The Big Issue's Books of the Year

Need help with what to read this Christmas? Our critics and celebrity pals tell us the books they couldn't put down during 2019.


It’s been a cracking 12 months for new fiction, and there are a number of novels throwing come-hither glances from my shelves. But I’ll choose just one book of the year and go with Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier.

I’ve spent the past few months excavating Elmore Leonard’s extraordinary back catalogue (tip: read it all). As with Leonard’s work, Night Boat is driven by dialogue. Barry shares an ear with the great crime master for relaying the authentic language of the street, the loose lyrical slang and sharp-bladed humour, the coded nuance and the sudden hint of looming, extreme violence.

Barry’s argot of choice is his native Dublinese. Night Boat is built around the relationship of super-annuated Irish gangsters Charlie and Maurice, who are searching for Maurice’s runaway daughter Dilly, swapping stories and barbs as they go. It is impishly funny, shrewdly affecting, and pays elegant homage to a long literary line. Barry grows in stature with every book – where next?


My highlight was a new collection of science-fiction short stories by Ted Chiang. The American author has had only one collection previously published 17 years ago, so to say his new book Exhalation was long-awaited is an understatement. And it absolutely delivered, scintillating tales that, typical for Chiang, had extraordinary heart while still exploring big philosophical and scientific ideas about life, the universe and everything.

Elsewhere I found two historical crime novels impossible to put down. Lou Berney’s November Road was a brilliant and original road trip across 1960s America in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, with a wonderful odd-couple relationship at its core. And Laura Lippmann’s Lady in the Lake was also set in the 1960s, this time in Baltimore. The book was a web of interconnected narratives woven around Maddie Schwartz, an unconventional but compelling journalist seeking the truth about the society around her.


This has been a bumper year for the rise and rise of female working-class writers and I, for one, am all for it. Among my many favourites were Catrina Davies, Homesick: Why I Live In a Shed, lyrical love song to unconventional living forced by the housing crisis. I also loved Jessica Andrews’ debut Saltwater a beautifully written story of a Sunderland lass trying to make sense of her past and her new place in London. Finally, I found Lisa Blower’s short story collection, It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother‘s and Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers edited by Kit de Waal powerful contributions to the working-class canon.


The essay form, which had fallen out of fashion, has been marshalling itself for a revival. In 2019 it shrugged off any residual self-doubt and strutted back on to the main stage with three dazzling new collections.

Kathleen Jamie is an old hand. Like Findings and Sightlines, Surfacing is a hymn to noticing the small things that make our wretched world worth saving.

Kevin Breathnach’s audacious Tunnel Vision – a mix of criticism and personal reflection – plays with structure and tone. The title essay mixes an avant-garde film of a train journey with memories of a dissolute summer. Breathnach is a self-indulgent narrator, yet capable of pricking his own pomposity.

But the brightest star is Sinead Gleeson’s Constellations: Reflections from Life. She scrutinises the female form through the prism of her own physical pain. That she endured much of this pain in Ireland, where women’s bodies are still contested, takes her book beyond memoir to become a feminist rallying cry.


The mark of a good book is that it stays with you. I always anticipate the arrival of a Linda Grant novel with excitement, but A Stranger City, in which one of my favourite novelists writes about my home city of London, was a particular delight. Taking a mysterious unidentified body as its linking theme, the story she tells is one of urban loneliness and of mounting political dread. Grant’s writing is so subtle that you don’t notice until the very end that the story has subtly moved from the present to the near future – and a terrifyingly plausible dystopian future.


Somebody’s Mother, Somebody’s Daughter by Carol Ann Lee details true stories from the victims and survivors of the Yorkshire Ripper. I think this collection of first-hand interviews is the first time the stories of the women who came into the sights of notorious serial killer Peter Sutcliffe have been told, and it gives voice to their families, including 23 children who were left motherless by this notorious killer.

I detest glorifying the killers and therefore this book has made it even more poignant as many of these tragic women never had their true stories told.

The Dirty Dozen by Lynda La Plante is out now.


