My reading group’s favourites for 2021

In our now annual tradition, my reading group once again voted for our favourites from our 2021 schedule – and as has also become tradition (see last year’s if you like), I’m sharing our reading and findings with you.

First, though, here is what we read in the order we read them (with links on titles to my reviews):

This schedule is very different to last year’s which was was less diverse than usual: nearly all were Australian and we didn’t do a classic. It’s true that our focus always has been Australian – with a special interest in women – but it was never meant to be quite so narrow as it was last year. So, this year … we did a classic; we did just 5 Australian books; and we read three male authors (plus those who had essays in the Best Australian science anthology). The first half of next year will see a continuation of this variety, with not only a classic but a translated book (which has been absent for a couple of years).

The winners …

All twelve of our currently active members voted, and the rules were the same. We had to name our three favourite works, which resulted in 36 votes being cast. No weighting was given to one over another in those three, even where some members did rank their choices. Last year we had a runaway winner – it received twice the number of votes as the two which shared second place. This year though was completely different. The winning book received 8 votes, second 7 votes, third 6 votes and so on down to fifth with 4 votes. Consequently, we have two Highly Commendeds this year, because after 4 votes we dropped to 2, 1 and none.

  1. Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart (8 votes)
  2. The crocodile song, by Nardi Simpson (7 votes)
  3. Girl, woman, other, by Bernadine Evaristo (6 votes)

Highly commended: Where the Crawdads sing, by Delia Owens (5); Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell (4).

  • Book cover

It was a real tussle this year, and I enjoyed watching the votes come in. Until the last two votes, Nardi Simpson was winning – oh, how I would have loved her to win, particularly after Melissa Lucashenko’s win last year – but she was pipped at the post.

Interestingly, last year all three of the nonfiction titles on our list featured among our favourites, while this year the two nonfiction works didn’t get any votes at all, though they both generated excellent discussions. It’s just that we read such strong fiction. Every book but the two nonfiction books received at least one vote.

Of course, this is not a scientific survey (and it’s a very small survey). Votes were all given equal weight, even where people indicated an order of preference, and not everyone read every book (though most did this year), so different people voted from different “pools”.

Oh, and if you want to know my three picks, they were Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This mournable body, Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, woman, other, and Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile. It was a hard decision though, with Shuggie Bain fighting for a place!

Selected comments (accompanying the votes)

Not everyone included comments with their votes, and not all books received comments, but here is a selection of what members said about the top five:

  • Shuggie Bain: Commenters used descriptions like “perceptive”, “powerful”, “brilliant evocative writing”.
  • Song of the crocodile: Comments included “punchy truth-telling”, “loved the ‘fantastic aspects’ … [like] the crocodile totem”, “edgy and important”, “full of beauty and … I understand intergenerational trauma more”.
  • Girl, woman, other: Commenters saw it as a “fabulous evocation of women in complicated relationships”, and “satirical, insightful exploration of diverse women”, while another said “made me feel like I was almost there in London. A great book to read while the borders stopped travel.”
  • Where the crawdads sing”: Our one commenter on it called it “evocative and compelling”.
  • Hamnet: Commenters agreed it was “powerful”: “powerful story of an invisible woman, and the impact of grief” and “powerful … imagined history. Beautiful descriptive writing”, while another said “engaging, well-plotted and historically plausible”

And a bonus!

As in 2019, a good friend (from my library school days over 45 years ago) sent me her reading group’s schedule from this year (links are to my reviews where I’ve read the book too):

  • Kate Grenville, A room made of leaves: novel, Australian author
  • Tony Birch, Ghost River: novel, Australian author (First Nations)
  • Annabel Crabb, The wife drought: nonfiction, Australian author
  • Mark Henshaw, The snow kimono: novel, Australian author
  • Richard Fidler, Ghost Empire: nonficton, Australian author
  • Clive James, The fire of joy…roughly 80 poems: poetry, Australian author
  • Michelle de Kretser, Questions of travel: novel, Australian author
  • Kim Mahood, Craft for a dry lake: nonfiction, Australian author
  • Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountains (on my TBR): nonfiction, Kurdish-Iranian author
  • Pip Williams, The dictionary of lost words (on my TBR): fiction, Australian author

My group has read the Henshaw and de Kretser in past years, and we have also read a different book by Kim Mahood (Position doubtful) which we loved.

