Hello friends!! Hope everyone had a lovely Christmas yesterday if you celebrated, if not a restful weekend as we hurtle towards the end of the year?
Despite being in denial about 2021 being over, I’ve come out of my hibernation with my favourite post yearly, on the best books of the year. I’m not hyperbolic at all in claiming that books have been my sanity-anchors throughout this hectic year, but more on that kind of reflections during my yearly wrap up! For now, it’s time to scream about these books for the umpteenth time with as much vigour as the first!!
10: DUNE by Frank Herbert
But in reality, I’m utterly convinced that Frank Herbert is a god, and that Dune is truly the pinnacle of science fiction, an illuminating book that indeed stands the test of time.
Dune follows Paul Atreides, the heir of the noble house, one tasked to rule over Arrakis, a desert-like planet whose main export is the spice melange. Some are intimidated by the sheer length of this saga, while others are put off by the reports of the start being slow-paced and confusing. While I can’t deny the latter, I can certainly testify that the draggy start is worth it, especially with it incremental in setting up this vibrant, detailed and complex world that would set the stage for the entire series.
Apart from the ambitious and remarkable world-building, I loved how rich the story was in terms of themes. Herbert struggles with the two ideologies of fatalism and determinism, and packages this theme of fate vs free will into a chosen one arc. There’s also an indisputable sense of scale and scope in a novel that explores not only politics and philosophy, but the history and ecology of the land as well.
A magnificent novel whose genius will awe you albeit the slow start, Dune is a classic that you must read, and certainly earns a spot on my top 10 for 2021.
Content from the blogosphere: Siya’s review of the movie
09: NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go tells a tale of a bunch of kids growing up in a boarding school, but there’s more than meets the eye. It was such a breathtaking, heartbreaking and haunting narrative. As you read, you can tangibly feel the eerie atmosphere, feel such intense feelings as well as be imbued with a great sense of denial and poignance as it ends.
A simple story told in simple prose, and yet the story conceals deep resonances in the way that it explores such large and expansive themes of death, humanity and ethics with both bleakness and empathy. Definitely another fantastic science fiction novel to pick up in you’re in for something equal parts bizarre, tragic and thought-provoking.
08: PORTRAIT OF A THIEF by Grace D. Li
Following a group of Chinese-American college students who go on several heists to steal back Chinese art taken from the days of colonialism, Portrait of a Thief was a novel packed to the brim. Despite the sheer thrill of the heists, my favourite aspect (as always) was the thoughtful exploration of so many themes like history, diaspora, art and colonialism.
These huge, personal yet societal concepts were fleshed out with such complexity in each of our characters. Each character of the team, though stereotypically filling in roles of a heist team, had compelling character backgrounds and dynamics that were anything but surface level, each had their own relationship with China and their identity as Chinese diaspora, hence making their journey to reconnect with their roots with this heist all the more meaningful.
Truly an excellently thought-out novel, Portrait of a Thief hit the right notes as a personal, powerful and somewhat poignant commentary. An impressive debut!
Content from the blogosphere: Amanda’s review
07: JADE CITY by Fonda Lee
After 496 pages, with my brain fried, I still couldn’t decide whether or not Hilo was an idiot or a great leader. But I did know one thing for sure: Jade City is a really, really good book.
Jade City is the start of Fonda Lee’s debut in the adult fantasy genre: the Green Bone Saga, an urban fantasy set in the island of Kekon, where jade is both a sign of status and a source of power. The city, though having a central government, is under the heavy influence of clans in the region, and Jade City follows the ruling family in one of the two big clans: the No Peak clan.
This novel is anything but tame, blowing me away completely. It combines the fierce and fervent jade and territorial war between the clans to the international community clamouring for jade, as well as the intergenerational conflict within the clan. Filled to the brim with ambitious world building, brilliant political intrigue and intense fight scenes, Jade City was a smart, vibrant and gripping tale that astounded me, and earned my utmost respect and reverence.
Content from the blogosphere: Lia’s and Jayati’s recommendations based on Green Bone Saga characters // Isha’s compilation of quotes // Azu’s review
06: THE KEEPER OF NIGHT by Kylie Lee Baker
Following Ren, an outcast soul collector of mixed heritage, this historical fantasy transports us from the bleak and cold streets of London, to the mysterious and alluring depts of the underground in Japan, where Ren must prove herself to serve the Goddess of Death on a series of quests.
I have to say, the vibes of the book are just as immaculate as that of the cover, with the world building of the dark underground den of death being exceptionally immersive, especially with Japanese folklore and mythology effortlessly weaved into the story. And apart from the impressive atmosphere, The Keeper of Night was just as meticulous and thoughtful in portraying a compelling antihero arc amongst a fast-paced plot, with many meaningful ideas of identity, morality and fate!
05: PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee
Following four generations of a Korean family living in Japan, Pachinko is a deeply moving, poignant and riveting saga filled with so much nuance and soul. It’s a tale of family and sacrifice, how one woman’s choices impact generations to come.
