The 75 best books of 2021 to read this winter
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Gather round: illustration by Madison Harper Credit : Illustration X There’s no better time than the winter season to get down with a good book. Perhaps you’re looking for a cosy indoor activity across Christmas – or maybe your resolution for the new year will be to read more and get through a certain number of books each month. But with so many titles released throughout the year – how does one go about choosing?
The Telegraph’s regular book reviewers – as well as writing specialist guides to 2021’s best history , fiction , biographies , crime and other genres – have each put forward their own ranked list of suggestions for the best books of the year. Compiled by the Telegraph Books team from those suggestions, here is our definitive ranking of this year’s essential reading.
Which book would you put at number one? Let us know in the comments section below.
The story of Elizabeth Chudleigh, the society beauty – inspiration for Vanity Fair – who in 1776 was convicted of bigamy and ran off to Estonia to run a vodka distillery. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Marvellously decorated with his drawings, the letters the artist Charles Phillipson wrote to his young son in the 1940s are a charming window into a bygone era.
The novelist’s anarchically playful essays cover the history of computing, AI, “the cloud”, and an imagined future in which sexbots are hacked by feminist programmers. Buy the book .
In a stunning account of the 1930s and the Second World War, Overy frames the events leading up to the conflict as a last-ditch attempt to shore up or remake empires. Buy the book .
The Harry Potter actress’s memoir is so warm and likeable, so outspoken and full of surprises, that even if you have never heard of her, you will want to read her life story. Read the full review . Buy the book .
The enchanting story of a boy who finds a tiny polar bear at the bottom of his garden. As their bond grows, so does the bear, until the boy accepts that it is time for his friend to go home. Buy the book .
The MP’s account of “failing upwards” is wonderfully funny. He’s a perfect example of a particular breed of Tory: born to rule, or at least to have a jolly good go at it. Read the full review . Buy the book .
A splendidly nerdy history of the golden age of space flight, from the Soviets shocking the world with the launch of Sputnik I to the moon landings. Read the full review . Buy the book .
The Grammy-winner casts shade on the famous men in her life, notably Tom Waits, with his sailor hat, pointy shoes and “chafed and childlike nature”. Buy the book .
David argues that the Special Boat Service changed the course of the Second World War by making D-Day possible. Read the full review . Buy the book .
The last days of Trump’s presidency were the most chaotic of all, as Wolff reveals in the irresistible final part of the trilogy he began with Fire and Fury. Read the full review . Buy the book .
A worthy successor to the 1958 classic The Rise of the Meritocracy, this sparkling study shows how much less meritocratic our society has become since then. Read the full review . Buy the book .
The controversial Irish singer’s stories of maternal abuse would be the stuff of misery memoir if they weren’t related with such eccentric charm and cheery fortitude. Read the full review . Buy the book .
An exposé of the bizarre online cult QAnon – its Trump-loving followers believe in a Satan-worshipping, child-abducting cabal led by Hillary Clinton. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Vicariously enjoy the buzz of 1920s Harlem nightlife in this thriller about waitress Louise Lloyd, who punches a racist cop and ends up helping the police in a manhunt for a killer. Buy the book .
The indefatigable one-legged artist and abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood personified the optimism of Georgian Britain. Hunt brings him brilliantly to life. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Set in an English abbey in the 12th century, this pitch-perfect novel follows an unwilling nun called Marie de France who ends up as a power-hungry abbess. Read the full review .
The controversial psychologist muses on mortality and wages war on the fogginess of convenient and avoidant thinking, in this follow-up to his 12 Rules for Life. Read the full review . Buy the book .
The stories behind the songs may be familiar to Beatles fans, but it’s charming to read about them from McCartney’s thoughtful perspective in this handsomely boxed two-volume set. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Lewis’s study turns the still-unfolding story of the coronavirus pandemic into a slickly thrillerish cautionary tale about the interface between science and institutional politics. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Over-70s are more than twice as likely to vote Tory than Labour. Duffy explains this political divide while also showing how ties of mutual affection unite the old and young. Buy the book .
