Year in review 2021: Books

I go into the year thinking I won’t be able to read much between having two kids now and back to full-time work starting in January but I did not bad at all! Well, 35 books and I would say that a cookbook and a manga are a a little bit of a stretch. I also learned about the Indigo 2021 Reading Challenge to tick off 21 books in the categories they selected. It was good for me and I can say I accomplished about 20.5: halfway through the 21st category to complete the challenge. As with other things in life, I’m just not able to wrap it all up in the allotted time…!

This year, I went for a different format: just listing all the books in order of completion. It lost meaning to separate into the previous categories of (non-Asian) non-fiction, (non-Asian) fiction, and Asian. Reading is reading, everything is connected, and emoji tags are where it’s at because emojis.

Also, I changed my book links to linking to pages from Canadian-based Chapters Indigo (instead of Amazon) and all my thumbnails are edited to be centered around the title.


🍚 Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015) I made myself start off the year with a gritty novel that came to my purview when it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Five years ago! And I kicked off ticking off boxes for the 2021 Chapters Indigo reading challenge with this prize-wining book. However, I slogged through it not really enjoying it, not really sympathizing with the narrator.

Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of The Sea (Jan 2020) After finishing the above, I need a “lighter” read and I “knew” about this book or author and this was the first I read. I knew I had to read it because it’s a region I wouldn’t normally visit. The English publication is translated from the 2019 Spanish original edition. It was a satisfying, thrilling epic novel.

💯 Robert T. Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad (2017) I have wanted to read this for a long while, the “American version of The Wealthy Barber“, I thought. I read Wealthy Barber back in the ’90s and its biggest takeaway was to pay yourself first 10%. (I should read The Wealthy Barber Returns for completion sake, and because I’m at a completely different stage of my life and finances, too.) Meanwhile, Kiyosaki’s largest takeaway is, “don’t work for your money, make your money work for you”. I nearly didn’t read it when I saw that he collaborated with Trump on some books and was seriously hedging in the one 2019 YouTube video I watched of him answering about his fondness for Trump. But it had been so long I’ve had this title on my list I just forged ahead. Also, BIL recommended that I read Millionaire Teacher, and I keep pushing off that hold, too.

✊🏿🇨🇦💯 Jesse Thistle’s From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless, and Finding My Way (2019)  This memoir was one of the 2020 Canada Reads finalists (it didn’t win) that I would entertain reading and so now I have. It was very good: hopeful while difficult to read with the drug addiction and terrible decisions, homelessness and prison, fear he will relapse.

🍚🇨🇦 Ian Hamilton’s The Diamond Queen of Singapore (Aug 2020) This is book 14 in the Ava Lee series and I have ready 13 of them including this one. Funny enough, he seems to get into more detail about driving in this installment and now we know where Jennie Lee’s house is in Richmond Hill (I should have followed along with Google Maps) and Ava’s condo in Yorkville. Also, it seems that Hamilton is getting political with regards to mentioning a president like Trump and Ava thinking about business moves to protect herself (note that publication date was before the fall 2020 election where Trump was not re-elected) and releasing a film that is about the events at Tiananmen Square.

🍚Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (2018) Where did I hear about this novel? I think I saw the whimsical-looking cover when I was browsing Available e-books at VPL and the synopsis sounded cute. It’s a bit along the lines of Eleanor Oliphant but between the effect of translation and the “quirky” (strange) turn, I did not enjoy this novel at all.

✊🏿👽🏫Temi Oh’s Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (2019) I first noticed this novel on a sci-fi list and when I started reading it, had to double-check: oh, it was a young adult sci-fi list. No matter, in this case. I would get chills thinking of the youth going off – either giving up their lives and future but also being pioneers. I got chills reading the overview of the logistics of planning this unprecedented mission. Those Type A personalities  thrown together because of a mission and not friendship: wild. I did not like the ghost aspect but it was necessary to the story. It was about six teens coming of age in the early days of their lifelong mission and once set-off, determining on their own their suitability for the mission. It got really exciting and gripping and sad and the ending was so bittersweet.

