nate is an utterly believable character; it is impossible to read this and not care about him deeply. Al too comes to vivid life on the page, despite the fact he dies three days before the story opens.

Jawando brilliantly captures the way that social media can come to dominate the lives of young people: from unrealistic body images it portrays, to the compulsion to share every minute of every day, the constant intrusion of notifications – and above all the savage cruelty that at times it unleashes and enables.

Yet the author also shows how the internet allows voices to be raised up and shared across the world.

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly is an extraordinary book that highlights the appalling and relentless pressures that can be piled onto teenagers in this age of social media. It comes as no surprise to learn that the novel is based in part on the author’s own lived experience.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/04/and-stars-were-burning-brightly-by.html


First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi


Set in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin, the Ugandan-Tanzanian War and their aftermath, The First Woman is the story of Kirabo, a young woman from a rural community walking a tightrope between tradition, Europeanisation, and Amin’s despotism.

Makumbi’s masterful text manages to balance regret for the loss of what was good in traditions driven out by Christianity and Europeanisation, with a trenchant critique of the patriarchy and internalised misogyny embedded in traditional Ugandan communities.

Just as the oral story-telling traditions the young Kirabo aspired to wove life-lessons into spell-binding tales, Makumbi weaves commentaries on colonialism, patriarchy, colourism and internalised misogyny into this tender coming of age story.

Winner of the 2021 Jhalak Prize.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/04/the-first-woman-by-jennifer-nansubuga.html


The Yield by Tara June Winch


After a long absence, August is returning to her home in Massacre Plains, a remote part of central Australia, to attend the funeral of her grandfather, Poppy Albert. But when she gets there, she finds that even her families last fragile hold on what used to be their ancestral land is threatened by the development of a tin mine.

Written by indigenous author, Tara June Winch, The Yield explores the intergenerational impact of colonialism – but this time through the lens of an Indigenous people who were all but wiped out by white settlers in the course of their insatiable land grab. It also reflects on how ignorance and the wilful rejection of traditional knowledge and practice has led to the destruction of a delicate ecological balance.

Achingly beautiful. A devastating tally of the cost paid by the relentless drive to expand European ‘civilisation,’ yet containing within it a small flame of hope that some of what has been lost can still reclaimed.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/06/the-yield-by-tara-june-winch.html


At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis


At Night All Blood Is Black
is the English-language title of Frère d'âme (lit, “the brother of my soul”), a novel by the French author of Senegalese extraction, David Diop. With his English translator Anna Moschovakis, Diop won the 2021 International Booker Prize for this – the first French-language novelist to do so.

Set in the trenches of the First World War, the novel reveals the terrible damage war can wreck on the human mind – as well as reminding us that soldiers from colonised Africa (“chocolats” in the French slang of the time) were fighting and dying alongside white soldiers (“toubabs”).

Diop, and his translator, use extraordinarily beautiful language to paint a picture of the extreme ugliness of war. Alfa believes he betrayed his friend, but in truth, he, like the soldiers around him, have been betrayed by those who led them into war and who use them as human sacrifices in the interminable futility of trench warfare.

There have been so many novels set in those First World War trenches, that to write something new and unique is an extraordinary achievement. Diop may very well have done just that.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/06/at-night-all-blood-is-black-by-david.html


A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll



A Kind of Spark
is a gem of a novel – one to break your heart, inspire you and fill you with joy.

The central character, Addie, is intelligent, curious, articulate and bursting with heart. She is also, like the author, autistic. That means that she can easily be overwhelmed – by sensory inputs and by emotions, both of which she feels with sometimes unbearable intensity.

When Addie begins to learn about the Scottish ‘witches’ – women persecuted for being different, just like her – she knows she needs to do something. In her own tiny village outside Edinburgh, there are records of women who were murdered on suspicion of being witches. Addie believes they should be remembered and honoured. But not everyone agrees.

A rare, profound and stereotype-free insight into what it can be like to experience our world as a neurodivergent person. McNicholl writes vividly, drawing on her own experience. Her passion, like Addie’s, is clear.

A book for anyone who wants to change the world a little bit – but especially for all the book-loving autistic girls out there, desperate to find themselves within the pages of a book.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/07/a-kind-of-spark-by-elle-mcnicoll.html



How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina



In a year that has had more of its share of darkness, many of our books of the year also have dark themes. But here is something completely different: A glorious crime-caper romp wrapped up in a social satire.

Ramesh Kumar is a not quite a slum kid, but his life is pretty precarious - until, that is, the formidable Sister Claire takes him under his wing. For Ramesh is clever, very clever indeed. Clever enough that he begins taking exams for rich boys too lazy to study for themselves. It’s a nice little earner. Until one day he does just a little too well. He comes top in the All India’s – plunging his client, Rudi, into the national limelight.

The voice of Ramesh, as the first-person narrator of the tale, comes across loud and clear - and very funny. The prime target of his razor-sharp wit is the greed of modern Indian capitalism. But that doesn’t stop him taking some well-aimed swipes at the West, and especially the West’s infatuation with its own notion of ‘India’.

Quite the funniest book we read all year.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/08/how-to-kidnap-rich-by-rahul-raina.html


The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed


In 1952, merchant seaman and occasional petty thief, Mahmood Mattan is put on trial for the brutal murder of Cardiff shopkeeper Lily Volpert. You wouldn’t hang a dog on the evidence brought before the court – but Mahmood is a Black man in post-war south Wales. He was hanged on 3rd September 1952, the last person to be executed in Wales. Almost half a century later, he became the first person to have his conviction quashed under the newly established Criminal Cases Review Commission.

In this superb novel by Nadifa Mohamed, shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Mahmood Mattan is finally given the voice he was never afforded in life. We don’t simply walk beside him through the trial, onto death row and ultimately through the doors of the execution chamber: we are inside his mind. We inhabit his sense of his own innocence and his faith in British justice, his rage when it fails him, the meditative state he reaches (for a time) when contemplating his own death.

Deep as we are in Mahmood’s mind, the story is not told in the first person, and that gives us the perspective to see the myriad ways in which, in the context of entrenched attitudes, Mahmood becomes the author of his own destruction: when he lies and dissembles and pretends to be something he is not, when simple honesty might have served him better.

An exceptional novel, grounded in a little-known slice of British history, that lays bare the human consequences of racism and injustice.

Shortlisted for both the 2021 Booker Prize and the 2021 Costa Novel Award.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/08/the-fortune-men-by-nadifa-mohamed.html


What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

Our final Book of the Year could not be more timely.

Egyptian born Canadian Journalist Omar El Akkad took the terrible image of a child’s body washed up on the shores of a Greek island, and from it spun a modern fable.

Winner of this year’s Giller Award, What Strange Paradise is set on a fictionalised version of Crete, where the flora and fauna have been given a mythic quality that edges us away from realism.

The story is split into two interweaving parts. Before tells the story of how Amir comes to be an overcrowded boat crossing the Mediterranean. After takes us from the moment when, surrounded by dead bodies on the sand, he scrambles to his feet and runs for the woods. There he meets Vänna, a girl not much older than he is. Neither speaks the other's language, but bit by bit, they learn to communicate, as Vänna leads him across the island, to the promise of freedom.

A powerful laying bare of the human tragedies behind the statistics and rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers. El Akkad’s writing has a deceptive simplicity to it. El Akkad says that he drew inspiration in part from the story of Peter Pan. Its use of rhythm and repetition also echoes of traditions of oral storytelling. 

An important, beautiful and heart-rending story.

https://bookmuseuk.blogspot.com/2021/11/what-strange-paradise-by-omar-el-akkad.html

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