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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The best books of 2021 for your summer reading list

Congratulations — you made it to the (almost) end of a hellish, stranger-than-fiction year. You probably need to tune out, escape, regenerate. Whatever you need, this list of favourites and ‘best summer reads’ from ABC’s book experts has got you covered.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Half of Shafak’s novel is told from the point of view of a tree.(Supplied: Penguin)


Forbidden love, civil war, and an all-knowing tree — this sumptuous novel by the British-Turkish writer Elif Shafak is a truly beautiful read.

The story begins in Cyprus in 1974, when a man and a woman – one Greek, one Turkish – fall in love. As a brutal civil war breaks out on the island, Kostas and Defne have just one safe place to meet – a taverna, where their love story unfolds beneath the branches of a fig tree. This tree is important – later, Kostas and Defne will take a cutting to London, where it will grow in their backyard, watched by their daughter Ada.

The fig tree – with its ancient wisdom and great love for this family – is an unlikely character in this book. Whole chapters are narrated in its unique voice, which is sometimes funny, sometimes serious, and occasionally boastful – it loves to tell us just how clever a backyard tree can be.

The scenes set in Cyprus are lyrical and romantic – you can smell the garlic and honeysuckle coming off the page. But don’t be fooled – Shafak brings a steeliness to this book too. Ada, Kostas and Defne’s lives have been uprooted, shaped by division and loss. And it’s this harsh truth, cloaked in magic and romance, that stays with you long after the final page. CN

Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down

The book cover of Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down, black and white photo of a woman's face and arm
Down told Books+Publishing: “One of the biggest questions I had in writing this novel was: can we bear witness to another’s pain in a way that eschews voyeurism?”(Supplied: Text)


A woman receives a message on Facebook, out of the blue, calling her by a name she had shed 20 years and two countries ago. It jolts her back into her old life and earlier self: a childhood in Australia in the late 70s and early 80s — a place of poverty and precarity, and occasional kindness.

In the first few pages of this remarkable, brutal book, we meet a woman named Holly, in 2018; but for most of the rest of it, we’re in Maggie’s life.

“I was five when I went into resi,” she tells us. Residential care and foster homes; places where she and another girl learnt to communicate through the walls of the house, tapping in code.

Sounds sweet, doesn’t it?

“He’s coming,” is one of the messages. Not so sweet after all.

And this detailed, carefully observed, tenderness-and-rage study of childhood on the edge would probably be enough to make this book memorable. But there’s more. Maggie grows up.

What else happens, what propels her into those opening pages of the book, had me clutching my hair and putting the book down. Gasping. And I promise I’m not a melodramatic reader. Pick it up again though, won’t you? KE

The Imitator by Rebecca Starford

The book cover of The Imitator by Rebecca Starford, two women stand together and one turns round
Rebecca Starford is the co-founder of Australian literary magazine Kill Your Darlings.(Supplied: Pan Macmillan)

Allen & Unwin

What does it take to be a spy? This question is at the heart of Rebecca Starford’s World War II spy thriller, about a bright young scholarship student who is recruited to MI5 after finishing university.

Evelyn Varley is somewhat of a social chameleon, who spent her formative years at an elite boarding school trying to hide her humble origins. This fluid personality is what makes her a good spy, although it also means she has trouble establishing meaningful relationships in her personal life.

The story tacks between a pre- and post-war time frame to draw out the tension caused by living a double life.

The Imitator recalls Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, which is also set during Britain’s Phoney War: the period from September 1939 to April 1940 during which the war was being fought behind the scenes by spies.

Evelyn is charged with infiltrating an underground Nazi movement in England. Here, she must befriend those she will eventually betray.

The story is gripping, and the obvious parallels with our contemporary concerns about conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism gives it added pertinence.

The Imitator straddles my twin summer reading desires for a page-turner and a well-crafted novel, and has a complex female lead to boot. SL

No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

The book cover of No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood with a cloudy sky and rainbows
Rolling Stone described Lockwood as “the poet laureate of Twitter”.(Supplied: Bloomsbury)


In a year of extraordinary reading, this book takes out the prize for making me cry like nothing else. Even more impressive? It’s funny too.

Patricia Lockwood’s slim and surprising debut novel is unlike anything else I’ve ever read, and it thoroughly deserved its place on both the Booker and Women’s Prize shortlists this year.

It’s a book of two distinct parts. In the first half we meet a woman addicted to the internet, where she is a minor celebrity thanks to the viral post, “Can a dog be twins?”

Her musings and observations are presented in a fragmented style that echoes the experience of scrolling through a social media feed, jumping from identity politics to beauty regimes at breakneck speed.

It’s clever and funny, and a reader might wonder where it is all going, before the book shifts gears entirely. Text messages wrench the protagonist out of the online world and into reality, with the news that there are serious complications with her sister’s pregnancy.

The baby is born against all expectations, but she will not have long to live.

