Ten Surprising Reads of 2021

Here is a list of ten books I read this year that really surprised me. These are not books released in 2021, by the way. Writing a post for the ‘freebie’ topic for Top Ten Tuesday. Here goes my list –

1. Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb – The book (and the Rain Wild Chronicles series) is the story of the first dragons returning to a society that has long lost these beasts. What surprised me was the intense first person narration of the dragons. I didn’t expect a fantasy book to be so lyrical.

2. You Took The Last Bus Home by Brian Bilston – A book of poetry like no other I have ever read. Each of the poems plays with words and tests the limits of language. Poems drawn in silhouettes, Venn diagrams, Excel sheet, character limits – you name it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a poetry collection this quickly.

3. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig – One word – overrated. I love Matt Haig’s social media posts, so I was shocked to read a book that made so little sense, a book so irresponsibly lazy.

4. Peter the Great by Robert K Massie – What surprised me was how deep and wide the scope of the book was. It’s an account, not just of the life of Peter the Great, but a biography of the whole of Europe during the long reign of this Russian Tsar.

5. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui – This book is so niche, I’m surprised it exists. It detailed the experiences of passionate swimmers and survivors across the globe. It answered questions I’d never thought to ask, and left me pondering the anthropology, physiology, mythology, psychology and linguistics of swimming.

6. Momo by Michael Ende – I love children’s books that seemingly talk about ‘simple things,’ that aren’t really simple. Momo is a perfect example of that. What would happen if the world were taken over by monsters who have the power to make you more productive? Sounds more like reality than fantasy, doesn’t it?

7. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green – This book is so absurd. It was not completely my cup of tea and I didn’t appreciate the cliffhanger (I rarely do) but I am fascinated by how absurd it was.

8. Brain by Robin Cook – A very run-of-the-mill medical thriller that did keep me on the edge of my seat (as the blurb promised). What surprised me was how sinister and ruthless the book was for something that breezy. Patients disappearing, brains getting stolen, mysterious symptoms of nausea – nothing short of macabre.

9. Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch – A book on the linguistics of the internet, I can’t imagine a more me-topic than this. I was surprised by how detailed and seriously the book was written. I’d recommend it to everyone, but especially to language teachers.

10. Not a particular book, but this is the first time in years that I’ve crossed 50 books on my Goodreads challenge. My goal was 100, which I didn’t have time to reach, but I’m at a respectable 67, hoping to read 70 by the end of the year. One day, I’ll return to my 100-books-a-year diet, but today I’m happy about 67!

Which books surprised you this year?

Instagram Poems For ESL Students

Here are some of my favourite poems found on Instagram that I have shared, or would want to share, with my students – and I recommend you share them with yours. I’ve added ideas for discussion questions right below the poem.

1. Unnamed Poem by Diana Levy

  • How has the poet personified nostalgia?
  • How has the poet used the five senses to create evocative imagery?
  • Describe the memories of your childhood.
  • Which sensory images would you use to capture your country?

2. Have You Ever Noticed by Rudy Francisco

  • Comment on the form and structure of the poem (title, punctuation, stanzas, etc.)
  • How has the poet personified water?
  • What is the lesson conveyed through the poem?
  • Can you think of another lesson that one can learn from water? (e.g. its flexibility, transparence, life-giving nature, its paradoxical calm and force, etc.)

3. A Letter to the Playground Bully by Andrea Gibson

  • Comment on the title of the poem and how it relates to the content.
  • What is meant by ‘reading between the lines,’ and what information about the poet can we glean from reading between the lines of this poem?
  • What kind of people does the poet’s mother describe? Explain the metaphor of heartbeats used here.
  • Do stereotypes affect our self image – how?

4. The Problem of Writing Poems in the Shape of Deciduous Trees by Brian Bilston

  • Comment on the shape of the poem.
  • Why can we still read the poem in spite of the missing letters?
  • Where is the poet? How do you know?
  • Make a list of the missing letters. Where have they gone?

Do you use poems in class? Which poems do your students read and like?

Favourite Books of 2021 – Part 2

The past three months have been unreal. No words can describe my whirlwind of self-inflicted life changes – but it does reflect in the dark, dark reading choices. In no particular order, Part 2 of My Favourite Books of 2021 –

1. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong – a story of Alzheimer’s, caring for the old, caring for the young, unrequited love and coming to terms with death. It’s about all of this and still, breaks any of the stereotypes you may have associated with these themes. Khong’s charming, quirky, sad writing style is difficult not to like. Link to my review.

