Books to read in 2021

2021 should have been the year that righted wrongs. A year of redemption, of hope, of moving forward, beyond the you-know-what. As I write we’re six weeks into a national lockdown, bookstores up and down the country remain closed and launch parties and literary festivals are happening in the land of zoom. We are not where we thought we’d be and we are all exhausted. The you-know-what caused some 2020 titles to be postponed so we’re now being treated to a treasure trove of goodies. With so many books being published this year, I’m moving away from producing a chronological list. Not that I’m complaining! Many of us have been waiting for this exact moment since well, forever, so let’s take a moment to celebrate *chink glasses* and now on to the books…

FICTION

It always seems apt to kick start this yearly round up with the debuts. I’m really looking forward to reading Catherine Menon’s debut Fragile Monsters. Menon’s exquisite short stories have won her many fans and prizes over the years including The Asian Writer Short Story Prize back in 2015. Her debut novel set in Malaysia traces one family’s story from 1920 to the present, unravelling a tale of love, betrayal and redemption against the backdrop of natural disasters and fallen empires. It sounds like the perfect escape.

Betrayal seems to be a common theme among debuts this year, Aliya Afzal’s Would I Lie to You introduces us to Faiza, a glossy banker’s wife who must hide the fact she’s spent the family’s savings when her husband, Tom, loses his job. A warm and funny debut about what happens when you have your dream life – and are about to lose it.

At the heart of Saima Mir’s debut The Khan is Jia, a successful London lawyer who returns home after her father’s death only to be plunged back into her father’s world of organised crime. Comparisons to The Godfather are already being made and it has been optioned for a six-part BBC series – so here’s your chance to read it before it blows up! Well, there are blood splatters on the cover, so…

More crime-fiction goodies come in the way of Elizabeth Chakrabarty’s Lessons in Love and Other Crimes which immediately grabbed my attention. I love how it is bookended with essays which contextualise the story – about Tesya who leaves her job after being subjected to a hate crime.

Crime continues to be leading the way in finding exceptional new voices and giving them equally awesome campaigns to win over readers. Little Brown’s lead debut title for 2021 How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina promises us ‘a witty, thrilling and pacey literary crime crossover about friendship, swindle, reality tv and kidnappings.’ It’s already set to follow in the vain of Crazy Rich Asians having been optioned for film by HBO.

With the 50th anniversary of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda next year it’s great to see this story finally getting the attention that it deserves. Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill set in Uganda 1972 explores what it means to leave your home behind, what it takes to start again, and the lengths some will go to protect their loved ones. Winner of the Merky Books New Writers’ Prize Hafsa Zayyan’s We Are All Birds of Uganda moves between 1960’s Uganda and present-day London and introduces us to a powerful new voice.

It’s certainly a big year for debuts but multi award-winning writers are on top of their game too. Abir Mukherjee fans will be pleased to see him return with another mystery in the Raj-era Wyndham and Banerjee series. Vaseem Khan’s second novel in the highly acclaimed Malabar House series featuring Persis Wadia, India’s first female police detective is out this summer. Sunjeev Sahota’s China Room, inspired by Sahota’s own family history is a multigenerational novel of love, oppression, trauma and the pursuit of freedom. It twines together the stories of a woman and a man separated by more than half a century but united by blood. There’s a sixth novel from Niven Govinden too. Diary of a Film is a novel about cinema, flâneurs, and queer love – it is about the sometimes troubled, sometimes ecstatic creative process, and the toll it takes on its makers. And one that I nearly missed (my worst fear) because it’s just been announced Preti Taneja’s second novel is set to be published in the autumn too.

Later in the year, small press And Other Books publish Mona Arshi’s hybrid novel Somebody Loves You – part fictionalised memoir (or creative non-fiction, what’s the difference, anyone?) intertwined with poetry (yes, please!) – which explores the infinite tiny wounds of family life.

There still appears to be a gap for children’s/YA written by Asian writers – or writers of colour for that matter, especially at the older end of the market. Having said that, there are new titles from Roopa Farooki (A Double Detectives Medical Mystery), Serena Patel (Anisha Accidental Detective) and Annabelle Sami (Agent Zaiba Investigates) who are continuing their respective series. I grew up on a healthy mix of Nancy Drew and Columbo so heartily approve of this trend. There’s comedy too as Knights Of will publish a new middle grade series from Burhana Islam. The first of which Mayhem Mission will follow the adventures of Yusuf Ali Khan, as his family prepares for his sister’s upcoming wedding. If fairytales are more your bag, Rumaysa by Radiya Hafiza spins three classics together – Rapunzel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty to take us on an adventure through enchanted forests and into dragon’s lairs.

