Best Books of 2021

2021 was a year of fantastic reading for me and the following books bear testament to that fact. Favourite books came from Slightly Foxed, Persephone Books, Dean Street Press and the British Library among others. A special mention goes to O Douglas who is perhaps my favourite comfort author.

1)Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee (press copy from Slightly Foxed)

Laurie Lee’s wonderful evocation of his childhood, in a small Cotswold village in ‘Cider With Rosie’ was a memorable read.

The memoir is a heady and wholly immersive walk down memory lane. Each recapitulation is so vivid that it really set’s the reader’s imagination ablaze with imagery. The prose is packed with descriptors that really bring to life every sensory detail.

One by one the people, places and incidents of his childhood are recounted but in a way, that immerses us in the landscape- to witness the peculiar activities of the elderly old ladies who are their close neighbours (Granny Trill and Granny Wallon), to hear and feel the rush of rain, clap of thunder of a great storm that practically submerges their low lying cottage, and to breathe in and taste the heady flavour of cider from the bounty of apples from the valley.

I really enjoyed this fleeting glimpse into a time and way of life that has long since disappeared.

2)Penny Plain by O Douglas

A book that enveloped me in the tightest, sweetest, coziest hug in February was ‘Penny Plain’ by the Scottish author O Douglas.

I know, this book will become a lifelong favourite to return to when I’m in need of a little bit of comfort.

Penny Plain is about the life of the poor Jardine family. Jean, the eldest sister helps to bring up her two younger brothers and step brother on a paltry annual income. They live in a lovely rented cottage called The Rigs in the small town of Priorsford in the Scottish Borders. The lives of the Jardine family is set in a tumult when Lady Pamela, a woman seeking sanctuary from her frivolous life in London and a boring lover comes to take lodgings next door. An unlikely visit from an old man in London, also brings a tremendous sea-change in the Jardine’s life.

It’s all very interesting, particularly the details of everyday life, the lovely characters and the small town drama. I can’t tell you more – because that would be giving plot details away.
Though it’s quite hard to find O Douglas books there are several of her e-books available at this time. They are well worth reading if you enjoy cozy, books with domestic detail.

3)My Antonia by Willa Cather

‘My Antonia’ dwells on the immigrant experience of a family from Bohemia, who settle in the bleak American Midwest. The focus is on the eldest girl of the family – Antonia, the muse and love of the storyteller.

Often, quite grim the novel lays bare the hardship and struggles of the family totally out of depth, farming the unruly, unyielding land. The hardship of the long, bleak and brutal winters take a toll on the family, particularly their first winter, when they are mentally and physically unprepared.

The novel then, goes on to charter Antonia’s development as a woman – on a path of self-learning where there are no safety-nets when mistakes are made.
Often inspiring, this is a book that tugs on the heart strings. It is sometimes quite hard to read, but the prose is beautiful and the story, ultimately uplifting.
Having lived and worked in America as an immigrant myself, I could identify with the feeling of isolation and unfamiliarity experienced by a ‘foreigner’ in a new environment. It is a brave and life-changing experience.

4)Apricot Sky by Ruby Ferguson (e book review copy from Dean Street Press)

One of the nicest, nicest books I’ve read in a while was ‘Apricot Sky’ by Ruby Ferguson. Long out of print, this sublime ode to Scotland has been reissued by Dean Street Press.

Fans of ‘Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary’ will delight in this book set on the west coast of Scotland over the course of a summer after the end of WW2.
‘Apricot Sky’ by Ruby Ferguson describes the family life of a multi-generational Scottish family, who live on the west coast of Scotland, just over the water from Skye. The story encompasses a beautiful summer, a summer that will culminate in the marriage of the second daughter of the family, a girl called Raine, who will marry a local Scotsman called Ian.
More than having a strong overarching plot, this book is a collection of beautiful moments – moments that celebrate the beauty of Scotland and the Scottish way of life.
If you enjoy character driven books and are looking for that perfect slow summer read – then please do pick this up.

5)Mamma by Diana Tutton (press copy from the British Library)

‘Mamma’ by Diana Tutton is the story of the relationship between a 41year old widow, Joanna Malling and a married man, six years her junior. The relationship is complicated by the fact that the young man is her son-in-law, the husband of her most beloved daughter.

