A flash review of every book I’ve read in 2021

2021 was a great year for me in terms of reading. Here’s a super-short review of all the books I read in the past 12 months, and which was my favourite.

Doctor Who: Time Lord Fairy Tales, Justin Richards

A pleasant way to kick off the year. There were some good stories in this collection, but overall I didn’t feel like there was anything hugely ‘clever’ about most of the stories. Some were basically carbon copies of a classic fairy tale, with only the smallest of changes to introduce elements of the Doctor Who universe. I feel it didn’t live up to its potential.

The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien

I love The Hobbit. I have fond memories of squeezing into an armchair with my dad as a young boy and eating toast for supper while he read it to me before bed. I can’t wait to do the same with my kids. Toast is optional. I also particularly like this new edition, which recreates the original version my dad bought in the 70s.

Rivers of London (#1), Ben Aaronovitch

Very creative in places, very funny, and very well researched. However, the two plot lines thing doesn’t really work for me; one of them seems much weaker than the other. It’s basically a four-star book and a two-star book stuck together. You can read my full Rivers of London review here.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

This was my second read through of this book. I enjoyed it immensely again. Neil Gaiman wonderfully captures the terror of being a small boy living with a monster in disguise. If I had one criticism it would be that the main character is quite passive – stuff happens to him and then the magical family down the road often do weird things and this tends to make plot bits happen. But it’s a beautiful read.

Moon Over Soho (Rivers of London #2), Ben Aaronovitch

Despite feeling quite mixed about the first book, as you can see something compelled me to dive into the second instalment in the Rivers of London series. Unfortunately I found I had the same issues with this book as with the first in the series, except more so. This one is two underwhelming stories cobbled together. I think I’d still like to read another book in the series though, because Aaronovitch’s world, characters and wit make great company.

Ten Things About Writing: Build Your Story One Word at a Time, Joanne Harris

I love Joanne Harris. Not only as a writer, but also as a person. This book is a collection of all the entries (as of the time of publication) in her Ten Tweets series; a budding writer will ask her for advice on a topic on Twitter and she’ll provide ten tweets’ worth of invaluable advice. This is a brilliant resource for writers at any level.

The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett

I love Discworld. It’s my favourite series of novels and Terry Pratchett is my favourite author. But do I love The Colour of Magic? No. Ye gods, no. It seems a lot of people agree this book is not great. Even Pratchett and his close friend Neil Gaiman have been critical of it. All I can say is I’m glad it’s not the first Discworld book I ever read, because to be honest it probably would have also been the last. Sorry Terry.

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

Ah! If you wanted to introduce someone to a quintessential example of the fantasy genre, this is it. This book just felt right. It gave me exactly what I wanted – not that it was predictable. It’s epic in scope, and it ticks extra boxes for me by having the main character attend a school without putting us through all the usual dramas you find in that setup these days. A true fantasy classic.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

This book divides me. On the one hand, the blurb on the back cover sells it as a supernatural mystery. If you’re a crime genre fan you probably won’t get much out of this book. The central mystery doesn’t have a very satisfying conclusion.

What this book really is, is literary fiction. It’s character study. And it’s great at both those things. There’s real poignance and nuance in here. Sometimes it is overwritten – not everything needs an elaborate metaphor – but most of the time it is simply beautiful.

Read my full The Lamplighters review here.

Chatter: The Conversations We Have With Ourselves – and How to Control Them, Ethan Kross

I like self help books, but only when they’re grounded in science. Like this one from Ethan Kross, who actually studies the stuff he’s advising you on. As a lifelong ruminator I found this very intriguing. Also this book gets extra marks for doing something that should be compulsory for every self-help book full of tips and suggestions: it includes a short summary at the end with bitesized versions of each ‘rule’, tip or strategy.

Black Water Sister, Zen Cho

My biggest gripe with this is not Zen Cho’s fault: the paperback cover is just as gorgeous as the hardback’s. I want both. This was a fantastic book.

It immerses you in a different culture (if you’re not from Malaysia, that is) and blends a very personal, real story of a young woman struggling with keeping her sexuality a secret from her family with the supernatural tale of possession by a dead grandmother, who happens to be (or rather, was) the medium for a local, vengeful god.

