Hi everyone, TS here! Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge that I’ve been inconsistent in my blogging/reviewing on Novel Notions this year. I couldn’t find the energy or will or brain-power as I found myself in a new expanded role at work that has a challenging learning curve, and discovered that I enjoy cooking and baking (even embarked on sourdough) so much that I started spending a lot of time in the kitchen.
I did manage to meet my reading challenge of 100 books this year regardless, and it’s probably the most diverse year of reading that I’ve had in my entire life. While fantasy remains my favourite genre for its sense of wonder, I found myself gravitating a lot towards mysteries this year, and also reading a lot more non-fiction.
I’ve decided to organise my best reads of 2021 a bit differently from prior years, somewhat thematically instead of the usual parameters and rankings.
And we’ll start with….
1. My most anticipated concluding trilogies of the year
There were two concluding trilogies in 2021 that I’ve been eagerly anticipating ever since I’ve read and loved the earlier books in the series. Both of which were published by Orbit who have been killing it with their debut authors in the past few years. If you’ve been following my reviews, you would have already seen my praises for Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga and R.J. Barker’s Tide Child trilogies, and both authors were totally succeeded to stick the landing in the concluding books to these two extraordinary series. In preparation for the conclusions, I’ve reread both series from the beginning which made the reading experience even better as my prior emotional investment for the characters were reignited.
The Green Bone Saga
Devastatingly brilliant, Jade Legacy is a triumphant finale in Fonda Lee’s emotionally powerful character-driven masterpiece. When I first picked up Jade City a couple of years back, it was a breath of fresh air in urban fantasy which brought back many memories growing up watching Hong Kong gangster movies. What made The Green Bone Saga different from the usual mobster story was the almost magical properties of jade which endowed its wearer with special and enhanced physical attributes. However, what made this series truly exceptional was the incredible character development. My words truly cannot do justice to this phenomenal trilogy and all I can do is to plead all readers, even those who are not typically fans of fantasy to pick up The Green Bone Saga. Aside from the seemingly magical properties of jade, this story is at the end of the day is an empathically and powerfully written family saga with strong themes of love, loyalty and honour that should be accessible to most readers.
The Tide Child
Highly satisfying and achingly emotional, The Bone Ship’s Wake was the unforgettable conclusion that I was hoping for in this phenomenal trilogy. How did this even happen – a seafaring fantasy story becoming one of my favourites? Hats off to R.J. Barker as he did something truly extraordinary. I’ve to say this again just to emphasize how amazingly well-written these books are. I’m typically not a fan of seafaring stories, be it a book or a show. The series started off with a narrative and worldbuilding that was bold and inventive, which was followed by an excellent sequel filled with brutal and bloody seafaring adventures. The story was further elevated with some seriously spectacular character work in the sequel, which reached a crescendo by the concluding book. This series contained some of my favourites themes, that is of redemption, second chances and rising above oneself, and Barker showcased these themes brilliantly and heartbreakingly.
2. The best YA series I’ve ever read
Rachel Caine’s The Great Library was a spectacular YA series that has earned a spot as one of my favourites. I loved every moment I spent reading this series which was further enhanced by buddy reading with my co-bloggers, Celeste and Eon. The premise of this historical fantasy, that is what if the The Great Library of Alexandria survived, was the biggest draw for me to read this series. But we all know a good premise alone does not make a great narrative. Fortunately, Caine totally delivered. From the fascinating worldbuilding to the compelling characters, and the incredibly well-paced and sometimes even relentless intense story, each book in the series earned at least 4.5-stars from me. The last two books were outright 5-stars with a highly satisfying and emotional conclusion.
