“If you want to be a writer,” Stephen King once famously said, “you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” It’s a sentiment you’ll hear ad nauseum from authors: they don’t ask each other what they’re writing; they ask what they’re reading.
And so, as 2021 comes to a close – and having already picked some of the year’s most significant books, and some favourites of our own – we wanted to reach out to the very people who create those books, to see what inspired them this year. Below, a host of Penguin authors including Nadiya Hussain, Caleb Azumah Nelson, Elif Shafak, Lisa Jewell, Anthony Horowitz and more reflect on their favourite reads of 2021.
Reading Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi gave me something I wasn’t expecting. Gyasi is, like me, of Ghanaian heritage, and the story explores a family of four who travel from Ghana to Alabama to make a new life for themselves. Over the course of the novel, the family’s history begins to unfold, illuminating stories that have gone unspoken for generations.
My Mum and I often read books together or one after the other, and this was one of those that encouraged further conversation between us, about the journey she took several decades ago, from Ghana to the UK. In this way, the novel opened up another part of my personal history, a gift I’ll always be grateful for.
Cave in the Snow: A Western Woman’s Quest for Enlightenment by Vicki Mackenzie, chosen by Monique Roffey
The book that made my year was Cave in the Snow: A Western Woman’s Quest for Enlightenment by Vicki Mackenzie. It’s the biography of an Englishwoman, Diane Perry, who grew up in the East End of London, daughter of a fishmonger father and spiritualist mother. She found Buddhism early, worked at SOAS and travelled to northern India, by boat, to work in a refuge helping Tibetan monks escaping the Chinese invasion. In India she became a devout Buddhist and was ordained under a new name, Tenzin Palmo.
While she spent years in India, it wasn’t until she left for higher ground, in the Himalayas, that she found true spiritual growth and commitment. Palmo built a tiny home in a craggy cave high up in the Himalayas. There, she meditated while sitting in a box for 12 hours a day, grew turnips, lived amongst wolves, saw almost no one, for 12 years. When she emerged, she taught Buddhism worldwide to raise funds to build her own Buddhist convent. Palmo is critical of Buddhism’s attitudes towards women, but also made great inroads into changing them. Her life story is deeply inspiring, and this book is still with me months after reading it.
Square Haunting by Francesca Wade, chosen by Lady Hale
The book that made the most impact upon me this year is Square Haunting by Francesca Wade, the story of five women writers who lived in Mecklenburgh Square between the two world wars. They included Virginia Woolf, Dorothy L Sayers and Eileen Power, all of them trailblazers, discovering how to make their independent way in the literary world, which was still reluctant to take women seriously.
Dorothy L Sayers has always been a heroine of mine, for explaining why her crime novelist character, Harriet Vane, might not want to marry her rich, aristocratic and super-intelligent sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. Sadly, only a passing mention could be made of Helena Normanton, the first woman to practise as a barrister, who lived in the square from 1920 to 1928, and to whom English Heritage has just unveiled a blue plaque, but it is still a very good read.
The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe by Mark Mazower, chosen by Lea Ypi
This book is a gripping story of the complicated (and unlikely) creation of the Greek modern state – but it is also so much more. With vivid detail, impeccable scholarship and great nuance, Mark Mazower shows how the modern idea of the nation emerges out of the complex, sometimes random and often messy interactions between a plurality of agents – local, regional and imperial – each acting for different motives and in pursuit of contrasting purposes. It’s an illuminating account of both the unifying power of myths about the past, and the dangers inherent when such myths are connected to political reality.
Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern by Mary Beard, chosen by Elif Shafak
As the pandemic raged on, and in a world full of uncertainties and inequalities, books kept us sane. I loved Mary Beard’s Twelve Caesars. Beard is a cultural lighthouse, helping us see more clearly through the thick fog of the information era, and find a way through and beyond perilous shallows and jagged rocks. This is a fascinating book and so well written, completely engaging and captivating.
We tend to think that we have made huge progress across history, and in some ways we have, but in many other ways there are patterns, echoes, and similarities. It is important to study history with a calm mind, critical thinking and a sharp eye for gender and power inequalities, and no one does this better than Mary Beard.
I have also very much enjoyed Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. It is a wonderfully imaginative and daring novel that will be embraced by anyone who loves books and cares about the loss of knowledge; the parts taking place in Constantinople held me especially spellbound.
For me, the stand-out book of 2021 was The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff, a coming-of-age story set on a strip of the Suffolk coast that I happen to know intimately. As the title suggests, it’s a Gatsby-esque story of desire and sexuality which takes place during a long summer and starts with the arrival of two brothers, breaking into the rituals of an English family who are planning a wedding whilst staying at their holiday home. Kit is the golden boy, handsome and confident, but clearly the viper in the nest. His brother, Hugo, is darker, more silent, perhaps damaged. They are the sons of a minor movie actress who has no time for them in her busy schedule.
What follows is a miniature maelstrom of treachery, deception and betrayal, told in very few pages (the book is almost a novella rather than a novel) by a narrator whose gender is never described. Though published as young adult fiction, it will appeal to a much wider audience. As always, Rosoff's language is witty and concise, and her story lingers long after the last page, her best work since her award-winning How I Live Now.
