Due to the scores of Covid-postponed books stuck in a queue since March, this autumn has seen an overwhelming deluge of new releases. You’re probably tired of seeing the words ‘Super Monday’ before a list of the likely bestsellers battling for shop window space that week. So, as is often the case with The Big Issue, we thought we’d do things a little differently.
This is our pick of the best books you’re unlikely to see vying for attention in bookstores or online marketplaces, simply because they’re all published by independent publishers who don’t have competing budgets. But be assured, these aren’t books we’re championing simply because they have to fight to be seen; they’re all engaging, exhilarating, original, and of the very toppest notch. So if you’re looking for something different and want to support the spirit of independence, let us be your guide:
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When We Cease to Understand the World, Benjamin Labatut
Chilean author Labatut plunges into tantalising territory with this visionary fact/fiction guide to world-altering science and the crazed, genius minds behind it. The development of deadly chemicals is traced through fascinating anecdotes about Goring, Albert Speer, Alan Turing and Hitler’s beloved German shepherd Blondi; we follow Einstein’s reaction to receiving a World War 1 letter with the exact solution to his newborn equation of general relativity; a haunted Werner Heisenberg literally storms the stage and cries out for ‘the soul of quantum physics’ while watching superstar Erwin Schrödinger bewitch the world with ‘bullshit’ . Every scenario involves a tightrope walk between extremes; genius and madness, hope and death, breakthrough and destruction. The only thing missing is a final chapter about a man chomping into yummy bat-meat. This is a truly thrilling work of imagination and chutzpah.
When We Cease to Understand the World, Benjamin Labatut, translated Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin, £14.99
Calligraphies of the Desert, Hassan Massoudy
Iraqi artist Hassan Massoudy is globally revered as one of our greatest living calligraphers. Inspired by writers and poets’ depictions of the desert (Rumi, Paul Bowles, Goethe, Baudelaire, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), these gorgeous, sensual sketches consider the impact of that vast awesomeness on the minds and bodies of its visitors. This book is better seen than described; it’s unlikely you’ll have encountered anything quite like it.
Calligraphies of the Desert, Hassan Massoudy, Texts by Isabelle Massoudy, Saqi Books, £10
London Under Snow, Jordi Llavina
Distinguished Spanish writer / poet Llavina exploits the ripe backdrop of Christmas to tell compelling individual stories spanning lands and cultures in this exquisitely written collection. The delicate use of language and striking visual descriptions gives away his award-winning accomplishments as a poet, but – as with all the best short stories – it’s his demonstrable interest in the human heart and its capacity for surprises which makes his work so pleasurable.
London Under Snow, Jordi Llavina, trans Douglas Suttle, Fum D’estampa, £12.99
Dead Girls, Selva Almada
Selva Almada is an internationally acclaimed Argentinian author who regularly draws comparisons to literary giants of the American South such as Carson McCullers, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. In Dead Girls she uses a Capote-like hybrid of journalism and fiction to tell the shocking true story of the brutal murders of three teenage girls in central Argentina. This is a powerful read, shedding a stark light on the horrors of gender violence. Almada doesn’t shy from the graphic real-life atrocities of the story she is telling, but her effective use of fiction ensures a deep empathy in her readers which strict reportage sometimes fails to evoke.
Dead Girls, Selva Almada Translated Annie McDermott, Charco Press, £9.99
The Readers’ Room, Antoine Laurain
Parisian novelist Laurain has garnered quite a following with his quirky satires of French society, such as the best-selling The Red Notebook. His blend of eccentric humour and joie de vivre has been compared to that of jaunty film-maker Jacques Tati, but don’t let that put you off; there is no literary equivalent of a mime artist illustrating the perils of pavement dog poo here. This elegantly written little gem begins with an amusing get together involving a kindly Proust, a dashing George Perec, a muttering Virginia Woolf, and a pretentiously moody Michel Houellebecq. And while Laurain clearly enjoys indulging in a whimsical dream sequence here and there, he is also a master story-teller. He launches into this intriguing mystery involving an unidentified author and possible murderer with gusto, and the whole thing is such fun, it’s hard to imagine anyone putting this book aside before the satisfying conclusion.
The Readers’ Room, Antoine Laurain, Gallic Books, £10.99
Endless Fortune, Ifeomagwu “Ify” Adenuga
Endless Fortune is the life story of Ify Adenuga, whose intrepid journey from war-torn Lagos to London through the late 60’s / 70s is also an absorbing insight into women’s experience of war, migration and bringing up a family with every conceivable obstacle in your way. The formidable Ify works hard alongside her husband not just to provide for their children growing up in Tottenham in the ‘80s, but to encourage a love of education and the arts. She is clearly, and movingly, proud of her offspring, who include the hugely talented grime artist Skepta, and radio presenterJulie Adenuga (a previous Big Issue cover star no less). This is a touching, memorable story with a righteous voice at the heart of it.
