best books 2021@2x

The Roaring Stories’ top reads roundup is here! We’ve chosen books by big name and debut authors; books that have changed how we relate to the natural world, books that we simply cannot put down and books set in worlds other than this one. Several – but not all – were published in 2021. It was, as ever, very hard to choose just one – ask us in store for the titles which narrowly missed out on making this list!

Tim’s favourite book
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

My favourite novel of 2021 is Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads. It’s been some months since I finished reading it and the writing and the story and the promise that the two further volumes in this trilogy hold still resonate. In particular I enjoyed Franzen’s ability to create dialogue that felt to me a bridge over and through difficult situations between characters experiencing an ongoing series of tenuous relationships.

I’m usually a bit cynical about the term ‘let’s start a conversation’ and this book has educated me to be a little more open to the possibility of conversation as an engine of renewal and change.

Shanti’s favourite book
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

From the very start it had me hooked, having the perfect balance of mystery, science and humour. It’s a fun, lighthearted read that provides exquisite and lovable science moments for all the nerds and sci-fi enjoyers out there. The more you read, the more you wish the characters could all be your friends (except the bad guy, of course). The most striking thing is that the main plot point (an inevitable apocalyptic event, as it usually is with sci-fi) and the subsequent actions taken by the characters feel extremely real and plausible.

It’s rare to find something that completely pulls you into a different world and makes it your new normal. Needless to say, I was smiling, laughing, and yes, calculating all through this book. I’d recommend this to those who enjoyed Weir’s first book: The Martian, and anyone who wants a light, comical twist to the usual sci-fi novel.

Stella’s favourite book
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I think in such a tumultuous year (yet again), I was far too intimidated by the ever growing To Read stack of new releases on my shelf ­– instead I had a real craving for some classics. One of my favourites from the bunch was The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

I’ve had so many recommendations for it over the years and it definitely lived up to the hype! Tartt weaves a beautiful mystery, exploring the confronting coming of age experiences of six Classics students at a prestigious New England college. The descriptions of the sprawling campus definitely made me miss my face-to-face uni classes in lockdown, but thankfully my degree involves much less murder and intrigue… 

I couldn’t put it down!

Bron’s favourite book(s)
Many, including Mrs March by Virginia Feito

Naturally, when Kate asked us for our favourite read of 2021, I couldn’t limit myself to one! However, I will try to pick one favourite from each of my favourite genres. 

My best fiction read for 2021 was from debut author Virginia Feito and her deliciously noir Mrs March. If you love an old-style Alfred Hitchcock movie, then you’ll love this tale of madness and paranoia as you watch Mrs March unravel in front of your eyes. Best Australian fiction goes to After Story by Larissa Behrendt, which appears, on the surface, to be an uncomplicated tale about a mother and her daughter embarking on a literary tour of England. But there is so much more going on underneath. Great for book clubs too.

Favourite non-fiction read of the year goes to a group biography by Francesca Wade. Square Haunting features Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury and five of the literary women who lived there between the two world wars. The five women, in order of residence, were H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf. Wade’s elegant, warm, and intelligent writing style was a pleasure at every turn. 

My favourite Australian non-fiction will have to be a three-way tie this year as I simply could not pick just one. I’ve been on a literary bio spree this year and I fell in love with The Countess From Kirribilli by Joyce Morgan (about Elizabeth von Arnim), Eve Langley and The Pea Pickers by Helen Vines and Leaping into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears by Bernadette Brennan in equal measure. 

In the children’s section, the stand out favourite (so far) has been Monica McInerney’s Marcie Gill and the Caravan Park Cat – a magical, heart-warming story about family, summer holidays and a talking cat.

Nell’s favourite book
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

I’ve had a lot more time to read this year and have enjoyed a number of fiction and non-fiction books, however the book that most delighted me and changed my perspective was Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, published in 2015. This book was a beautiful, eye-opening read that has changed how I see and interact with the environment around me – making me appreciate those lockdown walks (and now finally bush walks) so much more. 

Wohlleben writes about the hidden society and lives of trees – their methods of communication, the ‘wood-wide web’; trees’ friendships, families and enemies; and their incredible methods for survival. Wohlleben gives an anthropomorphic description of these trees, offering heart-warming stories of how mother trees protect their young and of the quirks and intricacies of woodland etiquette. Before reading this book I loved trees and understood their importance, but I still only really understood them as being a ‘thing’. Now, I wonder about the isolated city-kid trees in Balmain, appreciate the old mature and well-mannered trees in the bush, and notice and empathise with the younger sprouts eagerly awaiting their own time in the sun.

Sylvia’s favourite book
Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs

Call it the starry-eyed infatuation of the honeymoon phase, but I’m going to say my book of the year is the one I’ve just started reading: Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs. It’s been a real whirlwind romance; Giggs had me at whalefall (the name given to the gentle downward drift of a whale carcass to the sea floor, where it blooms with a riotous abundance of bottom-dwelling life; a lyrically painted image in Giggs’ prologue).

Fathoms is about our relationship to whales; their material and conceptual significance to us, and the consequences wrought on the natural world by human activity. It is god-tier nature writing/popular science/narrative non-fiction; thematically expansive, tremendously informative and poetically written.

Despite the profound sense of dread reckoning with the scale of the imminent ecological crisis and the ongoing capitalist nightmare brings, I’m having a WHALE of a time, and plan to trot out this cool joke literally every time I talk about it.

If Fathoms hadn’t slipped in under the wire the trophy would have been presented jointly to Fiona Murphy’s The Shape of Sound and Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth.

Kate’s favourite book
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai 

Isn’t it incredible – both wondrous and a little devastating – that a book can sit as an inert object in your home for months, years, even decades, and not give you any indication of its unique power over your particular soul. It makes me wish that all the world’s books hummed with a frequency that would make them immediately identifiable to their ideal readers. (Marketing tries but can never truly hack this magic.) If this were the case, we wouldn’t have to spend so many precious reading hours starting books only to either put them down a few chapters in, or continue stolidly through to the final page on principle or with the grudging hope that they will deliver on their promise to be worth your time.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is one book that I wish had ruffled its pages at me sooner to get my attention. Written with a playful and elegant language, so evocative you can feel the steamy verdant mountain slopes leave their dew on your skin, it tells of the cumulative, intergenerational legacy of the colonial invasion and rule of India, and the living, spreading rot that festers in individuals, families and communities. Set in the politically tectonic period in the late 20th century, it largely follows the lives of two young people – one, an orphan girl living in the dilapidated, once-great house of her once-powerful, UK-educated grandfather; the other a young man on a working visa in the United States, unable to tell his mother back home that the fabled land of promised wealth is another poverty – and in many ways more ugly, more contemptuous. It is a novel about disillusionment, dehumanisation and delusion, on vast scales, told with great compassion and a narratorial voice to fall in love with. I named a book by another female Indian author (Latitudes of Longing) as my favourite last year, so I am thinking this region’s literature is one I should read more of in 2022. 

Books also read and loved this year: The Dogs by John Hughes, Piranesi by Susannah Clarke, Caught in the Act by Courtney Act and Beyond the Sea by Paul Lynch.