A Year In Review: Books Of 2021

It’s been a very theme-heavy year of reading. A lot of my books this year deal with nature and the countryside – I guess it’s only natural (heh), given the year we’ve had, to want to escape to some cottagecore fantasy. I also read more mystery and horror too (more escapism). Here’s an overview:

Best book you read in 2021:

– Crime/Mystery: The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

– Horror/Thriller: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

– Sci-fi/Fantasy: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

– Romance/History/Other: The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

– Non-fiction: Merry Hall trilogy by Beverley Nichols

– YA: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire. I actually read more than one YA book this year, but this still won by default.

Most surprising (in a good way) book of 2021: Numbers and the World by Do Minh Triet

Book that you read in 2021 that you recommended most to others: Wilding by Isabella Tree, Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdup-Thygeson, Beyond Words by Carl Safina, The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Best series you discovered in 2021: Merry Hall trilogy

Favorite new author you discovered in 2021: Beverley Nichols, Lillian Beckwith, Mary Oliver

Book you were excited about and thought you were going to love but didn’t: Fashion Victims by Allison Matthew David, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer, All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre to you: Numbers and the World

Book you read in 2021 that you’re most likely to read again: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration/Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer

Favorite book you read in 2021 from an author you’ve read previously: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration/Regency Britain

Favorite cover of a book in 2021:

Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2021: Wilding

Book you can’t BELIEVE you waited until 2021 to read: The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. I’ve read Agatha Christie before but not the Miss Marple books.

Book that had a scene in it that had you reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it (a WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss etc.): The Elementals by Michael McDowell

Favorite relationship from a book you read in 2021 (be it romantic, friendship, etc.): Vic and Maggie in NOS4A2, Nana and Satoru in The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Most memorable character in a book you read in 2021: Miss Marple? I may be biased because of the TV series, but honestly, she is more memorable than anyone else.

Genre you read the most from 2021: Non-fiction (about nature, specifically)

Book that was the most fun to read in 2021: The Truth about Animals by Lucy Cooke

Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2021: The Travelling Cat Chronicles, East of Croydon by Sue Perkins

Total Number of books read in 2021: 65 (including 2 Miss Marple books and 5 volumes of Dream of the Red Chamber that are not included in the monthly reviews, since they were more of a re-read).

Book Reviews: December 2021

I’m posting my book reviews a little earlier this month, because next week is going to be the yearly book wrap-up and I don’t want to group my December books with next month, which would make the post too long. Anyway, the books I read during the last month of 2021 are as eclectic as ever. Here goes:

The Hebridean Trilogy (The Hills is Lonely, The Sea for Breakfast, The Loud Halo) by Lillian Beckwith:

These semi-autobiographical books, about an English woman who moves to a small village in the Hebrides, first to recover after an illness, and then permanently as she falls in love with the island and its inhabitants, are both charming and hilarious. What I love about them is that they don’t romanticize life on the island at all; in fact, such life can be really tough (no running water, having to cut your own peat for winter’s fuel, very little diversion/entertainment from the daily chores, etc.), and the villagers and their many quirks are as exasperating as they are endearing. Yet they still make me want to settle down on a Scottish croft myself! I mean, who can reject the fun of having a picnic on the moors and being joined by several inquisitive Highland cows, the scrumptiousness of heather-fed lamb and homemade dumplings, or the charm of listening to the annual shoal of herring making the surface of the sea “bubble with laughter”? 5/5

A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark:

It’s been a while since I read a fantasy book, and I was drawn to this by its setting – a steampunk Egypt at the turn of the 20th century. Basically, 40 years ago, a mysterious man called al-Jahiz opened up the gate between our world and the world of magic and djinn, and thanks to that magic, Egypt has been turned into a super power that rivals those of Europe and America. The story, which revolves around a female investigator dealing with a mysterious figure claiming to be the returned al-Jahiz, is a little slow in the first half, but it picks up considerably in the second half. My one complaint is that the characters are rather boring, especially the lead – she doesn’t have much of a personality, except for her sense of style, which I love (all those spiffy suits!) But the world-building is excellent and the story isn’t bad, so I still give this 4/5

P/S: There are two prequel short stories, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. I’d recommend reading A Dead Djinn in Cairo first, to familiarize yourself with the world and the characters.

