Year-End Wrap-Up: Handbuilt’s 2021 Reading List

2021 was, in many ways, even weirder than 2020. Was the pandemic finally over? Or was it just another series of waves, ups, downs, and in-betweens? Was it all just a dream!? We still haven’t really figured out (except that we’re currently in some kind of mess). Anyway, it was a great year for me to finish my degree, start a new job, spend some time in a new city, get engaged, and plenty more. I also had some time for reading in between adventures.

I’ve usually posted book reviews when I finish a book, but I realize that this is mostly nonfiction. Some of the stuff, especially the stuff I was reading for my thesis, was especially technical. So, I wanted to include some fiction as well! 2021 was a year I decided I wanted to get back into fiction after maxing out at maybe three or four fiction books per year versus a couple dozen nonfiction. Books, of course, always make for good escapism as we watch the world crumble around us, whether we’re thinking about re-reading some fanciful fantasy series we remember from our youth, some clever pop-science book, or even the likes of a thoroughly trashy 1980s detective novel series my dad got into and lent me one of.

Thus, I bring you the Handbuilt City 2021 reading list!

While you’ll ideally be able to support a local bookstore or your local public library, you can also use my affiliate link to sign up for ReadingRewards on Thriftbooks. I’ve linked to both Thriftbooks and Amazon here.


The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow.

This was a lovely romp through a magical world. It’s as much a work of magical realism or fantasy as it is a love letter to storytelling itself, and an impressively monumental one at that– reminiscent a bit of Haroun and the Sea of Stories in terms of the fanciful crafting of language and worlds and the relationship between the two. Harrow’s first novel, the bestselling book was nominated for a number of prestigious awards. [⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel.

Emily St. John Mandel has a powerful imagination for intricate storylines, woven with vibrant threads of scoundrels, lovers, dreamers, and intrepid souls. With settings ranging from a luxurious hotel on the Pacific Coast of British Columbia to the gritty Toronto music scene, from New York City to the south of France, it’s a story about messed up families, realized and derailed aspirations, fraud, redemption, and discovery. There are stylistic echoes of Station Eleven, including even a thoroughly postmodern narrative reference to an occurrence in that novel (which I also loved and highly recommend– though I have yet to see the new series!). [⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow.

I had to get into this one after the success of Ten Thousand Doors. It’s similar to The Ten Thousand Doors in that it involves elements of speculative fiction and of magical realism or fantasy, set in a sort of alt-Boston-maybe-kinda-New-York, and considering a reality in which the Salem witch trials were actually a matter of persecuting real life witches– who still exist. Add to that the narrative of the early 20th century suffragist movement, and you’ve got a clever combination indeed. Harrow’s unforgettable characters wend their way through a sordid, at times Dickensian alt-Boston, and won’t let the new pretty boy mayor or anyone else stand in their way as they quest toward a  [⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

Westside: A Gilda Carr Tiny Mystery, by W. M. Akers

Akers’ work of speculative fiction considers a thoroughly gritty, alt-New York during the prohibition era, in which a Berlin Wall-esque partition divides Manhattan. It’s a clever hybrid of a noir detective novel with a magical realist bildungsroman (noticing a trend here?), and a brilliant cast of sordid characters traversing Manhattan’s high society and criminal underbelly will keep you guessing til the end. [⭑⭑⭑⭑] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

The Third Hotel, by Laura van den Berg

I got this as a recommendation from a friend who is, suffice it to say, a book person. I regretted that I didn’t particularly like it, but I also found some parts thoroughly enjoyable and at times laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a quirky tale of grief and adventure in a weird epoch of the American cultural canon. It was mostly that the narrator, in spite of no shortage of witty commentary and clever observations, seemed kind of flat, even if the settings were interesting and the overall plot had some interesting threads. There are just a lot of unanswered questions, and our protagonist just kind of seems to suck? But overall it’s a fairly quick read, so it’s worth a look. [⭑⭑½] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.

This is one of those books that I feel like I have to re-read in paper format after listening to the audiobook, because I had a really hard time following it. People who avoid audiobooks often say that it’s hard for them to follow, but I’ve found that it’s really a matter of training your brain to listen better– took me several books to understand how this works. But this may or may not work for The Night Circus, which takes us through the late 19th and early 20th century as we follow the Cirque de Rêves (Circus of Dreams), a magical festival that is simultaneously a clever business venture and also a fantastical display of art, science, and sorcery. The problem is that Morgenstern’s characters kind of suck, frankly. While a lot of the chapters have an almost ethereal, cinematic function, they’re not suffused with terribly interesting exchanges between the humans involved. What’s the deal with Celia and Marco? Who the hell is this Bailey guy, and why is he so flat if he’s indeed the fulcrum of the entire plot of the novel? Why does Morgenstern spend so much time developing the settings around Chandresh Lefevre, but give us so little reason to actually invest in him as a character? Anyway, it’s a good read because it’s just so fanciful, but I’m so unimpressed with the characters that it’s hard to make it a strong recommendation. [⭑⭑⭑] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner.

