Books of the year

My favourite books of 2021

[UNDERSTATEMENT WARNING] 2021 has been strange and absurd and crazy and stressful and happy and sad and all kinds of things, hasn’t it?

But the one consistency in this rollercoaster of a year has been all the books I have been able to buy, borrow, read and review. I have read so many excellent novels I have been putting off choosing the best 10 because it’s just so difficult to pick which ones to include and which to leave out. So this year, I’m making an exception — and choosing a Baker’s Dozen instead.

I read a total of 89 books, just a few more than last year, and most were published in 2021, but the books I am going to select here aren’t all new, they’re simply ones I chose to read between 1 January and 31 December regardless of the year they were published.

In fact, I made a concerted effort to read older books by embarking on a plan to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May in a project I dubbed #TBR21. I actually managed to complete this but never did a wrap-up post.

I also participated in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer for the fifth time and managed to successfully read 20 books from my TBR — all listed here.

Other projects I did this year included running Southern Cross Crime Month in March and #BIPOC2021, which was my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the year (I read 12 in total). Once again, I attempted to read all the books on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist but only managed three out of five. (It didn’t help that I was in the throes of purchasing a new apartment at the time.)

I also participated in various other challenges and blogger events across the year, including the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021 (a wrap-up post will follow tomorrow), Bellezza’s Japanese Literature ChallengeGerman Literature Month, Novellas in November hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck, and non-fiction November.

Phew! That’s enough about my projects. What were the books that left a marked impression on me? Without further ado, here they are, all arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin (2021)

Literary fiction meets a fast-paced psychological thriller in this Australian novel about a new mother who misplaces her baby and spends an entire day (in November 1969) trying to find her.

‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter (2021)

This black comedy about death, grief and bondage follows a 20-something funeral parlour make-up artist whose life is thrown into disarray when her beloved mother dies unexpectedly.

‘Mermaid Singing’ and ‘Peel me a Lotus’ by Charmian Clift (1956/1959)

Published in one volume, these twin memoirs chart Clift’s life on two different Greek Islands with her husband, the novelist and war correspondent George Johnston, as part of a Bohemian set of artists and writers in the 1950s.

‘Mrs March’ by Virginia Feito (2021)

A wickedly fun story about a narcissistic, paranoid, upper-class woman who believes her writer husband has used her as inspiration for one of his unsavoury characters in his latest best-selling novel.

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut (2021)

Tracing the downfall of a white Afrikaans family over the space of 40 years, this year’s Booker Prize-winner is framed around four funerals, each about a decade apart, and uses a style and structure inspired by filmmakers to create a dazzling novel that feels fresh and new.

‘Maestro’ by Peter Goldsworthy (1981)

Set in tropical Darwin in 1967, this masterful coming-of-age story is about a teenage boy who takes piano lessons from a renowned Austrian musician with a shady past.

‘Moral Hazard’ by Kate Jennings (2002)

A brilliant gem of a novel set in the 1990s, it recounts the story of an Australian woman working in a Wall Street investment bank by day and who looks after her ill husband by night.

‘We Are Not in the World’ by Conor O’Callaghan (2020)

A haunting tale of a long-distance lorry driver trying to come to terms with the breakdown of a six-year affair with a married woman and the hospitalisation of his beloved young adult daughter who has tried to take her own life.

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa (1994)

A deeply affecting dystopian novel set on an island in which residents are collectively forced to forget certain objects — including ribbons, roses, maps and calendars — by a mysterious and draconian force called the Memory Police which round-up and  “disappear” anyone who disobeys.

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung (2021)

A teenage girl living in a high rise flat is smothered by her over-protective mother and forced to stay indoors for 100 days when she falls pregnant.

‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ by Jock Serong (2017)

A hugely entertaining tale of two brothers, one good and one bad, who rise to become successful cricketers on the world stage.

‘The Fortnight in September’ by R.C. Sherriff (1931)

An utter delight to read, this heartwarming tale perfectly encapsulates the small joys of a family embarking on their annual holiday to the English seaside.

‘Here we are’ by Graham Swift (2020)

Set on the Brighton seafront in 1959, this is a truly immersive story about three entertainers who perform in the regular variety show at the end-of-the-pier theatre during the summer season.

I hope you have discovered some wonderful books and writers this year. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2021, I’d love to know.

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2021 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

30 thoughts on “My favourite books of 2021”

  1. I’ve read ‘Mrs. March’, ‘The Promise’, ‘Moral Hazard’, and ‘Here We Are’, and I enjoyed all four. I’m hoping Graham Swift publishes another novel soon.

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    1. Our reading tastes are fairly similiar Tony so not surprised you read and enjoyed those four. Yes, Mr Swift must be due a new one soon… I really ought to explore his backlist first.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve observed before that the average Australian reading list seems quite different from the average British one. Not that you read ‘average’ books of course! And your selection largely contains books which are unknown to me. I’ve only read the RC Sherriff in fact, and that many years ago. Happy reading in 2022!

