Many thanks to Stu Hennigan for this list of five excellent books from the past couple of years. There’s a strong mix on the list of fiction and non-fiction, with strong representation of independent publishers – so often the publishers taking the most interesting risks. A flexible, discounted bundle is available of the books recommended in this blog post.
About five years ago, I was going through some of the many books in my house and I realised something was wrong. Aside from the Brontes and a handful of modern novels by people like Lisa Moore, Amelie Nothomb, Pat Barker and A M Homes, there were very few books by women writers. It struck me as odd that this should be the case for someone who reads as much as I do, so I made a conscious decision to do something about it and for a couple of years at least I read women writers exclusively, discovering some wonderful books in the process. These days my reading is more of an even split, but the majority of my favourite writers are women. With that in mind, here are some of the best books by women writers that I’ve read over the last couple of years.
The Sound Mirror by Heidi James: where better to begin than with the outstanding novel of 2020? Heidi James is a stratospherically gifted writer and this books is jaw-dropping. It’s a coruscating look at class, womanhood and belonging, told through the stories of three women from the same family, spanning multiple continents and generations. It’s visceral, raw, uncompromising stuff, the multiple voices swinging from glacial detachment to desolate, howling rage, and it’s devastatingly sad in places too. There are some seriously smart ideas about genetics, trauma and lost futures underpinning the narratives as well, once you start to untwist the strands. As with all her work, there’s much more going on than first appears on the surface, layers and layers of extra details to be found and hidden meanings to be deciphered upon close reading of the text. The prose is typically crisp and clean; she has a wonderful economy of style that doesn’t allow for a single word to be wasted – she makes every one count – and there are some dazzling images to be found throughout. A brave, brutal and brilliant book from one of the very best writers around – so good I read it twice.
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile by Adelle Stripe: this is a fabulous novel about the short and tragic life of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, who was most famous for the legendary Rita, Sue and Bob Too. She tells the story with real warmth, painting a vivid picture of the grinding poverty of life in the grim, working class North of the 70s and 80s. There are some proper laughs to offset the tears, especially the culture-clash bits when she’s in London with Kay Mellor, and the whole thing is shot through with first-class dialogue and hilarious northern profanity. It’s little wonder it translated so well to the stage in Lisa Holdsworth’s brilliant adaptation last year. Ultimately it’s a sad story but it’s beautifully told, and it’s one of the best British novels of recent times for me.
Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth: Jenn Ashworth has long-since been one of the most talented novelists on the block, but this non-fiction work is the best thing she’s done, for me. It’s a searingly honest, self-lacerating look at trauma and creativity, explored through a series of dense, interconnected essays. It’s a tough, challenging, confronting read, beautifully constructed and brilliantly written. It’s a hugely erudite book too; there’s an awful lot to think about here, and both times I’ve read it I’ve been left pondering it for days. I came out of it the first time with a follow-up reading list as long as my arm as well, and that’s what only the very best non-fiction does for me.
Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen: sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. One look at the effortlessly cool Pop Art cover (reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s classic record Goo) and the casually nihilistic title had me sold on this before I’d read a word of it. It’s basically a magic realist road-trip of a novel about a girl on the run, coming across as something akin to Hunter S Thompson channelling Carlos Castaneda, or True Romance on acid. It’s full of sex, drugs and violence in a knowing schlocky and deliberately OTT way but it’s playfully arcane and knowingly esoteric at the same time, with some extremely trippy interludes to boot. With a banging rave soundtrack ever-present in the background this is one of the freshest things I’ve read for ages and was a real highlight of 2019.
The Years by Annie Ernaux: ostensibly a memoir, this wonderful book – in a fantastic translation by Alison L. Strayer – is in actuality a socio-political history of Europe in the second half of the twentieth century. What makes this one so special is the experiment with form – the author reimagines the autobiography as a kind of collective memory and the effect is almost miraculous. Over the course of a few books, she elevated memoir writing into a literary art form; her works have been recognised as classics in her native France, and deservedly so. A must read for anyone with a serious interest in contemporary literature.
Stu Hennigan is a writer, poet and musician living and working in the north of England. His work has appeared in Lune Journal, Visual Verse and in the anthology The Middle of a Sentence, published by The Common Breath. He is currently working on a non-fiction book about the shocking levels of poverty and deprivation he encountered in Leeds whilst delivering food parcels during the pandemic.