Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Hailed as “the black Bridget Jones”, this moving and entertaining portrait of a south London millennial sees her wrestling with mental health problems, race hatred and gentrification.
What we said: This is an important, timely and disarming novel, thirst-quenching and long overdue: one that will be treasured by “any type of black girl” and hordes of other readers besides.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
A gothic novel that charts one woman’s life, from her childhood as a slave in a horrifying Jamaican plantation called Paradise to her eventual escape to England, where we find her on trial for a murder she cannot remember.
What we said: Collins hasn’t just written an authentic gothic novel: she rugby tackles the notion of the saintly girl who emerges from suffering rather improved by it … Between her historical research, Frannie’s voice and a plot that never slows to a walk, the novel pulls the gothic into new territory and links it back to its origins.
The Wych Elm by Tana French
Recovering from the physical and mental after-affects of a brutal attack in his own home, a man retreats to his family’s ancestral estate before a grisly discovery is made in the garden.
What we said: The novel works brilliantly as a twisty page-turner, but it is far deeper and more nuanced than that. French’s theme throughout is the bruised relationship between the world and the self: whether our personalities are remade by trauma, or revealed; what is concealed by privilege, and what is exposed.
The Porpoise by Mark Haddon
In this ode to the power of storytelling, Haddon weaves together multiple strands to take on Shakespeare’s Pericles, which sees an incestuous king challenged by an adventuring hero, from behind the walls of today’s European super-rich to the grime of Jacobean London.
What we said: A helix, a mirrorball, a literary box of tricks … take your pick: this is a full-spectrum pleasure, mixing metafictional razzmatazz with pulse-racing action and a prose style to die for. I’ll be staggered if it’s not spoken of whenever prizes are mentioned this year.
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
One of several recent novels to retell Greek classics from a female perspective, Calliope, muse of epic poetry, answers Homer’s famous invocation – “Sing, Muse” – to flesh out the stories of women who only fleetingly appear in epic myth.
What we said: A bold choral retelling of the Iliad that’s panoramic and playful yet makes a serious comment on war and its true cost.
The Snakes by Sadie Jones
Years after leaving her poisonous and privileged family behind, a woman and her husband are forced to meet with her Trump-esque father and socialite mother. Horror ensues.
What we said: The Snakes asks serious questions about human nature, avarice and justice, wrapped in the fast-paced rhythms of a thriller. It is written with Jones’s trademark economy and a fierce attention to the nuances of familial cruelty.
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price
A few years into the Syrian civil war, three siblings come together to honour their father’s last wish – to be buried in the family’s ancestral village hundreds of kilometres away, on a diabolical road trip filled with checkpoints, snipers and bombs.
What we said: A civil war is a national tragedy, but it is also, and perhaps most poignantly, a personal trial. The most amazing thing about this book is that it managed to exist, that it came to us out of the fire with its pages intact. It is robust in its doubts, humane in its gaze and gentle in its persistence.
The Wall by John Lanchester
The Capital author’s take on the climate emergency imagines a fortress UK walled in concrete and patrolled by young conscripts in the not too distant future. Kavanagh, who is standing watch over an unforgiving stretch of the wall in north Devon, attempts to work his way up through the system.
What we said: It’s a calculated extrapolation of our present anxieties with a clever, clairvoyant concept. Lanchester reveals with slow, steady control the cruelties of his strange new world and then socks you with their philosophical implications.
Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li
Dedicated to the memory of her own son, who killed himself aged 16, Li’s book takes the form of a dialogue between a grieving writer and her son after his suicide.
What we said: The tone is both astringent and faintly mischievous, recalling the dialogue in a JM Coetzee novel or the wordplay of Ali Smith. On any given page, the back and forth draws you in, yet you almost wince to recall the context, which intrudes in detail both tragic and bittersweet.
Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles
Kazu, a Fukushima-born labourer, spends his life working away from his family, harvesting in northern Hokkaido and building in Tokyo. After missing seeing his children grow up, he only begins a daily life with his wife when he retires – which is soon cut short by tragedy.
What we said: This novel most effectively conveys its concerns through dense layers of narrative, through ambiguity rather than specific fates. It is an urgent reminder of the radical divide between rich and poor in postwar Japan.
