Books of the year | 2021

The influence of the pandemic still seems to hang over everything. I struggled with novels, and most of my favourite reads this year were collections of short stories, which could be read and returned to. I think that the mental impact of Covid will take a long time to be fully understood. These are in no particular order.

Ben Myers Male Tears

A great collection of short stories exploring aspects of masculinity. Stand outs for me were “The Folk Song Singer”, about an encounter between a journalist and a veteran pop star, and a weird tale where the protagonist covers himself in paint to get his girlfriends attention. Myer’s previous novel Gallows Pole is being adapted for TV by Shane Meadows, which should be a treat for next year.

Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind

The only actual novel on the list, although it is slim and page turning. Two New York middle class families on holiday in Long Island holiday let are caught up in an apocalypse that they never really understand, trying hard to keep their class structures and social conventions in place as the power fails, and darkness falls. It was written before Coronavirus (it came out in hardback the end of 2020, and paperback this summer) and captures the sense of normality being slowly subsumed by something a lot less pleasant.

Hanif Abdurraqib Little Devil in America

The subtitle of this selection is “In Praise of Black Performance”, and the essays cover subjects like Josephine Baker and Aretha Franklin. The essays of black face and the death of Michael Jackson are particular stand-outs, they address contemporary issues in black culture, but are a,so a great read about pop culture in general. Won this year’s Gordon Burn prize.

Izumi Suzuki: Terminal Boredom

Suzuki is a Japanese female sci-fi writer who died in the 80s, but who has only just been translated into English. These stories take familiar themes of dystopian future, but overlaid with 60s pop culture. The stories use strange and bleak visions of the future not just to explore political or technological themes, but individual stories of sadness and loss. She wrote in the 70s and 80s when Japan was a global economic success story, but she predicts the lost decade and economic stagnation.

Ken Liu, Hidden Girl

Chinese American translator and writer who first came to my attention translating Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. He writes speculative fiction, and this collection of short stories includes stand alone tales, with a series of interconnected hard sci-fi stories about “the Gods” of the on-line world – artificial intelligence and the singularity. The stories span Black Mirror style tales of the near future about blockchain cryptography (“Byzantine Empathy”) and Internet trolling (“Thoughts and Prayers”) the hard-SF story arc (“The Gods Will Not Be Chained”, “The Gods Will Not Be Slain” and “The Gods Have Not Died In Vain”), and post apocalyptic futures without technology.

Julia Ebner, Going Dark

Julia Ebner is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, where she leads projects on online extremism, disinformation and hate speech. For Going Dark she created elaborate on-line personas to infiltrate extremists groups from Islamic extremists to White Nationalists. The book traces common themes of recruitment, provocation, communication and operations between the different groups, which have more in common with each other than with the rest of us.

Luke Harding, Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West

Starting with the Salisbury poisonings Harding traces the way that the KGB have taken control of Russia, and are now pursuing a new cold war aided by major figures in the UK and US establishment, including Donald Trump. I was left with a lingering suspicion that our own PM has been compromised by the same KGB tactics that snared Trump

Catherine Belton, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West

Belton covers similar ground to harding -Vladimir Putin and his clique of KGB officers came to power in Russia, looted the country and waged a concerted campaign to undermine Western institutions, often with the collusion of Western politicians

This was actually published last year, but I missed it until it was the subject of a libel action brought by multiple Russian Oligarchs against the author and publisher.

I make no apologies for including 2 books at Putin. Russia is planning further interference in Ukraine and the Balkans, yet at the same time he is an ageing autocrat learning the same lesson as all autocrats – that by stripping away the checks and balances that limit his power he also strips away anything that might stop a rival removing him.

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