My year in books — 2021
We’re approaching the end of 2021 and the obligatory end-of-year retrospectives are a-plenty. Same as last year, I’ve decided to record my progress this year in films, music, and books using this medium again.
This is a list of the books I’ve read throughout 2021. It’s far fewer than what I would read in a given year and I don’t know exactly why that is other than its factual existence: I’ve read fewer books this year than any other year of my reading life (or the fact that it took me far longer than necessary to finish Queen of Storms early in the year).
Without further ado, here are the books I’ve read in 2021 and some blurb about them.
At Night All Blood Is Black (by David Diop)
The story of a Senegalese soldier who slowsly goes mad after failing to mercy-kill his injured comrade, this is a heady novella that is full of vivid, often violent imagery. It’s fluid, yet also very claustrophobic. Its brevity makes it even more impactful and its subversion of the voice given to the colonised certainly made it an engaging read. One to turn a lazy Sunday afternoon into a stressful one, but it was still worth it.
Children of Time (by Adrian Tchaikovsky)
First book of the series bearing the same name, this was one of the best sci-fi / horror mash-ups I have ever read. Humanity has left a dying Earth to find a distant planet supposedly terraformed and made ready for the new arrivals. Yet, things are not as they seem on the surface (and in orbit). Once I got the gist of what was really happening, it made it all the scarier. Though the plot goes a little berserk in the third act, it’s obvious that there is some planting going on for the subsequent releases (which I’ve yet to read).
Delta of Venus (by Anaïs Nin)
I was not ready for this. I was expecting it to be controversial, but from the vantage point of our times I thought most of it would be quite tame. I was wrong. I think I audibly went “what the fuck” when I realised where the first story in this collection was going. Written for an anonymous benefactor’s own use, Anaïs Nin didn’t really hold anything back. Although known for subverting how sex is portrayed in literature (from a woman’s gaze, so to speak), it’s an eye opener in more ways than one. I can’t say the stories themselves are interesting on their own, but these were written primarily to shock its reader and it achieves that easily.
The Employees (by Olga Ravn)
An odd science fiction, this book is a series of statements taken from the human and non-human staff of a spaceship after an accident on board. I think. In the first few statements, it was really difficult to ascertain the organic-ness of the narrator. However, soon subtle signs became loud noises. But by that time, its novelty outstayed its welcome for me. Not sure what the point of it was. An interesting experiment, but it’s nothing more than that for me.
Imperium (by Robert Harris)
The fictionalised professional biography of Cicero’s life as told by his most-trusted slave & companion. It’s a page turner as a historical novel can be and quite engrossing. It’s written in a rather oratorical fashion (befitting its subject matter) and I would argue whether the story depicted here merits a fictionalisation. But, I couldn’t really put it down and it kept me curious as to what would happen at the end.
Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (by Edward Bellamy)
A wealthy man in New York goes to sleep in 19th century and wakes up a century and a bit later to a world that has changed beyond his wildest dreams. It’s not just the technological advances that amaze him, but the societal and systemic leaps we’ve taken as a species fascinate and scare him. It’s utopia from a purely socialist point of view and some of the future insights are spot-on. And some of them are outraegously outdated or ridiculous (it was written in 19th century). It’s a fully expository narrative, made up of a series of derivative conversations over dinner or a glass of wine. It’s proselytising, but gripping considering the brilliant premise.
The Lottery and Other Stories (by Shirley Jackson)
Inspired by the film Shirley which I saw earlier in the year, I decided to dive deeper into her work. I still think The Lottery is by far the best of the bunch here, but there are some really striking pseudo- or proto-horror stories here. I find short stories either the greatest form of fiction (see Borges, Cortázar, Joyce) or a format that is deeply frustrating in its brevity. Sadly, quite a few of these stories fell in the latter.
