We’re excited to announce our Books of the Year 2021. Spanning fiction, biography and children’s fiction, our our booksellers have chosen some of their favourite books of 2021.
Patrick’s Books of the Year
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
Theo Byrne is a promising young astrobiologist who has found a way to search for life on other planets dozens of light years away. He’s also the widowed father of a most unusual nine-year-old. His son Robin is funny, loving, and filled with plans. He thinks and feels deeply, adores animals, and can spend hours painting elaborate pictures. He is also on the verge of being expelled from third grade, for smashing his friend’s face with a metal thermos. What can a father do, when the only solution offered to his rare and troubled boy is to put him on psychoactive drugs? What can he say when his boy comes to him wanting an explanation for a world that is clearly in love with its own destruction? The only thing for it is to take the boy to other planets, while all the while fostering his son’s desperate campaign to help save this one.
Dave’s Books of the Year
The Promise by Damon Galgut
The Booker Prize 2021 Winner
The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for – not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.
As the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title. In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home.
Free by Lea Ypi
Lea Ypi grew up in one of the most isolated countries on earth, a place where communist ideals had officially replaced religion. Albania, the last Stalinist outpost in Europe, was almost impossible to visit, almost impossible to leave. It was a place of queuing and scarcity, of political executions and secret police. To Lea, it was home.
In December 1990, everything changed. Statues of Stalin and Hoxha were toppled. Almost overnight, people could vote freely, wear what they liked and worship as they wished. But factories shut, jobs disappeared and thousands fled to Italy on crowded ships, only to be sent back. Predatory pyramid schemes eventually bankrupted the country, leading to violent conflict. As one generation’s aspirations became another’s disillusionment, and as her own family’s secrets were revealed, Lea found herself questioning what freedom really meant.
Dead Souls by Sam Riviere
‘I first heard about Solomon Wiese on a bright, blustery day on the South Bank…’
Later that evening, at the bar of the Travelodge near Waterloo Bridge, our unnamed narrator will encounter that very same Solomon Wiese. In a conversation that lasts until morning, he will hear Solomon Wiese’s story of his spectacular fall from grace. A story about a scandal that has shaken the literary world and an accusation of serial plagiarism. A story about childhood encounters with nothingness and a friend’s descent into psychosis; about conspiracies and poetry cults; about a love affair with a woman carrying a signpost and the death of an old poet. A story about a retreat to the East Anglian countryside and plans for a triumphant return to the capital, through the theft of poems, illegal war profits and faked social media accounts – plans in which our unnamed narrator discovers he is obscurely implicated… A story that will take the entire night – and the remainder of the novel – to tell.
All in it Together by Alwyn Turner
Perhaps the Brexit vote shouldn’t have come as such a shock. In Cool Britannia’s long hangover, every pillar of British society seemed to sink into a mire of its own making, from the Church to the banks to the great offices of state. Even the BBC lost its reassuring dignity (though the private schools were doing rather well: their former pupils were everywhere).
We were losing our faith in the system. How did it come to this?
Weaving politics and popular culture into a mesmerising tapestry, historian Alwyn Turner tells the definitive story of the Blair, Brown and Cameron years. Some details may trigger a laugh of recognition, others are so surreal you could be forgiven for blocking them out first time around (did Peter Mandelson really enlist a Candomble witch doctor to curse Gordon Brown’s press secretary?). The deepest patterns, however, only reveal themselves at a certain distance.
Through the Iraq War and the 2008 crash, the rebirth of light entertainment and the rise of the ‘problematic’, Turner shows how the crisis in the soul of a nation played out in its daily dramas and nightly entertainments.
1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei
In his widely anticipated memoir, Ai Weiwei – one of the world’s most famous artists and activists – tells a century-long epic tale of China through the story of his own extraordinary life and the legacy of his father, Ai Qing, the nation’s most celebrated poet.
Once an intimate of Mao Zedong, Ai Weiwei’s father was branded a rightist during the Cultural Revolution, and he and his family were banished to a desolate place known as ‘Little Siberia’, where Ai Qing was sentenced to hard labour cleaning public toilets. Ai Weiwei recounts his childhood in exile, and his difficult decision to leave his family to study art in America, where he befriended Allen Ginsberg and was inspired by Andy Warhol. With candour and wit, he details his return to China and his rise from artistic unknown to art world superstar and international human rights activist – and how his work has been shaped by living under a totalitarian regime.
Ai Weiwei’s sculptures and installations have been viewed by millions around the globe, and his architectural achievements include helping to design the iconic Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing. His political activism has long made him a target of the Chinese authorities, which culminated in months of secret detention without charge in 2011.
