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The best books I read in 2021

My favourites from the past year, fiction and non-fiction


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Sheryl Garratt

5 months ago | 4 min read
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My favourites from the past year, fiction and non-fiction

This year, I read 83 books.

That’s six more than last year ( my 2020 favourites are here), two less than the year before. I picked up pace towards the end of 2021.

Yet more lockdowns meant my concentration felt shot at the start of the year, and I found myself reading the same pages again and again or reading a whole chapter and absorbing none of it.

I’ve also started taking detailed notes about non-fiction books, especially ones that have useful information for myself or my coaching clients.

This means I read more slowly, but don’t often end up re-reading the same book again later, just to find one quote, fact or anecdote. I find I retain more of it, too, if I write the key points out in my own words.

Just to be clear, these aren’t necessarily books that came out in 2021; just books I read this year.

Genre fiction

Crime fiction has always been my favourite for relaxing and pure, page-turning escapism. This year I discovered Tana French ‘s beautifully written Dublin Murder Squad books.

I love the fact that each investigation leaves its scar on the officers, and each book focusses on a different member of the squad. I’ve read the first two so far: saving the rest for the winter break.

British crime writer William Shaw also continues to delight with his series featuring DI Alex Cupidi and her stubborn teenage daughter.

It’s all set in the bleakly beautiful landscape in and around Dungeness on the Kent coast: one of my favourite places in the UK. I enjoyed Grave’s End so much I ended up buying the new one, The Trawlerman, in hardback and enjoyed it even more. (It’s out in paperback in the UK this February.)

Other fiction

Maggie Shipstead, The Great CircleAn epic reimagining of the early days of aviation, featuring a fictional female pioneer and her quest to circle the earth, crossing both poles. It’s just beautifully written, and creates a whole universe of female oppression, desire, ambition and adventure.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara And The Sun: Ishiguro’s fiction always inhabits one character’s reality so completely that as the reader you become that person, seeing the world through their eyes with the wider picture emerging only gradually.

In this tour de force, he narrates entirely from the point of view on an AI robot. The result is poignant, beautiful — and ultimately, very human.

Maggie O’Farrell, HamnetWilliam Shakespeare ‘s family life imagined in luminous prose worthy of the bard. We see his troubled relationship with his father, his love for his wife — a magical vision of Anne Hathaway, giving her real power and agency — his children, and his work.

And the inspiration behind his greatest play, Hamlet. If you loved Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, this is for you.

Richard Powers, The Overstory: A book about trees, and our relationship with them. The various characters — scientists, farmers, eco-campaigners, artists — have separate storylines involving trees and our human abuse of them, all gradually weaving together.

I avoided reading this for quite a while because it sounded dull and worthy. It’s anything but that: it’s a marvel.

Hession, Leonard and Hungry Paul: A gentle book in which two introvert oddballs do very little except live their hum-drum lives. The ‘action’ centres around a contest to invent a new sign-off phrase for emails.

Yet it is utterly charming, its sense of optimism and wonder lingering long after the last page. A book about friendship, quiet joy, and the life-changing magic of being utterly, unapologetically, yourself.

Non-fiction

Katherine May’s lyrical Wintering (pic by author)

Katherine May, Wintering: This is probably the book I’ve recommended most as we endured yet more lockdowns, when many of us had no choice but dormancy.

It’s a lyrical meditation on the fallow periods that are part of any creative life, as well as the inevitable winters that come to all of us with illness, depression, heartbreak or grief.

A beautiful book about waiting, about the strength that can be found in surrender, and about the healing power of nature. After each winter comes the spring. We just have to be patient sometimes.

Jessie L Kwak, From Chaos To Creativity: A useful book about organisation and process, productivity and procrastination, written by someone who understands the creative mindset.

Antony Johnston, The Organised Writer: I didn’t feel disorganised until I read this! But there was so much useful stuff in here, I’m still implementing it. Aimed at writers, obviously, but lots here for all creatives: especially those of us with frequent deadlines, and notebooks full of unprocessed ideas.

Glennon Doyle, Untamed: Poet Mary Oliver once asked the question “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This is Glennon Doyle’s answer, an. always inspiring, often beautiful set of essays about women, freedom, and the power of being yourself no matter what.

Cal Flynn, Islands of Abandonment: Flynn visits (and vividly describes) places humans have abandoned. The exclusion zone around Chernobyl; the strip of neutral land between the Greek and Turkish occupied parts of Cyprus; inhabited islands and the decaying centre of Detroit. What she often discovers in these eerie, often bleak places is quietly optimistic. Left alone by us, nature can recover in surprising ways.

Raynor Winn, The Salt PathI seem drawn to books about long walks (Cheryl Strayed’s Wild being an all-time favourite). This is about a British couple who become homeless just as one of them is diagnosed with a fatal disease. With a tent and very little else, they set off to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path. A beautiful book about love, resilience, and the healing power of nature.

Perennials

Austin Kleon’s three little books — Steal Like An ArtistShow Your Work and Keep Going — have been constant companions, gifts I’ve given gain and again to friends and clients.

Corita Kent’s Learning By Heart was also something I returned to often this year. It’s a book about art, process, ways of seeing. But if I’m stuck in my writing, I’ll open it at random and often find exactly the insight I need to get me back in motion.

Originally published at https://thecreativelife.net on December 27, 2021.



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Sheryl Garratt

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The Creative Life: Coaching for creatives

Sheryl Garratt is a coach helping experienced creatives get the success they want, making work they love. Find her at www.thecreativelife.net


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