Well friends, our staff picks for 2021 have come to an end. We’ve lived, we’ve laughed, we’ve loved, and now it is time for us to share with you the last of our hottest recommendations of the year. We’re closing things out with our fiction hits, from speculative trans novels to anniversary editions and International Booker Prize longlistees. Like our graphic novels and nonfiction roster, we’ve had a really great selection this year, and we’ve been so privileged to work on so many wonderful titles.
Scroll on to see our fiction highlights, and do please stop by to check out our recommendations in both graphic novels and nonfiction if you haven’t already. And that, devoted readers, is a wrap on 2021.
Future Feeling by Joss Lake
(9781593766887, p/b, £12.99, Soft Skull Press)
Feeling downtrodden by his own life, a young trans man called Pen obsesses over Aiden Chase, a picture-perfect influencer who relentlessly posts about his much smoother transition into traditional masculinity. After an encounter with Aiden leaves Pen feeling especially resentful, he enlists his roommates, the Witch and the Stoner-Hacker, to help him hex Aiden. But the hex bypasses Aiden and sends a young trans man called Blithe to the emotional wasteland known as the Shadowlands. When Pen and Aiden to team up and retrieve him, they must come to some sort of mutual understanding, and try to pass on what little trans wisdom they possess. This is a really fun, speculative novel that raises a lot of questions around what we owe each other in the queer community, and the cost of transition, as well as what we stand to gain.
Since I Laid My Burden Down by Brontez Purnell
(9781838390006, p/b, £9.99, Cipher Press)
I love everything that Cipher publish, and I especially love Brontez Purnell. His cult novel, Since I Laid My Burden Down, encapsulates everything that makes Brontez’s work so great. When Deshawn hears of his uncle’s death, his riotous big-city life in San Francisco is abruptly put on hold while he travels back to Alabama for the funeral. Wading through prickly reminders of his childhood, Deshawn reconnects with his old self and the ghosts of his past. This is a raw, dirty book, both hilarious and heart-breaking in equal measure. I’ve recently been thinking about what I want out of literature, and it turns out that what I want is more Brontez Purnell, all the time.
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson
(9781911231370, p/b, £8.99, Text Publishing)
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth was our Book of the Month for October, and I’m just as much in love with it now as I was then. In this collection, characters inhabit a world that moves seamlessly between the real and the imagined, the mundane and the fantastic. It’s funny and absurd, and a brilliant exploration of loss, death and everything that falls in between. We just love Kevin Wilson.
Voice of the Fire: 25th Anniversary Edition by Alan Moore
(9780861662876, p/b, £10.99, Knockabout Comics)
This is the 25th anniversary edition of comic book legend Alan Moore’s first novel and if you haven’t read it before then there’s no better reason to finally pick it up. Taking place over a period of 6000 years, it follows the lives of 12 people, spanning all these periods of England’s history in Moore’s own hometown of Northampton. It’s a strange, sometimes unsettling novel that delves into local legends and moves forward in time with each chapter before it ends with Moore including a chapter about himself. It really allows him to express his writing prowess with a whole slew of unreliable narrators and rotten characters who keep you engaged as they pick apart the differences in myth and reality. You’ll find yourself questioning the real heritage of the places you call home when you get to the end of this one.
Four Minutes by Nataliya Deleva
(9781948830379, Open Letter, p/b, £11.99)
This novel speaks about adoption, gay rights, a-legality and living on the margins of society. While Leah is our main character and we follow her trying to overcome her trauma around her own time in an orphanage by volunteering at one herself, this book also covers the narratives of nine other people who also exist in complex and often tragic lives. Their sections are written so that they can be read aloud in four minutes. This references a social experiment that put forth the hypothesis that it only takes four minutes of looking someone in the eye and listening to them talk about themselves in order to accept and empathise with them. In this way the novel is asking you to try to be more empathetic as you read it and hopefully if you do decide to pick this one up, you’ll find yourself contemplating the lives of people you don’t usually think about every day.
