8 best positive books: Uplift your spirits with these feel-good reads

·9-min read
From fish-out-of-water tales to comedic relief, these books are sure to bring a little lightness (The Independent)
From fish-out-of-water tales to comedic relief, these books are sure to bring a little lightness (The Independent)

Every so often, a longstanding style of writing is repackaged under a new label: most recently, feel-good fiction has become known as “uplift”.

Uplifting, positive books feature across all genres, and so it is with our selection of stories that will leave you feeling inspired, cheered and perhaps even motivated to make a change in your own life.

As everyone’s thoughts on what makes a positive book will vary (depending on how you look at it, Jurassic Park could be a triumph of dinosaur over man), we have endeavoured to find uplifting tomes across fiction and non-fiction categories that will leave you feeling better than when you picked them up.

We demanded writing that pulled you in from the first page and kept you enthralled, rather than at a distance. No time for cool isolation here: these books needed to welcome the reader along for the ride, and have a compelling central voice.

We want stories that are firmly rooted in human truths, with characters and people you can instantly be on side with through their tragedies and triumphs. As we’ve all found during the past year, often the most uplifting stories are not those with happy endings, but where the character learns and evolves from the challenges they face. Sometimes resilience is the most uplifting thing of all.

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You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

The best uplifting books for 2021 are:

  • Best overallThe One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin: £13.94, Bookshop.org

  • Best unorthodox CinderellaMiss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson: £15, Waterstones.com

  • Best “fish out of water” story The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: £7.99, Hive.co.uk

  • Best “never too late” storyThe Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain: £15.79, Bookshop.org

  • Best sagaTales of the City by Armistead Maupin: £8.36, Bookshop.org

  • Best coming-of-age storyMy Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes: £13.59, Whsmith.co.uk

  • Best screwball comedy Where D’You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple: £8.99, Waterstones.com

  • Best advice What If This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilevsky: £6.82, Hive.co.uk

‘The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot’ by Marianne Cronin, published by Transworld

Best: Overall

In the wrong hands, this remarkable debut about the friendship between two women – one teenage, one elderly – who meet at an art therapy class held by their hospital, could have been unbearably schmaltzy. Instead, it’s a beautiful, funny, and incredibly assured story filled with rich characters. Lenni is 17, alone, and living on a ward for patients with terminal cancer. Margot, 83, is on the next ward along, and when they realise they have lived for a combined 100 years, they start an art project to tell a story for each one of those years that leads to some hilarious and tragic realisations for them both.

Buy now £13.94, Bookshop.org

‘Miss Buncle’s Book’ by DE Stevenson, published by Persephone

Best: Unorthodox Cinderella

This 1934 novel is another treasure unearthed by Persephone – the publishing house that specialises in forgotten books that deserve more time in the sun. Like many women in her village of Silverstream, Miss Buncle is troubled by money worries (we can glean that this is thanks to the Depression of the 1930s). Reluctant to turn to keeping chickens, let alone to fire her maid, she turns to literature and writes an incredibly thinly-veiled portrait of life in the village and, crucially, its residents.

When the book is published, it becomes a smash hit, but then trouble hits Miss Buncle as it’s not only her publisher (convinced that his star author is a genius satirist) who wants to find out who the author is, but her neighbours as well, who start to recognise themselves and want to know who has been committing them to the page.

Buy now £15.00, Waterstones.com

‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion, published by Penguin

Best: “Fish out of water” story

Simsion originally wrote this as a screenplay, and cinematic flourishes and cliffhangers run through this brisk, funny, and at times outrageous story of Australian genetics professor Don Tillman who, at 39, decides he is ready to get married and embarks on a project to find a wife. He subsequently becomes embroiled in helping a doctorate student, Rosie, to find her birth father. Along the way, he realises that what he is looking for in a mate doesn’t mean much if there isn’t chemistry.

While never overtly stated, Tillman’s tics and devotion to routine are meant to show he is autistic, and the book has come in for criticism from people with ASD who are tired of Rain Man-style depictions of this neurotype. However, Don and Rosie’s companionable sparring, and their wider circle of colleagues, make for a completely charming story that is as engaging as it is funny. The sequels, sadly, don’t live up to The Rosie Project’s sparkle.