So, I’d love to hear your thoughts, particularly if you were in a reading group this year. What did your group read and love?

46 thoughts on “My reading group’s favourites for 2021

  1. I thought I had read your review of Song of the Crocodile when it came out, but I went back to the post and now see that I did not. Did someone else review it or mention it, I wonder. I’m completely jealous of the robustness of your book group, the polling and the number of active members, the lively discussions you mention. I’ve never been in a book group like that. Typically, the groups I’ve been in have folks who state they liked or didn’t like the book, or we have one loud-mouth person who feels they need to share all their thoughts and feelings while the rest of us are held hostage as listeners.

    • Thanks Melanie. Someone else is very likely to have reviewed it.

      And it’s a wonderful group. We started in 1988 when we were all between 33 and 38, and we still have 5 from that first year. We have been very strong all through about discussing the book. Everyone knows the drill! And have stuck around because it works.

      • I can’t imagine having the same friends for such a long time. I’m not sure if it is because Millennials have moved around a lot in the U.S. because we were always going where the jobs were rather than staying in our home towns, or what, but year, I think the oldest friendship I have currently is probably Bill or Lou from their blogs.

        • That’s interesting Melanie. I must say though that I do know some Californian millennials who are still in the area they grew up in and I hear about them catching up with old school friends. While my daughter here, who has moved around the world, including living two years in Canada, and now lives in a different state here, has very close friends – one being the daughter of a reading group friend. I took 4-month old Daughter Gums in to meet this girl the day she was born and though they now live 700km apart they are very close. I moved a lot as a child but I am still friends with a few “girls” (not girls now!) from high school and university though they live 300kms away. I do love having long-standing friends. The shared history feels special.

          I am still in contact with friends made through online reading groups, including in the USA, in the late 1990s … we might mainly connect now through Facebook but that shared history, like we are now building up with blogging friends is meaningful too, isn’t it?

        • A lot of people who aren’t on line a lot don’t understand that, do they? But I agree, thy (including you) can be very special … a bit like penpals when I was growing up, but the contact was of course slow!

        • OMG, Sue, I DO feel special now. Thank you, dear 💖 The funny thing about the few penpals I’ve had is we always run out of things to write about eventually. I had a shared diary once. I would have it and write it in, and then when I saw my friend Lucas, he would take it and write in it until we met again. It was a great way to spice things up and avoid the daily doldrums. With book blogs, I like to use the comments to either talk about the book or topic because I have something to add, or use the book or topic to spring off into another conversation.

        • A shared diary? How fascinating. And yes, I like it when comments springboard into wider conversations. We learn so much and get to know each other better which does the heart good. My heart anyhow.

        • There are many advantages to blogging friends. You can interact with them when you feel like it, you can think about your response, and, best of all, you don’t have to tidy the house when they come for morning tea. Blogging friends are great!

        • I also love learning about new places and cultures, and since the onset of this pandemic, I’ve learned how various governments respond to a health and wealth crisis. While we were double-masking, Sue @ Whispering Gums, if I remember correctly, was eating in restaurants and enjoying herself because there were almost no cases.

  2. Er, The Dictionary of Lost Words is fiction, though it is based on fact. (I’m not really being picky, I’m just getting a comment in early, so I get email notifications of the discussion.)

  3. This Mournable Body is one that’s on my radar, I’ve read Girl, Woman, Other and Crawdads, loved the former, thought the latter was a bit unbelievable but an enjoyable story (my husband LOVED Crawdads). I love reading about book groups because I did some research on them a few years ago and immersed myself in the literature about them!

