Favourite fiction of 2021

Films

I did go to the cinema once this year, a Tuesday matinee with my wife to avoid the crowd. We saw No Time to Die and it was fine. Far better recent films I saw at home this year were The Green Knight (David Lowery), especially the middle sequences with wandering giants, Mogul Mowgli (Bassam Tariq) featuring an amazing performance by Riz Ahmed, Black Bear (Lawrence Michael Levine) for its bloody-mindedness, Under the Tree (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson) for its bleak comedy and Call Me By Your Name, which secures Luca Guadagnino as one of my favourite contemporary directors.

I watched a lot of older films in the first part of the year, probably as a means of keeping sane in the January lockdown. Since then, barely anything – who knows why. My most exciting discoveries were the wonderfully tense The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1961) and Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), the excellent double-bill of carnival horrors The Unholy Three (Tod Browning, 1925) and He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjöström, 1924), the stone-cold classic Orphée (Jean Cocteau, 1950), the deeply subversive duo of Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) and The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964) and the surprisingly affecting South Pole expedition documentary The Great White Silence (Herbert Ponting, 1924).

Books

In terms of recent novels, my favourite isn’t available or even announced yet, as I read it as a beta reader. I’d hope it’ll be snapped up by a publisher soon and you can all enjoy it. My favourite recently-actually-published novels were the dazzling The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. I also loved Hello Friend We Missed You by Richard Owain Roberts. My favourite recent SF novels were Amatka by Karin Tidbeck and The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn. The two collections I most enjoyed were both published in 2021 and were written by two of my favourite modern novelists: The Art of Space Travel, and other stories by Nina Allan and From the Neck Up, and other stories by Aliya Whiteley. Most of my non-fiction reading was related to my own projects, but of the others my favourite was Writing the Uncanny, a series of entertaining essays by some of the best current writers of the weird, edited by Dan Coxon.

Going back a little further, this year I discovered the work of Tom McCarthy, beginning with the incredible Remainder (2005) and then, neatly tying to having introduced my own children to Tintin, his non-fiction Tintin and the Secret of Literature (2006). The other 21st-century novel I most enjoyed was The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000), an absolute triumph in structural terms.

I read a lot of locked-room mysteries this year – odd, given that we were all in lockdown ourselves – my favourites being The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr (1941), The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne (1922) and An English Murder by Cyril Hare (1951).

I also read a fair amount of 19th-century fiction, including lots of Robert Louis Stevenson, kicking off with the wonderful anthology of his work selected by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Jorge Luis Borges in the 1960s. This led me to Stevenson’s Fables (1896), now one of my favourite story collections.

Other novels I loved this year were the heartless Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov (1932), the far more humane Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates (1986) and the wonderfully overflowing What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe (1994).

My favourite non-fiction book I read this year was also the book I most enjoyed overall: The Quest for Corvo by AJA Symons (1934), detailing the life of an unscrupulous author but structured like a detective novel, and one of the least classifiable and most compelling books I’ve ever read.

TV

Was there good TV in 2021? I’m sure there was, but for the most part, the tension in the real world left my wife and I unable to face anything particularly gritty, or suspenseful, or long. We watched a lot of Taskmaster. I loved the third series of Stath Lets Flats. I thought that Together was a necessary and uncompromising overview of the early lockdown. I liked Lupin and Call My Agent! and His Dark Materials and This Time… with Alan Partridge and Frank of Ireland. The best TV show was obviously Succession, one of the funniest TV programmes this century.

Games

In gaming terms, this year has been characterised by compulsive playing in order to block out the world. The games that achieved this most successfully for me were both roguelikes: deck-builder Slay the Spire, and the hard-as-nails sidescroller Dead Cells, though Civilization VI has threatened to topple them both since I started playing it this month. Both Her Story and Orwell provided a sense of almost-real surveillance, and while I was terrible at it, Return of the Obra Dinn provided the most satisfying actual deduction. The most immersive storytelling was in the astounding Disco Elysium, which I’ve played through twice. I surprised myself by getting back into platform gaming via Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and thoroughly enjoyed playing Creaks with my sons. Two of my favourite puzzle games were Hexcells and Escape Simulator, the former satisfyingly clean and abstract, the latter almost capturing the feel of real-life escape rooms, with a thriving community scene creating new levels all the time.