• JoJo

Best and Worst Books of 2021

I tend to default to watching YouTube videos rather than picking up a book when I feel like consuming some content or passing the time of day sitting on a sofa with a dreaming sighthound kicking me in the ribs. But when I put more conscious thought into the time I spend sat on my arse, I reach for my ereader (Kobo, not Kindle, screw you Jeff Bezos) and wander through fictitious worlds of hitmen and flamingoes or learn about the fierce history of leopard print.


To round off this year, which has involved a lot of time reading, I thought I’d answer a few questions about my reading habits and tell you about some of my favourite (and least favourite!) books that I’ve read in the last year or so.


If you have any recommendations for me based on what you read in this post I’d love to receive them. I’d also be delighted to hear your opinions on the books I’ve picked out if you’ve read them yourself. Drop a comment below with your thoughts and wisdom.


1. Do you have a certain place at home for reading?


Apologies if this is too much information but the following three places leapt to mind: on the sofa, in bed, and on the toilet. I believe all of these to be fairly common reading locations.


When I’m trying to read more, I leave my ereader in the bathroom. My digestive system is pretty dependable so I don’t get through chapters at a time with this tactic, but when I don’t have a big chunk of time to read it’s a straightforward way of getting through a couple of pages in a short burst.


For those of you struggling to focus on reading for prolonged periods, I would highly recommend this technique. Although the moisture content of the bathroom needs to be considered. Either only place your book/ereader in there once everyone in your household has showered for the day or make sure you choose a book you don’t mind experiencing some water damage.


BOOK!

Grasmere Cottage Mystery series by Dahlia Donovan

This trilogy follows the story of partners Valor and Bishan as they try to establish who keeps murdering people they know and dumping them in their garden/shop/pond.


The story was complex enough to keep me engaged but featured a small enough number of characters not to leave me wondering who everybody was. I’ve read some murder mysteries that ruined the great reveal with an unnecessarily lengthy suspect list. It slightly sullies the moment if you must scan back through half the book to find the name of killer and remember what made them so shifty all along.


They’re set in the Lake District, where I grew up, so they get sentimental points from me. There’s a simple pleasure to be found in the novelty of recognising real place names in fictional stories.


These books were fun to read and featured characters I found myself routing for. Sometimes you don’t need anything more complicated than that from an author and I’d definitely recommend this series for some unchallenging fun times.


2. Bookmark or random piece of paper?


I’m far too cheap to buy a bookmark. I use whatever random piece of paper, string, or fabric is within grabbing distance when the time comes to stop reading. I’m also not averse to dog earring page corners, which I know some people consider a major character flaw.


3. Can you just stop reading or do you have to stop after a chapter/ a certain amount of pages?


I prefer to stop at the end of a chapter because I like order in my universe and appreciate a sense of completion. However, the contexts within which I do most of my reading don’t allow this so I’m happy putting a book down whenever.


I often read on the toilet, as previously discussed, on public transport, or when killing time waiting for people to arrive for occasions I’ve arrived half an hour early for. These situations are not naturally terminated by the end of a chapter. At some point, my arse will get cold, the bus will stop, or the people I’m waiting for will turn up and the book will be cast aside, whatever paragraph I happen to be in the middle of at the time.


4. Do you eat or drink while reading?


Yes, now I have an ereader!


Husband disagrees with me very strongly about this, as I expect do many people reading this post, but I prefer reading books on my ereader to reading physical books.


One of the biggest reasons for this is that I can more easily read while using my hands for other things, like eating and drinking. Perhaps I am demonstrating a complete lack of coordination but I need two hands to read a good old fashioned paper book. If I try to read while eating a meal or drinking a cup of tea the two things either completely hinder one another or come into unwanted contact leaving the book and the food/drink in a far from appetising state.


This inability to coordinate my limbs could explain why my dynamic climbing still has plenty of room for improvement.


With the ereader, I simply lay it down on a nearby surface and poke the right-hand side of the screen in between bites/slurps. It’s a frickin' revelation.


BOOK!

Supper Club by Lara Williams

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago and it’s still lingering with me. My mouth continues to water at the memory of the intricate descriptions of cooking processes and carefully crafted meals prepared by Roberta, our foodie forewoman. We circuitously follow her through her university days and into her first few years of work. We meet her series of questionable partners and join her female friendship group that forms around their supper club.


Although the club evolves over the course of the book, at its heart it’s an opportunity for the members to throw off whatever other personas they’re presenting to the world and allow themselves and their bodies to be as extravagant and free as they desire. They eat sophisticated and intricate eight course meals savagely with their bare hands in between slathering the delicious feast on the walls or flinging it about in frantic food fights. The energy of these women pours off the page during these anarchic yet tender scenes.