Machines Like Me (by Ian McEwan)
There is something inherently readable about Ian McEwan’s novels. They are not your typical page-turner mysteries, of course, but they are endlessly enjoyable. Machines Like Me is exactly that, though I felt the characters to be quite robotic … and I guess that’s the point of a book where humanoid robots with advanced A.I. capabilities are mail-ordered to become best friend / maid / sex toy. When a said robot enters the life of a small-time stock-broker and the neighbour he’s hopeless fallen in love with, it doesn’t become difficult to guess how it will all progresses. I have to admit some of the plot points felt too forced (like when certain historical figures enter the conversation through the alternate history guise), but it was an interesting read.
Queen of Storms (by Raymond E. Feist)
The second installment in Raymond E. Feist’s new series Firemane Saga, this was a slooooow read. I thought the first book in the series (King of Ashes) was brilliant and set the characters and the world perfectly. But half of the characters we were introduced to are either killed or written off the story very early on, which leaves the rest of the main characters aimlessly travelling from one part of the world to the next. It’s a sluggish book that is clearly setting things up for the third book and is not interested in anything else.
Railsea (by China Miéville)
This may have been my least favourite China Miéville book so far. A re-imagining of Moby Dick set in a Snowpiercer-like post-apocalyptic world, it’s too esoteric for its own good. I love Miéville’s writing style and he is never boring, but I really struggled to keep up with his wordplays this time around — and this is supposed to be his young adult novel! Maybe I was in a bad mood and that’s normal considering 2021.
Royal Assassin (by Robin Hobb)
The second book in the famed Farseer Trilogy, this was another second-installment that seems to exist solely to bridge the gap between the world-building first novel and the climactic third. It reads like a telenovela, without the melodrama which I normally like. Endless palatial intrigue, repetitive verbal threats of something happening, a forced animistic sub-plot … one of the worst high fantasy books I’ve read. I thought the writing was crisp and engaging, to an extent, but the material just wasn’t there.
Starsight (by Brandon Sanderson)
The sequel to Skyward, which was coincidentally my favourite book I’d read in 2020 is a somewhat tamer book. It was going to be very difficult to live up to Skyward’s momentum and ingenuity. Brandon Sanderson clearly had to take the story to the stars (figuratively) and he did just that. From a non-stop action, it became a more generic-sounding space-noir. And that’s not a bad thing, but it lost some of the spark of the original. Still, Brandon Sanderson is one of my all-time favourite authors and he can write a story better than most. Don’t be fooled by its young-adult category— there is a lot to enjoy here for all ages.
Fall: Or Dodge in Hell (by Neal Stephenson)
Currently reading this and I’m unlikely to finish it by the end of the year due to its sheer size. First impressions is that this is one of his better ones so far and a more than worthy sequel-of-sorts to Reamde.
An Atlas of Extinct Countries (by Gideon Defoe)
I’m a geography nerd, so this was right up my alley. This is a run-down of some of the countries that only briefly existed in history (some for mere hours). A few of these I’d heard of before and some of them are quite high profile, but I guess as a census their inclusion makes sense. Still, there are some fascinating entrepreneurial attempts at creating countries out of thin air in seldom visited parts of the world. What’s scary is that, a lot of countries (perhaps a majority of existing sovereign states) have been formed with arbitrary reasons by random people. So, I guess it’s a successful enterprise birthing a country out of some piece of land.
Black Sea: Coasts and Conquests; From Pericles to Putin (by Neal Ascherson)
A history of the lands surrounding Black Sea, this is on paper such a fascinating book as it explores some of the seldom-written-about lands and nations in the world, whose histories are often shadowed by their bigger, more successful neighbours. Yet, it’s still quite lop-sided towards the areas Ascherson has a personal connection to. That’s okay, of course: write about what you know and all that. But, I was expecting a more democratic run-down of the history of this region which happened to be always next to the main events in world history.
