Monday musings on Australian literature: Favourite books 2021, Part 1: Fiction

For a few years now, I’ve shared favourite Aussie reads of the year, from the ABC and, last year, other sources.

This year I’m doing it a bit differently. I’m focusing on the Sydney Morning Herald’s Books we loved in 2021 and ABR’s Books of the Year 2021. Both these contain favourites from a large number of Australian writers. Both also include fiction and nonfiction, Australian and non-Australian works – and there are a lot. So, I’m writing two posts, one on fiction (this week) and the other on nonfiction and poetry (next week). I am only including their Australian favourites – this is a Monday Musings after all.


Book cover
  • David Allan-Petale’s Locust summer: (Toni Jordan) (Lisa’s review)
  • Miles Allinson’s In moorland: “lays out his territory with authority and a quiet, complex beauty” (Helen Garner); “darkly funny novel of generational bonds, a dazzling ride that is full of heart” (Lucy Treloar); “insightful and ambitious” (Toni Jordan); (Emily Bitto); “engrossing portrayal of obsession, loyalty and destruction within a family” (Robbie Arnott); “very smart novel” (Robbie Arnott) (Lisa’s review)
  • Amal Awad’s The things we see in the light: (Toni Jordan)
  • Larissa Behrendt’s After story: “ambitious in conception and masterful in execution” (Clare Wright); (Anita Heiss) (on my TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • Hannah Bent’s When things are alive they hum: “heartfelt and sweet” (Trent Dalton)
  • Emily Bitto’s Wild abandon: “kicks over the traces and breaks hearts” (Helen Garner); “brilliant and inventive” (Craig Silvey); “wonderful novel, daring and surprising, and profoundly humane” (Christos Tsiolkas); “thrilling and audacious” (Michelle de Kretser); lushly baroque, ruinous, and fantastically inventive … style in spades: its lyricism is exhilarating” (Sarah Holland-Batt)
  • Katherine Brabon’s The shut ins: “a poignant conceit, reminiscent of the work of W.G. Sebald and Patrick Modiano” (Anders Villani)
  • Brendan Cowell’s Plum: “the brain-damaged-rugby-league-poet-book I was waiting all my life to find” (Trent Dalton)
  • Garry Disher, The way it is now: (Judith Brett)
  • Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light: “witness to the creation of a resilient self” (Bernadette Brennan); “mesmerising chronicle … of one of the most sharply drawn characters I’ve encountered in recent fiction … extraordinary” (Robbie Arnott); “an epic Bildungsroman that honours the dignity of crafting a life in the wake of childhood trauma” (Yves Rees); “equal parts devastating and hopeful” (Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen)
  • Stephen Downes’ The hands of pianists: “an extraordinary book which appropriates the style and strategies of W.B. Sebald but then succeeds in equalling him” (Peter Craven)
  • Robert Gott’s The orchard murders: “perfectly executed Melbourne noir” (Jock Serong)
  • Anita Heiss’s Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray: “much-needed look at white settlement from an Indigenous maid’s point of view” (Jane Sullivan) (on my TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • Sally Hepworth’s The younger wife: “delivered wit, warmth and suspense” (Jane Harper) (Theresa’s review)
  • Kathryn Heyman’s Fury: (Fiona Wright); (Anita Heiss)
  • Antoni Jach’s Travelling companions: “funny, layered” (Toni Jordan) (Lisa’s review)
  • Mette Jakobsen’s The wingmaker: ‘dare I say “uplifiting”‘ (Graeme Simsion); “exquisite” (Favel Parrett)
  • Susan Johnson’s From where I fell: “inspired me as an author” (Anita Heiss) (Lisa’s review)
  • Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters: “about the thought crimes that divide us, but also stunning, profound and funny” (Anna Funder); (Fiona Wright); (Emily Bitto); “its riskiness, unashamed intellectualism, and rage against ageism, misogyny and racism” (Bernadette Brennan); “brilliant, chimeric” (Sarah Holland-Batt); “creatively repositions contemporary concerns around race, immigration, and national identity” (Paul Giles)
  • Amanda Lohrey’s The labyrinth: “luminous, meditative and richly layered fiction” (Cassandra Pybus): “moody and allegorical with overcast skies, distant waves, and silences” (Glyn Davis) (On my TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • Laura Jean McKay’s The animals in that country: (Emily Bitto) (kimbofo’s review)
  • Emily Maguire’s Love objects: (Fiona Wright); “a tender and aching story” (Tony Birch) (Lisa’s review)
  • Meg Mason’s Sorrow and bliss: “contemporary laughter and heartbreak” (Mick Herron)
  • Jennifer Mills’ The airways: (Fiona Wright); “subtle and fierce” (Geordie Williamson) (Lisa’s review)
  • Liane Moriarty’s Apples never fall: (Jane Harper)
  • Alice Pung’s One hundred days: ” the quiet, bold power of Pung’s writing, the commanding precision of her prose” (Christos Tsiolkas); “warm, funny, compelling read” (Judith Brett) (kimbofo’s review)
  • Diana Reid’s Love and virtue: “discomfiting ambiguities” (Hannah Kent); ‘restores what’s gone missing from contemporary sexual politics: the distinction between “being hurt and being wronged”’ (Helen Garner); “sharp” (Victoria Hannan) (Brona’s review)
  • Nicolas Rothwell’s Red heaven: “an engrossing novel of ideas” (Glyn Davis)
  • Claire Thomas’ The performance: (Emily Bitto) (on my TBR, Brona’s review
  • Evie Wyld’s The bass rock (Emily Bitto) (on my TBR)

