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The Best Books of 2021: Biography

Posted on 3rd November 2021 by Mark Skinner

Whether it's drifting through postwar Britain in the urbane company of Gyles Brandreth, navigating the complexities of the mental health system with David Harewood or investigating the ambiguous case of Ethel Rosenberg (via Anne Sebba), get inside the heads of some truly fascinating individuals with our hand-picked selection of the year's best biographies and memoirs.   

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From his childhood under a totalitarian regime to his establishment as an icon of contemporary art and political activism, Ai Weiwei’s intimate and powerful memoir unravels the experiences that have fuelled both his creative career and his passionate advocacy of human rights and freedom of expression.
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From one of Britain’s most inspiring literary trailblazers, the Booker-winning author and activist Bernardine Evaristo, comes a powerful and intimate manifesto on creativity, vision and the importance of never giving up.

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Bringing all his trademark flamboyant prose to a memoir of childhood and panorama of post-war Britain, Gyles Brandreth's rollicking autobiography is a wonderfully witty and truly addictive read.
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A keen collector of nifty neckwear from a young age, Stephen Fry treats readers to a selection of truly tremendous ties alongside a bevy of unforgettable anecdotes and full-colour photographs.
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Concluding the triptych of Levy’s ‘living autobiography,’ Real Estate focuses on the ambiguities associated with the phrase ‘female property’ in characteristically masterful and enlightening prose.
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Illuminating the glitterati of the post-war world from Princess Margaret to Grace Kelly, these extracts from Vickers’s diaries from his years spent researching his former employer, the notorious photographer Cecil Beaton, are a wickedly indulgent immersion in a now vanished world.
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A posthumous collection from the revered historian, travel writer and journalist, Allegorizings reflects on key moments and memories from Morris' eventful life and is packed full of her customary insight and eloquence.
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Offering unfiltered insights into the thoughts and creative process of one of the greatest masters of psychological suspense, Highsmith’s unputdownable literary diaries reveal the complex and unique inner life of the famously secretive author.
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Following on from Theft By Finding, the second volume of diaries from the renowned American humorist showcases more of his rapier-like wit and side-splitting observations.
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Overflowing with unlikely incident and outrageous anecdote, Owen’s chronicle of a globe-trotting high society life features everyone from President Eisenhower to Sean Connery in a wickedly entertaining and escapist read.
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Emotionally charged yet clear-sighted and reflective, the Reverend Richard Coles's account of grief in the wake of his partner’s sudden death provides much comfort and profound insight into the nature of life, death, religion and community.
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Merging new poems with nurses’ medical diaries and his own reflections, this intensely powerful account of the beloved poet’s desperate struggle with Covid-19 is a resounding tribute to the NHS and the human spirit.
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Unflinching, courageous and written with a crisp eloquence, actor Harewood's account of his psychotic breakdown at the age of 23 sheds stark light on the devastating effect of systemic racism on Black mental health and what can be done to bring about positive change.
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Bursting with laugh-out-loud humour and relatable anecdote, the successful screenwriter’s memoir traces her struggles with anxiety in gloriously idiosyncratic fashion.
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A searing and sharp-eyed investigation into body politics and the fetishisation of girls and female beauty, Emily Ratajkowski's first searing, highly personal essay collection is both an unflinching manifesto and a celebration of feminist empowerment.
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Drawing both from the African continent and the global diaspora, Sekyiamah’s revelatory volume highlights the varied sexual experiences and preferences of African women and the journeys – both mental and physical – that they have undergone to own their sexuality.
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The actor and activist delivers a raw yet intensely thoughtful memoir detailing her recovery from anorexia and how the conflict between the comfort of self-destruction and the liberation of creativity still rages inside of her.
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Seamas O’Reilly’s moving and very funny memoir about growing up in rural Derry in the 1990s as one of eleven siblings after their mother passed away examines grief with perfect blend of pathos and wit, paying tribute to the reticent but loving father who ushered them to adulthood.
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With humour and heart-rending honesty, Nikesh Shukla reflects on fatherhood, feminism, racial politics and how we become ourselves in this memoir that is as elegantly written as it is compassionate.

