10 photos of book covers, arranged as a colourful grid, with the numbers 2021 overlaid in black.
10 photos of book covers, arranged as a colourful grid, with the numbers 2021 overlaid in black.

Every year, a handful of books tend to dominant the cultural conversation, either by capturing the world around us or offering the perfect escape from it. 

Here we round up ten of those very titles, from issue-led non-fiction to innovative novels to poetry collections that defined a moment and helped illuminate the future.

The best-sellers

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

Nobody could have predicted the heights that Richard Osman’s debut novel The Thursday Mystery Club would hit last year, but in retrospect it’s hardly a surprise: the story, centred on four geriatric friends with a penchant for unsolved murders who are suddenly faced with a murder at their very own care home, sparkled with wit, warmth and whimsy. So it came as little surprise when its sequel, The Man Who Died Twice, was released this year to immediate acclaim and skyrocketing sales. This is the book that basically invented the ‘cosy crime’ genre, and its accolades are as deserved as they are abundant.

The Promise by Damon Galgut

The winner of the year’s Booker Prize is always a conversation-starter, but Damon Galgut’s captivating 2021 winner makes for particularly heady discussion. In The Promise, a white South African family gathers for the funeral of their matriarch, who has asked her husband for the titular promise: that he will vow to hand over part of the family property to their Black housekeeper, Salome. As decades pass and it goes unfulfilled, the slowly disintegrates, as Galgut unearths questions of identity, inherited trauma and family, all in his tender, attentive style. This was one of the year’s best books before it won anything; the Booker Prize merely certified it.

Read more: Lightbulb moments: Damon Galgut on writing The Promise

Jane’s Patisserie by Jane Dunn

This year saw the emergence of a new baking star: Jane Dunn. The 28-year-old trained pastry chef from Hampshire amassed a devoted social media audience thanks to her deceptively simple recipes for mouth-watering and professional-looking bakes. The release of Jane’s Patisserie in August saw Dunn’s compendium of fun and Instagram-worthy bakes take on a massive new audience; the book became an instant bestseller and turned Dunn into a TV regular. 

Read more: Jane’s Patisserie: How to turn your hobby into Instagram stardom

Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney

Was Sally Rooney’s third novel perhaps the most anticipated of the year? With a marketing campaign that spread from tiny proofs to entire buildings painted with the cover and blanket review coverage, it was difficult not to suspect that Rooney’s character – a novelist hiding out in coastal Ireland from sudden fame – was somewhat drawn from experience. Beautiful World, Where Are You? examines how relationships can exist in an increasingly fractured world, a theme that is all the more pertinent in light of the pandemic.

The thought-provokers

The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye

Somehow, debate still rages on in the media about trans people, as though their very existence is controversial and worthy of hand-wringing. Here, activist, journalist and author Shon Faye cuts through the rubbish, playing on media hysteria with her book’s title, The Transgender Issue, and discussing the realities of trans life, giving urgent voice to the real issues standing in the way of trans liberation – and by extension, liberation for all marginalised people. Faye’s book is a landmark work, one that ignited important conversations in 2021.

Read more: ‘It would be fun to take Emily Dickinson for shots’: 21 Questions with Shon Faye

Peter 2.0 by Peter Scott-Morgan

AI is no longer the stuff of sci-fi: every time our phone unlocks through facial recognition or we ask Alexa to put the radio on, we’re using it. But that doesn’t mean Peter Scott-Morgan’s searingly human desire to use cutting-edge technology to survive a Motor Neurone Disease diagnosis is any less than remarkable. Scientist Scott-Morgan details the brave and untrodden path to a new, cyborg-like life thanks to robotics and artificial intelligence in this incredible memoir, which proves that the future is closer than we think.

Read more: 'I refuse to merely stay alive’: the path to becoming The Human Cyborg

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera

No book forced readers to re-examine the country’s colonial history like Sathnam Sanghera’s masterful Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain. This incisive book offers a fascinating and astute look at the way Empire has shaped Britain’s cultural identity, from the ways we think and speak to the foundation of the NHS, Brexit and much, much more. The British Empire is a divisive topic, alternately glorified and despised, but Sanghera’s balanced, deeply researched take on the subject made it an absolute must-read this year.

Read more: 'This book was like putting Britain on the therapy couch': Sathnam Sanghera on Empireland

The voices of the future

Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman

In an increasingly divided society, there were few moments this year that caught the whole world’s attention, but high among them was Amanda Gorman’s stirring delivery of her poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ from the podium at the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden. At just 22 years old, the young Black poet and activist captured imaginations all over the planet with her message of hope and unity; here, in her breakout poetry collection Call Us What We Carry, Gorman delves into themes of “history, language, identity, and erasure”, shining a light on the present and pointing it forwards on a possible future.

Read more: How Amanda Gorman created a modern-day renaissance for performance poetry

Keisha the Sket by Jade LB

Technically, Keisha the Sket existed long before 2021: the first appearance of Jade LB’s captivating teenager was 2005, on a now-defunct blogging platform called Piczo. The resulting, rollercoaster story that appeared in chapters printed out on school computers and on early mobile phones made a generation feel like their lives were represented in literature for the first time. This year, Keisha the Sket was finally granted her deserved place in the literary canon after LB published her story, along with a contemporary revising and essays on the watershed that it caused. Finally, Keisha arrived on the bookshelves she always belonged on.

Read more: ‘It was the original viral moment’: the complete story of Keisha the Sket

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

It’s not every day that a debut author gets picked up by Reese Witherspoon, but that’s exactly what happened to Sarah Pearse, author of the bone-chilling thriller The Sanatorium. In the depths of a chilly February, Pearse’s novel brought suspense, Switzerland and snow to locked-down readers with her story of a murder mystery in a cut-off hotel. At a time of isolation, The Sanatorium struck a chord with aplomb, becoming an instant New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller. And there’s good news for those who read it and loved it, Pearse’s second eerie thriller, The Retreat, will be here in July.

Read more: 'You have to know how to keep people turning the page': 21 Questions with Sarah Pearse

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

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