3. The best Sci-Fi I’ve ever read
Up until middle of the year, I would have classified Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary as my book of year. I’m guilty of sitting on my review for this book for way too long, and have yet to actually write one. This is partly due to the difficulty of writing a review about why I loved this book so much without any spoilers at all. The best parts of the book really needed to be experienced without any prior knowledge. Having said that, I think Sanderson succinctly encapsulated why this book is now my favourite science fiction novel in his blurb below. The Martian used to my favourite sci-fi of all time, and it has now been replaced by another accessibly nerdy, enthusiastic and way more emotional narrative from the same author. I also highly recommend the audiobook for this as Ray Porter did an amazing job bringing the story to life.
“I loved The Martian, but I actually find Project Hail Mary to be Mr. Weir’s finest work to date. It’s somehow both exciting, yet also personal. I’m constantly amazed by how well Mr. Weir continues to write wonderfully accessible science fiction without compromising either the science or the fiction.” – Brandon Sanderson
Notable mention (YA & Sci-Fi):
Cytonic (Skyward #3) and Skyward Flight novellas (collectively the Cytoverse)
Not a single year could pass by without one of Brandon Sanderson’s books on my list. No surprises, Cytonic was a superb read filled with brilliantly creative worldbuilding and compelling characterisation that I’ve always expected, and received from my favourite author. After finishing all the Skyward Flight novellas which was co-authored with Janci Patterson, I’ve to say that they are critical to filling in the overall story away from Spensa’s PoV, as well as expanding on the worldbuilding. The character development of the Skyward Flight members is very much-needed as both Starsight and Cytonic had Spensa on her own adventures, and the missing interaction with the characters that we’ve met in the first book compromised on their own narratives as important supporting characters. While the writing of the novellas started out noticeably co-authored, this did not make the stories any less enjoyable. More notably, by the time we reached Evershore, the writing has improved such that the collaboration appeared almost seamless. In my view, Patterson has done a great job. From what I’ve read in this extended Cytoverse series so far, Defiant is shaping up to be a spectacularly epic conclusion.
4. A favourite world to return to, time and again
Michael J. Sullivan is another author who has so far always appeared in my year-end wrap up of best reads as he’s been releasing at least one great book every year set in the same world where I was first introduced to my favourite duo of all-time, Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn, aka Riyria. Nolyn (The Rise and Fall, #1) was yet another well-crafted and enthralling tale from a masterful storyteller, who never fails to give me what I craved from the world of Elan. This is one of my favourite worlds to return to because it always felt like coming home. The world that Sullivan created was not particularly unique or original, but in spite of its classic fantasy setting with elves, dwarves and dragons (of a kind), Elan still felt fresh in a way. There’s enough worldbuilding to keep its lore and mythos fascinating, but it’s not overly intricate nor tries too hard to impress. What this achieves is a whole lot more focus on the stories of the characters, and Sullivan absolutely excels in this aspect. The combination of how Sullivan evolved the truths into myths and legends and his knack of writing great characters was the main reason why these prequels to The Riyria Revelations work so well even with the knowledge of the ultimate outcome.
5. Revelation of the year (and possibly one of the best of all-time)
Will Wight’s Reaper (Cradle, #10) was a serious game-changer. It is hands down, my favourite Cradle book to date. Aside from being the usual addictive and unputdownable read that all Cradle books had been, it was the revelations in this book which made it so incredible. Revelations which have such significant implications that it will completely transform the reread value of all the books prior to this. It also has one of the most rewarding payoffs I’ve encountered as it literally brought me to tears and had me flailing as I leapt off my seat during the climactic scene. It’s been almost 2 months since I’ve finished Reaper and I’m still talking about it with my co-bloggers, Eon and Petrik, both whom have read and loved the book equally.
6. A new favourite genre
I only first started reading Agatha Christie last year, namely Murder on the Orient Express and her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Having enjoyed those very much, I’ve decided that I will work my way through her works.
To my delight, my co-blogger Eon also discovered that he really enjoyed her book after reading one of her best ever, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. As such, we’ve made a pact to buddy read our way through Agatha Christie’s books. But instead of reading chronologically, we selected the picks of the crop as the titles below are some of the most acclaimed books that Christie had written. Below are the brief reviews from my Goodreads profile.
