My Favourite Books, Movies, and Games of 2021

Here are the best books, movies, and games I encountered in 2021 (in no particular order).

I was pretty meandering in my choices last year, guided by what books were in second-hand stores, what movies were in cinemas, what games were on sale. So I make no claim to objectivity.

I’m writing this to share stuff that brought me joy – something here might do the same for you.


1. Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy (1976)

Woman on the Edge of Time tells the story of a Mexican-American woman in 1970s New York who is unjustly committed to a mental hospital, and who is frequently visited by an androgenous figure from the far-future. It is considered a classic of utopian “speculative” science fiction, as well as a feminist classic”.

Two things strike me about this book. First, it provides an unusually thoughtful depiction of a (queer, communist) utopia. It devotes considerable time to explaining how culture, race, sexuality, politics, labour, drugs, technology, and more are handled in 2137. In doing so, it unironically depicts the future liberals want.

Second, it explores issues often considered ‘modern’ – like gender fluidity and the oppression that arises from being simultaneously poor, non-white, and female – with nuance and care. Given that it was written over a decade before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality”, this resonance caught me by surprise (though that might just be naivete on my part).

8/10 would recommend if any of the above words sound appealing to you.

2. The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi (1990)

This is the most fun coming-of-age story I’ve read in years. Set in 1970s London, it follows the exploits of Karim, a crude conniving charlatan of a boy, as he incites bisexual chaos wherever he goes. Full of interesting characters and slick turns of phrase, it is well-observed in the way thinly-veiled autobiographies often are; and to spend time with a protagonist who was not only a bastard but also a brown boy brought me great pleasure.

I still think of the passage below, where he talks about his creative process in preparing for a theatre role, all the damn time.

“There were few jobs I relished as much as the invention of Changez/Tariq … I  uncovered notions, connections, initiatives I didn’t even know were present in my mind. I became more energetic and alive as I brushed in new colours and shades. I worked regularly and kept a journal; I saw that creation was an accretive process which couldn’t be hurried, and which involved patience and, primarily, love. I felt more solid myself, and not as if my mind were just a kind of cinema for myriad impressions and emotions to flicker through. This was worth doing, this had meaning, this added up to the elements of my life.” (italics added)

8.5/10 would recommend if you’re after a subversive coming-of-age story.

  • See also: this essay by Zadie Smith, on her appreciation of this book.

3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997)

This is a short memoir by the former editor-in-chief of Elle magazine. In a series of vignettes, he describes his life before and after he was all but completely paralyzed by a stroke, retaining only the ability to blink his left eyelid.

He wrote this book over ten months with the help of a transcriber, who would read out each letter of the alphabet until his blink signalled that she should stop. It took 200 000 blinks.

Bauby, paralysed, dictating his book blink by blink

Bauby’s lucid prose stands in stark contrast to his deteriorating physical condition. An example:

“Speech therapy is an art that deserves to be more widely known. You cannot imagine the acrobatics your tongue mechanically performs in order to produce all the sounds of a language. Just now I am struggling with the letter l, a pitiful admission for an editor in chief who cannot even pronounce the name of his own magazine! On good days, between coughing fits, I muster enough energy and wind to be able to puff out one or two phonemes. On my birthday, Sandrine managed to get me to pronounce the whole alphabet more or less intelligibly. I could not have had a better present. It was as if those twenty-six letters had been wrenched from the void; my own hoarse voice seemed to emanate from a far-off country. The exhausting exercise left me feeling like a caveman discovering language for the first time.

Sometimes the phone interrupts our work, and I take advantage of Sandrine’s presence to be in touch with loved ones, to intercept and catch passing fragments of life, the way you catch a butterfly. My daughter, Celeste, tells me of her adventures with her pony. In five months she will be nine. My father tells me how hard it is to stay on his feet. He is fighting undaunted through his ninety-third year. These two are the outer links of the chain of love that surrounds and protects me. I often wonder about the effect of these one-way conversations on those at the other end of the line. I am overwhelmed by them. How dearly I would love to be able to respond with something other than silence to these tender calls. I know that some of them find it unbearable. Sweet Florence refuses to speak to me unless I first breathe noisily into the receiver that Sandrine holds glued to my ear. “Are you there, Jean-Do?” she asks anxiously over the air.

And I have to admit that at times I do not know anymore.”

Intimate and easy to read, 8/10 would recommend if you’re looking to be inspired by the tenacity of the human spirit.

