Happy’s Best New Books of 2021
Looking for fresh inspiration? These are the best new books – from Australia and around the world – that you can get your hands on in 2021!
Looking for fresh inspiration? These are the best new books – from Australia and around the world – that you can get your hands on in 2021!
Kelefa Sanneh – Major Labels
While it’s an obvious choice for the music fan in your life, the threads of history and culture that Kelefa Sanneh (renowned music critic for The New York Times and The New Yorker) effortlessly weaves into this sweeping account of popular music through seven key genres is masterful — and apt for anyone to appreciate. Ambitious yet gracefully executed, you can’t help but completely reexamine your own relationship with popular music in light of the many revelations that lie in between the covers of Major Labels.
Kwon Yeo-sun – Lemon
From award-winning Korean author Kwon Yeo-sun, Lemon is an atmospheric crime novel that addresses wealth, privilege, grief, and the power to take matters into one’s own hands. After the teenager, Kim Hae-on was murdered in 2002, the case went cold. Many years later, her sister Da-on is unable to move on and attempts to discover the truth in her own way. A disconcerting yet powerful narrative unfolds.
Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle
Dual Pulitzer Prize-winner and master of historically based fiction Colson Whitehead has returned with Harlem Shuffle. This time, Whitehead invites readers into this famed pocket of New York City in the 1960s, introducing us to Ray Carney. One on hand, he’s a respectable pillar of the community and family man. On the other, he dabbles in the disreputable ‘industries’ of the neighbourhood to keep his head above water. As always with Colson Whitehead, a faraway world is rendered with vivid detail and beauty.
Fran Lebowitz – The Fran Lebowitz Reader
No one has cut a trail through the cultural life of New York like Fran Lebowitz. For the past 50 years, she’s observed various phenomena of existence through the lens of the metropolis, but her expert commentary on what makes us tick isn’t contained by city blocks. The Fran Lebowitz Reader is the definitive collection of her essays, dished up with irreverence, insight, and probably the most hilarious writing that’s ever been committed to the page.
Colm Toíbín – The Magician
A feat of extensive research, Colm Toíbín brings the tale of Thomas Mann to life. Thomas Mann was a towering literary figure of the 20th century and Toíbín’s fictional rendering of his personal adds a multitude of layers to our imagining of this significant historical figure. It spans a devastating period in German history and portrays the inner conflicts of Mann as he navigates his own art, family life, and the turbulence of the world around him.
Bronwyn Adcock – Currowan
Currowan is Bronwyn Adcock’s devastating account of being inside the inferno of Australia’s Black Summer. All too often — even though this disaster surrounded us — we don’t have the opportunity to absorb the human stories of this significant event. Adcock’s recounting of the Currowan blaze brings the visceral reality of the fire to the page and importantly, asks vital questions about the human error and negligence that contributed to the devastation.
Amia Srinivasan – The Right to Sex
In the wake of #MeToo, it’s understandable to search for a reductionist conclusion on the topic of sex. While consent is an essential part of the discourse, Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex explodes the conversation, considering sex at the intersection of multiple political and cultural relationships. Confronting and refreshing, it’s an essential read from one of today’s most original thinkers.
Yves Rees – All About Yves
In their memoir, Yves Rees tells us, “I’d been alive for thirty years. In all that time I’d never allowed myself to consider that the term ‘woman’ might not apply to me.” In All About Yves, the award-winning author and historian details their journey of transition with incredible personal insights. Through this awakening, readers are challenged to examine the depth of their own empathy and question assumptions they had about their own existence.
Sally Rooney – Beautiful World, Where Are You
‘Highly anticipated’ has never been more of an understatement. In some ways, Beautiful World, Where Are You traverses familiar Sally Rooney terrain, but of course, the added unignorable dimension in the new tale is the celebrity status of the author herself. But readers will be thankful — the style, the innate virtuosic ear for dialogue, the sexual frisson that continually bubbles between characters (in this case, two couples), as well as the backdrop of broader political tensions which are hallmarks of Rooney’s writing — are all alive in this book.
Kill Your Darlings – New Australian Fiction 2021
A decade into its life, Kill Your Darlings has established itself as a vital voice in the Australian literary scene and specialises in championing local talent. In this cracking anthology, the KYD team has assembled 16 works of fiction from more than 500 entries following a nation-wide call-out. Together, it forms a kaleidoscopic view of a world forever altered by technology, climate change, the battle for First Nations recognition and of course, the pandemic.
Karen Jennings – An Island
This compact novel from the South African author Karen Jennings has been long-listed for the Booker Prize this year. Its powerful critique of colonialism is rendered through the tale of Samuel, an exiled lighthouse keeper. When a refugee lands on his remote island, everything that Samuel — now an old man — sought to escape comes rushing back into his life.
