My favourite books of 2021

By Simon’s Books

By Simon’s Books

The Status Game: On Human Life and How to Play it

Will Storr

£20.00 £19.00

I’ve raved about Will Storr for a long time: his talent as a writer and a journalist is truly remarkable, and he deserves every accolade. His byline on one of his signature long-form newspaper or magazine articles guarantees a fascinating read and new insights, even if the subject at hand isn’t something that appears immediately interesting. It’s therefore no surprise at all that I loved this recently published book of his about social status and how it drives human psychology. His argument is that the acquisition of social status drives everything we do, without our realisation, and even when we believe we are acting altruistically. We all want to be heroes. As in all of his writing, Storr takes a broad view of his topic. His discussion encompasses serial killers, social media ‘celebrities’, the history of religion, and (slightly less convincingly) the rise of the Nazis. He writes very interestingly on psychology, and how each person’s perception of the world differs markedly. Storr’s storytelling style holds the text together, with an appreciable dash of wry humour. Storr’s insights always live long in my memory, perhaps because I enjoy his writing so much, and perhaps because of his memorable storytelling style. While I loved this book, I’m not sure it’s the first I’d recommend to people new to Storr’s writing as his central thesis (while convincing to me) might prove a bit of a barrier: I’d perhaps suggest that "Selfie" is the best starting point (or his reams of journalism).

The Echo Chamber

John Boyne


Just out in hardback, this is John Boyne’s new comedic novel which skewers society’s obsession with social media. The epigraph is from Umberto Eco, and summaries the thesis succinctly: "Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots." The plot is centred on the Cleverley family, all five members of whom are irredeemably awful people. George, the patriarch, is the host of a BBC TV chat show which has been running for decades. Beverley, his wife, is nominally a writer of romance novels, though makes extensive use of ghost writers. Alike with their three young adult children, the two hold themselves in unfathomably high esteem. Each member of the family makes use of social media for self-promotional purposes. As with Boyne’s last novel, The Heart's Invisible Furies, the plot is fairly ridiculous; yet, where in the previous novel an outlandish plot was used as an opportunity to string together a series of moments of high emotional drama, here it strings together a series of laugh-out-loud satisfying set pieces in one long downward spiral of farcical consequences. This is a very funny book, with lots of satirical contemporary references. (And, to note, Maude Avery—one of my favourite literary characters after her introduction in the previous novel—is referenced a number of times in this one.) While this is a skewering of social media, it’s hard not to notice that social media delivers justice in the book, albeit by perverted misguided means. Through that authorial decision, Boyne leaves some interesting questions to ponder, rather than just writing off the whole medium. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain's Battle with Coronavirus

Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott


As COVID-19 has consumed almost all of my working life for the past nineteen months, I've been somewhat loath to read even more about it in my spare time. Yet I found this recently published book by two investigative journalists from The Sunday Times extraordinary, gripping and devastating—and the experience of reading it, mildly reassuring. The book starts with fifty pages on the history of coronavirus outbreaks around the world, and the likely sources of COVID-19, before launching into 350 pages covering the response of (mostly) the UK Government to the pandemic up until the end of 2020. People often characterise NewsUK journalists as being supportive of Conservative governments, yet this book, which sticks to a mostly straightforward timeline of events, could not be more damaging to the Government's claim to have handled the pandemic well. Perhaps most damning of all is the section at the end where the authors explain that the Government's response to their criticisms was to deny any errors in their handling of the crisis. It was this book's elucidation of clear errors and lessons for the future that I found oddly reassuring: reflection, learning and continuous improvement is a cornerstone of any medical practice, and an explicitly routine part of health protection practice, and acknowledgement of errors felt like a bit of a return to normality—even where those errors have been on a unrecognisable scale. Calvert and Arbuthnott include harrowing individual patient stories from the pandemic, which are tough to read. Its also hard—as they themselves acknowledge—to be certain of how representative of the wider response each of these stories can be. Yet their inclusion feels important to contextualise decisions and illustrate their human impact. No work of journalism will ever be perfect, or fully reflect the truth of any situation: the blameless can be blamed, decisions made with the best available information at the time can look foolhardy in hindsight, and the real villains can go without mention. Perhaps Arbuthnott and Calvert are completely wrong on key facts, or on where decisions were made, or on where they place the blame. But, right or wrong, this book feels like the first draft of the history of the UK Government's response to the first part of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Cure for Good Intentions: A Doctor's Story


£16.99 £16.14

Sophie Harrison was an editor at Granta magazine before she decided to retrain as a doctor. She started medical school in 2003—the same year as me—and this memoir of her time at medical school through to her early career as a GP has just been published. I picked this up as I was aware of Harrison's background and thought it was likely that she would write well about her career, which I thought would be quite fun to read. I've somehow never really clocked her pieces in the LRB or the Financial Times Weekend despite regularly reading both. I though this book was wonderful: warm and witty, exactly the tone I would like to strike if I had enough talent to write about my own medical training. The fact that Harrison is a contemporary of mine meant that her story brought back a lot of memories from my own training, moreso than the many medical biographies from different eras. Harrison's background also gives her a literary appreciation for medicine, and there are lots of references to medicine in literature contrasted with her own experiences. I enjoyed this enormously, more even than I expected. The combination of great writing and the reminisces it engendered as I read made this a real pleasure.


