2021 BOOK OF THE YEAR
2021 Category Winners
How Shostakovich Changed my Mind
Children's & YA
Ellie Royce, illustrated by Hannah Chambers
A Life, Elsewhere
The 2021 Shortlist
The Boys – Michael Harnett
A delightful book about a group of basically good-hearted boys growing up in an Irish village, offering insight and perception into the painful world of teenagers. It follows a series of episodes in their lives during the last summer before they take their final school exams - their last chance to enjoy the world they’ve known all their lives before going their separate ways and heading for colleges or careers. The novel reflects all the contradictions of adolescence – an obsession with sex combined with embarrassment, bravado and confusion - wildly funny in places, but also demonstrating deep understanding about characters whose basic decency shines through in very touching ways.
Medusa – Rosie Hewlett
Many respected novelists are tackling the Greek legends and retelling them from the women’s point of view, but this one easily shines through as one of the best. It’s a remarkable retelling of the story of Medusa, who has always been portrayed with hair of writhing, whispering snakes, an evil monster who turned to stone anyone who looked her in the eye. It’s hard to imagine how we could ever view Medusa sympathetically, and yet here Rosie Hewlett manages to do just that with a voice that speaks to the modern world with surprising relevance. The legend is presented with enormous skill, offering us vivid flashes of understanding about ancient Greece – with some interesting original touches - lightened by touches of humour and a strong narrative drive. It’s a subject that could so easily become tedious and unbelievable, and yet here it has an unexpected power to move. It deals with universal themes - the abuse of women by men and all-powerful gods, love and self-sacrifice, and yet it never slips into ugly violence. Ultimately, the great achievement of this book is that we can’t fail to like Medusa, to sincerely wish for an alternative, happier outcome where her head is not removed by Perseus.
The Tide Turning – Hannah McNeil
A gentle story about the return of a young woman to the village in Scotland where she grew up to help her elderly aunt move from her family home. In the course of this expedition, the narrator tries to resist the nostalgic tug towards the natural world of her childhood and the people who had an influence on her, but she’s still drawn back into it. It’s poetically written with a strong sense of place. There are no dramatic scenes or revelations, but the picture of her early life in the village emerges gradually and convincingly, illuminated by the eccentric habits of her aunt. It’s a novel with heart but no sentimentality, based on the author’s upbringing, according to her notes at the end, which explains the authenticity, and it’s told with a well-judged lightness of touch.
Tokyo Traffic – Michael Pronko
This is an excellent thriller. It’s about the corruption within the pornographic industry in Japan and the exploitation of young victims from impoverished villages in surrounding countries who are enticed by promises of a better life. The story starts as a young Thai girl witnesses a brutal murder on a film set and then has to flee for her life, making friends on the way. We see the criminal underbelly of Tokyo through her eyes, but also the detective investigating the murders – a likeable man who features in other novels by Pronko – giving insight into his thoughts and motivations. The novel sheds light on the huge industry of people-smuggling, its huge profits and its casual violence. It’s a fast, exciting read as the criminals pursue two young girls, but also insightful and penetrating about the world they live in and the powerful instinct for survival.
This won’t Look Good on my Resume – Jass Richards
This could be seen as a novel or a series of linked short stories about a young woman who has trouble holding down a job. She is well qualified and gets offered a huge, wide-ranging variety of jobs with surprising ease, but then loses them again just as efficiently. Her limited, extremely biased point of view can be very funny indeed. Highlights are her employment as recreation director in a home for people with Alzheimer’s– she livens them all up with wheelchair Olympics and then introduces drama students who pretend to be long-absent relatives. The students get practice in new roles and the patients, who wouldn’t recognise their real relatives anyway, have moments of great happiness. The final chapter when she becomes a dog-walker is hilarious. It’s hard to understand why didn’t decide to make it a long-term profession. The dogs love her and she loves them - she has a much greater affinity for animals than people.
