The Best of 2021 in Books and Comics

Oh, 2021… it was, in many ways, quite similar to 2020, actually. We did a general summary of the year here, and now the time comes to sum up our reading/watching experiences. This year, we decided to combine our best and worst title is one place, one reason being it’s already mid-January…

Piotrek: and another, at least in my case, that I mostly made really good choices and there’s really not that much bad stuff to write about.

Ola: Oh, for me this reading year was more of a mixed bag, with some truly flabbergasting titles from NetGalley – and some truly amazing, too. It was generally a pretty good year, reading-wise. Lots of solid titles, not too many re-reads… I will also remember this year as my introduction to the marvellous metaverse of manga – and that journey will continue!

Piotrek’s best of 2021 in Fiction

Steven Erikson, Gardens of the Moon (1999), Deadhouse Gates (2000)

I finished both volumes one and two of the Malazan Book of the Fallen this year. Both were great, and both deserve their place here. There are many reviews, including Ola’s review of the entire series, let me just say I’m already convinced the series deserves a place among fantasy’s greatest sagas. I’m unlikely to read all the remaining eight books in 2022, but I want to read at least three more, we’ll see how it goes :-). At this point I’m emotionally invested, having my favourite and least favourite characters already picked – and I tend to stick to my choices, and very interested in hot the situation develops. And quite confused by the lore, which seems normal at this stage 😉

Karel Čapek, War with the Newts (1936)

Reading Čapek had been a great experience, and I might have enjoyed wonderful illustrations by Hans Ticha as much as the text. A fascinating, imaginative story that I believe caught the tense atmosphere of pre-II World War years. Great book from the writer that gave us robots and was not only a Science Fiction pioneer but also a great satirist – I’m now reading a collected edition of his travel books, and let me tell you, he is a gifted observer. Not always of the obvious landmarks, mostly of foreign peoples and their strange customs. Foreign people here being Englishmen, Scots and Italians of the 1920ties… and there are illustrations, by Čapek himself this time:

Glasgow
Oxford
The diverse world of British colonies, as seen on an exhibition in London 😉

And finally a historical novel, Burr by Gore Vidal. I already mentioned his series of novels set in America’s past, and Burr is another good one, perhaps my new favourite, maybe because I read it just before watching Hamilton, and Hamilton I loved. Aaron Burr is one of the Founding Fathers who actually killed Alexander Hamilton, and lived several more decades in disgrace, and here the history of American Revolution is told from his perspective, as an old man re-living his glorious, and less glorious, past. Mighty fine literature and an unorthodox look at these important times. I highly recommend Vidal, I’ve read several of his novels and all were great!

Ola’s Best of the Best (of the Best) in Fiction

I’ve got only three genre books that got 10/10 from me this year – and one of them was a re-read. Interestingly enough, all are SF, and all have been reviewed on this blog (yay me!) – the only fantasy that got close to the podium was Abercrombie’s The Trouble with Peace (2020), which I rated 9/10 – same as Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction The Lords of the North (2007) – and so both get an honourable mention ;).

Neal Asher’s The Technician (2010)

Asher’s The Technician, set in the world of Polity, is a stand-alone return to the uniquely lethal world of Masada. While full of trademark Asher techno innovation and gory imagination, it also offers a thoughtful tale of redemption, revenge, and reconstruction set in a post-war reality where conflicting loyalties and agendas leave little space for human empathy. Of course, this being Asher, it’s also full of fast-paced action, battles big and small featuring heavily armored and cunning AI and alien life forms, and some badass characters. And, come on, it’s about a hooder! 😀

Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

What’s to say about Dune that hasn’t yet been said? My revisit of the world of Frank Herbert was at the same time more and less enjoyable than the previous one. While I’m more impressed with the scale and scope of Herbert’s opus magnum than I was as a teenager, I’m decidedly less enamoured of his unempathetic approach to characters and the whole “pawns on the board” vibe. Yet Dune remains for me a rare example of writing mastery and skill, and I’ll be continuing with my journey through Herbert’s world this year.

Stanisław Lem, The Truth and Other Stories (2021)

A rare offering indeed, a newly chosen and translated selection of Lem’s short stories was an unexpected treat this year. Ranging from very early to very late stories, this anthology offers a wide view of Lem’s favourite themes and topics, from human nature and our limited cognitive capabilities to the wonders of universe, frightening and inspiring in equal measures. Mad scientists, different values of truth, absurd and fascinating and truly unique ideas – it’s all here, translated with commendable fidelity and skill.

Piotrek’s favourite non-fiction

Three entries here, each one a bit different, and yet for me they come together as important steps in my own intellectual development. It’s been a good year here, I feel, even if there were no major changes, just some missing pieces found thanks to some fascinating books.

Adam Leszczyński, Ludowa historia Polski (A People’s History of Poland, 2020)

I’ve been re-evaluating my approach to Polish history lately. The traditional view, some of you might be a bit familiar with, is all about heroic struggles for independence, devout Catholicism best symbolized by pope John Paul II, stuff like that. Fighter pilots from Battle of Britain eager to fight Germans despite being only half-way through their training, winged hussars defending Vienna against the Turkish invasion… Perhaps, if you’ve read a bit more about local history, you might know about Noble Democracy of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, you might know about Walesa and the anticommunist Solidarity movement.

