2021: Reading in Review

Like for many others here, for me, too, 2021 was a year I’m infinitely glad to see behind me; particularly so, the second half of the year. Books, thus, quickly became my one major lifeline — if you just look at the sheer numbers of books read (a grand total of 246), you’d think I must have had one heck of a year to have read this much; as a matter of fact, the reverse was the case. Especially in the final months of the year, my reading consisted almost exclusively of comfort reads — plenty of mysteries (even the odd cozy one during the holiday season), Christmas cheer, and other feel-good vibes.

Obviously, looking back over the entire course of 2021, one thing that stands out hugely was the buddy read of Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour back in summer and all the associated discussions, from destriers to medieval dental care and, of course, Dickon himself. (And don’t even remind me that I still have to review that book … if I ever get around to it.) Other than that, there are two major and seemingly contrasting features: one the one hand, many of my books of the year were products of my Around the World and Diversity reading projects; I’m simply bowled over by the sheer amount of great books from all over the world that I found through these two projects alone. On the other hand, 2021 was clearly a year of revisiting old favorites; though primarily in the first rather than the second half of the year — I used Arthur Conan Doyle and Ngaio Marsh’s respective birthdays, especially, as an excuse to revisit the entire Sherlock Holmes canon (courtesy of Stephen Fry’s outstanding narration), as well as Marsh’s New Zealand mysteries, by way of companion reads to her autobiography (Black Beech and Honeydew), to which the GR Appointment with Agatha group fortuitously added Marsh’s theatrical mysteries later in the year. (A selection for the group only, but I ended up rereading them all.) To these, I added the early entries in another longstanding favorite series, Martha Grimes’s Inspector Jury books — the series tanks badly in its later installments, but revisiting the first five books has reminded me just how good the beginning of the series really is.

That said, I think I pretty much think I’ve found a mix that works for me at this point, so current plans are to pretty much continue in 2022 what I have been doing in 2021 in terms of selecting books:

  • My Around the World reading project (now going into its fourth year); as in 2021, with a Diversity sideline — if I’m even half as lucky as in 2021 with the books I’ll be reading for these two projects in 2022, I’ll color myself very, very lucky.
  • My Detection Club reading project (which is really about all of Golden Age mystery fiction, not just books by members of the Detection Club, and which can always be counted on to provide comfort reads when simply nothing else will do).
  • The only remaining projects for which I’m still keeping a toe in the muddy Goodreads waters, Appointment with Agatha and the two (M)DWS challenges, Author Birthdays and Authors in Residence;
  • And by way of background to all of the above, my two longest-running reading projects, Women Writers and my Freedom and Future Library.


My Books of the Year

… in alphabetical order; book titles are linked to my reviews, if existing. This list includes both newly-read books and rereads.

Agatha Christie: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd / Murder on the Orient Express / Death on the Nile
Two of my all-time favorite novels by Christie fall into her first creative years, and thus were included in the Appointment with Agatha group’s 2021 reading schedule; namely, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express. To these two, I added another huge favorite, Death on the Nile.

Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes
It’s Conan Doyle. And Holmes. And Stephen Fry. ‘Nuff said.

Martha Grimes: Richard Jury series
I initially decided to revisit Grimes’s Richard Jury series in the spring of 2021 for the sme reason as two of my Golden Age favorites (Conan Doyle and Marsh); i.e., as my Author Birthday reads for that particular Goodreads (M)DWS challenge. However, rereading the first two books, The Man With a Load of Mischief and (particularly) The Old Fox Deceiv’d also brought home to me just how much I love the series’s early books (and — sniff — how much better these are than the later installments). So I just kept on reading; and even found ways to include books four and five (The Dirty Duck and Jerusalem Inn, probably my absolutely favorite Jury mystery) in my reading for Festive Tasks.

Zahra Hankir (ed.), Various Authors: Our Women on the Ground
A collection of essays by Arab and other Middle Eastern women journalists, writing about their life and experience in countries all across Northern Africa and the Middle East, from Sudan and Egypt to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and even Saudi Arabia. I was riveted from the first to the last page, and my awe of these women literally grew with every word I read.

Michael Jecks: The Chapel of Bones
Without question, one of the strongest installments in Jecks’s Knight Templar series (set in 14th century Devon): Inspired by real events — never say the medieval clergy were strangers to violence –, as atmospheric as you could possibly wish in a historical mystery, and skillfully making use, too, of the construction of Exeter Cathedral, which was underway at the time of the book’s events (the main plot as such is fictional).

