We had high hopes for 2021, didn’t we? 2020 was the year that everything changed, and 2021 was… the year that things continued to change. I guess it’s the only constant, or whatever. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the range of great books out there. These are the best books of 2021, my reading year in review.

The Best Books Of 2021 - Reading Year In Review - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From page one, The Underground Railroad depicts the gruesome realities of the slave trade and enslaved lives. Every chapter reveals some new horror. So much of what happens to Cora is gut-churningly awful, and yet… it’s compelling, and propulsive. It’s not a light or easy read, but it’s unputdownable all the same. That’s a very weird combination, and not one I’ve encountered often in my literary sojourns. It feels twisted to have so thoroughly enjoyed and relished a book about such a terrible subject, but I’ll chalk that up to Whitehead’s talent rather than any defect in my own character. Read my full review of The Underground Railroad here.

The Speechwriter by Martin McKenzie-Murray

The Speech Writer - Martin McKenzie-Murray - Keeping Up With The Penguins

After the past few years, you’d be forgiven for thinking political satire is dead. The Speechwriter proves it isn’t so. Martin McKenzie-Murray’s skewering of Australian bureaucracy and political lethargy is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years. It is styled as the prison memoir of Toby, former speechwriter to the PM and current inmate of Sunshine correctional facility. It is edited (with frequent footnote asides) from his murderous cellmate Garry. Together, they weave a tale so extraordinary you can’t help but believe it. This is Australian humour at its finest, the most underrated of the best books of 2021. Read my full review of The Speechwriter here.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Too Much Lip - Melissa Lucashenko - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Too Much Lip blends The Castle and the Beverly Hillbillies with a storytelling tradition older than any of us can fathom – a unique combination that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. I was particularly taken with Lucashenko’s use of dialect, which weaves the narrative and the dialogue together; even though the narration is third-person, a step removed from Kerry and her family, it’s still rich in Bundjalung language and northern NSW/regional QLD vernacular. But, most importantly of all, it’s funny! Lucashenko uses bla(c)k humour to humanise the sterotypes of First Nations families in this Miles Franklin Award-winning novel you can’t miss. Read my full review of Too Much Lip here.

Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim by David Sedaris

Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I loved, loved, loved my first adventure with David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day) so I’m not ashamed to say I came to Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim hoping for more of the same. Such an approach would normally invite disappointment, but Sedaris totally delivered. This collection of autobiographical essays once again focuses on the author’s upbringing, family, and his adult life. You’d think that well would run dry eventually, but Sedaris is clearly more than capable of hauling out every last trickle. Sedaris once again proves himself the master of poking fun, even when he’s poking down, because he pokes nobody harder than himself. Read my full review of Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim here.

Empire Of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Empire Of Pain - Patrick Radden Keefe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Empire Of Pain is a chunky book, but it doesn’t read like one – it’s every bit as gripping and compelling as any fictional family saga. You might not know the Sacklers (unless you spend a lot of time in the museums they’ve paid a lot of money to adorn with the family name), but you definitely know their product: OxyContin, the opioid that triggered an epidemic of abuse. With the precision of a prosecutor, but the even-handedness of a responsible journalist, Radden Keefe picks apart the origins of this dynasty’s deadly legacy. This is one of the best books of 2021, a must-must-must for fans of Erin Brockovich and The Social Network. Read my full review of Empire Of Pain here.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK. Little Fires Everywhere is masterfully written. It’s an issue novel, but one that doesn’t beat you over the head with a foregone moral position. It’s a psychological thriller, without the hack writing or “plot twists” you can sniff out a mile off. It’s a family drama with a family that actually feels like a family, lots of little dramas unfolding in each of their lives. Little Fires Everywhere is one of those rare novels that actually lives up to the endless hype. Ng has definitely won a fan in me – I’ll eagerly await anything else she writes from now on. Read my full review of Little Fires Everywhere here.

The Other Side Of Beautiful by Kim Lock

The Other Side Of Beautiful - Kim Lock - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sometimes, you pick up a book and its premise resonates in a way neither you nor the author anticipated. That’s what happened for me with The Other Side Of Beautiful. I doubt that Kim Lock foresaw that I’d be reading her book about Mercy Blain, a woman terrified to leave her house, while I was locked down and not allowed to leave the house… but here we are. Luckily, Mercy Blain’s story is warm and heart-felt, one of overcoming fear and finding home wherever you are. Lock’s alarmingly accurate depictions of Mercy’s physical experience of anxiety were a little triggering, to be honest, but the wonderful rhythm of her writing carried me through the discomfort. This is one of the best books of 2021, not to mention the best-timed! Read my full review of The Other Side Of Beautiful here.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

One Last Stop - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It can be hard to follow-up a debut novel that went gangbusters the way that Red, White & Royal Blue did, but McQuiston hasn’t broken stride. One Last Stop is a, frankly, fucking delightful queer romance with a time-travel element. It’s also snort-laugh funny; anyone who’s ever lived in a share-house or found themselves a family in an ensemble of bizarre friends will relate, hard. The romance is steamy at times, sweet at others, and always just a little bit magical. It was a particular pleasure to read a queer novel that touches on significant issues in the community (including discrimination and AIDS) without being a giant, whining bummer. Read my full review of One Last Stop here.

Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead - Emily Austin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, obviously this is one of the best books of 2021 for the amazing title alone, but Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead is no bait-and-switch. The contents are every bit as great as you’d hope! With hints of Convenience Store Woman and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, this book from debut Canadian author Emily Austin is a hilariously deadpan, macabre-meets-comedy read. The main character’s anxious apathy and her unsentimental delivery make an otherwise-dark story a hilarious and relatable read. Plus, it’s got a quick and neat resolution, a relief after the intensity of the previous pages, and it ends on a hopeful note (but not a saccharine one). Read my full review of Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead here.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated - Tara Westover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated would be an interesting read. In Westover’s voice, it’s downright enthralling. It was a breathtaking read, in more ways than one. The dangers and horrors of Westover’s childhood had my heart in my throat – but the moments of love and compassion shared within this bizarre family did, too. I was captivated by the way Westover was able to relate her story, with frankness and fairness that any memoir writer should envy. Read my full review of Educated here.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room - Emma Donoghue - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sometimes a book’s premise alone is enough to chill you to your core. Room is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, a boy who has spent his entire life held captive in a single locked room with his mother. This is no post-apocalyptic hide-out or agoraphobic folie à deux – they are both victims of a terrible crime (based on the real-life horrors of Josef Fritzl). It’s stay-up-all-night-to-finish-it readable (as, indeed, I did). You’d be forgiven for being skeptical going in, figuring (once again, as I did) that the premise and the plot was too obviously horrifying to be truly immersive and that the pulling-of-heartstrings would feel contrived, but I can promise you you’re in good hands. Read my full review of Room here.

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

The Stranger Beside Me - Ann Rule - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I normally shy away from the twisted fandom that grows around certain serial killers; so much has been written about Ted Bundy it’s hard to escape him, let alone choose one version as the “definitive” Ted Bundy story… but The Stranger Beside Me is such an enduring book of true crime, up there with In Cold Blood, that I felt I simply had to read it. I’m so glad I did; it turned out to be one of the best books of 2021 for me. At first, it was enjoyable purely as a spooky story, but as the end grew closer, and the true impact of Bundy’s crimes became more tangible, it was no longer spooky so much as desperately sad. It made me Feel A Lot Of Things (which is a testament, really, to its excellence and Rule’s skill as a true crime writer). Read my full review of The Stranger Beside Me here.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Know My Name - Chanel Miller - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In 2019, Chanel Miller stepped forward and identified herself as Emily Doe, the until-then anonymous victim of Brock Turner, a man whose name has become inextricable from conversations about sexual assault, sentencing, and #MeToo. In Know My Name, Miller reclaims her name, her story, and the years lost to her silent battle. It’s an incredible read, on every level: as a tool for dismantling the patriarchy, as a masterfully-crafted narrative, as an account of crime and justice, and as a radical testament to the costs of survival. (Hot tip: this is one of the smash-the-patriarchy reads I recommend in my gift guide “for men”!) Read my full review of Know My Name here.

The Helpline by Katherine Collette

The Helpline - Katherine Collette - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Helpline is a charming, heart-warming story for anyone who loves a good oddball protagonist: think The Rosie Project, or A Man Called Ove. Of course, the underlying truth that makes these kinds of books enjoyable is the disconnect between the way the narrator sees the world and the way we know it to be, but the comedy is magnified by the fact that we can also recognise the truth in Germaine’s dealings with bureaucracy and office politics. In other hands, that could make The Helpline sad or confusing or (worst of all) dull, but Collette nails the voice that allows us to engage and empathise and laugh with (instead of at) Germaine. Read my full review of The Helpline here.

Year Of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Year Of Yes - Shonda Rhimes - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Year Of Yes actually encouraged me (I will not say the word inspired: I will not, I will not, I will not) to start saying yes a bit more myself. Not to anything particularly life changing, but to invitations and offers that I might otherwise have turned down. Post-lockdown anxiety in 2021 had me very apprehensive about going back out into the world and interacting IRL again, but it turned out the more often I said “yes”, the easier (and better) it got, just like it did for Shonda Rhimes in this fabulous memoir. Take this as a simple testament to the power of Year Of Yes: it convinced even the hardest-baked cynic on the other side of the world to give it a go. Read my full review of Year Of Yes here.