Books I read in 2021
I’m glad that I’m tracking my reading here on my own site. About halfway through the year I thought that I was doing a pretty good job of reading a mix of books from men and women, but a glance at my reading list showed that wasn’t the case at all and I was able to adjust my intake accordingly. I wasn’t doing as badly as some but by just keeping an ongoing reading list is a handy to spot any worrying trends.
I continued my practice of alternating between fiction and non-fiction. It’s working for me.
Now that the year is at an end, I’m going to my traditional round-up and give a little review of each book. I’m also going to engage in the pointless and annoying practice of assigning a rating out of five stars for each book.
- a one-star book would be rubbish,
- a two-star book would be perfectly fine,
- a three-star book would be good,
- a four-star book would be excellent, and
- a five-star book is unheard of.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
I was reading this at the end of 2020 and finished it at the start of 2021. I let it wash over me, which I think is how this impressionistic and rightly short book is meant to be enjoyed. But I might just be telling myself that because I wasn’t following it closely enough.
Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
A terrific book about human nature. As I wrote at the time, it makes a great companion piece to—and is influenced by—Rebecca Solnit’s excellent A Paradise Built In Hell.
The only frustrating facet of Bregman’s book is that it’s also influenced by Yuval Noah Harari’s mess Sapiens. That’s probably where it gets its wrong-headed fantasy about the evils of the agricultural revolution and the glories of a pre-civilisational nomadic lifestyle. Fortunately it sounds like this pernicious myth is in for a well-earned skewering in Davids Graeber and Wengrow’s new book The Dawn of Everything
Apart from that though, Humankind is pretty darn wonderful.
The Stinging Fly Issue 43/Volume Two Winter 2020-21 — The Galway 2020 Edition edited by Lisa McInerney and Elaine Feeney
Reading this collection of stories, poems and essays was my way of travelling to Galway when a global pandemic prevented me from actually going there. The quality was consistently high and some of the stories really stayed with me.
The Moment of Eclipse by Brian Aldiss
Another pulp paperback of short stories from Brian Aldiss. I wrote about reading this book.
Sustainable Web Design by Tom Greenwood
Reading a title from A Book Apart almost feels like a cheat—the books are laser-focused into a perfectly brief length. This one is no exception and the topic is one that every web designer and developer needs to be versed in.
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
A thoroughly enjoyable first-contact story set in Nigeria. It’s absolutely dripping in atmosphere and features fully-formed characters that feel grounded even when in the middle of fantastical events.
Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans
Yeah, that’s right: five stars! This books is superb, the perfect mix of subject matter and style as I wrote as soon as I finished it. What a writer!
British Ice by Owen D. Pomery
This is a bit of a cheat on my part. It’s a short graphic novel, and the story is told more through pictures than words. The story is somewhat slight but the imagary, like the landscape being described, is hauntingly sparse.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
This one divided opinion. I thought that, on the whole, the novel worked. There are moments of seeing the world through a robot’s eyes that feel truly alien. It’s not in the same league as Never Let Me Go, but it does share the same feeling of bleak inevitability. So not a feelgood book then.
It pairs nicely with Ian McEwan’s recent Machines Like Us to see how two respected mainstream authors approach a genre topic.
Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez
Sharp and scathing, this is a thorough exposé. Sometimes it feels a little too thorough—there are a lot of data points that might have been better placed in footnotes. Then again, the whole point of this book is that the data really, really matters so I totally get why it’s presented this way.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Properly good human-level space opera with oodles of political intrigue. I will definitely be reading the next book in the series.
My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn
I really enjoyed this account of the friendship between Tracey Thorn and Lindy Morrison. I’m a huge Go-Betweens fan, but the band’s story is almost always told from the perspective of the boys, Grant and Robert. You could say that those narratives have (puts on sunglasses) …Everything But The Girl.
