It is an understatement to say that 2021 has been difficult. The coronavirus pandemic has continued on, restricting the ways in which we can relax. The climate crisis has regularly topped the news agenda, as scientists and activists around the world seek to persuade governments to take urgent action. And on an individual level, many people are dealing with upheaval and loss.

But there is hope to be found, in stories about the world and people around us. From life-affirming and inspiring memoirs to explorations of the power of nature, these books are perfect gifts to remind a loved one (or yourself) that there are better days around the corner.

Spider Woman by Lady Hale (2021)

Lady Hale served as president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom from 2017 until 2020, and came to most people's attention when the court found the 2019 prorogation of Parliament to be unlawful. But that moment was just the latest notable one in an extraordinary life. Lady Hale grew up in a village in North Yorkshire and went into law because her headteacher said she wasn't clever enough to study history. Spider Woman is the warm, hopeful and inspiring tale of a woman who smashed glass ceilings and got ahead in a profession dominated by men.

1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei (2021)

A book with the word sorrow in its title might not seem like it's full of hope, but Ai Weiwei's exploration of his creativity and political beliefs show that beauty can come out of even the most stifling of situations. In 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, the artist and activist looks at his own life and that of his father, who was branded a rightist during the Cultural Revolution, banished with his family to a desolate place known as 'Little Siberia', and sentenced to hard labour cleaning public toilets. Ai Weiwei recounts his childhood in exile, his choice to study in America and his decision to return to China, where his work as an artist and international human rights activist under a totalitarian regime has given hope to people around the world.

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman (2021)

Sometimes it seems like, in trying to do everything, we never really get round to doing the things that matter most to us. In Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman draws on the insights of ancient and contemporary philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual teachers to tackle the challenge of how we can best use our time on the planet. Realistic yet uplifting, this book rejects our obsession with getting everything done, exposes the unhelpful ways in which we've come to think about time, and gives readers the tools to liberate us from the tyranny of time.

Silent Earth by Dave Goulson (2021)

Thinking about the ways in which climate change is affecting us isn't the most relaxing thing, but there is hope for the future in the world around us. One thing we can do, argues Dave Goulson in Silent Earth, is learn to live as a part of nature and to start looking after the little creatures – insects – that make the world go round. Goulson looks at the decline of insect populations in recent decades, the potentially catastrophic consequences this will have, and what we can do to affect change. Silent Earth offers an inspiring and hopeful manifesto for the future, and shows how we can all take small steps to counter some of the environmental issues we're facing.

The Courage to Care by Christie Watson (2020)

From the bestselling author of The Language of Kindness, Christie Watson shines a timely light on the remarkable extent of a nurse’s work; and on patients and their families – including her own – who show exceptional strength in the most challenging times.

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake (2021)

Like Dave Goulson's Silent Earth, Entangled Life is a book that will transform your understanding of the planet through looking at something unassuming and seemingly small: fungi. Merlin Sheldrake's book, which won the Wainwright Prize for Conservation Writing 2021, takes readers on a journey into the world of fungi, and explores how these organisms can change our understanding of life itself. Urgent and necessary, this book will also fill you with hope and awe at the power of nature.

Lowborn by Kerry Hudson (2019)

Dubbed ‘totally engrossing and deliciously feisty’ by none other than Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo, Kerry Hudson’s deeply personal exploration of poverty will forever change your perspective on what it means to be ‘poor’ in modern Britain.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (2020)

From essays on headaches and high-rise buildings to hunting mushrooms and catching swans, fans of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and newcomers alike won’t be disappointed by this captivating collection of essays on humanity’s ever-shifting relationship with the natural world.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez (2019)

Caroline Criado Perez's Invisible Women exposes the gender bias that women live with every day, from the small things – phones too big for the hand – to the big – a doctor prescribing a drug that is wrong for your body. Using case studies, stories and new research from across the world that illustrate the hidden ways in which women are forgotten and the impact this has on us, Invisible Women is a shocking read. But it is also a hopeful one, arming us with the knowledge and tools needed to demand change.

Without Ever Reaching the Summit by Paolo Cognetti (2020)

Part travel journal, part love letter to one of the most spectacular places on earth, this is the story of author Paolo Cognetti’s awe-inspiring 40th birthday trip, travelling with two friends – plus a couple of mules and guides – to a remote Himalayan region where Nepal meets Tibet.

Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (2020)

In the struggle for equal rights, recent years have brought both hope and despair, and also some much-needed time for self-reflection. This workbook from the globally bestselling author of How To Be An Antiracist, provides a series of activities and exercises to help us all do the vital work of becoming part of the solution, not the problem.

A Life in Nature by Mark Hamer (2020)

At the age of 16, Marc Hamer left home with only a rucksack on his back, and started walking. By day, he observed the animals and birds. By night, he slept under hedges, in woodlands and on riverbanks. This beautiful, meditative book feels essential right now, as a celebration of living peacefully and finding joy in the natural world around us.

A Dutiful Boy by Mohsin Zaidi (2020)

By turns harrowing and humorous, this coming-of-age memoir tells of Mohsin Zaidi’s experience growing up queer in a strict Muslim household. Brimming with hope and humanity, it’s an inspiring story of family, faith and breaking through life's barriers. A Dutiful Boy won the Polari First Book Prize 2021.

Homie by Danez Smith (2020)

A mighty anthem about the saving grace of friendship, Homie will knock your socks off. Danez Smith’s startlingly original collection of poetry meditates on identity and intimacy, in a country overrun by violence, xenophobia and disparity, and in a body defined by race, queerness and diagnosis.. 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2017)

What makes life worth living in the face of death? At the age of 36, on the verge of completing a decade's training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. This vital, heartbreaking memoir is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality.

 

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