We spent much of 2021 with our noses buried in books. We asked some of our very favourite writers to name the year’s reads that they will remember.

In a year that kicked off with an interminable lockdown, our stuffed shelves have never worked harder. Nor have books ever felt more necessary. Happily, some exceptional tales were published just when we needed them to transport us the most.

We asked a few of our favourite writers, from powerhouse historian Dan Jones to Evie Wyld, author of exquisite, frequently unsettling literary novels, to the viscerally vivid memoirist Clover Stroud, to share their top reads of the year.

Dan Jones

I’m a sucker for a book that is both brainy and beautiful. Nothing has satisfied both criteria better this year than Storyland: A New Mythology of Britain by Amy Jeffs. Elegant retellings of Britain’s origin legends sit alongside Jeffs’ captivating artworks, which I like so much that I have two hanging in my office. Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and their Makers by Mary Wellesley is another superb literary tour of our national history from a very gifted new historian.

Two maligned English rulers are the subjects of the year’s best historical biographies. Ronald Hutton’s The Making of Cromwell is a triumph of scholarly insight and dreamy writing. Exactly the same might be said for Andrew Roberts’ George III. Roberts is in a rich vein of form at present; after bestselling books on Napoleon and Churchill, yet another masterpiece has tumbled from his pen.

My favourite novel was Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The Morning Star – as acutely, painfully observed as his My Struggle cycle, but a good deal more fun.

Clover Stroud

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt was my favourite book of 2021. Aidt is an award-winning poet and writer in her native Denmark, and this book is about the death of her son, Karl, in 2015, in a horrific accident. Aidt takes the reader into her consciousness as she grapples with the fact of her son’s death. Her writing is powerfully immediate and deeply poetic, and I found it especially interesting as she puts to paper an experience that feels, often, beyond words, beyond comprehension itself. I was pleased to have found this book after I finished writing my exploration of death – my sister’s death of cancer in 2019 – in my own book, The Red of My Blood, which is out in the spring. Sorrow, and feeling and holding and carrying sorrow, is a lonely and bewildering experience, and there was something so consoling about finding Aidt’s writing. It hurt to read it – at times, I cried so hard while reading this incredible book, I was shaking, but it’s an extraordinary book and I cannot recommend it highly enough for anyone who wants to be serious about understanding more of what it means to be human.

I love the writing of Katherine Rundell, and I have especially been enjoying reading her wonderful novels with my daughter, Evangeline, who is nine. We raced through Rooftoppers and are currently deep in the wolf-thick landscapes of snowy Russia, reading The Wolf Wilder. Rundell writes such vivid, sharp prose and the strong, bold girls she creates are wonderful characters. Reading her aloud is only a pleasure.

Evie Wyld

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden, Paul by Daisy Lafarge and Ghosted by Jenn Ashworth are all books by women at the absolute peak of their power. Get hold of them by any means necessary.

Elodie Harper

This year I have been enjoying some wonderful retellings from ancient mythology. I loved Jennifer Saint's beautiful novel Ariadne, which is the story of the woman who saved Theseus from the Minotaur, and also Great Goddesses by Nikita Gill and Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe. Great Goddesses is a lyrical reimagining of the lives of the Greek gods after the fall of Olympus, while Rachel Smythe's comic version of the Hades and Persephone myth is bursting with colour and originality. So far only the first few of Smythe's episodes are in book form, but you can read more of the series online on Webtoon.

Alexander Larman

2021 has been one of the weaker years for conventional history and biographical writing that I can remember, bar a few highlights such as Dan Jones’ authoritative Powers and Thrones, Andrew Roberts’ fascinating re-examination of George III and Anne Sebba’s deeply affecting Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy.

I’ve also been immersing myself in fiction of all kinds: escapist, highbrow and comic. Anthony Quinn and Mick Herron are two of the most reliably entertaining novelists writing today, and I devoured Quinn’s London, Burning and Herron’s Slough House with giddy glee. And Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss is that rare thing: a much-hyped literary novel that lives up to the scuttlebutt, and brilliantly so.

Kate Weinberg

2021 was a year when I fell in love with two deeply flawed but irresistible heroines. Elle Bishop in The Paper Palace, and Martha Friel in Sorrow and Bliss. Like the female protagonist in ‘Fleabag’, these women are fiercely complex, and often make dubious, hurtful choices. But they’re funny and vulnerable and utterly human, and they challenge us by showing the parts of themselves that most of us try to hide. By the time each book ended I was not ready to let go of them, and like when you fall in love, I wanted everyone I know to get to know them too.

Daisy Dunn

There have been some fantastically pacey history books out this year. I particularly enjoyed Giles Milton's Checkmate In Berlin, a thriller-like narrative of the origins of the Cold War, and Dan Jones's Powers and Thrones, an epic new history of the Middle Ages, from the fall of Rome to the sixteenth century. It may weigh more than a small child but I read it wantonly over a weekend.

Becky Ladenburg, GWG Features Editor

The book I loved best this year is The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex. This brilliant, eerie, lyrically written novel is based on the true story of a trio of lighthouse keepers who mysteriously disappeared from the Outer Hebrides in 1900. Stonex’s tale is set in Cornwall in 1972 and artfully weaves together love, loss, loneliness and the limitless power of the ocean.

By Nancy Alsop
December 2021

Read More
18 Of The Most Magical Christmas Books For Children
39 Improving Gifts for Bibliophiles
7 Of The Most Wonderful Cookbooks For Christmas

Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.