The Heavens by Sandra Newman
In an early noughties, utopian version of New York, Ben and Kate meet at a party and fall in love. But when Kate falls asleep, she wakes up in London, in 1593, in the body of Emilia, the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Kate/Emilia’s actions begin to alter her present reality.
What we said: It’s one heck of a pitch, and in the hands of any other writer could wind up gimmicky, but Newman’s genius lies in balancing these timelines and worlds so finely that the whole thing is seamless – not to mention lots of fun.
Lanny by Max Porter
Set around the disappearance of a small boy after he summons a strange presence to his commuter village, Porter’s second novel experiments with voices and typography to tap into the strangeness of English folklore.
What we said: Lanny is simultaneously a fable, a collage, a dramatic chorus, a joyously stirred cauldron of words, and remarkable for its simultaneous spareness and extravagance. Porter takes risks – and one couldn’t ask him to rein in a strangeness that is so often triumphant.
Spring by Ali Smith
The third in Smith’s ambitious and rapid-response Seasonal Quartet, Spring takes on everything from Katherine Mansfield to Shakespeare to cast a keen eye on a very recognisable Britain, on the precipice of Brexit.
What we said: This is a novel that contains multitudes, and the wonder is that Smith folds so much in, from visionary nature writing to Twitter obscenities, in prose that is so deceptively relaxed.
The History of the Bible by John Barton
An examination of how the Bible came to be constructed, what we can and cannot know about its authors and their meanings, and how it has been interpreted across the millennia.
What we said: An Anglican priest and Oxford professor, Barton brings the Good Book splendidly back to life … It is an exhilarating achievement, freeing a vast, heterogeneous body of work from the dead hand of religious authorities who had turned it into “a paper dictator”.
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
The feminist campaigner analyses the biased data that excludes women in a world designed by men, for men – everything from medical research to phone screen sizes and speech-recognition software.
What we said: We already know that women are paid less, that we do far more unpaid labour at home, that the queues for our loos are longer, that we are the disproportionate victims of domestic violence. But it’s nevertheless useful and sobering to have numbers to quantify our pain and misery.
The Heartland by Nathan Filer
A narrative study of schizophrenia (once known as the “heartland” of psychiatry) by the award-winning novelist and former mental health nurse, that unpicks ostensible causes, stigma, and past and current treatments.
What we said: Filer’s selection of quotes, facts and detail had me raising my eyebrows in exclamation, circling a phrase in recognition, mentally filing away an intrigue or twitching in distress … this is a book that everyone should read.
Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas
An investigation into how the global elite use philanthropy to disguise their own refusal to pay taxes, and exposes the alibis and strategies used by those at the top to justify inertia.
What we said: A spirited examination of the hubris and hypocrisy of the super-rich who claim they are helping the world … His one-liners and storytelling zest make Giridharadas the guy who you want to hang out with on the sidelines of that earnest cocktail party.
Underland by Robert Macfarlane
The author of The Lost Words travels to the world below the ground, from the depths of Greenland’s glaciers to a bronze age burial chamber.
What we said: At one point, a taciturn potholer in the Carso, Sergio, offers up a halting explanation of why he seeks to map the underland: “Here in the abyss we make … romantic science.” It’s a fitting description of this extraordinary book, at once learned and readable, thrilling and beautifully written.
Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison
A collection of essays, speeches and meditations from the American Nobel literature laureate, spanning four decades and topics from gender to race and globalisation.
What we said: Widely, ardently considered to be one of the world’s best writers, Morrison’s thoughts and arguments about politics, art and writing are all here. It’s a large, rich, heterogeneous book, and hallelujah.
Afropean by Johny Pitts
Pitts, a black British TV presenter, photographer and writer, sets out to document the areas of Europe inhabited by people of African descent, to see if there is an “Afropean” community: “A continent of Algerian flea markets, Surinamese shamanism, German reggae and Moorish castles. Yes, all this was part of Europe too.”
What we said: By the end of the book we’re not certain that he has found his tribe. What is clear is that Afropean announces the arrival of an impassioned author able to deftly navigate and illuminate a black world that for many would otherwise have remained unseen.