The second half of this book, as the protagonist and her sister care for this beautiful, unique child, is heartbreaking. The fact that Lockwood has dedicated this book to her own niece, Lena, makes the joy and pain of this story even more powerful. CN

The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata by Gina Apostol

The book cover of The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata by Gina Apostol
Apostol told Lithub: “My novels speak to all of those aspects of language and translation — joy and mystery, existential angst and psychoanalytic dread, and interrogation of power.”(Supplied: Penguin)

Soho Press

What do you get for that special someone who seems to have read everything? Answer: a book that contains everything.

In Gina Apostol’s second novel – and third to appear internationally – Raymundo Mata, a revolutionary in the Philippine war against Spain in 1896, recounts his childhood, Manila education, love affairs, involvement with the secret revolutionary Katipunan society and the life-changing influence of the revered real-life 19th-century nationalist Filipino writer José Rizal.

Prefaced by a playful succession of assorted notes and addenda, Apostol’s novel builds to a dramatic meeting between Rizal and Mata.

Winner of the Philippine National Book Award, this is a polyphonic history of the Philippines and its many languages, conflicts, colonisations and contradictions, punctuated by hilarious argumentative footnotes by a Filipino editor, an anonymous translator, and an American scholar of Mata’s work.

The result is a kaleidoscopic and endlessly engaging series of narratives, hypotheses, jokes, puns, speculations and conflicts that come to mirror the polyvalency – and irresolution – of Philippine history, including the violence it has experienced at the hands of Spanish and American regimes.

Apostol, whose writing one critic has described as “Hilary Mantel on acid”, lives up to her reputation here: The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata is heady and invigorating.

As Mata’s translator writes in her introduction to the manuscript, “Our notion of freedom began with fiction, which may explain why it remains an illusion.” DF

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

The book cover of Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, black background with purple and pink ink blots
Kitamura told Interview magazine: “I’m drawn to characters where language passes through them in some way.”(Supplied: Penguin)

Jonathan Cape

If you’ve ever watched proceedings from the International Criminal Court in The Hague, or paid attention to hearings from the United Nations, you’ve seen the earpieces and headsets worn by the delegates, lawyers and witnesses. They are the conduits to simultaneous interpreters – translators who are listening ferociously and precisely, working to capture meaning where so much is at stake.

One of these interpreters is the focus of this novel. The “intimacies” of the title are of language, whispered into the ears of diplomats and functionaries — or war criminals.

We meet this unnamed woman, her friends, her married lover; we see her loneliness and her uncertainty about her work. She is international – global – in outlook; multilingual and apparently of no particular place (this isn’t quite true, and there’s a colonial and racial sting in the tale that makes us question all of that, later on).

But the real pleasure in this book is the way it deals with ideas: language and politics; power plays and gender; the west and the rest; the question of who is put on trial; and what it means to be at the heart of these clashes of righteousness and justice. It’s exhilarating and confronting at the same time; cool, spare, intelligent. KE

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

The book cover of Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy, a faded image of a forest
Like her debut, Migrations, McConaghy’s much-anticipated follow-up is about the natural world.(Supplied: Penguin)

Hamish Hamilton

Don’t be alarmed by the opening sentence: “When we were eight, Dad cut me open from throat to stomach.” The main character, Inti Flynn, is remembering a time when her father skinned a rabbit in front of her — but because she has ‘mirror touch synaesthesia’, she experiences the pain of other creatures as her own.

This idea of empathy is a driving theme in McConaghy’s book, which is set mainly in the Scottish Highlands, where Inti is part of a group of biologists reintroducing wolves into the damaged landscape, hoping to help “grow forests”. (The decimation of this apex predator has led to an overabundance of grazing animals that inhibit forest growth).

Along with protecting the wolves, Inti is also focused on protecting her twin sister, who is a survivor of domestic violence. When some local men use violent means to try to stop the reintroduction of wolves, Inti is forced to act.

McConaghy’s previous eco-fiction book, Migrations, was billed as her literary debut, but some light digging finds that she’s in fact an established speculative fiction writer with many other novels to her name. This grasp of craft shows in her writing: her latest is extremely well-plotted, and there’s an engaging mix of conflict and character development. SL

Love Objects by Emily Maguire

The book cover of Love Objects by Emily Maguire, a woman wearing a floral dress that blends into a floral background
Maguire worked on Love Objects during a writer in residence fellowship, designed to bring together writers with health research, at the Charles Perkins Centre.(Supplied: Allen & Unwin)

Allen & Unwin

2021 was a great year for fiction about aunties. Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel was a love letter to her niece, and Emily Maguire’s sixth novel, Love Objects, also celebrates the intense, overpowering love a woman can feel for children who are not her own.

