Keeping Up With The Penguins

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What Do We Think Of The Dymocks Top 101 Books of 2021?

It’s that time again! Dymocks has released their list of the Top 101 books of 2021. Every year, thousands of booklovers cast their votes for their favourite reads. This isn’t your standard list of bestseller books or critic’s choices: this is bookish democracy at its finest, only the books that inspire their everyday readers to cast a vote make it to the top. As always, there are a few stalwarts, a few surprises, and plenty of books to add to the to-be-read list. Check out my take on the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021…

Dymocks Top 101 Books of 2021 - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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1. Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Where The Crawdads Sing - Delia Owens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Where The Crawdads Sing – which has been called a “defining book of the decade”, and sold more than seven million copies around the world – has finally made an impression on Australian booklovers. Out of seemingly nowhere, it has rocketed up to the top of the Top 101 books of 2021. Owens blends nature writing, murder mystery, and the bildungsroman in this story of the “Marsh Girl”. In addition to topping the Dymocks list, it’s also been named Book Of The Year by multiple international booksellers and it’s a Reese Witherspoon pick, currently in production with her company Hello Sunshine.

2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Book Thief has made the top 10 for every year that Keeping Up With The Penguins has been following the Dymocks Top 101 books list – last year, it even tied for first! To be honest, I’m a bit perplexed by its staying power, but who am I to question it? Perhaps it has something to do with its broad appeal to the young adult readership, and the new crop of them that ages into the category every year. For many of them, learning about the horrors of the Holocaust for the first time, this story of a young girl narrated by Death must be particularly touching. Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

3. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And here’s the book that also tied for first last year: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. It’s notably more upbeat in tone than The Book Thief, I’ll tell you that for free! It’s another Reese Witherspoon pick, also in development through her production company. The titular Eleanor Oliphant is a very on-trend kooky protagonist: her social skills lack polish, she relies on timetables and rituals to get through the day, and her only significant relationship is with her mother. Eleanor’s world opens up when she meets Raymond, and she realises there might be more to life than being “fine”.

4. The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Harper’s reign as the queen of Australian crime writing continues, probably boosted by the release of her debut’s film adaptation (starring domestic darling Eric Bana) last year. The Dry is the book that introduced Aaron Falk, hard-boiled Australian Federal Police investigator. In the midst of a once-in-a-century drought, Falk finds himself drawn back to his hometown, where he’s drawn into an investigation – the murders of the Hadler family. Harper’s subsequent novels, The Survivors and and The Lost Man, also made the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021 (at 29 and 31, respectively).

5. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Just one WWII historical novel about a young girl surmounting personal difficulties as the world around her burns in the top 10 wouldn’t be enough, would it? All The Light We Cannot See is like The Book Thief for grown-ups. In it, a German orphan and a blind French girl are destined to cross paths as they both try to play the best of the hand they’ve been dealt. Oh, and there’s a precious jewel and a Nazi treasure hunter (naturally). It won a Pulitzer Prize, and evidently more than a few hearts and minds here among the Australian booklovers. Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.

7. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe - Trent Dalton - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Boy Swallows Universe may have slipped down the Dymocks list a little (from number 3 last year), but it’s still holding in there. Dalton’s debut novel was THE book of 2019 – you couldn’t walk into a bookstore without its bright pink cover assaulting your eyes, and you couldn’t attend a book club without someone gushing about how much they just loved-loved-loved it. It doesn’t sound like the stuff of heart-warming reads (absent father, imprisoned mother, mute brother, and a step-father who makes his crust dealing heroin), but Dalton seems to have found the magic formula. Plus, his follow-up – All Our Shimmering Skies – came in at number 30.

9. Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming - Michelle Obama - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Becoming has held firm in the Dymocks Top 101, coming in at number 9 for the second year in a row. I thought perhaps our collective interest in America’s first black First Lady might have waned with, y’know, everything else that has happened since her husband left office, but apparently not! She’s not resting on her laurels, either: with the Grammy for Best Audiobook under her arm, she’s gone on to launch a podcast and publish a version of her autobiography aimed specifically at a young adult audience. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Michelle Obama! Read my full review of Becoming here.

10. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let’s be real: it’s a shock when Pride And Prejudice doesn’t make the top 10! This spot represents a resurgence from the perennial classic, though, from number 26 last year. I’m thinking that’s attributable to the number of bookworms who turned to familiar comfort reads over the course of 2020. I know I did – the Pride And Prejudice audiobook from my library was my constant companion on my government-sanctioned daily walks! That said, it’s the only one of Austen’s novels to make the cut this year. This particular story apparently weaves a special kind of spell over us (or is that just lusting after Mr Darcy and his good fortune?). Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

13. The Tattooist Of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist Of Auschwitz - Heather Morris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Our collective obsession with romanticised-AHEM-fictionalised WWII stories continues: The Tattooist Of Auschwitz came in at number 13 on the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021. This is a controversial one; it’s beloved in some circles, and reviled in others. Several Holocaust scholars have denounced it as (among other things) inaccurate and a misrepresentation of the experiences of prisoners in Auschwitz… but its fans argue that Morris has never been cagey about her fictionalisation of the real-life story that inspired the novel, and a certain level of creative license must be allowed in order to bring these stories to life. Where do you land? You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out.

14. Honeybee by Craig Silvey

Honeybee - Craig Silvey - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I feel like the LGBTIQA+ community collectively held our breath when Honeybee came out. Craig Silvey is straight and cis-gender, but turned his hand to writing about the life of a trans teen. This has been done so terribly so many times, it was always going to be a nail-biter. The verdict? Well, Silvey did okay, and he was remarkably open to criticism and scrutiny of his choices. It would be preferable, of course, to see a book by a trans or non-binary writer about the trans/NB experience in the top 20 of the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021, but mainstream cut-through for these stories is still a good thing.

15. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To Kill A Mockingbird has seen a bump up the Dymocks Top 101, from 43 last year, perhaps owing to the increased global focus on racial justice in the U.S. It’s a go-to book for beginners on the subject, with the capacity to pull on the heartstrings of young and old alike. That said, it should really only be a stepping stone to more contemporary stories that do away with the trope of the white saviour and interrogate more closely the lived experience and realities of racism for black Americans. Still, it’s a thoroughly readable novel that will transport you instantly to the American South. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

19. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hunger Games holds a very special place in my heart: it was the very first book I reviewed here on Keeping Up With The Penguins! I even recently revisited in audio format, and it totally holds up. It would seem that other Australian booklovers are equally invested in it, because it made it to number 19 in the Dymocks Top 101 books this year. As far as role models for young adults go, you could do worse than Katniss Everdeen: brave, determined, and sees past the bullshit and bluster. I’d happily give my copy to a 13-year-old cousin who needed something to do on her Christmas holidays. Read my full review of The Hunger Games here.

23. Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Normal People has positively surged up the list of the Dymocks Top 101 (from 40, last year), perhaps in part due to the hugely successful BBC series. Paul Mescal – the Irish actor who played Connell, and earned a Primetime Emmy nomination for his trouble – is responsible for a whole lotta book sales (not to mention sales of leather chokers!) over the past twelve months. Sally Rooney is a millennial wunderkind (seriously, don’t Google her age, it will throw you into an existential crisis), and Normal People is her crowning glory. The only downside? She. Doesn’t. Use. Inverted. Commas. For. Dialogue. WHY???? Read my full review of Normal People here.

24. The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

The Happiest Refugee - Anh Do - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I must say, I’m truly impressed to see the staying power of The Happiest Refugee! It’s appeared in the Dymocks Top 101 books for years now. This is the book I want to thrust into the hands of everyone who ever bought (or thought about buying) a “Fuck Off, We’re Full” bumper sticker. Of course, it would have been nice to see a more pointed take on Australia’s current refugee policy – like Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But The Mountains, for instance – make the cut, too. I guess the truth of Australia’s refugee policy is just more palatable when it’s served up with the smiling face of a beloved comedian and artist. Read my full review of The Happiest Refugee here.

36. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy has had a huge spike in popularity this past year, up from number 72 in last year’s rankings of the Dymocks Top 101 books. Once again, I suspect that’s as a result of people turning to comfort reads throughout the pandemic, re-discovering their love for this gem of comedy-sci-fi. (I note that The Martian didn’t make the cut this year, though!) If you’re not normally in to aliens and space-ships and avoid sci-fi on that basis, this is the book to ease you in. Plus, it’s chock-full of advice that seems particularly resonant at the moment (i.e., DON’T PANIC!). Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here.

39. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moriarty has three titles in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021 this year: Big Little Lies (here, at number 39, the highest ranked), Nine Perfect Strangers (44), and The Husband’s Secret (99). That pretty much cements her position as the reigning queen of Australian domestic noir, right? She’s made quite the splash on the international stage, too, with the HBO adaptation of Big Little Lies (starring Reese Witherspoon and a bunch of other fabulous ladies) still going gangbusters after being renewed for a second season. It’s not high-falootin’ literary genius, but it’s still an intensely satisfying read. Read my full review of Big Little Lies here.

47. Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

Any Ordinary Day - Leigh Sales - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every person who describes the most devastating day of their life invariably starts the same way: “it was any ordinary day”. Thus, the title of Australian journalist Leigh Sales’ book – Any Ordinary Day – about the worst days, the catastrophic days, when the world collapses in upon you. I suppose it came in this high in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021 because, as much as we’re turning to comforting fiction, we also want to draw inspiration from folks who have faced the worst and survived. Plus, nerds can delight in Sales’ needle-sharp take-down of statistical anomalies and our misconceptions about their frequency.

51. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Rosie books have really captured the hearts and minds of Australian booklovers, as evidenced by the fact that they’re still making a good showing in the Dymocks Top 101. It all started with The Rosie Project, a book about a neurodivergent man who finds love with the titular Rosie. I still have my reservations about the way that Simsion depicts neurodivergence, but I must concede that the trilogy is compulsively readable by audio! I devoured all three books in the trilogy via my headphones, enjoying it that way far more than the traditional paper-and-ink version. Read my full review of The Rosie Project here.

60. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ugh. Ugh to INFINITY! Why do we continue to elevate The Great Gatsby, a true turd of a novel? Okay, fine, maybe I’m being a little harsh, but my point stands. There are SO MANY wonderful books – ones that interrogate the emptiness of the American dream, ones that hold a mirror up to our shallow consumerist patriarchy, even! – and yet this is the one that makes the cut for the Dymocks Top 101, year after year. A creepy guy stalks a woman for years, then he dies and no one comes to his funeral. Blah. I beg of you, Australian booklovers: next year, read (and vote for!) something else. Anything else. Please! Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

67. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Fault In Our Stars is not that good. It’s not the worst young adult novel I’ve ever read (that’d be this one, or maybe this one), but it’s far from the best. I attribute its ongoing popularity to two things: the carefully crafted formula it follows, specially designed to tug on gullible heartstrings, and the legion of angry teenage fans who will lob tomatoes at you if you say anything negative about it. I bow to those angry teenage fans, and acquiesce to their demands, if for no other reason than they’ll be the doctors caring for me in my nursing home someday. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

68. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Trump era might be over, but the resultant surge in feminist dystopian lit continues! The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic of the genre. Granted, it has moved down considerably from its position in the Dymocks Top 101 books of last year (when it came in at 17), but I suspect that’s because the vote was split between it and The Testaments (55). If I’m completely honest, I actually preferred the latter – it gave much more insight into the world of Gilead, and how a regime like that rises and falls – but it’s good to see The Handmaid’s Tale hanging in there. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

69. A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Has there ever been a juggernaut like A Game Of Thrones? George R.R. Martin doesn’t even need to finish it, and it will still keep him in fur coats and jewelled bathtubs until he’s long gone. The unprecedented success of the HBO series is obviously a factor – as is the announcement of multiple spin-off series – in its ongoing popularity, but there are still many, many fans out there dedicated to the books first and foremost. If you’re ready to dip your toes in the rich world of extremely long, extremely detailed, extremely graphic fantasy series, this is probably the one you’ll want to start with. Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

70. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Given that Gone Girl – and the Rosamund Pike movie based on it – is predicated on a big shock twist, you’d think that its popularity would wane fairly quickly. Not so! It’s slipped a little since last year (42), but it’s still hanging in there! It even outlasted The Girl On The Train, which I guess makes Gone Girl the winner in the battle of the “girl” novels. Yes, it’s spawned a thousand (a million!) imitations, varying in quality, but that’s what you get when you write a good, twisty thriller with a few unpredictable turns and an unlikeable female narrator that’s sure to divide the book clubs. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

71. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Girl Woman Other - Bernadine Evaristo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I consider this incontrovertible proof that literary awards still matter! Girl, Woman, Other is a wonderful book in its own right, but I doubt it would have found such a broad and passionate readership without the Booker Prize (and the controversy it entailed). When Evaristo’s eighth novel tied for first place (with Margaret Atwood’s aforementioned The Testaments, 55) for the 2019 Booker Prize in flagrant disregard for the rule that prevents joint winners, it made worldwide headlines and surged to the top of best-seller charts. It’s a shame that the controversy overshadowed the remarkable fact that Evaristo was the first black British woman – the first! – to win that prize! Read my full review of Girl, Woman, Other here.

73. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I was always a little surprised that a book like A Little Life – with its reputation for being long and laborious – made it to the Dymocks Top 101 books list at all. Having recently reviewed it, and with this marking its fifth year on the list, I’m flabbergasted. It’s impossible to say you love this book without some kind of qualifier: you love it BUT it’s not for everyone, you love it BUT you’re not sure you could ever read it again, you love it BUT… you get the idea. Jude St Francis’s life of unyielding trauma and tragedy is not for everyone, and it might not even be for the people it’s for, if you catch my drift. Read my full review of A Little Life here.

