Books I’ve read in 2021
Some short reviews of what has inspired and entertained me this year
Continuing the tradition that I began last year with Books I’ve Read in 2020, I’m put together a list of all the books I read with my short review of each. I hope you’ll find some inspiration here!
This year was dominated much more by fiction than last year (escapism, anyone?), but I read a few great non-fiction books as well. Given that I finished writing and editing my own book A Future Untold to publish at the end of October, it’s fair to say that I read that manuscript more times than I really wanted to! You can learn more about that book here.
We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: Inner light in a time of darkness
Alice Walker (2006)
This book is a collection of essays, speeches, and musings from one of my favourite authors. It makes for sobering yet hopeful reading, covering many of the injustices perpetuated by those in various forms of power against humankind. I found it was a bit dated — being published in the mid 2000’s, it references 9/11 a lot and the subsequent war in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, most of the lessons are still highly relevant, and the book is ultimately a call for us to turn inwards and recognise the agency that we have to either be complicit in systemic injustice, or to stand up and help dismantle the conditions that lead to it.
We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting for
"...there is no resistance to the idea that what is foreign can be known. Can be understood. Can be held in the embrace…
This is Not How it Ends: How rewriting your story can save your life
Jehan Casinader (2020)
This book was phenomenal! It’s a raw, honest, and vulnerability account from one of New Zealand’s leading journalists about his struggle with depression, and the role that re-writing his story had to do with him overcoming it. It’s full of stories and anecdotes that are both relatable and saddening — though ultimately triumphant. I read this book at the beginning of the year when I was still writing my own book which features ideas on the power of storytelling and narrative in the way we view ourselves and others, and this book had me nodding along the whole way through. Highly recommend!
This Is Not How It Ends
I'm moved so far away from the worst moments of my depression that I've started to forget that unrelenting feeling of…
Life As a Casketeer: What the business of death can teach the living
Francis & Kaiora Tipene (2020)
I picked this book up off my in-laws shelf last summer without knowing that the authors were the stars of a reality TV show. It was fascinating to learn what goes on in a funeral home and better understand the differences in the ways that Māori and Pākēhā traditionally hold funerals. The writing is pretty simplistic, so if you’re after an easy holiday read on a subject matter that we don’t hear much about, this might be for you.
Life as a Casketeer
An easy and enjoyable read that shares the journey of a warm and full-of-life couple and their intriguing insights from…
Steady: A Guide to Better Mental Health Through and Beyond the Coronavirus Pandemic
Dr Sarb Johal (2021)
Like myself, Sarb self-published his book this year, and it’s a fantastic read. Very timely, obviously, and written by a trained clinical psychologist who has helped the New Zealand government deal with multiple crises, this book features a bunch of practical tips and tools for getting through the unsettling times in which we live. The ideas in this book are fantastic for dealing with not just pandemic-induced anxiety, but all the other existential angst we might be feeling around climate change, rising inequality, increased polarisation and any number of other complex challenges.
Consider this your modern-day mental health survival guide during the global pandemic. Some impactful topics he covered…
The Four Sacred Gifts: Indigenous Wisdom for Modern Times
Dr Anita L Sanchez (2017)
With political polarisation becoming more extreme and many big changes taking place, this book is a teaching on how we can ride the waves and live more peaceful lives with each other. Grounded in the universal indigenous idea that we are all interconnected, and pulling together the wisdom of a group of global indigenous elders, the book offers teachings on forgiveness, unity, healing, and hope.
The Four Sacred Gifts
Heal your past, discover your true purpose, and become a powerful source of inspiration and leadership with…
Peace Is Every Breath: A Practice for Our Busy Lives
Thich Nhat Hanh (2011)
This was a re-read for me this year, and it’s the kind of book you can pick up and read for a few minutes whenever and wherever you have the time, to remind yourself that with mindfulness, you can find peace in any given moment. I bought it in Vietnam at the same time as I bought The Sorrow of War referenced below, with the intention to buy books to balance each other out — one being a sober admonition of why war should be avoided at all costs, the other providing some practical ways that individuals and societies can live more peacefully. This is wonderful easy read with short digestible chapters, and I most valued the frequent reminders that mindfulness need not be an exercise where you have to sit still and close your eyes .