I had my mind blown apart on a sun lounger in Tenerife this year. It was Gillian McAllister's new book, Wrong Place, Wrong Time, an advance reader's copy that I was lucky enough to have been sent direct from the author. It's a high-concept thriller about a woman who sees her teenage son stab a stranger to death on the street outside her house. He is arrested, her life falls apart, but then she wakes up the next morning and finds that she has woken up on the same day, that her son has not stabbed anyone, that she now needs to find out what happened and why.
It's the sort of tricksy, complex book that needs to be written with exquisite attention to detail for it not to fall over at the first hurdle. But this book just got more and more intricate, more and more beautifully plotted, more and more interesting, thrilling and satisfying, right until the last full stop. After I finished it I sat with my mouth hanging open, in awe at having experienced a mid-career author suddenly explode with their best work ever. And it was as reminder of why writing is a lifetime commitment: because every writer is just one book away from THE book, the one that changes everything. And this is Gillian's.
Slough House by Mick Herron, chosen by Nikki May
For my money, Mick Herron's character Jackson Lamb is the greatest literary creation of this century. I was hooked from Slow Horses, the first in the brilliant series that follows the trials (there are very few tribulations) of demoted ex-MI5 spies. Slough House is the seventh (I just love it when my favourite authors are prolific), and Lamb’s political incorrectness scales ever dizzier heights as the books progress (and that’s a big ask).
Herron is master of the metaphor, and his extraordinarily well-plotted books are always centred on real-life events; this time it’s Brexit, Yellow Vests and Novichok poisoning. Part thriller, part spy story, part political satire, the outstanding feature is how devastatingly laugh-out-loud funny this book is.
We All Know How This Ends by Anna Lyons and Louise Winter, chosen by Sarah Pearse
One of the books which I’ve found hugely inspiring this year is We All Know How This Ends by Anna Lyons and Louise Winter – a compelling, moving read, and one I’ve been recommending to everyone I know.
In a year full of losses big and small, this book was both a relevant and uplifting read for me, covering vitally important themes about death, grief and loss in a comforting and sensitive way. Comprising a collection of Anna and Louise’s stories about their work at the end of life, it answers all those questions you wanted to ask, as well as the ones you didn’t even know you had.
This book is both brave and beautiful, and I only wish I could have read something like it sooner.
There is absolutely nothing like finding a new author to love. Within pages of starting Lizzy Dent’s hilarious and poignant The Summer Job, she had become one of my very favourite writers.
Dent’s delightful main character, Birdy Finch, is a lovable tornado of a woman who feels like a total mess compared to everyone around her. And in a time when so many of us were feeling helpless and incapable, when I myself was barely able to read let alone write, there was something so comforting about following Birdy through her series of hijinks, snowballing white lies, and mishaps. This book reminded me that it’s okay not to be okay – and that there’s laughter, joy, and love to be found, even in the chaos. Plus, now I get to look forward to Dent’s next.
Animal by Lisa Taddeo, chosen by Julie Owen Moylan
The book that has had the greatest impact on me this year is Animal by Lisa Taddeo. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an early proof copy, and as I’d really enjoyed Three Women, it’s fair to say I was looking forward to reading her debut novel. What I read just blew me away. I love authors who are bold, and some of the scenes in this book are so graphic and shocking that I was left in awe of Lisa’s courage as an author. It takes a certain fearlessness to leave everything on the page in that way, and I found it very inspiring.
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex, chosen by Raynor Winn
The Lamplighters came to me as an early proof copy, in a very unexciting white cover. I nearly didn’t read it, especially when I realised it was a novel drawn from a story I’d heard in many different forms; of three lighthouse keepers who disappeared without trace.
I’m so glad I did. Beneath that white cover was a totally gripping, atmospheric mystery, where every page, every character resonates with the dark, powerful presence of the sea. Even now, whenever I pass that white cover sitting on my bookshelf, I can almost hear the sound of the sea breaking against the lighthouse rock.
Though Caleb is a friend, I waste little time in letting the world know that I am a fan first, which makes it all the more special. Open Water was a breath of fresh air for me at a time that felt super serious. The references, locality, the poetics in this book made it the story I needed to read at that point in my life. I'm very thankful for that.
Cookbooks aren’t generally considered the sort of book you sit down to read from beginning to end, but the full effect of Nigel Slater’s books can only be truly enjoyed by doing just that.
His latest, A Cook’s Book, is, I think, his finest yet. The recipes are intelligent, effortless bowls of unadorned deliciousness. The structure of the book, with recipes arranged in little intuitive groups – ‘Everyday dinners’, ‘Five cakes for everyday’ and, my favourite ‘The stillness of cheesecake’ – draws you in to reading several recipes at a time, like a chapter in a novel that must be read as a whole for the episode to be complete.
I love this book for the recipes, but almost more so for the stories, the Alan Bennett-esque turns of phrase and the air of considered calm, which makes me want to evict all unnecessary clutter from my kitchen and eat porridge by candlelight from artisan pottery.
My friend and make-up artist was reading Untamed, and she insisted I read the first chapter, reassuring me it was short and wouldn't take up too much of my time. I read it and I had a moment of simply, “Wow, I get this.” I wanted to carry on reading, but we had a job to do and stuff to get on with – but before even getting home it was on my doorstep, sent by my friend.
This book is unapologetic and honest, featuring stories of growth, appreciation and realisation.
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Image: Vicky Ibbetson / Penguin
Here, the Penguin.co.uk editors wax effusive about the very best books we read this year, from life-altering guides to how to spend our time on Earth to epic American novels to young adult tales from 1937 Japan.