Ursula K. Le Guin: No Time to Spare / Lavinia
Q2 / 2021 of the (M)DWS Authors in Residence was, without question, the stand-out quarter of the entire challenge for me, both for Le Guin (whom, incredibly, I had never read until then) and for John Steinbeck (whose books I’ve loved since high school). While I really liked Lavinia, too (once I’d found my mental groove for the book), her essays in No Time to Spare in particular struck a chord with me, and I’ll definitely be revisiting her nonfiction writing in the future. I would also like to explore her Orsinia canon at some point not too far in the future.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Broken Road
The final installment in the trilogy chronicling the then-not-even-20-years-old PLF’s three-year journey on foot from the Hoek of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul); mainly concerned with his travels and adventures in Romania and Bulgaria. The writing is still every bit as gorgeous as in the first two books; yet, as this is the installment that PLF himself never got around to finishing (and which was thus completed, based on his manuscript(s), by his editors and literary executors, Artemis Cooper (also his biographer) and Colin Thubron), we get a bit more of his rawer and less well-protected side, too, which only makes the experience all the more personal.

Ngaio Marsh: Roderick Alleyn series
I reread Marsh’s entire New Zealand canon (mysteries as well as autobiography) in spring, followed by her theatrical mysteries in the fall — some, including Death at the Dolphin (aka Killer Dolphin) and Opening Night (aka Night a the Vulcan) for the Appointment with Agatha) group; others, like Overture to Death and my particular favorite Light Thickens, I added on my own — and, finally, her three books with a winter (holiday) setting, Death and the Dancing Footman, Tied Up in Tinsel, and Off With His Head (aka Death of a Fool) for Festive Tasks.

Toni Morrison: Sula
Barely much more than novella-length, but a book that packs an enormous punch — race relations, women’s lives (and friendships), it’s all here and then some; and (unlike in Beloved, where it really helps if you already know the book before you listen to Morrison’s own narration), here it really pays up fully, too, to have the book narrated by Morrison herself.

John Mortimer: Murderers and Other Friends
I’d previously read all of John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories, and the TV series had long been a particular favorite of mine, but of course Mortimer was not only a barrister himself and an author of crime fiction; he was also an awardwinning playwright and, most importantly, incisive observer of British society. This is one part of what has loosely been termed his “autobiography” — or more precisely, a collection of very personal essays, linking events from his own life and observations on personal encounters with his social and political commentary at large. What a mind the world lost when he died.

Sharon Kay Penman: The Sunne in Splendour
The BL / SRR summer 2021 Dickon monster love fest — and I enjoyed every minute. Well, except for those when I wanted to kill George and / or Ned, or kick certain other persons’ rear nether parts for making the same of themselves. — What a monumental writerly achievement that book is.

Terry Pratchett: Maskerade / Moving Pictures
After the Discworld group reads were rudely interrupted in 2020 by the sad demise of BookLikes, I decided in 2021 to pick up the reins on my own and have progressed in order as far as Reaper Man, with Moving Pictures, Pratchett’s take on Tinseltown, constituting one of the year’s reading highlights — the other one from the Discworld universe was Maskerade, Pratchett’s spoof of (inter alia) The Phantom of the Opera, which I read out of order for Halloween Bingo.

Otfried Preußler: Die kleine Hexe (The Little Witch)
Another buddy (re)read, in this instance with Lory of Entering the Enchanted Castle, for her Summer in Other Languages project, and a very welcome excuse to revisit for the first time in several decades one of my absolute childhood favorites. You can find Lori’s and my exchanges on the book in the comments sections of her posts:

(Note, though, that the post and comments on the final five chapters do contain spoilers for the book’s ending.)

John Steinbeck: The Moon Is Down / Travels with Charley in Search of America / The Winter of Our Discontent
Part 2 of the (M)DWS Q2/2021 Authors in Residence extravaganza, and a reminder why I’ve loved Steinbeck’s writing — and way of thinking — ever since I first came across it (on my own) in high school. I swear, one day I’m going to go through his entire catalogue and post every other statement of his as a quote on my blog …

Rebecca Tinsley: When the Stars Fall to Earth
This book and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (below) were, without question, the books I found the hardest to get through in 2021; each of them delivers a mental gut punch that leaves you breathless and nauseated for a long time. Yet, I am very glad that I have read them both. When the Stars Fall to Earth tells the story of the Darfur genocide — from the perspective of the survivors. It was written by a Western journalist, and initially this shows (there’s a bit of a preaching subtext in the early chapters), but once the author starts basing her story straight on the personal experience of the women and children whose stories she had collected in the Darfur refugee camps — and subsequently made available, inter alia, to the International Criminal Court as evidence –, the narrative is nothing is simply unforgettable in every sense of the word.

Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad
This book’s “Underground Railroad” is not just a synonym for the secret path to freedom that runaway slaves sought in pre-Civil War America, it is a real makeshift railroad; but don’t be fooled by Whitehead’s creative use of the term: This is as raw and realistic as any narrative of slavery can possibly get — and in addition, it’s one of the first books I’ve come across that doesn’t portray the Southern States as a monolithic block: Whitehead goes to great lengths to show just how many different shades of racism and inhuman treatment blacks had to suffer in the South, not merely by virtue of the institution of slavery as such but also by way of other government policies (including but by far not limited to human experiments). — This novel has been hyped to the nth degree (particularly after having won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and a bunch of other awards, not to mention having been adapted for the screen, and as always tends to be the case, the hype was totally counterproductive in my case, as it just made me wary of the book … I’m glad to be able to say that in this instance, every bit of that hype is deserved, and then some.


The Statistics

The story of my 2021 reading is stuck somewhere between the fact that on the one hand, as always, my absolute go-to genre were mysteries — not least because of my Detection Club reading project, as well as the Conan Doyle, Christie, Marsh and Martha Grimes rereads … and of course Halloween Bingo and the holiday reads, also mostly mysteries, in the final months of the year — and on the other hand, the composition of my reads for the “non-mystery” genres.

So let’s start with the overall genre chart (which, please note, is one book short, because I don’t usually read children’s books, so although I loved my reread of Die kleine Hexe to bits, I decided not to create an extra chart category just for this one book, as it likely would only end up with “0” results all over the place in subsequent years).

Also as in most previous years, the number of mysteries is even higher if you include the number of historical mysteries I read in 2021:

A few more general stats before we get to the really interesting part: I’ve had a very good reading year overall …

Overall average rating: 3.9 stars

… and I’m still solidly on track with regard to the male vs. female and new books vs. reread ratios which originally caused me to pay attention to my reading stats in the first place (for background see HERE and the addendum HERE). Also, most of my books in 2021 again were audiobooks; it’s basically the only format that I can successfully combine with at least the more hamster-like variety of activities that have kept me busy throughout much of 2021):

(That’s author, not protagonist gender in the pie chart above, in case you had been wondering.)

But now we’re getting to the part where it becomes interesting. Remember at the end of last year I said that I’d try to introduce a bit more diversity into my reading even above and beyond my Around the World reading project (and in fact, created the Diversity Bingo card with that specific goal in mind)? Well, if you look at the resulting pie charts as such, 12% and 15% respectively for author and protagonist ethnicity doesn’t look all that impressive …

But: (1) Compared to the 2020 end-of-year figures, these charts represent nothing short of doubling the percentage of books by non-Caucasian authors I read over the course of the year (and also 1 1/2 times the percentage of books featuring non-Caucasian protagonists); and (2) even more importantly, the real story is not in the overall numbers as such, but in the fact that a huge percentage of the mysteries I read are (and will remain for the foreseeable future) Golden Age mysteries, i.e., books inherently and overwhelmingly likely to have Caucasian authors. Eliminate those, and the mystery genre generally, and we’re suddenly looking at a share of 22 of the remaining 98 books having been written by non-Caucasian authors, and even 26 of those 98 books featuring non-Caucasian protagonists, which translates into percentages of 22.4% and 26.5%, respectively — and which looks much more acceptable, at least to me. (And once I’ve successfully wrestled down the Excel “countif” syntax for my purposes, I’ll even be able to show that in a graph. Maybe next year.)

The effects of my Diversity project also show in the composition of non-Caucasian authors and protagonists, as I ended up including more books by African, Native, and Asian American, as well as by Black British authors than in previous years:

In the chart tracking my geographical “Around the World” data, finally, the preponderance of mysteries — particularly classic mysteries — again makes itself felt, as Europe (and within Europe, the UK) as well as, in second place, the Americas (notably the U.S.) account for by far the biggest chunks on the geographical spread. But again, compared to end-of-year 2020, the numbers for all other continents are up, too (Australia / Oceania by a factor of 4, thanks in part to my Marsh / NZ mini-binge, but also a number of other new discoveries), the percentage for Asia is doubled, and that for Africa is up by a factor of 1.5) — and in Europe and America, the UK and the U.S. are at least seeing a bit more competition from other locations, too.

Lastly, here are the major data again summed up in a final chart …

If the one for the end of 2022 looks even remotely similar, I’ll be very happy!

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