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters:

I went from a steampunk Egypt to a historical Egypt – this cozy mystery takes place in the 1880s, at the height of Egyptomania. It revolves around Miss Amelia Peabody, a spinster who travels to Egypt to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming an Egyptologist and become embroiled in a mystery involving a walking mummy. It’s quite slow – being the first of a series, it has to take its time to introduce us to the characters, and the mystery is not the most involving. Plus, I find Amelia’s love interest rather annoying – it is too obvious an attempt at the tired “enemies to lovers” trope. Still, I enjoy all the description of the travels down the Niles and the explorations of the old tombs and pyramids. 3/5

Book Reviews: November 2021

It’s a month of nature books! I’ve read a lot of fiction lately, so I’m going back to some non-fiction this month to cleanse my palate, so to speak. Here goes:

The Truth about Animals by Lucy Cooke:

This book details some of the common myths about animals (sloths are pointless, hyenas are cowardly, pandas are bad at sex, etc.), talks about the history of animal studies that lead to such myths, and of course, busts them wide-open. It’s hilarious – several passages make me laugh out loud, such as the bit about making a pair of breeches for frogs to collect their semen, for example (you had to be there) – and offers some great insights into the world of zoology as well. 5/5

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy:

Earlier this year, when I read “Wilding” by Isabella Tree, I lamented that not all of us have a huge estate to let it return to nature, so the same philosophy can’t be applied to a suburban garden. Well, this seems to answer my wish – it’s about how we can all contribute to biodiversity by reintroducing native plants to our gardens. Unfortunately, it’s only applicable for North America (though the general idea of sticking to native plants is applicable everywhere, I guess), and the writing is rather a little dry and matter-of-fact, so I’m filing this under “books I appreciate but not necessarily enjoy”. 3/5

What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz:

This book takes a look at how plants experience the world, through familiar senses such as seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, sense of direction, and memories. It actually reminds me a lot of “Brilliant Green” by Stefano Mancuso, which I read earlier this year and didn’t enjoy, because it’s too basic for me. This is much better though – it explains a plant’s workings on a molecular, cellular, and genetic levels, and goes into the history of the research behind each of the plant’s “senses” as well (it even answers the question about the Venus flytrap I posed after reading “Brilliant Green”). It gets a bit dry at times, but still fascinating to read. 3.5/5

The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell:

The concept of this book is simple: the author chose a patch of old forest near his home in Tennessee and visited it over the course of a year, and used his observations as jumping-off points to talk about biology, ecology, and human’s relationship with nature. The science is nothing new, but the writing is beautiful and reflective without trying to be too profound. 4/5

Book Reviews: October 2021

I’ve never been one for theme reading, but for some reason, this October, I felt like reading something a bit spooky (probably because October this year is appropriately chilly and Halloween-y, instead of still being uncomfortably warm), so I decided to read all horror/thriller. Here goes:

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix:

I started my month of spooky reads with this haunted house horror set in an IKEA-like superstore. It starts out well (it reminds me of China Mieville’s short story “The Ball Room” – now that’s a spooky one!) as the store employees experience strange things around the store and stay for an overnight shift to figure out what’s going on. However, as the mystery is revealed, it becomes a little too tangible for me – it’s still tense, but not so scary anymore. I prefer books like The Haunting of Hill House, which relies more on terror and the unknown and let your imagination do most of the work. Still, it has some good parts and is a super quick read. 3/5

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix:

I saw this one by the same author while I was checking out Horrorstör and thought it looked interesting – it’s about a former guitarist of a 90s metal band who discovers that the lead singer literally sold the band’s souls to some dark force in exchange for fame and fortune for himself, and now, as he’s preparing for the biggest tour of his career, she must set out to stop him and get back what’s rightfully hers. Since I’m doing a month of horror/thriller anyway, I decided to pick it up. I’m not much of a metal fan (not 80s/90s metal anyway. I did listen to some nu metal back in high school), but I do understand the power of music and the feeling that, with the right song, you can change the world, so I quite enjoyed this. The story and characters are more developed than Horrorstör, though not particularly scary (it’s gory, for sure, but I never find gore scary.) My only complaint is that the mythology behind the soul suckers is not quite clear, which leads to a rather rushed ending. 4/5

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter:

This is a more straightforward thriller than what I usually read – a woman, after her husband’s death, discovers that he may have something to do with the disappearance of her eldest sister over 20 years ago and countless other missing women. The first half of it is pretty gripping, but then we have a “twist” reveal that is… not stupid, per se, but convoluted and implausible, and it completely took me out of the story. Plus the bad guy is so cartoonishly evil and depraved, and his evil deeds are so far-reaching, that I find the story unbelievable. Like a Michael Bay movie, it’s not bad if you don’t think too much about it. 2/5

Slade House by David Mitchell:

Now this is a more traditional Halloween read. It’s a series of stories all taking place in a mysterious house that can only be found once every nine years, when its inhabitants – a pair of sinister brother and sister – would invite a hapless visitor and steal their soul. Apparently it takes place in the same world as one of the author’s previous books, The Bone Clock, but you don’t need to read that one to enjoy this. It’s spooky and a little trippy but not downright scary (it actually reminds me a lot of Coraline), and even though in each story, we know what’s coming (each visitor finds their reality collapsing around them as they’re lured deeper and deeper into the house), there is still that “Oh shit!” moment when we realize what’s really going on. However, I never really connect to any of the characters, and the ending is, you guess it, a bit rushed, so I’m only giving this 4/5

The Elementals by Michael McDowell:

Two Alabama families, after the death of one of their matriarchs, go to their summer houses on the Gulf Coast for a vacation, only to encounter some unknown, vicious horrors in one of the houses, which is abandoned and filled with sand. Michael McDowell was best known for writing the screenplay for Beetlejuice, but I’ve never read any of his books before, and this is also the first Southern Gothic horror I’ve read. It’s very atmospheric – yes, the “monsters” make some memorable appearances, but the true horror of the book comes from a vague but pervading sense of menace and oppression from both the setting and the characters. There is no explanation of what the monsters are or where they come from either, which doesn’t make for a very satisfying ending, but certainly adds to the horror. 4/5

That was fun. I may have to do some more themed reading in the future!

Book Reviews: September 2021

It’s a pretty eclectic month of reading, even by my standard. Here goes:

East of Croydon: Travels in India and South East Asia by Sue Perkins

I like Sue Perkins as a presenter both on The Great British Bake-Off and The Supersizers. I like traveling. I live in South East Asia. So when I came across a book about Sue’s travels during her making of a documentary about the Mekong River, of course I had to pick it up. It’s as funny as I’d expected though – it’s a mix between hilarious travel/childhood anecdotes and poignant and even depressing observations about life. And then it gets really depressing, in the parts about the environmental destruction in China and the abject poverty of India and the devastation of her father’s death. It’s powerful stuff, but a bit too heavy for me. 3.5/5

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan:

Written as a memoir of a lady naturalist/explorer who looked back upon the expeditions of her youth to study the mythical dragons, this is a fun take on the usual fantasy adventure genre. However, I have a few quibbles. One, the world-building is less-than-imaginative – why bother changing the names of the countries when they’re clearly based on the real world (Scirland = England, Vystrana = Russia, etc.)? Just write it as an alternate history (like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) and be done with it. And two, I don’t connect with the characters, and as a result, the story feels very low on tension. Sure, there are physical hardships and dangers, but the personal stakes are not there. The very fact that the main character is alive and writing her story as an old woman lets us know that she will be fine, and as for her companions, I’m not invested enough to care what happens to them. 2.5/5 

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant:

So I move from one fantastical creature to the next – from dragon to mermaid. But this isn’t your typical Ariel. The book revolves around a research ship that goes out to the Mariana Trench to find out what happened to a previous ship that went missing there seven years ago, leaving only behind footage of man-eating mermaids. The idea of killer mermaids sound awesome, and I like the author’s other works (as Seanan McGuire), but this one is a bit disappointing. One, everyone seems to treat the loss of the original voyage as a mystery and keeps saying they will find out “what really happened”, but we know what happened – there is footage of the mermaids attacking and eating the crew – so they’re not finding out what happened; they’re only confirming it (it may be just semantic, but it really bugs me.) Two, it is so, so slow. The technical and scientific stuff about the ship and the research is very dry. I figure it was included to make the story more realistic, but I was hoping for “Aliens” and got a scientific manual instead. And all the personal details weigh the story down as well – I don’t want to read about a character’s struggle with their marriage/love life/disability/sexuality if it has nothing to do with the story! By the end of the book, I’m actively cheering the mermaids on to kill them all… but of course, the ending turns out to be a disappointment too, because it screams anti-climax. 2/5 (and that’s only because the mermaids are cool.)

A Bicycle Made for Two by Mary Jayne Baker:

I don’t read much romance (or even at all), but after the slog that is “Into the Drowning Deep”, I want something light and easy to relax with. I picked this up because it’s set in the Yorkshire Dales, one of my dream destinations, and the story – about a woman trying to get the Tour de France to come to her village – actually sounds fun. I still find the romance part a bit annoying (I find the main character’s chemistry with one of the side characters much sweeter and more believable than with the love interest), but the rest of it is not bad. 3/5