Books I Read in 2021
My goal for 2021 was to read more. These are the books I read this year, ordered by genre and author, my ratings and short reviews of them.
Flatland by Edwin Abbott
This novella is probably most famous for its imaginative description of a two-dimensional world. As for the people who inhabit this world, they are an obvious satire of Victorian society, getting pretty sexist and/or classist at times. There are also chapters describing a 1-dimensional world and dimensions above third. Read it out of curiosity and historical value, there isn't much of a plot.
Machine Man by Max Barry
Reclusive engineer acidentally loses a leg and then gets obsessed with turning himself into a cyborg. The main character is borderline sociopathic but will be relatable to anyone in a tech field. His slow descent into madness, his employer's attempt to take advantage of him, and the ridiculous events that happen as the result kept me on the edge. The ending is rather dark and is somewhat bittersweet.
Red Rising by Pierce Brown
This book could have been so much more. The premise sounds interesting: Martian mining colony workers discover that they are not the frontier of colonizing Mars, as they were told; instead, they are working for the wealthy elite on Mars that has already been terraformed for decades. The first chapters have vivid descriptions of dangerous and gruesome life of the mining colony, but the main reveal was somehow boring. After some events, the main character is recruited into an underground resistance group. From that point on, the story goes on a tangent, almost like a long side quest in a video game. Main character needs to infiltrate the upper echelons of Martian society by getting accepted into the top university, to do which he needs to... compete in a survival game with other teenagers, which takes up the rest of the book. There are more deus ex machinas (at least 2 that I recall), ridiculous luck, logical inconsistencies in story and events, and no clarity in motivations of anyone who is participating in the game. Only expectation of something happening kept me reading.
The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
A meteor introduces a deadly pathogen to a remote town in Southwestern U.S. and a team of scientists are trying to find a way to neutralize it. Sounds relevant, eh? It's an enjoyable read with lots of technical details, most of which are realistic as far as I can tell. The ending was a bit abrupt, but is also realistic.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Reminiscent of, and, no doubt, inspired by classic Greek mythology. Old, forgotten gods from cultures around the world as well as the new gods of the modern age conspire against each other, dragging the main character in the midst of it. Very dark, vivid scenes and, of course, memorable characters.
Neuromancer by Willian Gibson
Classic sci-fi novel and the origin of the cyberpunk genre. I really wanted to like it, but alas. The setting and the premise are interesting, but the plot lost my attention quickly. Out of all the characters, only Armitage had an interesting story. I liked some of the encounters with Wintermute, but most of the time, I did not know what was happening, and, most importantly, why. I feel like the author prioritized the settings, flashiness, and edginess of the imagined future over the plot.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
A fascinating mix of space-faring empires, multi-theistic religion, cultural conflicts, and exploration of conscience, mind and body. Partially told from a perspective of a vast intelligence that controls multiple bodies, some passages can get overwhelming. Author herself said she wanted every sentence to matter and add to the world, so there are incredible amounts of detail. I will definitely be reading the sequels.
Tales of H.P. Lovecraft
Even after almost a hundred years, Lovecraft's short stories still hold up pretty well. Very vivid descriptions (including lots of smells, which I found unusual), strange, yet realistic, settings, and, of course, darkness, dread and horror of things incomprehensible to the human mind. My favorites were The Music of Eric Zahn, Call of Cthulhu, and At the Mountains of Madness.
Critical Mass by Steve Martini
Lawyer seeking a quiet life on an island off Oregon coast and a Swedish man from nuclear non-proliferation organization are trying to stop terrorists from detonating a nuclear bomb in the US. It reads and feels like an average action movie, getting very cheesy and unrealistic at times. Overall, it's okay.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
This story made me feel like this is a book I read a long time ago in my childhood. Unlike other sci-fi I read, it feels particularly positive and hopeful. Binti, a teenage Himba girl, leaves her home to attend a prestigious university on another world. It's a short story, but there is a lot in it: conflict of tradition vs. progress, interaction with aliens, politics, question of duty and belonging. Now I need to find the other Binti stories. To clarify a few things in the story, look up how traditional hair style of Himba women looks.
Diamond Dogs by Alastair Reynolds
A crew is trying to ascend a mysterious tower with progressively more difficult puzzles with an unknown prize at the top. Gruesomely violent traps, unexplainable intelligence lurking in the tower, and severe body modifications, the main question becomes "how much of others and of yourself are you willing to sacrifice for a reward?".
Turquoise Days by Alastair Reynolds
This was the first Alastair Reynolds novel I read. Taking place on a remote planet populated by strange Pattern Juggler organisms and centering on scientists who are studying them, the plot quickly escalates to a conspiracy lead by zealots, and then, a potential planet-wide catastrophe. I think it could make a great movie adaptation. Definitely worth a read.
Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds
Sequel to The Prefect / The Aurora Emergency, the story again follows police agents investigating a series of mysterious deaths. At the same time, a populist leader that questions the established colony order is gaining significant support. The book expands on the foundation and more dark secrets of the Glitter Band, and asks interesting questions, such as "should a democracy be allowed to dismantle itself?", but I think the previous book was more engaging.
The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman
While The Genius of Birds covered research into birds' cognitive skills, The Bird Way covers a wide variety of topics, mostly about birds of Australia and New Zealand. What I found interesting is that the described species normally stay in the same area their entire lives, unlike mostly migratory North American birds. This significantly increases their mortality rates and puts a different perspective on evolutionary adaptations that they develop. There are also plenty of interesting information about brood parasites, their adaptations, and hosts' counter-measures. Great read for any birder, although being somewhat familiar with Australian birds would certainly help.
Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bergman
Although statistically, the world is the best that it has ever been - less poverty, less hunger, and higher standard of living, in certain aspects, it has regressed and can be made better. The book covers several of these topics, such as universal basic income, shorter work week, and open borders. Although rather idealistic, it documents case studies and experiments in implementation of these policies. Historical accounts of common peoples' lives (and how they barely changed until 1800s) and views on utopian ideas were interesting.
The Hidden Half by Michael Blastland
The book attempts to address inconsistencies and hidden variables in many studies and statistics, however, all it seems to do is to say "well, we don't really know why", often without trying to look into issues deeper. Needless to say, it was a bit frustrating to read.
The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum
Excellent and horrifying chronicle about the food industry in the late 1800s - early 1900s, fight for its regulation, and founding of the Food and Drug Administration. There is a lot of science, politics, unlikely allies, and conspiracies. Certainly made me appreciate that I don't have to worry about my groceries being tainted with formaldehyde, borax or salicylic acid. The situation with large businesses and lax regulation is still relevant today in some fields, particularly, in the digital world.
Quiet by Susan Cain
The book discusses introverts and introversion, especially in business enviorments, where extroversion is more accepted and valued. Being an introvert, most of discussed traits seem obvious to me, but the discussion of introversion within other cultures was interesting.
The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey
Fascinating read about how genes are expressed, and how the environment can shape an organism without changing its DNA sequence. There is a fair amount of depth for a popular-science book, but the author gives good analogies. I was surprised to find out that maternal and paternal DNA are responsible for different parts of embryo development, that bees are identical clones, yet can differentiate into workers, drones and queens, and that X/Y chromosome interaction and gender expression can get incredibly complex.
Something Deeply Hidden by Sean Carroll
Author is a follower of the Everettian many-worlds quantum theory, which, in his opinion, is the simplest explanation of our universe, including space and time. The overview of basics of quantum physics are decent, but a lot of the book is philosophical discussion around many-worlds, not supported by experiments (if that's even possible at the current time). I feel like this should have been much, much shorter.
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Ibram Kendi's view on racism is very specific: Racism is the establishment of hierachies that favor specific race(s). He covers nuances of terms "racist", "not racist" and "anti-racist" in that context. There are many discussions of conflicts related to skin color, and not just "white" vs "black" that is common in the US, but also "light-skinned" vs "dark-skinned", more perceptible in other societies. The author is very self-aware and points out his own flawed thinking from the past. Definitely read it for a fair insight into race, relations, and how they can be made better.
Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg
The book discusses the influence of public infrastructure such as residential buildings, streets, parks, and libraries on citizens' well-being, crime rate, and ability to withstand a crisis. It provides a multitude of historical examples of both successes and failures of planning. One of the interesting points the author makes is that a neighborhood can reduce crime not by being tough on small offences ("broken windows" theory), but by altering places where the crime takes place: abandoned buildings, empty lots, unlit streets. Another interesting observation is how small residential communities and libraries can be self-regulating and self-policing. Definitely a very insightful read, even if you do not live in an urban setting.
The Hacking of the American Mind by Roberd H. Lustig
In the first part of the book, the author does a great job of describing of three main reward pathways in the brain: pleasure (dopamine), happiness (serotonin), and stress (cortisol). In addition to the mechanism, he provides great real-life examples of how specific medicines and substances interact with hormones, receptors and brain processes. In the latter part of the book, author describes the misuse of word "happiness", and how consumer media is equivocating it with wealth, owning property or instant gratification. The author criticizes the US healthcare system, which, I believe, is a major subject of his previous book as well. For me, it is always fascinating to learn about how the brain works.
Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow
Great research and studies into what goes on in the brain on the subconscious level, from blindsight and recognizing images to decision-making. One of the later chapters describes how humans are wired to be optimistic, yet egotistical, and to value own decisions above others', which made me lose faith in humanity a little bit more :|
The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski
Interesting historical accounts of gradual evolution of a table fork, a paperclip, a zipper, and even 3M's adhesives. The general point the author makes is that form follows failure, but there's a bit too much philosophical discussion on that. Worthy read, even if a bit boring at times.
Total reading time in 2021: 251 hours and 23 minutes
Average reading time per day: 41 minutes