The aunt at the centre of this novel is Nic, a 45-year-old woman with great nails, a job at a discount department store, and a lot – and I mean a lot — of stuff. Her home is a maze of objects – there are stacks of newspapers and DVDs, crates full of dolls, and piles of clothing. The house looks perfectly presentable from the outside — no one else knows about Nic’s hoarding behaviour. But when she falls and hurts herself, it is her beloved niece Lena who has to clean up the house.

Lena has secrets of her own. She’s had sex with a fellow university student – a hook-up she thought was romantic – only to discover the entire act has been filmed and released on the internet. She struggles with embarrassment and self-loathing, while still harbouring feelings for the man responsible for this despicable act.

These two women have very real problems, and Maguire isn’t interested in easy fixes. In exploring Nic and Lena’s lives, she forces us to consider our own prejudices and to accept that love – for people, and for things – can be glorious and devastating all at once. CN

Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas

The book cover of Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas a black grid over cream background with colourful squares
Cárdenas told PEN Transmissions: “Whosoever reads too many novels will despair at the sameness of novels.”(Supplied: Simon & Schuster)

Oneworld Publications

In the cookie-cutter, risk-averse landscape of contemporary publishing, there’s something unnerving about reading a new novel that actually makes you pay attention.

Ecuadorian novelist Mauro Javier Cárdenas’s second work — after The Revolutionaries Try Again (2016) — concerns Antonio Jose Jiménez, a Colombian migrant living in LA and working at an anonymous tech firm.

Antonio is having a rough time: he is struggling to write, his marriage has failed, his memories are haunted by former girlfriends (one of whom has as her safe word “László Krasznahorkai”, the Hungarian novelist), and he is addicted to sex with college students he meets on a site called Your Sugar Arrangements – liaisons which threaten his access to his two young daughters Ada and Eva, who live with his ex-wife Ida in the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile Antonio’s sister has a schizophrenic break brought on by their traumatic childhood with an abusive father.

Cárdenas’ style allows for quick shifts in pace, time, location, thought and feeling, resulting in a mosaic that feels uncannily close to the experience of our lives today. It is a tour de force, a family drama that captures the malaise and beauty of a world where geographies and timelines merge, and a million lives and thoughts can occur over the course of a sentence (many of which are several pages long).

It’s pacy, dense and enlivening. Jessa Crispin was on the money when she described this novel as “of this world, [and] as complicated as the world is”. Vividly, colourfully assembled, sensitive to the small contradictions and failings of our lives and histories, Aphasia reminds us not so much that we contain multitudes as that multitudes contain us. DF

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

The book cover of Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead, blocks of yellow, red and green filled with old photos and the books title
Colson Whitehead actually started working on Harlem Shuffle before his last book, The Nickel Boys.(Supplied: Penguin Random House)


Hustlers, crooks, con artists; pawnshops and second-hand furniture stores; and a glimpse into the life of New York’s Harlem in the 60s. This fizzing world of part-time thieves and aspiring middle classes has been created by Colson Whitehead (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys), so nothing is quite as tap-dancing-on-froth as it might appear.

Our protagonist Ray Carney, proprietor of a second-hand goods store, is a Black man in America — and Harlem is its own small Black nation in a white world. When he visits his occasional partner in crime, or fence, Mr Aronowitz – hoping to sell a few slightly bent items (only a little bit bent, you understand) – he ponders that this is one of few white men who have ever called him Mister.

This is a novel in three parts, with a heist and a revenge story and a few other dramas going on; there’s an engaging storyline and set of terrific characters. But it’s the other details that make it something else again: the race riots in the background; the hotels of dreams; the swagger that falters as soon as a man like Ray walks a few streets too far from his designated part of the grid. Will you buy one of Ray’s only-lightly-used lounge suites? Oh, I think you should. KE

Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser

The book cover of Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser, a lone cherry
“A couple of people who have read the novel have made connections between the two halves [of it] that I didn’t realise were there,” de Kretser told Claire Nichols.(Supplied: Allen & Unwin)

Allen & Unwin

How do you choose where to start when there are two front covers of a book? Michelle de Kretser, twice winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, presents this problem to readers in her sixth novel. One cover features a single red cherry, the other is decorated in a sea of white cherry blossoms. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s a literary gimmick, but there’s something deeper at play here.

The book is split in two: read Lyle’s story first and you enter a dystopian future Australia where children are called Nike, Porsche and Ikea, and the protagonist works for the ominous-sounding “Department”. Then at the end of the Lyle section, you flip the book and are transported to 1981 France and the story of Lili, who is teaching English in Montpellier and exploring her identity as a 22-year-old woman. (Or you could start with Lili and flip to Lyle — which is how I read it).

The styles in both sections are vastly different and there is only one obvious connection between the narratives, but de Kretser is asking her readers to draw parallels. Both narrators are Asian migrants to Australia, and we’re told in the introductory blurb that migration turns your world upside down.

De Kretser’s ability is on full display in both narratives, as she demonstrates the dexterity and vision that have made her one of our brightest literary stars. SL

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