Rainwalkers – Matt Ritter
Set in the near future in the Salinas Valley in California, this is a dystopian picture of a world broken by climate change and war. Science has created an apparent solution to years of drought by seeding clouds with bacteria which produce rain every night. But something has gone horribly wrong and while the rain restores the valley and harvest to its former productivity, it proves to be deadly to humans. Starving invaders want a share of the food, so all young men are conscripted by the authoritarian government and sent to the borders to fight. The protagonist, Will, an ex-soldier, has escaped from a detention camp and lost his wife in the attempt. The novel follows his trek across the country to save his abandoned daughter. It is well-written, atmospheric and driven by a compelling, action-filled plot. The rainwalkers of the title refer to those people who are mysteriously unaffected by exposure to the rain.
Pearl City – Simon Rowe
This is a wonderful set of short stories that cross the world in settings and themes, through Japan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Australia and many other places. The opening story, Pearl City, sets the tone with a single parent brought in to find out who is stealing pearls from Tokai Pearl. It’s a place where thousands of pearls are sorted, and in the course of the investigation, we are taken through the back streets of Kobe. Never Say Goodbye explores the life of a young woman with brain cancer, whose operation prevents her from joining her friends on a longed-for mountain climb. This is a book of the unexpected, where another woman, an airline pilot, is inspired by her grandfather, a Japanese fighter pilot in the second world war, where a hit-man is ambushed by his love for oysters. Simon Rowe brings to life an impressive variety of nuanced characters and cultures. Every detail is mesmerising and nothing is predictable.
Iron Will – Toby Strauss
This is an extremely well-told, engaging historical novel, telling the story of the brilliant engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel through the observations of one of his closest workers. It’s penetrating and insightful about the nature of genius, packed with fascinating information about the Victorians’ inventiveness and the limitless nature of their ambition. Technical details are approached with great skill, informative and dazzling. The narrator, a well-qualified colleague who worked with Brunel for much of his career, is brought to life as a well-rounded character in his own right. It’s a powerful portrait of Brunel who emerges as difficult, ambitious and inspired, not unlike some of our present-day entrepreneurs. The historical background is well-researched and believable and the novel is written with quietly confident expertise, the prose never intruding on the flow of the story.
Children's & YA
The Big Old Rambutan Tree - Kathy Creamer, illustrated by author
This is a new and original take on an old story, where, like ‘The Jungle Book’, an outsider who is ‘different’ is taken in and cared for by others. Ginger is an orang-utan who finds an abandoned tiger cub and raises him as her own. At first, Stripes the cub is content to be vegetarian like Ginger, but soon his true nature reveals itself, and the friends must part. I really like the fact that Stripes’ true nature as a killer and eater of other animals isn’t glossed over! Years later, when the jungle is on fire and Ginger is in danger, Stripes returns to save his old friend. There are so many layers of meaning in this story, the idea that friends don’t have to be exactly the same as each other to have a true friendship.
Virgilante - Joe Eardley
This book is strikingly original. The opening chapters, when Virgil’s family are set upon by thugs in an Asda car park, is a great snapshot, that everyone can identify with, of how some sections of contemporary society feel they can do whatever they like without fear of repercussions. Virgil’s feelings of helplessness and rage were depicted very realistically, and his vigilante approach to keeping the disabled bays in the supermarket car park free for the entitled customers was an excellent touch! The writing is good and confident, and the storyline would appeal to many teens. The scenes where Virgil tests the magical powers of the shield grip he discovers in the church crypt, and those where he takes his revenge on the bullies, are so well-written that the reader is really cheering him on.
Sometimes it’s Hard to Wake up - Patricia Golding Staehelin, illustrated by Rebecca Solow
This is a really simple story, but sometimes that’s all a good picture-book needs. Yes, young children need exciting, magical stories that sweep them off to fantastical places, but they also need stories that reflect their own experiences and their own world. Any child would be able to identify with the little boy who’s finding it hard to open his eyes one morning. The gentle way his mother deals with the situation is lovely, and, in fact, relationships with others are at the heart of this story, from the boy and his mother and their dog, to the neighbours who pass by and exchange a wave and a ‘Good morning’. The story is perfectly complemented by Rebecca Solow’s beautiful illustrations.
