No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
What is the internet doing to our minds and hearts? The American comic memoirist’s first novel, shortlisted for the Women’s prize, begins as a savagely witty deep dive into the black hole of social media, then confronts real-life tragedy and transcendence.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Klara, the “artificial friend” to sickly teenager Josie, is our naive guide through Ishiguro’s uneasy near-future, in which AI and genetic enhancement threaten to create a human underclass. Klara’s quest to understand the people and systems around her, and to protect Josie at all costs, illuminates what it means to love, to care – to be human.
Luster by Raven Leilani
This Dylan Thomas prize winner introduces a brilliant new voice. Edie is a young black woman in New York who starts a relationship with an older white man, and gets complicatedly close to his wife and adopted black daughter. The sentences crackle in a virtuosic skewering of race, precarious modern living and the generation gap.
That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry
The third short-story collection from a stylist to savour brings more exhilarating, darkly witty tales of oddballs yearning after love and enchantment in the wild west of Ireland.
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex
Based on a real-life mystery, this stylishly written debut interweaves a range of voices to explore the disappearance of three Cornish lighthouse keepers in 1972. Both a slow-growing, atmospheric portrait of claustrophobic relationships and a relentless page-turner, this is a hugely satisfying read and a passionate love letter to the sea.
The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee
A deeply enjoyable panoramic novel about gilded age New York, which explores the transformation of the city through the life and sudden death of the man who built Central Park.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
This account of a life derailed by mental illness is both darkly funny and deeply touching. Martha looks back on her failed marriage to Patrick, a family friend, but the real love story in this novel, billed as “Fleabag meets Patrick Melrose”, is with her wry sister, Ingrid.
How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina
Written with enormous verve and energy, this crime caper satirising aspiration, inequality and corruption in India centres on an “examinations consultant” who fraudulently acquires qualifications for the children of the wealthy. Fast, furious and lots of fun.
Second Place by Rachel Cusk
A stranger comes to stay in this fascinating, uncomfortable exploration of creativity, the male gaze and the gendered experience of freedom. Cusk’s story of a female writer’s power struggle with a male artist is one of the first novels to take inspiration from lockdown.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
A young author’s tender debut about a contemporary London love affair explores race, sex and masculinity, as well as being a joyous hymn to black art and culture.
A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago
Described as “the Thelma and Louise of the 17th century” and based on a real-life scandal at the court of James VI and I, this irresistibly immersive novel follows a friendship between two women that leads to Tyburn and the Tower.
Civilisations by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor
In this hugely entertaining counterfactual history of the making of the modern world, it’s the Incas who invade Europe. Binet has riotous, brainy fun in a rollicking story of the urge to power, which delights in turning received ideas upside down.
Girl A by Abigail Dean
The premise of this thriller debut – that “Girl A” is the sibling who escaped incarceration by abusive parents in a “house of horrors” – may sound overly grim, but this is a carefully judged and propulsive story of survival and redemption, as Lex comes to terms with her past.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
“Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada”: in this buzzy, up-to-the-minute debut, twentysomething Nella is pleased to no longer be the only black employee in her New York publishing company when new recruit Hazel joins her desk. But then things get sinister … A twisty, darkly comic satire of office culture, identity politics and white expectations.
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
Spufford follows his 18th-century romp Golden Hill with a brilliantly achieved interweaving of working-class lives in postwar south London. The book’s metaphysical conceit – that the children whose stories he spins, from the blitz into the 21st century, died when a German bomb dropped on Woolworths – infuses this tale of the miracle of everyday existence with an elegiac profundity.
The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox
A magical book; doors between worlds; talking birds, vicious fairies and a trip to Purgatory … Stuffed with literary allusion and mythic echoes from the Norse legends to Alan Garner, straddling dimensions and hopping genres with ease, this is a capacious, one-of-a-kind fantasy novel that’s worth getting lost in.
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley
A short, sharp shock of a novel that anatomises a toxic relationship between mother and daughter. Riley’s icy style and uncanny ear for dialogue create unflinching prose that is funny and devastating by turns.
Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
This intricately written and absorbing historical crime thriller spans all levels of Georgian London, as a woman with her own secrets investigates a murder in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Shortlisted for the Women’s prize, this follow-up to Homegoing confirms Gyasi’s blazing talent. Focusing on a family who emigrate from Ghana to the deep south in the US, it’s an investigation of science and faith, addiction and ambition, and the way trauma is passed down the generations.
In. by Will McPhail
The debut graphic novel from the New Yorker cartoonist is a beautiful, bittersweet portrait of modern life, with black and white panels bursting into sublime colour when isolated hipster Nick makes a genuine connection with others. McPhail is very funny on urban coffee-shop existence – “croissants aren’t making me happy any more” – but his tragicomedy will also make the heart swell.
Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan
An Edinburgh tenement building is haunted by tall stories and unnerving strangers, from William Burroughs to the devil’s daughter, in this weird and wonderful gothic confection.
The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore
Based on documents from the time, a striking debut about the women victimised in the 17th-century Essex witch trials that is both an amazingly fresh historical novel and a timeless meditation on the male abuse of power.
A River Called Time by Courttia Newland
A speculative epic of parallel Londons, set in a world where colonialism and slavery never happened, enables a superhero story that’s thought-provoking as well as action-packed.
The Rules of Revelation by Lisa McInerney
The rollercoaster conclusion to the Women’s prize-winning “unholy trinity” of big-hearted, sharp-mouthed novels set amid Cork’s seamy underbelly. A sideways look at modern Ireland, and a comic treat.
The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, translated by Philip Boehm
This year’s essential literary rediscovery was written as darkness descended in Nazi Germany. With the nightmarish absurdism of Kafka and the pace of a thriller, it follows a German-Jewish businessman’s attempts to flee the country: tense, terrifying and still horribly relevant today.
This One Sky Day by Leone Ross
Gloriously inventive magic realism set over a single day on a fictional Caribbean archipelago, where every inhabitant has a touch of supernatural power. Whimsy, romance, erotica and adventure collide in a literary feast for the senses.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
A soaring epic of female adventure and wanderlust that ranges across decades and continents, from the early 20th century to the 21st, as a Hollywood star investigates the mysterious disappearance of an early aviator.
Slough House by Mick Herron
Spymaster Jackson Lamb may be getting a little cartoonish in this latest outing for the screwups and rejects of MI5, but Herron’s bone-dry farce of corruption and intrigue remains as delicious as ever.
Animal by Lisa Taddeo
Taddeo follows a nonfiction investigation of female desire, Three Women, with an excoriating debut novel that puts female rage in the spotlight. Her transgressive antiheroine, making a US road trip of revenge and self-discovery, is a wisecracking voice to relish (out on 24 June).
The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam
In this sparky satire of startup culture and the modern search for meaning, a computer scientist who launches a social media app with her husband has to find her own voice, both in the boardroom and her marriage. Smart and funny on culture clashes, male-female dynamics and the cult of wellness.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
Why is fiction important and what makes a great story? The Booker winner teaches Russian literature at Syracuse University in the US and this enjoyable collection of essays channels that expertise, diving into classic short stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy and Gogol. A masterclass from a warm and engagingly enthusiastic companion.
Real Estate by Deborah Levy
The concluding book in Levy’s “living autobiography” trilogy sees her travelling between London, New York, Mumbai and Paris reflecting on creativity, security and what makes a home as she approaches her 60th birthday. Witty, honest and hypnotically allusive, this brilliantly crafted memoir interrogates women’s quest for artistic and emotional freedom.
Rememberings by Sinéad O’Connor
From childhood thieving to publicly ripping up a picture of the Pope, O’Connor is known for sticking two fingers up at authority. This unapologetic account of her rollercoaster life and career is full of heart, humour and cameos from figures such as Prince, or as she calls him “ol fluffy cuffs”.
Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera
A concise, well researched and accessible primer to a history too often whitewashed or overlooked, Empireland shows how the legacy of our colonial past saturates so much of the “Britishness” that we take for granted today.
Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic by Rachel Clarke
Written from the frontline of history – at nights, on a palliative care ward – this is a book filled with rage and compassion that should become required reading for anyone considering a career in medicine or politics.
Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston
In an entertaining account of the life and death of Robert Maxwell, the author of A Very English Scandal charts the press baron’s vast appetites, ambition and feud with Rupert Murdoch. It ends with the man Private Eye nicknamed “the bouncing Czech” emptying the Mirror pension fund before disappearing from his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine – named after the now equally infamous youngest of his nine children.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel
If you’ve never read a deeply personal, stomach-shakingly funny, existential graphic memoir about exercise, mortality and self-improvement, start with this one by the talented artist behind Fun Home.
In the Thick of It: The Private Diaries of a Minister by Alan Duncan
Some politicians’ diaries disappoint by pulling their punches and offering little in the way of political gossip. This isn’t one of them. Duncan describes Gavin Williamson as a “venomous self-seeking little shit”, Priti Patel a “brassy monster”, and Michael Gove an “unctuous freak”. And that’s to say nothing of Boris Johnson and Brexit …
The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020 by Rachel Kushner
In a collection spanning 20 years, Kushner is as sharp writing about partying as politics, cultural history or motorbike racing. To a great writer, everything is copy, and Kushner has a more interesting life to draw on than most.
The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature by Peter Wohlleben
A simultaneously stimulating and soothing blend of nature writing and science, this detailed examination of the consciousness of trees may disappoint readers who want to commune with the forest, but strongly encourages tree hugging for our own, human sake.
I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi
After she was subjected to a racist attack on a train, Mancunian writer Sethi was left anxious, claustrophobic and longing for open spaces. This account of her pilgrimage across the Pennines explores ideas of estrangement, home and belonging.
Many Different Kinds of Love by Michael Rosen
In the darkest days of the pandemic last year came news that the former children’s laureate was seriously ill with Covid. This affecting anthology is his attempt to piece together the 47 days he spent in intensive care. Darkly funny poems sit alongside messages from his wife, Emma, and extracts from his “patient’s diary” recorded by the nurses and care workers who saved his life.
Ancestors: A Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials by Alice Roberts
A winning combination of groundbreaking genetic science and real, human empathy, this exploration of seven burial sites explains who we are and how we came to be here.
One of Them: An Eton College Memoir by Musa Okwonga
An elegantly crafted memoir that weaves together the two strands of Okwonga’s early life takes in the rise of the far right in his mostly white, working-class hometown and his time at Eton. The result is a unique insight into race and class in Britain today.
The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of the Social Life of Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan
Some people call it mass hysteria; some grisi siknis (crazy sickness) or “mass psychogenic illness”. What neurologist O’Sullivan makes clear, in this fascinating and compassionate account, is that these illnesses are real, that they sometimes allow voiceless people to make themselves heard and that, with the right support, those people can be helped.
From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with My Nine-Year-Old Self by Katherine Langrish
A wonderful companion to CS Lewis’s Narnia novels, which captures the magic of books as a doorway into other worlds while also thoughtfully exploring Lewis’s religious didacticism.
How to Make the World Add Up: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers by Tim Harford
As presenter of Radio 4’s More or Less, Harford is a calm voice in the often confusing and clamorous world of statistics. With its 10 simple rules for understanding numbers, this book demystifies maths and gives its power back to the people, taking away the advantage from those who would use statistics to bamboozle us.
Stronger: Changing Everything I Knew About Women’s Strength by Poorna Bell
Bell took up powerlifting after the death of her husband and can now lift more than twice her own body weight. In this defiant and reflective memoir she examines ideas around women and strength, resulting in a challenging, positive and powerful call to arms. Muscled arms.
Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell
Travelogue meets biography meets a masterful explanation of quantum theory in this warm and fascinating account of what happened when young Werner Heisenberg went to Helgoland in 1925.