And Then There Were None was undisputedly one of Agatha Christie’s most famous titles, and for a very good reason. A thoroughly gripping and ingenious murder mystery masterpiece that had me confounded and on the edge of my seat. I bow in awe.
The Queen of Crime has struck again with an innovative twist that was way ahead of its time when The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was written. This was the book that was touted to give rise to a popular narrative device which many fictional writers use today. However, not every writer I’ve come across could wield it with great effect and how Christie did it here was spectacular. The setting of the story was quintessentially English, in the small village of King’s Abbot with characters which are once again all interestingly distinctive in their own way. As the mystery unfolds with the alibis and stories of the various suspects coming to fore, I was positively baffled by who the murderer could be. While all the signs seemed to point at one person, it was also very clear that it was way too obvious to be true. This made for an utterly engrossing read that was really hard to put down. Safe to say that when all was finally revealed, I was gobsmacked. Absolutely brilliant!
A Murder is Announced has one of the most intriguing murder plots that I’ve read to date, and the setting of a small town/village was absolutely perfect. The distinctively colourful characters were deftly introduced in the first couple of chapters to set the scene before the murder was ‘announced’. Even with just two novels and a handful of short stories that I’ve read, I could already tell that Agatha Christie was the queen of misdirection. It’s completely pointless trying to guess who the murderer was, although you probably couldn’t help drawing some theories as secrets and various details came to light. Yet another thoroughly enjoyable, engaging and unputdownable book from the bestselling novelist of all time. The more I read from Christie, the more I can appreciate why.
I’m consistently impressed with how Agatha Christie could come up with the most intriguing premise for her mystery novels. The plot for The ABC Murders was the first that I’ve read from her which involved a serial killer, one who was working his way through the alphabet, leaving behind a trail of clues with the intent to taunt Hercule Poirot. This made it even more riveting than usual as Poirot had to try to decipher the clues and figure out where the serial killer will strike next before it’s too late; quite different from his usual post-mortem cases. As usual, her writing just drew me into the story like bees to honey and I was having a great time being stuck in it.
The Grand Dame of Mystery delivered yet again. The Crooked House was a stand-alone mystery novel which the author herself proclaimed to be one of her favourites. Typical of what I’ve read from her so far, the story was engrossing right from the beginning with great dialogue and distinctive characters. I could almost sense how she seeded many clues and hints, which at the same time would also make you question whether they’re red herrings after all. Cleverly done, as usual, and to be expected.
It’s quite incredible that Christie can make a cold case investigation so engaging, and that’s really down to her skill with dialogue and characters. Poirot could only rely on talking to the people who were involved in the case, as well as five other possible suspects who were present on that fateful day. Christie was able to bring out the distinct personalities of these five in their mannerisms and the way their personal narrative on the events were related. I continue to be most impressed with the Queen of Mystery, and look forward to reading more from her.
7. Thrilling reads
I may not have posted any of the reviews on Novel Notions, but my Goodreads profile is filled with books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, namely for the Pendergast series. I found these books to be highly addictive, especially because Agent Pendergast himself is one of the most fascinating personalities I’ve ever encountered. I could literally binge-read three Pendergast books in a single week. As of this year, I was fully caught up on all 19 books in the series up to Crooked River, before the release of the latest title, Bloodless (Pendergast, #20), which I’m saving for later. However, I did read another title by these co-authors which was recommended to me by Rod on Goodreads.
Holy meteorite, The Ice Limit was one heck of a gripping read. It’s probably one of most engaging thrillers I’ve read in which I couldn’t find any major tropey thriller flaws that detract from my overall enjoyment. Even though it is not filled with action, the narrative was incredibly riveting. As a fan of speculative fiction, I’ve always loved the fantastical, and one of the reasons why I loved the Pendergast series by these authors was how they marry what seemed to be the impossible with the plausible, i.e. supernatural and science. The ending of this book was just the type which made me crave for more of these books. Give me something mysterious, which could be explained by science by stretching the narrative to the very boundaries of what could be real. Preston & Child had always been willing to take that risk in their bold narratives, and that’s what I loved about their books.