Feathers - Karen Hendriks, illustrated by Kim Fleming
This gorgeous book deals with the death of a parent. The little boy in the story goes out catching feathers with his father. The boy’s late mother used to call them ‘dream catchers’, and he believes that if he catches them, he’ll dream of her, which is exactly what happens towards the end of the book. The text is sympathetic but not sentimental, and the illustrations are delicately beautiful. My one slight concern is that, while death is not a taboo subject in picture books for young children, it usually comes in the form of the loss of a pet or a grandparent. The death of a parent might make some readers a little anxious. However, this book might be extremely helpful for children who’ve actually experienced this.
Nile Cat - Angela Cecil Reid
This is a historical novel, beginning in 1871 when sisters Rose and Lily arrive in Egypt with their parents to meet their aunt, following the death of their uncle, an Egyptologist. In rather odd circumstances, Rose is given a tiny, beautiful statue of a stone cat, and this is the beginning of a frightening set of events as Rose becomes convinced that people are after her because they want to get their hands on this cat. The action flips between 1871 and Ancient Egypt, with memorable characters such as Miut the pregnant cat, her friend Hori and their enemy, Neshi. The stories intertwine as Rose sees events in Ancient Egypt in her dreams and comes to realise that Miut is the ghost cat who has saved her from danger. The baddies in both the Victorian section and the Ancient Egyptian part are both satisfyingly villainous, and each of the two settings feels authentic. It’s always difficult in historical novels for children for an author to get the balance of the characters right – too modern, and it can feel anachronistic, too old-fashioned, and it can put young readers off. This book manages to pull off this balancing-act well.
Auntie Uncle - Ellie Royce, illustrated by Hannah Chambers
The boy in the story loves his Uncle Leo who is good with numbers and works in an office, but the boy also loves his bright, beautiful Aunt Lotta just as much. Leo and Lotta are actually the same person… Leo/Lotta keeps his/her lives and his/her sets of friends very much separate, and neither his work colleagues nor her drag queen friends know anything about each other. But when Leo/Lotta performs an heroic act, everyone is going to find out the truth, and what will their reaction be?
There are so many brilliant layers of meaning here – how we show different faces to the world, how we feel when two different worlds we are part of collide, what true friendship really is, the struggle to establish an identity, the acceptance of people who are seen as ‘different’. The illustrations are zingy and exuberant, the use of colour is wonderful, and so is the way the close and loving relationship between Leo and his nephew is portrayed.
The Girl who said Goodbye – Heather Allen
This is the eye-witness account of a Siv Eng, young girl in Cambodia, a college student living in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took over. She came from a village in the country and was part of a large, happy extended family. The entire city of Phnom Penh was evacuated in one day and taken on a forced march for many days before being assigned work in the fields. Medicine, education and family ties were all prohibited. It’s an extraordinary story of survival through a period of unspeakable atrocity, vividly told, with flash-backs to earlier, happier times. A strong sense of family pervades the book: uncles, aunts and cousins are as precious as brothers and sisters. Many did not survive. Particularly poignant is the death of Siv Eng’s older brother, Pho, who made great sacrifices for other members of the family. The book is written with great skill by Siv Eng’s niece, Heather Allen. She helps the reader see and hear and feel the power of this brutal, alien regime and the enormous strength required simply to survive.
How Shostakovich Changed my Mind – Stephen Johnson
This is a beautifully produced book, small and tactile (also available as an ebook). The author is a well-known and respected music broadcaster and composer, who has appeared regularly on Radio 3 and Radio 4 for many years. He discovered Shostakovich’s music at the age of thirteen – curious, perhaps, as it’s “not the kind of music people would choose to cheer themselves up.” But he tells us, “this isn’t really a book about Shostakovich at all, rather about what his music has made people feel.” Early in the book, he focuses on a seemingly insignificant comment: in a meeting with one of the few musicians still alive who performed the seventh symphony during the Siege of Stalingrad in 1942, when the entire population were slowly starving to death, he asks him how it made him feel. The reply was: “It’s not possible to say”. This leads to an exploration of how music’s transformative effect defies analysis. The author is open about his personal struggles with bipolar disorder and how Shostakovich’s music has reflected his experiences: “finding the sound of my thoughts and feelings, and hearing them transformed into something magnificent and beautiful by a great composer.” This is an erudite piece of writing, superbly readable and full of extraordinary insights.
