Some Books of the Year For 2021

Time for a quick look back over my reading year, to pick out some of my favourite reading from 2021’s book releases. While science fiction and graphic novels / comics will always be my favourites, I think it’s fair to say I have a fairly diverse reading diet, so this covers biography, history, science, fiction, crime novels, spy thriller, SF and graphic works. As usual I am sure I will be forgetting someone from the list, for which I apologise – normally I’ll notice a book on my shelf well after posting this and realise I meant to include it. If you’re considering buying any of these, where possibly please try using  your local bookshop rather than giving more money to Jeff Bezos.

The Island of the Missing Trees, Elif Shafak, Penguin Books

I’ve come to love Shafak’s works, and this year had the pleasure of meeting her when she visited to sign some books in our shop while she was in town for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Missing Trees is split between a father and daughter bereft of wife/mother recently in modern Britain, and 1970s Cyprus where young lovers are torn apart by the civil war, with a tree grown from a graft of a Cyprian tree also in the mix. If that sounds like it may be depressing, it isn’t: while it has sad moments and explores loss of both people and place, the exile’s life, it is also often uplifting and utterly beautifully written. I fell in love with her elegant, moving prose and finished this book with a deeply contented sigh.

The Lost Storyteller, Amanda Block, Hodder Studio

A debut novel, Amanda paid us a visit ahead of publication with advance copies of her book (as a bonus she was accompanied by an old colleague of mine who now works for the publisher, which was very nice). An adult woman has long excised her famous but long absent father from her mind, but she hasn’t really processed his departure from their family. A famous actor in his day, she is drawn into investigating why he really left them when a journalist asks for help in researching his disappearance (he didn’t just leave them, he vanished from public life), with the narrative wrapped around a small book of tales he wrote for her when she was a child. Beautifully done and emotionally satisfying, I think Amanda will be a new author to watch for.

Island Reich, Jack Grimwood, Penguin Books

I’ve read this author since his science fiction days (as Jon Courtenay Grimwood), and had to have a look at this standalone, WWII spy thriller. A safecracker and con-man is caught in 1940s Glasgow, and given the choice of the hangman’s noose or working for British intelligence, being dropped into the recently oocupied Channel Islands to play the part of a long-absent, fascist-friendly local lord to work his way into cracking a Nazi safe for secret plans, while a secondary plot involves disgraced former king Edward and Wallis (nee Simpson) fleeing the fall of France and being courted by the fascists of Spain and Germany (which he was clearly having fun writing). A cracking, fast-paced thriller.

City of Vengeance, D.V. Bishop, Macmillan Books

I’ve known David Bishop for many years – he teaches writing quite close to our bookshop, and I’ve known him through our comics connections, as he is a former editor of the mighty 2000 AD (which has launched many careers), so of course I was interested in his debut novel. Set in Renaissance Florence, this is a super historical crime novel, gripping story, exploring attitudes to vulnerable minorities (with echoes of today’s society), and a superbly realised feeling of the city and the time. Looking forward to the second book coming out in spring of 2022.

The Edge of the Grave, Robbie Morrison, Macmillan Books

Another debut prose work from an old comics chum – I’m sure some of you will know Robbie for his long list of comics creations, not least in 2000 AD. Here he introduces us to Glasgow in the early 1930s, and the first Catholic detective on a police force that is very blue-nose. In the Noir tradition our detective is also damanged by his experiences in the war, carrying his internal wounds with him as he investigates a body in the Clyde, taking in the low-life of the razor gangs to the high society of the city’s aristocracy, the great shipbuilding families, with a strong sense of place grounding the story.

Beyond, Stephen Walker, HarperCollins

For as long as I can remember Yuri Gagarin has been one of my heroes; posters of him and Neil Armstrong adorned my walls a a kid. I grew up in the shadow of the Space Age, and it has left a mark on me for life, so I had to read this new book on Gagarin and that heroic first manned space flight, which came out in time for the sixtieth anniversary of that world-changing event. Walker explores Gagarin’s life and that of the other cadre of young cosmonauts in detail, and the Soviet space programme, the immense engineering challenges, comparing them to their NASA counterparts, as they strive to be the very first in all the history of the world to step beyond our own world.

It’s unbelievably dangerous, heroic stuff, they really didn’t know what would happen to a human being in space – assuming they could even get them there safely, not to mention back again – and yet they did it anyway. Walker also explores the man, not just the myth – insights from fellow cosmonauts, friends and family let us see this young man, not just the epic hero, making it more touching and personal. Gagarin, who really did go “where no man has gone before.”

