Books of the Year: the Pushkin team picks
Posted 10th December 2021
Well, what a year it’s been here at Pushkin HQ! To name just a few highlights, we had a Waterstones Fiction Book of the Month, two selections on Barack Obama’s Reading List, two International Booker Prize shortlistings and one winner! As 2021 draws to a close, we thought it would be the perfect time to sit back and reflect on a stellar year of publishing.
So, here are our favourite reads of 2021 – from the Pushkin list and beyond.
Ameenah – Production Assistant
The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (tr. Philip Boehm)
Lo and behold Waterstones’ October book of the month. The events of Kristallnacht can never be forgotten but have you ever wondered what it truly felt like to endure such torment? The Passenger is a novel that takes it readers back in time to 1938 when anti-Semitism was at its peak. Through the life of protagonist Otto, we are able to read about the unbearable experiences the Jewish community faced during this night. A story overflowing with tension, survival and persecution, The Passenger is a compelling read that you can’t put down.
We Free the Stars by Hafsah Faizal
If you’re a fan of YA fantasy (like me), then this is the book for you. Although, it’s part of a duology so you’ll have to read the first instalment, We Hunt the Flame first but I can assure you, it’s something you will not regret! Set in a realm inspired by the history and legends of ancient Arabia, the story continues as female hunter Zafira and Prince of Death Nasir embark on a minacious adventure to restore magic in their kingdom. Join Zafira and Nasir in their journey as they fight for love, are forced to make sacrifices, and are determined to finish what the started in this mesmerising and magical story by Hafsah Faizal.
Daniel – Commissioning Editor
Dust off the Bones by Paul Howarth
The stunning sequel to Only Killers and Thieves is both a breathless outback adventure and an unflinching portrayal of Australia’s brutal past. This blistering novel brings out the darkest aspects of human nature without lapsing into cynicism, and weaves tragic history into an electrifying story without flattening its complexity.
Summerwater by Sarah Moss
A chorus of voices tells a taut, humane and beautifully observed story of a rainy 24 hours at a holiday camp in the Scottish highlands. Every voice comes to life in a different and surprising way, while the whole book is suffused with an ominous tension that makes for compulsive reading.
Elise – Senior Marketing Executive
Grown Ups by Marie Aubert (tr. Rosie Hedger)
Beware anyone with a sister: this book may get too real. A short and prickly story about a family getaway to a lakehouse in the Norwegian countryside, this book is as funny as it is cutting. Our narrator, Ida, is experiencing what can only be explained as an existential wobble when the family holiday begins, and her behaviour throughout becomes increasingly wince-worthy. Fantastic writing, beautiful setting, relatable sisterly viciousness. Oh, and you can definitely read it in a day!
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
I love it when I spend the first part of a book confused, intrigued and totally enchanted, and then for the world to unfold in front of me like a Christmas present. Piranesi was a masterclass in spellbinding writing, clever characterisation and intricate world-building. It’s the sort of book that anyone would enjoy too – a perfect gift for anyone whose taste you’re unsure of.
India – Managing Editor
The Second Woman by Louise Mey (tr. Louise Rogers Lalaurie)
A solid bet for these spine tingling winter months, The Second Woman is for anybody who’s looking for a darkly realistic psychological thriller. It’s best described as Gone Girl meets Rebecca, and if that doesn’t sell it to you then I don’t know what will. I could not tear my eyes from the pages, muting a zoom call with friends so that I could finish it (hyperventilating at the ending, thinking I was on mute but, dear reader, I was not). It’s not a comfortable read by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an extraordinary one.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
For fans of classic gothic I present Mexican Gothic. The setting is a decaying Mexican mansion, built at the top of a mountain on the bones of an exhausted gold mine. The heroine is a brave and beautiful socialite, travelled from Mexico City to look after her cousin who, after a recent marriage, has fallen mysteriously ill. The host family are distant, cruel and frightening. The house itself seems… well, somewhat alive. It’s got everything you might want for a creepy read by the fireside.
Jo – Art Director
Shoo! by Susie Bower and Francesca Gambatesa
Mrs Golightly happily leads a quiet life alone until a zoo moves in next door. But once she sends them away, she realises solitude may not be as enjoyable as a kangaroo on your loo, an armadillo on your pillow or crocs in your socks. This beautifully illustrated tale is a reminder that company is essential and ants in your pants aren’t always a bad thing.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro’s books always stun me with their beautiful melancholy and Klara and the Sun is no exception. I felt so much compassion and empathy for Klara, a naïve robot whose sole purpose is servitude. Ishiguro continues to challenge us on what it means to be human, questioning mortality, morality and religion.
