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.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), A&R Classics, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Peter Goldsworthy, Publisher, Setting

‘Maestro’ by Peter Goldsworthy

Fiction – paperback; A&R Australian Classics; 156 pages; 2014.

Originally published in 1981, Maestro was Peter Goldsworthy‘s debut novel written by an author in total control of his craft. Without wishing to exaggerate, it’s a minor masterpiece — in tone, style and subject — and was named on the Australian Society of Authors’ list of top 40 Australian books ever published back in 2003.

Top End tale

Set in tropical Darwin, where the weather — whether Wet season or Dry season — is a character in its own right, it’s a lush, wholly absorbing tale that explores the long-lasting impact of a piano teacher on a young, aspiring student.

The time is 1967, and Paul Crabbe, who narrates the story, has moved to Darwin with his happily married (if poles-apart) parents, a medical doctor and a part-time librarian, from the more cultured south (Adelaide).

My father loosened his tie. In those first weeks he still clung to the Southerner’s uniform. Then he wiped the sweat from his brow.
‘The arsehole of the earth,’ he declared, loudly.
He dropped the piano lid with a thud.
‘A city of booze, blow, and blasphemy,’ he said, in the tone of voice he reserved for memorable quotes.
‘Shakespeare?’ my mother wondered.
He shook his head: ‘Banjo Paterson’.

Fifteen-year-old Paul has shown promise as a pianist, so lessons are arranged with Eduard Keller (the maestro of the title), a renowned Austrian musician with a shady past who has emigrated to Australia and now lives in rooms above a busy pub.

Keller is not particularly warm or welcoming. He’s gruff, bad-mannered and doesn’t let Paul touch the piano for weeks, preferring to instruct him on the importance of each finger on the hand before letting him loose on the keys.

Keller waggled a forefinger in front of my nose. It was our second lesson? Our third?
‘This finger is selfish. Greedy. A … delinquent. He will steal from his four friends, cheat, lie.’
He sheathed the forefinger in his closed fist as if it were the fleshy blade of a Swiss army knife and released the middle finger.
‘Mr goody-goody,’ he said, banging the finger down on middle C repeatedly. ‘Teacher’s pet. Does what he is told. Our best student.’
Last came the ring finger.
‘Likes to follow his best friend,’ he told me. ‘Likes to … lean on him sometimes.’

Paul is not sure that these lessons are very rewarding, but over time there’s a slow thawing in relations and while the pair never truly become close, he is intrigued enough to want to know more about his teacher.

Did he do bad things in the war? Is he a Nazi, or perhaps related to one? Would that explain why he’s so mean-spirited, cruel and unemotional? Why he is missing a ring finger? And why he drinks so much? To forget? To drown his guilt?

Paul embarks on some research and discovers that Keller’s own music teacher was supposedly trained by 19th-century Hungarian composer Liszt, that his wife was a renowned contralto and Wagner specialist, and that he supposedly died in 1944. This piques his interest even further.

Coming-of-age story

Running alongside this narrative about Keller’s mysterious past is another involving Paul’s coming of age. He’s bullied at school and the only friend he makes is a similar outcast, Bennie, an English boy who collects butterflies and is not liked. It’s only when Paul joins a rock’n’roll band, as the keyboardist, that his peers begin to accept him.

But then he discovers girls and falls in love, first with the untouchable Megan and then Rosie, his teenage sweetheart who later becomes his wife, and this burgeoning interest in sex complicates matters even further.

The story is written from the perspective of an adult Paul, a music teacher who has travelled the world, looking back on his life and recalling the ways in which Keller changed him. There’s a scene towards the end when he realises that the one time Keller wanted to talk about his past, Paul was too busy thinking about the girl waiting for him outside to pay his teacher the necessary attention — he was too focused on the promise of sex instead of listening to his Keller’s long-awaited admission.

This shame-filled sense of nostalgia infuses the story with meaning and emotion. It’s actually the tone of the book, deeply reverent with a touch of humour, that makes it such a terrific read. The last time I read a novel with the same kind of emotion, of a man reminiscing about times and possibilities that will never come again and mourning their loss, is George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, my favourite book of all time.