The Wolf Age, Tore Skeie, Pushkin Press

History has long been a passion, and Skeie’s book delivered in spades; a thousand years ago, and early English kingdom that has recovered from the devastating Viking wars of previous centuries is again repeatedly assaulted, people slaughtered, towns burned, alliances shift and change. It’s like something from one of the great Norse epics, and indeed Skeie begins with an overture about the final days of Snonri Sturluson, the man who wrote down so many of the sagas in Iceland, preserving them for us centuries later (while most of the warlords here also take warrior-poets with them who compose epic verses of their battles, history becoming myth almost as it happens).

As he points out you cannot understand the history of early England or Scandinavia (and other parts of Europe) without understanding this period and the interaction of Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen.It’s as gripping as any epic fantasy, but it actually happened.

Sentient, Jackie Higgins, Picador

In Sentient, Higgins explores the remarkable world of animal senses, each segment dealing with a different sense – touch, vision, hearing and so on. While most of us will be familiar with the idea that dogs can smell far more scents than our human nose can, or certain animals can see in ways we cannot, this delves far deeper into how scientists are researching some of the remarkable abilities of the other creatures which share the planet with us, from the incredible sense of touch used by the star-nosed mole to animals that can see in other wavelengths beyond what we can detect.

However, it goes further – Higgins then relates the research on each of these animals senses to the human experience, and how it compares to our own (spoiler, our senses are far better than we give ourselves credit for) and also how we can use this to help when our sense fail. More than that though, this is a book that restores that precious sense of wonder about the world around us, and that’s something always to be cherished.

Bumble and Snug and the Angry Pirates, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books

This was truly one of the most delightful finds of 2021 for me: I’ve found my beloved comics medium to be a rich one for younger readers, enticing even kids who are reluctant readers, or have reading problems, to devour books and entire series (we’ve had a lot of success with our graphic novel section for young readers). Mark’s debut was just a wonderful adventure of two friends, packed with humour, a giant balloon, a sea monster, a picnic, pirates and more (really, what more do you need?!), and an important message about friendship, kindness and being okay to explore your feelings. It also had me chuckling out loud repeatedly, and our younger regulars we’ve recommended it to in the bookshop have all loved it it too. Looking forward to the next book! (full review can be read here on the blog)

Putin’s Russia, Darryl Cunningham, Myriad Editions

I always look forward to Darryl’s new works – back in the Long Ago he was our virtual cartoonist in residence on the now sadly gone Forbidden Planet Blog, and I still recall being incredibly impressed with his first full-length work, Psychiatric Tales (which badly needs to be put back into print). In this new work he explores the life of Vladimir Putin and his rise to power in post-Soviet Russia, his years of corruption and abuse of power (and intimidation and worse to cover it up) stretching far back beyond his time as president or prime minister.

Given how much influence Russia under Putin’s vile, autocratic rule has had on the world stage (think not just the invasion of Crimea, but behind the scenes works such as massive disinformation and interference campaigns on political campaigns in the US, UK and more, or the assassinations carried out brazenly in other countries with utter contempt for laws and decency), this is an important and pertinent story, and again as with Billionaires or Supercrash, Darryl delivers a huge amount of complex research in the most accessible form, cementing for me his position as the UK’s leading non-fiction comics creator. (the full review can be read here in the blog)

Megatropolis, Kenneth Niemand and Dave Taylor, 2000 AD / Rebellion

Taking long-established characters and settings and putting them into alternate possibilities has long been an interesting way to explore different aspects of long-running series; DC has its Elseworlds (where we see what happens if Superman’s escape pod landed in the USSR instead of Kansas, or Batman as a vampire), and Marvel their What If series (recently adapted into an animated TV series).

Here Niemand and Taylor take the world of Judge Dredd and Mega City One, but it’s different, it’s a retro-future, a city of gleaming, Art Deco influenced styles, Taylor clearly delighting at being free to reimagine the Big Meg in this stunningly beautiful way (partaking of both Lang’s 20s masterpiece Metropolis as much as the Film Noirs of the 30s and 40s). Here Hershey is an investigative journalist, Cal is a corrupt detective, Rico – in normal Dredd he’s the judge’s clone brother who went bad – is the rare straight detective trying to fight crime and corruption, even in his own department, while Dredd himself is a shadowy, mysterious vigilante figure appearing from nowhere to hold those corrupting the vision of what the city should be to account. Gripping story, fascinating “what if?” moments and stunning artwork (the full review is here on the blog).

