The Best Books of The Year: 2021

Best Books 2021

2021. We had high hopes. But it’s been another year of uncertainty and upheaval – albeit perhaps not as bad as last year. It has been another strong year for books and publishing, with some big names returning with new books: Colson Whitehead, Taylor Jenkins Reid and Sally Rooney to name just three. 

It’s also been a solid year for us in the AU books team, hitting close to one hundred reviews this year. So, we’ve taken a moment to look back on the year’s releases and picked our favourite books published this year. They’re the books that have moved us, stuck with us, entertained us and helped distract us from the real world. So perhaps unsurprisingly it’s a fiction heavy list. But, it’s still something of an eclectic selection we hope.

Here, in no particular order, are our picks for the best books for 2021: 

Luckenbooth – Jenni Fagan

Best Books 2021

Simon: One of the first books I read way back at the start of January. Since then I have been excitedly recommending it to as many of my bookish friends as possible. Delightfully gothic, ambitious and strikingly well written Luckenbooth follows the lives of the residents of an Edinburgh tenement across nine floors and a hundred years. Think fog shrouded street lamps, cadavers hidden away in walls, seances and the Devil’s daughter making her way across the North Sea in a coffin. A truly brilliant book! (Penguin)

Buy a Copy HERE

Lakesedge – Lyndall Clipstone

Jodie: If you’d have told me at the start of the year that a trope-y YA gothic fantasy romance would be one of my books of the year, I’d have… well, after the year we’d just had, I’d probably believe you. Lakesedge absolutely REVELS in its genre. A moody, atmospheric delight from start to cliffhanger finish. Give me Forestfall, already! (PanMacmillan)

Read our full review HERE | Buy a copy HERE

Outlawed – Anna North

Emily: It was one of the first books I read in 2021 and it’s still living rent-free in my head — Anna North is an author who defies all known concepts of genre, and in this Reese’s Book Club pick, readers will find discussions of what happens to society in the face of a life-altering pandemic, and strict controls on women’s body autonomy and reproduction. The answer, in a delightfully surprising, yet highly relevant novel, is roving bands of women outlaws who refuse to let the government tell them what to do and I am 100% here for it. It’s a lovely twist on the Western genre, with nods to The Handmaid’s Tale. (Hachette)

Read our full review HERE | Buy a copy HERE

After Story – Larissa Behrendt

Jess: I picked it at the time and I stand by it, this is by far one of the best books I’ve read this year… or indeed ever. The literary tour and history is perfectly woven into Jasmine and Della’s respective personal journeys as they struggle to reconnect with one another. The story slowly unravels as we discover what happened to Jasmine’s sister and watch the events continue to wreak havoc long after. (UQP)

Read our full review HERE | Buy a copy HERE

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev – Dawnie Walton

Simon: Dawnie Walton really delivered with her debut novel The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. I’ll admit I love a fictional musician narrative, with Daisy Jones and the Six and David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue both being recent favourites in the genre. But, Walton’s novel has pipped them both. It’s incredibly well realised, with a wonderful sense of realism – nothing felt too far fetched (even for Rock and Roll) and it was easy to forget these bands and musicians are not real. I also enjoyed how Walton used the band’s narrative to explore and offer commentary on wider issues, on race, prejudice and representation in the music industry. Opal also happens to be a captivating central character – strong, rebellious, larger-than-life. In short, all you want from a rock and roll heroine. (Hachette)

Read our full review HERE | Buy a copy HERE

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray – Anita Heiss

Best Books 2021

Jodie: Just the name “Anita Heiss” is enough to get me excited, and Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray simply did not disappoint. Following indentured servant Wagadhaany and stockman Yindyamarra, Wiradyuri people working under the white Bradley family, it’s filled with fascinating characters and exquisite writing. A profoundly moving showcase of Heiss’ skill for crafting stories and relationships (Simon & Schuster Australia).

