Looking Back on 2021

2021 has felt like a fairly conservative year, which I suppose is only to be expected. With the Covid-19 pandemic still very much ongoing, there was a certain cautiousness about getting out and doing things even when restrictions were lifted. Now, with the Omicron variant, the future still feels uncertain, and all you can do is be resilient, take sensible precautions (including vaccinations), and make the best of things as they stand. In spite of everything, I’ve been able to do quite a lot this year that I’m pleased with:

  • I completed a second draft of a novel for the first time – am currently working on the third draft.
  • Running has been going really well, especially after losing the weight I put on from lockdown comfort eating. I completed an in-person half marathon event for the first time, and went to two non-local Parkruns; I’ve also started volunteering at Parkrun.
  • I read or listened to 83 books – and I’ve got one more audiobook I’m expecting to finish before the New Year.
  • In the summer, my dad and I walked a 21 mile walking/cycling route – it took us 6 hours and 34 minutes, including a couple of breaks.
  • I went on another UK-based holiday, where I walked around London and also had a daytrip to Oxford. Easily the highlight was going to see the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, which has a very impressive collection of aircraft, including my all-time favourite, the SR-71 Blackbird (the only one on display outside the United States).

Favourite Films Released in 2021

  1. Free Guy
  2. Spider-Man: No Way Home
  3. Tick, Tick…Boom! (Netflix)
  4. The Mitchells vs The Machines (Netflix)
  5. Eternals
  6. Venom: Let There Be Carnage
  7. The Suicide Squad
  8. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  9. Black Widow
  10. Encanto

TV Series Watched in 2021
The best TV I’ve watched this year has been on streaming. The Marvel TV series on Disney Plus have all been worth a look at the very least, with WandaVision and What If being my favourites. I also enjoyed Squid Game (Netflix) and For All Mankind (Apple TV).

Favourite Fiction Read in 2021

07. The Vampire Lestat – Anne Rice
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I liked this book much more than its predecessor, Interview with the Vampire. Lestat is undoubtedly a more compelling narrator than Louis, and while the prose is still thick, it always has interesting things to say. I liked how the book presents the different philosophical and spiritual viewpoints of its characters, and how there are vampires who have wildly different lifestyles and are perceived in different ways by themselves and others, despite coming from the same blueprint. It even seems to incorporate the shift between the monstrous, skulking vampire of old and the more recent popular incarnation that can move among mortals and present itself as desirable.

06. The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie
When I try a new fantasy novel, it’s often hard for me to predict whether I’m going to enjoy it or not: there are some well-regarded ones like The Name of the Wind or Assassin’s Apprentice that I just couldn’t get into. I decided to try The Blade Itself as it was one of those recommended for readers of The Gentleman Bastard Sequence, my favourite fantasy series set in another world. This was definitely a solid recommendation.
The Blade Itself takes a lot of old ideas – plenty of familiar fantasy archetypes are here, from the wise old wizard to the rugged, internally conflicted barbarian warrior – but uses them in interesting new ways. It does a great job of gradually building its world without the need for exposition dumps, and it’s a very large and varied world too; one thing I particularly liked was the culture shock when characters from different places and backgrounds come together. The main conflicts stem from worldly concerns, from political manoeuvring to foreign invasions, rather than some vague, dark, magical threat (though there are possible hints of something like that to come), which is what I personally prefer reading about in fantasy. There’s a wide cast of compelling characters, and plenty of grim humour. I’ll definitely be checking out the rest of the First Law trilogy.

05. The Blue Gemini trilogy – Mike Jenne
This is a series of fascinating, intelligent and well-paced Cold War thrillers. I liked the details of the secret American and Soviet space programs which are featured within, and the relationship between the two main characters, Drew Carson and Scott Ouerecky, seeing them grow from reluctant partners to loyal and devoted friends. The final instalment, especially, sets up the tension in its various subplots very well – particularly with regards to the threat of nuclear war – and brings the story to an emotionally satisfying, if bittersweet, conclusion. I would recommend this series to anyone with an interest in space exploration (as well as novels).

04. The Evening and the Morning – Ken Follett
This historical fiction novel is a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, and while I don’t tend to like prequels, I certainly liked this one. Its independence from the original story probably helps: it takes place long before any of the characters in The Pillars of the Earth were even born, and its purpose as a prequel is rather to show how the setting of Kingsbridge evolved into how it was by the reign of Henry I. Of course, that’s generally background detail; the real focus is on the compelling, well-paced story and the large cast of characters.

03. The Midnight Library – Matt Haig
The concept of this story is that the protagonist, who has a lot of regrets about her life and is suicidally depressed, gets the chance to live the infinite lives she could have had if she had made different decisions. The way such a concept should progress seems predictable: one expects the protagonist to try out these alternate lives, find they’re not so great, and realise that her real life isn’t so bad after all. But that doesn’t do justice to The Midnight Library; it’s more complicated and thoughtful than that. It delves deep into the human psyche, exploring themes like where our regrets come from and how valid they are, how much we live for ourselves or other people, and how much is dependent on our perspective rather than objective reality. It ends up being a beautiful and cathartic story that might well give you a new perspective on things and appreciation for existence.

02. The Percy Jackson series – Rick Riordan
It’s taken me too long to get round to trying out this series: Greek mythology combined with an urban fantasy element – what’s not to like? I enjoyed plenty of things here: the main character and how he grows, the well-paced adventures, how the different mythological elements are used, and how it balances the lighter, more humorous parts with the darker side of its world. (I now understand why the film adaptations are so universally loathed by the fan base.) I’m planning to check out the sequel series, Heroes of Olympus, next year.

01. Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir
While I can’t go too far into the story without getting into spoilers, it’s well structured in terms of revealing information to the audience, with the protagonist starting off with amnesia and gradually regaining his memories as selective flashbacks. There’s plenty of tension and high stakes – with some alarming parts exploring the level of sacrifices and hard decisions necessary to save a whole planet – and some parts even made me a bit emotional. The style of snarky humour is also very similar to Weir’s previous works. There’s also plenty of clever and inventive application of science; I liked how much the process of experimentation is used. If you like science fiction and space travel, this is a must-read.

Favourite Non-Fiction Read in 2021

10. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari
Of the author’s previous works, Sapiens talked about the past and Homo Deus about the future, while this book focusses on the present. So is it a useful tool for living your life in the here and now? Well, it certainly provides some worthwhile ideas about how the world around us works and where our current paths may be leading us in the near future. Many of the possibilities it raises are unnerving, or perhaps that’s just because change in general is scary. In terms of guidance for the years to come, it provides enough for some vague pointers to be inferred. The latter stages of the book get quite bewildering as it examines our existence at a basic level and delves into whether we really have free will or a true, singular identity. The conclusions may be uncomfortable, but they certainly encourage contemplation.

09. Into the Woods – John Yorke
This book delves into why we tell stories and why most stories can be boiled down to the same structure, and I got a lot out of it. It has a variety of interesting ideas and perspectives on stories, from five-act structure to fractal symmetry. Though its content isn’t framed as directly offering advice to writers, they can still glean a lot of useful knowledge from it – and there are also some psychological and sociological ideas on storytelling (some taking examples from modern television) that provide much food for thought in general.

08. 26.2 Miles to Happiness – Paul Tonkinson
I enjoyed the author’s motivating and insightful perspective on running; the comedic moments are unexpectedly balanced out with some serious and honest personal reflection; and the picture it paints of how it feels to run a marathon is very informative for a runner like me who isn’t quite at that stage yet.

07. Spaceman – Mike Massimino
Another really brilliant astronaut autobiography. Mike Massimino is a great storyteller (and audiobook narrator): he manages to structure his personal story like a novel, right down to the climax repairing the Hubble telescope. While not an especially long book, it’s still very dense: Massimino covers a great deal about what it’s like to be an astronaut, along with some very poignant moments and plenty of positive guidance on how to approach life. My own interest in space travel has generally been focussed on the Apollo days, but the more I learn about the achievements and culture of the Shuttle era from books like this, the more enthusiastic I become about it.

06. The Opposite of Butterfly Hunting – Evanna Lynch
This is a well-written, highly engaging and devastatingly honest memoir. While the majority of it centres around Lynch’s experiences with anorexia – going into heart-wrenching detail about the thought processes involved – the disorder is ultimately one part of a bigger issue that outlasts it and to which just about everyone can relate: insecurity. Lynch’s whole journey toward fully loving herself is well worth the read; while Harry Potter – the part of her life for which she is best known – only makes up a small part of it, one certainly gains a new perspective on her connection with Luna Lovegood, a character who is totally comfortable in her own skin.

05. Why We Eat (Too Much) – Andrew Jenkinson
This book contains a lot of interesting information (backed up with understandable science) on how our body regulates our weight, why many people try to diet but can’t keep the weight off long-term, and the impact of the unhealthy Western diet on our various systems. While I intend to check other sources regarding some of the information presented – particularly regarding saturated fats – for those interested in nutrition and improving your diet, it certainly provides (forgive me) food for thought.

04. The Science of Storytelling – Will Storr
This guide to writing really appealed to me as it places reading and writing stories in a scientific context: it explains why and how stories appeal to us psychologically, which subsequently leads to plenty of logical guidance about how to construct a compelling character and a story arc for them.

03. Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker
A very informative and valuable book which explains all about the various functions of sleep, how it is internally controlled, and the severe medical consequences of not getting enough of it. If you’re like me and don’t get as much sleep as you’d like, reading this will certainly give a better appreciation of sleep, and motivate you to try and improve your sleep hygiene; while the book is focussed on the science behind sleep, there’s plenty of useful tips to be inferred from its content.

02. Limitless – Tim Peake
I really loved this book. Even though Tim Peake’s time as an astronaut is only covered in the last third, that hardly matters as he has so many fantastic and interesting stories from his time as a military pilot. The style of writing is very honest and wonderfully British; Peake may not have grown up dreaming of being an astronaut, but the qualities that suited him to that role when the opportunity arose really come through. (I also went to see Peake’s live show in November, and it was brilliant.)

01. Born to Run – Christopher MacDougall
A fantastic book for runners. The story and writing style are compelling and motivating, and while I’m not sure I’ll try barefoot running myself in the immediate future, I really enjoyed the emphasis on running for the joy of it (and the examples of Ann Trason and Emil Zatopek) and the theory of how humans evolved to be excellent distance runners. I’ve read other books about ultra-marathons, but this is the first one that made me think I might go for it someday.

My resolutions for 2022 are largely based around developing the same areas I have been in 2021. With regards to running, I have two more half-marathons booked, and I’ll see how I want to progress after those. I also want to expand on my Parkrun tourism – I’ve been to four different Parkrun locations in total, and I’d like to get up to at least twenty. I’ll continue to work on my novel editing, as well as finding the courage to write something I can share with other people. There are a lot of books that I still want to read in the near future, as well as re-reading some of my favourites. And, hopefully, I can finally take the holiday abroad that I’ve now been waiting nearly two years for.

Have a Happy New Year, wherever you are!

About R.J. Southworth

Hi there. I've been blogging since January 2014, and I like to talk about all sorts of things: book reviews, film reviews, writing, science, history, or sometimes just sharing miscellaneous thoughts. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you!
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