19 best fiction books of 2021 to add to your reading list

Home » Sharon Stephenson » 19 best fiction books of 2021 to add to your reading list

1 January 1970

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Prepare to get lost in imaginary worlds with these unmissable literary treasures.

1 Songs In Ursa Major by Emma Brodie

Genre: General Fiction

It’s the summer of ‘69, the time of Woodstock, flares and psychedelic prints so bright they could burn your retinas.

Into this hedonistic season of love strolls Jane Quinn, a beautiful blonde musician who cracks the right-time-right-place conundrum when her band, The Breakers, are signed to a major record label.

Music has always been at the centre of Jane’s world: her mother was a successful songwriter before her disappearance a decade ago, and it’s all Jane has ever wanted to do.

When she crosses paths with Jesse Reid, the Justin Bieber of the day, the stage is literally set for a fiery romance. Naturally, the public lap it up and record executives mine their romance for album sales.

But life at the top of the charts isn’t all Grammy Awards and outlandish mansions. Jesse, it turns out, likes to party a little too much and it isn’t long before Jane is exposed to the ugly excesses of the music industry: drugs, exploitation and lies.

Plus, because this is decades before anyone thought to stick the words “me” and “too” behind a hashtag, sexism and smarmy record execs are rife. Men like Jesse are protected, while strong, independent women like Jane are treated appallingly.

The backdrop to this is Jane’s own dysfunctional family and secrets that threaten to further derail her career and relationships.

First-time author Emma Brodie apparently based this on the ’70s love affair between music legends James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, and Emma’s characters are as explosive as James and Joni were reported to be.

It’s a slow burn of a novel, but one that hits all the right notes (sorry). Emma has spent most of her career in the publishing industry and it shows. She really knows how to craft complex but human characters, not to mention creating a yarn that holds the reader’s attention.

Hit up Spotify for James Taylor’s album Sweet Baby James or Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece Blue, pour yourself a drink and sink into this sweet, sad and electrifying novel set in one of the most interesting periods in recent-ish musical history.

(HarperCollins, $39.99)

2 Loop Tracks by Sue Orr

Genre: General Fiction

Does one mistake define your whole life? That’s the question we’re invited to ponder in Sue Orr’s brilliant novel. It’s 1978 and Charlie is supposed to be flying to Sydney for an abortion. But she makes a decision that shapes the rest of her life, as well as the second half of the novel, which is set in present day Wellington and covers last year’s lockdown and general election. This one is good as everyone’s saying it is.

(Victoria University Press, RRP$35).

3 Should We Stay Or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver

Genre: General Fiction

Things to do when you have insomnia: clean out the hot water cupboard, watch all seven seasons of The Good Wife, scroll though social media (not recommended).

I’ve done them all, but one of the best ways I’ve found to deal with sleeplessness is by reading a Lionel Shriver novel. The British-based American writes with such brilliance, you’ll spend your nights so engrossed you won’t care that you have to make it through the day on three hours sleep.

Lionel’s 18th novel – the title of which I can’t say aloud without being reminded of possibly The Clash’s best-ever song – saw me through my most recent bout of sleeplessness.

It’s 1991 in South London, and nurse Kay and her doctor husband Cyril have just returned from Kay’s father’s funeral. Her father spent 14 years spiralling into ill health and the couple muse on the pointlessness of getting older.

They make a pact: on Kay’s 80th birthday in 2020, they’ll commit suicide to spare themselves the indignities of old age. But as time passes and their “final” day approaches, so do their doubts.

Which is Lionel’s cue to introduce Sliding Doors-type scenarios in which she imagines different ways this plan does or doesn’t play out. For example, Kay has second thoughts but is killed by a speeding van, or their three adult children (who they’re not close to) have them banished to a retirement village. There’s even a chapter in which the couple enter a cryogenic deep-freeze.

It’s wickedly fascinating and not as depressing as it sounds, filtered though issues such as Brexit, immigration, political correctness and Covid. In a world that worships youth, it’s also a relief to read about getting older, how society treats its elderly and how to live a long enough life, yet still go out in style.

