Books of the year as chosen by The Big Issue’s cultural figureheads
Is 2018 the year you finally tackle that big pile of books towering over your bedside? Better add these to the list (or dig through the pile to find them) – our books of the year as recommended by The Big Issue’s cultural kings and queens
Christopher Eccleston, actor Mary Beard’s Women and Power is eerily timely in the wake of the revelations about the patriarchy and its abuses. It is beautifully written and it is urgently essential reading for every man on the planet. How I wish I could have read this as a younger person.
Robert Macfarlane, author Ben Myers’ The Gallows Pole is not only one of my books of the year, it also has my cover of the year: Sergeant Pepper meets The Omen by way of 1930s Penguin paperbacks. It’s the best thing Myers has done; fierce, gale-driven prose that speaks to and of the northern English landscape out of which the story rises. Much admiration both to its author and its publisher, the small, heavy-punching indie Bluemoose Books, based in Hebden Bridge.
Sophie Hannah, author Kristen Lepionka, The Last Place You Look, is the best thriller I’ve read this year. The central character is ace: he’s a private eye, approached by the sister of a man on death row, convinced that her brother is innocent… but is he?
Confidently and authoritatively written, it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. It’s truly gripping and so authentic it could easily be a true crime story. I can’t wait for Lepionka’s next book.
Cordelia Fine, psychologist It might seem unfestive to choose a book filled with violence, punishment, shaming, hatred and hostility, but Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne’s, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, provides an important and compelling analysis of a phenomenon that’s everywhere. Out of Manne’s thoughtful analysis, of not just much-debated high-profile events but also everyday experiences, emerge insight after insight into the what, why, when and how of misogyny. Manne also gifts us a marvellous neologism to capture the exculpatory, even empathic, attitudes sometimes expressed towards misogynist men: “himpathy”.
Dan Stevens, actor A novel I’ve most enjoyed recently is Ned Beauman’s Madness is Better than Defeat. I’m a big fan of Ned Beauman and it is a very, very funny sort of adventure. It takes on a bit of period Hollywood, which is always funny, and madly driven people lost in the jungle – great characters and a very funny writer.
Iron John by Robert Bly is absolutely essential reading as the patriarchy crumbles. It is really fascinating. It was written in the 1980s – not a great time to be writing about men and masculinity – and wasn’t received as part of the feminist conversation at the time because it was sort of antithetical to the movement. But actually, I think it is a tremendous companion and revisit it all the time and it informs a lot of the way I think about my work actually. It is a valuable theme to explore, especially now. It bears a lot of investigation and interrogation and understanding, for sure.
Erica Wagner, author Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom is a radical and absorbing portrait of modern India told through lives unexpectedly linked – as all our lives are, perhaps. Mukherjee’s ability to paint both brutality and tenderness is really extraordinary. Heartbreaking in another way is Pete Souza’s Obama: An Intimate Portrait. Souza was White House photographer for Obama’s eight years in office: here are his iconic images from that time, a lifetime ago it seems.
Billie Jean King, tennis legend You should read Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. Then you can read What Happened by Hillary herself. Shattered is a great book to understand what happened on the campaign road.
After that everyone needs to read The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer by Dr Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr Elissa Epel. I keep not getting to it because of all this politics. But telomeres are part of our DNA. We used to think they’re not important but they are extremely important. They’re like a shoelace with little plastic things at the end – that is what a telomere looks like. But they are so miniscule you can’t see it without magnifying it 30 trillion times. We generate them and they are so important for your health. These two women are the ones who studied it – and they have written about it in such simple terms, so even I can understand a little bit.
Julia Hobsbawm, author Days Without End by Sebastian Barry is without doubt the most powerful and affecting novel I have read all year. It is the literary equivalent of experiencing words in 3D: the sensory surroundings are complete. I felt enveloped by the language which is so pure and powerful I can’t quite remember an experience like it. It tells the story of the long and gruelling American Civil War, seen through the unflinching eyes of a young solider Thomas McNulty. It is a story of love between men, of love for landscape, and of the horror, pity and relentless pointlessness of war.
Christian O’Connell, radio host I love Craig Brown. A legendary satirist, his work in Private Eye was always a highlight. His book, Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, made me laugh out loud at times. Funniest book I read this year. All about Princess Margaret, kind of. Inventive and really funny.
I also loved How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb. Just what men need right now. Robert shows us how to be brave and vulnerable. It’s an honest, funny and really moving book. Finally, Road Dog by Dov Davidoff. Dov is a great and original stand-up and actor. This book is incredible, one of the best on stand-up, life on the road and being human. Some truly great writing in this.