I read some extraordinary books this year. Barry Lopez’s Horizon is an epic account of a life lived in love with and scrutiny of our wounded natural world. William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy is a dazzling account of multinational corporate rapacity in one of its first forms, The East India Company; yet again Dalrymple manages brilliantly to be both historian and contemporary analyst. Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift is a vast, ambitious and polyphonous debut novel by a writer whose criticism and short stories I’ve admired for years. I have also greatly enjoyed and learned from Keshava Guha’s Accidental Magic; Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: An Environmental History of The Bering Strait, and Sharlene Teo’s novel of friendship and grief in Singapore, Ponti. I could go on!

Robert Macfarlane’s Underland is out now.


The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes took me to the mountains of depression-era Kentucky where brave women librarians risked all to deliver books on horseback. The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins had me guessing till the last page – did she or didn’t she? Richard Scott’s Soho is thrillingly sexual and achingly honest and I felt every line. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is out next year and I’ve read an early proof. Everybody is going to be talking about this story of a young mother fighting to get her son away from gang violence in Mexico to the USA.

Damian Barr’s You Will be Safe Here is out now.


My book of the year is The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. I’m obsessed with woodland and forests. I’m obsessed by walking… and it turns out forest walking (which I’ve been addicted to since I was 15) now has a name – forest bathing. So I’ve been a forest bather for 30 years and I didn’t realise!

This book reinforced why I’ve always felt happier and healthier when in nature.


I read many great new book published in 2019, so in a highly reductive fashion I’m going to list them here witha simple word of description for each: Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth (mind-expanding), Leonard And Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession (compassionate), White by Bret Easton Ellis (provocative), Ash Before Oak by Jeremy Cooper (unforgettable), Daisy Jones And The Six by Taylor Reid Jenkins (rock ‘n’ roll), Night Boat To Tangier by Kevin Barry (inventive), Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (moving), Ness by Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood (unnerving), This Is Yesterday by Rose Ruane (insightful), Ring The Hill by Tom Cox (adventurous), To The Island Of Tides by Alistair Moffat (ancient), Happening by Annie Ernaux (revelatory), Six by Zaffar Kunial (original), Ghostland by Edward Parnell (gripping), Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth (intense) and Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall (masterful). I recommend each and every one of them.

Benjamin Myers’ The Offing is out now.


I absolutely loved The End We Start From by Megan Hunter. It only took me maybe three days to read because it is absolutely incredible. I love all the genres, but I really love things that are apocalyptic. I don’t know why. But I love things that take the world we know but suddenly things are not familiar. I don’t think it should be described as an apocalyptic book actually, because that limits what it is – I found it incredibly beautiful and I loved it.


There’s a wonderful activist, writer and friend of mine called Anne Lamott who has a book she wrote last year called Almost Everything. It’s just notes on hope and full of wisdom. She’s a lovely writer and as an activist she almost singlehandedly kept the John Steinbeck Library in Salinas, California open. She has a great quote – she says communities without libraries are like radios without batteries.


I’m adapting All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s set in the Second World War and it is about a girl who gets separated from her family. It’s so well written, the characters are so surprising and it feels modern as well.


This year the best book I have read is Modern Nature by Derek Jarman, which is just beautiful. But the book that really changed my world was The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which I read about seven years ago. It is about the demigod Achilles and Patroclus, his valet, and they have a love affair. It has the grand scale, gods and monsters, but is told in a very domestic love story kind of way. My heart was broken by it. I remember sobbing reading it. And it has really stayed with me.


I keep going back to political books. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years by Taylor Branch is a political book that I reread this year. Hand in hand the personal journeys along with the strategic journeys of the men and women who made up that Moses generation of the Civil Rights movement. It documents the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-20th century and it reminded me that these men and women’s actions weren’t happenstance. It was well planned. It was the height of intellectual stratagem, it was a deep belief in faith, a test of the human spirit like no other, non-violence in the face of the deepest violence.

The Big Issue 2019 close-but-no-cigar other favourites

Underlandby Robert Macfarlane (Penguin)

You Will be Safe Here by Damian Barr (Bloomsbury)

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (And Other Stories)

Only Americans Burn in Hell by Jarett Kobek (Profle Books)

Last Witnesses by Svetlana Alexievich (Penguin)

The Heavens by Sandra Newman (Granta)

For the Good Times by David Keenan (Faber)

Lot by Bryan Washington (Atlantic Books)

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