🍚💯Wilson Tang’s The Nom Wah Cookbook (Oct 2020) It feels a bit like a cheat to count a cookbook as a book I read because I am not reading the recipes word for word. There were great stories that I also immediately forgot and I sure want to check out Pearl River Mart stores and that porcelain shop the next time I am in NYC. Many recipes are dim sum ones and not family style cooking but the ones I did screenshot were some noodles (I think) and steamed buns with running egg custard.

🍚🐣Susie Yang’s White Ivy (Nov 2020) Auntie Joan recommended (or mentioned) this novel since we’ll regularly swap information about Asian-American novels we come across. I felt sympathetic to Susie who wants more than her middle class upbringing. It was so nerve-wracking (thriller!) when she realized the WASP dream and having two “dream” men in her life. It was so dark!

🐣Julia Quinn’s The Duke And I (2000) I binge watched the Netflix series because period pieces are exactly my wheelhouse and to be more “intelligent” about it, I wanted to read the novel it was based on. It was a little trying to read a bit because I knew what would happen but also having read reviews about how the 2000 novel (two decades ago!) had its dated moments and did not have the progressive diversity of the series. The sibling comraderie with Daphe and the post-modern take on Regency culture was refreshing. Still, I was up against my library loan expiring and it as the first time where I was shoo-ing Kiddo and he was so annoyed and I had no idea that the second epilogue was going to be so long!

✊🏿🐣Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age (2019) I had seen this title and it was available. After the synopsis knew it fit the BLM kind of topic with the encounter with the security guard in the beginning. The mom was soooo wrong… it felt like such a throwback to read about the foursome girls, their banter and getting ready to club but also growing up and Emira would feel left behind but slowly finding her footing. The guy seemed so good, I wanted to side with him, root for them. I read this between 5 am one morning and 1 am the next – once again ignored the family to read this!

🐣Rebecca Serle’s In Five Years (Mar 10, 2020) I was looking for something to read to avoid serious The Alice Network – this book, I started at 10 pm and finished by 5 am. From the synopsis, I figured it could really tug on me like the film, Sliding Door. It was such a perfect set-up with David and I do believe it was too good to be true – turned out to be a story with Bella who is remarkable character and the co-dependency that comes through – does she end up with the guy? I’m the type who ends up surprised by a “twist” – a twist on what truly happened that one hour she glimpsed from five years before.

🍚🐣Loan Le’s A Pho Love Story (Feb 2021) Ugh – everything about this novel from the terrible title to the utterly common names and trope storyline. I only went through with it because of the restaurant setting. This felt heavy after the last couple of whirlwind reads, both a sign of the writing and the story.

🍚🐣Stacey Lee’s The Downstairs Girl (2019) I wanted to read this when I first heard of it but the library didn’t have an e-book right away so I only now got around to it. It is immersive in the life of Chinese migrants and I was on edge the entire time that Jo would get exposed and ostracized and harmed. Turned out that my friend Brenda who is not into period stories really enjoyed it!

💯🇨🇦 Dr. Bonny Henry & Lynn Henry’s Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe: Four Weeks That Shaped A Pandemic (Mar 2021)  News broke in December 2020 that during her six-day vacation, Dr. Henry wrote a book. Given I read her re-released book last year and I don’t follow the news closely, it behooved me to read. Just the first four weeks – I’m skeptical at first. Sooooo many developments have occurred since those four weeks but it set the tone, a plan was put into place that they held steadfast to which marked BC’s style and approach and as a result the province had its own progression (the same can be said for each of the other provinces). While her first book is almost like a compendium of diseases and an interesting effort at knowledge translation, this book is more intimate and we join in on Dr. Henry’s life and thoughts as events unfold. See, I was at the BC CDC when the last epidemic occurred in Canada, in 2009 – H1N1 “swine flu”. I was a research assistant in the mathematical modeling department who didn’t know much about what was going on in my own department or the center at large. But my own feeling was that it seemed as if my department was not getting data in a timely manner to create models that would be used by the center. I wished I had been around the center during SARS. I wished that I could stay on longer (in a different group). There were modellers elsewhere in the center, I believe. What I learned was that pandemic planning had been taking place since SARS, refined by the experience in swine flu, and that the response that might seem like “common sense” isn’t made lightly, quickly and as a reflex. There is so much research and deliberation going into the decisions that affected society: relationships, work, school, businesses. On one hand, it seemed a little strange to read the thoughts of someone who has to be so guarded and careful with her words because misinterpretation is rampant. She became a household name during the pandemic and it was interesting to see how deep her altruism goes, and also reminds you that she’s human too.