‘Mamma’ deals with quite a taboo topic – a relationship between two people, who though not related by blood are related to one another by that of close affinity. The common link in this case is a most beloved daughter/ wife. This is quite an unusual and brave topic to deal with and I must say that Tutton navigates the difficult topic with great sensibility. This is not a premeditated story of lust and want. It is a story of the mutual attraction of two people who find they are on the same intellectual plane. From this, is derived a need for greater intimacy.

The relationship that develops between mother in law and son in law is not at all pre meditated. It very slowly and naturally develops as a result of living at close quarters and the genuine meeting of intelligent minds. In this way, the development of plot isn’t nauseating although it can make for quite uncomfortable reading at times. There is a strong degree of sexual tension in the novel as well.

Ultimately, it is a story about protracted loneliness, the loneliness that a widow might experience when she has been bereft of intimacy and companionship for the majority of her adult life. I thought it was a most thought provoking and brave novel.

6)The Swiss Summer by Stella Gibbons

‘The Swiss Summer’ is set in the Grindelwald-Interlaken region of the Swiss Oberland, famed for its proximity to the giant peaks of the ethereal Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger. The story begins in the aftermath of the Second World War. The story is told through the eyes of a forty year old married woman called Lucy Cottrell. Lucy is tired of her busy life in London as the wife of an insurance agent, with its rush of social events and people. So when, a chance encounter with Lady Dalgleish, a woman owning a Swiss Chalet opens up an opportunity to spend a few weeks in this idyllic spot, Lucy jumps at the opportunity. The main reason for her visit is to act as an assistant to Freda Blandish, Lady Dalgleish’s companion, to catalogue Lady Dalgleish’s husband’s vast library of books and artifacts. However, what starts off as a secluded blissful holiday is converted to an uproarious holiday lodge with a crew of weird and wonderful characters.
Though the loss of complete peace and quiet is a loss for Lucy, the people who stay at the Chalet Alpenrose form close bonds and forge friendships that will last them a lifetime. The book discusses issues such as childlessness, parenting, the breaking up of class structure in Britain in the aftermath of WW2, class sensibility and the way the British tourist was viewed by native Europeans, first love and the ideal of marrying for love versus money. It’s a lovely book – but to my mind – the wonderful sense of place in ‘Swiss Summer’ was the highlight of the book.

7)Little Boy Lost by Marganita Laski

Another of my best books for 2021 is Marghanita Laski’s poignant and soul searching novel ‘Little Boy Lost’ published by Persephone Books.

Once in a while, there comes a book that is so much more than the series of events it retells. Some stories have the power to evoke major existential questions, deal with emotions so raw and that lie so heavy on the heart, that the novel becomes deeply psychological and grapples with the character’s inner conundrums and dilemmas, inviting the reader to take part in the discussion. ‘Little Boy Lost’ is just such a book.

Without giving too much of the plot away – the book is about Hilary’s quest to find his young son, lost in the chaos and confusion and mass destruction of the Second World War in Paris.

Set in post-war France, in Paris and an obscure provincial town blaster beyond recognition in northern France, ‘Little Boy Lost’ is also a depiction of the mass destruction that ravaged France and what it was like to live in France at such a time. The images that Laski evokes are haunting to say the least.

‘Little Boy Lost’ is a book about ideals, about personal freedom and the search for happiness. It also explores the instinctual ability to recognise oneself in one’s children. Fraught with many moral dilemmas, this is a masterful book that will have you entranced, from start to finish.
Highly highly recommend.

8)The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor (press copy from Persephone Books)

I recently finished reading FM Mayor’s classic novel – ‘The Rector’s Daughter’, to be published by Persephone Books.

It was – poignant read that took me a few days to mentally recover from reading about poor Mary’s life. Recover from reading about the depths and constancy of her love, devotion and emotions. Her deep-rooted devotion to her Father and the man that she loved with her heart and soul.

‘The Rector’s Daughter’ is Mary’s story. The story of how she unexpectedly found love at the age of thirty-five, bringing hope and joy into her very quiet and uneventful existence. A love that she, unlike many single women of her acquaintance – longed for with her heart and soul.

To tell you more would provide you with spoilers. ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ moved me. I felt for Mary, just as much as I felt for Jane in Jane Eyre. Though Mary, as stated in the novel, didn’t want to be pitied, her story and the way life treated her – demanded for a great deal of pity.