Anyway, this was a refreshing alternative. Writing about music is notoriously tricky, but this might be the best biography of a musician I’ve read.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
I loved this! If I tried to give a plot synopsis, it would sound ridiculous, like someone describing their dreams. But somehow this works in a way that feels cohesive and perfectly internally consistent. Just read it—you won’t regret it.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
I enjoy reading books about the craft of writing and this is one that I had been meaning to read for years. It didn’t disappoint. That said, I think I might have enjoyed it more as an autobiography of an American childhood than as a guide to writing. Some of the writing advice is dispensed as gospel when really, that’s just like your opinion, man.
A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction edited by Jack Fennell
A quirky collection of 19th century and early 20th century short stories. Today we’d probably classify them as fantasy more than science fiction. What was really interesting was reading the biographies of the writers. The collection has an impressive amount of stories by fascinating women. Kudos to Jack Fennell for the curation.
Let The Game Do Its Work by J.M. Berger
An enjoyable little study of dystopian film sports (I’ve always wanted to do a movie marathon on that theme). The format of this work is interesting. It’s not a full-length book. Instead it’s like a quick exploration of the topic to see whether it should be a full-length book. Personally, I think this is enough. Frankly, I can think of plenty of full-length non-fiction books that should’ve been more like this length.
The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
Sci-fi? Fantasy? Magical realism? This has a premise that’s tricky to pull off, but it works. That said, I think it could’ve been shorter. I enjoyed this but I’m not sure if I’ll be reading any sequels.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World - And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Roennlund
Wonderful! A book about facts and figures with a very human soul. It can be summed up in this quote:
The world cannot be understood without numbers. And it cannot be understood with numbers alone.
Sometimes the self-effacing style of the late Hans Rosling can be a little grating, but overall this is a perfectly balanced book.
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison
Dripping with creepy Brexity atmosphere, this is more of a slow rising damp than a slow burn. But while the writing is terrific at the sentence level, it didn’t quite pull me in as a book. I admired it more than I enjoyed it.
The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
More escapist wish fulfilment in the Lady Astronaut series. These books aren’t great literature by any stretch, but I find the premise of an alternative history of the space race very appealing (like For All Mankind). This third book has a change of narrator and a change of scene: the moon.
Let It Go: My Extraordinary Story - From Refugee to Entrepreneur to Philanthropist by Dame Stephanie Shirley
Absolutely brilliant! Both the book and the author, I mean. Steve Shirley is a hero of mine so it’s gratifying to find that she’s a great writer along with being a great person. Her story is by turns astonishing and heartbreaking. She conveys it all in an honest, heartfelt, but matter-of-fact manner.
I didn’t expect to find resonances in here about my own work, but it turns out that Clearleft wouldn’t have been able to become an employee-owned company without the groundwork laid down by Steve Shirley.
If you’re ever tempted to read some self-help business autobiography by some dude from Silicon Valley, don’t—read this instead.
Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
The third in the Binti series of novellas is just as good as the previous two. This is crying out to be turned into a television show that I would most definitely watch.
Design For Safety by Eva PenzeyMoog
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Excellent writing once again from Octavia Butler. Like Kindred, this can be harrowing at times but there’s a central core of humanity running through even the darkest moments. I’ll definitely be reading Parable of the Talents.
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
I wasn’t that into the first book in the Wayfarers series. I enjoyed the second one more. When it came to this third installment, I was completely won over. I was in just the right mood for it after the heaviness of Parable of the Sower. There’s not much in the way of threat, but plenty in the way of warmth. I’m also a sucker for stories of generation starships.
The Road from Castlebarnagh: Growing Up in Irish Music, A Memoir by Paddy O’Brien
An enjoyable series of vignettes told from the viewpoint of a young boy growing up in rural Ireland. I was hoping for more stories of the music, but if you’re involved in trad music in any way, this is well worth a read.
Now it’s time to choose one book of the year from the fiction stack and one book of the year from non-fiction.
In any other year I think Parable of the Sower would be the fiction winner, but this year I’m going to have to go for Piranesi.
There’s stiff competition in the non-fiction category: Humankind, Factfulness, and Let It Go are all excellent. But it’s got to be Broad Band.
Most of these books are available on Bookshop if you fancy reading any of them.
And for context, here’s: