Best Books of 2021

What’s the end of year without an end-of-year Best Books list? It’s like a gift without a bow.

The Words on the Waves committee bravely tackled the task, and below are our favourite reads of the year, although of course that’s like choosing a favourite child… impossible. These books diverted us, enthralled us, educated us and reminded us of the joys to be found on the page.

As always, we encourage you to shop at your local independent bookstore if any of these take your fancy! In the words of the great Neil Gaiman: “What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”

Adult Readers

Still Life by Sarah Winman
After reading Winman’s debut many years ago, I always grab her latest book and I am never disappointed. This is a gorgeous, whimsical read, that is probably a little more straight historical fiction than her usual titles. Still Life opens in the Tuscan hills during WW2 and moves to London and Florence following an extraordinary cast of characters who I grew to love. This is a perfect recommendation for summer reading a book you will be swept away by and miss when it is finished. (Mandi)

Signs & Wonders by Delia Falconer
A startling, crystalline sequence of essays exploring the miraculous experiences of nature and the world around us that continue to occur despite or perhaps, due to its alarming and accelerating degradation. A baby mammoth emerges from the permafrost, palm trees walk up sandy shores to secure stabler footing, species disappear one by one while the horrors are certainly stomach-churning, nonetheless Falconer leaves us with a sense of the innate beauty of it all. There are wonders of a different ilk, also we swoop into the modern novel, grief, CSI,  COVID perambulations and more. A far-ranging and important read. (Angela)

The Shadow House by Anna Downes
Set in the Central Coast hinterland and inspired by a real ecovillage, The Shadow House is an atmospheric thriller following two mothers as their worst nightmares unfold. Domestic violence, the dark web, the difficulties of motherhood and adolescence are all introduced alongside some truly eerie and harder-to-explain spectres, such as a wizened old woman appearing in the woods, strange carvings on the trees, and an abandoned house with a whole raft of buried secrets. A satisfying read for those who prefer their thrills moody and complex, rather than gory. (Angela)

After Story by Larissa Behrendt
After Story is a great read as we follow a family who have suffered enormous personal grief and see how they all cope with that trauma. It is not a grim book at all though, it is full of light, love and story as we follow a mother and daughter on a literary trip around the UK, a whole world away from their close-knit Indigenous community back home. Perfect for those who enjoy discussion of the classics as they visit the homes of Dickens, Woolf and many more, but also for those who want strong family relationships and to be allowed into a strong family dealing with the secrets of the past. (Mandi)

Murmurations by Carol Lefevre
This is one of those books that sneak up on you out of nowhere, leaving you gasping for air. I had never heard of South Australian author Lefevre, whose past works include Nights at the Asylum (2007) and The Happiness Glass (2018), until spying her latest on the NSW Premier’s Literary Award Shortlist for 2021 – and now I am so glad I have. Murmurations is a novella of interconnected stories, all orbiting the mysterious death of Erris Cleary as well as more loosely being united by the lonesome urban scenes depicted by American painter Edward Hopper. The judges called it, “a beautifully crafted jewel of a work” and I have to agree. If you love modern masters such as Alice Munro, Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Strout you will relish this. (Angela)

Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson (released late 2020)
Those who attended Words on the Waves in 2021 may recall Yuwaalaraay storyteller and Stiff Gins performer Nardi Simpson electrifying the room as the wintry sun set on the final event of the day. Simpson’s in-person presence and eloquence is a fitting extension of her genius on the page: Song of the Crocodile, which was shortlisted for a slew of awards in 2021, is a heartbreaking, expansive multi-generational tale of loss, laughter and belonging set in the fictional regional town of Darnmoor. The characters of the Billymil family leap off the page and their hard-won humour and wisdom is a gift to the reader, despite the immense hardships they face. An absolute classic-in-the-making. (Angela)

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
Reminiscent of Elena Ferrante’s work, this is a story set in Italy over the period of a year. The protagonist/narrator remains nameless, as does the city that she lives in. It’s a story of a woman in her 40s who moves through her solitary life, watching, reflecting, and contemplating what lies ahead. It’s a year of transformation with every activity and thought, propelling her forward. It’s a book that I will revisit more than once. (Kaye)