The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (by Amin Maalouf)
Amin Maalouf is a genius writer and I don’t think I’ve read anything remotely uninteresting by him (fiction and non-fiction), but I found this, his so-called breakthrough, quite disappointing. Mostly because in its attempt to subvert the point of view of the Crusades from the locals’ perspective, he only emphasises what we already know. Yes, there are some political intrigue that involve lesser known people (namely local rulers in Middle East), but it’s essentially the same story. It’s not how the local people saw the events or how it impacted them, but it’s the same battles and negotiations involving a different set of people not named in a European language.
A Curious History of Sex (by Kate Lister)
Based on Lister’s research Whores of Yore, this is a collection of essays about the roots and history of sexual slang, body parts, sexual acts, and sexual politics. The latter doesn’t appear as often as I was expecting and I think it made the book slightly lighter and, dare I say, better. If you want to know the history of the word ‘cunt’, dildos and other sex toys, the ‘blue pill’ and other ‘cures’ for impotence, and many other sex-related subjects, this is your book. It’s not extensive, but very eye-opening and fun to read.
How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island (by Egill Bjarnasson)
Iceland has been fascinating me (and countless others, to be fair) for quite some time. It’s the idyllic, utopian, otherworldly country that we all love. This quick history tour of the island and its people across centuries has an interesting premise: that Iceland played a supporting role in some of the most important events in world history. A few of these hit the mark spot-on (e.g. first settlements in North America), but most of them feel a little stretched. Still, it doesn’t take anything away from what Iceland means to me. And it’s written in a refreshingly informal fashion that it’s obvious that it doesn’t mean to take itself too seriously.
Invisible Women: Exposing Bias in a World Designed for Men (by Caroline Criado Pérez)
This was an infuriating read. Infuriating, because it boils your blood how a lot of things we take for granted in this world have been designed with men in mind. Not just physical things, but also services, political systems, economics … the lot. It’s also infuriating, because although advances have been made over the years, we’re nowhere near an equitable experience for everyone. Very well written (though a little repetitive in explanatory commentary — the examples are sufficient to drive the message) and essential to drive the change more quickly.
Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 (by Dorian Lynskey)
1984 (or Nineteen Eighty-Four for the purists) is well known enough to have its own mythology overwhelming the actual text. We know (or we think we know) more about the book than is actual fact. To remedy that, Yours Truly duly read this book to understand more about the man and the context he wrote it in. Lynsky clearly outlines Orwell’s life without going into too much detail and sets the context around its writing in cogent terms, backing it up with letters and writings of Orwell and his associates. If you’re a fan of the book and not too invested in the story around the book, then this is a great read. If you know a lot already, then it might challenge some of your beliefs. Maybe.
Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths (by Natalie Haynes)
A whislestop tour of how women in Greek myths have been depicted from their literary creation all the way to the modern age, there are some real amazing stories here. All of these women are well known (at least by name), but reading their origin stories was quite enjoyable. How their depictions in literature, art, scuplture, and on stage have evolved over the years is absolutely fascinating. Haynes peppers her census with the occasional commentary, but she holds back enough to truly paint an accurate picture (no pun intended) in your mind. One of the best books I’ve read this year.
Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (by Michael J. Sandel)
The gist of Sandel’s book is that meritocracy is an inherently unfair system, but why is it so common? He posits that the dream of its proper functioning is what drives everyone’s attitude to it. So, even if it doesn’t really work in practice in most cases, the hope that it will makes it a permanent fixture in our professional and social lives. It’s an interesting take (most of which I agree with), but it fizzled out towards the end as I don’t think it tied things up in a way that we can perhaps effectively mould it or replace it altogether with something else.
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (by Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson)
There isn’t a single answer to the writers’ question, of course. It can be because their starting points in history are different; or because they have been colonised by the ‘wrong’ country; or because they colonised the wrong country. Acemoglu and Robinson take us through a world tour of failed and successful nations and show us what went wrong (or right). It’s a bleak picture and in most cases the solution is an practical impossibility, but it clearly outlines the mistakes so we can avoid them. Will we? Fuck no.