Zoe Wanamaker, actor I started reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited again. It is incredible. The writing. I had never really appreciated it before. I hadn’t really read it properly. His sentences are incredible – passages of it are just sheer brilliance. I was filming Britannia and I just had to read something that wasn’t about Romans in 43AD.
Elif Shafak, author At the moment I am reading Mikal Hem’s How to be a Dictator. It is an amazing, funny, sad and very timely book that has been published in the English language in 2017. For those who want to understand how and why authoritarian leaders cling to power and all the ridiculous things they will do to that end.
Another book that I enjoyed very much this year was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I liked the narrator’s voice: modest, genuine, human, universal, full of empathy… Gail Honeyman’s storytelling is powerful, vivid. The book is both funny and heartbreaking, intelligent and compassionate, sharp and sweet.
Cressida Cowell, author My adult choice is Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. It seems especially important at the moment to applaud books that celebrate kindness, and I loved this book, which does just that. Eleanor Oliphant, who lives in Glasgow, has a set routine which she follows every day, alone. She sees herself as having a satisfying life, but one act of kindness breaks into her loneliness, and she has to learn how to navigate an unpredictable, unexpected world that she can’t control. It’s a moving, funny and uplifting book, which is deftly written. Eleanor is wonderful character.
My children’s book choice is A Dog With Nice Ears by Lauren Child. The newest Charlie and Lola is a brilliant, witty exploration of children’s capacity for creative thinking. Lola really, really wants a dog, but mum and dad say absolutely no dogs (a discussion familiar to many parents). Lola has to be content with an imaginary dog, represented in the book by a neon pink outline. When she eventually brings home her real dog, its ears are particularly – suspiciously – nice… Lauren and I are childhood friends, and this book was partly inspired by my daughter, who was completely convinced she was Mary in the nativity play, even though she definitely wasn’t!
Antony Johnston, author Whenever Benjamin Read & Chris Wildgoose publish a new volume of Porcelain it becomes an instant favourite. This year’s Ivory Tower is no exception, concluding the dark fantasy trilogy in style. Girl, who previously became Lady, now becomes Mother and fights to protect her children – both the fleshy kind and her macabre army of ceramic automatons – from a siege by revolutionaries, not to mention their own rebellious impulses. It’s all here; the fog of war, the price of violence, and even the tragedy of parenthood, both written and drawn with a melancholic beauty. It’ll leave you thinking long after you close the covers.
Daniel Mays, actor As a birthday gift my mum bought me A Spectacle of Dust: The Autobiography [of actor Pete Postlethwaite] this year. I’ve long held a huge admiration for his work and reading the book only reaffirmed that. It’s a wonderful insight into the man behind all those incredible characters that we all took to our hearts. His humble beginnings in Liverpool, his love of theatre that he maintained throughout his career and on to his much-deserved success as a film actor in Hollywood. He comes across as a deeply determined and edgy presence at times, both politically and within his chosen field. But ultimately, a family man who never lost touch with his roots. The man’s brilliance was next level. I only regret I never got the chance to work with him.
Horatio Clare, author I have become a Ben Myers junkie in the last 12 months; I live in Hebden Bridge, which his novel These Darkening Days absolutely nails, as his extraordinary story of the Cragg Vale Coiners (they were bandit-rogue Yorkshiremen who almost destabilised the national currency) The Gallows Pole captures our savage Pennine moors. Myers’ place-writing, as we place-and-nature-writers call it, is as good as anything being scrawled in Britain today.
Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land is proof that a novel both timeless and right up to the minute is possible, and can be a sublime kind of kidnap for the fortunate reader. Patrick Barkham’s Islander is entirely wonderful, a look at how the writings, writers and wild peripheral landscapes of our archipelago have formed us.
My best of the year, though, goes to Off The Deep End by Nic Compton: a history of madness at sea. This marvellous, engrossing and horrifying book charts the story of lunacy at sea, its causes, manifestation, treatments and implications. At a crucial moment in the history of human mental health, Off The Deep End is immensely informative and readable, and hugely provocative.
Sarah Moss, author
Of course there have been great books by established writers this year, but I’d like to commend some you might not have already read about. Carmen Marcus is a North Yorkshire poet, and I enjoyed her first novel, How Saints Die. Ten-year-old Ellie is the daughter of a fisherman who struggles to cope when her mum becomes unwell, and her narrative is haunted by seafarers’ legends. Seeing Red is the first book by Chilean writer Lina Meruane to be translated into English and I loved it: a novel about going blind that refuses any redemptive or angelic element of female suffering, dark and angry and beautifully written. Finally Guapa by Saleem Haddad, a day in the life of a young gay man working as an interpreter in an unnamed Arab city just after the Arab Spring: Haddad has a real talent for voice, dialogue and the tensions between individual and group identities.
Read more author interviews, recommendations and reviews every week in The Big Issue.