Year in Books: 2021

Dec. 31, 2021

In 2021 I got back into serious reading after about a decade. Technically, it happened in 2018, but 2021 is the first time I've met (and exceeded) my reading target in these past three years.

I had managed six, fourteen and twelve in the preceding years. This year I managed to read 21 books (and more if you count the books I am currently in the middle of).

This sudden uptick in reading was mostly thanks to the discovery of the Honkaku Crime Fiction 1 genre later in the year. I have been a big fan of crime fiction ever since I discovered Agatha Christie as a wee child, and finding something so similar after such a long wait really energized me - but more on that later.

Here, I am sharing a short note on each book I read, in the order I read them.

I am using a simple rating system:

๐ŸŒŸ means Strongly recommended

โ›” means Steer clear

All others have no special recommendation. You can click on the title to go to the Goodreads page for that book.

Follow Me To Ground ๐ŸŒŸ

The first book of the year was also the weirdest by quite a distance. Without spoiling anything, it tells a fairly simple story about fairly complicated creatures who have the ability to heal people by reaching inside of their bodies. Recommended, if you are not too squeamish about body horror.

Primary Obsessions โ›”

A therapy patient confesses to a murder his therapist is sure he did not commit, but what can she do about it. A great hook to start off with but it goes downhill really quickly - I believe purely because the author could not match up to the task he conjured up for himself. I did not bother finishing it after I had read the fifth nonsensical adjective.

The Eighth Detective ๐ŸŒŸ

Alex Pavesi decomposes the art of murder mysteries in this murder mystery. The premise is gripping and the book progresses really well from chapter to chapter. The overall ending could be a bit divisive but I think the rest of the work is worth it. A strong debut and a great homage to the genre.

Exhalation ๐ŸŒŸ

Ted Chiang conjures up thought-provoking and mind-bending tales of futures and civilizations both near and far in this anthology, which turned out to be my first five-star book of the year. If you like speculative/science fiction, this is an unqualified recommendation.

The Midnight Library

I picked it up thinking it was sci-fi but was (mostly) pleasantly surprised at its magical-realism themes. It gets off to a really strong start - which may leave you feeling quite down, mind you - and does a great job of building up a unique purgatorial reality for the book to take place in but quickly regresses to a collection of “sliding door” moments for the rest of it.

There Is No Antimemetics Division ๐ŸŒŸ

You are familiar with the concept of memes - elements that have the innate tendency to make themselves known - but what would it look like to imagine its dual: the antimeme. Things that have the tendency to spread the destruction of knowledge about their existence. Therein lies the paradox: if antimemes could be found, we could not retain that knowledge. In this book, “qntm” describes the fight of the Antimemetics Division, a team of experts in search for antimemetic activities.

This book was a truly mind-bending experience. On multiple occasions, I had to stop reading to peel back the many layers of the point being made in the last sentence. If the writing was not as dry and better edited, it could have been the second five-star book of the year. However, it still retains the highly recommended status.

Summer Frost

One of the ways I was able to achieve my reading goal was to read shorter books (which is completely fine! Not every book you read needs to be a War And Peace.) and Summer Frost was an easy pickup because it was from Blake Crouch, who wrote my 2020 read of the year: Recursion.

It's a novella about the meaning of existence and consciousness - tackled in themes that did not feel novel, but was still a fun short read.

A Rising Man โ›”

A murder is discovered in colonial era “Calcutta” and a newly-landed inspector is assigned to the case who attempts to untangle the threads with help of overeager local junior-ranking personnel.

An attempt is made to portray “Calcutta” filled with an air of intrigue and malice - with the protagonist barely familiar with the dark underbelly of the city and still mired-up in his own tragic past. It even has good reviews!

I picked this up as a deliberate attempt to read more Indian authors but was disappointed. The story seemed to drag on, I felt no attachment to the protagonist, and the target audience seemed to not be Indians like me, but people unfamiliar with Kolkata (and colonial India). I did not bother finishing it.

Norse Mythology

The first audiobook I ever read listened to, this neat collation of stories from Norse Mythology (credit for the accurate naming) was both written and narrated by Neil Gaiman. If you are familiar with the mythology there is nothing new here, but if you are not then let Gaiman take you on the journey across the Asgard and beyond.

The Three Body Problem ๐ŸŒŸ

Encouraged by my experience of the previous audiobook, I decided to take a stab at listening to a sci-fi work. Fortunately, Macmillan was just serializing Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem over on their podcast (which I recommend subscribing to for similar serializations).

I don't have to say much about this book given how well-known it has become in the past few years - I will only add that you must continue onto the next instalment to get the full experience of this series. Yes, the prose is dry and the initial chapters about the Cultural Revolution in China may bore some people (I found them incredibly interesting, in fact), but it's worth sticking with. The Dark Forest is the better book but I can't recommend it without also recommending the setup, so this gets a star too.

The Dark Forest ๐ŸŒŸ

Since the first book in the series ends on a rather obvious cliff hanger, I had to go get the next instalment. I do not regret that one bit - even though it took me ages to listen through this.

The arc that Cixin Liu starts in the first book is brought to a deserving apex in this instalment which finally reveals Liu's answer for the Fermi Paradox. A much more existential work that the predecessor, it still manages to feel better paced.

There are some valid criticisms of the world in this book - like Liu's problematic description of women - but the science and world building makes it hard to not recommend.

The Echo Wife

Perhaps the second weirdest read of the year - and that's not meant as a knock - Sarah Gailey's book also, like Summer Frost, deals with the questions of existence and consciousness, but this time in a completely novel setting.

A world-renowned genetic scientist discovers that her husband is having an affair with a clone of her that he made - leaving out all her “undesirable” qualities - using her research. Suddenly, he's dead and the original and the clone find themselves in cahoots.

