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Best books of 2021
Image: Time Out

15 really, really great books that got us through 2021

One silver lining to 2021: more time to read. These are the books that have transported our editors this year

Sophie Dickinson
Written by
Time Out editors
&
Sophie Dickinson
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Few sensations beat completing that epic volume that’s been sitting on your shelf for months. And this year – this patchy, patchy year – many of us finally did it. We found ourselves trapped at home, desperate for things to do. And actually, turns out, when it came to it, that book wasn’t so intimidating after all.

But not only did we simply have more time to enjoy stuff like reading, we also went out of our way to do it because we needed an escape. We needed to be transported to new worlds, to open our eyes to new things, to escape the undeniable bleakness of reality. For many us, films, TV shows and books were our lifeline through the roughest of times.

So, as 2021 comes to a close, we asked our editors around the world – literary nerds, one and all – to recommend one book that really resonated with them over the past 12 months. From old classics we really should’ve got round to before to new releases that properly rocked, here are the books that got us through the second (at times nice, but generally godawful) year of the pandemic. We hope you enjoy them, too.

RECOMMENDED: The 20 best films of 2021 and the best TV shows we binged this year

The really, really great books that got us through 2021

‘Crying in H Mart’ by Michelle Zauner
Photograph: Penguin Random House

1. ‘Crying in H Mart’ by Michelle Zauner

Ever since I read the viral ‘Crying in H Mart’ New Yorker essay a few years back, I’ve been patiently waiting for Michelle Zauner’s debut book to come out. It’s an incredibly moving and raw memoir about Zauner’s relationship with her terminally ill Korean mother, dealing with grief, what cancer does to a family and how Korean food is the healing language of love. I properly bawled my eyes out in public when reading this and it’s a book that’ll make you want to hug your mother that little bit tighter.

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Angela Hui
Food & Drink Writer, Time Out London
‘Blindness’ by José Saramago
Photograph: Mariner Books

2. ‘Blindness’ by José Saramago

This novel was first published in 1995, but I started reading it this year when Melbourne went into yet another lockdown. A few pages in, I realised that despite being a few decades old, the book had a lot of eerie parallels to what we were all enduring in real life. In it, a city is struck by an epidemic of blindness that quickly gets out of control. In an effort to suppress the illness, authorities shuttle the blind into a poorly planned quarantine. It’s a difficult read, but there are beautiful moments throughout that hammer home the resilience of the human spirit.

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Adena Maier
Lifestyle Journalist, Time Out Melbourne
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‘Putting It Together’ by James Lapine
Photograph: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

3. ‘Putting It Together’ by James Lapine

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1984 musical ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ imagines the process behind the creation of a pointillist masterpiece by Georges Seurat, so there’s a meta quality to Lapine’s 2021 oral history of how the show itself came to be, bit by bit and part by part. Insightful, dishy and human, the book is especially meaningful in the wake of Sondheim’s death this year: it’s a vital record of the master’s voice.

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Adam Feldman
Theater and Dance Editor, Time Out USA
‘Asylum Road’ by Olivia Sudjic
Photograph: Bloomsbury

4. ‘Asylum Road’ by Olivia Sudjic

I started the year with ‘Asylum Road’ by Olivia Sudjic and I don’t think I read anything better. A study of inherited trauma, psychological disintegration and the siege of Sarajevo, it’s both frightening and – amazingly given the subject matter – pretty funny too. Through elliptical vignettes, Sudjic deftly writes of a relationship on the edge, fragmentary memories and uneasy family ties. Read alongside her essay collection, ‘Exposure’, which looks at the writing of Elena Ferrante, Jenny Offill, Rachel Cusk and more, with additional musings on the internet and anxiety.

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Sophie Dickinson
Interim Travel Writer, Time Out
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‘The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton
Photograph: Raven Books

5. ‘The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton

I’m a sucker for a cosy English drawing-room murder mystery, and ‘The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ (in some countries called ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ – spoilers already!) delivers in spades. It has all the beats you want from a genre book of this type – amnesia, motives from everyone, an inheritance, a long-distant crime, illegitimate children, suspicious servants, a thrilling and dramatic denouement – but it twists them all into something entirely new. Just wait till you meet the titular Evelyn, who isn’t, or is, or isn’t, or is, dead. I found it gripping from start to finish, and devoured it in a couple of days.

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Cassidy Knowlton
Editorial Director, Time Out Australia
‘The Book of Eels’ by Patrik Svensson
Photograph: Ecco

6. ‘The Book of Eels’ by Patrik Svensson

Want to know how eels shag? Do you? Well, good luck with that: no one has a clue. It’s a question that’s troubled everyone from Aristotle to Freud, and now a man called Patrik Svensson who wrote this quite compelling little book on their continuing elusiveness – not just when it comes to intercourse, but also basically everything else about them. It’s a mix of pop science, philosophical essay and memoir, and I raced through it on various park benches during February’s lockdown. Svensson got hooked on eels, if you will, thanks to his fisherman father, and at a time when basically none of us could see our loved ones, it reminded me of all the obscure passions I’ve shared with my Dad, too.

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Huw Oliver
International Commissioning Editor, Time Out
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‘About A Son’ by David Whitehouse
Photograph: Hachette

7. ‘About A Son’ by David Whitehouse

I was lucky enough to bag a preview copy of this startling piece of non-fiction a few months ahead of its official release in April. Weird thing to say, but the author might have invented a new genre of literature here, so unique are the events leading up to the book’s publication. Part evidence-led true-crime investigation and part psycho-spiritual communion with the essence of grief itself, ‘About A Son’ is unlike anything you’ve ever read, I guarantee. This deserves to be massive in 2022.