In less capable hands, the wheels could easily have fallen off this narrative. But Lionel, who gave us the gripping horror of 2003’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, offers a masterclass in dark humour and irony. If she isn’t on your radar, you need to change that immediately.

(HarperCollins, RRP$32.99)

4 Mrs March by Virginia Feito

Genre: General Fiction

When actress Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) buys the film rights to a book and plans to star in the lead role, you know it’s going to be good – and it is. The Mrs March of the title lives a privileged life in New York’s Upper East Side, the wife of a successful novelist. But then something happens to unravel her tightly controlled world and hello, paranoia and psychic breakdown. Harrowing but whip-smart.

(HarperCollins, RRP$29.99)

5 Nancy Business by R.W.R McDonald

Genre: General Fiction

I missed The Nancys, the winner of the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. More fool me. But you don’t need to have read it to enjoy the sequel, again set in Otago, where lovable characters Tippy, Uncle Pike and Devon re-form their detective agency The Nancys when a mysterious explosion kills three people. This sweet, funny novel is like riding a roller coaster while hopped up on sugar.

(Allen & Unwin, RRP$32.99)

6 Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber

Genre: General Fiction

Google the title of this novel and you’ll end up with a million self-help books about finding happiness, which does this wickedly funny and intelligent novel a disservice. Joan, now in her seventies, is in fine form with this fictional tale of a man who discovers his father has another wife and children. The interlocking family stories are told layer by delicious layer. Make room on your bookshelf for this one.

(Allen & Unwin, RRP$32.99)

7 The Other Side of Beautiful by Kim Lock

Genre: General Fiction

“You don’t face anxiety by hiding from it”, and Mercy Blain should know. On the eve of her 36th birthday, Mercy’s home (which she hasn’t left for two years) burns down. So she buys a caravan and drives north from Adelaide to Darwin with her dog. If you’ve ever felt anxious, or know anyone who has, this bittersweet novel – the fourth from Kim Lock – will give you all the feels.

(HarperCollins, RRP$32.99)

8 Last One At The Party by Bethany Clift

Genre: General Fiction

Some people might say it’s bad form to read a novel about a deadly pandemic while we’re, um, in the middle of an actual pandemic. I am not one of those people.

And neither should you be, because blimey, this novel from first-time British author Bethany is good. Besides, as she says in the foreword, this book was conceived and almost completely written before Covid-19 (which is referenced in the text) – but talk about timing!

It’s December 2023 and the 6DM virus (Six Days Maximum, the time it takes before your organs disintegrate) is decimating the world’s population. With no cure in sight, people are popping suicide pills, rather than waiting for death by virus.

Strangely, one unnamed woman has managed to survive. She’s just watched her husband die and, with only an abandoned golden retriever for company, roams across the UK, dodging burning cities, rotting corpses and plagues of rats to see if anyone else is alive.

If that sounds a bit grim, it is. But this isn’t a tale of death, it’s one of survival. As we flash back to pre-pandemic times, we witness how this woman lived and loved, how happiness always seemed out of her grasp. She’s the kind of person who could barely survive a relationship, let alone being the last person on earth. But if she is to survive, she’s going to have to pull it together, and fast.

Flecks of gentle humour leaven the enormity of the situation, such as when Bethany wanders around a deserted Harrods grabbing expensive Chanel handbags, face creams and vintage bottles of champagne (who hasn’t dreamed of doing that?) “The designer bags I had now would never be admired by anyone other than me, my expensive face creams might slow my wrinkles, but no-one would ever notice. I was worrying about looking good for a world that no longer existed.”

The idea of being the last one at the party might not be new, but Bethany’s startlingly perceptive writing wrestles the concept into a fascinating shape.

(Hachette, RRP$34.99)

9 Treasury by Maeve Binchy

Genre: General Fiction

She might have died in 2012, but the popular Irish writer lives on in this re-mastered collection of more than 40 short stories, as well as eight new autobiographical yarns. We sweep through London, New York, Greece and Dublin, where love is lost and found, friendships and families collide and the author offers us a big dollop of happiness. In these strangest of times, her sweet tales are like a big, cuddly blankie.