Buy now £7.99, Hive.co.uk

‘The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle’ by Matt Cain, published by Headline

Best: “Never too late” story

The perfect read for anyone worrying that they’ve left it too late, whatever “it” is. In 64-year-old Albert Entwistle’s case, it’s his personal life. Having focused on his job as a postman for the 18 years since his mother died, he is distraught to discover he is being forced to retire in three months’ time. With the prospect of nothing to do – and nobody to care for – he tentatively reaches out to the people around him to see if he can track down the man he loved, and let go, as a teenager, and find a community in the process.

Cain’s interviews with older British men about their experiences of falling in love when homosexuality was first illegal, and then looked upon with disgust, form an extremely moving postscript that will inspire you to keep pushing for progress and equality.

Buy now £15.79, Bookshop.org

‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin, published by Transworld

Best: Saga

Whether for the first time or the 20th, this gorgeous book (and the novels that follow it) is always worth reading. Based on a fiction serial Maupin wrote for a San Francisco newspaper, this lively story is as frothy as it is heartfelt, spanning the stories of gay, straight, trans, queer and undecided characters as they find themselves (and love) in 1970s San Francisco.

Centred around a group of lodgers boarding at 28 Barbary Lane, and watched over by their benignly mysterious landlady, Anna Madrigal, there are enough cliffhangers to distract you from whatever ails you. Maupin, now living in south London, found global fame for his series, and these Tales (readapted as a contemporary TV series by Netflix in 2019) are as engaging as when they were first published.

Buy now £8.36, Bookshop.org

‘My Broken Language’ by Quiara Alegría Hudes, published by William Collins

Best: Coming-of-age story

To say that this American playwright is good with words is like saying that Lin-Manuel Miranda, her collaborator on the hit stage- and soon-screen musical In The Heights, is quite good at music. She wrote the book for both versions of that show and won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Water By The Spoonful.

This electrifying memoir, which is her first book, brings together the threads of her Philadelphia upbringing as the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and Jewish father, never quite fitting in and trying to find her place in the world. Part coming-of-age story and part lyrical tale of the women she grew up with, this is a wonderful book about finding your voice and telling the stories that helped build you as a person.

Buy now £13.59, Whsmith.co.uk

‘Where D’You Go, Bernadette?’ by Maria Semple, published by Orion

Best: Screwball comedy

Not many books have the laugh-out-loud per page quotient of Semple’s second novel, except maybe Tina Fey’s Bossypants or something by PG Wodehouse. This hysterically funny and surprisingly moving story follows young Bee as she tries to track down her missing mother, the titular Bernadette, a genius-level architect who for years has suffered from creative block, and found herself hopelessly adrift in the poisonous pool of the PTA at Bee’s school. This is an immaculately written story with a huge heart, as well as being one of the sharpest, funniest novels of recent times. A classic.

Buy now £8.99, Waterstones.com

'What If This Were Enough?’ by Heather Havrilesky, published by Knopf Doubleday

Best: Advice

Havrilesky, a longtime art critic, has also become the internet’s most beloved agony aunt, thanks to her lengthy, impassioned (and inevitably spot-on) replies to readers’ questions sent to New York Magazine’s The Cut. In this collection of essays, she highlights the beauty and stark difficulty of being a human being in a world where perfection is considered a realistic goal. In prose that is variously savage, incisive and screamingly funny, she deconstructs the messaging that has led us to constantly try to upgrade ourselves and asks the reader to stop chasing a mythical and shinily perfect future, and start living in the present moment – however imperfect.

Buy now £6.82, Hive.co.uk

The verdict: Uplifting books

This is a nightmarish category to choose between, as every book here is uplifting in its own wonderful way. If cancer isn’t a subject matter that you feel comfortable with right now, then we’d say The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion will have you up, up and away.

But if it is, then The Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin is really something very special indeed. If you’ve already zoomed through the books on this list, then it’s time to tackle the back catalogues of PG Wodehouse and Nina Stibbe, which should keep you occupied, and much-cheered, until the autumn.

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