11 memoirs, self-help and real-life books to read in 2021

From feminism to millennial burnout via moving memoirs, non-fiction is booming for 2021.

While there’s nothing like a piece of escapist fiction, 2021 is gearing up to be one of the most interesting years as non-fiction continues to dominate our bedside tables. Angry, political, hopeful, moving, tear-inducing and funny, we’ve selected 10 unmissable memoirs, self-help bibles, true-life histories and feminist explorations that you need to read this year. Covering everything from Covid, grief and race to a lost mother’s hidden secrets via a cookery book that’ll also bring joy and hope, these are some truly special titles. 

From Koa Beck’s explosive White Feminism and Anne Helen Petersen’s political takedown of personal burnout in Can’t Even to the sweet and insightful How We Met by Huma Qureshi and Nikesh Shukla’s clear-eyed and hopeful Brown Baby, there are some incredible titles set to hit bookshops over the next few months. 

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Scroll on to discover the non-fiction books that’ll be defining the conversations of the next few months with releases due out in January and beyond. 

  • How We Met by Huma Qureshi

    Best non-fiction books 2021: How We Met by Huma Qureshi

    This brief-but-wonderful book is a testament to Qureshi’s writing. Tackling the true story of how she and her then-non Muslim husband came to be is also a tale of love for her family, parents, heritage, religion and her own self-belief. A Georgette Heyer addict, Qureshi wasn’t against finding love via an arranged marriage but – as a journalist who stole herself off to live quietly in Paris for a year – nothing seemed to take (especially given one particular suitor and his mother) until she fell for Richard. A tale of patience, tenderness and love that’ll add sunshine to your year (out 28 January). 

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  • Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu

    Best non-fiction books 2021: Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu

    Owusu’s personal history intertwines with the political and geographical to create one of the most moving books of the new year. Abandoned by her mother and left grieving after her father’s death when she was 13, the half-Armenian, half-Ghanaian writer moved as a child across Europe, Africa and New York. Exploring how these places and her personal wounds rock her life, Owusu also examines the importance of reclaiming our own narratives.

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  • Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger

    Best non-fiction books 2021: Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger

    While we’ve all learned the importance of finding comfort in the small things in life, Ella Risbridger’s beautiful ode to good wine, delicious bagels and, of course, midnight chicken could not come at a better time. From uplifting chilli and lemon spaghetti to myriad hummus recipes, this is a book to keep by your bedside and also one that will become stained, ripped and much loved on your kitchen shelf. Exploring how humans can find their way through even the darkest of moments in life, Risbridger’s book is one about solace and celebration too (out now). 

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  • White Feminism by Koa Beck

    Best non-fiction books 2021: White Feminism by Koa Beck

    Koa Beck pulls no punches in this history of white feminism: “It’s a specific way of viewing gender equality that is anchored in the accumulation of individual power rather than the redistribution of it”. From the original suffragette movement to the commercial branding of feminism over the past 10 years, Beck forensically examines how those not fitting within white feminism’s parameters have been marginalised and why there is a vital need for a more inclusive and considered future. Thought-provoking and essential reading (out now).

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  • Adrift by Miranda Ward

    Best non-fiction books 2021: Adrift by Miranda Ward

    Miranda Ward is a truly incredible writer and one who carefully and beautifully reflects on “almost motherhood”. It’s a space that so many of us experience but so often we don’t have the language to communicate just where that is. Navigating three miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy over five years, Ward took to swimming to understand herself and her body and, by doing so, she’s created a book that addresses that sense of being “adrift” and how and why joy can never fully disappear (out 21 January). 

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  • The Fear-Fighter Manual by Luvvie Ajayi Jones

    Best non-fiction books 2021: The Fear Fight Manual by Luvvie Ajayi Jones

    Luvvie Ajayi Jones describes herself as “a professional troublemaker”. From her TED talk Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable to setting up her own safe space social platform, LuvvNation, she’s pushed boundaries despite struggling with fear and imposter syndrome and this book is about exactly that. We all feel fear and insecurity but that, in a world that wants to keep people in their boxes, we need to speak out, acknowledge we will always have that fear and get on with it anyway. Written with humour and verve, this is about changing the world politically and personally even if means we need to a bit of courage to do so (out 2 March).  

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  • Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla

    Best non-fiction books 2021: Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla

    If you’re feeling beaten down by the past, er, decade then Nikesh Shukla’s Brown Baby is a true story of family, heritage and hope (even when you have to dredge it up from deep within yourself). Frankly exploring racism in all of its forms, sexism and how damn bleak the world can be, it’s also a love letter to both Shukla’s mother (who died just before his first child was born) and his two daughters as he reflects on what it takes to raise a child and tell them the truth about the world. Funny, moving and utterly relevant to where we’re at right now, do not miss this beautiful book (out 4 February).

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  • The Secret Life Of Dorothy Soames by Justine Cowan

    Best non-fiction books 2021: The Secret Life Of Dorothy Soames by Justine Cowan

    Part-memoir, part-detective story, The Secret Life Of Dorothy Soames will break your heart then piece it back together again. Despite a fractured and painful relationship, the death of her mother caused Justine Cowan to examine her mother’s lifelong secret before tracing her childhood to London’s Foundling Hospital. Set up as a refuge for poor mothers to place children in the mid-18th century, Dorothy Soames (as she was known) was left there during World War II and endured horrific abuse from the women who ran it. Simultaneously exploring her mother’s story of escape and the history of the hospital, this is an unforgettable read (out 4 February).

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  • Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen

    Best non-fiction books 2021: Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen

    “The rhetoric of ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life’ is a burnout trap.” From monetising hobbies into side hustles, the gig economy, university debt, an impossible housing market, a social presence that’s also about a personal brand… it’s no wonder millennials are feeling burnt out and that was before the constant demands of Zoom and lockdown. But as former Buzzfeed journalist Petersen explores in this urgent and insightful book, it’s not a personal failure that’s led to a demoralised generation but a unique set of economic, historical and social circumstances. Read this and get a much-needed perspective (out 14 January). 

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  • Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke

    Best non-fiction books 2021: Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke

    The palliative care doctor and author of Dear Life, Clarke has written the UK’s human story of Covid. Weaving together stories of patients, families, nurses, doctors and paramedics as the virus spread from New Year’s Day to the end of April 2020. She reveals the desperate times and the government’s mistakes but also how people from all walks of life – inside the NHS and out – have tried to reach out and show goodness to one another (out 28 January). 

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  • The Panic Years by Nell Frizzell

    Best non-fiction books 2021: The Panic Years by Nell Frizzell

    This smart and preceptive exploration of the panic years is described as: “Somewhere between the ages of 25 and 40 when… every decision a woman makes – from postcode to partner, friends to family, work to weekends – will be impacted by the urgency of the one decision with a deadline, the one decision that is impossible to take back: whether or not to have a baby.” Written with real humour and consideration for the point at which every woman is in their life, this is a must-read for 2021 (out 11 February). 

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Images courtesy of publishers

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