I’ve read over 100 books this year, and I’ve just read the Best of 2021 book roundups from the papers. While I know a lot of work goes into them, their cumulative effect this year left me feeling a bit flat. Apart from Jackie Kay’s and Rishi Dastidar’s great recommendations, so many of the plaudits were for heavy, doomy books by men. Guess how many guys are on my list? Three. In no particular order, here’s my top 21:
Magpie by Elizabeth Day
Blonde, curvy Marisa thinks she has the perfect life. Newly decorated home, nice creative job illustrating bespoke children's books, and the ideal partner in Jake. Dark-haired, slender Kate seems like the cuckoo in the nest – but is she? With nods to Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel Rebecca, the power struggle between women, including Jake's monstrous middle-class mother Annabelle, makes for compelling reading. Skilfully written and just as judiciously edited, Magpie will be another feather in this incredible author's cap, following her barnstorming books The Party and Paradise City, which raised her game from well-observed domestic novels to highbrow state-of-the-nation thrillers.
The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain
Albert Entwistle is an old Northern postman with hair the colour of a nice cup of tea, a little grey cat called Gracie, and a big secret that threatens to blight the rest of his life. As Albert faces up to who he really is, overcomes his shyness, connects with his colleagues and finally starts looking for the man who got away, you’ll be cheering him on and weeping in equal measure. If you’re looking for the perfect pick-me-up, order or download this book immediately and say ‘how do’ to the sweetest hero of 2021.
C+nto by Joelle Taylor
An innovative collection that re-imagines our shared queer history, with vitrines (glass cases) appearing on the street corners of gay landmarks overnight. C+nto goes beyond performance poetry, ‘page’ poetry, theatre and even film to invoke a ‘we’ and sense of place and belonging for gay people, bringing women, dykes and butches centre stage for once in the central shared testimony of an unforgettable night in the Maryville bar. Extraordinary, compassionate and optimistic, C+nto’s focus broadens out to our brothers and sisters around the world who don’t have the freedoms of gay people in the UK, reminding us to keep fighting.
Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin
Another important take on gay geography, moving between post-AIDS-crisis New York and California to London, with forensic attention to the familiar scenes of Vauxhall and Villiers Street. Atherton Lin’s book is a brainy, music-soaked look at the gay places that have reinforced, supported, sustained and damaged us, asking questions such as whether today’s travelling club nights are a result of shifting postmodern sexual identities, or born out of necessity (no permanent spaces). An intoxicating book that will be of equal interest to anyone with even the slightest inclination towards finding out more about sexuality, culture, music, or urban planning.
Underbelly by Anna Whitehouse
Mum and influencer Lois Knox is struggling to have a second child when she meets Dylan, a less well-off young mother whose son is in the same class as her daughter. As they get to know each other, Lois realises that Dylan's struggles can fill some of the gaps in her profile. Lois may not be all she seems, but is Dylan really who she says she is either? Unlike lesser mum-thrillers, this one is underpinned by a sense of what women will do to feel seen in a world that constantly undermines them, and how far they are prepared to go.
Coming Out Stories, ed. Emma Goswell
I was lucky enough to speak to Emma for the radio show Out in South London along with original show founder Rosie Wilby. Emma went on to address the Pride Network at the publisher I work for, and I then edited the episode of the Polari Podcast that she appears in. While Emma plays her own coming out story for laughs (alcohol, Yazoo etc), some of them had me in tears. Asad Ullah’s, which opens the book, is very moving and there is also a hilarious, poignant testimony from one of the drag queens who was at the Stonewall Riots.
Variations, by Juliet Jacques
This virtuoso collection of short stories repositions trans people in British history. Told in chronological order, the book begins with two Fanny and Stella wannabes and an unsuccessful aspiring Oscar Wilde whose notoriety is cut short by an ill-fated drag ball. Taking us through the clinics, clubs and protests of the 1980s and beyond, other stories feature reimagined versions of history – the case of April Ashley, and one end-of-the-pier show you won’t forget. Variations does not preach or browbeat, it entertains, creating a multi-layered puzzle of British trans identities that it feels like a privilege to read.
Would I Lie to You? by Aliya Ali-Afzal
Faiza Saunders is in trouble. When her husband loses his job, she's at a Botox clinic with the other Wimbledon wives, wondering how much money is left in their emergency joint account. Nothing, it turns out, thanks to her husband Tom's over-careful budgeting and Faiza's splurging on the side to keep herself and her three kids happy - her baby Alex, her eighteen-year-old daughter Sofia and her middle child Ahmed, who has an anxiety disorder he's only just getting over after a move to a more sympathetic, and expensive, school. How will she get out of this? A great read!
Handmade, by Anna Ploszajski
Materials scientist, science communicator and podcaster Ploszajski goes beneath the surface of things to investigate what familiar objects are made of, from spoons to sweets to plastic airbeds. Handmade traces the author’s family’s war-torn origins and spotlights stories from a very full life, from university interviews and workplace bullying to swimming the channel overnight, learning to knit and finding her teenage self in the letters of Anne Lister, discovered in the school library. Handmade is a truly original book, and yet another fine example of quirky, queer non-fiction on this list.
Lessons in Love and Other Crimes by Elizabeth Chakrabarty
A daring, stylistically inventive hybrid of literary fiction and crime with elements of thriller, romance and even film, this dazzling novel follows Tesya’s return to London after a series of racially motivated hate crimes within an academic institution. As she falls for a mysterious woman, she finds history repeating itself. You find yourself hoping that her foster mother and best friend can save her, as it doesn’t seem like anyone else is on her side. An edge-of-the-seat read bookended by a thoughtful essay that holds a mirror up to broken Britain.
The other books, which have been reviewed in earlier blogs and make up the rest of my Top 21, are:
Friends and Strangers, by J. Courtney Sullivan
When I Ran Away, by Ilona Bannister
The Inverts, by Crystal Jeans
Lullaby Beach, by Stella Duffy
Diary of a Film, by Niven Govinden
Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny
The Stranding, by Kate Sawyer
The End of Men, by Christina Sweeney-Baird
Last one at the Party, by Bethany Clift
Sorrow and Bliss, by Meg Mason
The Startup Wife, by Tahmima Anam
You can listen to my interviews with Stella Duffy, Juliet Jacques, Niven Govinden, Matt Cain, Emma Goswell, Elizabeth Chakrabarty, Anna Ploszajski, Jeremy Atherton Lin, Joelle Taylor and others on Out in South London’s Mixcloud page. Most of these authors also appear on the Polari Podcast with Paul Burston, which I produce and edit.