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    1. Well, the beauty of having repatriated is that I now have a ready access to Australian literature (in bookshops and libraries) that was denied me for two decades. As a result I’ve binged on a lot of new Australian lit over the past two and a bit years. I’m not sick of it yet (as my TBR will attest) but in 2022 I would like to find a better equilibrium between Oz lit and lit from the rest of the world.

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  3. There’s definitely a few on the list I’m keen to read. I really enjoyed Here We Are, especially Ronnie’s story during the blitz. My highlights were The Cold Millions by Jess Walter, The Stranding by Kate Sawyer, Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan, The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller & The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Happy new year.

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  4. I’m glad you had a much better reading year than I did! I haven’t read any of these books, but I like the sound of We Are Not in the World and Moral Hazard.

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  5. What a wide ranging year of challenges and successes, Kim. My downward trajectory has continued this year. If I can finish The Trial today, I’ll have read 35 books this year, down from 43 last year and 59 the year before. Oddly, until I checked this morning, I felt sure I’d read more this year than last. It’s felt like a more productive year of reading, somehow.

    From your baker’s dozen, I like the sound of The Mother, Maestro, and One Hundred Days. I’d forgotten that I want to read The Memory Police. I must bump that up the list.

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    1. I find that sometimes I just cannot read… especially during the working week when my head is spinning with everything my job entails… so I often wonder how much more I could read if I could focus mid-week instead of watching TV.

      You must read The Memory Police… it’s so good. I read it back to back with the new Richard Flanagan novel, and they dovetailed nicely seeing as his story is about things disappearing too.

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  6. The Memory Police is on my (yet to be published) list of favourites, an extraordinary novel. Mrs March and Moral Hazard sound good. Hope your 2022 is less fraught than 2021.

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    1. The Memory Police is excellent, isn’t it. Mrs March is great fun if you are looking for something blackly comic; Moral Hazard is more serious but has a lot to say about Wall Street / capitalism without banging you over the head about it.

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  7. What a wonderful year you’ve had, and how amazing it is that you’ve achieved so much in spite of all the turmoil of work and moving house and so on.
    Happy reading in 2022!

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  8. I enjoyed Southern Cross Crime month. I was thinking of it again just last week while writing up Australia’s ‘first’ novel, Gertrude the Emigrant, which has a murder mystery element (but no detective work).
    Of your top 10 I’ve only read the Charmian Clifts. I probably should read Alice Pung, though The Memory Police sounds good (I may have missed the review).

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    1. I’m trying to figure out whether to do Southern Cross Crime month again… if I do I may push it back to April so it doesn’t clash with Cathy’s Reading Ireland month. Intrigued to read your review of Gertrude the Emigrant as I have never heard of it …

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  9. Love the Sherriff and really liked the Goldsworthy – and I bought the Swift recently, largely because the cover is beautiful, but this is added incentive to read 😀 Happy new year, Kim.

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  10. Kim, I hope that I’m not somehow missing any replies from you. It’s not that I’m owed any in response to my comments!, but it seemed kinda funny that I stopped getting any around a month or so ago. Anyway!, yes, Maestro. My father composed choral music and was a teacher, my mother was trained as a concert pianist. She just finished reading Maestro, having been gifted my copy. She read it straight through, was crystal clear on all the musical references. It struck me as a novel written by someone with a deep appreciation of music, without necessarily being an accomplished musician. As well it should be since Goldsworthy was/is clearly a very accomplished writer! The ending is unusually satisfying in the way it ties up. I’ll remember it for a long time, so my thanks in particular for that recommendation! Happy New Year and congratulations on some of your braver reviewing choices especially, as you don’t shy away from controversy and I respect that. Best, Jenny

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    1. Hi Jennifer – not sure what you mean as I reply to every comment left on this blog and I certainly reply to yours 🙂

      I’m so pleased you and your mother have enjoyed Maestro – it’s such a brilliant book. I don’t know a thing about classical music so the references are lost on me but it’s nice to know it’s accurate. I believe Goldsworthy, who trained as a medical doctor, also writes opera libretti, so he’s clearly a very talented man!

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  11. I will try very had to get to Charmaine Clift books this year – they sound exactly like me kind of thing. Although, I confess that I was underwhelmed by the Swift, so much so, I didn’t even write a post about it!

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    1. I loved the Clift memoirs… I went through a bit of a Clift thing, reading these memoirs, then Polly Samson’s novel Theatre for Dreamers (in which Clift is a character) and then Susan Johnson’s novel The Broken Book (which is inspired by Clift). All very enjoyable.

      Pity you didn’t enjoy the Swift. I really love English books set during this era, and have a soft spot for Brighton, having visited it dozens and dozens of times over the past 20 years.

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