The Last Woman in the World by Inga Simpson
All of Simpson’s novels are very different and it shows her skills as a novelist. I loved the whimsy and heart of Mr Wigg and Where the Trees Were gave great insight into the relationship between galleries and museums and the artifacts they have accumulated, particularly from Indigenous sites. This new novel is one that is hard to categorise we have the literary beauty of the writing about the environment and our main character who is a glass blower, but also the dystopian thriller as something terrible is unleashed that propels the action that follows. (Mandi)

The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
I loved this! Michael Mohammed Ahmad spoke at Words on the  Waves festival this year and was so fabulous on the panel with Rawah Arja that I bought the book straight away to get it signed. I enjoyed the relationships in the book and the look into a family quite different from my own in many ways, but the love, the pressure of expectations and the wonderful little quirks were universal.  Full of love, profanity and clash of cultures, this was a great read. (Mandi)

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
An emotional, madcap adventure across 1950s America,  this is a charming story with exquisitely drawn,  hugely endearing characters, beautiful writing and a real sense of moral integrity and humanity at its best. When a young man is released from prison on compassionate grounds, he begins a journey across America with his little brother to find his lost-long mother. And of course, nothing goes to plan! As with A Gentleman in Moscow, I really fell in love with these flawed but determined young men in their search for a better life. I love to escape into a book, and with the rich settings and historical observations, I was transported into this 1950s road-trip and  didn’t want it to end. (Kirsten)

Younger Readers

Jetty Jumping by Andrea Rowe and illustrator Hannah Sommerville
This beautiful book took me on a journey back to my own childhood, perfectly captures long summer days spent at the beach with friends and family and about overcoming your fears. Both the writing and the illustrations are gorgeous, with a perfect rhythm in the narrative to keep small children engaged in the story. (Jacqui)


Marcie Gill and the Caravan Park Cat by Monica McInerney illustrated by Danny Snell
A thoroughly entertaining read. Perfect for the 10–12-year-old age readers. I absolutely loved Marcie and the connection that she has with her beloved Gran. A gentle, funny, heart-warming family story, the illustrations add the feels factor. (Jacqui)





Bindi by Kirli Saunders illustrated by Dub Leffler
Bindi is a gorgeous, beautifully written novel by author and poet Kirli Saunders, who we were lucky to have join us at the Words on the Waves Schools Program in 2021. Written so simply and so beautifully, the words in this story speak of more than just themselves. Beautiful soft charcoal illustrations by Dub Leffler, one of Australia’s most sought after Indigenous illustrators of children’s literature, Bindi is a book to treasure. (Jacqui)

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
They’re not the heroes we deserve. They’re just the ones we could find. Nobody panic. This is the tag line for Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff in this fast-paced high-action young adult sci-fi novel, set in the year 2380. I’m currently half-way through book two of a trilogy, and I’m loving the characters as much, if not more, than the plot. Kaufman and Kristoff are masters in the one-liners that inspire ‘laugh out loud’ status. I want to be best friends with this whole team of misfits that graduate from Aurora Academy and end up saving a girl who’s been asleep for two centuries. If this doesn’t get made into a movie, I’ll be very disappointed. (Marie)

The Break by Phillip Gwynne
From the author of Deadly Unna? comes a fast-paced rite-of-passage set amid the mythical surf and island culture of Bali, and up to its neck in the madness of its politics and the terrifying consequences of breaking the rules… A fast-paced coming of age story with plenty of action and family truths to unravel. (Jacqui) 



The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Peculiar Pairs by Sami Bayly
I’m a huge fan of award-winning author-illustrator Sami Bayly’s books. This superb series of illustrated encyclopedias that highlight just a few of the wonderful animals that we share the planet with. (Jacqui)





A Year in Fleurville by Felicita Sala
Maria’s picking asparagus, Ramon’s mum is watering the cucumbers, and a gaggle of kids are eating cherries fresh from the tree and even wearing some as earrings! Meet the many people of Fleurville, delight in their produce, learn their recipes, and find comfort in the cycle of the seasons. A Year in Fleurville is a cookbook, a mini guide to gardening, and a picture book rolled into one, celebrating the joys of coming together and sharing the rich rewards of our gardens and kitchens. (Jacqui)