December 31, 2021booksfiction

2021 - The Year in Fiction

My favourite books of fiction of 2021

The best books

Welcome to Nitin Pai’s cyberspace. You are in the structured section of my domain where I have my blog posts, newspaper columns, updates on my teaching and research, and other things you had always been warned about.


The best book I read in 2021 was undoubtedly Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, a superbly crafted tale of mystery and magic and ultimately about how happiness and positivity are possible even in the most hopeless circumstances. Her previous book, the excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell which came out years ago was thick as a brick. This one is much slimmer and an easier read. I started with the audiobook, masterfully narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor, ended with the hardbound edition and went back and finished the audiobook. This is a great book.

In second place is Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall which references James Clerk Maxwell’s thought experiment, biblical references and Joseph Campbell’s analysis of comparative mythology in a story of an author’s personal struggles. The story itself takes quite a number of unexpected turns. Piers Hampton does an excellent job narrating the audiobook, managing to include the numerous footnotes without breaking the tempo.

Where’s the non-fiction? In the All Things Policy year-end podcasts. The show notes of Part 1 and Part 2 have the book list.


The Vorrh by Brian Catling is a weird-weird story set around a mysterious forest somewhere in colonial Africa that is hard to place in any category. It’s a big long book, well-narrated by Alan Corduner in the audiobook version, and is a little confusing initially and towards the middle, before more-or-less adding up in the end. It’s the first of a trilogy and I expect to read the other two over the next couple of years.

Funeral Nights

On the topic of big fat books, Funeral Nights by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih was the biggest and fattest that entered by bookshelf this year. I am not sure if I should include it under fiction, because it is part-autobiography, part-travelogue, part-ethnography, part-social commentary. It is entirely about the Khasis of Meghalaya. A bunch of people set out to participate in a rare and nearly extinct funeral rite in a remote village and discuss their history, politics and personal lives. I am yet to finish the book (PS. It is fat!). In the meantime I reverse engineered a few Khasi recipes mentioned in the book and am delighted with the radish, chilli and sesame salad.

The Nitopadesha will be published in 2022

I had to do quite a bit of research while translating the Nitopadesha this year. Panchatantra translations by Patrick Olivelle, Chandra Rajan and Arthur Ryder revealed a lot that popular versions of the tales leave out. The Kathasaritasagara retold by Meena Arora Nayak is an excellent modern compilation of the stories which led me to look at the exhaustive translations by Charles Henry Tawney (1837-1922) that are available on the Internet Archive.

The hidden

Road Seven

The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri set in Southern Italy and Road Seven by Keith Rosson set in a fictional country that resembles Iceland challenge the boundaries between reality and fantasy. I listened to the audiobook versions, performed by Andrew Wincott and Charlie Thurston respectively, which made the books come alive. The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell and The Stranger Times by C.K. McDonnell are both mysteries with supernatural elements, the former atmospheric and the latter hilarious. I had enjoyed O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans last year and it got me interested in his work.

I’m yet to read Black Swan Green, but after completing Slade House and Utopia Avenue this year I think I am almost there in Mitchellverse. The parts where characters (or their relatives) from other books enter the story make you wonder if there are more layers to the plot.

The short and the twisted

Teatro Grottesco

Coming back to the Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges again this year got me interested in short stories, a format I had previously neglected. I discovered Laird Barron through his The Imago Sequence and Other Stories and Thomas Ligotti through Teatro Grottesco. I did not complete Haruki Murakami’s First Person Singular audiobook because the narrator fell short of the job. Not so with The Neil Gaiman Reader because it is read by the author himself.

Comfortable in crime and espionage

Madness of Crowds

Finally, spy thrillers and murder mysteries. Silverview by John le Carré and The Man Between by Charles Cumming were intelligent and rewarding. The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman straddles the two genres. Like the other books in the series A Line To Kill by Anthony Horowitz is delightful. Keigo Higashino’s Newcomer was nice. If I have to pick the best murder mystery book of the year — from the few I read — it would be The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny. Set in a small Canadian village amid the pandemic and political polarisation, there is a certain quiet and simplicity in a story that pays a lot of attention to detail and filling out the characters. Listen to the audiobook narrated by Robert Bathurst. It’s brilliant.

The gyan section of my website has excerpts of wisdom from novels of fiction. You might find something interesting in it.

I have sampled and partially read at least a dozen other titles. I gave up when they could no longer hold my (very distractable) attention. Given the opportunity costs, this is the best approach although there is an atavistic residual guilt of leaving a book unfinished.

Spread as my reading list is between physical, ebooks and audiobooks, I might have missed mentioning some good ones. If I find any worthy of inclusion, I will update this list or perhaps mention them next year.

If you would like to share or comment on this, please discuss it on my GitHub Previous
Interrogating the Deep State
Geopolitics of the Information Age

© Copyright 2003-2024. Nitin Pai. All Rights Reserved.