Each December I look back at the books I’ve loved most that year, taking note of the connections between them and marvelling at how long ago it feels like I read some of them.
Most years, I read a mismatch of books published in the last few hundred years, with a rare addition of something published in the last twelve months. But this year, it seems like I’ve paid a lot more attention to new arrivals in the land of books. I’ve managed to construct a best-of list of books actually published in 2021.
The books that have made this list are those I’ve turned to at the end of both joyful and stressful days, escaped into during hygge weekends here in Copenhagen, picked up for companionship and answers, and simply read for the sheer enjoyment of it.
So, which ones have you read – and which shall you read, as the calendar turns into 2022? Here’s to a year of reading and all of the joys that accompany it – of slowing down, making time for stillness, and embracing the delights of visiting a different world than our own, with gentle curiosity and eyes wide open.
Buy the books from local bookshops via Bookshop.org US or UK
Favourite New Fiction
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (2021) – 4.75 / 5 stars
Wow, this book. I’m not sure what I expected, but Great Circle was incredible to read. Shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, this is one of those critically-acclaimed books that is actually readable. It’s a monster of a book, connecting the dots between intrepid Marian Graves as she falls in love with flight and – a century later – filmstar Hadley Baxter who is cast to play Marion in a film that centres on her disappearance in Antarctica.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers (2021) – 4 / 5 stars
Richard Powers’ latest novel is a beautiful yet frightening ode to nature, science, and our human minds. Bewilderment didn’t quite have the same magic for me as The Overstory, but I wonder if this was simply because I thought The Overstory was so incredibly good (you can find my thoughts on it later in this list under Favourite Fiction From Previous Years).
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2021) – 4.25 / 5 stars
Just like Taylor Jenkins Reid’s earlier novel, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I enjoyed Malibu Rising a whole lot more than I expected from the airport-read cover and title. Four surfing siblings grapple with their famous father’s place (or lack of) in their family as the hours count down to eldest sibling Nina’s famous annual party. As the clock ticks, everything might just blow up. I finished this book and wished I could stay with the characters as they step into their new place in the world.
The Heart Principle (2021) – 4 / 5 stars
2021 was the year I started to shower my praises on Helen Hoang for portraying women with autism so wonderfully. When she was writing her first book, The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang had recently been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. So as she tried to make sure of her own diagnosis, she folded her experiences into the story of Stella, a young and ambitious woman on the autism spectrum grappling not just with her love life, but who she really is.
Hoang’s third novel, The Heart Principle, continues with more fascinating autistic characters – and as with her previous two books, a whole lot of sex.
Favourite Books on Being Human
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (2021) – 4.5 / 5 stars
I often find myself reading books in the philosophy-turned-self-help vein, and I’d be the first to admit I don’t always finish them. But Four Thousand Weeks was one of the most compelling books I’ve read this year. It’s a refreshing take on how to make the most of our time here on earth – and a poignant reminder that we desperately need to get back to the true definition of “time management”.
The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort To Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self (2021) – 4.5 / 5 stars
Comfort is great, right? Not exactly, says Michael Easter in The Comfort Crisis – another non-fiction read that I raced through this year. Here, the author asks if our happiest and healthiest self is really rooted in embracing discomfort – in challenging ourselves, not hiding away from the weather, and pushing our physical limits.
Lore of the Wild: Folklore and Wisdom from Nature by Claire Cock-Starkey and Aitch (2021) – 4.5 / 5 stars
Did you know that people used to believe that rabbits’ ears would twitch in the direction of a thunderstorm? Lore of the Wild is a stunning celebration of the wonder of nature and passed-down wisdom from around the world. The illustrations are simply magical.
Favourite Fiction From Previous Years
The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) – 5 / 5 stars
You know when you finally read a book and you wonder why it took you so long? That’s how I feel about The Overstory. Trees and human lives intertwine to create an unforgettable doorstop of a book that reminded me just how much we owe the natural world.
Circe by Madeline Miller (2018) – 4.75 / 5 stars
Circe was another book I ignored the memo on, finally read, and have since recommended to everyone. After unleashing magic that she never believed she could be capable of, Circe, the daughter of Helios, is banished to the island of Aiaia. Rather than acting as her prison, Aiaia provides her sanctuary. Circe’s days become focused on honing the art of pharmaka – the magic of herbs – as she forages, picks, blends, brews, and experiments with what she finds. Her island makes for the perfect retreat for us as reader, too.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017) – 4.5 / 5 stars
It feels like an age ago since I read Pachinko at the start of 2021 – locked down at my inlaws’ house, before Iain and I decided to get married to move to Copenhagen together. This is a real saga about life in all of its permutations, spanning four generations of a Korean family and the full spectrum of what life has to offer.
Favourite Non-fiction From Previous Years
Botanicum by Katie Scott and Kathy Willis (2016) – 4.5 / 5 stars
I can divide many of my favourite books of 2021 into two clear categories: one being ambitiously enormous books such as The Overstory, Great Circle, and Pachinko, and another gorgeously illustrated books about the intricacies of nature. Botanicum is a clear winner in that second group, taking you on a tour of botanical splendour that gets you as close to a morning in a museum as any book could manage.
Closer to the Ground: An Outdoor Family’s Year on the Water, in the Woods and at the Table by Dylan Tomine (2012) – 4 / 5 stars
I discovered Closer to the Ground via the Patagonia bookshop, and it’s been a book that’s stuck with me this year. Since reading Tomine’s memoir of his outdoor family’s year on the water, in the woods, and at his table by Puget Sound, I’ve made extra effort to get outside and open my ears to the birdsong. To put myself in the way of nature, as it were, and prove to myself it’s there to help me through whatever life conjures up.
Enjoy more from me
- Retreat into my new book, Your Life in Bloom: Finding Your Path and Your Courage, Grounded in the Wisdom of Nature.
- I'm also the author of Mountain Song: A Journey to Finding Quiet in the Swiss Alps, a book about my time living alone by the mountains.
- If you love books, are feeling a little lost right now, and would love some gentle comfort and guidance, join The Sanctuary, my seven-day course to rebalance your life.