Tilly Lawless – Nothing But My Body
Effortlessly, Tilly Lawless draws you into her world. You pick up the thread of the unnamed narrator on page one and you dare not let go until the end — the conversational prose that spills from the mind of Lawless is addictive, her observations of the sex work industry, her colleagues, her clients, are insightful. Set in the context of tumultuous contemporary Australian events, it’s a profound, lyrical journey into the true nature of human relationships.
Tanya Pearson – Why Marianne Faithfull Matters
Though Marianne Faithfull has been an innovative creator across multiple genres for decades, it could be argued that her impact has been underestimated. Emerging at the same time as the leading lights of the British Invasion, she’s transcended the tag but failed to garner the same recognition as her male contemporaries. Pearson’s account of this icon’s career takes a feminist approach, while comprehensively detailing her subversive significance as an artist who effortlessly straddles generations.
Raphaela Edelbauer – The Liquid Land
The Liquid Land is a tale that nods to the traditions of magical realism while also exploring the threat of a very real past. On one level, it deals with a practical problem that falls to the protagonist, Ruth. But in searching for the solution — a town that has written itself off the map — she uncovers a looming danger that threatens to engulf the place. An intoxicating adventure unfolds from this unique premise.
Leïla Slimani – The Country of Others
The struggle to be free is explored through multiple prisms in Leïla Slimani’s new novel, The Country of Others. France’s liberation from Nazi occupation means Mathilde can join her husband in Morocco. But that country’s hunger for independence (from erstwhile occupied France) also permeates the lives of the reunited couple. Poignantly, Mathilde’s own oppression, her relegation to domestic duties, is also vividly portrayed. A powerful story set against the real-life turbulence of the mid-20th century.
Nikki Gemmell – Dissolve
International best-seller Nikki Gemmell has 13 novels and 4 non-fiction works and Dissolve, in some ways, reads like a reflection of her decades of artistic practice. But its focus on female creativity in the shadows of male dominance and its second-person perspective injects it with a narrative potency that transcends memoir, making it a direct and at times pointedly uncomfortable conversation with the reader. Confronting and exhilarating.
Sebastião Salgado – Amazônia
Amazônia is the culmination of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado’s six-year odyssey in the world’s largest rainforest. In stunning black and white landscapes and portraits, Salgado captures all the drama and contrast of the Amazon and its native inhabitants. A powerful monument to the rapidly changing environment and a reminder of its powerful presence.
Anuk Arudpragasam – A Passage North
The second novel in an already glittering career, A Passage North has already landed on the longlist for the 2021 Booker Prize. Set against the memory of the civil war that has ravaged Sri Lanka for decades, it ostensibly deals with a single death. Yet, as the protagonist Krishan embarks on a long journey north, it asks more profound questions about how we can shape our future lives.
Jeanette Winterson – 12 Bytes
12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next is Jeanette Winterson’s provocative collection of essays that address the impact of artificial intelligence on our lives. Viewing this scientific evolution through the prisms of love, sex, politics, gender, and religion, the book forms a comprehensive analysis of AI, and challenges us to imagine a future where it is even more intertwined with humanity.
Anton Corbijn – DMAC
In this new photographic wonder, two pillars of music and its surrounding artistic culture come together. Depeche Mode is a seminal act, with its roots in ’80s electronica and the brooding side of synth-pop. Anton Corbijn is the celebrated Dutch rock photographer, whose images spanning decades have become individual cultural artefacts in their own right. This book is a comprehensive account of their extensive collaboration, complete with an interview with Corbijn and more than 500 images from his personal archive.
Vincent Namatjira – Albert Namatjira
In this compelling children’s book from Magabala, the story of the historically significant artist, Albert Namatjira, is told by his great-grandson, Vincent Namatjira. Filled with Vincent’s paintings, which are brimming with the unique style and humour of the Archibald Prize-winner, it captures the essence of Albert’s life and an era of cultural transition. A landmark document of Australian art history and a catalyst for exploring the Aboriginal Rights movement.
Mieko Kawakami – Heaven
Reading accounts of bullying (even fictional ones) are always confronting. It triggers a mixture of terror, anger, and sadness — a dumbfounding realisation of the fundamental unfairness of the world. But what if a new, nourishing bond is born out of that misery? This is the question at the heart of Heaven.
Heaven was first published in 2009, but following the success of last year’s Breasts and Eggs, this shorter novel was translated into English. And like Breasts and Eggs, it tempers traumatic events with moments of contemplation, especially in the extended dialogue between the protagonist and his lifeline to the outside world, Kojima. A powerful story that serves to solidify Kawakami’s status as a literary force.