All the Young Men: A Memoir of Love, Aids and Chosen Family in the American South by Ruth Coker Burks
A perfect real-life counterpoint to Russell T Davies’s It’s a Sin, All the Young Men recalls how Burks held hands, cooked meals and fought for care for hundreds of men stigmatised and abandoned as they died of Aids. It’s a tender and bracing reminder of all-too-recent history.
Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes
Pandora didn’t have a box – and that’s just one of the things you’ll learn from this funny, geeky guide to Greek myth by the standup classicist.
Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Life, Love and Relationships by Camilla Pang
A writer with autism spectrum disorder uses scientific concepts to help her understand human behaviour – and other humans have a lot to learn from her about both.
Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre
The stranger-than-fiction story of Ursula Kuczynski, a 20th-century secret agent whose remarkable work changed the course of history.
Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay
Originally published in 1997, this richly inventive biography details the Scottish poet’s lifelong love affair with a “libidinous, raunchy, fearless blueswoman”.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
This family saga about black twins in the US, one of whom takes on a white identity, has been a critical and commercial smash.
Summer by Ali Smith
The triumphant conclusion to Smith’s seasonal quartet explores the biggest themes – war, love, family, climate, art – with wit and heart.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Soaked in love, agony and booze, the Booker-winning tale of a young boy and his alcoholic mother in 1980s Glasgow.
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
The Pointless host’s all-conquering crime debut is a cosy caper in an upmarket retirement village.
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
A virgin birth in postwar south London? This wry, witty tale of a stifled journalist finding new horizons as she investigates an unlikely claim is a bittersweet treat.
The Gospel of the Eels: A Father, a Son and the World’s Most Enigmatic Fish
by Patrik Svensson
A gorgeously evocative blend of science, nature writing and family memoir that explores a father-son relationship – and eels.
Children’s and teen books
Wild Child: A Journey Through Nature by Dara McAnulty, illustrated by Barry Falls
From the prize-winning young naturalist, this is a dreamy dive into the natural world to thrill wildlife fans of six-plus.
Good News: Why the World Is Not as Bad as You Think by Rashmi Sirdeshpande, illustrated by Adam Hayes
Learn to spot fake news and celebrate the best of humanity in this mood-lifting global overview for readers of seven and up.
Noah’s Gold by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, illustrated by Steven Lenton
What happens when a school trip leaves six kids stranded on an island – and the entire internet is turned off? A gently funny story for eight-plus, with a warm, classic feel.
The House of Serendipity by Lucy Ivison, illustrated by Catharine Collingridge Scandalous secrets meet riotous hilarity in this glorious 1920s-set romp starring a young dressmaking duo, perfect for readers of nine to 12.
Starboard by Nicola Skinner, illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino
An escaped steamship, estranged best friends, a talking map and a fabulous voyage add up to a thrillingly original story for 10-plus.
Something I Said by Ben Bailey Smith
Smart young comedian Carmichael Taylor is on a journey of self-discovery – from trouble at school to American TV star (maybe). Witty and touching, this book is ideal for 10-plus readers who love wordplay and wild, looping tangents.
You’re the One That I Want by Simon James Green
Shy, ordinary Freddie is terrified of auditioning for Grease, but gorgeous newcomer Zach seems determined to seduce him in the props cupboard. A hilariously rude, sweetly addictive YA romance.
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Only two black students attend an exclusive US high school – and now an anonymous texter is trying to destroy their reputations in this tense, compelling YA thriller that will appeal to fans of Karen McManus.
House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland
Three sisters vanished as children and came back strangely changed. Now Grey, the eldest, has vanished again. Can she be saved once more? A gorgeous, grisly modern fairytale for 14-plus.
Bad Habits by Flynn Meaney
When rebel girl Alex sets out to stage The Vagina Monologues at her Catholic boarding school, she’s hoping to be expelled – but things don’t go according to plan. A frank, feminist and outrageously funny YA novel.