Beyond the Hallowed Sky, Ken MacLeod, Orbit Books

I always have a huge pile of books on the TBR (to be read) pile, but Ken has long been one of the few authors who bypassed that tottering Babel Tower of books to go straight to the top of the list when he has a new book out. This is the first in a new trilogy, set around fifty years in our future, mostly split between Scotland and a couple of distant worlds. We have a phycisist who receives a letter supposedly from herself in the future, which has mathematical proof of faster than light travel, which most ridicule.

We have explorers on a distant world beyond our own solar system, explorers closer to home on bases on Venus, and right on the Clyde, a new ship being built with a faster than light drive. I loved the idea of this vessel being built in a Clydeside shipyard, and MacLeod also conjures up a believeable future world split into different factions: Scotland here is independent and part of the Union, save for the Faslane base which England, now in an Alliance with the US, has held onto for their nuclear submarines (some of which boast this FTL drive to travel well beyond our oceans). Terrific narrative and, as always with Ken, some material for you to think about.

Blood and Gold, Mara Menzies, Birlinn

Mara is a professional storyteller, usually doing live performances, but here she has taken some of her stories into prose form (although we were fortunate enough to have her tell some of them live in our bookshop recently, and it was wonderful). Blood and Gold, which features illustrations from Eri Griffin explores both Scottish and African heritage, family, folklore and mythology, with teenage Jeda in a never-named city (which is clearly Edinburgh), dealing with not just the problems of growing into an adult, but losing her mother.

But her mother has left behind a trove of important stories to help her growing daughter understand herself and where she came from – and where she can go to next. But the sinister Shadowman follows, eager to seep into her misery and depression, to keep her from the vibrant glow of the stories, of her mother’s enduring love reaching out from beyond. It’s extremely emotional and caused me to tear up quite a bit, the raw emotions reminding me very much of my own grief and loss, but this brought me deeper into Jeda’s world, and the importance of storytelling as an integral part of what makes us human (I think lovers of Neil Gaiman’s work would fine much to enjoy here). Beautiful and moving, and also a good celebration of our cross-cultural heritage (the good and the bad)

Hummingbird, Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer, Fourth Estate

I’ve been reading Jeff’s remarkably unusual works since his early Ambergris novels (his collection City of Saints and Madmen is a good introduction), and am always looking forward to whatever he does next, safe in the knowledge that it is going to be thoguht provoking, unusual and hard to predict. In Hummingbird the skeleton of the story is pretty much the private eye type – a woman who works in security finds herself drawn to keep investigating something she’s told frequently not to, creating problems and danger at work and at home.

However, while accurate, that really doesn’t convey what Hummingbird Salamander actually is: a summary of narrative really doesn’t tell you much about any of Jeff’s books, I think – he’s one of those writers whose books you don’t just read, you experience. This is as much about atmosphere and very carefully considered wordplay as it is the actual narrative; as with many of his other books there’s an increasing sense of dislocation, of things being out of kilter, both the people and world around them becoming something other, different, odd. Intriguing, disturbing, unusual, and with a strong sense of the environment (and what we’re doing to it) woven through.

Continental Comics

While I was in Paris I took the opportunity of browsing in some bookstores and bouquinistes (the rare and second hand booksellers with the lockups by the Seine) for some bandes dessinée (French comics, basically). Unlike the English language book world comics and graphic novels are taken more seriously as culture and art; we cover a tiny bit of the European scene on the FPI blog but what gets translated into English and republished for the UK and US markets is pretty limited compared to what actually gets published in Europe so I decided I would have a look at some BD while I was there, my basic and rusty French not withstanding and ended up writing an article out of it for the FPI blog last weekend, which I’m repeating below:

Apologies to Wim for appropriating his usual title for this post (normal continental correspondent service from Belgium will be resumed shortly), but I’m just back from a terrific break in Paris where, as well as the usual tourist pastimes of marvelling at the motoring madness that is the Circus Maximus around the Arc de Triomphe (the greatest free show in the City of Light) or wondering if it was permissible to push very loud and irritating backpackers off the Eiffel Tower, I managed to have a couple of little browses through some bandes dessinée. Sadly the first dedicated comics shop – Super Hero Libraire – was closed when we passed it (unlike the UK French shops don’t always stick to the regular 9 to 6 sort of hours every day, but many are open into the evening, so its worth checking hours if there is a specific store you want to catch) and it was too far from our hotel to make a return visit feasible.

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(French one volume edition of V For Vendetta and a big dollop of Wolverine – did you know Logan spoke French?)