4. Nation – Terry Pratchett (2008)

After a tsunami wipes out the entire society of an island, an indigenous boy and a British girl, marooned after shipwreck, are left to restart civilization. The story is exciting, well-told, and shot through with interesting musings on the role of religion, authority, etc.

Reading this made me feel like a kid again. 8/10 would recommend if you’re in need of adventure, or just enjoy island survival tales.

5. The Nix – Nathan Hill (2016)

This book is all over the place. It’s set in modern America, though it detours through the late 1960s, and other eras too. It follows more protagonists than I can recall. It’s long, and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. But it also contains a few scenes that stick in my memory more than almost anything else I’ve read this year, and to be able to take refuge in its self-contained world was a joy. 8/10 don’t know who I’d recommend this for, but I liked it.


1. Dune (2021)

Space desert! Giant worms! Great cast! Excellent soundtrack! The excitement I felt seeing this on a massive screen with a face full of popcorn is how I imagine Star Wars fans felt at the first screenings of Episode IV. It’s been a long time since I was this excited by a new franchise.

2. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring (2003)

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring is “about a Buddhist monastery that floats on a lake in a pristine forest. The story is about the life of a Buddhist monk as he passes through the seasons of his life, from childhood to old age”. It is beautifully shot, consistently surprising, and allegorically potent. I was enthralled from the first scene.

3. Promising Young Woman (2021)

Promising Young Woman follows “a young woman haunted by a traumatic past as she navigates balancing forgiveness and vengeance”.

I think that description undersells how viscerally uncomfortable this movie was, for me at least. I’m glad it exists. Also: its use of an orchestral cover of Britney Spears’ Toxic is truly inspired. (that’s intertextuality, baby!).

4. Summer of Soul (2021)

In 1969, the same year as Woodstock, the Harlem Cultural Festival went down. It featured performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, and many, many more. Footage of this festival had never seen the light of day till this was made; so Summer of Soul is full of moments where the aged stars see their own performances for the first time in decades. It’s magical.

It’s also phenomenally well-edited, with director (and Roots drummer) Questlove splicing together historical context, heartfelt interviews, and raw footage at a steady clip. 9/10 would recommend for anyone who loves live performances.

5. Donnie Brasco (1997)

Classic mafia movie with Al Pacino and Johnny Depp? Betrayal, gangsterism, fun accents? Fuggetaboutit.

Honourable mentions:


[I’m resisting the urge to get into the details of how these games operate here, mostly due to constraints on my time and my desire to work on other, ostensibly more important stuff. If you want to know more about anything, google it or chat to me – I’m always happy to discuss these weird fictional worlds.]

1. Hollow Knight (2018)

Just a tiny bug in a giant underground world. The art is beautiful, the platforming and combat is fluid and responsive, and you get to travel Hallownest on the back of a stag beetle. Metroid for who?

2. Ori and the Will of the Wisps (2020)

Just a small creature of light in a giant forest world. Hollow Knight by way of Pixar. It’s not quite as good (I liked the combat less), but it still presents a world that’s worth spending time in.

3. Shin Megami Tensai V (2021)

In SMT V, you get to collect and fuse together demons drawn from a diverse set of mythologies (e.g. Asparas from Hindu and Buddhist mythology, Inugami from Japanese mythology) as you punt forward a convoluted and melodramatic plot involving a war between angels and demons in post-apocalyptic Tokyo. The game is a mix between turn-based combat and open-world exploration. 

While the story is largely nonsensical, and while a cynic might say the combat basically boils down to clicking through a series of colourful spreadsheets, no other game of late has drawn me in so deeply and dangerously. It’s everything I wanted Pokemon to be, and then some.

4. Spelunky 2 (2021)        

I spent over 20 hours with this roguelite platformer and have seen maybe 20% of its total content. Ludicrously difficult and deceptively complex, it nevertheless seems worth mentioning here as it got stuck under my skin for months, before I made peace with the fact that its secrets were not for me.

Bonus Stuff

  1. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
    • Undoubtedly my favourite piece of music from 2021. Movement 6 had me on the verge of tears a half dozen times last year. It is a work of undulating, unadulterated beauty. It makes me happy to be human.
  1. Channel 5 with Andrew Callaghan – Chet Hanks Interview
    • This interview with Tom Hanks’ son has been endlessly amusing to me. I’ve watched it like six times. I’ve shown it to friends, to family, to casual acquaintances. I might watch it again right now. 
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