Peace Is Every Breath
“We have negative mental habits that come up over and over again. One of the most significant negative habits we should…
The God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy (1997)
There was a lot that I enjoyed about this highly acclaimed book. The story is rich in detail, the setting in Kerala allowed me to visit new lands and cultures, and the characters well developed and multi-dimensional. I did, however, found the highly poetic style of prose to be quite hard-going. Ironic for a poet, ha! It is beautifully written, but certainly a book took a long time to read because I sometimes had to read things a couple of times to understand what was going on. The timeline also jumps all over the place — which I generally enjoyed, but it might lose some readers.
The God of Small Things
Lush, gorgeous prose: reading The God of Small Things is like having your arms and legs tied to a slowly moving…
The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini (2004)
Another book on many critics “must-read” lists, I really enjoyed this one. Some of the subject matter makes for tough reading, but it’s a beautiful exploration of friendship, betrayal, guilt, and redemption, written at times with a childlike wonder. With all the dominant media narratives that we hear about Afghanistan, this book painted a different mental image for me as a place of rich culture, natural beauty, and great abundance before it experienced the wars we’ve read about in recent decades.
The Kite Runner
In most cultures, family loyalty rests above friendship. Even though Amir did not identify Hassan as his brother, their…
The Sorrow Of War: A Novel of North Vietnam
Bảo Ninh (1987)
There’s no sugar-coating the fact that this is a gruelling read, subject-matter-wise. I purchased it back 2016 when I visited the Vietnam War Museum in Ho Chi Minh city, and it took me 5 years to feel ready to read it. The book is a fictional account set in post-war Vietnam, about a former North Vietnamese soldier whose job it is now to retrieve human remains from the jungles. Jumping between the past and present, it’s a harrowing account of the effects of war on one individual, a country, and a culture. It was originally banned by the Vietnamese government, and has received acclaim from around the world. If you can stomach it, it’s a poignant reminder that in war there are no winners.
The Sorrow Of War
"The sorrow of war inside a soldier's heart was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love. It was a kind of…
Tara June Winch (2020)
Going across the ditch to Australia, I enjoyed this novel which covers themes of colonisation, disenfranchisement, and alienation. The story of a young Aboriginal woman who comes home for her grandfather’s funeral, it’s very much focused on her journey being stuck between two worlds and taking steps towards reclaiming her identity. With overlapping themes to racial and environmental injustice, it’s a book that deftly weaves narratives from the long-ago past and the present day. My only complaint is that I felt like there was an unfinished, additional coming-of-age storyline between two of the characters that I kept waiting to unfold. It was was frustrating on one hand (because it never did), but perhaps that was the author’s intention to show that with such complex issues as identity, decolonisation, and family, there are no tidy endings.
"He was telling her that there was a lot to remembering the past, to having stories, to knowing your history, your…
Parable of the Sower
Octavia E. Butler (1993)
I LOVED this book! Showing my fondness for future-dystopian, speculative fiction, this one ticked all my boxes. Set in 2025 post break-down America (a fair way into the future when it was published in the mid 90’s) where it’s everyone for themselves, it follows a young woman living in a one of the last safe gated communities in Los Angeles, before it is burned to the ground and she flees into the world beyond the walls. It features some eerie parallels with recent social and political trends in the United States, which is foreboding at times. But the new philosophy/religion that the protagonist increasingly develops throughout the book resonated deeply with me as a brilliant way of coming to terms with the many intersecting social, environmental, economic, and cultural challenges that we are facing today.