But this is France and unlike Britain you can find BD pretty much wherever books are sold – even the famous bouquinistes with their distinctive green lock-ups along the banks of the Seine often feature both BD albums and old comics issues, although since some of these may be rare rather than simply second hand you have to watch the prices. I came across a multi-volume series collecting V for Vendetta en Français and was quite tempted to pick them up, but at just shy of 20 Euros per volume it was just too pricey.

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(one of the windows of the Super Hero Librairie; in the bottom left shelf you can see Chroniques Birmanes which Wim reviewed here last week)

Still, the bouquinistes are something any book lover will want to enjoy, whether you are looking for BD, paperback novels or any other literature; actually on a spring day simply browsing among them as the barges move along the Seine, the simple pleasure of rummaging through used books combined with being outdoors and sightseeing. One stand in particular had an interesting mix of French BD and English language titles, so you’d see second-hand Bilal albums next to a rack of old Daredevil issues. As with second hand and antiquarian bookstore here though, the bouquinistes choose their opening hours according to arcane signs among the stars and from a formula calculated using an ancient equation worked out by Diderot, so it is pure luck which ones will be open or closed when you go past at any time of day or evening, but hey, if you’re there its as good as an excuse as any for a walk long the banks of the Seine without feeling like a total tourist.

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(some of the bouquinistes by the Seine, near Notre Dame)

In the bouquiniste stands, the comics stores and the mainstream bookshops it is also common to come across English language titles translated into French – the aforementioned V Pour Vendetta, of course, but quite a diverse selection, even in mainstream bookstores (some of which had graphic novel sections almost half as big as you’d find in specialist comics stores here, and that’s just adult BD, not counting the younger reader’s material). Even in the land where comics are considered the Ninth Art you’re still going to find the ‘underwear perverts’ as Boing Boing refers to superheroes, translated and nestling among the slimmer, hardback BD albums – as with any comics store its hard not to spot some X-Men titles.

Kirkman and Adlard’s excellent, Romero-influenced zombie series The Walking Dead seemed popular too and I spotted several large paperback translated collections cropping up in a number of places. There’s something fascinating about leafing through the pages of something you’ve read but now in another language (and this seems universal – plenty of the many tourists who come to Edinburgh like to pick up Tolkien in bookstores here, for example, to read in English having read it in French, German etc). In one of the many bookstores between the Saint Michel and Latin Quarter areas I also came across a very handsome, thick collection of Eddie Campbell’s early work. You’ll appreciate the irony that if I want to track down most of that work by an acclaimed British artist at home I’d have to go second hand because it’s currently out of print, yet in France I can find a very fine-looking collection in an ordinary bookstore. Then again the French probably appreciate it more; “Monsieur Campbell, sacre bleu, ‘e is a true artiste de BD.” (and of course, they are right). And I noticed quite a few artists familiar to me via their translated works which have come out from Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, NBM, First Second and Fantagraphics over the years, from Trondheim to Zograf.

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(just some of the BD on offer in Gibert Jeune in the Saint Michel area of Paris)

Of course while you’re there you want to have a look at some European titles. Now my French is pretty basic and those school lessons seem a long time ago, but one of the advantages the comics form offers is (usually) less actual text to comprehend (or not!) and the visual aide of sequential pictures, so even when your command of French is less than stellar there’s a lot of extra context to give you a hand. It doesn’t make the medium completely accessible and bypass the linguistic barriers (unless it is a ‘silent’ strip), but if you have even a small grasp of the language a comic is going to be a much easier way to try and interact a bit more with another tongue.

That shouldn’t be surprising to us; after all we first encourage the comprehension of written language and structure in children using picture books. And living as I do in Edinburgh, as awash with visitors as Paris, I’ve seen a number of adult tourists deliberately picking up Asterix and Tintin in English to take home because it is a great way to try and get more into another language, so I thought I’d take a similar tact and ended up coming home with some Jodorowsky – Les Technopères, with fabulous science fiction art from Zoran Janjetov which made it worth picking up just to admire – and on spotting a recent collection (just published by Air Libre/Dupuis in January) by this year’s Grand Prix winners at Angoulême, Dupuy and Berberain, Un Peau Avant la Fortune, I thought that would be worth a bash too.