Endless Fortune, Ifeomagwu “Ify” Adenuga, OWN IT! / BBK, £18.99.
Women Dreaming, Salma
Since her debut novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Asia Prize in 2004, Salma has become a celebrated writer of Tamil poetry and fiction, applauded for her frankness and focus regarding taboo areas of Tamil women’s experience. When she was 13 she was taken out of school and forced into marriage. She began secretly writing poems on scraps of paper and never stopped. Her new novel juggles the lives and diverse aspirations of various generations of women in a tiny Muslim village in Tamil Nadu; some dream of future security for their family, others hope for independence and a career. What heightens this novel above a fictionalised record of a lesser known culture is Salma’s elegant writing and genuine feeling for the characters whose inner life she brings so carefully into the light.
Women Dreaming, Salma, trans Meena Kandasamy, Tilted Axis, £9.99
What You Could Have Won, Rachel Genn
Rachel Genn is an intriguing woman. A neuroscientist, artist and writer currently working on a study into ‘addiction to regret’, it’s not surprising that this novel about a brilliant, bullied female singer makes for compulsive reading. Genn says her tale about the toxic relationship between a vulnerable woman and her exploitative psychiatrist boyfriend was inspired by her wish for Amy Winehouse not to be dead. Her fascination with fame and dependency is balanced by her empathy for a great talent in excruciating pain.
What You Could Have Won, Rachel Genn, And Other Stories, out 3 November, £10
Suppose a Sentence, Brian Dillon
Essayist Dillon begins with a fascinating area of investigation – what happens when we pause to consider the potential mind-maps which might be inspired by a single, particularly nuanced sentence? He takes sentences from all kinds of writers – including George Eliot, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Samuel Beckett, Hilary Mantel and John Donne – and forensically dissects them, sparking a very readable, chatty inquiry into context, voice, biography, etymology, cultural and political history. I might have made this book sound tediously nerdy & dry; instead it it an absolute joy, like getting gently drunk with a convivial big thinker & contagious enthusiast.
Suppose a Sentence, Brian Dillon, Fitzcarraldo, £10.99
Stolen Lives, Louise Hulland
Award-winning journalist and broadcaster Hulland has shown herself to be a diligent and compassionate chronicler of human stories for many years, but this maybe her most important achievement yet. In the aptly named Stolen Lives she talks to victims of the big business that is human trafficking and slavery in Britain, and uses interviews with police and charity leaders to set the terrible scene. Of course there are some heartbreaking testimonies but there is also proof that injustice and adversity does not quash every spirit.
Stolen Lives, Louise Hulland, Sandstone, £11.99
Fear in the World, Corrado Alvaro
Italian writer Alvaro’s compelling study of state control, paranoia, and psychological manipulation was published a decade before Orwell’s 1984, but got its timing wrong; the Second World War broke out soon after, and what might have been a cause célèbre failed to make its mark outside his native land. It’s likely his stay in Stalin’s Russia inspired this claustrophobic novel, to which, thanks to publisher Vagabond, we can finally pay due attention.
Corrado Alvaro, Fear in the World, translated by Allan Cameron, Vagabond, £12.50
The Pretenders, Agatha Zaza
This debut novel from Agatha Zaza, a Zambian / Finn New Zealander, has all the hallmarks of a masterful examiner of family drama. Over the course of a single day Zaza tracks and traces the plans and hinterlands of three couples as they grapple with shared histories and private secrets. Old betrayals raise their heads; dark, buried memories drift to the surface. This mystery unravels with exactly the right pace to make it a very satisfying tale of the ‘one more chapter before bed’ kind.
Agatha Zaza, The Pretenders, Agora, Nov 5, £8.99
Diary of a Jewish Girl, Saulius Šaltenis
Saulius Šaltenis is one of Lithuania’s best known novelists, screenwriters and politicians. He came to prominence as a writer during the Soviet era then served as Culture Minister in the independent Lithuania after the collapse of the Union. His new novel Diary of a Jewish Girl is the hard-hitting story of a young woman who digs herself out of a mass grave and throws herself into the life of a newly married couple. The two teachers courageously shelter her from the storm of the war and build a bond symbolising resurrection and fortitude in the face of evil.
Diary of a Jewish Girl, Saulius Šaltenis, Translated by Marija Marcinkute, Noir Press, £10