Although I didn’t quite match my personal best of 308 books read in 2020, 2021 was still a good year for making a sizeable dent in both my home and local library, reading close to 200 books. About 40% were fiction, 25% history, 20% travel, and the remainder a mix of essays, biography and music books. By genre but in no particular order here are the best books I read in 2021…
In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland
The fascinating and often surprising story of the early days of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, told in an energetic and engaging fashion. There were many revelations for me, particularly how lacking the historical records are for the early days of Islam.
Japan Story: In Search of a Nation by Christopher Harding
One of the best of the many books I’ve read about Japan, this is a brilliantly told history of how Japan became one of the most developed countries in the world. It uses personal stories to effectively bring to life the changes that took place, while also providing the big picture.
Their Darkest Hour by Laurence Rees
A compendium of 35 unforgettable short (5-10 pages) true stories of people involved in the Second World War, drawing on the author’s 20 years spent documenting the conflict. Harrowing tales of both victims and perpetrators are told, including rapists, mass murderers, and even a cannibal.
Listen Up! : Recording Music with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, U2, R.E.M., the Tragically Hip, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Waits… by Mark Howard
Both entertaining and insightful. Mark Howard has worked with many great musicians, and provides an inside perspective on the recording of classic albums. As a fan of many of the artists he has recorded I loved the behind the scenes gossip, and technical details of how these great records were made.
Why Bowie Matters by Will Brooker
A novel concept, as Will Brooker spent a year totally immersed in David Bowie, living in the same places (London, Berlin, New Year), listening to the same music (from the years Bowie lived there), reading the same books, and even dressing like Bowie. This original approach offers illuminating and fascinating insights into Bowie as both a person and as a cultural icon.
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks
Not a work of classic literature, but a surprisingly enjoyable set of 17 short stories written by the actor. My enjoyment was probably enhanced by listening to the audiobook version narrated by the author.
The Plague by Albert Camus
Highly topical and scarily accurate, this classic 1947 novel of a plague in the French Algerian city of Oran shows that there is little new about people’s reaction to Covid. History definitely repeats itself, with human behaviour proving consistent. The book has some incredible scenes, the death of a child in particular stuck with me long after reading it.
Tranquillity and Ruin by Danyl McLauchlan
A brilliant collection of essays by a Wellington based author exploring effective altruism, mindfulness, and secular Buddhism among other topics. Highly readable, both entertaining and thoughtful.
Fathoms : The World In The Whale by Rebecca Giggs
A worthy addition to a surprisingly large number of excellent books about the largest animals on the planet. Fathoms is up there with Philip Hoare’s classic Leviathan or, The Whale, in terms of the quality of the writing and amount of incredible facts and stories about these fascinating creatures of the ocean.
Never Remember : Searching For Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia by Masha Gessen
A short but essential read from one of my favourite author’s. Few people write as well about recent Russian history than Masha Gessen. This book confronts how Stalin’s Gulags have been remembered, or unfortunately not remembered, demonstrating the fragility of memory. I listened to the audiobook version so missed out on Misha Friedman’s apparently evocative accompanying photographs.
Magdalena : River of Dreams by Wade Davis
If you only read one book on Colombia, this is the one. A sprawling, fascinating, and rewarding read based on Wade Davis’ five years spent travelling around the county, a place I’ve long wanted to visit.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
Meets the high expectations set by Obama’s historic presidency and the quality of his previous books written before he became president. It is a long read, and only covers up to Bin Laden’s death before his re-election campaign, but the book offers a wealth of detail about both his political and personal experience.
Endurance by Alfred Lansing
An incredible story of survival that would be implausible if it hadn’t actually happened. Lansing’s book is the definite telling of Ernest Shackleton’s ill fated 1914-16 expedition to Antarctica. An utterly engrossing read.