Possibly the hardest challenge we have given ourselves yet! We have compiled a list of our favourite reads from the last year.
There were so many wonderful books published in 2020/21 its hard to pick favorites. Here are a selected few of mine. In terms of bigger presses, I absolutely loved Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing (Sort of Books), Nina Mingya Powles’s Small Bodies of Water (Canongate) and Daisy Lafarge’s Life without Air (Granta). Each beautifully weaves together nature writing with explorations of memory and questions of care and responsibility.
But as we’re a small press I’m going to take this opportunity to shout out to some of the small presses that have released a few of my favourite publications of 2021. Hannah Copely’s Speculum (Broken Sleep Books) and Pratyusha and Alicia Pirmohamed’s Second Memory (Guillemot Press) are both richly intertextual, drawing on history, theory and the ghosts of obscure women in exciting ways and with vivid imagery of gynaecological tools and trumpeting elephants (respectively). I also highly recommend the personal and moving – in very different ways – poetry of Cynthia Miller’s Honorifics (Nine Arches Press) and Kostya Tsolakis’s Ephebos (Ignition Press). Last but certainly not least, I adore the delicious language and ekphrastic delights of Lila Matsumoto’s Two Twin Pipes Sprout Water (Prototype Books). These books are such a joy, do go out and read them, and support small presses!
For me, 2021 has been characterised by the publication of long-awaited debuts. I cannot tell you how excited I was for Karenjit Sandhu’s Young Girls! (The 87 Press) to arrive in the post – after being enthralled by Sandhu’s live performance work for several years, it was a joy to put her on my bookshelf. Aaron Kent’s long-awaited full length collection, Angels the Size of Houses (Shearsman Books) made waves in July – Gillian Clarke has described the collection as ‘word music’. Maria Sledmere’s collection The Luna Erratum (Dostoyevsky Wannabe) was a striking debut – Sledmere’s dizzying Neutral Milky Halo (Guillemot Press) was one of my pamphlet highlights of the year so I had high expectations! They were certainly met.
On the topic of Guillemot Press, I must mention Maria Stadnicka’s Buried Gods Metal Prophets – this is a collection that I have returned to again and again throughout the year. This striking documentary-lyric-experiment-sequence-poem-defiance-performance-testament tackles the consequences of Romania’s Communist Party’s ‘Decree 770’ through a disquieting poetic voice. The collection is both direct and surreal. Writing for the Telegraph, Tristram Fane-Saunders notes, ‘When she creates dreamlike images, her tight diction gives them the bite of reality: “A stone grows in my mouth, / Between my flesh / and my heart, / rust.”‘
I was especially drawn to the output of both Broken Sleep Books imprints – ‘Secret Sleep Books‘ and ‘Legitimate Snack‘. Both imprints offer limited print runs of pamphlet and chapbook projects – whilst Legitimate Snack is a series dedicated to exploring the material form of the chapbook, Secret Sleep Books consists of surprise print runs with a charitable aim. Personal highlights from this year included The Tricolore Textbook by Wendy Allen (LS), haemorrhage by Aaron Kent (LS), Headspace by Nóra Blascsók (LS), and Bobby Parker’s Resurrection Mary (SSB).
Finally, I feel it is necessary to mention a book that I NEED to get my hands on – Kate Siklosi’s Leavings (Timglaset Editions). A second edition is currently underway and I have clocked that preorder button. Listen to this and you will likely do the same: ‘This book maps some of my experimentations with what I’m calling a poethic of leaving: of falling away, of stitching back together, of beginning again. Murmuring the borders between landscape and language, these pieces revel in the undone, the undoing, sewing found stories from the severed heap of others. The stutters of wave-worn wood, the golden hum of dying leaves, the whirring of sutured skeletons: in this fugue, the detritus of the natural world speaks to us in a cautionary babble we’ve acclimated ourselves to forget. In their inherent fragility and demand for care, these leavings (per)form a delicate weaving from the tender threads that entwine us all.’ (Kate Siklosi)
I’ve spent much of 2021 with works in translation, and thinking about the political aspects of DIY publishing, both of which afford a potent space for play and disobedient encounters not replicated in other structures. But what actually made my heart beat faster? What, you know, made that elusive fire flicker under my skin?
Well, Ellen Dillon’s hypnotising Morsel May Sleep (Sublunary Editions) is the reading I didn’t know I wanted on the mysteries of attention and slippery language: what could be more alluring than a slide into and away from Mallarmé?
Alexander Booth’s (@wordkunst) Triptych is an elegant, exquisite object that pleases both hand and eye, while the text quietly and expertly slices your heart out and draws your attention to the newly-vacant space. It’s available directly from him here.
Tobias Ryan’s (@TobiasVRyan) Em is a snare baited with questionable delicacies, offered straight into your inbox from his Attic Scraps substack. Allow yourself to be snapped in its trap, allow it to seep into your bloodstream. I did, and I regret nothing.
Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion (Fitzcarraldo) translated by Tanya Leslie is just essential reading for anyone who has ever been in love. Its sparse, precise account of an affair demands to be devoured in a single, obsessive sitting, but you’ll find yourself wondering who is the devourer and who the devoured in its aftermath.
The Annotated Arabian Nights, Tales From 1001 Nights (Liveright) translated by Yasmine Seale, is a reading event. It’s a significant work of unpacking: erudite, lyrical, lushly illustrated, a two-inch thick volume to graze and be diverted by over days and weeks. It’s been my bedside companion throughout December.
And finally those newsletter formats landing at all the right moments: Adam Smyth’s TEXT!; Adam Moody’s To The Happy None; Helena Fitzgerald’s Griefbacon; Off Assignment and Jonathan Gibbs’s A Personal Anthology. Absolute riches.
One of my favourite books of this year is Fanny B. Mine by Nikki Dudley – poems that reimagine Keats and Fanny Brawne’s relationship from a 21st century viewpoint. It contains experiments in form and with found source material, including Keats’ letters to Fanny and the author’s secondary school books! It is a surreally funny collection of poems about the agony of love and the weirdness of relationships.
Diane Cook’s debut novel The New Wilderness (technically 2020 but we couldn’t resist – Briony is still wondering if 2020 even happened at all!) tracks the events of a group of people wandering the Wilderness – an experimental nature park where their task is to live without leaving any trace. The dynamics of family, relationships and power take on higher and higher stakes as survival becomes more tenuous. This book is visceral, emotional and as difficult to look at as it is to look away from. I had enjoyed Cook’s short story collection, Man V Nature, and was delighted to find that her storytelling abilities transfer well to longer narratives. It is hard to describe the novel as hopeful – but it does bring into question what it means to hope, and what exactly we should hope for.