(Allen & Unwin, RRP$32.99)

10 Everything is Beautiful by Eleanor Ray

Genre: General Fiction and Comedy

One of the great joys of being a book reviewer is getting to read all day and calling it work. When it’s a book as charming as this debut novel from British author Eleanor Ray, that’s an even better day at the office.

Eleanor’s protagonist Amy Ashton has always danced to the beat of her own drum. It would surprise precisely no one that she’s somewhere on the spectrum. She’s also, to be honest, a bit of a mess, working a job in finance she hates – a job that was supposed to be temporary while she established herself as an artist. A decade later, she’s still there.

Still, it helps to blunt the edges of the traumatic event that still slices through her life: 11 years ago, her boyfriend Tim and best friend Chantel disappeared on the same day.

As Amy’s already fragile mental state spins out of control, she starts to collect things that remind her of what she had, things most people would throw away, like broken cups, empty wine bottles and key rings.

It doesn’t take long for her house to resemble the kind of places that regularly feature on those creepily fascinating TV shows about hoarders. Even when a neighbour calls the council, complaining of mice coming from her house, Amy can’t be shocked into reality. It doesn’t help that, work aside, she barely leaves the house. Because what if Tim and Chantel come back?

But then a family moves in next door, Amy discovers a long buried mystery and her tightly packed life quickly unpacks itself.

London-based Eleanor was apparently inspired to write this book by the bits and bobs her toddler likes to collect, from twigs to empty water bottles. I’m not sure how she got from there to here, but she made such a success of it she scored a six-figure book deal. Maybe its because she never judges her characters and her clever words positively hum with the takeaway message that however rubbish things may seem, there’s always hope. You’ll be lucky to make it to the end without shedding a tear.

(Hachette, RRP$34.99)

11 The Women And The Girls by Laura Bloom

Genre: General Fiction

It’s 1977 and one in three Australian women are taking tranquillisers to get though their tedious suburban days. Sydneysiders Libby, Carol and Anna couldn’t be more different, but they form a bond thanks to their problematic husbands. Because it’s the ’70s, there’s thick blue eyeshadow, ABBA and women on the cusp of the kind of freedom we take for granted. This book is like having a good old natter with your feminist mum.

(Allen & Unwin, RRP$32.99)

12 Everything Changes by Stephanie Johnson

Genre: General Fiction

No one familiar with this Kiwi writer’s novels, plays or short stories will approach her latest work expecting a dull time. Stephanie really outdoes herself this time with a dysfunctional family who leave Auckland to turn a Northland motel into a luxury retreat. There’s a pregnant daughter back from LA, a dog who’s just eaten the neighbour’s $1000 cat and a rich American determined to kill himself at their retreat. Brilliant.

(Penguin Random House, RRP$36)

13 The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

Genre: General Fiction and Historical Fiction

It’s the 1970s and Nev, a ginger-haired British muso, teams up with Opal, a black American singer who’s the sassy yin to his awkward yang. They’re an unlikely pair poised for great success, until a racially-charged incident ends their fame as quickly as it began. Fast forward to 2016 when a music journalist starts poking around in their story and uncovers a heap of secrets. An impressive debut.

(Hachette, $34.99)

14 The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson

Genre: General Fiction

Little secrets grow up to be big lies, goes the old saying. It’s true for Ruth Tuttle, an Ivy League African-American engineer married to possibly the world’s loveliest man. But when he suggests trying for a baby, Ruth’s past – including her illegitimate child that her family adopted out – catches up with her. So she heads home to find her child, and help another along the way. Heartbreaking but so, so good.

(HarperCollins, RRP$27.99)

15 Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney

Genre: General Fiction

I was clearly not the only one who bought into the glory of Sally Rooney’s brilliant novel Normal People. Even more so during last year’s lockdown when the TV adaption elevated her to global literary darling – those sex scenes! Those Irish accents! Connell’s gold chain (which even had its own Instagram account!).

So I was always going to get caught up in the charismatic slipstream of the Irish writer’s next novel. This one operates on a similar frequency to its predecessor: two clever-beyond- their-years millennials, Alice and Eileen, and their love interests navigate life, jobs, relationships and the anxiety and inner struggles that fill their field of vision daily.