Jeffrey Eugenides

£9.99 £9.49

This 2002 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer prize—and in my view, entirely deserved it. I thought this was brilliant. The plot is focused on Calliope Stephanides, an intersex man who—despite a XY chromosomal pattern—has a genetic disorder which causes him to be born with feminine genitalia, and to be raised as a girl. The condition reveals itself as Calliope reaches puberty. But this isn’t just a novel about an intersex man, or even just about gender identity: most of the previous paragraph makes up only the final third of the novel. The rest explores Calliope’s family history, commenting on the immigrant experience for his grandparents moving from Greece to Detroit, and telling a compelling set of stories of consanguinity. The narrator is also witty, and this book made me laugh. I thought this was brilliant, both in terms of its telling of the broad canvas story of immigration and social change, and of the specific plot and the gender issues caught up in it. It is a real page-turner of a story, as well as having a lot to say.

The Overstory: The million-copy global bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Richard Powers

£9.99 £9.49

Richard Powers’s much-acclaimed 2019 novel which is broadly about humanity’s relationship with trees, and the way in which deforestation is effectively harming (ending) the human species. The structure of this book is used in part to reflect its message: Powers makes the point that trees which appear to be separate are essentially all part of one big interacting forest organism. The first section of the book (“Roots”) introduces a set of nine distinct characters in separate chapters, and then sets about demonstrating how they all interact in one big story (“Trunk” onwards). This is all very well in theory, but I found that first quarter of the book deathly dull—though I note that one of my Goodreads friends found it to be the best bit. I wasn’t really invested in the characters, and contemplated giving up on the book. However, from “Trunk” onwards, I thought this was exceptional. It had a combination of first-rate prose, a number of driving plots, and an interesting and well-argued thesis about our relationship with nature which Powers drives home. It was so good, in fact, that this has become one of my favourite books of the year so far, despite the rocky start.

Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri

£8.99 £8.54

This is Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut collection of nine short stories of about 20 pages each about experiences resulting from a meeting of Indian and (mostly) American culture. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. I picked it up mostly on a whim because I fancied reading some short stories and this caught my eye, and I’ve ended up very much enjoying it. I liked every one of the nine stories, and found them all engaging and surprisingly powerful. Lhari grounds each of the stories in everyday life, and the power comes from the close observation of common experiences. The prose style feels spare, simple and exact. I also felt that I gained new insight into what it is like to be a cultural outsider on a day-to-day level, and the internal conflicts and misunderstandings it can create. This element of the book felt relevant and current. I’d certainly recommend this one.

Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis - The Expropriation of Health

Ivan Illich

£12.95 £12.30

I dug this 1976 book out of the library in response to my Goodreads friend Richard Smith re-posting his 2002 piece about it. I’d never heard of it before, but blimey its force of argument blew me away. Illich’s central argument is that “the medical establishment has become a major threat to health … A vast amount of contemporary clinical care is incidental to the curing of disease, but the damage done by medicine to the health of individuals and populations is very significant.” Some of the specific arguments and statistics Illich uses show their age, but it is hard to substantially disagree with most of his central points. Illich’s lengthy arguments about the various forms of iatrogenic harm lead him to argue for keeping most of the population away from the medical establishment and instead bolstering the ability of communities to maintain their health and cope with ill-health. “The level of public health corresponds to the degree to which the means and responsibility for coping with illness are distributed among the total population … A world of optimal and widespread health is obviously a world of minimal and only occasional medical intervention. Healthy people are those who live in healthy homes on a healthy diet in an environment equally fit for birth, growth, work, healing, and dying.” For me personally, this book has come at the perfect time. I have been worrying about the extent to which the response to the covid-19 pandemic has emphasised a professional / medical model of healthcare to an extent that I have never before seen in my medical career. Even at the ‘slightest symptom’ the population is encouraged to engage with the ‘establishment’ via formal testing. I worry that we will struggle to put the genie back in the bottle. The age-adjusted mortality rate for the most deprived quintile of the UK is a multiple of that for the least deprived quintile, yet—at least from what we have heard to date—the mainstay of the plan for future pandemics appears to be to beef up the medically driven response (people like me) rather than doing anything meaningful to tackle the underlying social issues. This book was a timely reminder of the limits of the medical approach to health that articulated much of what I’ve been worrying about. I’m not sure I would go as far as Illich in arguing against medicine, but having a polemic like this certainly stimulates thought.