      • My research involved giving an Iris Murdoch novel to 25 book groups and asking them what they thought of it – I had to do some fairly involved research on book groups, their make up and the books they choose generally in order to prove that my research was valid because my book groups matched those that had already been studied, if that makes sense. I have a page on my research on my blog if you’re interested: It was fun but also a slog to do, as I did it independent of any academic institution (but with the support of the Iris Murdoch Society community).

        • Oh I will check that link out Liz, fascinating. One of my online reading groups did an Iris Murdoch a gf I thought my group here did too but I don’t see it in the list.

  4. Barchester was the first Trollope I ever read and I loved it; such fun. Some on your list like Crawdads, Hamnet and Girl, Woman, Other are ones I want to read but haven’t yet gotten to. Your mention has also got me interested in This Mournable Body.

    • It was my first too I think Mallika … a long time ago. It was great reading again. I know all about books you want to read but haven’t yet! This mournable body is challenging but worth the effort.

  5. I’ve been a member of a U3A group discussing Nordic Crime Fiction for the last 10 years. We’ve read 10-12 novels a year (in translation) mostly chosen by the group leader, Marian Hill, but with suggestions from the group. So we’ve read writers like Sjowall and Wahloo, Mankell, and newer writers like Jorn Lier Horst, Hakan Ness and Arnuldur Indridasson. We’ve gained great insights into Nordic societies and the focus of the novels is on how the crimes reflect flaws in those societies. Sadly, the group has ended after 10 years but we’ll continue to meet informally for coffee once a month. It’s been v interesting to see a disparate group of people unite and work together with shared enthusiasm. Sadly, our numbers have fallen as people age and quite a few have died – inevitable I guess in our age group.

    • Oh yes Maggie. My husband is in a U3A group and just this week he’s heard of two deaths.

      Anyhow, thanks for describing your group and your enjoyment from it. There’s little else like a good reading group I think. Lovely that you will continue to meet and will surely share book recommendations!

  6. Hi Sue, I like your book club choices. I, also think Shuggie Bain, would have being our top choice. We have made some of our selections for next year and they are Lost by Michael Robotham; Oh William by Elizabeth Strout; Dairing to Fly by Lisa Miller; Wild Abandon by Emily Bitto; Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser; Second Place by Rachel Cusk; Nellie by Robert Wainwright; How to End a Story by Helen Garner; and The Godmothers by Monica McInnery. We still have to make three more selections to make.

  7. I have my excuse ready: Dragan gave me work. Not much work and then he stuffed me around before not giving me the follow up job I was expecting. But for a day or two I was occupied. I don’t know anything about Shuggie Bain, I just think it’s a terrible sounding name. Crawdads filled in the time but I don’t know what all the hype was about. This Mournable Body was good, but Booker good? That’s a silly question, prizegivers and I never agree.

    You really should read No Friend but the Mountains. It is one of the greats. World greats not just Australian greats.

    • Dragan? Messing you around? I don’t believe it … surely you are joshing us Bill. Haha.
      No friend … yes, I know I should!
      Shuggie is a nickname for Hugh – is it a common Scottish nickname for Hugh? I think it is because Wikipedia’s name for Hugh (first name) has a redirect from Shuggie. Anyhow, it won the 2020 Booker.

      And yes, I agree about Crawdads … an enjoyable read but it didn’t challenge me the way, say, The mountable body did. But, the Booker judges didn’t call it Booker good!

  8. I like the idea of reflecting on the year by voting for your favourites. Our book club is about to go through a change – our venue is still not accepting reservations so we’re looking for somewhere else and are taking the opportunity to change how we choose our next read. I’m going to suggest we take up your voting system too…..

    BTW I’ve read both your highly commended and enjoyed them though Hamnet was better than Crawdads i thought

  9. Hamnet was a great read. 😀 We did a list of top reads for 2021 on our site as well, it’s interesting looking at everyone’s round-ups — time to add more titles to the Xmas reading list!

  10. It’s so interesting to compare the different voting patterns in your years!
    And you’ve obviously had some great selections for this round.
    Here’s hoping you have a similarly satisfying experience for next year (without the losses that, among other things, like oh heartbreak and sorrow, interfere with reading plans).

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