2021 in review: my favorite books of the year

Most years, I try to gather and post a list of my favorite books from the year as a sort of gift guide. So far this year, I’ve finished 154 fiction and non-fiction books. Some of them are re-reads (for example, I re-read Dune, which I last picked up in 1990 or so), and some of them are new. (As you can probably tell from that number, I am far more likely to read than I am to watch TV or play video games.) I didn’t keep a separate list of “books I started that I couldn’t finish” but there definitely were some– with so many good books out there, and so many waiting patiently in my Kindle app and local library, life’s too short to slog through stuff like Harrow, no matter how many best-of lists it appears on.

First, a brief commercial. You can get a free browser plug-in called “Library Extension” that is pure magic: any time you load a book’s page on Amazon.com, the extension will show you if your local library has it in its collection, and then let you place a hold on it with a click or two. This has absolutely increased my reading rate while simultaneously saving me money.

Now, to the list. In no particular order, my favorites of the year.

Holdout: civil disobedience meets The Martian. An astronaut aboard the International Space Station won’t come home when ordered (but there’s a good reason!) The author is a long-time space journalist and his knowledge and experience are expertly matched with intricate characters. The plot is a little less credible in some spots than I’d prefer, but still a terrific read.

How to Find Your Way In the Dark: a Jewish teenager comes of age right before WW II. The characters are outlined with a master’s skill and precision, the dialogue is moving and funny, the plot has enough twists and snaps to maintain a good speed, and the questions the novel raises– and the answers the characters find, or don’t– are enduring. The second book featuring Sheldon Horowitz, Norwegian by Night, is disappointing by contrast but it introduces the major character in…

American by Day: a Norwegian police detective goes to America to find her brother. Lee Child called the book “ingenious,” and it is. Fish-out-of-water novels can either work or blow up, and this one super works. I hope there will be at least one sequel.

Billy Summers is not what you think it is. It’s a novel about an Iraq War veteran that doesn’t wallow in his service; it’s a crime novel where the key subtext is staying out of crime; it’s a love story where there are no ripped bodices. King has such power of language that he can elevate a boring story or make a good story really blast off. And the ending… oh my.

In the Company of Killers: one of the best spy thrillers I’ve read in the last ten years or so… and it’s about African poachers and a thinly-veiled version of National Geographic. Anything I say about the main characters or the plot would just spoil it.

The Last Stargazers: after reading this, if you don’t want to become an astronomer, there may be a deficiency of poetry and wonder in your soul. Terrific recounting of the nuts and bolts of being a working deep-space astronomer threaded into discussions of Big Astronomy, Big Science, and Big Questions.

On Desperate Ground: the Marine Corps’ fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War is legendary, and for good reason. I knew the story, as do all Marines, but not in this level of detail, nor told with this level of urgency.

Jade City trilogy. There are robot people, and dragon people– I’m normally 100% Team Robot, but this fantasy trilogy, set in a sort of Singapore-esque Asian nation where some people are able to use jade as a sort of amplifier for various paranormal powers, is crisply plotted and so, so well-characterized. The author says she drew a lot of inspiration from Hong Kong gangster movies, but the world she’s built is uniquely hers.
Scorpion. Sometimes an author throws off so many ideas, so rapidly, that reading the book is like watching someone using a grinding cutter: a continual fountain of sparks, some of which will get stuck and start fires. That’s exactly what Christian Cantrell has done in this book. Cross-time communications, shoe radar, autonomous quadrotor taxis, bespoke assassination weapons, and lots more… but the ideas aren’t the story. The story itself is propulsive and, in some places, shocking; there are plenty of sharp-edged plot twists and a terrific cast of characters.
Winter Counts

How the Word is Passed: deep, and deeply moving, examination of the everyday nature of racism embedded into some obvious and not-so-obvious places. Until I read this, I didn’t really fully appreciate the meaning of Juneteenth. The plot is simple: the author travels around (Angola Prison in Louisiana, a Confederate cemetary, Galveston) and just… talks to people.

This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: deeply scary book about information warfare and cyberattacks, told in a plain, no-nonsense, approachable style that highlights some of the key problems of the digital world we all live in. Nicole Perlroth won a bunch of awards for this, for good reason. Pair it with Andy Greenberg’s Sandworm for extra scare factor. Highly recommended for people who are not already super techy.

Razorblade Tears and Bull Mountain. Two completely different hard-crime novels. One features a Black felon whose struggle to stay legit goes awry when his gay son is murdered. One features a clan of Georgia peckerwoods who engage in multigenerational criminal shenanigans. Despite the difference in settings, both are terrific. Both struggle with some weighty questions: what’s a family? what duty of loyalty does one person owe another? are there unredeemable crimes? Read them both.

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