Parable of the Sower
In 2025, with the world descending into madness and anarchy, one woman beings a fateful journey toward a better future…
Parable of the Talents
Octavia E. Butler (1998)
Having loved the first book so much, I dived straight into Octavia Butler’s sequel to Parable of the Sower. This one is set a few years later in the 2030’s after Lauren (the main character) has established a small community centred around the belief system that she founded. The community is attacked by a group of fundamentalists, and without giving away too much of the plot, this book comes alarmingly close to mirroring elements of present-day America. There is even a newly elected president who wants to — and I quote — “make America great again”… frighteningly prescient when you consider it was published in 1998.
Parable of the Talents (Earthseed, #2)
There are times when I wish I believed in hell-other than the hells we make for one another, I mean. These are tough…
The Shadow King
Maaza Mengiste (2019)
This was a super interesting historical novel set against the backdrop of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia before WWII, and did a great job of enlightening me about a conflict I knew very little about before. The title’s namesake actually plays a relatively minor role in this story, and it is much moreso a well-deserved hat-tip to Ethiopia’s forgotten women soldiers who fought alongside men against the colonising Italian forces. There are some provoking explorations of the dynamics between the loyalist Ethiopian soldiers and the local mercenary ascari who fought alongside the Italians. In particular, I really enjoyed the nuanced and complicated characters who seemed to embody elements of both hero and villain from one moment to the next.
The Shadow King
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020 DNF @25 %The topic - the Second Italo-Ethiopian War - is certainly interesting…
Hear the Wind Sing
Haruki Murakami (1979)
Picked up off a friend’s bookshelf, this book was a two-in-one novel along with Pinball, 1973 below, and has been translated from the original Japanese text. It is very much a slice-of-life read that seemingly goes nowhere, providing a snapshot into the life of a couple of 20-something guys who spend a LOT of time drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in their friend’s bar. The writing shifts seamlessly between the philosophical, the poetic, and the mundane, and I couldn’t help but feel both pity and slight contempt for the protagonist who seems so self-absorbed, it’s sad.
Hear the Wind Sing (The Rat, #1)
That's the point of "boku" fiction. Boku means I-myself. There are strong biographical elements from Murakami's life in…
Haruki Murakami (1980)
A follow up to the book above, this one dives deeper into the unnamed protagonist’s mundane, alcoholic (my diagnosis) and chain-smoking life in 1970’s Tokyo, describing his brief obsession with pinball and his life living and sleeping with two twins (also unnamed) who randomly show up at his apartment one day. By the end of this book, I had concluded that this guy and his friend “the Rat” are both kind of a$$holes, but it makes for entertaining slice-of-life reading nonetheless and is a vast deviation from mainstream narratives of Japanese culture.
Pinball, 1973 (The Rat, #2)
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.Murakami. Despite an unfortunate entanglement with a Mr. Sean Lennon over the internet site: tumblr, I…
by Octavia E. Butler (1979)
Having enjoyed two of her books earlier this year, I had to return to Octavia Butler. This book combines historical fiction with time travel, as a 26 year old Black American woman living in Los Angeles in 1976 finds herself transported in time back to pre-civil war Maryland. As she travels back and forth her life and destiny becomes intertwined with that of a young white boy who is the son of a plantation owner. It’s a fantastic and unique story, and a powerful reminder of the choices that marginalised people have had to make in order to survive.
Keen-eyed readers may notice a unifying theme in all of these books that I’ve read this year in that each was written by a person of colour.
I made an intention at the end of last year to only read books written by non-white folks, and to also prioritise those written by women. The publishing industry is not immune to the systemic biases surrounding race, gender, and other intersectional identities, and so this was an effort on my part to seek out books that are written by those who have histories and world views that are less well known in popular culture.
It was a good prompt to seek out books that I might not otherwise read, and served to offer a glimpse into different perspectives, alternative narratives, and the stories that marginalised voices have to tell. I highly recommend taking such an intentional approach if you want to broaden your worldview.
Wishing you all a good 2022, which hopefully begins to offer a bit more stability than the last couple of years!
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