2. Lost Gods by Brom – WHERE HAS THIS BOOK BEEN! No, seriously. Why am I reading this now? Lost Gods is a story of a man who finds himself in the land of the dead and has to push his way out of Purgatory to save his family. It’s peppered with art by the author himself (who is an artist) and is just so incredibly detailed, it makes your skin crawl!

3. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – A modern adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, this is the story of a pair of British Muslim sisters whose brother has left the family on a terrorist path, following in the footsteps of their father. It’s the story of a family’s loss and the little, big things that make up identity – language, food, nationality, what you wear, whom you marry. A haunting tragedy. Full review here.

4. Nightbooks by J.A. White – A little boy who loves to write horror stories finds himself trapped in a witch’s lair. In an Arabian Nights fashion, the only thing that keeps him alive is entertaining the old witch with his ghost stories. What happens when he faces the dreaded writer’s block? I wish I had access to such delicious, and also tasteful, horror when I was in middle school. I loved this book!

5. The Dark Interval by Rainer Maria Rilke – Self help in my world often takes the form of writings by Rainer Maria Rilke. The Dark Interval is about life and death. It’s a set of letters that Rilke had written to his grieving friends. Beautiful… that someone could be so sweet, sensitive and practical, and say the right things, in the face of loss… where most of us would just blubber and grimace.

6. Peter the Great: His Life and Times by Robert K Massie – Wow, I’ve spent two months on this monster of a book! It is absolutely incredible just how much detail, intrigue and character Massie has managed to squeeze into the roughly 1200 pages of this book – not a word is superfluous. It’s an account, not just of the life of Peter the Great, but a biography of the whole of Europe during the long reign of this Russian Tsar. I will write more soon.

Favourite Books of 2021 – Part 1

Have I been reading as much as I wanted? Not quite. But I’m happy with the books I’ve read so far this year.

1. King Rat by China Mieville – an urban fairytale retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. King Rat is set in London, as so many of Mieville’s books and it unearths a lot that the city has to hide, and some that it fails to. This is how I effervesced about it to a friend when I was reading it – “It’s like someone took a bunch of Neil Gaiman books, put them through a grinder and something messier came out.”

2. The Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta – A tea master’s apprentice in a dystopian future, the debut novel by a Finnish writer. Uncanny, tragic and a beautifully seamless translation, done by the author herself. Sharing a quote –

“We are children of water, and water is death’s close companion. The two cannot be separated from us, for we are made of the versatility of water and the closeness of death. They go together always, in the world and in us, and the time will come when our water runs dry.”

3. Steve and Me by Terri Irwin – This one was like revisiting my childhood, and I somehow now have even more love for the crocodile hunter, the family, the Australia Zoo staff and their escapades! This book is an autobiography of a marriage like few others…

4. Broken Places and Outer Spaces by Nnedi Okorafor – I have since read fiction by Nnedi, but this memoir will never cease to put me in awe. The science fiction writer talks about her struggle with paralysis, race and how she found her stories. The very real hidden magic of our world, animated through the eyes of a writer… is just something else.

5. Love, Loss and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi – The third memoir on this list, how! I knew very little about Padma Lakshmi going into the book – Salman Rushdie’s ex wife would have been one my top descriptions, followed by Top Chef. This book really made me think about the tiny realities that populate the big stories around us. Her story is generously peppered with anecdotes starring a ragtag band of charming, meddlesome characters, brimming with that very Indian matter-of-factly-ness; she has brought to life her childhood through the vivid sights, and all the smells and the tastes.

6. Ranmitra by Dr. Prakash Amte – The first book I’ve managed to complete, in my mother tongue. I can choose to be embarrassed about it, or I can choose to be glad. I’m glad! A life worth reading. This book is a collection of stories [experiences and learnings] gathered while raising rescued or orphaned wild animals, from leopards and bears to even crocodiles… peppered with the loveliest pictures. Read this article to know more about Amte’s Ark.

Books I Meant to Read In 2020 But Didn’t Get To

Or rather, books I bought, but didn’t read. This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic makes me sad, because that list is always longer than I’d like it to be. Here we go with ten random picks:

1. The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman – The second installment in the sequel-trilogy to His Dark Materials. I honestly don’t know why I haven’t read this year – dying to!

the colours are so pretty

2. The Hot Zone by Richard Preston – This is about the origin of the ebolavirus. It came highly recommended by at least two different people. As fascinating as the blurb makes it sound – science fiction thriller, mystery, horror combined but TRUE – it just hits too close to home!

3. Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch – This book is all about what the internet has done to language – the history of it, the science, the magic! I’m a little sad about this one because it’s been sitting half-read on the shelf for no reason.

4. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – Speaking of sequels and trilogies, this is the third book in the Thomas Cromwell saga that started with the oh-so-brilliant Wolf Hall all the way back in 2009. I’ve been admiring this beautiful cover on my shelf for months now, but too scared to pick up the tome.

blue

5. A Promised Land by Barack Obama – I absolutely fell in love with Dreams From My Father, which I read a few years ago, but which was written over twenty years ago, when Obama had been elected as the first black president of… the Harvard Law Review. I expect this won’t be anything like that but would certainly like to read it.

6. The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry – I found this at a book sale early last year. This a little guide to writing poetry, with tasks and exercises and advice from the inimitable Stephen Fry. Just haven’t had the time to read it!

7. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – This book was recommended to me by a friend, I gifted it to two people who both absolutely loved it and I still somehow haven’t got around to it. It will happen soon!

that coffee mug though

8. The rest of the Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski – One of the highlights of last year was starting this series. I love it, love it, love it. Maybe this is my gateway back to fantasy series after many years!

9. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – Another book I was SO excited to read! I adore Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. But with Piranesi, the first ten pages were very different from my expectation. I was curious but worried it would be letdown, so I put it aside. Should I pick it back up?

10. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon – The image of this gorgeous book has been haunting me for all of 2020. I left it in another city and was then stuck somewhere else for the rest of the year! We shall meet again.

look. at. it.

What about you? Any unfinished business, books left on the shelves last year?

Favourite Books of 2020 – Part 3

Hey, it’s January! This blog is getting ooold. Anyway, this post should have been written in December, but I have a lot of “looking ahead” bookish posts coming up and might as well start with this little unfinished Favourite Books Part 3. Links to the other two: Favourite Books of 2020 – Part 1 and Part 2.

1. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – I’d borrowed this gem from a friend and it came highly recommend and it was worth every moment spent on it. I have seen and read enough fiction around WW2 to feel compassion fatigue and a general wariness about picking up yet another formulaic designed-to-make-you-cry book. This was a breath of fresh air. The story is … – quoting the Goodreads blurb – … about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen – One word: genius! The Sympathizer is set at the end of the Vietnam War. As multitudes of Americans evacuate the country, our narrator is one of the locals who escape. He works for a general of the South Vietnamese army. Except… he’s actually been a North Vietnamese spy all along, a Communist sympathizer. What unfolds is a social satire of the Vietnam War, its depictions by American media, the alienation experienced by those rendered homeless, loss of identity in exile, and the Westerner’s misguided understanding of the East. It’s a comedy, tragedy and psychological thriller all rolled into one.

3. Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman – Full review here. A detective receives a mysterious phone call with some clues from her partner, and hours later, he is found dead. She sets off on a mission to find out what really happened, following the few clues left by her partner… only to be lead into a dark supernatural trap that lies waiting beneath our mundane world. It’s an American Gods meets Dresden Files kind of adventure – with shadow creatures, clowns, goblins… and could it be possible?… dragons! One of the coolest finds of the year.

4. The White Zone by Carolyn Marsden – A touching, sweet story about two ten-year-old boys, growing up in Baghdad, both of them innocent spectators and soon-to-be perpetrators of communal violence, in the aftermath of the Iraq War. In early 2008, there was a snow fall in Baghdad for the first time in a hundred years (in fact, it happened again last year after more than a decade.) This story is weaved around that one event, that miracle, that while it lasted, seemed to blur out the differences that waged war in lives of these boys. The story has an uncanny depth of character, and this subtlety, both surprising for a book means for young adults.

5. First They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks by Habiburahman – Quoting the Amazon blurb – “Habiburahman was born in 1979 and raised in a small village in western Burma. When he was three years old, the country’s military leader declared that his people, the Rohingya, were not one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups that formed the eight “national races. He was left stateless in his own country. In 2016 and 2017, the government intensified the process of ethnic cleansing, and over 700,000 Rohingya people were forced to cross the border into Bangladesh.” It is a small, personal glimpse into a modern tragedy, a political horror story that is too difficult to fit into words. Unimaginable!

6. What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by Sohaila Abdulali – Oh man, this book. You really need to have the stomach for this kind of brutal honesty; the kind that makes you uncomfortable, or “sounds funny” or sounds not-true, because it’s so beyond your scope of imagination. It starts out as a quasi-memoir, as Abdudali details her own experience and soon transforms into a cut-throat dissection of rape culture. A must read for any and all of us!

Favourite Books of 2020 -Part 2

This post is the second of its kind and there will be at least one more. Part 1 of Favourite Books of 2020 can be found here.