I particularly love the active role Jess takes in the story. She falls victim to a lot of things, but it never feels like she’s just letting it happen.

Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales, P. D. James

What a brilliant collection of short stories. Just like how Earthsea perfectly demonstrated to my why Le Guin is a giant in the fantasy genre, it took only a couple of hundred pages for P. D. James to showcase why she’s a queen of crime. These tales all have something in common: they take a crime and give it a darker, bleaker twist. It’s not only the murderers in these tales with black souls and cold hearts. I loved it.

The Cornish Coast Murder, John Bude

Maybe it’s because I grew up with parents who watched a lot of Poirot, Ms Marple, and Foyles War, but I have a soft spot for these golden age of crime stories. Basically the entire genre can be summarised like this: these are books where without fail, at some point, one character will say to another something along the lines of ‘Dammed awful business, what?’

But, while the central mystery is intriguing, the book is a little underwhelming. It also feels like a bait and switch, as 80% of the investigation focuses almost entirely on just one line of enquiry before the real murderer is found based on some information that wasn’t available to the reader. Plus they keep discarding key pieces of evidence for really stupid reasons.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

I’d been waiting a long time for my son to reach an age where I could start reading Harry Potter to him. I enjoyed the books so much as a kid and couldn’t wait for him to experience them too. I’m enjoying them myself a lot more than I thought I would, although now that I have some writing experience under my belt I’m viewing them through a more critical eye. But it’s a great story, if you overlook the fact that Hogwarts is a terrible school that should really be shut down on health & safety grounds.

Dune, Frank Herbert

I wanted to read Dune before the film came out, but ironically haven’t gotten around to seeing the film after all that effort anyway. It’s not hard to see why this is a science fiction masterpiece. The world building, the politics, the intrigue is wonderful. However – and I’m far from alone in thinking this – I think that while Frank Herbert told a great story he didn’t tell it well.

Many people cite his use of omniscient third person viewpoint here, but that’s not what I have a problem with. I think the way information is given out is inefficient.

For example, it’s not until 400 pages into the book that you find out, purely through a couple of lines of dialogue, why this entire, complicated story is happening in the first place. It’s not a twist, or a reveal or anything, it’s just that a huge piece of the set-up seemingly wasn’t deemed important enough to – you know – mention during the set-up.

Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I read this book while on the train back from London in a single sitting. OK, so it may not have been a single sitting if I hadn’t been stuck on a train, but I still would have zipped through it very quickly, and not just because it’s short. This is a deep, poignant look at the cost of war. It’s a great example of the validity of science fiction as a genre, because it uses elements like time travel and alien races to enhance and broaden Vonnegut’s commentary.

James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl

Another bedtime read for my son. I had this as part of a collection of Roald Dahl books when I was young, along with Fantastic Mr Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Willy Wonka and the Great Glass Elevator. I read them all repeatedly, and it’s great to start sharing these stories with my son.

Before & Laughter, Jimmy Carr

To be honest, this book wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s much more of a self-help book than I’d expected. Sure, it’s quite funny in places, but my main problem is this: Jimmy Carr isn’t really saying anything that’s new.

That would be OK if he brought something new to this hackneyed topics – either his sense of humour or his life experiences. Those are the things unique to him. But this book doesn’t have enough of either, so instead it’s just a collection of vague, underdeveloped motivational stuff and it gets quite repetitive.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling

My son and I have been working through this one at bedtime. Revisiting it as an adult I’m amazed at how long the story takes to really get started. The first of the attacks doesn’t happen until about half way through. The book is very front-loaded and most of the memorable stuff is packed into the final quarter-or-so of the book. I still stand by my previous statement: Hogwarts is a terrible school and it’s amazing it didn’t get shut down.

But which was best?

I’m really torn in trying to pick a favourite read from this year. Dune gets an honourable mention; in some ways it feels like it should be my favourite, but the issues with the way information is handled means it just misses out on the top spots.

As for number one, it’s a toss-up between A Wizard of Earthsea and Black Water Sister.

What was your favourite read of 2021? Let me know in the comments.

Header image based on a photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.