Pile of books on a shelf with Christmas decorations in the background.

Image: Aashfaria A. Anwar T/A Studio Aash

There are few things better than spending a couple of hours (or more) with a book. A thriller which keeps you on the edge of your seat, an immersive story about nature, a love story with a fantastical edge – all have the power to take you away from the stresses and strains of life.

Whether you're after the best books of 2021, something a little more classic, or an award-winning novel, we have you covered.

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (2020)

The Mermaid of Black Conch, which is Monique Roffey's sixth novel, is based on a Taino legend of a  young woman who was turned into a mermaid as a punishment for her beauty. Generations later, in the Caribbean, Aycayia is captured during an annual fishing competition. When fisherman David saves her, it has dramatic consequences for the pair and for other villagers. A story about the long-lasting power of love, and about a woman finding herself in freedom, this won the Costa Book of the Year Award.

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir (2021)

Simon de Beauvoir wrote The Inseparables in 1954, five years after The Second Sex, but the novel was never published in her lifetime. The novel follows Andrée and Sylvie, who meet at school and become close, building a world of their own. But their friendship can't stay the same as the pair grow up. This edition – the first time the book has been published in English – includes an introduction from Deborah Levy, an afterword by de Beauvoir's adopted daughter, who discovered the manuscript hidden in a drawer, and photographs of the real-life friendship which inspired and tormented the author.

Lily by Rose Tremain (2021)

Rose Tremain's latest novel is set in Victorian London and follows Lily Mortimer, abandoned as a baby at the gates of a park on a winter night. Rescued by a policeman, Lily is taken to the London Foundling Hospital and later fostered for a brief time in rural Suffolk. When she returns to the hospital, she is punished for her rebelliousness, and soon finds employment at Belle Prettywood's Wig Emporium. Meanwhile, Sam Trench – the policeman who saved her – has kept an eye on Lily over the years, and when they meet again there is a connection between them. But Lily is keeping a dreadful secret, and Sam could be the one to uncover her crime.

The Promise by Damon Galgut (2021)

The idea for The Promise, which won the 2021 Booker Prize, came to Damon Galgut from a conversation with a friend, who told him about the four family funerals he'd attended, and "made them tragic and hilarious". Galgut's book follows the Swarts, a white South African family living on a farm outside Pretoria, who have failed in the promise made to Salome, a Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. As the Swarts gather for Ma's funeral, the book takes us across four decades as South Africa moves from deep divisions to a so-called fairer society.

My Policeman by Bethan Roberts (2012)

Bethan Roberts' 2012 novel is the story about three lives brought together – and possibly broken – by love. In 1950s Brighton Marion meets Tom, and becomes smitten with him. A few years later in Brighton Museum, Patrick meets Tom and is besotted. While Patrick opens Tom's eyes to a glamorous and sophisticated new world, in their time it is safer for Tom to marry Marion so Patrick and Marion must share Tom, at least until one of them breaks. My Policeman has been adapted into a film starring Harry Styles and Emma Corrin.

Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian (2021)

Vera Kurian's novel follows Chloe, a seemingly ordinary student who is actually a psychopath. Chloe is part of a secret clinical study of young psychopaths run by the university's psychology department. When one of the study's participants is murdered, Chloe has to put aside her personal interests – and vendettas – to tread the line between hunter and hunted. Author Erin Kelly said of the book: "I fell in love with self-confessed psychopath Chloe on page one."

The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018)

Richard Powers' novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018 and which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019, is the epic story of nine strangers brought together by an unfolding natural catastrophe. Among the group are a hearing- and speech-impaired scientist who discovers that trees are communicating with each other, and a hard-partying graduate who electrocutes herself, dies and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. As tackling climate change remains at the top of the world's agenda, this look at the power of nature is more relevant than ever. President Barack Obama is a fan; on The Ezra Klein Show podcast, Obama revealed it had been gifted to him by a friend. The book, he said, "changed how I thought about the earth. And it changed how I see things, and that's always, for me, a mark of a book worth reading."