Mateo Askaripour – Black Buck
Black Buck is a modern comment on the cult of the office, with all its attendant pressures and ambition. It does, however, view it through the lens of race relations in America. It follows Buck, a killer in sales and the only Black employee in his company. After finding that the trappings of success just aren’t enough, he plans an extracurricular mission: to bring people of colour into the game.
Rachel Cusk – Second Place
Rachel Cusk, the author of the critically acclaimed Outline trilogy returns with a new novel, Second Place: an intense study of the singular nature of human relationships from one of its most skilled and nuanced observers. Notions of freedom, the power of art to define lives, and a fraught relationship between the protagonist and her obsession are explored with characteristic Cusk insight.
Sebastian Dobson and Sabine Arqué – Japan 1900
While colonial maps were being redrawn and the norms of international trade were being established, Japan was effectively cut off from the world. But in the Restoration period, which began in 1868, the nation was catapulted into modernity. Japan 1900 is a seminal document of this pivotal era, a stunning volume of photographs that capture the transformation of this intoxicating part of the world.
Michael Dobbs – King Richard
Those who thought controversial presidencies began and ended with Donald Trump or even George W. Bush — Michael Dobbs has a story to tell you. In the 1972 election, incumbent president, Richard Nixon, was voted in by a landslide. But within a few months, the office that he’d relentlessly fought for was in a shambles. Following the recent release of thousands of hours of Nixon’s White House tapes, Dobbs’ thrilling volume takes readers into the heart of the conspiracy that was the ultimate undoing of King Richard.
Bri Lee – Who Gets to be Smart
From the author of Eggshell Skull — an unflinching personal account of a journey in the Australian legal system — comes an equally provocative exposé. Who Gets to be Smart interrogates the elitism that pervades education, shedding light on a system that entrenches intergenerational class boundaries. The institutions that have the power to shape the future for many young people are called to account by one of Australia’s most gifted young writers.
Zakiya Dalila Harris – The Other Black Girl
This addictive debut from Zakiya Dalila Harris combines the sensibilities of a thriller with a drily comic office atmosphere. It’s testament to Harris’s skill that she can also effortlessly cut across the narrative with an incisive statement on the dearth of Black representation in the world of publishing. The Other Black Girl is perhaps the buzziest new book in recent months — a refreshing and strikingly original multigenre tale.
Sheldon Pearce – Changes
For an artist whose life was so violently cut short, the immensity of Tupac Shakur’s influence is impossible to gauge. As if his immortalisation was not complete, his voice again rose to prominence as Changes became an anthem of the 2020 protests that were catalysed by the murder of George Floyd. 50 years on from his birth and 25 years after his death, The New Yorker’s Sheldon Pearce has compiled an unprecedented oral history of the rap icon, featuring rare interviews with people who collectively made a significant impact on his life and career.
Adam Andrusier – Two Hitlers and a Marilyn
Two Hitlers and a Marilyn tells the story of Adam Andrusier and his life-long obsession with autographs. As a child, any escape from the soporific surrounds of the suburbs was highly prized. As such, Andrusier pursued exotic with a passion, hunting autographs from any famous person he could think of. Effortlessly told, it’s a tale that spans the heartfelt and the hilarious.
Emily Austin – Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead
Story setups don’t come any more tantalising than this one. Through a series of miscommunications, a young, atheist lesbian called Gilda lands a job at the neighbourhood Catholic church. Adding further to the complications, the previous occupier of the receptionist job has died, and Gilda promptly becomes morbidly fascinated by the circumstances surrounding her death. If you like your comedy on the darker side, you’ll have many a laugh with this sharply observant novel.
Jennifer Otter Bickerdike – You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone
Nico has often been misconstrued, written off as simply a ‘muse’ for the male artistic visionaries in her sphere. This new comprehensive biography skewers the lazy labelling and presents Nico as an artist in all her complexity. Already lauded by contemporaries like Iggy Pop, You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone is a masterful account of Nico’s artistry and ongoing influence.
Akwaeke Emezi – Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir
From the author of Death of Vivek Oji and Pet comes one of the most anticipated memoirs of the year. Delivered in epistolatory form, it has already garnered the praise of contemporary luminaries, such as Roxane Gay. Straddling the world of the divine and the earthly, Dear Senthuran marks an unforgettable non-fiction debut from this acclaimed author. And though it ostensibly addresses questions of identity, it reveals so much more.
Irvin D. Yalom and Marilyn Yalom – A Matter of Death and Life
Irvin Yalom is a psychiatrist, accustomed to supporting patients through the darkest periods in their lives. When his wife, the acclaimed author Marilyn Yalom was diagnosed with cancer, his therapeutic instincts had to be turned inward. In this heartbreaking memoir, the couple provides their own accounts of Marilyn’s final days. If you’re in the mood for pondering the essence of love and what it means to grieve, this should be at the top of your list.