The definitive guide to the Costa Book Awards 2021

Reader's Digest Editors 26 November 2021

Here are the 20 fantastic books shortlisted for the coveted book award 

Recognised as one of the UK's most prestigious and popular book prizes, the Costa Book Award recognises some of the most enjoyable books published in the last year across five categories—First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book.

The year 2021 marks the 50th year of the Awards. Originally established in 1971, Costa Coffee took over the UK’s most prestigious book prize from Whitbread Plc in 2006. This year’s Costa Book Awards attracted 934 entries, an increase of over 30 per cent on 2020 and the highest number of entries received in one year to date.

Shortlist for the 2021 Costa First Novel Award

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (Viking)

Two young people meet at a pub in South East London and fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence. 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.  

The Manningtree Witches by A K Blakemore (Granta)

England, 1643. Puritanical fervour has gripped the nation. In Manningtree, depleted of men since the Civil War began, the women are left to their own devices and Rebecca West chafes against the drudgery of her days. But when Matthew Hopkins arrives, asking bladed questions and casting damning accusations, mistrust and unease seep into the lives of the women. Caught between betrayal and persecution, what must Rebecca West do to survive?

Fault Lines by Emily Itami (Phoenix)

Mizuki has a hardworking husband, a beautiful apartment, two adorable children, and a crushing sense of loneliness. She loves her family but feels invisible in her marriage and trapped by the confines of domestic life. Then, one rainy night, she meets Kiyoshi, a successful restaurateur, and quickly finds herself falling for him. In their affair she finds passion, excitement and freedom - but how long can it last, and at what cost?

The Stranding by Kate Sawyer (Coronet)

In a bid to leave her claustrophobic relationship, Ruth makes the decision to leave London, her friends and family, to travel to New Zealand and pursue her lifelong dream of working with whales.

There she finds the increasingly ominous global news cycle is now the new reality. Far from home and with no hope of survival, she climbs into the mouth of a beached whale alongside a stranger.

When they emerge, it’s to an unrecognisable landscape. When all’s been razed to the ground, what does it mean to build a life?

Shortlist for the 2021 Costa Novel Award

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller (Fig Tree)

When their elderly mother, Dot, dies suddenly, 51-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius are entirely unprepared for life without her in their rundown, rural cottage. Raised in isolation away from the complexities of the modern world, within days they find themselves facing eviction and a landslide of debt, as the web of secrets Dot wove around them, since the death of their father 40 years ago, threatens to tear apart.

The High House by Jessie Greengrass (Swift Press)

The high house is a holiday cottage perched above a small village by the sea. Caro and her younger half-brother, Pauly, arrive there after her father and stepmother fall victim to a faraway climate disaster. In their new home, cared for by Grandy and his granddaughter, Sally, the two pairs learn to live together. Yet there are limits even to what the ailing Grandy can teach them about how to survive. The High House asks us who, if we had to, we would save.

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed (Viking)

Mahmood Mattan is a fixture in Cardiff's Tiger Bay, 1952, which bustles with Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. He is a father, chancer, petty criminal. He is a smooth talker with rakish charm and an eye for a good game. He is many things, but he is not a murderer… It is only in the run-up to the trial, as the prospect of returning home dwindles, that it will dawn on Mahmood that he is in a fight for his life—against conspiracy, prejudice and cruelty—and that the truth may not be enough to save him.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (Viking)

In war-torn Cyprus, two teenagers—one Greek, one Turkish—meet under a fig tree that bears witness to their tumultuous lives. Decades later in London, 16-year-old Ada, finds one sole connection to the land of her ancestors—the Ficus Carica growing in her back garden.

Shortlist for the 2021 Costa Biography Award

Consumed: A Sister’s Story by Arifa Akbar (Sceptre)

Consumed is an intricately woven and psychologically astute portrait of sisterhood, grief and the healing powers of art. Exploring the strange mythologies that surround tuberculosis, Akbar’s quest to understand her troubled sibling takes her from London to Lahore, to the paintings of Edvard Munch, from Keats and Sontag to Little Women and Antigone.