One Loaf at a Time/One bowl at a time - CJ Katz
This a well-produced recipe book with great photography and a heart-warming tone, which features people who managed to come together virtually with their love of cooking during the difficulties of being apart during the pandemic. There are comments from some of the different cooks about how they adapted to life during Covid and several of them mention how lockdown has given them more time to spend on home cooking. It’s a fascinating work with an interesting and well-illustrated selection of recipes.
The Edge of Malice – David P Miraldi
This is the account of a violent robbery at a drive-thru that goes wrong. Marie, a woman living a successful life with a happy family and successful career, is shot in the head in the course of the robbery. The book charts her painful return to a life that can never be the same again with the help of friends and family, the court case that follows and the aftermath of her long-term anger, which leads her eventually to a startling course of action. The events are seen from many perspectives: the two young men who turn so casually to violence to finance their drug habits; the attorney who takes the case to court; the person who took her to the hospital; and Marie herself, a woman who refuses to allow herself to be bowed by her experience. The author is the attorney, so the legal scenes, some of the strongest in the book, are both gripping and a fascinating insight into the everyday workings of the American justice system. It is well-told, feels accurate and authentic, and it’s inhabited with rich, engaging characters. An excellent account of an event that altered many people’s lives forever.
Million Dollar Red – Gleah Powers
This is a sparky, readable memoir from a woman whose mother was more interested in living a glamourous life with a wide range of husbands and boyfriends than bringing up her children. The author is observant and articulate, and refuses to allow events over which she has no control to influence her decisions. Pleasingly, she avoids indulging in the kind of self-pity that is present in so many modern memoirs. She displays admirable composure and her view of life and people is touched with a refreshing cynicism. She does eventually extricate herself and find a more fulfilling life, but not before she has been taken advantage of by a range of unsavoury characters. It takes her a while to see the flaws in the religious cult that takes over her life at one point, but she does eventually find the strength to withdraw. It’s an engaging insight into the life of a neglected childhood and the way events reverberate through a lifetime.
Focused on King’s College Chapel - Sara Rawlinson
A beautifully and expensively produced gallery of highly artistic and stunningly executed photographs. There are pictures that give a sense of the soaring scale of this vaulted building, and yet there is also a sharp focus on tiny, charming details that would easily be missed when walking around the chapel. The use of glossy paper shows off the images well, and the photographs are interspersed with poetic musings. It is an outstanding architectural study which successfully captures the historic beauty of a remarkable building.
Rootstalk - Ella Duffy
This is a dreamlike, single poem consisting of disembodied voices - Demeter, Persephone, Mae, Esther, and Cora. Gradually they weave a weird and elusive tale inspired by the so-called 'Ghost Orchid', which spends most of its life underground, flowering just once a decade. It's a delightful theme for poetry, and Duffy handles it in a deft and original way. It's a little like a playlet in which the characters all appear to be searching for something, until their voices - or rather their search - becomes the flowering Orchid itself. The final idea of communication through flowers was particularly enjoyable, conveyed at the end by Demeter and her daughter: arrangements expressing things that can't be said in any other form. The language is measured and thoughtfully phrased, creating a tone that’s perfectly pitched to match the characters’ quest, and our sense of the Orchid as a rare, delicate thing of ephemeral beauty. A lovely, imaginative book.
