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The best indie books of the year 2021

Here’s The Big Issue’s pick of the best books from independent publishers this year, chosen by books editor Jane Graham.

After revealing The Big Issue’s Book of the Year 2021, here are the other books from independent publishers that we’ve enjoyed over the last 12 months.

Dostoevsky in Love By Alex Christofi (Bloomsbury, £20)

Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi (Bloomsbury, £20) 

I knew a lot about the troubled life of Fyodor Dostoevsky before I read this biography – his rebellious youth, his last-minute reprieve from execution, his addictions and debts, his many extra-marital affairs. But Christofi’s hybrid approach to the story of a writer’s life is so original that prior knowledge of events does not detract from the pleasure of its reading. In an act of audacious imagination, he combines traditional factual accounts and quotes from personal letters with excerpts from Dostoevsky’s fiction which are (probably) based on the philosopher novelist’s personal experience. 

The standard third-person historical detailing is all there, but intercut with theatrical, often soliloquy-style paragraphs from his novels posing as intimate diary entries by Dostoevsky himself. Thus Christofi creates a kind of speculative memoir, part juicy information, part romantic guesswork. For me it worked beautifully, being both unexpectedly moving (the excerpts from Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot et al keep reminding you what an unusual and exuberant writer Dostoevsky was) and an exciting, unpredictable page-turner.

Esther’s Notebooks By Riad Sattouf, translated by Sam Taylor (Pushkin, all £12.99)

Esther’s Notebooks by Riad Sattouf, translated by Sam Taylor (Pushkin, all £12.99) 

The three graphic novels in the Esther series, all released in 2021, are charming, thoughtful and surprisingly touching. Sattouff shamelessly scoured his conversations with the young daughter of a friend to create the delightful Esther, and through her, to portray the everyday life of a clever, curious little Parisian girl. Funny and believable, and sometimes politically interesting (racism and the fear of terrorism are gently addressed) they’re a treat for all ages, from children of Esther’s age upwards. 

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King Richard By Michael Dobbs (Scribe, £18.99)

King Richard by Michael Dobbs (Scribe, £18.99) 

King Richard is the action-packed, heavily detailed inside story of the 100 days after Nixon’s second inauguration which ended with the president’s spectacular downfall.

A period when paranoia spread like a virus between all parties – the Watergate burglars, their handlers, knowing politicians, leaked-to journalists and Nixon himself – and blame was battered from one ass-covering group to another like a toxic volleyball.  

Veteran political historian Michael Dobbs has used his unprecedented access to thousands of hours of newly released tape recordings to bring the semi-tragic Nixon story to life in a form which has the same breathless pace and thrill-ride drama of the 1995 Oliver Stone blockbuster biopic. But it’s even more rewarding for fans of American political history, with additional depth and analysis, more richly drawn characters, and the kind of authenticity only access to real documentary evidence can bring. 

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Borges and Me By Jay Parini (Canongate, £14.99)

Borges and Me by Jay Parini (Canongate, £14.99) 

Fifty years ago, restless Lafayette college graduate Jay Parini moved to study Scottish literature at the University of St Andrews. Parini is a celebrated novelist and literary biographer now, but back then he was still an anxious young man trying to find his place in an often seemingly unfriendly world. So it’s no surprise that, when various bizarre circumstances found him guiding the legendary Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges through the Scottish Highlands, he was initially trepidatious and a tad intimidated. To heighten the challenge, though the 71-year-old Borges had a mountain of information on the terrain they were covering, he was also almost completely blind, and thus dependent on Parini’s powers of description to enjoy their journey together.  

There are moments which read like slapstick capers, and there are moments of quiet, grateful contemplation, both of the eccentric Borges’ company (full of dreamy reveries, poetry quotes, and theatrical lectures showing off his wealth of knowledge) and the extraordinary landscape the duo are traversing. A highly pleasurable treat for fans of Borges, Parini and the Scottish Highlands. 

Libertie By Kaitlyn Greenidge (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99)

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99) 

As would be expected of an acclaimed writer like Greenidge, this novel authoritatively deals with contemporary issues related to the experience of young Black women – the politics of skin tone, the ignorance and arrogance of segregation, the constant nagging fear of likely violence. But, crucially important as such concerns are, they are so expertly woven into the fabric of this absorbing character-based fiction that Libertie never reads like a didactic lecture or veers towards the realms of a rant.  

This is a powerful novel about a young, Black, ambitious woman living in Brooklyn just after the Civil War, keen to carve out her independence in the face of a hard-boiled watchful mother. Libertie is a compelling and sympathetic creation, intelligent and intrepid, but still vulnerable in the hostile environment she has to navigate. It is testimony to Greenidge’s skill as a writer that, though few of Libertie’s challenges come as a surprise, we feel the pain and injustice of each one like punches on bruised skin.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed By Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell (Granta, £12.99)

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell (Granta, £12.99) 

Beware! Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez is a highly persuasive cinematic and visceral spell-caster with an apparent desire to plant immovable nightmarish seeds in the brains of her readers.

The short stories in The Dangers of Smoking in Bed showcase her extraordinary imagination in various ways, introducing us to rotting baby ghost stalkers, untrustworthy dead parents, and numerous uses for knives, razors and saws.

When I first reviewed it I said Enriquez was literary fiction’s answer to David Cronenberg after a few days of hanging out with Jacob Grimm and Dario Argento. I still rather like the comparison (go me!) as a summary of the mood tones and freak-out levels herein. 

The Books of Jacob By Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo, £20)

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Fitzcarraldo, £20) 

Already hailed as the Nobel-winning Tokarczuk’s masterpiece – and she’s written a couple of show-stoppers – this is the story of an enigmatic young Jewish man who arrives in Poland around the time of the European enlightenment. Before long Jacob Frank has changed his name and his spiritual identity, and attracted a fanatical gang of followers/believers. Over a decade Frank and his crew travel the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires, as Frank attracts suspicion and creates ideological havoc with his heretic declarations and conversions to and from Islam and Catholicism. His story is chronicled by witnesses. 

Yes, it’s as bold and ambitious as it sounds, and in less capable hands, could have been a disastrous venture. But Tokarczuk is one of a kind, and she tackles questions as seismic as human individuality, religious purpose, war and peace with sensitivity and imagination. The world Frank travels through is brought to life with forensic detail and a Rembrantian talent for depicting beauty and decay. It is bloody long at 900 pages though, so wait until you have the time to sit down with it to properly soak it in.

You can buy these books from The Big Issue page on bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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