Alice is a successful novelist who moves to the west of Ireland after a nervous breakdown in New York. On a dating app, she meets Felix, a rough-around-the-edges bloke who works in a warehouse. It’s hard not to see the parallels with Sally’s own life – a 29-year-old writer who becomes rich and famous, and is fawned over by the press. Eileen, on the other hand, works at a literary magazine in Dublin and falls into a thing with Simon, a gorgeous consultant who she first dated a decade ago.

We see their stories unfold via email – Alice figuring out where she goes from here, Eileen wondering what the heck we’re all doing on this big old planet of ours. Along the way, they riff on Brexit, Trump, climate change and celebrity culture; this is a Sally speciality – knowing how awful the world is but still being willing to commit to love and relationships.

These long, often meandering back-and-forth exchanges are broken up with real life moments, usually of the women’s interactions with their respective paramours (who, naturally, come off not as well as the women).

Those who like their stories with a bit of oomph might find it a bit of a slow burn, but Sally’s masterful use of language and her unsparing examination of millennial angst will keep you hanging in there. Clever, touching and zeitgeisty in all the right places.

Thanks for saving 2021 for us, Sally.

(Allen & Unwin, RRP$32.99)

16 Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Genre: General Fiction

One good thing to come out of lockdown is that I zipped through this weighty novel. But any work from the acclaimed chronicler of American life is worth a sore hand. This is the first in a trilogy about a Chicago family and its patriarch, a pastor planning to leave his wife Marion. But Marion has a few secrets of her own, as do their three older children. Very, very, very good.

(HarperCollins, RRP$35)

17 Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

Genre: General Fiction

American writer Ash Davidson has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at her debut novel: big business, the environment, the working class, and a couple. Rich Gunderson, a fourth-generation logger, and his wife Colleen are trying to get by in 1970s California. Colleen suspects chemicals used by the timber company are responsible for her string of miscarriages and the town’s many stillbirths, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown.

(Hachette, RRP$37.99)

18 Happy Hour by Jacquie Byron

Genre: General Fiction

Recent research from the University of Oxford shows that along with diet and exercise, one of the most important factors for good health as we get older is having at least five close friends.

Franny Calderwood, the urbane, sassy heroine of Australian writer Jacquie Byron’s debut novel, clearly didn’t get that memo. Having lost her beloved husband Frank in a tragic accident three years earlier, 65-year-old Franny willingly casts herself adrift from the world. If she can’t have Frank and the fabulous life they once shared, reasons Franny, she’ll withdraw from everyone and everything – bar her two dogs, Whisky and Soda, too much gin and photos of her beloved husband that she’s placed in every room and she talks to.

But then new neighbours move in next door, the Salernos, and although Franny vows to retain her hermit status, she’s soon drawn into their orbit. There’s Dee, the troubled teenager who looks to be heading off the rails, eight-year-old Josh, who Franny can’t help but be charmed by, and their mother Sallyanne, who, recently separated from the kids’ violent father, is trying to navigate life as a single mother.

No one is more shocked than Franny by how much she enjoys the family’s company and she’s soon entertaining them with her fabulous cooking and even more fabulous stories of a life well lived. But just as the old Franny starts to emerge, the anniversary of Frank’s death derails her in more ways than one.

Jacquie, a former journalist, is a lovely writer – warm, sensitive and sincere, exactly the kind of person you want to lead you through such a sweet tale. She’s also bloody funny. Her takeaway messages are simple: grief is a journey that shouldn’t be taken alone; and new friends can become like family, but old friends should never be underestimated.

This is the kind of book you start and two hours later look up and wonder where the time has gone. Definitely one for bingeing.

(Allen & Unwin, $36.99)

19 Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Genre: General Fiction

Bunny, the narrator, suffers from clinical depression. One New Year’s Eve she ends up in a psychiatric institution. Refusing treatment, Bunny decides to write a story about her fellow “lunatics”. A psychotic breakdown isn’t usually the stuff of comedy, but this examination of humanity’s fault lines is told with humour and sensitivity and you’d have to be pretty hard of heart not to fall a little in love with Bunny.

(Allen & Unwin, RRP$22.99)

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