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My favourite books from 2021

I read 52 books this year, which is a nice round number. I don’t set a reading target so there’s no “pass/fail” grade for the year, but I’m happy with that.

2021 was when I fell back in love with audiobooks, after many years away. As a kid, I had a box full of tape cassettes with my favourite books, but they didn’t follow me to the digital era. Podcasts stepped in to fill the void left by books, and I’m only now starting to adjust the balance.

This was no doubt helped by the excellent audiobook lending programme from my local library. Their player app is pretty good, and I can download DRM-free MP3s if I want to use a different app. It’s pleasantly simple compared to a lot of modern media.

I’ve found audiobooks are much easier to listen to when there’s a strong narrative – usually fiction – which may be why I read more fiction than non-fiction this year. I like to take notes as I’m reading, which often means skimming a chapter I’ve just read, and that’s hard to do with an audiobook.

I write notes on individual books at, usually straight after I finish. That has the list of everything I read this year, including books I tried to read but ultimately abandoned.

These are my seven favourites from 2021, in the order I read them. I’d recommend any of them.

The cover of “The Galaxy, and the Ground Within”. White serif text with the title and the author's name on top of a purple-tinged view of space.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

by Becky Chambers (2021)

read 17 April 2021

The residents of a space hotel have to make friends after an external crisis means they’re stuck inside (sound familiar?). It’s a variety of non-human, alien species, and they use the time together to learn more about each other.

This is the sort of character work where Becky Chambers really shines – I love how truly alien they feel – not just humans in face paint, they have different social structures, cultural habits, physical biology. There are almost no humans in the book, and they’re treated as a bit of a curiosity – it made me reflect on what I think of as “normal”. (I particularly enjoyed an extended discussion of the weirdness of cheese.)

It’s the final entry in the Wayfarers series of space operas, which I adore.

The cover of “Loveless”. It’s a purpley-pink background with a black-and-white drawing of a girl texting on her phone. A series of small hearts are drifting upwards out of the phone. The title and author’s name are written in a handwriting-like font at the bottom of the cover.


by Alice Oseman (2018)

read 14 June 2021

This is a tale of self-discovery and acceptance. Georgia is going to university looking for “one true love”, but realises she’s actually ace-aro – after learning that ace-aro is a thing (asexual, aromantic) – and she has to navigate these new feelings without hurting her two best friends or her roommate.

I’m somewhere in the ace-aro probability cloud and this book resonated strongly with me (almost painfully so); I made a lot of the same mistakes as Georgia. I only wish I’d been able to read something like this when I was at that age.

The cover of “The Underground Railroad”. It’s made up of three drawings: a woman looking into the distance, a woman embracing a taller man, and a figure shrouded by darkness holding a lantern.

The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead (2018)

read 21 June 2021

This is an alt history novel about the American slave trade which reimagines the so-called “underground railroad” of secret routes and safe houses as a literal railroad. It follows Cora, a woman who escapes a cotton plantation in Georgia, and it’s unflinching and upfront about the horrors of slavery.

It doesn’t belittle or dismiss the atrocities afflicted on Cora and other Black people, but nor does it treat them as something to gawp at. It’s a careful balance that helps them feel real and heavy, not cartoonish or fictional.

It’s not the most pleasant book, but I’m glad I read it.

The cover of “The Only Plane in the Sky”, with the subtitle “An Oral History of 9/11”. The cover is plain black with the title in gold lettering, and the author's name in small white lettering.

The Only Plane in the Sky

by Garrett M. Graff (2019)

read 25 June 2021

I don’t have strong memories of 9/11 because I was quite young when it happened, and this book helped me understand why it left such an impact.

It’s a collection of quotes from different people, carefully combined into a single timeline to tell a striking story. The audiobook has a cast of actors interspersed with real audio, and I think it worked better than if I’d read it on the printed page.

The cover of “Think Black”. A man in a flak cap and dark glasses is holding a newspaper and looking towards the camera. The title is prominently displayed, with the word “Black” made up of horizontal stripes similar to the IBM logo.

Think Black

by Clyde W. Ford (2019)

read 7 September 2021

A memoir from the son of the first Black systems engineer at IBM. It’s a powerful account of the intersection of race relations and the tech industry, and the struggles of being a Black man at a predominantly white company.

The author also worked at IBM, and he contrasts his experience with his father’s – what was different, and what was unchanged.

The cover of “Written in the Stars”. It’s a blue background with the title in large white handwritten text, and some constellations dotted around the edges. Along the bottom are two women embracing, and a silhouette of the Seattle skyline.

Written in the Stars

by Alexandria Bellefleur (2020)

read 24 October 2021

A queer rom-com with Elle (a self-confident astrologist looking for love) and Darcy (a guarded actuary who’s sworn off dating). After a disastrous blind date, they start fake dating, but realise neither of them have fake feelings.

I fell in love with all the characters and I adored this book. It’s part of a trilogy, so the subsequent books are on my reading list for 2022.

The cover of “Your Computer is on Fire”. It's a yellow background with a simple graphic of a black-and-red fire, the title of the book, and the names of the four editors.

Your Computer is on Fire

edited by Thomas S. Mullaney, Benjamin Peters, Mar Hicks, and Kavita Philip (2021)

read 31 October 2021

A series of essays about technology and computing, countering the myth of a technological utopia, and explaining the inequality and marginalisation caused by the current tech industry. It’s a strong collection which doesn’t pull its punches, and which I’d recommend to anyone working in tech.