The relationships between the characters are fascinating and often fraught. At points in the story, I felt frustrated with Roberta for falling into obviously toxic situations. At the same time, she felt like a character in need of patience and protection as she found her space in the world outside of supper club.


I looked forward to diving back into this book every time I picked it up and I would highly recommend you give it a crack for the cooking tips alone.


5. Multitasking: Music or TV while reading?


Never TV. I’m sceptical of anyone who claims to be able to concentrate on a TV show and a book at the same time. I don’t have the attention span to do either thing justice if I try to focus on both at once. Psychological research suggests that the majority of the population doesn’t either.


Music is fine as long as it doesn’t have lyrics. I may be a big fan of words but too many at once confuses my brain. I can’t nasally drone along to Placebo lyrics and absorb literary life lessons simultaneously. I simply cannot do it.


BOOK!

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I read The Song of Achilles for a lockdown book club. To give you a brief summary of the review I shared with my book club members, I absolutely fucking hated it. If I had been reading it for any other reason I would have given up after three chapters, maybe even two.


The book is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad told from the perspective of Achilles’ lover, Patroclus. The story follows their relationship as it grows from friendship to romance and concludes on the battlefields of Troy.


The style of this book grated on me like a sliding fall on astroturf. The descriptive passages felt drawn out and unnecessarily flouncy. There was no need to repeatedly describe every inch of Achilles’ body in excessively flowery and mystical drivel. The men determined to go to war are painted as heroic honourable icons but, to me, they just came across as absolute idiots. I assume the vocabulary was chosen to reflect the mythical and historic nature of the subject matter but I simply wished she’d get to the fucking point and leave the curvature of Achilles’ ankles out of it.


In contrast, a fellow book club member absolutely loved this book, which made for an excellent and engaging discussion that month. She loved everything I hated about it, which suggests my gut reaction is more about taste than the quality of the writing.


If you’re into over the top romance and Greek mythology then this is a great book for you. If you’re not a fan of war and egotistical men and prefer a more modern style of writing then I’d give this one a swerve.


6. One book at a time or several at once?


One fiction and one nonfiction. At most. Usually just one though.


I don’t mix up the stories or the facts when I read multiple books at once. My problem is a lack of commitment to each book. If I have four books on the go I actually read less. The option of having something else to read causes me to cautiously nibble at the first few pages of a book rather than take a big juicy bite out of the first few chapters.


On the other hand, devoting myself to one book can mean that I plough through it too quickly so I can tick it off the list and move onto my next read. This is one of the few downsides of my ereader. Seeing the figures of how many hours I’ve read or what percentage of the book I’ve got left encourages me to think about getting my numbers up rather than savouring the story.


7. Reading at home or everywhere?


Everywhere!


When I worked in touring theatre I hardly ever read anything at home because I was never there. I’d have plenty of time to read on trains between locations, backstage between quick changes, or in the wardrobe room between shows.


Now I’m at home all the time it feels luxurious to read on a sofa with a cup of tea in a house that I won’t be leaving in a week’s time. Decadent as fuck.


8. Reading out loud or silently in your head?


Silently in my head.


Occasionally I’ll come across a passage that tickles me and I’ll read it aloud to Husband but it never sounds as good as it did in my head. Maybe I need to work on my dramatic reading skills.


BOOK!

Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

This is one of my absolute favourite books and I strongly encourage you to stop reading this blog nonsense and start reading this instead. This is the book I pick up when I need cheering up. It’s hilarious, distracting, whimsical fun and I’d highly recommend it for these turbulent times we’re living in.


Our heroine, Agnes, is spinning a lot of plates. She’s busy renovating her house in time to host her friend’s wedding, for which she is also providing the catering. Additionally, she is dealing with an angry ex-fiancé, the backstabbing former owner of her house, and a bridge that’s on the verge of collapse, which provides the only access to her property. And within the first few pages of the book, she’s attacked in her own home and bludgeons the attacker to death with a high-quality frying pan.


What follows is part romance novel, part crime thriller, complete with grouchy flamingoes, sexy hitmen, and a whole host of dysfunctional relationships between some extremely colourful characters. You’ll be surprised, crying with laughter, and extremely pleased with your excellent reading choices by the end of this book.


Forget about your own problems for a while and delight in reading how Agnes solves hers with the help of a very motley crew and many pieces of kitchen equipment.


9. Do you read ahead or even skip pages?


Only in nonfiction books, especially if they’re heavy work for my tired brain parts.


One trick that helps me through scientific books that demand a lot of concentration is to check out how many pages are just references. In the heftiest scientific books I read, up to a quarter of the pages are a dense list of references. This significantly shrinks the number of pages I’m actually going to read and makes the whole endeavour seem less daunting. It’s not that I’m willing the book to end. It just reminds me that it’s not quite the mammoth task that the massive wedge of a book suggests.


