The best independent books of the year 2021

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King Richard by Michael Dobbs (Scribe, £ 18.99)

king richard by Michael Dobbs (Scribe, £ 18.99)

King Richard is the action-packed, highly detailed inner story of the 100 Days after Nixon’s second inauguration that ended with the dramatic fall of the President.

A time when paranoia spread like a virus between all parties – the Watergate thieves, their masters, knowledgeable politicians, leaks to reporters and Nixon himself – and the blame was swept from a group from one butt cover to another like a poisonous volleyball.

Veteran political historian Michael Dobbs has used his unprecedented access to thousands of hours of newly released cassette tapes to bring Nixon’s semi-tragic story to life in a form that has the same breathless pace and the same thrilling drama as the 1995 Oliver Stone hit biopic. But it’s even more rewarding for fans of American political history, with added depth and analysis, more richly drawn characters, and the kind of authenticity that only access to real documentary evidence can provide.

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Borges and Me by Jay Parini (Canongate, £ 14.99)

Borges and me by Jay Parini (Canongate, £ 14.99)

Fifty years ago, Jay Parini, a graduate of Lafayette University, moved to study Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews. Parini is today a famous novelist and literary biographer, but at the time he was still an anxious young man trying to find his place in an often seemingly hostile world. So it’s no surprise that when various bizarre circumstances found him guiding legendary Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges through the Scottish Highlands, he was initially hectic and a little intimidated. To meet the challenge, although Borges, 71, had a mountain of information about the terrain they covered, he was also almost completely blind and therefore depended on Parini’s descriptive powers to enjoy their journey together.

There are moments that read like burlesque antics, and there are moments of quiet and grateful contemplation, both from the company of the eccentric Borges (full of dreamy musings, quotes from poetry and theatrical lectures showing its wealth of knowledge) and the extraordinary landscape the duo crosses. A very pleasant treat for fans of Borges, Parini and the Scottish Highlands.

Freedom by Kaitlyn Greenidge (Snake Tail, £ 14.99)

Freedom by Kaitlyn Greenidge (Snake Tail, £ 14.99)

As one would expect from an acclaimed writer like Greenidge, this novel authoritatively deals with contemporary issues surrounding the experience of young black women – the politics of skin tone, ignorance and arrogance of the segregation, the constant and tenacious fear of probable violence. But, important as these concerns are, they are so skillfully woven into the fabric of this captivating character-based fiction that Liberty never reads like a didactic lecture or veers into the realm of a rant.

This is a powerful novel about an ambitious young black woman living in Brooklyn just after the Civil War, eager to gain her independence from a vigilant and tough mother. Liberté is a compelling and likable creation, intelligent and fearless, but still vulnerable in the harsh environment in which it must navigate. It’s a testament to Greenidge’s skill as a writer that while few of Freedom’s challenges are surprising, we feel each other’s pain and injustice like punches on bruised skin.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell (Granta, £ 12.99)

The dangers of smoking in bed by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell (Granta, £ 12.99)

Pay attention! Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez is a highly persuasive cinematic and visceral spell caster with an apparent desire to plant enduring nightmarish seeds in the brains of her readers.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed short stories showcase his extraordinary imagination in a variety of ways, introducing us to stalkers of rotting ghost babies, untrustworthy deceased parents, and plenty of uses for knives, razors, and saws.

When I first reviewed it, I said that Enriquez was literary fiction’s answer to David Cronenberg after a few days spent with Jacob Grimm and Dario Argento. I still rather like the comparison (come on!) As a summary of mood tones and panic levels here.

Jacob’s Books by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo, £ 20)

Jacob’s books by Olga Tokarczuk (Fitzcarraldo, £ 20)

Already hailed as the masterpiece of Nobel laureate Tokarczuk – and she has written a few blockbuster films – it’s the story of an enigmatic young Jewish man who arrives in Poland during the European Enlightenment . Soon after, Jacob Frank changed his name and spiritual identity, and attracted a fanatic gang of followers / believers. For more than a decade, Frank and his crew roamed the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, as Frank attracts suspicion and wreaks ideological havoc with his heretical statements and conversions to and from Islam and Catholicism. His story is told by witnesses.

Yes, this is as daring and ambitious as it sounds, and in less skilled hands, it could have been a disastrous undertaking. But Tokarczuk is one of a kind, and she tackles issues as seismic as human individuality, religious purpose, war and peace with sensitivity and imagination. The world Frank travels through comes to life with forensic detail and a Rembrantian knack for representing beauty and decadence. It’s damn long at 900 pages, so wait until you have time to sit down with it to soak it up well.

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