A sequel to The Skylarks’ War, we join the next generation as they come of age in the Second World War, in an action-packed saga for readers of nine-plus. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Funny and furious, the parliamentary sketch-writer takes aim at petty-minded officialdom and woke quangos in a book-length harrumph. Read the full review . Buy the book .
A rollicking masterclass in historical fiction, Shipstead’s novel moves between the life of an early aviatrix and that of an actress playing her in a contemporary Hollywood film. Read the full review . Buy the book .
A fascinating history of the efforts to find and identify the bodies of missing First World War soldiers, both while the conflict raged and today: several dozen are still found each year. Read the full review . Buy the book .
After flying and sailing, solo, across the Atlantic, guided by the stars, Gooley now shows us how to read the weather by looking more closely at the world. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Drawing on her siblings’ grim experiences in a Romanian orphanage, Stadnicka’s poetry is as powerfully moving as it is formally inventive. Read the full review .
Jähner relates the recovery of the defeated Germans from the appalling “Hour Zero” of 1945 in fascinating detail, using the diaries, memoirs and letters of those living in the ruins. Read the full review . Buy the book .
In 1846, accused of adultery with the prime minister, novelist Caroline Norton lost custody of her children. Fraser’s calmly furious history tells her story. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Written in short, tweet-like paragraphs, Lockwood’s novel begins as a very funny satire about the internet, before taking a dark turn. Read the full review . Buy the book .
A vastly entertaining account of the crisis that befell England’s stately homes after the Second World War – and how tourists, safari animals and pop stars aided their recovery. Read the full review . Buy the book .
The rock star takes us from his rough Glasgow childhood to the release of Primal Scream’s album Screamadelica. It’s overblown and ridiculous – and that’s all part of the fun. Buy the book .
A strait-laced actuary inherits an adventure park from his dead brother, only to find it has been kept afloat by loan sharks. A thriller with black comedy worthy of Nabokov. Buy the book .
Like a Russian novel, this biography brilliantly traces the psychological burden passed down from Winston Churchill’s cold father to his own overindulged son. Read the full review . Buy the book .
This entertaining history of more than two millennia of Western censorship is a level-headed, salutary intervention in today’s overheated rows over free speech. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Walker’s intimate biography shows how Yuri Gagarin weathered the Soviets’ space programme to become the first man in orbit, and explores his curious celebrity afterlife. Buy the book .
This lively account of political murders, from Julius Caesar onwards, looks at what motivates the killers, and asks whether they ever really change anything. Buy the book .
Bridget hates her awful father and irritating mother – but is she also partly responsible for her family breakdown? Riley’s pin-sharp novel examines relationships with an unsparing eye. Read the full review . Buy the book .
If we really looked at animals, we’d struggle to justify eating them, argues Mance, in this vegan manifesto. Your Christmas turkey would certainly agree. Read the full review . Buy the book . Buy Jordan Why Not Zer0.1 Chaos Black/Grey-University Red-White
A social-climbing MP, Channon was one of the 20th century’s greatest diarists. Covering 1918-43, these are his uncensored thoughts. Read the full review . Buy Vol 1 ; buy Vol 2 .
In the illustrator’s first novel for children, a young girl tries to save a bear cub stolen by ruthless zookeepers. A fast-paced story, told with unhurried charm. Buy the book .
In 154 prose poems loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets, Kennard shares his own witty, touching, fiendishly clever musings on love. Read the full review .
Leicester-based blogger Higgins explains how he uses “open source” data to unmask Russian hitmen and Syrian war criminals on his investigative website Bellingcat. Read the full review . Buy the book .
In Ishiguro’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize, we see the world through the eyes of Klara, a companion robot bought to be a friend for a terminally ill teenager. Read the full review . Buy the book .
One Joseph Knox – a deliciously unflattering self-portrait of the author – gets entangled in the investigation of a missing student. A thriller of genuine unease. Buy the book .
Charting the rise and fall of the German Empire from 1871-1918, this history is especially sharp on the reasons for the Reich’s failure – not least the ineptitude of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Britain’s “most misunderstood monarch” is royally rehabilitated: drawing on unseen sources, Roberts definitively proves he was neither a tyrant nor a brute. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Two wealthy kidnap victims in Delhi decide to get into the game themselves, in a caper about a country whose values have “gone off… like curdled paneer”. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Of the British soldiers who died in the Great War, 85 per cent fell on the Western Front. Lloyd’s is a superlative account of the 51-month hellish carnage. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Psychology journalist Burkeman urges us to stop wasting time: abandon middling priorities and embrace the difficult and important in life. Buy the book .