POETRY & SHORT FICTION

Poetry feels like the perfect tonic for our times and I’m hoping it will get me back into the rhythm of reading. Having said that, I’m disappointed there’s not much to look forward to here. So instead I suggest we all order Bhanu Kapil’s TS Eliot prize-winning collection How to Wash a Heart. Hope comes in the form of small press Nine Arches Press who exude sophistication in both style and taste. They’ll be publishing Khairani Barokka’s second collection Ultimatum Orangutan which focuses on environmental crises, disability and colonial legacies. For those of you familiar with Okka’s words you’ll know that she rarely holds back, so I’m expecting this collection to follow in the same vein as Rope – asking the most urgent of questions. Orion is publishing Nikita Gill’s Where Hope Comes From. Weaving words that explore our collective trauma, Gill’s poetry takes us on a journey through the five stages of grief to the five stages of hope through the life cycle of a star. Let poetry be our guiding light!

That brings me neatly on to short stories. I’m still making it my personal mission to encourage everyone to read more short stories and I’m thrilled to be publishing not one but two members of The Whole Kahani, Mona Dash’s Let Us Look Elsewhere and Reshma Ruia’s Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness over at Dahlia Books. Pakistani writer, Mira Sethi’s Are you Enjoying Me is also one of few collections published this year.

NON-FICTION

Lockdown reading has proven difficult thus far with my attention span reduced to about 15 seconds but I’m devouring Sonia Faleiro’s The Good Girls as I write this. Based on the real-life killings of teenage girls in 2014, this part reportage, part investigation exposes the harrowing reality of life for young women in rural India. Another unsettling but necessary read high up on my TBR pile is Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera – which hit number two on the Sunday Times bestseller list this weekend (7/2/21) Empireland demonstrates how so much of what we consider to be modern Britain is actually rooted in our imperial past. Having not really learnt much at all about the British empire at school I’m looking forward to reading and learning more.

Muslim voices seem to be coming of age since Mariam Khan’s Not About the Burqa was published in 2019 – not only in that they are being published (at last) but also there seems to be a move away from the cliched making way for a new wave of writing – deeper and more meaningful – that cuts through the stories that we’ve come to expect (and ultimately reject) about ourselves. The Muslim Problem by Tawseef Khan promises to explode stereotypes from both inside and outside the faith and highlight that we are often wrong about even the most basic facts. While Sarfraz Manzoor’s deeply personal exploration They: Hope and Fears – a personal journey around Muslim Britain will give voice to those we usually don’t hear from – the lived experiences of radicalism, forced marriage and sexual exploitation – and will search for the people and stories that offer a glimpse of hope that things can change for the better.

Memoirs this year seem to be focused on personal explorations rather than the typical misery memoirs we’ve come to expect from the genre. This is refreshing! Huma Qureshi’s How We Met is a memoir stroke love story about mothers and daughters, growing up, falling in love and finding your own voice. Nikesh Shukla’s much anticipated Brown Baby explores themes of racism, feminism and parenting. It is a beautiful endearing letter to his daughters on how to be joyful in a divided world. There’s also Arifa Akbar’s Consumed to look forward to, a story of sisterhood, grief, the redemptive power of art and the strange mythologies that surround tuberculosis. When Akbar discovered that her sister had fallen seriously ill, she assumed there would be a brief spell in hospital and then she’d be home. This was not to be. It was not until the day before she died that the family discovered she was suffering from tuberculosis. Consumed is being described as an eloquent and moving excavation of a family’s secrets and a sister’s detective story to understand her sibling. Excuse me, while I *try* and track down an ARC for this.

Last but by no means least, Anita Sethi’s I Belong Here is a book that I’m certain that those of us who love evocative writing about place will thoroughly enjoy. Anita Sethi was on a journey through Northern England when she became the victim of a race-hate crime. The crime was a vicious attack on her right to exist in a place on account of her race. I Belong Here charts Sethi’s journey through natural landscapes and transforms what began as an ugly experience of hate into one offering hope and finding beauty after brutality. 

It really is a bumper year for books by Asian authors. There’s a whole mix of new voices to discover supported by an experienced cast of authors – the literary heavyweights we’ve come to know and love. There’s so much to look forward to, and with so many books to read, let’s hope we muster the energy to be able to give them each the attention they deserve.