🍚 Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara And The Sun (Mar 2021) Ishiguro has a unique brand of sci-fi and I have been intrigued since I read Never Let Me Go. I found it a little hard to get into the style of the narration and you’re like, “No!!!! That’s not going to work!! Don’t believe her!!” – but the story isn’t about the mechanics of the disease that is never named but, as the reviews, say, the nature of love and ability to love, etc. I just didn’t enjoy it because I’m such a superficial reader although Obama enjoyed it and recommended it.

🐣 Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds (Feb 2021) Hannah is an author new to me, although she has several wildly successful novels under her belt. I had no ideathe book was so new – it’s just that Keira-Anne was reading it and I asked questions and we talked a little (one-sided as I hadn’t read any Kristin Hannah yet), It was a difficult but satisfying read – life was so wretched, the struggles so difficult I would have folded. I was introduced to the term, “The Greatest Generation”, and indeed the previous generation (and that generation) face challenges we couldn’t take on today.

🇨🇦 Miriam Toews’ Women Talking (2019) I’ve long toyed with the idea of reading a Miriam Toews novel and it just seemed right to read the latest one, oh but it’s a bit like philosophy in story form. The main chapter was 137 screens. I never really tried to remember who was who. If it’s meant to have you be sympathetic to the plight of a female Menonnite,

👽 Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit (2017) I saw this novel was available and it’s best blurb is Margaret Atwood’s tweet: “I enjoyed The Unit very much…I know you will be riveted, as I was.” It was riveting and so interesting it centered around 50-year-old ladies and didn’t involve teen angst the way dystopia and coming of age YA novels seem to go hand in hand. It’s translated so there’s a certain quality, and I don’t often read novels set in Sweden. The author’s note provided some insight on her inspiration.

Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network (2017) By reading this novel, I finished all the books that were on the reading roster during the time I was on mat leave and the Bring Your Own Baby book club was running (it ran until Covid and then I was done mat leave). It was also a bit of a discovery that my friend Brenda ranked this as one of her favourite books and maybe that was the impetus to stop pushing this one off, finally. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of Charlie who has a Little Problem but she grows up during her adventure. With little else to fit the category, I’m using this novel to check off “A book about a true crime” in the 2021 reading challenge. I thought it was a little corny how parallel in the past and present (e.g., hook-ups) but it built to that and then the present and past converged and and it’s very satisfying.

👽 Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon (1959) Then it was time for some OG scifi. Surprisingly, it didn’t read as a book from 1950s, lacking in outdated tech references. It was quite haunting; the author was really good at explaining things simplistically and in a timeless kind of tone.

🍚🏫 Mary H.K. Choi’s Yolk (Mar 2021) Maybe saw while browsing VPL and noticed its manga-style cover and that Auntie Joan read it before me kept it in my purview. After starting it, I learned it’s Young Adult per its inclusion in a YA reading list. The novel is from Jayne’s point of view, in denial of what’s going on (her anorexia-bulimia) and for a while, she’s not sympathetic, seems to mess things up from former roommates to boyfriends. It is about the ugly side of sister relationships that is hard to read but the truth. I’m a bit of nerdy, loser June who is not self-aware and a bit of perfectionist Jayne who doesn’t try and hates herself and binges: I could also relate to feelings of inadequacy – I want my own Patrick! – :S