Hopefully someone far smarter than me is actually checking these references are accurate.


BOOK!

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

One of the things I’ve learned during my Open University degree in Psychology is that scientists can be as flawed and biased as anyone else. I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust any science. Get your vaccines, wear a mask, and accept that climate change is a real and terrifying thing. But the results of scientific experiments shouldn’t be blindly trusted. Methodology is extremely important. Transparency is crucial. And some people will flat out lie to ensure their papers get more attention.


This book takes a very deep dive into a famous psychological experiment conducted by Stanford professor, David Rosenhan, and several of his students. The participants, who had not been diagnosed with any form of mental illness, attempted to convince medical professionals that they needed to be committed to asylums. Once inside the asylums, they had to prove themselves to be sane in order to be released.


It’s a fascinating premise for a psychological study and the stories the participants shared in the aftermath of their experiences had huge impacts on mental health treatment for years to come. However, like other classic studies, such as Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram’s shock machine experiments, the papers that were published did not tell the whole truth.


With some determined digging, Cahalan found flaws and falsehoods abound when it came to the reporting of this study. At times, this book feels more like a thriller than a work of nonfiction as she uncovers clues and meets new characters involved in creating this psychological legend.


You definitely don’t need any psychology training to appreciate this book, just a curiosity about human motivation and societal structures that enable myth to become fact.


10. Breaking the spine or keeping it like new?


Break it. Break it now!


As with most things, I’m an each-to-their-own kind of girl so if you want your books to look pristine then that’s tickety-boo, you do you. Preserve those spines if it makes you happy. I personally like books that look like they’ve been read, which means tatty corners, tea-stained pages, and broken spines.


Brand new unsullied things tend to make me anxious. They present a world of possibilities for ruination. I tremble at the idea of writing in new diaries and notebooks. I quiver as I imagine all the ways I could possibly scuff and stink up my shiny new shoes. And few things fill me with more fear a dread than a crisp, clean, straight out the packet white shirt. Dragging these immaculate items down from their lofty beginnings feels wrong.


This anxiety plays a big part in my love of vintage and second-hand stuff. Battered boots, wonky picture frames, peeling book jackets feel friendly to me. They’re unpretentious. They’re not hiding anything. Hand-me-down items have already lived a life and have the scars to prove it. They won’t take offense when I inevitably give them an extra dent here or scrape there. There won’t be any sense of disappointment as I fail to keep them in their original immaculate form.


Logically this makes very little sense.


If I like things to look used and loved then I should be perfectly happy being the person that makes them look that way. My spills will tell a story. My repair jobs will create intriguing scars across the surfaces of clothes, books, and bits of furniture. But like all humans I’m a walking talking typing bundle of contradictions and unsolved conundrums.


11. Do you write in your books?


I never used to write in books. Not because I didn’t want to ruin the book but because I felt I didn’t have the right to. Someone put hours, months, possibly years of their life into creating every book I’ve ever read, and I didn’t believe I had the authority to add my hastily concocted scrawl to their carefully considered creation.


I can’t tell you when but that feeling eventually passed and now I will scrawl in books if I think it will be useful to me.


Admittedly, I have very little reason to write in books. The only books I plaster in notes are my Open University textbooks. They are a collage of post-it notes and semi-academic scrawl.


BOOK!

A Polar Affair by Lloyd Spencer Davis

From one excellent piece of nonfiction to a truly dire piece of nonfiction!


This book claims to follow the author’s exploration of the work of George Murray Levick, the first person to study penguins up close. And I mean up really close. A large chunk of his research shocked Victorian Britain as he revealed what horny and aggressive little buggers penguins are.


Structurally this book is a tangled mess. The narrative skips seemingly at random between penguin biology, the author’s personal history, and various early Antarctic explorations. The constant chopping and changing means there is absolutely no satisfying flow from one chapter to another and you’re left feeling a little seasick by the end of it.


The whole thing seems like one man’s contrived opportunity to talk about sex in the most inarticulate way possible. He tries to shock us with descriptions of the depraved behaviour of Adelie penguins. He lingers over the romantic and sexual lives of his cast of intrepid explorers like an immature teenager who’s just discovered what the wobbly stuff in his trousers is for. His jokes about sex, both human and penguin, are tasteless at best and downright sexist at worst.


Somehow, the author manages to make himself and almost everyone in the book appear highly unlikeable and arrogant. The tone is unnecessarily gratuitous and childish. The blurb in no way reflects what the book is about. For a book about scientific research it’s extremely subjective and goes overboard with anthropomorphising when it comes to the penguins’ behaviour.


It made me angry while reading it. Avoid it like a penguin with a come hither look in its eye. You’ll only end up hurt and disappointed.

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