A Woman’s Affair by Liane De Pougy, translated by Graham Anderson
(9781912868483/ p/b, £9.99, Dedalus)
For the first time ever A Woman’s Affair was translated in to English this year. This story made history and ruffled feathers in 1901 when Liane de Pougy first published the lesbian love story in France. Herself, a celebrity courtesan – and in desperate need of an actual biography one day – Pougy writes a captivating story about Annhine de Lys who is saved from her life of boredom as a notorious Paris courtesan by the intimate love of a beautiful American woman Flossie. Though Annhine knows she is in danger accepting this side of her sexuality and keeps trying to give up Flossie, she just can’t make it stick. What this quandary leaves us with is a melodramatic “will they, won’t they?” same sex romance set in turn-of-the-century Paris. If this description brings to mind an overtop and scandalous romantic adventure in the echelons of glamour and opulence you’re right, and it reads even more deliciously than you can imagine.
Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated by David Doherty
(9781912987139, p/b, £12.99, World Editions)
With a longlisting for this year’s International Booker Prize, Jaap Robben is a writer to keep your eye on right now and Summer Brother is a brilliant book with which to begin your Jaap journey! Compassionate, well-written and thought-provoking, Summer Brother tells the story of two brothers pushed together over the course of one summer. Thirteen-year-old Brian lives in a trailer on a forgotten patch of land with his uncaring father. His older brother Lucien, physically and mentally disabled, has been institutionalised for years. Lucien is sent back to live with his family for the summer. Their disinterested father leaves Brian to care for Lucien’s special needs. But how do you look after someone when you don’t know what they need? How do you make the right choices when you still have so much to discover?
The Day I Fell Off My Island by Yvonne Bailey-Smith
(9781912408955, p/b, £12.99, Myriad Editions)
Despite the pandemic and global climate, Myriad Editions have managed to pull out all the stops and publish some stand-out books this year, one of which is the brilliant story of a teenage Jamaican girl suddenly uprooted from her home following the death of her beloved grandmother. Yvonne Bailey-Smith drew inspiration from her own story to write of how Erna Mullings finds herself in south London, displaced and detached from all she knows. This is a book filled with warmth and humanity, and was wonderfully described by Candice Carty-Williams as a “striking story with an unforgettable cast of characters”.
Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt
(9781838390020, p/b, £9.99, Cipher Press)
Be warned – you may want to cover your eyes for this recommendation. In fact, this book comes with an important content warning for depictions of rape, transphobia, racism, suicide, self-harm and antisemitism. Now that’s cleared up, this book seriously rekindled my love for horror and Rumfitt does a stellar job of making the genre her own. I’ve pretty much been raving about this one on Twitter since putting it down, so just take my word for it that you won’t finish this book the same person as when you picked it up, and for now I’ll let it’s blurb do the talking: Three years ago, Alice spent one night in an abandoned house with her friends Ila and Hannah. Since then, things have not been going well. Alice is living a haunted existence, selling videos of herself cleaning for money, drinking herself to sleep. She hasn’t spoken to Ila since they went into the House. She hasn’t seen Hannah either. Memories of that night torment her, but when Ila asks her to return to the House she knows she must go. Together Alice and Ila must face the horrifying occurrences that happened there and try to rescue Hannah, who the House has chosen to make its own.
Crocodile Tears by Mercedes Rosende, translated by Tim Gutteridge
(9781913394431, PB, £8.99, Bitter Lemon Press)
This is the first time that Uraguayan novelist Mercedes Rosende’s work has been available for English-speakers to read, and my word, what a debut. Winner of the prestigious German LiBeraturpreis in 2019, this tale of a bungled heist on the mean streets of Montevideo is told with captivating local detail and excoriating humour. It follows a man called Diego, who, after his unexpected release from prison on kidnapping charges, joins forces with a very dangerous man to hold up an armoured truck. From here things descend into chaos and violence, as a collection of well-drawn and varied characters must deal with the consequences. Rosende’s writing is witty and accomplished, and the translation by Tim Gutteridge is excellent. If you’re looking for something new to keep you hooked til the last page, try Crocodile Tears.