🍚 💯🇨🇦 Jessica J. Lee’s Two Trees Make A Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts (July 2020) I didn’t listen to Canada Reads 2021 but it’s from their shortlist that I know about it – is it the Jessica Lee I know? Well. Not all of us are tree historians with the kind of appreciation for tree species but it was neat to have it point out the special origins of Taiwan island, the special wildlife, many climates, etc. Not all of us have a grandfather who was in the National Party air force and wrote 20 pages of his personal history or grandmother who allowed voice recording of stories. A “mystery” who grandmother several times (long lost relatives) and unsolved – why she didn’t pass the grandfather’s letters on. Irritated by how she referred to them as Po and Gong – kinda of jarring like “Ma” and “Ba” and I’m not sure if it’s because at some point, it was too infantile to say Popo and Gong-gong?

🍚 💯Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story (2017) An Express Collection read, I have kind of read Marie Kondo’s first book and it doesn’t hurt to read it again, years later, with more experience (and clutter) to my name. The story was really cute and I screenshot a ton of pages.

🐣 Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa (March 10, 2020) Auntie Joan told me she read it and it put it on my radar to try – she didn’t like it and neither did I. I guess I take reading about hot messes to heart and find it so hard and the nuances in their terrible relationship were so frustrating.

🍚 Te-Ping Chen’s Land of Big Numbers (Feb 2021) I learned of this collection of short stories when Obama put it on his list of books to read this year. While Auntie Joan didn’t really enjoy it, I liked some stories well enough. Not a single one comes to mind right away and I screenshot the table of contents immediately after reading but have now forgotten what most of them are about even with the stories’ names to not jog my memory.

🐣 Steven Rowley’s The Guncle (May 2021) From a list of fun summer reads, I got the idea to read this novel. Given Patrick O’Hara is around my age (I think he’s 45), he resonates a little, like how I’d be if I wasn’t married, with kids. Because of Patrick’s confident recommendations,I looked up Wang Chung (Yellow Wall) Let’s Go.

🐣🏫 Brina Starler’s Anne of Manhattan (June 2021) thought it was a modern day retelling of Anne of Green Gables but I should have known that when Anne goes elsewhere e.g., Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne of Ingleside, it’s a new story of her conquering that place. So that’s it. At first, I noticed all of the liberties… It happened that I finally finished Anne with an E on Netflix / CBC and wishing there were more episodes and stories to watch. Frustrated love is so aggravating! I had to put it on the ice and read some mindless Meet Cute Diary which was also annoying YA. It was so interesting to hear Anne’s possible thoughts and Gilbert’s too, how Diana got her way (she was re-imagined to be black) and Phil was so nonchalant. At first it was like the years of Anne of Avonlea, allusions to them working together and while it was so innocent in the books, that fleshed out thoughts. Seemed to be written by a true fan and got the tone right. Funny to think of Gilbert swearing, Anne swearing when needed and calling something “bougie” – Marilla and Matthew modernized, and how into each other Anne and Gilbert would be.

🏫 Emery Lee’s Meet Cute Diary (May 2021) Completing this novel satisfy the trans or non-binary author category of the reading challenge and I found it under the same category in Chapters website – It seemed too simplistic at first but maybe Noah is well adjusted, less conflicted now that he is living his true self. Enter conflict and you can see him being attracted to another trans friend more than his cis boyfriend who seems perfect. The story tracked from teenage obsessions with something material and external (appearances for the diary of fantasy and the idealism of bringing hope to trans kids they will find love) to letting that go. It was through this novel I was introduced to the music of Troye Sivan.

🍚 Eric Nguyen’s Things We Lost to the Water (May 2021) Another recommendation from Obama,  now I’ve read both of his recommendations. This was such a broken family, my heart twists for the hardships they endured as immigrants, as Asian boys, at school, and into adulthood, not having a father or the mythological figure of father. The community at Versailles echoes the community that I observed in Halifax, they are so lucky to have.

