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Favourite Reads of 2021

Paul Whybrow

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Continuing the tradition of naming my favourite reads of the year, here is a baker’s dozen of books that inspired, entertained and informed me. It’s been another strange year for everything and what with my local library being closed more than it’s been open, I’ve been buying more books online. Any of these titles are worth borrowing or buying.

1) A Keeper by Graham Norton

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I approached this story with some trepidation, suspicious of books written by celebrities capitalising on their existing fame. However, it deserves its good reviews. It’s certainly not literature, but it is compelling story-telling. Norton’s persona as a chat show presenter carries over into his ‘voice’ as a writer—it’s impossible to not hear him as you read—his style is so chatty that it feels like sitting at his kitchen table with tea and cakes while he tells you what happens.


2) Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby

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I write crime novels and have read thousands of them so was eager to tackle this much-praised title. S. A. Cosby’s debut novel is powerful, realistic and frightening. Famous crime writers’ plaudits are strewn on the cover: they must be nervous of his rivalry. I’m about to start reading his latest novel Razorblade Tears. Both titles have been optioned for films. A mighty talent.

3) Timothy's Book: Notes of an English Country Tortoise by Verlyn Klinkenborg

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This might just be the strangest novel I’ve ever read, but it’s charming and immersive. Timothy the narrator is a grumpy but wise tortoise, who was owned by parson-naturalist Gilbert White. His observations on life are humorous. At first, I thought that the short sentences reflected the slowness of a tortoise, but came to appreciate Klinkenborg’s preference for brevity….see below. If you ever worry about waffling, read this story for ways to describe things succinctly.


4) Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg

I acquired my used copy for a few pounds on eBay, but it’s worth buying new. It’s one of the best guides to writing I’ve read and has the advantage of being a book that you can dip into at any point to get astute advice. Klinkenborg lectures on creative writing and is obsessed with the power of short sentences. He inspires confidence in what you can achieve.


5) How Much Of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang

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Powerful story-telling and completely unsentimental in describing how two adolescent Chinese sisters survive the rigours of being stranded in a post-gold rush desert when they are orphaned. The author’s blending of legend, loneliness, family loyalty and landscape makes for a memorable historical novel.


6) Where Hope Comes From: Poems Of Resilience, Healing and Light by Nikita Gill

An Instagram star, Nikita Gill’s poetry collection makes for vital reading as a depiction of lockdown in the pandemic. Her illustrations add to a moving contemplation of sickness, death, loneliness and hope. Great therapy and healing.


7) The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

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An intriguing plot, which makes you wonder “What would I do?” This comedy of errors tugs at the reader’s loyalties, because of the skilful portrayal of multiple viewpoints. I’m amazed that it hasn’t been adapted into a television series.


8) Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles

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Set in the American Civil War, the author’s skill at depicting the plight of a plucky young woman searching for her father who was unjustly seized by militiamen carries the reader along, marvelling at her resourcefulness. Each chapter is rooted in time by the use of headings showing real letters, newspaper reports and other contemporary documents. What I particularly liked was how Paulette Jiles chooses exactly the appropriate word to convey a mood or a sense of place—saving the need for lengthy description—Verlyn Klinkenborg would love her!


9) About the Author by John Colapinto

An irresistible premise for a story...what if a wannabee author steals the manuscript of a dead roommate achieving fame and fortune? Written in the first person, the reader is dragged into the anti-hero's predicament, though he’s so unlikeable that you may want him to be caught.


10) Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection by Jia Jiang

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Writers seeking to be published hear the word “No” more than any other. Jia Jang’s guide to getting used to rejection and turning it to your advantage should be required reading for any author. Amusing and inspirational it will build up your resilience.


11) Before & Laughter: a life-changing book by Jimmy Carr

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Another book penned by a British comedian, Jimmy Carr’s guide on how to change your life won me over with its lack of sentimentality and his willingness to own up to mistakes he’s made. Funny in places, it’s also insightful and blunt about the truth.


12) The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday & Stephen Hanselman

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Being stoical is a writer’s best philosophical choice. Taking a daily dip into advice on how to deal with life might just reinforce your creative spirit.


13) The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa

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Another book with a wise, talking (and wisecracking) animal—have I finally lost my marbles? This title isn’t aimed at children, though, being a loving meditation on the power of books. Quirky, fun and inspiring.
 
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