In 1950s Cardiff, an innocent Somali man is convicted of killing a Jewish shop worker – and hanged. This atmospheric novel fictionalises that terrible injustice. Read the full review . Buy the book .
The former Telegraph journalist tells how a CIA team fought 400 heavily armed al-Qaeda prisoners in a jail break, in the first big clash in Afghanistan in 2001: the war in microcosm. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Hutton’s biography meticulously takes the Lord Protector’s story to 1645, showing how his gifts as a soldier equipped him for leadership. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Tradition roots us in the world and society, argues Telegraph columnist Stanley. Let’s end the culture wars, and rebuild civilisation. Read the full review . Buy the book .
DH Lawrence, that most unfashionable novelist, finds a superb advocate in Wilson, one of our finest biographers, as she raids his lesser-known works to render him fresh and exciting. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Superb poems from one of Ireland’s most talented young writers; elegies for friends, witty diversions, and an unlikely cycle of sonnets in which WB Yeats meets a rock star. Read the full review . Buy the book .
A fascinating tour of the briny depths, from vampire squid to “bone-eating zombie worms” and crabs named after David Hasselhoff. Read the full review . Buy the book .
An overbearing building contractor enters the hothouse atmosphere of a US ballet school to spread emotional as well as physical chaos in our thriller of the year. Buy the book .
A white South African family fail to keep a promise to their black servant; we follow their moral decline across four decades, in this year’s Booker prize-winner. Read the full review . Buy the book .
In 2021’s most eccentric, joyful music memoir, Nick Cave’s sideman Warren Ellis finds Nina Simone’s chewed gum under her piano – and keeps it in a towel for 20 years.
If you went to church 800 years ago, what would you have seen and heard? The distant past comes thrillingly to life in this superb study. Read the full review .
The horror story of how the hardscrabble immigrant Sackler family learnt to turn drugs into money – then forgot their humanity, precipitating America’s opioid crisis.
Solnit makes us rethink “Orwellian” to mean not just what he was against, but what he was for – nature. Her brilliant essays give colour back to an author we often think of as grey. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Finally, English readers get their grubbers on the 2015 masterpiece that won Tokarczuk the Nobel Prize, about the mid-18th-century melting pot of Jews, Christians and converts. Buy the book .
The bestselling historian proves himself to be one of the most exciting new voices in children’s books, too, with his Adventures in Time series. Buy the book .
The inside story of Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls – and the world’s misguided campaign to get them back – is brilliantly told. Read the full review .
A triumph of writing, horsemanship and sheer grit: Thubron, now 82, broke two ribs travelling on horseback along the river that divides China and Russia . Read the full review . Buy the book .
The actress delivers the year’s outstanding memoir, fearlessly presenting herself as prickly, hot-tempered and bitter at her mother for making her dance in working men’s clubs. Buy the book .
This magisterial study is a detective story about the deep past: how come humans learned to speak, when our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, did not? Buy the book .
Enough time has passed that we can now finally know the juicy details about a king whose reign, famously, had “never a dull moment” – and who invented our modern monarchy. Read the full review . Buy the book .
In a book reminiscent of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, Payne travels around Labour’s former “red wall” to paint a stark picture of those left behind. Buy the book .
2021’s most impressive work of history pulls together hidden threads to show how fear of Bolshevism poisoned international relations between the wars. Buy the book .
Head spinning over the trans debate? Read this philosopher, who cuts through the madness with calm rigour in her brave new book – and lost her university post as a consequence. Read the full review . Buy the book .
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A superb, pacy account of Robert Maxwell’s ascent from shtetl boyhood to decorated British soldier to self-made publishing billionaire to eventual cartoon madman. Read the full review . Buy the book .
Marrying moral debates with an addictive story, our book of the year is the American novelist’s superb portrait of the complicated Hildebrandt family, set in the 1970s Midwest. Read the full review . Buy the book .
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