What We Read In 2021

Occasionally we all find a book we don’t want to put down: A title that teaches us something new, changes our perspective on a topic or just has a striking story to tell. Our writers are no different, so we asked two of our authors – Oli Freke and Martin James to take us through the highlights of their 2021 reading lists.


Which old or new fiction titles have you been reading over 2021? 

I love a bit of sci-fi and am currently enjoying Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem trilogy; I’m halfway through the second volume and it’s quite brilliant. It has a subtly different viewpoint and tone of voice, being Chinese. It’s quite unusual overall and highly imaginative. Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You) recommended it in an interview, and I was intrigued. I’m glad I gave it a try!

I also enjoyed Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife; a pre-post-apocalyptic novel in the Bladerunner vein (Action! Fights! Futuristic tech!) about control of water in the west coast of America following over-extraction and scarcity. I say ‘pre’ because it’s already true that many places in the world, including America, are extracting water that cannot be replenished, and post-apocalyptic scenarios are sadly not that hard to imagine. This novel goes a bit overboard on all the futuristic stuff, with lots of Deckard-style running around with all guns blazing. I still, however, enjoyed it as a fun page-turner.

I’m afraid I couldn’t finish the well-regarded The Milkman by Anna Burns;  I just didn’t enjoy the style of it and wasn’t in the mood, though I can definitely see the appeal and appreciate the quality. Also got bored with what seemed like an interesting ‘alternative history’ novel called Civilisations by Laurent Binet. ‘What would happen if the Incas had conquered 15th century Europe instead of the other way round?’ Apart from its long-winded attempts to describe a fictional Inca naval invasion, it kind of turned into a boring history book after a while. Avoid!

Which old or new non-fiction titles have you been reading over 2021?

Too many quantum physics books to mention! I love learning about all that stuff: Whether it’s the history of how Pauli, Bohr, Einstein et al, had to invent (discover?) quantum mechanics from their experimental results, or whether it’s trying to understand whether quantum theories explain ‘what the world is really like’ or are only mathematical models for the bits we can measure – I love it all!

Have you listened to any audiobooks over 2021?

I can’t concentrate on audiobooks; my mind wanders! If I’m driving I find I have to pay attention to the road and realise I’ve missed the last three paragraphs; if I’m in bed, I fall asleep; and there’s no way with a six-year-old in the house that I could sit on the sofa and ‘just listen to a book’ (or read one, for that matter). In any case, I love the act of reading text; the fonts, the layout, it all adds to the pleasure for me!

Have you read any graphic novels, news articles, illustrated books or any other alternative format books over 2021?

I have definitely read news articles! But I’m afraid I’ve not had time to be very adventurous beyond the standard formats. I promise to do better in 2022!

Are there any upcoming books/podcasts or record releases you are looking forward to in 2022?

Barely keeping up with the current flood of content, never mind what’s happening in the future!

Do you have a favourite podcast? 

Currently enjoying a bit of conspirituality – why people believe conspiracy theories, especially in the ‘wellness’ sector; The Missing Cryptoqueen (BBC) was great; as was the Lazarus Heist (also BBC); Black Music in Europe (yep, BBC again) – an incredible – and little known – history of the influence of black music in Europe and the experience of those musicians.


Which old or new fiction titles have you been reading over 2021? 

I’m not a huge fiction reader anymore but I have recently read The Overstory by Richard Powers and The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri, which were recommended to me by a friend after I complained of finding it hard to concentrate or read during lockdown. They were both great books. Well written, highly evocative with brilliant characterisation and narratives. I did a book event at Victorious Festival during the summer and met a lovely guy called Mark Thompson. His book Dust is a brilliant exploration of friendship – definitely worth your time. I’ve also dipped back into Ben Myers’ Pig Iron which is really good but not quite on a level with his Gallows Pole and Beastings novels which are brilliantly brutal and which I’ve just reread

I’ve also just reread Junglist by Two Fingas & James T. Kirk. A stream of consciousness lyrical rampage that reads like jungle’s beats. It has just been republished on Repeater Books and is as good now as it was when it first came out in 1995…

Which old or new non-fiction titles have you been reading over 2021?

This year I’ve really enjoyed Renegade Snares by Ben Murphy and Carl Loben and Who Say Reload by Paul Terzulli and Eddie Otchere. Both are excellent reads and essential editions to the jungle drum & bass canon, as is Velocity’s upcoming re-release of All Crews: A Journey Through Jungle Drum & Bass Culture. I’ll be re-reading all of them again and again. Another book I’ll be happy to never read again is Dylan Jones’ Sweet Dreams which looks at the new romantic story of the 1980s. A vibrant period that gave birth to the concept of modern clubbing that Jones turned into a turgid display of ego… I only got halfway through it before I chucked it away. Far more enjoyable was A Curry with John Peel by Richard Williams which lovingly recounted the creation of a post-punk compilation in 1981 that John Peel championed.

I also really liked the latest Gary Numan autobiography (R)evolution and even got an honorary mention for bringing him and Afrika Bambaataa together for an interview. Tricky’s autobiography Hell is Round the Corner was brilliantly raw but definitely worth reading. If you like New Order you really need to read Stephen Morris’ autobiography – so much more enjoyable than Peter Hook or Bernard Sumner’s ‘look at me, look at me, look at me now’ tomes. This year I read Stephen’s Record Play Pause, funny, brutally honest and refreshingly devoid of egotism.

This year I co-edited an academic book called Media Narratives of Popular Music which is out in January 2022, so I’ve read that quite a few times. It’s about how the media shape our knowledge and understanding of music history and includes a great chapter by Julia Toppin about how women have become excluded from the stories of jungle/drum & bass. Her chapter is a book that is begging to be written and Julia is the woman to do it! I’ve written a chapter for the book about the washing of Islam from the historical retelling of hip-hop. Also on an academic front, Brithop – The Politics of UK Rap in the New Century by Justin A. Williams dissects the UK hip-hop scene with incisive analysis. Excellent work.

If you’re interested in the ways in which universities have become devalued I highly recommend Dark Academia by Peter Fleming which is a bleak and somewhat damning look at the anti-intellectualism of the business and political climate. I read that and felt depressed for a week, so it was not a feel-good holiday read at all.

Have you read any graphic novels, news articles, illustrated books or any other alternative format books over 2021?

I often go back to Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland graphic novel. An incredible piece of historical work that places a new prism over the histories of the northeast city. I also loved the one-off fanzine Crate Digging: The Influence of De Underground Records by Rendezvous Projects. A fantastic piece of social history.

What about podcasts?

I always look forward to the Trailblazers podcasts by Nick Halkes and Eddie Temple-Morris in which they interview key figures from dance music. I also like Martyn Ware’s Electronically Yours podcast which is basically him chatting about music from the 1980s with guests. Very funny and irreverent. I also listen to a lot of independent electronic music podcasts like Electrocurated with Colin Spencer and The Electro Wave Show with Stuart Calder.

Are there any books you’re looking forward to in 2022?

A new Neal Stephenson novel is just around the corner. Just about the only sci-fi author I can read these days. I love his work. Can’t wait for Dreaming in Yellow, the DiY Soundsystem book. I spent many hours raving with DiY when I lived in Nottingham and even met my wife at one of their Serve Chilled club nights. I’m also looking forward to the reissue of my book French Connections which charts French electronic music from Musique Concrete to French Touch – a term I coined when I wrote many of the first interviews with the Paris scene of the late 1990s. It will include a new chapter featuring fresh interviews with key figures called ‘French Touch, what the fuck was that all about?’


For more reading recommendations and a whole lot more check out our annual roundup with our 2021 class of authors…

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