A flatlay of books published in 2021

How many have you read? Image: Vicky Ibbetson/Penguin

Book editors have some of the keenest insight into what we'll be reading in the future, but they also have a great idea of the best books that are already out in the world, too. Which is why we asked them which titles they would be giving to their loved ones this year. Prime your to-be-read pile, it's going to get some new additions...

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Earlier this year, Sarah Waters, Sara Collins, Madeline Miller, Brit Bennett, Emma Donoghue and many more raved about Matrix by Lauren Groff. Who am I to argue? Lauren Groff is doing the most exciting work. Matrix, a vision of a female utopia, the story of the incredible Prioress, Marie de France, who helps her sisters rise from poverty to riches and power, is the most urgent and timely novel of the year.

Ailah Ahmed, Publishing Director, Hutchinson Heinemann

Read more: Lauren Groff interview: 'It's necessary to me that there's sex in a book'

Carefree Black Girls by Zeba Blay

The book I've been pressing into everyone's hands is Carefree Black Girls by Zeba Blay, which we published on Square Peg back in October. An exploration and celebration of the radical lives of Black women who have influenced pop culture on a world scale from Mel B and Lizzo to Cardi B and Munroe Bergdorf, this collection of essays is evocative, provocative, nuanced, critical and celebratory at once. Featuring ‘A Conversation with Two Carefree Black Girls’ with Clara Amfo, it's a book that presents an empowering portrait of Black women and their significance to culture and society.

Mireille Harper, Commissioning Editor, Vintage

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

I loved reading Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow this year. It's a slim book from 1975, but it presents a sweeping panorama of the USA in the early years of the 20th century. Through the interwoven lives of a white, a black and a Jewish family, Doctorow touches on the birth of cinema, the start of the civil rights movement, women's suffrage, immigration, polar exploration and, of course, ragtime music, while telling a fast-paced, gripping story involving love, murder, lust and betrayal. He includes historical figures such as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbitt, Sigmund Freud (who rides on the Tunnel of Love with Carl Jung), Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman and J. P. Morgan. The 1981 film adaptation was directed by Miloš Forman (and starred Norman Mailer) and the 1998 Broadway musical adaptation won four Tony Awards.

Henry Eliot, Editor, Penguin Press

Aftermath by Harald Jähner

My 2021 highlight has been working on Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich by Harald Jähner (translated by Shaun Whiteside). Aftermath shines a light on a dark and oft-misremembered time and place in history: Germany, 1945–1955. In 1945 Germany was a country in ruins. How did a functioning society ever emerge from this chaos, let alone a respected world power? Harald Jähner’s meticulously researched book weaves together stories of life in Germany in the shadow of the Second World War and the Holocaust to present a panoramic account of a nation undergoing monumental change. From how Germany was physically rebuilt and how allied troops attempted to re-educate the ‘German psyche’, to how denazification efforts struggled in a climate of repression and silence, this moving book of riveting stories, anecdotes and images from a raw, wild decade has transformed how I think about history and human nature.

Suzanne Connelly, Editor, Ebury

Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria

The book I’ll be giving to everyone this Christmas is Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria. It’s a frank, rigorous (and unexpectedly funny) introduction to the idea that Western feminism has a big problem with racism – where that comes from historically, how it operates in the modern world, and how to move beyond it. Rafia is a brilliant, no-nonsense guide through this subject, calling it like she sees it, and she has transformed the way I think about so many things. And then for lovers of fiction, it will have to be Assembly, the extraordinary debut by Natasha Brown. A very English novel, a masterclass in formal control and innovation, a Mrs Dalloway for the twenty-first century.

Hermione Thompson, Commissioning Editor, Penguin General

No Such Thing As Perfect by Emma Hughes

Emma Hughes’s laugh-out-loud funny and painfully true debut No Such Thing As Perfect has drawn wonderful responses from readers over the course of the year. It tells the story of Laura, who signs up to a dating service that draws on everything she’s ever done online to find her perfect match. But can an algorithm know what’s right for us better than we can? This is an insightful and contemporary story of love and family relationships which will leave you feeling uplifted. As the incomparable Katherine Heiny says: "This book will make your world a brighter place."

Emily Griffin, Publishing Director, Cornerstone

Connections by Karl Deisseroth

Mental health has become one of the most fervently discussed issues of our time – increasingly after the pressures of the pandemic – so it takes an extraordinary voice to offer a novel perspective on the subject. Karl Deisseroth is a true renaissance man, simultaneously a practising emergency psychiatrist, a pioneering neuroscientist and, perhaps most importantly, a vaulting, exceptional line-by-line writer. Exploring the deep evolutionary roots of mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia and psychosis, he weaves together the stories of his patients in soaring, lyrical prose in the tradition of Primo Levi, gently nudging the reader towards an understanding that these conditions are not aberrations but part of the shared tapestry of the human experience.

Tom Killingbeck, Editorial Director, Penguin General

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin

One of the debuts we’ve published this year that has exceptionally touched me and altered me is The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot.

This story of the unique friendship between two women, one aged 17 and the other 83, who meet at art class in hospital and tell each other their lives, has a lightness of touch and a depth of meaning that really strikes you in the heart. It’s the sort of book that you’ll find you can’t stop thinking about. You will need to give yourself a lot of time before you pick up another book.

Both these characters are rebels in their own way, and they ask nothing of others while giving wholly of themselves, without realising it. To read of such people is incredibly humbling. Margot is an ordinary woman from Glasgow, whose search for love and meaning is utterly universal but also totally unique. The younger woman Lenni learns from her, and ultimately, it is Margot who gives Lenni’s life meaning and vice versa.

This book is storytelling at its most elevated – it is full of emotion but also everyday things that root us in the everyday. The unpretentious way in which this book delivers the most meaningful message about the importance of life and friendship, its very humility before such profound themes, is what will move you to laughter and tears. I urge everyone to read it.

Jane Lawson, Editorial Director, Doubleday

Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi

It was a joy to spend two lockdowns reading drafts of Lea Ypi's unforgettable memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, which tells the story of her family and her country, Albania during the transition from communism to liberalism. Then to tell everyone about it all year long. And then to see it taking the literary world by storm. It's not often that a writer is compared to Elena Ferrante and Tara Westover, Tolstoy and Proust and shortlisted for both the Costa Biography Award and the Baillie Gifford Prize. As one reviewer put it, "after you read it, you'll never look at a Coke can the same way again". Chances are you'll also reconsider your own upbringing – readers have compared their childhoods in Sheffield, Addis Ababa, Paris and beyond to hers – as her story becomes your story.

Casiana Ionita, Publishing Director, Penguin Press 

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

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