THE BEST READS OF 2021

By Ewa Giera, Sarah Edgcumbe and Samantha Rajasingham

Content warning: mentions of violence against women, police violence

From getting through that ‘to read’ backlog while stuck at home to reciting inspiring extracts at protests and on picket lines, we have read in many ways these past 12 months. As ever, at The Norwich Radical we believe in the written word as a world-changing source of joy, inspiration, education and hope. In this article, three of our contributors come together to share the best things they read in 2021, new and old. Each recommendation comes with a link to buy it direct from the publisher or on bookshop.org (where possible), but we encourage you to use your local bookshop in the first instance if you can. Happy reading!

A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers (2016)

Buy from bookshop.org

Becky Chambers, a writer I was delighted to meet in person after I read her debut novel The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, has been remarkably clear that the themes in her science fiction are meant to parallel events and issues which are prominent in the world today, from colonialism to LGBTQIA discrimination to child labour. The next instalment in the ‘Wayfarers’ series, A Closed and Common Orbit is one half a love letter to the exploration of one’s identity in a world unknown to you, one half a recollection of childhood trauma and the cyclical nature of motherhood. 

The novel is less of an action packed, tight narrative and more of an extended character study that focuses on the themes of technology, identity within a body that is unfamiliar and unpleasant to you, and the idea of pursuing motherhood as an AI. LGBTQIA+ themes are prominent throughout this touching work, which made me cry in a very good way. Check it out, along with Chambers’ other work – it will probably touch you similarly. 

Ewa Giera

Gargoyle: Reporting from Frontlines, Jail Cells and Trap Houses –  Jake Hanrahan (2021)

Buy from jakehanrahan.com (scroll down for links to independent booksellers)

Gargoyle is a compilation of written work by British journalist and founder of the grassroots media organisation Popular Front Jake Hanrahan. Hanrahan’s conflict reporting is distinct from orthodox reportage due its gritty, everyday nature, combined with its focus on the grassroots elements of under-reported conflicts. Guided by his own moral compass rather than partisan politics or corporate donor restrictions, he unflinchingly presents the reality of contemporary conflict in all its messiness, whilst concurrently singling out instances of humanity and humour. 

This book collates articles on conflict, crime, and politics with chapters on the Kurdish resistance movement in Turkey, the fight for Rojava, 3D printed guns and neo-Nazism, among other things. It provides an insightful example, by turns entertaining and horrifying, of why grassroots conflict reporting is so important today. Refusing to tow the mainstream international media line of who or what constitutes a terrorist, or which conflicts are important enough to warrant attention, Hanrahan delves deep, always seeking out the grassroots in any conflict situation rather than relying on interviews with the elite. Unapologetically leftist, but maintaining a critical approach at all times, Hanrahan speaks like, and relates to, the “ordinary” people who politicians and journalists too often overlook.  

Sarah Edgcumbe

The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us – Nick Hayes (2020 / 2021)

Buy from bloomsbury.com

Nick Hayes intertwines a critical reading of history with a searing indictment of the British class system, laying bare the savage contempt of the land-owning upper class towards those (in both the UK and colonised geographies) from whom it has stolen freedom, livelihood, interdependence with nature, and a space in which we can exist without the need to justify our presence through spending money. Woven throughout is a beautifully descriptive biographical account of his love of the outdoors, wild camping, a simple life, and his disdain for a system that parasitically and cynically drains both community and nature of their ability to organically grow together. 

What I particularly loved about this book is Hayes’ painstaking research into rural resistance through the ages – work reflected in the fact that every chapter is written around a deliberate trespass of his own. Integrated into his historical account of enclosure and how the UK’s wealthiest succeeded in hoarding so much common land (spoiler alert: slavery, exploitation and manipulation of the British legislative system) are examples of how and where things could be done, or indeed are being done, better. This is a righteous book that made me furious. It’s a compelling call to arms (and trespass) through the delicately poetic language that reimagines a handful of flowers picked from trespassed-upon land as ‘a bouquet of crimes’. 

Sarah Edgcumbe

Glass Houses – Laura J. Mixon (1992)

Mixon’s writing focuses specifically on the intersection of gender, technology and feminism. I only came across her work in the first couple of months of 2021 – she’s not a particularly well-known writer outside of sci-fi circles, but her writing is full of themes that still pack a fresh punch today. Glass Houses follows Ruby, the proprietor of an android business, who gets tangled up in a political intrigue well beyond her control.

Mixon takes on an experimental approach to the narration in Glass Houses – as Ruby plugs into her androids to navigate the Outside, her and the android become one. Their pronouns merge into “me-Golem”, “my-his”, “I-He”, etc. This style of narration is particularly effective later on in the novel, as the idea of Ruby and Golem as separate identities becomes more and more blurred to a point where it’s difficult to discern who is narrating the story. This fluidity of pronoun play had me hooked – the idea of building your own identity hits close to home for many LGBT folks, and is explored extremely well here. In its nuanced focus on gender, feminism and technology, Glass Houses holds up a mirror to the flaws in recent cyberpunk fiction, such as Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, wherein a male-coded AI changes his gender identity to female in order to be more desirable to his homophobic partner.  