The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon
The professor of cognitive neuroimaging sets out to shatter the myth of the female brain, laying out how the gendered messages with which we are bombarded daily from birth shape our brains, and urging us to move beyond these views.
What we said: The Gendered Brain is one of those books that should be essential reading before anyone is allowed to be a teacher, or buy a child a present, or comment on anything on Twitter, ever again.
The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells
An overview of where we are in the climate crisis, that lays out the terrors of what lies ahead. “It is worse, much worse, than you think,” warns the author.
What we said: For a relatively short book, The Uninhabitable Earth covers a great deal of cursed ground – drought, floods, wildfires, economic crises, political instability, the collapse of the myth of progress – and reading it can feel like taking a hop-on hop-off tour of the future’s sprawling hellscape. But it’s not without its hopeful notes.
The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson
An exploration of modern food and how it has changed our lives, from meal replacements to the rise of veganism. Wilson also lays out how we can have a better relationship with what we eat.
What we said: Fascinating … Wilson sets out to examine all the ways in which, in a world of seeming abundance and choice, our food is becoming degraded to the point where it makes us ill – and to unpick our current strategies for coping with this toxic environment.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
An argument that humanity is at a crossroads, where we still have the power to decide on the world we want to live in. Zuboff analyses how powerful corporations are trying to predict and control us – then sell our private lives to advertisers.
What we said: A bold, important book that identifies our new era of capitalism, where tech companies attempt to control every aspect of what we do, for profit.
Kingdomland by Rachael Allen
A dark and surreal debut set in a world of tragedies and travesties, where you can find a “monstrous double horse”, a “many bird roast” with “as many eyes as a spider”, and violence around every corner – especially if you are a woman.
What we said: Disturbing, unnerving and aware, these poems linger through effective image-making, where a girl watches “a haunted old body, the one she’ll inhabit / that drags up and down the coast.”
Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson
The first half turns to Greek mythology to explore misogyny, casting Zeus as he-man, ace swimmer and serial rapist. The second is more personal and shocking in a different way, when Benson reveals her experiences with depression.
What we said: An extraordinarily moving, dark, brave and unsettling collection and a bold confrontation of violence against women.
Counting Backwards: Poems 1975-2017 by Helen Dunmore
A retrospective collection of the late poet’s best works, covering 10 collections written over four decades, as well as some previously unpublished poems.
What we said: Like polished pebbles worn true with time’s passing, the strongest poems confirm a gift for the hauntingly exact yet humane lyric … Dunmore can draw on poetry’s power to distil an entire lifetime into a moment.
O Positive by Joe Dunthorne
Brimming with a kooky insouciance, the author of Submarine and The Adulterants uses poetry to play with child-thieving owls, deranged hypnotists and melodramatic actors.
What we said: At its self-knowing best, O Positive entertains and challenges, but it is also content to impress, “forever calculating / how to present myself”.
playtime by Andrew McMillan
The young gay poet’s brilliantly uncensored voice is back for a second collection to follow up Physical – now taking on the most disturbing aspects of adolescence.
What we said: The overall sense is of an unobstructed exploration of an important subject. McMillan is writing not only see-through but see-beyond poetry.
Magical Negro by Morgan Parker
Fierce, playful and political, Parker’s poems celebrate the everyday just as they tackle ancestral hurt, attempting a poetic escape act to reclaim “the history of black people, adapted from white people”.
What we said: At times bluntly declarative, but always holding history and the contemporary to account, Magical Negro meets prejudice with an unwavering eye.
Discipline by Jane Yeh
Yeh approaches identity as performance, from tragic tales of drag artists “living in an escape room no one has solved”, to a sinister silencing where “all the clocks are turned off and the mirrors / don’t work”.
What we said: Yeh can evoke a feeling or concept with alarming exactitude, and, like the paintings of Kirsten Glass that inspire the title poem, she shows that the elegant and the macabre are never far apart.
CHILDREN’S AND YOUNG ADULT BOOKS
Fierce Fragile Hearts by Sara Barnard
In a sequel to her bestselling debut Beautiful Broken Things, Barnard follows up on friends Caddy, Rosie and Suzanne as they part ways for university and independent life for the first time. A great book about PTSD and a future after childhood abuse.
What we said: Likely to induce at least one crying fit, and also dryly funny.
Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
When Asha’s father stops sending letters from his work away in Zandapur, Asha and her best friend set out to find him, helped along by a great bird that might be the spirit of her grandmother.
What we said: Satisfyingly classic in feel, Bilan’s story also highlights contemporary issues such as child labour and the perils of factory fires.
Toffee by Sarah Crossan
Allison, a teenage runaway, finds herself living with Marla, an elderly woman with dementia. Marla mistakes Allison for an old friend, Toffee, and a strange friendship evolves.
What we said: Though Toffee is a pain-filled story, it is also hopeful and profoundly moving; laced with old hurts and small kindnesses, it’s a book that changes its reader for the better.
Meat Market by Juno Dawson
Modelling seems a great chance to earn money for tuition fees for teenage Jana. But the industry’s darker side soon manifests itself: weight-shaming, lack of support, and failure to protect the vulnerable.
What we said: Dawson has a gift for writing believable teenage characters, and Meat Market is a powerful counterweight to lighthearted literature that still portrays modelling as the stuff of dreams.
Kick the Moon by Muhammad Khan
Ilyas Mian is dealing with GCSEs, girl troubles and parental expectations when all he wants to do is work on his comic book about a British-Pakistani superhero, PakCore. One day during detention, he finds an unlikely ally in Kelly, a rich kid outsider with a taste for sci-fi.
What we said: You root for Ilyas right up until the big climax. His journey is one many brown teenagers will recognise, and Khan has created a book steeped in drama and empathy.
Fantastically Great Women Who Worked Wonders by Kate Pankhurst
This colourful picture-book celebration of notable females, the third by Pankhurst, includes pioneering entomologists, aeronauts and surgeons such as Sophie Blanchard, Maria Sibylla Merian and Rosa May Billinghurst.
What we said: With their playful use of speech bubbles and perspective shifts, Pankhurst’s books remain significantly more engaging and inspiring than the rival Rebel Girls.
The Year I Didn’t Eat by Samuel Pollen
Following 14-year-old Max through a year of contending with anorexia, Pollen’s debut interweaves family crisis, his nascent interest in geocaching, and the baffling mock-advances of a gorgeous and eccentric girl at school.
What we said: A moving and hilarious story … despite its focus on eating disorders, this is far from a heavy-handed “issue book”.
Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by LC Rosen
Out, proud and cheerfully explicit about sex in his new advice column, 17-year-old Jack Rothman must deal with disapproving teachers, gossiping peers – and a stalker.
What we said: Part thriller, part down-to-earth guide, this is humane, sex-positive writing of the funniest, filthiest and most heartening kind.
Scavengers by Darren Simpson
Young Landfill and old Bagaboo live in hiding from an ill-defined enemy in an Eden Bagaboo has created out of detritus. Under Bagaboo’s loving, but strict gaze, Landfill starts to question everything around him.
What we said: A hugely compassionate, sophisticated novel, about inclusion and exclusion, and who – or what – is really crazy.
On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
A joyous follow-up to The Hate U Give, Thomas’s second novel follows 16-year-old, Brianna “Bri” Jackson, who is trying to lift her family out of poverty with her rapping talent.
What we said: Joyous and very funny, this is a celebration of African American cultural achievement in music, TV and film, bursting with references that feel like a gift to readers who don’t usually see their lives represented in this way.
Dancing the Charleston by Jacqueline Wilson
Set in the 1920s, this novel follows Mona, who lives on the grand Somerset Estate with Aunty, dressmaker to the lady of the manor. When Lady Somerset dies, their position becomes precarious – until her son takes a fancy to them.
What we said: Wild glamour, class conflict, buried secrets and a cameo appearance by Hetty Feather are all delivered with Wilson’s inimitable, intensely readable flair, interspersed with Nick Sharratt’s cheery illustrations.
Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner
Every Friday night, best friends Delia and Josie present their public-access TV show dedicated to low-budget horror movies. Delia’s dad loved horror B-movies before he disappeared, and she hopes he’ll see it. But when Josie is offered a dream career, the pair must face the pain of separation.
What we said: Outrageously funny, with whip-smart, surreal dialogue, this tender portrait of friendship under the strain of inevitable change is an absolute must-read.