There’s a recurring theme of a woman’s role in society, especially prominent given the times this novel was set in. With regards to the historical aspect, Pachinko is exceptional as well. It entails not the actual event of Japan annexing Korea, but more so its impact: the mass destructions, mass migrations, assimilating into a new society, dealing with poverty and discrimination — immense economical and social effects of the wars on the commoners.
Pachinko also gives voice to the political nuances of the people, a backdrop against freedom, and essentially trying to live. It illuminates a tale of an ordinary family, but makes you feel so deeply for them, a deeply compelling historical fiction, definitely one to check out if you’re into historical fiction, or want just an evocative and thematic story!
Content around the blogosphere: Sarah’s review
04: THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS by Chloe Gong
A Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai with a monster on the rise, These Violent Delights was as unique and gripping as it sounds. An intricate friends to enemies to lovers to enemies to lovers to… dynamic amidst two compelling stars from rival gangs, characterised by their responses to the ongoing violence and power play between the gangs, as well as the history fuelling the blood feud, this historical fantasy was dark and delicious.
It captured 1920s Shanghai, glittering and gritty, perfectly, and through both unfiltered ire and nuanced commentary, addressed Western imperialism, which coupled with the Chinese culture not just in setting but in values, resonated deeply with me!
Truly one worthy of all the hype its been getting (though I can’t say the same for the sequel unfortunately), These Violent Delights is one you have to pick up or miss out big time!
03: THE ONES WE’RE MEANT TO FIND by Joan He
TOWMTF was one of my most anticipated releases for the year and it was absolutely brilliant. It’s a tale of two sisters, polar opposites, but with an undeniable bond, stuck in a climate-challenged world.
Amidst the dual narrative with a raging plot (ugh my heart still pitter patters from that twistTM), Joan He brings out themes of climate change, technology and thought-provokingly examines the very prospect of humanity in such a grandiose, not in the slightest pretentious manner. It was done so beautifully, with so much grace and sensitivity, I can’t recommend this novel enough!
02: DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING by Madeline Thien
Do Not Say We Have Nothing follows a group of musicians and their descendants through the cultural revolution, and to the Tiananmen Square protests. It had a dual timeline linked with a single object, typical of its genre, but A heartbreaking, profound yet profound intergenerational saga, this historical novel illuminates history and the building of a nation.
It explores how war and trauma irrevocably shapes individuals and generations to come. love, sacrifice, music, remembrance are just the tip of the iceberg in this novel. Furthermore, it offers a poignant yet compassionate look into the emotional turmoil of the late 20th century of China.
A stunning epic that commands authority the same way that it inspires empathy (which may I add, is insanely underrated!!), Do Not Say We Have Nothing will be haunting me for years to come.
01: THE POPPY WAR trilogy by R.F. KuangHello! I’m Cherelle, a part-time student and a full-time Poppy War propaganda machine!
To reiterate for the umpteenth time, I love this historical fantasy series so much that I’ve honestly made it my entire personality, the moment I put down The Burning God and calmed myself down (it was no easy task, trust me), with unflinching certainty, I knew that this series would be my favourite for 2021, and probably many years to come.
So let’s talk about it again! (whilst I procrastinate writing a full length review, I promise it’s coming… one day)
The Poppy War follows Rin, a war-orphan from the South, through sheer grit and determination, makes it into Sinegard, the nation’s most prestigious military academy, where she discovers a power within herself, as the third Poppy War is dawns.
Everything about this series is sheer brilliance. Rin is one of the most complex antiheroes I’ve read (actually mirrored with the father of Communism in China: Mao Zedong), she’s one built on a foundation of emotional turmoil, history and class structure, and her journey with power and the gods is gritty but a sight to behold.
This series is not for the faint of heart, it’s a harsh, unflinching portrayal of war, neither romanticised nor sensationalised. Violence, trauma, power, corruption – R.F. Kuang gave us the full brunt of these, and yet there was a certain sensitivity laced through the series, with the trilogy spanning China’s “Century of Humiliation”. It’s a meaningful exploration of this century that shaped China through a fantastical lens filled with lore, and coupled with the deep cultural influences, allowed this series to be both a fierce look at reality, as well as one of resonance for me.
TL;DR: READ THE POPPY WAR OR DIE.
Content in the blogosphere: Tiffany’s informative post on the history and culture // Diya’s review // Lia’s review
And we’re done! I’m incredibly grateful for the presence of these books in my life, and also for all my friends in the blogosphere and on bookstagram pushing me to read them. All of these books resonated with me deeply and gave me a reprieve from the world for a few hours, definitely worth reading and supporting these amazing authors!
On another note, I’m back (touch wood eheh)! Tell me how you’ve all been doing alright! Apologies for my month-and-a-half long absence, I’ve been getting end of the year blues, so I’m hopeful for the new year, as I’m trying to avoid the meme that says 2022 is pronounced “2020 too” haha.