Maestro really is a wonderful gem of a novel, a beautiful story about love, loss and learning. I will no doubt be reading this one again.

For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitlovers and Simon’s at Stuck in a Book.

Note, it doesn’t appear to be in print outside of Australia, so check bookfinder.com for secondhand copies.

This is my 6th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it from my local independent bookshop earlier this year.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Peter Goldsworthy, Publisher, Setting

‘Three Dog Night’ by Peter Goldsworthy

Three Dog Night by Peter Goldsworthy

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 360 pages; 2004.

Martin Blackman is a psychiatrist who returns to Adelaide, Australia, after a decade living and working in London. He brings his new wife, Lucy, also a psychiatrist, with him. The couple have several weeks to kill before their new posts start, and so it is that Martin and Lucy hook-up with Felix, one of Martin’s childhood friends, who lives on a farm in the hills outside of the city.

Felix is a brilliant surgeon and has spent a large amount of time living and working in the Australian outback, specifically helping aboriginal communities. But the experience has changed him:

An athlete at school, full-bodied and muscular, he has shrunk to skin and bone. But his manner shocks me most of all — this air of cool mockery, so unlike the Felix of old.

Within minutes of meeting Lucy for the first time Felix has been incredibly rude and scathing towards her, a pattern that is to follow every time the trio meet up. But later it becomes obvious that his obnoxious attitude is a shield for his true feelings: he has fallen in love with her. And so, without wishing to include any plot spoilers in this review, the story focuses on a very tricky, morally ambiguous ménage à trois that has drastic and long-lasting repercussions for all of the characters.

An unsettling read

Admittedly I found Three Dog Night to be quite an unsettling and disturbing book. As much as I enjoyed Goldsworthy’s lovely writing style, heavily influenced by the landscape and wildlife of Australia (I felt homesick reading his descriptions of the weather — “a luminous morning saturated with sunlight and parrots” and the landscape — “a geometric patchwork of orchard groves and vine rows and plush carpet-squares of lucerne and clover”), I found it difficult to like any of the characters. Martin, the narrator, comes across as particularly weak-willed and so in love with his wife that it becomes almost sickening to read.

If love is an obsessive-compulsive disorder […] then I have been ill for years. But never as sick with bliss, as diseased, as now.

And Lucy, subject to so much adulation from her husband and just about everyone else she meets, comes across as nothing more than a sexual object, albeit with a limp that all the men in this novel seem creepily obsessed by. Meanwhile Felix is so utterly detestable you really wish he’d either disappear out of the storyline or someone would throw the punch I so wanted to send his way!

As ever, I know that you shouldn’t judge a book merely on the basis of whether you like the characters or not. That Goldsworthy can craft such a highly entertaining and readable novel out of these occasionally snooty, high-browed and weak-willed people speaks volumes for his writing ability. I found all the characters to behave in inexplicable ways; they puzzled me, irritated me and sometimes made me angry. But I still wanted to find out what happened to them…

As much as I did not love the book, I did admire it and am glad I read it. It’s very much a story about love, friendship, betrayal, divided loyalties and alienation. But it also provides a fascinating glimpse into aboriginal culture and traditions, made all the more striking when the book largely revolves around characters whom generally inhabit the world of western medicine, with its white coats, doctors and reliance on science and technology.

About the author

For those who don’t know, Goldsworthy is an Australian GP who also happens to be an award-winning writer of novels, poetry and short stories. According to wikipedia, he also writes opera libretti and has been credited as a writer on three films. Last month he was made a Member of the Order of Australia “for service to literature as an author and poet, through arts administration, and to the community”.

Three Dog Night, first published in 2003, is his sixth novel. It won the the 2004 Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead Award and seems to have been shortlisted for every other award going including: the 2003 Colin Roderick Award; the 2004 Miles Franklin Award; the 2004 The Courier-Mail Book of the Year; the 2004 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards; and the 2004 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, it made the longlist for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, too.