At once ambitious and intimate, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows offers a deep understanding of the myriad forces that have shaped modern China, and serves as a timely reminder of the urgent need to protect freedom of expression.
Emelia’s Books of the Year
Sunset by Jessica Cave
One summer can change everything . . .
Ruth and Hannah are sisters. Bonded by love and friendship, they are perplexingly different characters.
Hannah is radiant, organised and hard working. Ruth is forever single and totally aimless. Together they are invincible.
Every summer they go on a budget holiday together where they bicker, laugh, fight and make up. But this time is different. Something bad happens.
And now everything is changed forever. This bittersweet love story is about needing someone else as much as they need you. It is an ode to our most powerful bonds, how they build us and break us, and how, when all seems lost, we can find joy in the most unexpected places.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists – he a photographer, she a dancer – trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence.
At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.
This Much is True by Miriam Margolyes
Award-winning actor, creator of a myriad of memorable characters from Lady Whiteadder to Professor Sprout, Miriam Margolyes is a national treasure. Now, at last, at the age of 80, she has finally decided to tell her extraordinary life story. And it’s far richer and stranger than any part she’s played.
Find out how being conceived in an air-raid gave her curly hair; what pranks led to her being known as the naughtiest girl Oxford High School ever had; how she ended up posing nude for Augustus John aged 17, being sent to Coventry by Monty Python and the Goodies and swearing on University Challenge (she was the first woman to say F*** on TV). This Much is True is packed with unforgettable stories. It is as warm and honest, as full of life and surprises, as she is.
In Black and White by Alexandra Wilson
Alexandra Wilson was a teenager when her dear family friend Ayo was stabbed on his way home from football. Ayo’s death changed Alexandra. She felt compelled to enter the legal profession in search of answers.
As a junior criminal and family law barrister, Alexandra finds herself navigating a world and a set of rules designed by a privileged few. A world in which fellow barristers sigh with relief when a racist judge retires: ‘I’ve got a black kid today and he would have had no hope’.
In her debut book, In Black and White, Alexandra re-creates the tense courtroom scenes, the heart-breaking meetings with teenage clients, and the moments of frustration and triumph that make up a young barrister’s life. Alexandra shows us how it feels to defend someone who hates the colour of your skin, or someone you suspect is guilty. We see what it is like for children coerced into county line drug deals and the damage that can be caused when we criminalise teenagers. Alexandra’s account of what she has witnessed as a young mixed-race barrister is in equal parts shocking, compelling, confounding and powerful.
Kate’s Books of the Year
Everyone Sang by William Sieghart
This exquisite book contains over a hundred poems chosen byWilliam Sieghart, creator of the bestselling The Poetry Pharmacy, and illustrated in sensational style by picture-book star Emily Sutton. Divided into four thoughtfully-curated sections, including Poems to Make You Smile, Poems to Move You, Poems to Give You Hope and Poems to Calm and Connect You, the poems originate from an extraordinary and diverse range of sources, from Maya Angelou to A.A. Milne, Lemn Sissay, Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy, Joseph Coelho, Kae Tempest, W.B. Yeats, Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson, among many others.
Combining traditional favourites with recent gems, here are poems to delight, inspire, entertain, intrigue, console and uplift readers of all ages.
Curious About Crocodiles by Owen Davey
Did you know that crocodiles can live to be over 100 years old, and can climb trees to sunbathe? They can even sense the vibrations from a single drop of water falling from the mouth of a drinking wildebeest over twenty metres away. Sink your teeth into this fascinating illustrated guide to the largest reptiles on Earth, full of juicy facts on crocodile behaviour, biology and myth, and packed with details on how we can live with and protect our scaly companions.
Slow Down by Rachel Williams
All around us, nature is turning, growing…and working. Every day, hour by hour, magical transformations happen right in front of you. But it’s not always easy to see them…
Discover 50 nature stories, paused just long enough for you to watch them unfold. Then go outside and explore… and see what you find when you take the time to slow down.
Hard Times for Unicorn by Mickael El Fathi
What happened to the last of the unicorns? After being caught by an explorer, the unicorn goes on a search to find out what makes her happy. She tries her hoof at playing cards, a spot of dueling, she even performs stunts at the circus! Follow the lively course this unfortunate but very game unicorn takes in a vibrant and playful journey to find happiness. Expect suprises and delights in this past-paced, page turner and enjoy an unconventional take on a traditional unicorn theme. From sporting stardom to fishing in the cold north seas, what really did happen to the last of the unicorns and will she ever be happy?