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(cover to Dupuy and Berberian’s recently published Un Peau Avant la Fortune, published Air Libre/Dupuis and (c) Dupuy and Berberian)

To be honest I could easily have blown more money picking up several more, but since I don’t know how well I will cope with them it seemed prudent to limit myself (and spend the remaining money on wine). But language aside it is hard to resist when you are faced with shelf upon shelf of BD, everything from the funny books to tales of daring Resistance heroines in wartime Paris (one book I randomly picked up had a scene with the Resistance heroine set on one of the Seine bridges I had just passed over to get to that very bookstore, sadly I can’t remember the title now), science fiction, biographical… Even if you aren’t going to buy yourself some, if you find yourself visiting France its still enjoyable for any comics fan to have a good browse through the BD section; its always good to try something different in your reading, as we’ve said here on more than one occasion (and will doubtless say again, because its true and there is so much out there just waiting to be read).

There is another way for those of us with only a limited grasp of the language to buy into the French BD experience a little more though, and it is much cheaper than buying new hardback albums – the journals. Paris is awash with newsstands and as in any city the railway and metro stations and the airports also have plenty of stores where among the newspapers, movie mags and copies of Elle (I was vaguely disappointed the French version of Elle wasn’t called ‘her’) you are likely to find several magazines and journals dedicated to BD and some specialising in manga. Of course the language barrier is still there, but if you are interested but wary because of the language a mag is a lot cheaper to buy and try than books – it’s also a good way of introducing yourself to different comics creators.

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I settled on BoDoï – “explorateur de bandes dessinées” – which has a special edition celebrating 35 years of the Grands Prix at Angoulême. For 7.50 Euros (about five pounds, slightly pricey for a mag, but it does have a lot of colour art) I got a special edition which offered up some 40 artists, with two or three pages each of art and a short bio/interview (in French, naturellement). And just check some of the artists covered here – Robert Crumb, Enki Bilal, Morris, José Muñoz, François Schuiten, Trondheim, Hugo Pratt, Moebius, Will Eisner, Jaques Tardi, Jean-Claude Forest, Jaques Lob, Neal Adams, Max Cabanes, Uderzo… That has to be worth a fiver of any comics fan’s money, surely?

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(an excerpt from Mister I, (c) Lewis Trondheim)

The art and themes on offer are as varied as the artists – Philippe Vuillemin riffs nicely on the old joke – old jokes seem to be universal, I’m pleased to note – about the young polar bear (I won’t ruin the punchline in case you’ve never heard it), Georges Wolinski offers up a take on psychotherapy which would work in almost any Western culture (especially if you’re a Woody Allen fan), Lewis Trondheim’s Mister I makes a welcome appearance with a wordless tale (so it was only the bio/interview I had to struggle to read!) and we get a quick visit to Eisner’s Dropsie Avenue.

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(Rendezvous a Paris by the one and only Enki Bilal)

Personal standouts for me came from Bilal, who I’ve always admired for his beautiful, imaginative science-fiction artwork. In this case it is just a couple of wordless pages, including one spectacular full page splash set above the Eiffel Tower. Jaques Tardi has four pages first created for the magazine L’Aisne set during the carnage of the Great War which are highly effective and moving. Even if you don’t speak word one of French I think you would still grasp the scenes of French infantrymen suffering and the word “boucherie!” repeated, larger and bolder each time until it is screaming “BOUCHERIE!” at the reader while below a smug General Nivelle stands in front of a charnel house of bones of fallen soldiers. Actually looking at a couple of the frames in Tardi’s piece I’m moved to wonder if they influenced the trench scenes in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement.
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(two pages from Jaques Tardi’s segment, these are from “la BD du Avril 16″ and although very different in style seem to me to be every bit as powerful and moving as the superb art Joe Colquhoun created for Charley’s War; originally published in L’Aisne magazine and (c) Jacque Tardi)

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Max Cabanes’ Francis Cabrel, les Beaux Dessins, inspired by a song by Francis Cabrel, showcases some beautiful artwork; again, if you can’t read the language you can just admire the luscious art of two lovers amid the trees. François Schuiten (with Benoît Peeters) has two utterly gorgeous pages, Hommage à Winsor McCay (I think you can translate the meaning of that yourselves!), paying tribute to the immortal Little Nemo (I just keep turning back to those pages and looking at the, superb), while back in the world of black and white there’s a great extract from Superdupont by Jacques Lob with artwork by the great Neal Adams; you just have to love the Superman clone meeting his French counterpart Superdupont in his vest, paunch and beret, a Reagan-esque president and something spooky going on at a vineyard (hence the need for the French hero).

So, if you are lucky enough to be going to France on holiday, keep your eyes open – even if you only have basic French there are still comics delights to be had; as a wise comics character once declared, “there’s treasure everywhere!” There are a number of comics jewels in this special issue and I will try to share some more scans from it over the coming days because they are too good to keep to myself.