🍚💯 Michelle Zauner’s Crying In H Mart (April 2021) This was a memoir with super harsh descriptions about caring about a parent with a terminal illness. I might normally wonder why I am reading some normal person’s story, but through learning about hapa and how close the child can be to the culture when it’s the mom (and yet not fluent). We were treated to mouth-watering cooking descriptions, and a music recommendation (Carpenters Rainy Days and Mondays). My heart tugged for the dad and what their relationship might become but oh….. she was so rebellious. It was a really great story of a “normal person” – who gains the level of fame she aspired (or more) but sadly without her mother around, like it’s a gift from her mother.

🍚🇨🇦 Ian Hamilton’s Fortune: The Lost Decades of Uncle Chow Tung (Jan 2021) Increasingly, it seems like Hamilton is emboldened to make political statements in his novel. Fortune was supposed to be third in a trilogy he says there will be one or two more, bringing us closer to meeting Ava. This installment was of interest to me because of being set in 1995, with Hong Kong handover and HK becoming China’s again looming. Hamilton wrote about worries about the gangs pre-handover as China has in the past few years passed laws that are finally changing Hong Kong and freedoms.

🍚🇨🇦👽🏫Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow (Sept 2021) Aiya – this seemed more fantasy than sci-fi and I resolved that I will not read the next installment of this series. Often NPY will try to sound insighfult, blase, not falling for it, “I’ve heard that somewhere before” and that is what I was feeling while reading Iron Widow. I agree that representation is super and the female empowerment was loud and clear in bucking the suppression of females (patriarchal society, foot binding) and China’s only female empress Wu Zetian is pretty inspiring. But it also reeks of Hunger Games and other novels I haven’t read with a love triangle (however, it seemed like it might not be triangle you think it is), evil adults, intense media scrutiny and dressing them up, a hitlist …. Will I read more? Will it become a movie? When I was looking up Kunlun Mountains, I and ran into Hundun in Shang Chi results and well now I need to look into Nine-Tail Fox, White Tiger, Black Tortoise, Yellow Dragon, Vermillion Bird …

🇨🇦🐣 Audrey Audrain’s The Push (January 2021) I read the synop a long time ago because Push suggests motherhood and I knew it was about a child who is a psychopath and that’s not a fun read. I must have seen it on lists throughout the year but I’m not into thrillers really. It was amongst the nominees for Good Reads Choice Awards in the Thriller category so it was back on my purview even though I scroll through that category really quickly not having read a single one. The epigraph drew your attention to the fact that since a women’s egg inventory is formed when she is a four-month-old fetus, that means that everyone existed (as the egg) in their grandmother’s womb for five months. I thought it would be so difficult to read and it was wrenching but also so fascinating. I started maybe at 10:30 pm and just kept reading and didn’t know it was 5 a.m. (I thought i was only 3 a.m.) when I was at Chapter 70-something and my phone battery was dead so I put it on the wireless charge behind the sofa and lay across the back of the sofa to finish it!

🇨🇦 Terry Fallis’ Operation Angus (August 2021) I always (periodically) check in on what Terry Fallis is working on and he wrote a third novel to the one that got him first published The Best Laid Plans. It was really great to visit Daniel, Angus, Muriel, Lindsay and the other characters again in Fallis’ humorous foray into thriller territory. It was highly enjoyable except for my usual quibble that his protagonists seem to have the same voice over and over.

🇨🇦✊🏿🏫 Thomas King and Natasha Donovan’s Borders (September 2021) I didn’t realize this was so short and based on a short story. Still, it was a good read.

Started but did not finish in 2021:

Elizabeth L. Cline’s The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good (2019) 💯 put if off alllll year with the Deliver Later feature but it fits the “A book about helping the environment” so I finally made room for it and started it mid November.

Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein’s Joy at Work (April 2020) 🍚 💯 saw it was available and my friend told me she wanted to read it too – “ironic” of looking for joy at work after reading “don’t work” from Kiyosaki – in a small way looking for something to make it seem palatable because I’m going going to do RE or stocks

Jay Shetty’s Think Like A Monk (Sept 2020) 💯

Charles Wheelan’s We Came, We Saw, We Left: A Family Gap Year (January 2021)

On this day..