Deemed a classic, and for good reason – I was completely moved by ‘The Rector’s Daughter’.

9)Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

‘Strong Poison’ by Dorothy L Sayers is a fast paced crime novel that opens with us witnessing novelist Miss Harriet Vane standing on trial for the murder of her ex-lover, a man called Phillip Boyes. Phillip Boyes died from suspected arsenic poisoning and since Harriet Vane was found to have purchased quantities of arsenic on various occasions for supposed research purposes and given her turbulent relationship with the deceased, it seems probable that she will be found guilty.
It remains for our dapper hero, war veteran Lord Peter Wimsey to try and save Harriet from impending doom.
The excellent plot, the fast paced nature of the story telling but mostly the wonderful sparkling dialogue and chemistry between Vane and Wimsey – are what made this book a wonderful read in my opinion.

10)Last Waltz in Vienna by George Clare (press copy from Slightly Foxed)

I was completely immersed in George Clare’s memoir ‘Last Waltz in Vienna’ published by Slightly Foxed.

The book is a personal account of what it was like to be Jewish, living in Vienna during the Victorian age through to the Edwardian age and the First and Second World Wars. George Clare describes the history and life of his ancestors including the most quotidian detail, making this a most real and absorbing narrative. Through his eyes we witness some of the political details of living in the eye of the storm during such a turbulent time.

Why the attention to so much detail? As Clare explains towards the start of the narrative :
“We cannot identify with millions, we can only identify with single human beings. That is one reason why this book is not about the defenceless millions who were murdered by Hitler’s holocaust and who, because of their numbers, must remain strange, shadowy, unreal, but tells the story of only a few men and women who were my ancestors.”

George Clare’s memoir is such a sad, poignant read but so important in trying to learn about the diabolical atrocities of the war.

‘The Fair Miss Fortune’ by DE Stevenson

The Fair Miss Fortune by DE Stevenson

‘The Fair Miss Fortune’ is a light and entertaining read involving a host of lively characters, who tell their story against the backdrop of a quaint English village.

The story starts with the arrival of young Miss Jane Fortune to the small, sleepy village of Dingleford, replete with village green, one village shop which sells anything and everything, a postmaster who knows exactly what’s going on in every household and the village Inn, the Cat and Fiddle, where the locals catch up on the latest happenings.

Captain Charles Weatherby has also returned to the village on leave from his service in India and in the first chapter, we see him attending a housewarming party hosted by Mrs Prescott and her son Harold. Harold is a childhood friend and the people at the party are all people Charles has known since he was a child. Nevertheless, Charles feels intimated at the prospect of meeting so many people again after a long time and hovers on the doorstep listening to the sounds coming from indoors.

“The sound grew louder as he approached until it resembled the din which emanates from the monkey house at the Zoo, but Charles was well aware that it was neither bees nor monkeys but merely the Prescotts’ house-warming sherry-party in full swing.”

Charles is welcomed into the house by his childhood friend Harold Prestcott and in no time at all becomes a part of the humming conversation.

The Prescotts have sold their old Elizabethan cottage, Dingleford Cottage and have moved to a much more modern home due to the building of ‘The Road’ – a major arterial road connecting two large towns and cutting through southern parts of the village of Dingleford. The new owner of Dingleford Cottage – the young Miss Jane Fortune, hopes to set up a tea shop at the back of Dingleford Cottage and thus profit from the influx of traffic plying through ‘the Road’.

As happens in a small village, a newcomer incites a great deal of curiosity and one by one, the inhabitants of the village visit Miss Fortune. They find a very pretty young girl with fair hair and pleasant personality and she finds herself the centre of attention of many of the village bachelors – including Charles Weatherby and Harold Prescott.

The situation becomes quite muddled though when Jane Fortune’s twin sister arrives on the scene, pursued by an angry Frenchman. The story is indeed a comedy of errors and the tangle of mistaken identity makes for a diverting read.

Some of my favourite scenes from the book involve the mending of a cistern, a brawl at the Inn and scenes from a dance at the Golf Club.

This is definitely one of Stevenson’s lighter books. I loved the setting of the book and the witty writing. ‘The Fair Miss Fortune’ is a good comfort read when you are in the mood for something light and funny.

I was sent an e-book of ‘The Fair Miss Fortune’ by DE Stevenson for review by the publisher Dean Street Press but all opinions about the book are my own.