The Jealousy Man by Jo Nesbo (2021)

This short story collection is from the king of Scandi crime. From a detective on the trail of a man suspected of murdering his twin to a hired assassin facing his greatest adversary and and two people meeting by chance on a plane, Nesbo's first ever short story collection will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, trans by Louise and Aylmer Maude

Leo Tolstoy's novel tells the story of Anna, a beautiful women who has an affair with the dashing Count Vronsky. But it's also the story of the awkward idealist Levin, all set again the backdrop of 1800s Russia. This gorgeous edition is part of the Vintage Classics Russian Series. Buy the book on its own, or grab all six – Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Dr Zhivago, Life and Fate, The Master and Margarita, and War and Peace – as part of a bundle for £60 from the Penguin Shop.

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler (2020)

Micah Mortimer is by all standards average, plodding through life with his strict routines and dull familiarity. That is until a teenager appears at his doorstep claiming to be his son, and his girlfriend tells him she’s been evicted and is moving in, turning his life as he knows it on its head. Longlisted for the Booker prize, Redhead by the Side of the Road is yet another masterclass from Anne Tyler in pulling extraordinary from the ordinary.

Sisters by Daisy Johnson (2020)

Fans of Shirley Jackson will adore Sisters, a gothic tale of sibling love and rivalry from Booker Prize-longlisted author Daisy Johnson. Both named for the months they were born, July and September move with their mother to an abandoned seaside home after a terrible unnamed event and in this isolated place find themselves drifting apart. Followed by shocking revelations about their past, it’s a sinister and delicious story to devour on a commute back home for Christmas. 

Inside Story by Martin Amis (2020)

This intimate portrait of Martin Amis’s life as a man and as an author was penned right after the death of his closest friend Christopher Hitchens and bleeds with the sentiment on every page. It hasn’t been an easy year for many of us, but Inside Story is the antidote: a love letter to life that teaches us to live fully and to embrace the ups and downs.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019)

It was the biggest literary moment of the year, but if the #1 bestseller somehow passed you by, the Christmas break is the perfect opportunity to dive back into Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale. Prepare to immerse yourself in the dystopian world of Gilead, where two girls from opposite ends of the regime come face-to-face with the infamous Aunt Lydia. Now out in paperback. 

Daddy by Emma Cline (2020)

After publishing her bestselling The Girls, Emma Cline found herself battling a lawsuit from an ex-boyfriend who claimed she’d stolen the story (a claim later dismissed in court). Perhaps, then, it’s no wonder that she’s penned Daddy, a powerful collection of short stories about the impacts of male power. Sophisticated and subtle, these cautionary tales make for compelling reading for the times we are in.

The Travelers by Regina Porter (2019)

Woven over the course of six generations, The Travelers by Regina Porter is a delightful story on how our histories can determine our paths. It begins in post-war America, centred on two New Yorkers – James, a White Irish-American lawyer climbing the career ladder, and Agnes, a Black woman with bad fortune and an unhappy marriage – and continues down their lineage to reveal how the families come to intertwine.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara (2020)

Deepa Anappara’s heartwarming debut plunges right into an exciting quest led by Jai, a nine-year-old boy on a mission to find out why the children of the slum where lives keep disappearing. Set in a sprawling fictional city evocative of Delhi or Mumbai, it’s a touching coming-of-age novel that also addresses class divide in India with subtle effect. 

The Perfect Nine by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (2020)

Nobel Prize-nominated author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has long spun words with dazzling aplomb, and The Perfect Nine is no exception. Mixing myth, folklore and allegory in feminist verse, he tells the story of the founding of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya and how their daughters become matriarchs of the clan.

Love by Roddy Doyle (2020)

Two old friends meet in a pub to reflect on their former years (some flashbacks rather eventful and involving lots of booze). As the anecdotes build, a long-hidden secret is brought to the surface in a surprising anticlimax, true shaggy dog style. Roddy Doyle tells a tale of how we navigate all the different types of love. 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (2019)

Loved by authors like Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton, this Waterstones Book of the Month from Ocean Vuong is beautiful, original and heartbreaking. Told over a series of letters from a Vietnamese American son, Little Dog, to his illiterate mother, it tells of the lasting impact of war and pieces together fragments of the past. The perfect little book to curl up with this Christmas when you just want a nice big cry. 

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