There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness

Carlo Rovelli

£20.00 £19.00

Published in English last year, this is physicist Carlo Rovelli’s collection of newspaper and magazine articles, mostly from Italian publications over the last decade and translated here by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell. As the author says in his preface, the pieces collected here are like brief diary entries recording the intellectual adventures of a physicist who is interested in many things and who is searching for new ideas—for a wide but coherent perspective. I thoroughly enjoyed this, from the columns on (what seem to me to be) minutiae of physics to the wider social and cultural commentaries, though the latter held more appeal for me. Rovelli writes engagingly and insightfully on everything from the covid pandemic to activism, and from his experiences taking LSD to his atheism. There is always something interesting about hearing people with a huge amount of knowledge and understanding of one area of life applying their perspective and approach to something different… though the three-part essay on black holes also sparkles and his tribute to Stephen Hawking moves. I haven’t read any of Rovelli’s books before now (despite them selling in their millions), but the quality of his writing and the clarity of his imagery has got me adding them to my “to read” list.

Levels of Life

Julian Barnes

£9.99 £9.49

This is Julian Barnes’s 2013 genre-defying short book. It consists of three essays which are thematically connected in myriad unexpected ways: ‘The Sin of Height’ is a biography of the first aerial photographer, Nadar; ‘On the Level’ is a fictional romance between adventurer Fred Burnaby and actress Sarah Burnhardt; and ‘The Loss of Depth’ is memoir, dealing with Barnes’s experience of grief following the death of his wife. Altogether, this makes for an exceptional portrait of love and grief. It is deeply moving and feels at times painfully honest, and even has the occasional sparkle of humour. It feels both raw, yet also thoughtful and considered. It deepened my understanding of both love and grief. It’s no secret that Barnes can write, but it is almost impossible to grasp how he covers such expansive territory with such emotional depth in only 128 pages. Exceptional.

Klara and the Sun: The Times and Sunday Times Book of the Year

Kazuo Ishiguro

£20.00 £19.00

This is Ishiguro’s recently published novel set in the near future (or perhaps an alternative present). It is narrated by an “AF” called Klara, a solar powered artificially intelligent robot of sorts who is bought to be a companion for an unwell child, Josie. Like all of the Ishiguro novels I’ve read, I absolutely loved this. As in Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro makes deft use of science fiction themes to explore universal experiences and emotions, and avoids getting drawn into the “science” bit (we don’t really know what sort of technology powers AFs, for example). This novel explores all sorts of questions: the universal aspects of the life course; the nature of religion; the meaning of service; the lifelong impact of childhood inequality; the fundamentals of the human condition; the meaning of friendship and love. As with his other novels, Ishiguro explores all of this gently rather than forcefully. Honestly, to me Ishiguro is one of those authors who could spin a thoughtful and spellbinding novel out of a telephone directory. This was brilliant.

A Promised Land

Barack Obama

£35.00 £33.25

This first part of Obama’s Presidential memoir covers his political life up to the point of election to the Presidency, and his first term through to May 2011. For me, it was a Christmas present from mum and dad. It is nothing short of exceptional. Obama has a rare talent for prose that is both readable and elegant: quite apart from his extraordinary experience, he is a truly gifted writer. He deftly combines everything from personal anecdote to political theory and from introspective reflection to lessons on statecraft to essentially spin a really gripping yarn, which also provides deep insight into what it is like to be a President of the United States. Obama’s much-expressed and clearly deeply-felt frustration with the Republican Party and the early ascendency in the political sphere of Trump portends a rather darker second volume. As I will definitely be reading it, I’ll be interested to see whether that can be as inspiring and hopeful as this volume, despite the different circumstances.

Shuggie Bain: The Million-Copy Bestseller

Douglas Stuart

£14.99 £14.24

The 2020 Booker Prize winner was, for me, a Christmas present from Wendy. It is one of those books so universally praised that it doesn’t really matter what I write about it, because the tonne of critical and popular opinion far outweighs the thoughts of a person on the internet. For what it’s worth, I thought it was brilliant. It is the story of the relationship between young Shuggie Bain and his alcoholic mother Agnes. It follows them while Shuggie is growing up, from the age of five to fifteen, against the backdrop of impoverished Glasgow in the 1980s. It has everything: deep characterisation, moving plot, social commentary, beautifully lyrical writing, profound insight, and more. It is superb. I’m reminded of Jeffrey Archer whinging through one of his characters that literary prizes are never given to “storytellers”: this book conclusively proves him wrong.

The Heart's Invisible Furies

John Boyne

£9.99 £9.49

It takes a certain pluck to choose as an epigraph a quotation from a fictional work ‘written’ by a character you created, as Boyne does for this exceptional 2017 novel. His quote is from Maude Avery who, a novelist and adoptive mother to the protagonist, proved to be a new addition to my list of favourite literary characters. Characterisation is at the heart of this book. The book follows the life of Charles Avery from his birth in the months after the Second World War, through seven-year intervals to his seventieth year. Charles is Irish, but spends parts of his life in a number of different cities. This book reminded me a little of opera, in that the plot is faintly ridiculous and jam-packed with slightly absurd co-incidences, but this didn’t really matter. The plot served only as a device to allow for deeper characterisation and to string together moments of high emotional drama, all set against the accelerated pace of change in social values which characterised the second half of the twentieth century. Boyne deftly moved between very funny passages (even a little slapstick at times) and deeply moving scenes in a way that never jarred. I feel like I’ve made this sound terribly dry, whereas (more than anything else) it was riotously good fun.

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