The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
(9781912836475, HB, £16.99, September Publishing)
The Dragonfly Sea is a vivid, exquisitely-written coming-of-age novel set on the coast of East Africa, Turkey, and China. This magical novel is written by one of Kenya’s most exciting writers, whose book Dust was previously shortlisted for the Folio Prize. On the island of Pate off the Kenyan coast, Ayaana lives with her mother. A solitary, stubborn child, she finds a father she hadn’t had previously when a sailor enters their lives. The Dragonfly Sea follows Ayaana’s journey from childhood to adulthood, as forces beyond her control reshape her life and that of the island itself, and she finds herself embarking on a voyage across the sea. The lyricism of Owuor’s writing is truly transportive in this lush work of pure literary escapism. Sathnam Sanghera said it best: “The Dragonfly Sea transported me at a time I really wanted to be transported. Lyrical, compassionate, and deeply original, it has stayed with me, and is the novel I have most enjoyed this year.”
Yes Yes More More by Anna Wood
(9781911648284, PB, £10.99, The Indigo Press)
Yes Yes More More is, as the title might suggest, a book that can’t get enough of the joys of life – a sparkling collection of short stories absolutely bursting with life, often laugh-out-loud funny and poignant in equal measure. Each story is a delight in and of itself: from a film journalist sharing a tea break with Proust to a woman fleeing to New Orleans to find unexpected treasures there, Anna Wood skips through the years of a woman’s life with wit and infectious verve. Full of music and warmth, friendship and love, this is one to wrap you up and remind you that everything might be okay, after all.
“Fiction has a new star in its firmament.” – Carol Ann Duffy
Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner
(9781913512040, p/b, £9.99, Peninsula Press)
Sterling Karat Gold is hands-down the best book I read this year, if not for years! I loved it so much I read it twice in fact. Isabel Waidner’s writing is exactly what the publishing industry needs right now – it’s playful, experimental, accessible, so lively you can almost taste it, deeply moving, and completely original. Described as ‘Kafka’s The Trial written for the era of gaslighting’, this is a surreal, frenetic, and powerful novel about contemporary Britain and Britishness that centres immigrants, queers, and people of colour. The book starts with a bullfight in Camden and a misplaced arrest, and continues through time and space, encountering footballers and spaceships and an art collective and some tiny cute animals. If you haven’t read Sterling Karat Gold yet do so! Buy it for everyone you know this Christmas. As if I need to persuade you any further, it just won the 2021 Goldsmith’s Prize, which is phenomenal news. And, if you like it, Peninsula Press are reissuing Waidner’s previous novels next year too, originally published by the brilliant Dostoevsky Wannabe.
The Service by Frankie Miren
(9781910312872, p/b, £9.99, Influx Press)
Another of my absolute favourite books this year, The Service is a novel about sex workers Lori and Freya and a journalist SWERF called Paula whose whole thing is anti sex work journalism and an almost madcap campaign to ban sex robots. Lori is trying to build a new life for herself and her daughter when the advertising sites she uses for work are taken down and she is suddenly without income. Freya is a student coming to sex work for the first time. The three women are drawn into each other’s lives as tension builds and brothels start getting raided by the police. The Service is compelling, powerful, rage-inducing, gentle, smart, and, at times, really, really funny. It’s another vital, urgent piece of fiction you should buy for everyone you know!
A Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett
(9781551528564, p/b, £13.99, Arsenal Pulp Press)
I came across Casey Plett when I was given a copy of her 2014 short story collection A Safe Girl to Love, and it blew my mind! There is such intimacy and honestly inside her stories, and an almost celestial humour that really stuck with me. Then in 2018, Plett’s novel Little Fish landed on my desk and afterwards I knew I’d read everything she’d ever write again. So! I was really thrilled, in the depths of this hellish year, to get my hands on a copy of her latest short story collection A Dream of a Woman. It’s a beautiful, quiet, intimate, tender collection of stories about trans women searching for stability, and a meditation on sex, relationships, addiction, romance, and love. It’s an incredible book, and a perfectly gentle and grounding read for these weird times.
If anything you’ve read about on our blog catches your eye, consider ordering from your local bookshop. Find yours here. Alternatively, you can browse your favourite indies on Bookshop.org.