“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Image: Vicky Ibbetson / Penguin