Short stories

  • Tony Birch’s Dark as last night: “richly evocative and deeply empathetic … Birch is more at home with his material than any other modern writer I know” (Alex Miller)
  • Paige Clark’s She is haunted: “deft and original” (Craig Silvey); “stayed with me long after the last word” (Victoria Hannan); “fresh and fantastic” (Bri Lee); (Jennifer Down)
  • Melissa Manning’s Smokehouse: “exquisite” (Jennifer Down) 
  • SJ Norman’s Permafrost: “ghost stories that queer and disrupt the Western gothic tradition” (Hannah Kent); “a beguiling collection of queer ghost stories” (Yves Rees)
  • Chloe Wilson’s Hold your fire: “enthralled and amazed” (Anna Funder)

Finally …

It’s always interesting to see what books feature more than once – which is not to say that popularity equals quality, but it does say what has most captured attention this year. And it seems that Miles Allinson’s In moorland, Emily Bitto’s Wild abandon, Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light, Michelle de Kretser’s Scary monsters, Diana Reid’s Love and virtue, and Paige Clark’s She is haunted are this year’s ones. Most by women writers. I wonder if they’ll all be longlisted (at least) for the Stella?

Another interesting thing about lists is discovering new books. Paige Clark and Chloe Wilson’s short story collections, for example, are new to me – and appeal. Dare I put them on the wishlist?

I know lists will appear constantly over the next month, but I’d be interested in any thoughts you have on these (or on your own list, if you’d prefer!)

26 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Favourite books 2021, Part 1: Fiction

  1. I haven’t read a single one of them, though I own After Story and will get round to it eventually, and maybe to Labyrinth if I buy it for Milly for xmas. I started on a new book tonight and had to choose between Rachel Henning’s Letters and Gertrude the Emigrant, so I obviously I’m a century or two behind.

    • No, I haven’t either, Bill. Made me wonder what I have been reading. (I didn’t look for many reviews on your site – just one I think, and didn’t find it! – because I didn’t remember your reading any of them. I’m sure I missed some on other sites, but time caught up with me, and I think I’ve given a good flavour.

      I have a few on my TBR, and really hope to read some of them.

      A century or two behind, haha! And why not.

  2. Can only offer the comment that the cover of Wild Abandon is amazingly clever .. although upon enlarging it I’m disappointed by the tiger’s being there.

    • Thanks M-R! I chose that cover especially because The labyrinth cover is so muted. I wondered about the tiger. Why is it there ? It immediately made me think of Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest which has a tiger in it.

  3. Hi Sue, I have read nine of the books on the lists, and looking forward to reading Wild Abandon over Christmas. I will also read a few others on the lists next year. Scary Monsters is a must read. I would add Cold Coast, by Robyn Mundy, Max, by Alex Miller, and The Octopus and ,I by Erin Hortle.

  4. I’ve read five books on the list and have a couple more on my TBR. I loved Wild Abandon and the tiger on the cover makes perfect sense once you read it. Thanks for the write up, Sue.

    • Thanks Angela… I was hoping the tiger was relevant! Id love to read Wild abandon, particularly after all those comments. This has not been a good reading year for me in terms of quantity but I’ve read some good books, more from overseas though it seems!

  5. Hi Sue, thanks for all those mentions, but “wait! there’s more”:)
    I’ve also reviewed Locust Summer (; Scary Monsters, but I didn’t care for it, and Love Objects
    However, after 100 pages, I abandoned Wild Abandon, characters getting wasted is not my thing, plus I thought it was overwritten. So disappointing because I loved her first novel, The Strays.
    Theresa Smith has reviewed The Younger Wife.
    And now on my wishlist, thank you: Stephen Downes’ The hands of pianists:
    PS I’m pleased to see Smokehouse there… I hosted Melissa Manning on the blog so that she could spruik the book after the Melbourne Writers Festival was cancelled:)

    • Thanks Lisa … I guessed there’d be more but I ran out of oomph. This post took HOURS to put together. I’ll add those two reviews, and find Theresa’s.

      That’s interesting about Wild abandon because such a wide variety of people seem to have really liked it. I’ll have to make up my own mind!

  6. Thanks for all the links to my reviews, Sue.

    I think Brona reviewed Scary Monsters. I’ve read it but not yet had time to write up my thoughts. I liked it a lot, but it is–literally–a book of two halves and I much preferred one half over the other.

    Interesting how both Katherine Brabon’s The shut ins and Stephen Downes’ The hands of pianists have been compared to W.B. Sebald. I’ve not heard of either book.

      • It’s actually WG Sebald, Neil. I’ve reviewed one on my blog, and had read another before blogging. He’s not a quick read, but an interesting thinker. Unfortunately he died in England in a car accident. I think he was late 60s.

    • A pleasure kimbofo. I thought I’d read Scary monsters somewhere. I was a bit random in checking blogs based on what I thought I remembered or thought people might have read.

      I had heard of Downes.

  7. Wow, a lot of hard work in this! I am most drawn to Heiss’s title and I haven’t heard of many of the others. My own best of 2021 will come out on 1 Jan 2022, as is my tradition. I invariably read something amazing in the bit between Christmas and New Year!

    • Thanks Liz. It was a lot of work, though probably not HARD work – just fiddly and time consuming! I’m glad you are drawn to the Heiss because it’s probably a great one for non-Australians to read.

      Like you, I will be doing my reading highlights around 1 or 2 January. I think 1 January is a Saturday so I’ll probably do Six degrees that day and my Reading Highlights the next. We’ll see.

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