World Book Day: Our favourite books of the year
To celebrate World Book Day, we celebrate some of the best books we've read (or re-read) over the past year, from modern greats to prescient classics
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch
In Yuknavitch’s world, Joan of Arc and Christine de Pizan are catapulted to a near-future in a tale of revolution, in which humanity is being rewritten through propaganda, lies, and experimentation, all while the earth below lays crumbling. It's an engulfing beaut of a novel, and one that’s hard to shake off. [Heather McDaid]
Elmet by Fiona Molzey
Fiona Mozley’s debut novel centres on a dysfunctional family living in rural northern England. Recalling the poetic brutality of the Brontes, Elmet is a gothic pastoral caught between rage and empathy. Aware of its rich literary tradition, yet grappling with contemporary concerns, Elmet is a British classic is the making. [Katie Goh]
A Natural by Ross Raisin
This seems like one of those books designed to fold straight into contemporary liberal conversation. Centring on a young footballer discovering his sexuality, the novel is a statement about the homophobia still rife within 'the beautiful game'. But it's really a book about keeping up appearances. About how every move, look or comment in a one-horse town becomes an indication of rank and status.
Where characters seem stereotypical – 'the repressed homosexual', 'the domesticated wife' and a groundsman with a phwoar factor not known since the pages of DH Lawrence – it's only because these characters often act in the ways they feel they are expected to act. They feel policed by narrow-minded attitudes. But Raisin gives all of his characters more complex inner-lives, motivations and vulnerabilities. [Ben Venables]
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Currently in the middle of a controversial theatrical-versus-streaming release furore (it screened, briefly, in the US, but will be straight-to-Netflix everywhere else out of fears of being 'too complicated'), Alex Garland's sci-fi acid trip Annihilation is likely better enjoyed as its source novel by Jeff VanderMeer. Not because box office takings were poor, but because there's an untranslatability to VanderMeer's prose – eldritch, otherworldly, Lovecraftian – that no amount of digital effects could truly capture.
The first in a trilogy, it recounts a biologist's expedition to the eerie Area X, and the peculiar fates that befall her party of fellow scientists during their investigation, while avoiding much of the cliché attached to that particular exploration-horror subgenre. With its unguessable arc – pocked with chilling unanswerables – Annihilation doesn't unsettle, it dislodges you entirely from a recognisable reality. [George Sully]
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
You've probably read it, but if not now may be a good time to pick it up. This tale of economic migrants driven from their homes on a desperate journey of danger and degradation seems startlingly pertinent at this point in history. It would be nice to think that theirs is a narrative safely consigned to the history books, but the grim reality of the dust bowl – livelihoods of the many destroyed as soil is eroded by the greed of the few – and the sheer contempt which the Joad family face as they travel to America's West Coast in search of work has striking parallels in today's world.
It's impossible to avoid the comparisons with the contemporary migrant crisis, with descriptions of the daily humiliations and violence faced by the desperate at the hands of a defensive society offering an empathetic insight which rings true today. Beyond this, its searing description of the poisonous realities of the capitalist system remains devastatingly accurate 80 years later.
tl;dr: Cunts are still running the world. [Rosamund West]
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Beatty's Booker Prize-winning novel runs piping hot from the start, ripping through a brilliantly realised and beautifully flawed Los Angeles at a hundred miles per hour as our narrator seeks to bring back segregation to his corner of the city. Yes, you read that right; this is a bruising, thunderous and unstoppable piece of writing that draws belly laughs from the most unlikely of topics – gold is mined out of everything from racial tension to urban farming techniques to pseudo-intellectual book club meetings.
The Sellout is a multi-layered take on race in American politics, culture and society with more swearing and acerbic dialogue than a fast-forwarded The Thick of It boxset, and like its LA setting, it's packed with nesting contradictions and endless discoveries to be made. [Peter Simpson]