The Moth and the Mountain: A True Story of Love, War and Everest by Ed Caesar (Viking)

The Moth and the Mountain reveals the previously untold story of Britain's most mysterious mountaineering legend—The First World War veteran Maurice Wilson—who in the 1930s conceived his own crazy, beautiful plan: to fly an aeroplane from England to Everest, crash land on its lower slopes, then become the first person to reach its summit. Alone.

Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston (Viking)

Fall is the dramatic tale of the extraordinary rise and scandalous fall of Robert Maxwell. Born an Orthodox Jew, he escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and fought in The Second World War, later becoming an MP and successful (and notorious) media magnate. But after his mysterious death, his empire disintegrated as long-hidden debts and unscrupulous dealings came to light. This gripping account from John Preston reveals what went so wrong.

Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi (Allen Lane)

Free, a coming-of-age story set in Albania in the 1980s and 90s, explores big political themes (freedom, socialism, democracy) through the lives of the author and her family. With acute insight and wit, Lea Ypi traces the limits of progress and the burden of the past, illuminating the spaces between ideals and reality, and the hopes and fears of people pulled up by the sweep of history.

Shortlist for the 2021 Costa Poetry Award

All the Names Given by Raymond Antrobus (Picador)

This second collection is full of intimate, deeply personal poems that continue Antrobus’s investigation into language, miscommunication, place and memory. The poems travel through space, shifting between England, South Africa, Jamaica and the American South, and move fluently from family history, through the lust of adolescence and finally into a vivid and complex arrange of marriage poems.

A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi (Chatto & Windus)


A Blood Condition tells a story of inheritance—the people, places, cultures and memories that form us. Chingonyi explores how distance and time, nations and a century’s history, can collapse within a body; our past continuous in our present. From London, Leeds and the North East to the banks of the Zambezi river, these poems consider change and permanence, grief and joy, the painful ongoing process of letting go, with remarkable music and clarity.  

Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick (Carcanet Press)


Eat or We Both Starve draws readers into seemingly recognisable set-pieces—the family home, the shared meal, the rituals of historical occasions, desire—but Kennefick forges this material into new shapes, making them viable again for exploring what it is to live with the past—and not to be consumed by it.

The Kids by Hannah Lowe (Bloodaxe Books)


Hannah Lowe’s third collection, The Kids, is a book of sonnets about teaching, learning, growing up and parenthood. It draws on Hannah’s decade of teaching in an inner-city London sixth form during the 2000s, as well as on her own coming of age in the riotous 1980s and 90s and concludes with poems about her young son learning to negotiate contemporary London.


Shortlist for the 2020 Costa Children’s Book Award
Maggie Blue and the Dark World by Anna Goodall (Guppy Books)

Maggie has always preferred her own company, but when she witnesses the kidnap of the school bully, she knows she is the only one who can help. After all, nobody would believe that the kidnapper was the school counsellor. With only a sarcastic talking cat for company, Maggie finds herself entering a dark and dangerous world—a place where happiness is valued above everything.

The Crossing by Manjeet Mann (Penguin)

Natalie's world is falling apart. She's just lost her mum and her brother marches the streets of Dover full of hate and anger. Swimming is her only refuge. Sammy has fled his home and family in Eritrea for the chance of a new life in Europe. Every step he takes on his journey is a step into an unknown and unwelcoming future. The Crossing is about two teenagers from opposite worlds—a profound story of hope, grief, and the very real tragedies of the refugee crisis, written in verse.

The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery (Walker Books)

Sometimes at the darkest hour, hope shines the brightest…

When Col’s childhood imaginary friends come to life, he discovers a world where myths and legends are real. Accompanied by his guardians—a six-foot tiger, a badger in a waistcoat and a miniature knight—Col must travel to Blitz-bombed-London to save his sister. But there are darker forces at work, even than the Nazi bombings. Soon, Col is pursued by the terrifying Midwinter King, who is determined to bring an eternal darkness down over everything.

The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh by Helen Rutter (Scholastic UK)

Billy is an 11-year-old boy with a big dream. He wants to be a stand-up comedian when he grows up: delivering pinpoint punchlines and having audiences hang on his every hilarious word. A tough career for anyone, but surely impossible for Billy, who has a stammer. How will he find his voice if his voice won’t let him speak?

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