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Spring Forward: Must-Read Books from 2021

In the End, it was All About Love by Musa Okwonga, Rough Trade Books, January 2021

In this rich, moving and thought-provoking piece of autofiction, a black British writer moves to Berlin and takes stock of his life shortly before his fortieth birthday – the age at which his high-achieving father died. Musa’s narrator deals with painful situations, from sexual rejection to racist encounters and the rise of far-right prejudice across Europe, but there is self-care and solace here too – in music, friendship, football and sweet treats in cafes. As well as a life-affirming read, this book also works as a Rough Guide to Berlin’s cake scene.

Diary of a Film by Niven Govinden, Dialogue Books, February 2021

Is a life dedicated to art intrinsically worthwhile? If Musa’s book asks this question, Niven Govinden’s latest novel keeps exploring it. The action focuses on a couple of days in the life of a middle-aged gay auteur in an anonymous Italian city, preparing for previews of his latest film. Anyone missing European cities – and food – will love this passegiata through the Italian streets. Accompanied by two young actors on the cusp of stardom and a mysterious woman who shares her story with him, the film-maker confronts what art has taken away from him and what it might yet have to give.

Lullaby Beach by Stella Duffy, Virago, February 2021

Set in a coastal town that they forgot to close down, Stella Duffy’s latest novel is a subtly triumph of storytelling from one of our finest writers. An ordinary family’s #MeToo story, Lullaby Beach moves back and forth between bombed-out fifties London with its promise, excitement and post-war squalor, and today’s English coast. The book explores how progress has been made in some areas but not in others, with camera-phone blackmail adding to other, older abuses of power and coercive control. Lullaby Beach is a rich exploration of relationships between sisters, aunts and nieces, men and women and humans and water, which explores the possibility of healing even when all seems lost.

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding, Bloomsbury, March 2021

Sonya loves her son Tommy and their rescue dog Herbie. She also loves the cool bottles of Pinot Grigio that she shoplifts and downs in front of the TV, reliving her glory days as an actress. With a sense of danger reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s Room or Douglas Stewart’s Shuggie Bain, even those used to strong stuff may struggle with scenes of child and animal neglect. However, Sonya is a captivating character and staying with her bruised, brilliant voice will reap rewards, as she works to turn her life around.

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny, HarperCollins, April 2021

This marvellous book is like dirty Anne Tyler – a bawdier chronicle of small-town family life. Early Morning Riser also has something in common plot-wise with Tyler’s masterpiece, 'Saint Maybe’ when primary-school teacher Jane inadvertently causes a tragedy that ties someone to her forever. That someone is not the love of her life, Duncan, who has slept with literally all the women in the surrounding area, but Jimmy, a middle-aged son of a neighbour, who has learning difficulties and a huge heart. This novel has the same quirky characters and behaviours as Heiny’s previous novel Standard Deviation. I loved two-year-old hellion Patrice, the plain-speaking seven-year-olds Jane teaches, Gary, a middle-aged man with a string of irrational dislikes and a story behind each one; and Duncan’s ex-wife Aggie, a woman whose cooking is as delicious as her passive-aggressive pronouncements are annoying. Like Aggie’s cooking, this novel will leave you wanting more.

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