Well, it’s all mostly bullshit. Or at least a simplified glorious view that is our version of the The Whig Interpretation of History. Struggles for independence occupied so much attention they covered up the social and gender exploitation, Catholicism in its local form has always been a tool of social control rather than a faith, keeping the masses uneducated and subservient, and even the Second World War was not as glorious as we’d like you to believe, with local population quite eager to take over property of their Jewish neighbours, killed by the Germans, and sometimes even cooperating in the process to make sure the property gets redistributed. And the much cherished democracy of the nobles was based on an economic system where peasants were de facto slaves, treated as property and mercilessly exploited.

You get the picture… just as Howard Zinn deconstructed US history in his People’s History, Leszczyński and a few others break our myths, and for me it’s a refreshing experience. But I know people who seem really hurt by this reevaluation of history, for some Poles it’s an important part of their identity… tough luck.

Piotr Augustyniak, Jezus Niechrystus (Jesus Not-Christ, 2021)

This was one of the most popular non-fiction books in Poland in 2021. A philosopher who almost became a Dominican monk at some point wrote about philosophy of Jesus based on what he considers to be oldest, most authentic parts of the New Testament. He claims that the rest is most likely added later by the apostles who created an institutional church. Augustyniak is not a religious man, and this is also a book about how he lost his faith and how he thinks the historical Jesus can be an inspiration for modern, secular people dealing with the uncertainties of our existence. A very peaceful and sympathetic picture of Jesus, really. Just completely secular. Reminds me of what I read about Ernest Renan, XIX-century Frenchman whose Life of Jesus was seen as scandalous not because he wrote anything truly blasphemous, but because he decided to write a historical, analytical biography of Jesus. Anyway, Augustyniak’s book is short and quite thought-provoking, I read it with pleasure and distributed a few copies around.

Michael Tomasello, Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny (2019)

Becoming Human is a great book about what makes our species so special, and how we differ from other primates. Author spent decades researching human and primate children, separately and in comparison, and focuses here on how human babies become members of complex societies. Our minds are what’s truly unique and they need social context to fully develop. I learned many new and fascinating things and vastly improved my understanding of how culture could evolve from nature. Highly recommended, and if you’re not sure about reading – read a full review by Bart.

Ola’s Best Of in Non-Fiction

My non-fiction reads this year were varied indeed, from palaeontology and biology to watercolour to history to psychology to physics. Two books were particularly memorable and enjoyable, for different reasons, and the third place goes to an intriguing and quite thought-provoking, if not a particularly easy read.

Dean R. Lomax, Robert Nicholls, Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils (2021)

The highlight of the year was certainly Dean R. Lomax’s Locked in Time – another lucky NetGalley find I’d have probably missed otherwise. A wonderful book on palaeontology that reignited my love for the subject. Lomax write with fervour and panache, and a deep knowledge of the subject matter that he’s able to convey in an approachable and highly enjoyable manner. A rare 10/10 from me, and a book I’ll be tirelessly pushing to other fossil enthusiasts out there ;).

Joe Garcia, Secrets of Watercolor: From Basics to Special Effects (2012)

Garcia’s slim book is a study in simplicity. Various techniques and tricks are explained in a very concise, informative way, and illustrated with clear and detailed photos of his paintings. It turned out to be an unusually useful book for me – a real guide, and not just vanity publication, like so many other out there.

Marcus du Sautoy, What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge (2016)

Marcus du Sautoy’s book is thought-provoking and intriguing, and requires a little bit of mathematical and physical knowledge as well as a measure of good will. It’s not an easy book, but it is very interesting indeed. Going through the edges of our current knowledge, du Sautoy ponders the limits of human cognition and the nature of the universe in an accessible, engaging way – but with a good few equations and schematics. It took me a while to finish, as it’s a very mathematically logical “if a, then b” type of book, but I’m happy I did it. It’s fascinating and quite personal, and very clearly shows how apparent boundaries between science and conviction, or worldview, or beliefs, are in fact porous and not truly definable. We cannot escape the limits of our perception – but knowing them, we can take them into account and enrich the view of the world.

Ola’s Ultimate Best in Graphic Novels

Yeah, you got it. Nothing gets better than Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z 😉 Need an additional proof beyond my gushing reviews? Just look below 😉 But don’t let me start on Dragon Ball Super, it’s just terrible, horrible, and not good at all.

Grampa ball rules!

I’ve enjoyed Garth Ennis’s Hellblazer run  (#41–50, #52–83, #129–133), with the memorable story Dangerous Habits, which formed the basis for the Constantine movie with Keanu Reeves. Ennis’s run is uneven at times, but generally quite good, and when it’s really good it shines. Ennis knows how to set up a scene, and knows how to hook the readers – but most importantly, he knows how to end things.