8. Otherworldly audiobook experience
I was so excited when I first found out that Audible was producing an original all-cast audiobook of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman with James McAvoy as the titular character. The excerpts from the promotional videos sounded amazing. Even then, I was not prepared to be blown away as much as I was when I finally experienced the full audiobook. The production was spectacular and performances were positively sublime, especially James McAvoy who utterly embodied the character of Morpheus, aka Dream to perfection. A truly unforgettable and otherworldly audiobook experience.
9. Non-fiction picks
Brilliance was what I’ve expected from David Attenborough, and brilliance was exactly what I got. As a book which I thought was remarkably compact for one on environmental and climate awareness/sciences, A Life on Our Planet was an immensely well-written, concise and insightful narrative. Highly recommended as an authoritative, and easily digestible narrative to raise awareness for everyone. There’s also the excellent audiobook read by the author himself, as well as a new documentary available on Netflix for those less inclined to read.
Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat was the best cookbook I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a lot of cookbooks. It’s not so much about the recipes but Nosrat’s amiable, authentic and engaging manner of imparting her knowledge of the fundamentals of what makes good cooking. Armed with the understanding of what these elements do in a dish, it becomes easier to adapt recipes with what’s available in your pantry instead of just blindly following them.
I’ve embarked on sourdough baking this year and relied on the wealth of knowledge and information that can be found online (YouTube is an especially valuable resource as having the visuals is very useful). Then I came across Super Sourdough by Dr James Morton while browsing the bookstore. What I liked most about this book was that not only it covers all the basics from how to make a starter to how to score the loaf, it also contained a section for troubleshooting common problems faced by bakers. There’s even a section at the end of the book on recipes to use up the sourdough starter discards (his cornbread recipe looks absolutely scrumptious).
Just like his previous book Stuff Matters on material science. Mark Miodownik’s Liquid Rules was another fascinating scientific narrative on one of the most intriguing substances on earth. The delivery was structured around the author’s experience on a plane journey and all the liquid substances involved such as kerosene, glue coffee, wine, liquid detergent, and ink, showing how these liquids can bring both wonder and joy, as well as destruction.
10. More notable mentions
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens was a beautifully written book with an incredibly captivating story – filled with characters to love and that feel so real that you could almost reach in and touch them. An ode to nature and how it’s fundamental to the survival of humankind – the writing showcases the author’s devotion to nature as every lovingly crafted sentence caresses the senses like the gentle whisper of a summer night’s breeze, or a feather gliding across your skin.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers, #4) concludes Becky Chambers’ wonderfully charming science fiction series with another heartwarming story that is so characteristic of all the books in the series. The lack of any real plot or tension meant that it doesn’t have that unputdownable quality but it sure made me feel good whenever I was reading it. This is cosy science fiction at its best.
Another Becky Chambers title, I loved To Be Taught If Fortunate, and the only thing I’ve against it is that it’s just a novella. A beautifully profound and moving piece about space exploration and the measure of a human’s lifespan against that of the universe in our quest of searching for answers. Her books carry such philosophical themes about humanity and life in general, but were written in such an accessible, relatable manner, and always filled with the message of hope. Science fiction is definitely the best genre for her stories which even though are not plot-driven always somehow managed to captivate me.
I don’t know what else to say except that Frederik Backman’s A Man Called Ove was something truly special. Be prepared to have all the feels, and also have a good chuckle along the way.
2021 was yet another trying year as the world struggled to recover from Covid-19. However, we’re beginning to see some sense of normality emerging, albeit I doubt things will ever be the same again. At least as readers, we can seek solace and adventure through the books we read. I’m ever so grateful and appreciative of all the authors who have given us the literary sanctuary and escapade that are so needed at this time.
Here’s wishing that 2022 will be a better year all round. Happy reading!