1. Baptism of Fire (Witcher #3) by Andrzej Sapkowski – This is admittedly a strange choice for a favourites list and it doesn’t work as a recommendation. Surely you would have to read at least 2 books before you start this, not counting the short story collections before that. But I just loved the book! It has so much character development.. and the pace, and story perfectly complement what it sets out to do. Like any mid-series installment, it wants to take a pause, stall the reader and very books achieve that very well.

2. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward – Short review here. Men We Reaped is a memoir set in Mississippi. It follows the tragic and difficult stories of the writer’s childhood and the men she lost to drugs, suicide, accidents and the kind of bad luck that only afflicts the poor and the minorities. It is anecdotal, emotional, nostalgic… and this style of writing adds substance to a dry discourse on race that often inundates, but does not move.

3. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje – I often choose to read the “less famous” works to get a taste of the author before reading what they’re best known for. Running in the Family is hilarious! It’s a partly fictionalised, surreal, postmodernism memoir about the writer’s family in Sri Lanka, wherein he traces both their history as well as a recent visit he paid them. It’s also a travelogue and poses as a love letter to Sri Lanka with all its quirks. Superb writing!

4. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson – I wanted to read this ever since I read about this lawyer through Anthony Ray Hinton’s perspective in The Sun Does Shine. Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and the man behind Equal Justice Initiative, which is a non-profit that provides legal representation to prisoners who have been wrongly convicted, denied a fair trial or anyone on death row. Just Mercy was published in 2014 and it is interesting to see what the initiative has done in the years since. The book itself is heart-breaking and terrifying at once… the information just plain scary and the stories heavy with emotion.

5. Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill – Sea of Rust is this fascinating double dystopia… the human civilisation has been long destroyed and taken over by AI, and now… it’s the robot civilisation that has turned on itself… Left on the planet are a few stray scavenger robots, who are on the run from what seems like inevitable assimilation with their very own big brother. Stranded in this place, called the Sea of Rust, is one old robot. This story is his search for meaning and for some remnant of the humanity in whose image all robots were created.

6. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elisabeth Russell – Detailed review here. An incredible book! This is the story of a woman who discovers that one of her old teachers has been accused in a #MeToo scandal. Soon, we learn that Vanessa had an affair with the very same teacher. In fact, she had been in love with him. The story unfolds through her fifteen year old perspective. Meanwhile, in the future, the woman comes to terms with a reality that she had buried.

Books I’ve Read More Than Once… and Why

Top Ten Tuesday for today… hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. Today’s topic is Books I’ve Read More Than Once.. and Why.

1. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – What a moody, mysterious book. I have never done this with a book, but I read this cover to cover a second time the very night I finished reading it. Twice in a day! I just didn’t want to stop reading it, so when it ended, I had no choice but to read it again.

2. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – Rilke is comfort food. Advice for any and every time of your life. Practical and sensitive rolled into one.

my go-to source of motivation and inspiration

3. Embassytown by China Mieville – I was in AWE of this book. But I kept having to reread parts of it as I read it to make sure I was able to follow it.

4. Carrie by Stephen King – I remember reading Carrie cover to cover a few years after I first read it. The first time, I’d rushed through it to find out what happens. The epistolary style meant I missed a lot of details. Good thing too, because I admired the book way more the second time around.

Is it just me or is this old cover absolutely awesome? I don’t like the movie stills.

5. The Prisoner of Azkaban / The Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling – I guess I’ve read all of the series many times, but with these books, the rereads have been because of how much character is packed into them. I don’t think much happens in either of the books! But so, so much character. I read these two for those unforgettable character moments – the boggarts and the DA meetings!

6. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice – I recently read started reading parts of this again, because it has just been too long… I don’t remember it as clearly as I’d like to. Sometimes I see a post on Instagram.. or another blog, that reminds me of a book that I read a long time ago; and I just want to relive the experience. I had seen this post about Lestat which made me go back to this one.

7, Watership Down by Richard Adams – I re-read it when I saw that there was a new movie out on Netflix. Don’t you do this too? Read the book again before you watch the movie. The film is lovely, didn’t expect that; with the greatest cast!

Apparently people hated the animation. I didn’t, And it’s far better than the old movie!

8. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle – This one’s strange.. but I’ve read this over and over, virtually combed through it, to teach it! I suppose that also applies to books you study. You’d think that when this happens the book stops being a book, a pleasure read… but with The Hound…, every time I read it and dissect it further, I love it more and more.

9. The Tempest / Macbeth by William Shakespeare – I suppose everyone rereads Shakespeare, right? Just in the effort to follow? Or re-watches. These are my favourite plays and the only ones I’ve actually read multiple times.

10. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde – The second play on the list. But this is here to represent most of the ‘humour’ books I’ve read over the years! [I had to choose between this, Good Omens and Three Men In a Boat.] Humour is best enjoyed in repeated doses, right?

Which books do you find yourself revisiting? And why?

Bookish Things I Am Thankful For

For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday post, here are some bookish things I’m grateful for. Reading really does define a better part of my life and these are the things that make it happen!

0. Coffee. I don’t know if this counts as a ‘bookish thing’ in your world, but it certainly does in mine! My Instagram will show you just how!

  1. This blog. It’s over ten years old, so it has basically seen me grow up! But a lot of my reading and interaction has been influenced by the book blogging world; and always in a good way.
  2. Book clubs – and the ability to get together and kind of disconnect from the real world and dive headfirst into book-talk, no questions asked.
  3. The Goodreads annual challenges; they keep me on my toes, reading-wise. I can see why the number of books you read in the year doesn’t matter to many, but it serves as a great reminder to read when life starts to get in the way!
  4. Real places described in books, that I can actually visit and feel that much closer to the fictional lands that my mind regularly travels to! A lot of my travel-for-fun is me going off to places I’ve read about in fiction…
  5. Bookish friends I can drop a random text to, asking for recommendations and be sure to get a list in return! Also bookish friends I can rant/recommend to..
  6. Scribd – now I’ve heard mixed reviews, but so far, SO good.
  7. Used-book sales, book hauls, books-by-the-kilo sales; basically anything that fuels my reading addiction.
  8. Libraries. Nothing like stumbling upon a book that grows into your favourite…
  9. Ebooks, because, let’s face it, convenience beats all other preferences… can’t imagine all the books I’d never have discovered had it not been for ebooks!
  10. THE WRITERS who give us parts of their soul.

Reimagining Book Characters as Cats

Reimagining book characters as cats, just by their names… OR Book character names for cats of specific personality types! Returning to blogging, as usual, with a good ol’ Top Ten Tuesday post – Top Ten Bookish Cat Names.

1. Laska – from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – Laska sounds like she would be a stately older cat, the kind who’d fix you with a withering stare if you tried to get her to play with a ball of yarn. She’d have this royal look about her and would perch herself somewhere that offered a bird’s eye view of the house. Queen.

2. Pipkin – from Watership Down by Richard Adams – Pipkin would be the kind of kitten that would be terrified of the slightest surprise, especially loud noises. A firecracker would send him scurrying off under the bed, where he’d stay hidden and all floofed up, till goaded out with food.

3. Crowley – from Good Omens by Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman – The lean slinky blacker than black cat, just the right combination of adorable and sneaky. Too rough to be domesticated, the inside/outside cat who appears out of nowhere just in time for the treats, and maybe a warm bed every once in a while.

4. Stuart Little – from Stuart Little by E.B. White – I’ve always insisted on calling our fluffy white family cat Stuart, because just like the book character, he looks “very much like a rat/mouse in every way.” White provides no further explanation, and neither shall I! If a kid can “look like a mouse,” so can my cat – and he does!

5. Ash – from Possession by AS Byatt – though inspired by a male character from the book, I see Ash as a charming household girl/boy cat; clever, subdued, and a really affectionate pet.

6. Dodger from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens – like the book character himself, Dodger would be a feral tom, probably the kind of stray that gets into a lot of fights and comes out stronger.

7. Howl – from Howl’s Moving Castle (series) by Dianna Wynne Jones – Howl would be the kind of cat who growls at visiting strays from the comfort of his home, gets stuck on trees and yowls to be brought down, kind of moody (doesn’t warm up to strangers easily) but also perfectly playful – and very pampered.

8. Molly (fondly known as Mollywobbles) – from the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling – a motherly cat, sweet but fiercely protective; the kind that would attack a pack of dogs if they seemed to threaten her kittens (yes I’ve seen that happen!)

9. Spike (fondly called Adorabelle) – from the Discworld series by Sir Terry Pratchett – I mean, if I ever call a pet Spike, it would certainly not be as a Discworld reference; but I do feel that Adora/Spike would make a great cat. This one would be a fierce, independent, outdoorsy cat, who knows how to steal herself a meal when she needs it, but will also share her steal with her cat-mates.

10. Lyra – from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – this one would be the playful, feisty kitten; the first one of the litter to step away from momma to go exploring… not to mention, the first one to sharpen their little claws on an unsuspecting stuffed toy!

Other than Laska, I have picked either human or heavily athropomorphised characters. Laska was just a loving dog, but I really loved her.. and the name!

Which character names would you choose for pets?