Full of beautiful imagery, this fast-paced cyberpunk thriller is a treat that I have begun to recommend to many other SF fans. It definitely deserves the attention.

Ewa Giera

Blueprint for Revolution: How to use rice pudding, lego men and other non-violent techniques to galvanise communities, overthrow dictators, or simply change the world – Srđa Popović and Matthew Miller (2015)

Buy from bookshop.org

As we watch the political landscape in the UK evolve into an increasingly fascist police state, this 2015 book is becoming increasingly relevant for UK residents (as well as readers from other countries engulfed in right-wing populism). Written by a leader of Otpor! – the revolutionary non-violent student movement which proved to be the catalyst for the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia – this is a practice-focused book rather than a dry academic analysis of resistance. 

The Otpor! leaders sought advice from legendary political scientist and non-violent action advocate, Gene Sharp, and this book is clearly infused with his teachings. However, unlike Sharp’s book From Dictatorship to Democracy, Blueprint for Revolution is very much an elaboration upon the success of non-violent tactics via an informative and entertaining presentation of case studies from across the world. As the title states, Popović literally describes how rice pudding, lego men, and other mundane items such as empty oil drums, ping pong balls, USB sticks and rubbish bins can be utilised to overthrow undemocratic leadership. This is an uplifting book which describes how, by encouraging communities to participate in creative acts of non-violent resistance designed to generate laughter directed towards those in power, the powerful are subsequently reduced to insignificant caricatures in the minds of the people. It is at this point that social change starts to become a very real possibility.

Samantha Rajasingham

On Violence and On Violence Against Women – Jacqueline Rose (2021)

Buy from bookshop.org

Jacqueline Rose’s On Violence and On Violence Against Women came out, from my memory, just after the Sarah Everard vigil, a moment of great sorrow and anger for many women as we saw made concrete all the fears we have just walking home and the breakdown of trust we had in institutional support. For me, as a woman of 47 years, this feeling is not new and I am sick of carrying this zombie baby that won’t be born. The way the police and media were trying to diffuse the problem, made absurd because the murderer had been a policeman who had used his credentials to lure his victim, was an act of violence in itself. Much like Judith Butler’s The Force of Non-Violence the year before, Jacqueline Rose’s book came for me at the right time. It asked the question of how we continue to live with violence, how it is perpetuated, and how violence this is made visible in language.  

Midway through the book, in a section on “writing violence,” Rose considers that modernism heralds not just a loss of authority, but that this loss is “visceral, neither measured nor polite, and inseparable from forms of historical violence for which we are accountable, but which the mind finds almost impossible to get the measure of or fully to countenance.” (p.208) This line really knocked me down – it made explicit that it is the mind from which we draw the language and it is through the mind’s refusal to see itself as horrific that so much violence is continued.  

Drawing a parallel with Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence, one cannot fully consider violence without looking at both the structures which remain invisible, codified as legal in our language of right, whose reproduction and normalising of inequality are themselves violence and often horrific, without looking at how the obfuscation of that violence is the very point of a psyche that will not see that its hands are dirty. That violence is all around us. Rose’s book is powerful, lucid and a must read for anyone interested in looking at how violence is stubbornly buttressed and repressed in our memories and language, despite our knowledge that it is wrong.

Samantha Rajasingham

The Right to Sex – Amia Srinivasan (2021)

Buy from bloomsbury.com

I love Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex not only for its subject but also because, as someone who studies philosophy, it’s great to see the discipline alive and relevant. It asks a serious question: what would the world be if women were actually equal to men? This is not a book about saying what’s wrong or right but a rigorous exploration of how concepts made concrete through politics affect a woman’s body, agency, self. The essay “on not sleeping with your students,” which owes a little to Lacan’s Transference, does not swerve away from taboos when it suggests that this injunction has much to do with presuming a woman’s inability to understand her own desire. To be sure, the book doesn’t give us a roadmap to liberation. There isn’t one. What it does do though is provide great critical arguments that start us on a liberating exploration of what we could be, not in opposition, but truly unfettered. 

Samantha Rajasingham

Against White Feminism – Rafia Zakaria (2021)

Buy from bookshop.org

Unflinching in her analysis of “white feminism”, Rafia Zakaria illustrates how colonialism, imperialism and blatant othering are still generating the double standards we see within feminism today. Framing whiteness not as skin colour, but as a “set of practices and ideas that have emerged from the bedrock of white supremacy”, Zakaria deconstructs white feminism, presenting the shameful origins of its components in the process. 

Taking aim at colonialism and imperialism past and present, Zakaria details how white supremacy and the inherently related positionality of many (usually white) women are responsible for dominating and deradicalising feminist theory and practice. Zakaria presents the compelling case that white feminism, though dominant via the hegemony of the global north, represents nothing but an empty vessel concerned primarily with individualistic consumerism and superficial rights. White feminism, therefore, is a grotesque, dumbed-down mutation of what feminism represents for many women and grassroots collectives in the global south. 

Encouraging women to engage in meaningful solidarity stemming from open discussion, Zakaria presents her arguments in an accessible, clear, and incontrovertible manner. No matter how well-versed you are in feminism, this remains a necessary read.

Sarah Edgcumbe


Featured image CC BY-ND 2.0 Dougit Design via flickr
Cover images credited to their respective authors and publishers


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