2021 in Books

It is the end of 2021. Here, as always, is a brief summary of the books I read this year, organised (inadequately) by geography and genre, and even more inadequately, by a rough rating system.

A. Continent: Africa

  1. S.O. Kenani, For Honour and Other Stories (****): A set of compelling, dark – and sometimes – brutal short stories set in Malawi. This was my first introduction to Malawian fiction. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Ayesha Haruna Attah, The Hundred Wells of Salaga (*****): One of my favourite reads of the year: this novel of colonialism and resistance from Ghana has one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve ever come across. It also has some of the most beautiful lines I read this year. Full review on blog.
  3. Mukoma wa Ngugi, Unbury Our Dead With Song (*****): A gorgeous novel set around the Ethiopian musical form, the tizita, and one man’s hunt for its roots. Review on blog.
  4. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, The Dragonfly Sea (*****): Very different from Dust – this one moves between the Kenyan island of Pate, China, and Turkey, and is a coming-of-age story; but like Dust, so atmospheric, and filled with lines to die for. Review on blog.
  5. Peter Kimani, Dance of the Jakaranda (****): A generational novel, moving between the building of the railroad that created the colony of Kenya, and the fraught moment of Kenyan independence – and about how the choices made by one generation echo down to the next and the next. Has one of the most moving passages on migration and exile that I’ve ever read. Full review on blog.

B. Continent: Asia

  1. Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Committed (****): The sequel to The Sympathizer – with the action now moving to France – manages to somehow be even more darkly funny, even more visceral, and even grimmer than the original. Longer review on Goodreads.

C. Continent: South America

  1. Ariel Dorfman, Darwin’s Ghosts (*****): A brilliantly unique novel about colonialism, told from the perspective of photographs (yes!). If you’re expecting something along the lines of Heading North, Looking South or Death and the Maiden – well, prepare to be surprised. This is more Laurent Binet meets all the Latin American magical realists. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Machado de Assis, 26 Short Stories (***): Epitaph of a Small Winner was a brilliant novel, but I found this story collection a little … uneven.

D. Continent: Europe

  1. Laurent Binet, Civilisations (****): A fascinating alt-history novel about Columbus failing in his voyage and, instead, the Incas and the Aztecs “conquering” Europe, with everything reversed. Really, really good. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Laurent Binet, HHhH (*****): A fictionalised account of the real-life assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s right-hand man, by two Czech partisans in Prague. Binet tells this brilliantly: even though you know what happened, this one has you on the edge of your seat till the last page. Also, such a deeply moving account of courage in the face of impossible odds.
  3. Danilo Kis, The Attic (***): I loved A Tomb For Boris Davidovich, but The Attic felt very, very inaccessible (pun not intended!) – a glossary at the end hinted that there were a whole bunch of inter-textual references (especially to Serbian history and culture) that I was missing, so I think this is more of a me thing than the book thing.
  4. Ismail Kadare, Agamemnon’s Daughter: A Novella and Stories (***): Kadare is one of my favourite novelists, but this is not one of my favourite collections: a little too violent and a little too on-the-nose at times. Longer review on Goodreads.
  5. Dubravka Ugresic, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (***): I loved The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, but I have to say, this contemporary retelling of the Baba Yaga legend went over my head a bit.
  6. Simon Sebag Montefiore, One Night in Winter (*****): An absolute page-turner of a historical novel, set in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the machinations that follow when a children’s prank goes horribly wrong. This was *spine-chilling* at various points, and the ending was strangely moving.
  7. Leonardo Sciascia, The Knight and Death and One Way Or Another (***): Yet another one of those cases – there were a lot this year – where I bought an author’s second book because I loved the first one (in this case, Equal Danger), but the second one didn’t quite land in the same way. I suspect that it’s because there is a *lot* of thick context at work in this set of novella and short stories, regarding mid-20th century Italian history, politics, and culture, and without any signposting, it gets a little hard for a non-Italian to find their bearings. I could *tell* that a lot of references – especially in One Way Or Another – were passing clean over my head.
  8. Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You (****): I actually liked this a lot. In an uncomplicated way.
  9. Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (*****): Re-reading this masterpiece is an annual tradition. I never fail to tear up at the end.
  10. Benjamin Labatut, When We Cease To Understand The World (****): All kinds of pyrotechnics in this one – from the history of cobalt blue (including an eerie Nazi history) to Grothendiek to Schrodinger to Heisenberg – it’s as if Michael Frayn was writing this on drugs!

E. Region: Middle-East

  1. Hoda Barakat, Voices of the Lost (****): The legendary Lebanese writer’s latest offering has one of the most intriguing premises I’ve ever come across: a person writes a letter, and leaves it somewhere unsent; another person finds it, which prompts them to write their own letter, which they leave somewhere unsent; and so on, for six people; part two is the same stories, told from the perspectives of those who were meant to receive the letters, but never do; and part three is from the p.o.v. of the postman. This book didn’t *always* come together, but it’s worth a read just for the premise. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Sonallah Ibrahim, Warda (*****): One of my utter favourites of the year. Warda straddles two historical epochs – the contemporary middle-east and the Dhoofar Revolution in Oman of the 1960s and 70s (a revolution that has been almost erased from history); and the story revolves around eponymous Warda, a revolutionary who disappeared during the Dhoofar struggle, but whose shadow continues to haunt the present. This was utterly moving.