The last graphic novel I want to mention is a fun new manga by Naoya Matsumoto, Kaiju no 8. Extremely enjoyable and pretty funny, it’s set in an alternate Japan where enormous monsters (kaiju) erupt from the ground, killing thousands and sowing destruction and death wherever they go. There is a special task force designated to fight the monsters, and also a clean-up crew, Monster Sweeper Inc. Our protagonist, Kafka Hibino, is a 30-something disillusioned clean-up guy, who after numerous fails at the examination to the Defense Force has given up dreams of becoming a hero – until a small and strangely intelligent monster flies into his mouth, changing him forever. Fun! Not to mention the art, which is fantastic 😉

Piotrek’s Graphic Novel of the year

I… did not read a lot of comics last year. I re-read the entire Season 8 of Buffy, but it was very good, not book-of-the-year great, and a re-read. Kaiju no 8 was good, but also not 9/10 good, and so it turns out my favourite graphic novels of the year were volume one and two of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Graphic History. We already reviewed the original book, I can only add the comic version is just as smart, even funnier, quite pretty, and well-suited for slightly younger audience (12+ perhaps?).

Altogether – a very good year for me as a reader, and 2022 already started strong with a Kim Stanley Robinson novel, Bernard Cornwell’s version of the Arthurian Saga and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld… but these are stories for another posts 😉

We will return with The Worst of 2021 and The Best of 2021 in Movies and TV, stay tuned!

31 thoughts on “The Best of 2021 in Books and Comics

  1. Pio – Don’t get too attached to any one character from Malaz. While not a jackass like Martin, Erikson definitely does the “more realistic” take on characters in his books.

    Ola – Glad that DB/Z worked so well for you. Do you think you’ll be reviewing any of the Kaiju 8 volumes?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, DB/Z rulez 😉 I wanted to review Kaiju as I did DB, with short reviews of each volume, but as it’s a new manga it only has a few volumes out. I’ll probably do it later this year, once it reaches ~10 volumes or so 😉 I still have Yotsuba’s review to write! And Fullmetal 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If I ever need a break from One Piece, I’m thinking maybe FMA will be my alternate.
        I’d LIKE to try a new manga (not just new to me) but honestly, I feel so cranky about most of them, even just from looking at the covers and titles, that I don’t want to go down the Full Metal Crankypants path 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think you’d like FMA quite a bit, actually. Brotherly love, duty, honour, loyalty and courage against absolutely despicable villains 😀
          The art needs some adjusting to, I was not a fan at the beginning, but it’s clean and easy on the eyes, even if not very artistically accomplished 😉

          I’d say give it a chance! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Great round-up. Reminds me to get some Asher, and get back to Mazalan. The du Sautoy looks interesting too.

    Glad you liked Tomasello, Piotrek, and cool you gave glimpse of Polish non-fiction.

    As for manga, something holds me back: the costs of multiple volume storylines. Additionally, Ada Palmer is a manga enthusiast and scholar too, so I read up a bit about her recommendations lately: Osamu Tezuka, Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga,… there’s also a list with her recommendations on semscoop.com

    Liked by 2 people

    1. du Sautoy is certainly interesting, if very mathematically oriented ;).
      I had a similar approach to manga until I tried – now I’m inescapably hooked! 😀 Tezuka is called a grandfather of manga for a reason; I guess you’ve heard of Astro Boy? I’m interested in his Phoenix.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes I considered buying Astro Boy, but as I said, multiple volume series fear.

        Viz. du Sautoy: it turns out I actually bought the book 2 or 3 years ago, started it and DNFed. Didn’t like the writing style. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. piotrek

      Thanks. Are there any grand debates taking place currently among Belgian historians? Is there a single historiography, or a separate one for each part of the country?

      We are re-evaluating our history in Poland, to a degree I would not think possible some time ago (I only wish we did not have an autocratic regime actively supporting the counter-revolutionaries 😉 ).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The most important historical debate right now is the one on colonialism, and our involvement/crimes in Congo.

        There also has been a fair amount of debate generated by Flemish nationalism, about how Flemish people were treated by the French-speaking elite, but most historians tend to agree right now, and the debate is more or less over: the conclusion is that most of that stuff is overblown to generate pro-Flemish sentiment.

        While the historical debates are more or less over, the politcal debates continue to rage, and my guess is that Belgium will not keep existing as it exists now: we are heading for a separation, or at least confederalist system. could be quick (the practical debates on how to do that could start after the elections of 2024), or it could take some decades more. We’ll see.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. piotrek

          I used to hope for federal EU strong enough that the nation-state level of administration would just matter less and less… but it does not seem close, definitely not for Poland, anyway.

          Like

  3. I hope to make time for Deadhouse Gate this year! I need to make more steady progress through it before it gets harder to remember how the story evolved!

    Really glad to see Kaiju No. 8 on here. I really can’t wait to see what it’ll look like as an anime. Also need to crack open my first Asher ASAP!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Kaiju No. 8, Vol. 1 (2021) by Naoya Matsumoto | In the Teahouse, a Wakizashi

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