Kirsten – Editorial Assistant
I Live a Life Like Yours by Jan Grue (tr. B. L. Crook)
I Live a Life Like Yours is a memoir of Jan’s experience of disability (he has spinal muscular atrophy, and frequently uses a wheelchair), that incorporates art, literature and film into its thrilling and beautiful storytelling. It’s a book that is initially deceptively gentle, often dwelling in quiet domestic spaces and muted moments of self-reflection – that builds into a powerful, righteous confrontation with our ableist culture, and demands that we reframe our understanding of disability.
In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, (tr. in what must have been an incredibly collaboration by Sasha Dugdale).
An attempt to reconstruct a family archive, only for the family archive turns to ash and dust in the author’s hands, In Memory of Memory is a stunning panorama of an ordinary Russian Jewish family during the 20th and 21st century. It is also a extraordinary exploration of the fallibility of memory, and an original attempt to process the traces that a person and people leave behind. I started this book not long after it came out, only to put it down one third of the way through and not come back to it for several months – at which point I restarted it from the beginning, and could barely put it down.
Poppy – Publicity Director
How to be Brave by Daisy May Johnson
How to Be Brave is a totally raucous and adorable debut. I loved every second of the reading experience. Boarding schools, unruly nuns, biscuits and CAKE. It is everything a children’s book should be.
Magpie by Elizabeth Day
If you’re looking for a book to keep you on the edge of your seat, it has to be Magpie by Elizabeth Day. An exhilarating, beautifully written novel on motherhood, fertility and jealousy. One for the Christmas list!
Rory – Assistant Editor
A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett
Written by a connoisseur of cruelty, A House and Its Head boasts a cast that makes the characters of Succession look charitable. Compton-Burnett writes like no-one else: her hilarious dialogue is outrageously artificial but her core themes of the power struggles internal to family structures hit with painful truth. With two of the bleakest proposal scenes I’ve ever read and a depiction of a deranged, nightmarish Christmas day, it’s a total joy.
A Shock by Keith Ridgway
I was mesmerised by the subtle connections Ridgway threads throughout this remarkable novel made up of interlinked stories. I’ve never read a portrait of London so recognisable nor so subtly strange; a London full of rodents, odd encounters and occasional, creeping unease. With an unparalleled ear for dialogue, Ridgway folds contemporary themes—chemsex, housing insecurity, Labour party politics—into a fluid and richly satisfying form held together by a sly narrative intelligence that recalls Muriel Spark.
Sarah – Editor-at-Large, Pushkin Children’s
Dragon Skin by Karen Foxlee
My favourite books are those with a strong plot, great character and heart – a core of compassion and love and care. Dragon Skin has it all as the protagonist finds that caring for an abandoned dragon pup gives her the strength to care for herself and to make important changes to her and her mother’s life. Magic, family issues and friendship combine in a book that leaves you feeling uplifted and full of hope.
East West Street by Philippe Sands
Part family memoir, part investigative journalism, part legal analysis this astounding book had me completely gripped. It’s wonderful blend of personal and universal enchanted me and reminded me how our actions impact on all those around us – both good and bad. It’s a truly wonderful book that balances on the tightrope of delivering sometimes brutal information and detail while ensuring the reader is turning pages desperate to find out what happens in the lives of the myriad people involved in this hugely important story.
Tara – Press Officer
Little Gods by Meng Jin
A rich and immersive novel about immigration and inheritance, Little Gods had me gripped from its opening pages (set in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square Massacre) and didn’t let me go until its last, dazzling sentence. Meng Jin introduces us to Su Lan, a brilliant and enigmatic physicist, and her daughter Liya, and we follow as the mysteries of their pasts are pieced together, revealed in a captivating narrative spanning from China to the US. The porous boundary between science and art, the difficulty of language, the unknowability of the people who make us who we are: each of these concerns comes under Jin’s microscope in a book that is finally a beautiful experiment all of its own, fizzing with wonder.
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley
This is a slim, searing portrait of the relationship between a mother and daughter (ebbing and flowing over decades) that left me reeling. With surgical precision, Riley sketches the contours of this relationship in all its complexity, alighting frequently on the little cruelties the duo exchanges as if they were gifts. My Phantoms combines a remarkable sensitivity to behaviour with a diamond-hard prose style: not a single word feels superfluous.
And there you have it! The Pushkin team’s 2021 recommendations. We hope you found this list insightful if not entertaining, and do be sure to check out all the titles we recommend below. Happy holidays!