Best non-fiction 2021: Memoir, essays, biographies and history, from Candice Brathwaite to Craig Brown

·8-min read
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Love, grief, sex, marriage, art, literature, family and nature: our favourite non-fiction reads this year cover a truly brain-expanding range of topics.

If you’re looking for something to get you thinking, here’s our edit of the very best non-fiction to read this year. Looking for a fiction fix? You can find our round-up of the best new novels here.

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ series has become something of a talisman for many readers. The final instalment is full of evocative writing about food and travel, meditations on home and hard-won wisdom about being a female writer.

Buy it here

Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

After the death of her father last year, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie penned this powerful essay about loss. It’s both a tribute to him and a raw, articulate study of grief.

Buy it here

Conversations on Love by Natasha Lunn

This intelligent study of love is full of clever nuggets that will have you underlining sentences and turning down the corners of pages. It combines interviews with interesting figures like Philippa Perry, Esther Perel and Lemn Sissay with the author’s own essays.

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Everything Under the Sun by Molly Oldfield

What are toes for? And why can’t penguins fly? These are just a couple of the (actually very good) questions answered in this gorgeous compendium, full of curious queries from kids. QI Elf Molly Oldfield has based this book on her successful podcast, in which experts field questions from children. It’s accompanied by beautiful pictures by 12 different illustrators, and makes for a wonderful gift for families.

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First Comes Love by Tom Rasmussen

What is marriage these days - a beautiful symbol of commitment, an excuse for a fancy party or an outdated patriarchal institution? Tom Rasmussen, who is queer, non-binary and in a relationship with a man, but grew up in a working class community where marriage was massively important, grapples with the question in this intriguing new book.

Buy it here

My Mess is a Bit of a Life by Georgia Pritchett

Georgia Pritchett is TV royalty - Succession, Veep, The Thick of It, Smack the Pony and Spitting Image are just a few of the shows she’s written for. We can probably consider her literary royalty now too, since her new memoir, documenting her struggles with anxiety, is already this year’s most Instagrammed book cover.

Buy it here

Oh What a Lovely Century! By Roderic Fenwick Owen

If you’ve got a penchant for posh goss, don’t miss this riotous memoir by Roderic Fenwick Owen, an Etonite who became a well-connected travel writer. Fans of Anne Glenconner’s Lady in Waiting will love it.

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Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again by Katherine Angel

These excellent essays on female desire, consent and vulnerability are a must-read for anyone searching for a more nuanced perspective on sex in a post-#MeToo world. One of the most important books you’ll read all year.

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Everybody by Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing uses psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich as the linchpin for this free-wheeling look at bodies and freedom. She stylishly skips from artists to thinkers to illuminate the subject in a way that makes your brain hum and always feels fun.

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All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks

The remarkable life of Ruth Coker Burks is set for the big screen - next year, she’ll be played by Ruth Wilson in a new film. Before it arrives, read her memoir, in which she recounts how she cared for hundreds of men suffering from Aids in the 1980s, while she was a single mother in her twenties.

Buy it here

Many Different Kinds of Love by Michael Rosen

This deeply affecting record of Michael Rosen’s experience of being hospitalised with Covid-19 might make you do a little sob. He spent a month in an induced coma, during which time nurses would write hopeful messages in a diary at the end of his bed. They are included here along with Rosen’s own memories, poems and illustrations by Chris Riddell.

Buy it here

One Two Three Four by Craig Brown

Craig Brown’s playful, collage-like style made his Princess Margaret biography, Ma’am Darling, a must-read. He uses a similar style for his story of the Beatles, which includes fan letters, diaries, interviews, news announcements and essays, and won him the Baillie Gifford Prize last year.

Buy it here

An Extra Pair of Hands by Kate Mosse

Kate Mosse is best known for her spell-binding historical novels and being the founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but her foray into memoir is set to become an important read too. Here she writes with hope and humour about caring for her elderly parents and mother-in-law, showing that caring is a feminist issue.

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Too Young Too Loud Too Different ed. Maisie Lawrence and Rishi Dastidar

Twenty years ago, poets Malika Booker and Roger Robinson set up a meeting place for poets at Booker’s kitchen in Brixton. From there grew a groundbreaking collective for writers who were marginalised elsewhere, known simply as Kitchen. A new anthology celebrating its work includes poems by Booker and Robinson as well as Inua Ellams, Warsan Shire, Kayo Chingonyi and Dean Atta.

Buy it here

Consumed by Arifa Akbar

This moving memoir by journalist Arifa Akbar is a touching love letter to her sister, who died from TB at the age of just 46. In it, Akbar recounts not only the bafflement of doctors throughout the ordeal but her journey to better understanding her sister’s life.

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Chaise Lounge by Baxter Dury

Sex and drugs and rock and roll, sang Ian Dury, but not the school run. His son Baxter, also now a musician himself, has written a memoir about his bohemian upbringing, which Dury often disappeared from, leaving Baxter supervised by a depressed drug dealer called the Sulphate Strangler. A must-read for pop culture fans.

Buy it here

Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles

Nature writing lovers will adore this collection of lyrical essays from award-winning writer and poet Nina Mingya Powles. Traversing Borneo to New Zealand to North London, it explores what bodies of water have meant to her while navigating girlhood and growing up.

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The Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by Frances Wilson

At a time when it feels like we don’t always know what to do with the work of complex historical literary figures, this new biography looks past the noise around DH Lawrence to present an illuminating portrait of a contradictory man.

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Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

After his unputdownable Say Nothing, the story of a woman’s disappearance in 1970s Belfast, Patrick Radden Keefe unpicks the story of the Sackler family and their controversial fortune. Art galleries, prescription drugs and addiction combine in a shocking story that’s grippingly told.

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Hype: How Scammers Took over the Internet by Gabrielle Bluestone

Has there ever been a better illustration of Instagram vs. reality than the hot mess that was Fyre Festival? If you can’t get enough of stories about grifters going viral, Hype should be next on your reading list.

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Sista Sister by Candice Brathwaite

Candice Brathwaite follows her bestselling first book I Am Not Your Baby Mother with a series of wise, witty essays about the things she wishes she’d been told as a young black woman.

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The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne

If your idea of Barbara Pym is a twee spinster novelist who had her ailing career saved by Philip Larkin, this new biography from Paula Byrne shows a very different side to her, including several passionate love affairs.

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Landslide by Michael Wolff

Trump who? Just when you thought it was safe to turn on the news again, Michael Wolff brings dispatches from the final days of the Trump administration. And yes, it was as messy as it seemed on CNN.

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All in It Together by Alwyn Turner

Struggling to make sense of our divided society? You’ll find plenty of answers in Alwyn Turner’s highly accessible and very enjoyable history of England since the year 2000. He traces the warning signs of fragmented communities that eventually materialised as the Brexit vote, stopping to chart the cause célèbres and TV shows of the time too.

Buy it here

Lost in Work by Amelia Horgan

The pandemic blurred the boundaries between work and home for many of us, so this new book from Amelia Horgan feels timely. It promises to explain ‘how work stole our lives and what we can do about it’.

Buy it here

The Barbizon: The New York Hotel That Set Women Free by Paulina Bren

Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Grace Kelly and Liza Minnelli are just a few of the notable guests who have stayed at The Barbizon, an iconic women-only hotel in New York. Paulina Bren’s new history charts how it became an important place for women with ambition.

Buy it here

Read More

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