F. Science Fiction

  1. S.B. Divya, Machinehood (****): A compelling, near-future science fiction novel about an almost totally gig-ified economy, and a mysterious organisation advocating for the rights of machines. Longer review at Strange Horizons.
  2. Adam Roberts, Purgatory Mount (****): Extremely cerebral and extremely sharply-written, as we expect from Roberts.
  3. Aliya Whitely, Skyward Inn (*****): I don’t quite know how to describe this. In a good way.
  4. Octavia Cade, The Impossible Resurrection of Grief (*****): A beautiful, haunting novella about climate change, the terrain of physical – and other kinds – of loss, and the nameless melancholy (or the “twilight” of the soul that Amjad Nasser wrote about) that comes with losing something without quite knowing what it is that you’ve lost. As an added bonus, you’ll learn a lot about jellyfish.
  5. Adrian Tchaikovsky, Shards Of Earth (****): Operatic science fiction from one of the modern greats, about the relationship between humanity and a super-intelligent – and seemingly super-violent – race of “Architects”.
  6. Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams (*****): A classic, but one that has aged extremely well. This series of vignettes is set in worlds like ours, with one crucial difference: time works in a different way in each. One of the stand-out reads of the year. Longer review on Goodreads.
  7. Arkady Strugatsky, One Billion Years To The End of the World (*****): Utterly insane.
  8. Iain M Banks, Surface Detail (****): I had a bit of a return-to-the-Culture phase in the middle of this year, starting with Surface Detail. This one has arguably one of the most fascinating premises in the series – that with the uploading of consciousnesses, civilisations start to invent literal “hells” – which then enter into a virtual “war” with the no-hells side, with the future of the afterlife at stake. Longer review on Goodreads.
  9. Iain M Banks, Excession (*****): This is, by some stretch, my favourite Culture novel (so far). When Banks keeps the Hollywood set-piece space battles to a minimum, and focuses instead on the big ideas and AIs chuntering with one another, he can be so uniquely compelling. This one really put the “opera” in space opera.
  10. Iain M Banks, Look To Windward (****): The most haunting of the Culture novels. The premise – where a Mind (the Culture AIs) lets a star be destroyed – and billions of lives lost – for the greater good, and then has to watch the light from the supernova reach its home-world eight hundred years later – is near-cosmic in its melancholy. Slightly conflicted about the ending, which did not seem to be entirely earned.
  11. Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed (*****): A re-read of the old classic after a gap of fifteen years, and my gosh, what an experience it was to come back to this one as an adult! Full review on blog.
  12. Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (****): A post-anthropocene novella: what happens if humanity does survive the climate catastrophe – and learns all the right lessons from it? Full review on Strange Horizons.
  13. Una McCormack, The Autobiography of Mr. Spock (*****): An “autobiography” of my favourite Star Trek character, by my favourite Star Trek author – what’s not to love? Spock’s voice comes through beautifully in this.
  14. Essa Hansen, Azura Ghost (*****): The sequel to the wonderful Nophek Gloss, due in March 2022 (I read an ARC). Hansen juggles multiple universes as if they were fireballs, without ever dropping a single one. Like the best of science fiction, Azura Ghost asks the questions that we often fear to ask ourselves: about the extent of our responsibility in this world, what it means to choose, the limits of empathy, and the inevitability of loss; and like the best of science fiction, it asks them both at the scale of the cosmos, and at the level of a single human heart. The novel’s ambition is upheld by soaring prose, which does full justice to the scope of Hansen’s imagination. 
  15. Alastair Reynolds, The Prefect (****): My first Reynolds, and it was excellent. The moral stakes were reminiscent of some of the best moments in Iain M Banks (I was reminded of Look To Windward on more than one occasion), and The Prefect combines that with a whodunnit/detective story in the mould of After Atlas. The most fascinating part of the book is the political structure of the Glitter Band (direct democracy via instant polling on ten thousand “habitats”), and my only complaint is that I *really* wish that the book explored the political structure of these ambiguous utopias a little bit more.

G. Fantasy

  1. Yaroslav Barsukov, Tower of Mud and Straw (****): A bleak and atmospheric novella, part-Gothic part-Tower of Babel retelling; recommended. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Ahmed Naji, Using Life (***): An absolutely wild – if sometimes borderline chaotic – fantasy novel set in near-future Egypt. I’d recommend this for the sheer originality – and for the fact that the author spent two years in an Egyptian jail for “obscenity” (fantasy writers don’t often get imprisoned!).
  3. Nghi Vo, Empress of Salt and Fortune (****): An enjoyable novella about tyranny, revolution, and its consequences.
  4. E.J. Beaton, The Councillor (****): A lush and vivid court-fantasy set in what appears to be an alt-medieval Italy, with a sprinkling of magic and some battle scenes to die for (not literally). Stacks up favourably against writers such as Guy Gavriel Kay.
  5. Aliette de Bodard, Fireheart Tiger (****): Another really good novella that deals with unequal power relations in the political and the personal domains, and what happens when the two clash.
  6. Fabio Fernando, Love: An Archaeology (****): A collection of richly-imagined – and very intelligent – fantasy and horror stories, set in and around (but not exclusive to) Brazil.
  7. Suyi Davies Okungbawa, Son Of The Storm (****): An enjoyable and original West-African-inspired fantasy story. Full review at Strange Horizons.
  8. Katharine Addison, Witness for the Dead (****): A finely-crafted and very engaging novel; it looked nailed-on to be a five-star all the way through until the last thirty pages, when a somewhat rushed ending left me with the slightest hint of dissatisfaction. I will note that I have not read the other novel set in this universe – The Goblin Emperor – and that might have taken away from my enjoyment a bit.

H. Hindi Literature

  1. Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Rashmirathi (*****): Even on an n-th re-read, this epic poem about the life of Karna never fails to move.

I. Indian Literature (in English)

  1. Krupa Ge, What We Know About Her (****): Published this year, a deeply thought-provoking novel about music, history, constrained lives, and the pull of the past upon the present.

J. History

  1. Alice Baumgartner, South To Freedom (*****): A meticulously researched and movingly written account of the American slaves’ attempts to escape to freedom south of the border, to Mexico. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Sudhir Hazareesingh, Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Touissant Louverture (****): A granular – if at times slightly dense – biography of Touissant, and an excellent companion to Black Jacobins. Longer review on Goodreads.
  3. H.A. Hellyer, A Revolution Undone (***): An interesting – if at times, somewhat ambiguous – account of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, and its aftermath. Longer review on Goodreads.
  4. Mark Goodale, A Revolution in Fragments: Traversing Scales of Justice, Ideology, and Practice in Bolivia (*****): A brilliant study of the social movements that led to the framing of the plurinational Bolivian Constitution of 2009, and the struggles around the fulfilment of its promises. Even more poignant after the coup of 2019 and the return of MAS. One of the stand-out reads of the year. Longer review on Goodreads.
  5. David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (*****): An authoritative history of the Mau-Mau rebellion. Meticulously researched, and told with a detachment that makes the story all the more chilling. And yes, the British do not come out of it well.
  6. Daniel Branch, Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963 – 2011 (*****): Thorough, comprehensive, and detailed.
  7. Michaela Wrong, It’s Our Turn to Eat (*****): Occasionally disjointed, but overall, a tautly-written book that tells a compelling story about political corruption in contemporary Kenya.

K. Political Economy

  1. Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (*****): One of those perspective-altering books. Goodale traces the rise of coal, and its dominance as a function of the attempts of the early capitalists’ to break the power of labour – and the consequences that still reverberate to this day. Longer review on Goodreads.
  2. Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries (*****): A brilliant account of the doomed Project Cybersyn, Salvador Allende and Stafford Beer’s famous attempt to merge democratic management of the economy with cybernetics. This is a book about what-could-have-been – and maybe, after the recent Chilean elections, of what-still-could-be! One of the reads of the year. Longer review on Goodreads.
  3. Leslie Kern, Feminist City: A Field Guide (****): As the name suggests. An interesting – if at times too American and Euro-centric – book.
  4. Pablo Sendra & Richard Bennett, Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City (*****): A brilliant set of essays on political geography and urban spaces.
  5. Thea Riofrancos, Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (*****): In many ways, this excellent book does for Ecuador what Mark Goodale’s book does for Bolivia: position the recent history of Ecuador – including the framing of its progressive Constitution – within the global debate on extractivism and resource exploitation. Poignant and moving at times, and immensely frustrating (the story, not the writing) at others. Essential. Longer review on Goodreads.
  6. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (*****): A controversial – yet excellent and lucidly written – history of capitalism.
  7. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (*****): I know the historical account in this book has been criticised, but I found it to be a really excellent read that linked the origins of capitalism in Western Europe with the history of the witch-hunt, and the sexual division of labour. Longer review on Goodreads.
  8. Manu Saadia, Trekonomics (****): A really entertaining political-economy account of what makes the Star Trek universe work, and how post-scarcity isn’t simply a get-out-of-jail-free card.

L. The Natural World

  1. Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures (*****): This is a stunning book about fungi, their unique ways of being, and their importance to the ecosystem. From lichens that can survive sub-zero temperatures to truffles hunted in the wild, from the blurring of boundaries between individual and group identity to the “wood wide web”, this is a beautifully written piece of work, and has spared what I think will be a lifelong interest in fungi.
  2. Godfrey Smith-Peter, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (****): This one did for me with respect to octopi what Sheldrake’s book did with respect to fungi: a the birth of a lifelong fascination. Longer review on Goodreads.

M. Essays

  1. Josef Czapski, Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (*****): A book whose title does a better job of describing it than any summary can.
  2. Alaa abd-el Fattah, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated (*****): Alaa’s prison essays – written between 2011 – 2021, chronicling the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath – are, quite simply, some of the best pieces of writing I’ve read in recent times. This would be the one book from 2021 that I would ask everyone to read. Full review at The Wire.

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