It was a fun concept and fairly executed but at the end I could not shake the feeling like I had eaten a half-baked cookie, which is why I refrain from giving it a star.

The Thursday Murder Club

This was the first in a flurry of crime fiction novels that underlined my end-of-year reading. Richard Osman's debut attempt is a really fun murder mystery set in a retirement home. Disappointingly it is not fair-play but the setting was novel, the characters were well fleshed-out, it was genuinely funny in moments, and it kept me guessing till the end!

I liked the setting and characters so much that I am hoping that the future novels in the series have a stronger craft for crime fiction. Till then, I am happy to weakly recommend it.

The Decagon House Murders

I believe I got the recommendation for this book from a tweet by Hideo Kojima (yes, that Hideo Kojima) but I am unable to trace it now. Regardless, it was my introduction to the Honkaku crime fiction genre from Japan - a sub-genre of crime fiction that came to life in the 70s as an attempt to resurrect the styles of the great fair-play (and specifically, locked room) mystery writers like Christie and Van Dine from the golden era of crime fiction.

I realized what a void the lack of works from this genre had left in my heart once I discovered - and began devouring - these Japanese books.

The first one on the list, it poses a neat little problem of a series of murders on an isolated island - in an explicit nod to Christie's And Then There Were None. Though not as strong as its inspiration, Ayatsuji manages to neatly incorporate Gothic horror into the mix, making for a blistering read.

There is one logical hole that I could not let go of, though and combined with the overeager homages, it is not a strong recommendation.

The Honjin Murders ๐ŸŒŸ

The next book of the genre did not disappoint, however. First in a - thankfully very long - series of books with detective Kosuke Kindaichi as the protagonist, the solution to this mystery was quite clever. The character of Kindaichi was well executed too and left me wanting for more of his exploits. Unfortunately Pushkin Press is releasing translations at a glacial pace so I'll have to be patient.

The Inugami Curse

The second book in the Kindaichi series, the setup was way more expansive than the first while Kindaichi's appearances were reduced down quite a bit. I think both of those things were to the overall detriment of the book.

Still a fun read, though.

Far From the Light of Heaven

The third book of the Kindaichi series was not going to be released for another week in Canada, so I picked up this sci-fi debut on a recommendation from T. G. Shenoy on Twitter (who you should follow if you want lesser-known sci-fi recommendations, especially from South Asian authors).

Ostensibly, this book is a locked-room mystery but set on a spaceship. Sounds like an amazing setup to develop a story - and it was, but only in some ways. The first disappointment is that the mystery was not fair-play (have I mentioned how much I like fair-play mysteries yet?). I felt like this was a missed opportunity given the excellent conditions that the setup provided.

The second disappointment was that it had some fluff - some characters were introduced without really mattering to the story ultimately, which left me wondering what the point was. I think it was to give the protagonist a relatable backstory but I don't think that was managed.

To its credit, it had some nice ideas about space travel and Afro-futurism - something I have not seen in proximity before, so it gets a weak recommendation.

The Village of Eight Graves

Once this (third) instalment of the Kindaichi series was released, I dove right into it and found that it overall fit in between the first and second in quality.

The mystery was much smaller in scale than in The Inugami Curse, which meant that there was more time for detail. However, too much of the book was spent on “action” sequences which I did not care for. Consequently, Kindaichi's role is even more diminished in this one than the previous book. Overall, a wash.

Light, Gesture and Color

A photography book, I picked this up very late in the year with the aim to spend some time levelling up my photography skills. Ken Rockwell described this as a “modern classic” so I had high hopes. However, it turned out to be quite different to what I was expecting (more of a “philosophy” book rather than a technique book) and so I was left disappointed in the end.

A Memory Called Empire

My last fiction book of the year was another serialization from Stories From Among The Stars. I follow a few linguists on Twitter due to my heavy interest in the area and I had read many good things about this sci-fi work so I was happy to see it appear on the podcast.

We are taken to a futuristic galactic empire of Teixcalaan, a cross between futuristic meso-American and Byzantine empires, where a new ambassador from a distant mining station travelling to take up her post. Her people wear memory devices - called Imago machines - that allow the transfer of knowledge (and consciousness) across generations. A sort of artificial Lamarckism. However, the Imago machine she has been given is fifteen years old as her predecessor has gone missing. Now she must figure out what happened to him while trying to juggle being a “barbarian” in a colonizing culture and ensuring the safety of her community.

An interesting book which touches many concepts: language, sexuality, gender, consciousness, existence, culture, colonization and immigration, I can see why it found so much support with varied audiences.

However, I found it to be overall not very novel in what it did and expect to forget most of the details very soon.

Ruby Garbage Collection In Under Two Hours

The first and only technical book on this list as I am not counting all the books I referenced or partially finished. It's by (now) colleague Jemma Issroff, who has been writing articles about the Garbage Collector in Ruby for a while now.

I studied garbage collectors during my degree and was surprised how much of that knowledge I had retained. This short book (yes, it actually is under two hours) is a good overview of how the MRI GC works and while I am familiar with a lot of GC concepts, I still learnt from this book. It's written in a conversational style with each technical discussion is supplemented with a “backpacking” example by the author which may make the content more approachable. I personally would have preferred just the technical bits but appealing to a wider audience is good too.

That is all. I have not set any targets for 2022, but I don't think I will aim for much higher than 25. A book every two weeks is the pace I can most realistically sustain without feeling like I am stealing time from other activities, and I have no desire to treat reading as a competition.

What did you read this year? Tweet your recommendations at me!

[1]โคถ: Honkaku in Japanese just means “authentic”, so it's important to specify when we mean it in the crime fiction sense to avoid appropriating the word.

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