Read our full review HERE | Buy a copy HERE

She Is Haunted – Paige Clark

Emily: Paige Clark’s debut collection of short stories riffs on a number of different themes and pays tribute to many writing styles. It’s immersive, highly readable and the kind of book that you want to begin again the second you turn the last page. This is the short story collection that I have recommended the most this year and I look forward to seeing what Paige Clark publishes in the future. (Allen & Unwin)

Read our full review HERE | Buy a copy HERE

Turtlenecks – Steven Christie

Jess: Witty, clever, fun and sarcastic, this delightful and colourful graphic novel was right up my alley. Anyone who’s ever looked at a painting and thought “how is this art?” will love this cheeky little heist tale, while professional artists will grin and nod at the critique of the arts world by someone who clearly knows it in and out. (AdHouse Books)

Read our full review HERE

Born Into This – Adam Thompson

Simon: I don’t read as many short story collections as I perhaps should, but Adam Thompson’s debut collection Born Into This really made an impression this year. I found myself constantly impressed with Thompson’s ability to convey so much in such a brief amount of pages. A truly engaging collection, full of engaging, charming and well drawn characters, which explores some hefty themes and topics with poise and style. As cliched as it may sound, it’s a thought provoking collection, and one I’ve returned to already this year. (UQP)

Read our full review HERE | Buy a copy HERE

The Rose Daughter – Maria Lewis

Jodie: Maria Lewis has been happily ticking a lot of my bookish boxes for a while now but for some reason, The Rose Daughter was my first encounter with her Supernatural Sisters. I could have kicked myself for waiting so long. The Rose Daughter is fast-paced, clever, and very funny. Though it’s able to be read as a standalone, when you’ve got an interconnected fantasy universe that celebrates inclusivity, pop culture, and sexy monsters, you’re not going to want to stop at just one. (Hachette)

Read our full review HERE | Buy a copy HERE

The Hush – Sara Foster

Emily: You think you know what kind of writer Sara Foster is; and, then she goes ahead and publishes something like this. Wow! Born out of a PhD which explores the absence of mothers in dystopian fiction, The Hush is set in a not too distant future where the birth rate is dropping rapidly due to some unexplained medical mystery, so pregnancies are highly regulated — and pregnant teenagers are going missing. Centred around mother and daughter, Emma and Lainey, this explosive book delves into the heart of a conspiracy that may just go all the way to the top. I read it breathlessly and can’t wait to see if there may just be a sequel on the way. It’s a thriller, but not as you know it. Plus the cover is possibly my favourite of the entire year. (HarperCollins Australia)

Buy a copy HERE

Women of a Certain Rage – Introduced by Liz Byrski

Jess: This collection of essays and short stories by Australian women exploring, critiquing, dissecting and reconciling with rage brought up so many emotions in me that I still rave about it to anyone who will listen. Some stories make you angry, some vindicate you, some placate you, some make you reconsider your relationship with anger, but they are all timely, nuanced and thoughtful. (Fremantle Press)

Read our full review HERE | Buy a copy HERE

The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex

Simon: Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters proved to be a compelling and gripping read. It also had one of the best premises of the year for me: “Three lighthouse keepers vanish from a remote offshore lighthouse. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. And, the Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm that never happened.” A locked room mystery, inspired by real events, with some supernatural sleights of hands in there too. Full of strong characterisation, clever plotting and tension a-plenty, there’s so much to love about The Lamplighters. (Pan Macmillan)

Read our full review HERE | Buy a copy HERE

Ten Low – Stark Holborn

Jodie: Alrighty You know what’s cool? Sci-fi. You know what else are cool? Westerns. You know what’s REALLY cool? Do you not see where I’m going with this? Hitting all the tropes of both genres with gleeful abandon, Ten Low follows a troubled ex-medic and a teenage super soldier as they trek across a desolate desert moon in a bid to return to the injured child to her comrades. But all is not as it seems, and the crash that Ten pulled Gabi from was no accident… (Titan Books)

Read our full review HERE | Buy a copy HERE

Great Circle – Maggie Shipstead

Simon: Shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Maggie Shipstead’s novel Great Circle follows the story of the (fictional) daredevil female aviator Marian Graves. It’s novel that is epic in scope – as you would hope for a novel about an adventurer – taking in rural America, the aerial battles of World War Two and the vastness of Antartica. There’s even a contemporary narrative twinned with Graves story. A completely enthralling and satisfying read (twists and all). It’s a bit of a tome, but it’s totally worth it. (Penguin)

Buy a copy HERE

Thanks to our reviewers Emily Paull, Jess Gately, Jodie Sloan, and Simon Clark for their contributions to this list.

Simon Clark

Books Editor. An admirer of songs and reader of books. Simon has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. All errant apostrophes are his own.