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Image: Alexandra Francis / Penguin

As editors for Penguin, a huge number of books cross our desks each year, some great, some just fine, and a rare few that remind us exactly why we read: they whisk us somewhere incredible at a time we need it most, or they show us how we might live better, becoming a crucial part of the fabric of our lives.

In 2021, as ever, we were treated to another handful of those spectacular kinds of books. Below, the editors of Penguin.co.uk reveal the reads that moved them this year.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

I’ve been fortunate enough to read several brilliant novels this year – from intimate love stories that unfold in the space of a postcode to historical fiction that aims to shine a new light on real events – but what made Great Circle my favourite was its sheer sprawling ambition. Continents, centuries, rabbit-warrens of fact and fiction and fictional fact: Maggie Shipstead keeps them all in a delicate and entrancing balance that, for this reader at least, was deeply immersive. Along the way, Great Circle offered love stories and a quiet meditation on loneliness, something that really resonates after the isolation many have felt during the pandemic.
Alice Vincent, Features Editor

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

If speaking incessantly, to anyone willing to listen, about a book you’ve read is a good sign of how much you’ve enjoyed it, my top choice from this year would have to be Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks. It’s a pacey read that mixes philosophy with intel from psychologists, spiritual leaders and others who have all considered one of life’s biggest questions: how should we spend our time on this planet?

Despite the slightly galling reminder that death comes for us all (the title is a nod to the length of an average human lifespan), Four Thousand Weeks is an enjoyable and surprisingly uplifting read filled with practical advice. When you’re reminded of your limitations – no matter what the cult of productivity says, we’re never going to get everything on our to-do lists done! – the result is not a spiral of despair but a strangely liberating new existence that reminds us to cut the fluff and hone in on what really matters.
Indira Birnie, Senior Marketing Manager

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

The book I’ve enjoyed most this year is Caleb Azumah Nelson’s beautiful Open Water. After two young people meet in a pub – both Black British, both artists trying to make their mark – we see their friendship tentatively turn to love. Exploring race and masculinity, fear and violence – and what it means to be vulnerable when you’re only respected for strength – the novel also offers a painful glimpse into London life, which can tear people apart. Poetic and intense, it’s a powerful read for 160 pages.
Steph Tait, Newsletter Editor

How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino

I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect a children’s book – particularly one originally published in 1930s Japan, translated to English for the first time this year – to be my favourite book of 2021. But then, one could barely have expected How Do You Live? to exist at all, such is its astonishing singularity. Written just as totalitarianism was gripping pre-WWII Japan, Genzaburo Yoshino was inspired to write this 1937 treatise on the importance of freedom and humanist thought disguised as a children’s novel – one which was promptly banned for its subversiveness just a few years later.

Though the plot of the novel is fairly straightforward – it follows young Copper, a 15-year-old boy, through school, home, and social life as he learns and grows – its complexity stems from its narration, which alternates chapter to chapter between an omniscient narrator and the boy’s uncle who, as he raises the thoughtful young man, writes his thoughts, feelings and ideas in journal entries addressed to Copper in which he teaches the boy (and readers) lessons about philosophy, art, economics and culture. By the book’s end, we haven’t just read a coming-of-age tale but a vital and timeless text about the importance of freedom and humanist thought. Over eight decades later, How Do You Live? speaks as much to our current socio-political climate as the one it sprang from.
Stephen Carlick, Associate Editor

You’ll Be the Death of Me by Karen M. McManus

A new Karen McManus book is always a big event, and honestly, You'll be the Death of Me might be her best work yet. Just like her 2017 word-of-mouth sensation One of Us Is Lying, it's a binge-worthy murder mystery set in an American high school. It was the perfect distraction while I anxiously settled back into ‘normal life’ this year, with its fast-paced plot, characters you actually want to be friends with, and more twists and turns than a high-profile Oprah interview. Basically, this is perfect escapism.
Francesca Pymm, Social Media Editor

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

I vividly remember the summer I read The Girl on the Train – commuting into London, peering into the houses and gardens that backed onto the tracks just like the protagonist. I, like the millions of people who read and made Paula Hawkins' debut an instant bestseller, was hooked, and so I was excited to read her latest psychological thriller.

Similar to The Girl on the TrainA Slow Fire Burning follows the story of three different women who, despite living in close proximity to Regent’s Canal in London, are relative strangers. That is, until a body discovered on one of the moored boats connects them together. As the investigation progresses, long buried secrets bubble to the surface in each of their stories, which leads to a devastating conclusion. If you are after something gripping with jaw-dropping twists and turns, look no further.
Sarah McKenna, Managing Editor

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

Novelists face an interesting dilemma when they write a memoir: should they adjust their style to fit a conventional autobiography, or try and tell their life story with the literary qualities that makes their fiction special? Thankfully Deborah Levy does the latter in her trilogy of 'living autobiographies', in which Real Estate, released this spring, is the final instalment.

We join the narrator as she emerges into post-divorce life, traveling the world and reflecting on the meaning of family and home. Time moves with a strange beauty, sensual details drip from each page and it’s impossible not to absorb this book’s hard-earned, generous wisdom. Like the first two – 2014’s Things I Don’t Want to Know and 2018’s The Cost of Living – I loved every moment of it.
Sam Parker, Editor-in-Chief

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

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