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The 14 best books of the year so far

The New Statesman’s selection of essential reads for this spring.

By New Statesman

Killing Thatcher: The IRA, the Manhunt and the Long War on the Crown
by Rory Carroll 
Mudlark, 416pp, £25
Rory Carroll’s fascinating book is a tautly written account of the Brighton bombing – the IRA’s 1984 attempt to assassinate the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher – and the hunt for the man who planted the bomb, Patrick Joseph Magee. The main reason Magee so nearly succeeded is that in an IRA dominated by vivid personalities his own character was a blank.

Kick the Latch
by Kathryn Scanlan

Daunt Books, 165pp, £9.99
The American author’s refreshing third book is based on transcribed conversations she had with Sonia, a horse trainer, and comprises brief, compulsive vignettes that describe a brutal life at the race track. Sonia’s voice is distinct, her attitude no-nonsense. Filtered through Scanlan, who writes as though with a scalpel, every mark precise and deep, it accrues an intellectual power too.

[See also: Writers’ books of the year]

Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution
by Tania Branigan

Faber & Faber, 304pp, £20 
Tania Branigan’s haunting book traces the scars of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) – the campaign of violence that defined Mao Zedong’s final decade in power. Red Memory examines what happens to a society when it fails to reckon with the past and how the legacy of that period still shapes Chinese politics.

The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate and the Burden of Power
by Robert D Kaplan

Yale University Press, 152pp, £20
Robert Kaplan is a veteran correspondent who supported the Iraq War, but what he found when he went to the country in 2004 was anarchy: it “burdened my sleep for decades, wrecking me at times”. This volume is part mea culpa but also an examination of why policy makers need to think tragically – to understand the consequences of the conflict of one good with another.

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[See also: The best books of 2022]

Womb: The Inside Story of Where We All Began
by Leah Hazard

Virago, 368pp, £18.99
Female anatomy has long been treated by scientists as less important and dynamic than men’s, and has been dangerously understudied. This book is an overdue corrective, offering a thorough explanation of how the womb works and therefore how we might better prevent miscarriages or counter infertility. Leah Hazard is an NHS midwife and fierce advocate for women’s health; her book is passionately argued and humane.

Forbidden Notebook
by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein

Pushkin Press, 256pp, £16.99
This novel, now in a new English translation, was written in the 1950s but feels strikingly contemporary. It comprises a series of diary entries by Valeria Cossati, who secretly writes of her deep dissatisfaction with her life in post-war Rome. Forbidden Notebook is a newly rediscovered classic of Italian literature that draws an arc between the domestic and political, and between women of decades past and now.

Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy
by Quinn Slobodian

Allen Lane, 352pp, £25
Within the proliferating literature on capitalism and democracy, Quinn Slobodian’s Crack-Up Capitalism stands out as a singular intervention. Slobodian, a historian and New Statesman contributing writer, shows how anti-democratic cities and special economic zones over the past 45 years – from Hong Kong and Singapore to the City of London, Liechtenstein and Somalia – have inspired the utopian thought-world of right-wing libertarians and anarcho-capitalists.

[See also: Linton Kwesi Johnson interview: “The police declared war on black youth”]

The New Life
by Tom Crewe 

Chatto & Windus, 384pp, £16.99
In this debut novel, a fictionalisation of an early movement for gay rights, it is 1894 and John Addington and Henry Ellis are collaborating on a book that celebrates homosexuality as a natural phenomenon. These characters are fighting for a noble cause, but Crewe does not allow them to be idols. Thrilling and stylishly written, The New Life is an adroit novel of ethics.

Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World
by Leah Broad

Faber & Faber, 480pp, £20
This is a group biography of four British women composers who, across the late-19th and 20th centuries, made significant contributions to the classical world that cultural history has duly forgotten. Leah Broad’s spirited telling of the lives and music of Doreen Carwithen, Dorothy Howell, Rebecca Clarke and Ethel Smyth makes a forceful case for re-establishing these four women as composers of note.

Not So Black and White: A History of Race from White Supremacy to Identity Politics
by Kenan Malik

Hurst, 328pp, £20
Kenan Malik’s book is an intellectual history of the concept of race, and a critique of contemporary left-wing identity politics. In it he attempts to answer the question: what does it mean to be black? Race, he argues, is not a biological reality but was invented to explain and justify pre-existing social inequalities,­ a distinction some progressives fail to recognise.

[See also: The best children’s books for the Easter holidays]

Tomás Nevinson
by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Hamish Hamilton, 656pp, £22
The last novel by Javier Marías, who died last September, is now available in English. Tomás Nevinson is an Anglo-Spanish spy recruited out of retirement to identify – and possibly kill – one of three women who may be a terrorist. Rich in allusive digressions on morality and history, and in tantalising ambiguities, it makes a worthy epitaph to the career of Spain’s greatest contemporary writer.

Old God’s Time
by Sebastian Barry

Faber & Faber, 272pp, £18.99
In Sebastian Barry’s bravura novel, the reopening of an old case leaves Tom Kettle, a retired policeman, adrift on a shifting sea of memory. In a skilfully disorientating narrative, Barry tells a story of Ireland’s reckoning with the horrors of institutional abuse, and offers a moving portrait of a damaged man who miraculously retains a capacity for love and joy.

The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life
by Clare Carlisle

Penguin, 384pp, £25
Claire Carlisle puts the “marriage” of George Eliot under philosophical scrutiny in this biography of a relationship. Mary Ann Evans was a 33-year-old editor yearning to share her life with an equal when she faced scandal and estrangement to live with George Lewes – a married, but separated, writer. Carlisle movingly depicts their blissfully happy, creatively fertile partnership – and explores how for Eliot, in both fiction and life, questions of marriage were “at the heart of her philosophy”.

Brother Poem
by Will Harris

Granta, 96pp, £10.99
This is Will Harris’s second poetry collection, following the Forward Prize-winning and TS Eliot Prize-shortlisted RENDANG. In Brother Poem Harris addresses a fictional sibling, attempting to reckon with their shared past to better understand a troubled present. The long, moving title sequence, interwoven with family photos, stands as a monument to imagination as a means of resilience.

[See also: Javier Marías and the mists of history]

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