Yield - Claire Dyer
These are thoughtful, sensitive poems in which the speaker is often struggling to make sense of the world. Many acknowledge the necessity of 'yielding' to at least some of life's difficulties, and above all recognising the dangers of certainty. This idea is often relevant to gender: 'The Label Maker', for instance, asks what becomes of those who 'falter / at the gender box' when their category is missing, making a point about the reductive definitions we face in the world; likewise, in 'Trans' we find that life's 'handbook has no drawings' to assist 'the rare boys and girls / who shape-shift and move on', yet move on they do, embracing the gift of 'knowing without saying'. Throughout the collection a compassionate and perceptive intelligence strives to describe and interpret a shifting, unpredictable world, finding that the best she can do is accept it, and be grateful for it. This is suggested strongly in the final poem, ‘Yield III’, where she relives her experience of childbirth in reverse, and finds herself 'choosing you once more, / a thousand times again. Yield'.
Borrowed Light - Ken Haas
These are thoughtful, fluent poems, packed with vivid images of an American life. The portraits of family members were particularly enjoyable, such as the grandmother 'who wanted to talk / when the Yankees were on', and we particularly warmed to the confessional poems, like 'Trane', a piece about chasing the kudos of black culture: 'None of us in 1966 wanted to be a white kid / from the Bronx. So I rode the subway down / to hear the man who might make me cool'. There's a delightful candour in his autobiographical poems, whether he's reminiscing about music, baseball, or his night in a German brothel (where a woman with 'stepmother eyes and woodcutter hands' empties his wallet). Kaas writes with verve and humour, and it’s a treat to be in his company.
A Life, Elsewhere - Marie Naughton
Naughton's book brims with tender, original, and utterly convincing insights into the human condition, covering the gamut of experience from birth to death. There are poignant returns to childhood in poems like 'Untitled, No Date', where the poet identifies with the lost toddler of her own childhood, and 'On Knitting', where the craft is passed from mother to daughter, becoming an apt metaphor for continuity between generations, and for creativity itself. An awareness of age, illness and death feature too, and these themes are always grounded in the specifics of human relationships. The tone throughout is warm and sympathetic, but with a gentle humour that invariably offsets sentimentality. Her capacity for invention is exciting and infinitely pleasing, particularly in my favourite poem, 'Freeman', her tribute to the late poet Matthew Sweeney: it draws on one of his own famous poems, 'Tube Ride to Martha', but inverts the tragic ending to bring Sweeney back to life, relocating him in a pastoral idyll to be adored for eternity. It's a stunning poem, in a sensational collection.
Stranger - David Punter
An assured voice pervades this collection, which explores the idea of strangeness in various ways: places, people, creatures, objects, and conditions. Places include 'The World's Neck', where the poet navigates the Bering Strait, feeling his own insignificance in the midst of nature. The People section includes the 'brawling' 'Jimmy the Pig', who is violent, racist, and 'racked with resolution', and 'Pushover', an old drunk who's assaulted by a young 'bruiser' in a way that becomes symbolic of 'generational defeat'. Strange Creatures includes wonderfully rendered Gulls, Cormorants, and Crabs - despite their scary strangeness the latter are no danger to humans: rather, we are a danger to them - 'Tiny pincers are growing / from the corners of our eyes', which 'will only increase / in size until we become / violent and blind'. The final section, Strange Conditions, closes with 'New Alphabet', an abecedarian piece that starts with 'algorithm' and ends with 'zilch for your comfort' - it's a poem in which the world becomes so strange that meaning ultimately breaks down,
appropriately dedicated to the surrealist Andre Breton. This is a great collection.
Field Notes- Anna Selby
'To hold a dying bird in your hands / is like holding an argument' is the arresting opening to ‘Watching the Nestbox', one of my favourite poems from this excellent collection - it's a vivid, textured description of newly hatched swifts which develops into a celebration of the lifeforce. We're never in any doubt that Anna Selby loves and respects nature, and she is intent on engaging with it first hand - indeed, the poems began life ‘in the field’, some even written underwater on waterproof notebooks! Her practice pays dividends, as reading her is an immersive experience - her poems genuinely feel like direct dispatches from the deep, with a strong sense of immediacy and proximity. The book as a whole is a love letter to nature, teeming with evocative imagery: the language is taut and textured, particularly in its descriptions of wildlife - fish 'shine like coins', birds' wings 'whisper to the dark', and the world comes alive in all its creaturely glory.