How I Learned To Read More In 2021 (And Found My Favourite Niche)

I have a confession to make, and I’m very happy to hold my hands up and say I was wrong about something. Me, who swore I’d never read a book in electronic format, has become an e-reader extraordinaire and oh my goodness, the WORLDS that have been opened up as a result of me moving with the times and stopping being such a Luddite.

Books represent escapism for me but just like everything else in life, it can quickly take a backseat. Over the last few years I’ve shamefully seen reading as a luxury that I just didn’t have time for when actually it should be a priority, even if only for 15 minutes before falling asleep. I would see people enviously racing through book after book and wondered how they managed to fit it in.

The enjoyment has always also been the feeling of holding a book, the smell of the pages. I love browsing the shelves of an independent bookshop and I’m a long-term library user. I was absolutely adamant that e-reading wasn’t for me. I use a laptop for work, watch tv on my iPad and am surgically attached to my phone, so using a screen for something else didn’t interest me.

When lockdown came along though and libraries closed and I was still out of regular work so couldn’t justify spending lots on books, I realised that I would have to do away with my unwillingness to embrace technology. A couple of people on Instagram told me about the Libby digital library borrowing service for existing library members and I was hooked. Not only was it an opportunity to read more, but it meant I could still help precious library services in my own small way.

The Libby app isn’t a fool-proof service – sometimes you can be waiting up to 12 weeks for a popular title to be ready to borrow which feels like forever (although they often come through faster than advised). Or you realise you’ve borrowed an epic 600 page saga which is never possible to read in the allotted two week borrowing time and so it goes back into the borrowing system again.

So I supplement this with the free Books app on my iPad which you can use to purchase books or audio books online. They cost anything from 0.99 to around £8.99 depending on popularity and year of release but between Libby and the Books app, I’ve read 20 books so far in 2021, up from maybe 10 in the whole of 2020 (when I wasn’t working full-time!) and even less the year before. I’ve got my reading mojo back!

Along with that has come a discovery of probably my favourite reading niche which seems to be “multi-generational-inter-cultural-family-saga” and also my least favourite which just like my film/tv seems to be “British chick lit”. Don’t get me wrong The Flatshare was fine, it was readable, enjoyable but entirely predictable and completely unforgettable in the process. When looking for something else to read, I remembered a lot of people had recommended The Lido but when I read the synopsis I knew it wasn’t for me. Just like Richard Curtis films which can absolutely all get in the bin (don’t come for me).

Whilst I’ve always loved historical fiction (a few recent favourites have been The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr), I’ve realised my true love seems to be novels which share stories from families across generations, or a coming-of-age tale of cultures moving from one country to another.

If this is the type of fiction you like to read then here are some of my favourite recommendations, all of which are truly and utterly brilliant.

Dominicana – Angie Cruz – synopsis from Good Reads:

Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she has to say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day, 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk-up in Washington Heights. Lonely and miserable, Ana hatches a reckless plan to escape. But at the bus terminal, she is stopped by Cesar, Juan’s free-spirited younger brother, who convinces her to stay.

As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets, leaving Cesar to take care of Ana. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, see a movie at Radio City Music Hall, go dancing with Cesar, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.

Pachinko – Min Jin Lee – synopsis from Good Reads:

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant — and that her lover is married — she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters — strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis — survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history. 

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi – synopsis from Good Reads:

A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

A Woman Is No Man – Etaf Rum – synopsis from Good Reads:

This debut novel by an Arab-American voice,takes us inside the lives of conservative Arab women living in America.

In Brooklyn, eighteen-year-old Deya is starting to meet with suitors. Though she doesn’t want to get married, her grandparents give her no choice. History is repeating itself: Deya’s mother, Isra, also had no choice when she left Palestine as a teenager to marry Adam. Though Deya was raised to believe her parents died in a car accident, a secret note from a mysterious, yet familiar-looking woman makes Deya question everything she was told about her past. As the narrative alternates between the lives of Deya and Isra, she begins to understand the dark, complex secrets behind her community.

Finding my way back to reading again has honestly been such a joy and I hope that I can continue to share my inspiration and recommendations along the way. If you like similar reads to me, you can find my 2021 reading list here and some of the books I enjoyed last year, here. We all have time for anything that’s important enough for us.

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