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Mosse’s account of caring for a succession of older relatives is a quietly inspirational read, told with humility, wit and optimism by one of our finest historical novelists.
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BAFTA award-winning film maker, photographer, frontline worker and refugee rights activist Hassan Akkad draws from his own experience to raise awareness and bring people together through the empowering message of kindness and unity.
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Recounted from a child’s perspective, Wang’s harrowing yet utterly compelling memoir of starting a new life in the fabled land of the United States shines a stark light on issues of poverty, alienation and injustice that often are a fundamental part of the immigrant experience.
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Questioning the true nature of freedom in moving, thoughtful prose, Ypi's unflinching memoir documents a childhood in the shadow of the oppressive Stalinist Albanian regime and an adulthood in the uncertainty and tumult that followed the fall of Communism.
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The indie music star known as Japanese Breakfast delivers a complex, thought-provoking memoir of growing up mixed-race and how her mother's death brought her to a reckoning with her own heritage.
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In this arresting, exceptionally moving account of his mental breakdown and recovery, the acclaimed travel and nature writer Horatio Clare examines crucial questions about severe mental illnesses with urgency and compassion.
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The publisher’s shocking account of her childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a famous French author makes for powerful and disturbing – yet utterly essential – reading.
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Featuring essays from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Yomi Adegoke and many more, Of This Our Country is a fascinating and evocative journey into the psyche of the Nigerian nation, highlighting the complexities and contradictions of Africa's most populous country.
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One iconic polar explorer pays fitting tribute to another in this vivid, page-turning account of Ernest Shackleton’s dramatic 1915 expedition to the South Pole and his team's remarkable escape from the jaws of almost certain death.
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From the assured and always entertaining pen of Gyles Brandreth comes a subtly shaded portrait of the Duke of Edinburgh in all his contradictions and complexities, uncovering the singular personality that supported the Queen so diligently for over seventy years.
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An intimate account of an alleged miscarriage of justice in Cold War-era America, Ethel Rosenberg tells the full story of the 37-year-old housewife and mother who was executed as a Soviet spy on the basis of tainted evidence.
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Covering the first four decades of H.G. Wells’s life, Tomalin’s brilliantly accessible biography describes how the challenges of his early years informed the courage and vision of his pioneering writing career.
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In this beautifully crafted and unforgettably moving biography of Catherine Dior – sister to Christian and a Resistance hero who was brutally tortured and dispatched to Ravensbrück concentration camp – Justine Picardie reveals the hidden depths beneath the glimmering surface of haute couture.
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On the centenary of the publication of Women in Love, Wilson traces the mercurial early career of D.H. Lawrence, attempting to untangle the truth about one of the most complex and divisive of modernist writers.
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The author of the groundbreaking Londoners transplants his distinctive brand of oral history to the Big Apple, and a series of wonderfully revealing portraits of New York during a troubled twenty-first century.
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The bestselling author of The Hare with Amber Eyes paints a fascinating portrait of the eminent French art collector Count Moise de Camondo and sheds light on the hitherto hidden layers of his family history.
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A fascinating account of one of the supreme British female humorists reveals how the author of Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence went largely unheralded in her lifetime, her comedic genius only recognised by a few high-profile fans who kept her flame alive.
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Written with access to Bacon’s letters and papers and drawing from extensive new research material, this definitive new biography paints an unforgettable picture of one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary artists.

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Equally riveting and heartbreaking, The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames charts one woman’s journey as she traces her origins back to London’s Foundling Hospital and discovers the story of her birth mother.
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From a Hertfordshire cottage to Russia and Colombia, Solnit ranges widely in a characteristically insightful and intelligent attempt to reappraise the work of George Orwell and also reflect upon our relationship with the natural world.
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With clarity and grace, Three Mothers traces the intellectual, political and emotional inheritance that Alberta King, Berdis Baldwn and Louise Little passed on to their sons, bringing up the most iconic heroes of the American civil rights movement.
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Magisterial and mesmeric, Zenith's definitive account of the life and work of the legendary Portuguese poet and author unravels many of the myths and mysteries about the great man in electrifying, eloquent prose.
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