74. Daisy Jones And The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones And The Six - Taylor Jenkins Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You couldn’t swing a bottle of wine without hitting a book club that was reading Daisy Jones And The Six these past couple of years! I’m actually really surprised that this one didn’t come in higher in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021. Perhaps the forthcoming small-screen miniseries adaptation will give it a bit of a boost. Styled as a Behind The Music-style documentary transcript, it tells the story of the fictional Fleetwood Mac-esque band The Six, their blow-in lead singer Daisy Jones, and their meteoric rise to the top of the charts (not to mention their sudden split and the romance that inspired all those horny lyrics…). Read my full review of Daisy Jones and The Six here.

77. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Long before the list was released – like, back as far as New Years’ Day – I was sure we would see The Hate U Give on the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021. It already had enduring popularity, but it was inevitably bolstered by the poignancy of its subject matter, parallel with the #BlackLivesMatter protests last year and the (very!) recent trial for George Floyd’s murder in the U.S. Even though we’re a step removed from it here in Australia, we’re not without our own issues and the messages at the heart of Thomas’s #OwnVoices young adult novel are certainly transferable. Read my full review of The Hate U Give here.

83. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time - Mark Haddon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Normally, a murder mystery book would buck the up-lit trend we’ve seen in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021, but The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is different. The protagonist is no hard-boiled detective, but a neurodivergent 15-year-old named Christopher who is determined to, against the odds, uncover the truth of what happened to his neighbour’s dog. It’s not a feel-good book exactly – there are some very real, very depressing issues playing out in the background of Christopher’s life – but readers have fallen in love with his unique way of seeing the world. Read my full review of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time here.

86. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Once upon a time, Backman was a quiet little Swedish blogger, and A Man Called Ove (or, in the original Swedish, En man som heter Ove) was his debut novel. It was published in 2012, translated into English in 2013, but didn’t reach the New York Times Bestseller List until eighteen months later. Once it got there, it stayed there for 42 weeks. Now, it’s practically a modern classic, and a must-read if you need your heart-strings tugged a little. I can’t imagine any reader not feeling at least a little charmed by old-before-his-time Ove, and cheering for him to overcome the rough trot he’s been having. Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.

89. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a big ol’ skeptic, so when I read The Alchemist – at the urging of one of my hippie-dippie friends – I was a little snarky about it. Still, even I can’t begrudge Aussie book lovers an allegorical tale of faith and destiny in trying times (personally, I’d rather turn to The Little Prince, but there you have it). Coelho’s international best-seller is an easy read, and it will top up your hope jar when the news has doused you in existential dread. It’s your standard hero’s journey, complete with buried treasure and a saccharine ending that tells us, once again, that sometimes even our biggest dreams lead us right back home. Read my full review of The Alchemist here.

100. Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m kind of shocked that Eggshell Skull has dropped so far down the Dymocks Top 101 (from 36 last year), but given the past month’s shocking revelations regarding sexual assaults, harassment, and cover-ups in Australian politics, perhaps if the votes were held this week the result would be different. Eggshell Skull has never been more timely, more essential, than it is right now. In it, the scary-smart Bri Lee simultaneously reckons with the ways in which the Australian justice system works against survivors of sexual and gendered violence, and comes to terms with her own experience(s) of assault and harassment. A must-read for every Australian.

General Comments

As much as I loved poring over the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2021, I’m not sure there’s anything I can say about it that I haven’t already said about every year’s list that’s come before. This year’s list is roughly half women, which is nice, but that’s a very low bar (and considerably lower than last year). About a third of the books are written by Australian authors; it’d be nice to see more, and that number has dropped since last year too, but it’s forgiveable.

There is a continuing troubling lack of diversity, though: just eleven authors of colour (by my count), and very, very few queer authors. Basically, this list has all the same problems as the lists that have come before it. I’m not sure whether that speaks to a lack of diversity and support for local authors in the publishing history as a whole, or in bookstores, or just in the hearts of booklovers who vote – heck, it’s probably all of the above.

Still, I don’t want to end on that bum note! There are many books on this year’s list that I love, and I have faith that many favourites will either enter or return next year. I’m seriously considering starting my own faction of voters, to try and bump some deserving but perhaps underrated books over the line. Who’s with me?

2 Comments

  1. I love the Dymocks top 101. Each year I vow I will try and read the whole list ticking off those I’ve already read but alas I’m still to get even a quarter way through the list.

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