The Lost Apothecary splits its time between modern-day London, where our protagonist has escaped her cheating sleaze of a fiancée to rediscover her own intellectual curiosity, and the 18th century city, where an apothecary, the subject of our protagonist’s research, metes out feminist justice through an arcane, magical science. The characters are all thoroughly human and thoroughly believable, even if our apothecary is frustratingly emo at times, and it’s satisfying that there’s not only redemption for our characters, but also plenty of enjoyable and humorous asides to color the rest of the novel. [⭑⭑⭑⭑] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Mexican-Canadian author Moreno-Garcia continues a long tradition of Latin American magical realism in this work of historical fiction set in the jazz age in Yucatan and beyond. It elegantly tempers the classic bildungsroman with infusions of Mayan and Aztec mythology, as our protagonist, the disaffected but spunky Casiopea Tun, has to figure out what to do after accidentally freeing the Mayan god of death, Hun-Kamé, from a mysterious box in her grandfather’s house. The characters are rich and vibrant, and the plot weaves together adventure, romance, betrayal, and more across the continent as Casiopea helps Hun-Kamé on his quest. [⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]


Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko.

Radley Balko’s brilliantly-researched critique of American policing traces the institution over centuries, back to the foundational years of the Republic itself. Balko’s major contention is focused on the popular disregard of the Fourth Amendment in policing, and how certain members of an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court continue to reinforce this. His evidence looks at the growing police budgets and growing use of increasingly violent, increasingly lethal, and often quite poorly trained, officers to serve basic functions of state police power. There are a few shortcomings of this book, which I reviewed previously in a separate post. But it’s still a really excellent read, and vital for anyone interested in understanding the threat that modern policing poses to our democracy and her institutions. [⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

The Foundation: A Great American Secret; How Private Wealth is Changing the World, by Joel L. Fleishman

Relevant reading for anyone interested in understanding how foundations like Kresge have so much power and are wielding it to “fix” problems that were created by their progenitor institutions (a.k.a. K-Mart, which rode the tidal wave of outsourcing and suburbanization that led to the decline of the cities the foundation is now investing so heavily into). It’s something we think about a lot in cities like Detroit. It’s also a complex and layered problem, and Fleishman does a good job of pulling apart the layers to consider all of the factors that are involved– and what we should be thinking about to maintain equitable, democratic economies that can address economic and social deficiencies. Fleishman doesn’t hold back on his critiques of foundations, but it’s interesting to note that this book came out in 2007. Over the past 15 years, I think the board has been tilted even more substantially toward private wealth and power in a way that does threaten democratic institutions by way of how much power and wealth is concentrated among these groups. Reading it with this historical caveat is probably valuable. [⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

Roaring Metropolis: Businessmen’s Campaign for a Civic Welfare State, by Daniel Amsterdam

This book should be required reading for anyone who thinks that the role of the state is to be as small as possible, even if it results in crushing levels of inequality, poverty, and restrictions on democracy– or capitalism itself. The idea of the civic welfare state, Amsterdam argues, was not borne of some technocratic quest among policymakers to engender better social mores and improve quality of life, but rather by the private sector, which recognized that a social welfare state would improve the baseline condition of workers, thereby making their jobs as capitalists easier. It’s a “rising tide” argument that complicates the lazy critique of “capitalists = greedy” and fits more in line with the idea of post-scarcity economic thinking, in which we can consider how much more we could actually produce and achieve if our basic needs were met. [⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest, by Andrew Needham

Andrew Needham’s dense but highly readable volume creates a parallel between the metropolitan economic engine and its geographic hinterlands, recalling the likes of William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis (about Chicago) or perhaps even Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, about Los Angeles. He’s looking not only at resource extraction, but also at the racial power dynamics involving coal extraction and burning from Navajo lands. [⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire, by Rebecca Henderson

I was thoroughly skeptical of this book for the first couple of chapters, because I thought it might have just been some low-rent approximation of Naomi Klein, whose works I always enjoy even if they’re not always super substantive. I was pleased to be proven wrong, as Henderson has a pretty good idea about what it is about capitalism that works, and what it is about capitalism that is disastrous and sorely in need of reinvention. A few critiques of this book have focused on how a few of Henderson’s ideas– looking at things like ESG, for example- are kind of cardboard in practical application. I didn’t really read that the same way, though, because we know that these things are frankly kind of dumb, but they can potentially serve as stepping stones to consider things like externalities and social costs. I tend to think that most problems can be solved, for example, through carbon pricing– but I also think that transparency and disclosures will go a long way to address important issues as well. This is unlikely to blow anyone’s mind, but it’s certainly worth a look. [⭑⭑⭑½] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

The Profiteers, by Sally Denton.

Sally Denton tells the story of the Bechtel Corporation, one of the most powerful companies in the history of the United States that should probably rank up there with the Freemasons and Lizard People as far as the subjects of major conspiracy theories. The company has maintained a strong grip on influencing federal power ranging from the legislature to the executive branch for nearly a century, going back to the Hoover Dam, the Kennedy assassination, the Iraq War, and more. It’s not, as one Amazon reviewer put it, an indictment of a company for being big and successful, but rather, a portrait of an enormously powerful corporation that has expertly manipulated the levers of power to maintain and build its own wealth, facilitating some nefarious objectives in the process. [⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑] [Amazon] [Thriftbooks]

Anyway, happy reading, folks. And stay tuned, as I usually post reviews as I read books. I also got a few books for Christmas and my birthday, so I don’t see this slowing down for 2022!

Handbuilt receives affiliate marketing bucks if you buy stuff from Amazon, but you really should support your local bookstore!

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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