From true crime to poetry, Books Ed Sarah Shaffi rounds up the most inspirational reads of the year
Words Sarah Shaffi
Another year passed, another set of excellent (and not-so-excellent) new books born into the world. Navigating all those tomes in a bookshop or online can be overwhelming, so here’s our pick of the most inspirational reads of 2019, plus 3 to snap up in the new year.
The Investigative Non-fiction
It’s truly been an excellent year for non-fiction, with books including Lisa Taddeo’s much-lauded Three Women and Nesrine Malik’s essential We Need New Stories vying for the top spot. But just edging into first place is Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said, the New York Times’ reporters’ account of how they broke the Harvey Weinstein story. Kantor and Twohey meticulously lay out every step of their investigation, and She Said reads like a thriller as the pair draw together various threads and close the net around Weinstein. Through it all, it’s the way the book highlights the strength and bravery of Weinstein’s victims that makes it a brilliant read.
The YA Novel
The best fiction can teach us something about ourselves and/or comment on the world we live in, all while entertaining us with an excellent story. Samira Ahmed achieved all of that with her excellent second book, Internment. In the novel, the American writer creates a near-future America in which Muslims have had their rights slowly eroded by the government, until finally they’re rounded up and put in internment camps. Seventeen-year-old Layla Amin isn’t content to let the government have its way, and along with some surprising allies, decides to fight back. Internment works because the events within are all too easy to imagine happening, making it both a scarily accurate novel and a warning to us all about the dangers of sitting by and letting injustice happen.
The True Crime
True crime, whether it’s on film or television or in books, so often focuses on the perpetrators, which is why Hallie Rubenhold’s excellent The Five was such a refreshing read. It tells the stories of the five women murdered by Jack the Ripper. But this isn’t a story about their final days – rather, it’s a book about their lives: where they were born, how they grew up, their family situations, the context in which they lives. Jack the Ripper’s victims have often been dismissed and ignored because they were prostitutes; Rubenhold shows that, whether or not they were involved in sex work, the lives of the Ripper’s victims mattered more than their deaths.
The Poetry Collection
A new generation of young poets from a variety of backgrounds has been making waves in the poetry scene over the last few years, and among them is Nikita Gill. Her 2019 collection Great Goddesses: Life Lessons from Myths and Monsters, is a retelling of Greek myths, and imbues the ancient tales with a sense of modernism. A poem about Zeus is transformed into commentary on Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement, while the women of Greek myths are shown in their full power. This is an empowering, beautiful collection well worthy of some space on your bookshelves.
The Literary Fiction
Bernardine Evaristo became the first black woman to win the Booker Prize this year, and it’s easy to see why when you read her eighth, winning, novel Girl, Woman, Other. A stunning novel, Girl, Woman, Other is the story of 12 (mostly black) women and non-binary people, connected in various ways, even though they live in different places and grew up in different times. Evaristo examines familial love, identity, belonging and more in what is a poignant, moving, and sometimes funny, novel about what it means to be a black woman in Britain today.
The Contemporary Novel
In her debut novel Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams has created a modern heroine. Having recently gone through a break-up, and eventually forced to move in with her grandparents, Queenie is struggling: her mental health is fragile, she’s sleeping with terrible men, and she just can’t be bothered to do her job. In essence, there’s something of Queenie in all of us, including the bits we wish didn’t exist. At the time, you just want to scream at Queenie to take better care of herself, but at the end of the day, she just needs a really big hug and a friend to talk to. And isn’t that all of us?
And three for 2020…
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
This novel has been causing a stir since early copies were first released to reviewers, and the buzz around it is palpable. It follows 32-year-old Vanessa Wye, who aged 15 had sex with her English teacher Jacob Strane. He’s just been accused of sexual abuse by another former student, and the news forces Vanessa to reevaluate and redefine the relationship she thought she had as one that was non-consensual.
My Dark Vanessa is out on January 23.
Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad
White supremacy is one of the biggest threats of our time, yet it’s rarely spoken about openly. Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy is set to change that in 2020, as she builds on the work of books like Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Akala’s Natives. In Me and White Supremacy, Saad will look at everything from white privilege to white silence, and will force readers to question their own positions, ideas and prejudices.
Me and White Supremacy is out on February 4.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
Deepa Anappara’s debut novel Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is set in India, in a poverty-stricken area of an unnamed city. When children start going missing, and the police show no sign of investigating, nine-year-old Jai takes it upon himself to find out what is going on. An avid fan of reality cop shows, Jai and his friends Pari and Faiz become private detectives, traversing the city to uncover what is happening to their school mates. Funny and warm, this is also a book that looks at wealth (and the lack of it), the value that society places on some people but not others, and what it means to lose someone you love.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is out on January 30.
Sarah Shaffi is a freelance literary journalist and event chair, editor-at-large for the independent children’s publisher Little Tiger Group, and co-founder of BAME in Publishing.