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Joe Mackertich
Editor, Time Out London
‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang
Photograph: Portobello Books

8. ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

I tried out a couple of new novels this year and, to be perfectly honest, they felt like a chore. So it was a sigh of relief when I picked up this book, first published in 2007 by South Korean writer Han Kang. An intense character study in three parts, it’s about the deterioration of Yeong-hye – starting with the moment she decides to throw out all her meat because she ‘had a dream’. It’s a little disconcerting, but written so vividly and convincingly – and peppered with moments of such raw eroticism and intense drama – that I just couldn’t put it down.

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Chiara Wilkinson
Staff Writer, Time Out London
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‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation' by Ottessa Moshfegh
Photograph: Jonathan Cape

9. ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation' by Ottessa Moshfegh

The concept of hibernating your problems away – the basic premise of this book – felt totally relatable back at the start of the year. The central character in ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ seems to have it all: she’s beautiful, rich, chic, and yet she wants to sleep her way to a new life. I found the author’s dark sense of humour really gripping (there’s lots of snarky one-liners), and while I felt the unnamed protagonist was incredibly narcissistic, I couldn’t help but hope she found what she was looking for on her drug-induced journey.

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Georgia Evans
Deputy Commercial Editor, Time Out
‘Life and Fate’ by Vasily Grossman
Photograph: Penguin Books

10. ‘Life and Fate’ by Vasily Grossman

When Russian-Jewish author Vassily Grossman submitted his masterpiece ‘Life and Fate’ he was told it couldn’t be published for 200 years. Then the Soviet authorities removed every single piece of paper from his apartment, plus any used typewriter ribbons they could find. It’s not hard to understand why they felt so threatened. Grossman’s novel is an astonishingly rich, panoramic view of the turning point of WWII – the Battle of Stalingrad. It is unsparing in its criticism of the paranoid state apparatus of Stalin’s Russia, but even-handed and humane when examining those caught up in the machine of history. A shocking and thrillingly ambitious experience.

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Chris Waywell
Deputy Editor, Time Out London
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‘Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty’ by Patrick Raden Keefe
Photograph: Picador

11. ‘Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty’ by Patrick Raden Keefe

I loved New Yorker writer Patrick Raden Keefe's 2018 non-fiction book ‘Say Nothing on the legacy of violence and murder in 1970s Northern Ireland. So naturally I was also drawn to the idea of Raden Keefe delving into the history of the Sacklers: the New York family famous for their conspicuous patronage of the arts and their role in the opioid crisis via OxyContin, the blockbuster drug manufactured by their pharma company. It’s a staggering tale, based on immaculate and revealing research and told with storytelling brilliance. A real-world horror story.

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Dave Calhoun
Global Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Time Out
‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers
Photograph: W&N

12. ‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers

I loved ‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but I was drawn to its turquoise and orange design when I was looking for a holiday read in an actual bookshop in Devon (I usually just download books onto my Kindle). Set in the London suburbs in the 1950s, it’s about a woman who claims to have had a virgin birth and what happens when a local reporter looks into it. Reading it, I felt a sense of familiarity – lots of scenes take place in recognisable London spots – but, with it being set in the ‘50s, it also felt like an escape to a different time (one, crucially, untouched by Covid). Reading it while lying on a sunny beach was a total joy – I inhaled it in a few days.

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Isabelle Aron
Features Editor, Time Out London
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‘No One Is Talking About This’ by Patricia Lockwood
Photograph: Bloomsbury

13. ‘No One Is Talking About This’ by Patricia Lockwood

I doubt any book released this year is more ‘2021’ than Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel ‘No One Is Talking About This’. Released in February in the midst of a lockdown that many of us spent endlessly doomscrolling, its internet-famous protagonist (largely based on Lockwood herself) details a life totally consumed by ‘the portal’ of the internet. She travels the world taking part in panel discussions on internet culture with other Twitter obsessives, ponders the absurdity and fleetingness of its humour, and questions whether we’re really all really supposed to keep doing this until we die. It’s a hilarious and provocative examination of our relationship with technology, and will feel disconcertingly familiar for anyone who has had to turn off the Screen Time tracker on their iPhone due to the deep fear it instils. Which is all of us, right?

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Rosie Hewitson
Events Editor, Time Out London
‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker
Photograph: Penguin Books

14. ‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker

Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker was so good it quite literally put me to sleep every night (and not because it’s a dull read – quite the opposite). Last year, sleep felt like one of the only things I could actually control (it was a tangible wellness goal that I felt could actually improve my psychological/physical wellness during a restless lockdown), and this book takes a science-based approach to figuring it out. I still don’t sleep like a rock, but at least now I know why.

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Keith Flanagan
Contributing writer
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‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
Photograph: Picador

15. ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara

It’s a cliché to say that you wish an already-bloody-long book had been even bloody longer, but ‘A Little Life’ really could’ve been. Its 800 pages tell the tale of four New Yorkers, twisting between some of the most dejected, miserable stuff I’ve ever read and moments of real sensitivity and affirmation. I’m not even (that much of) an emotional or glum dude, but ‘A Little Life’ managed to capture the ups and downs of everyday life in a way that few books do.

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Ed Cunningham
Contributing writer
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