May 2019: The top 10 best books you need to read this month

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Francesca Brown
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Stylist’s books editor Francesca Brown presents the top 10 new books your reading list needs now

From delicately traversing grief to giving oxygen to underrepresented voices, there’s a real power to May’s books as Emma Dabiri presents her dazzling history of black hair; Kerry Hudson explores what a life filled with poverty actually means and Rosie Price’s debut What Red Was unflinchingly explores the impact of sexual violence. 

There’s also a tale of time-travelling philosophy, a first-hand account of Britpop and what might be the greatest book on anxiety ever written. Put simply: these are some unmissable books to buy right now.  

The eye-opening history: Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri


“From my earliest memories, my hair was presented as a problem that needed to be managed. The deeply entrenched idea of ‘managing’ black women’s hair operates as a powerful metaphor for societal control over our bodies at both micro and macro levels.”

That in a nutshell is Dabiri’s focus in this vivid and resonating book – how the history of black oppression and liberation can be traced from pre-colonial Africa (where the invading British were infuriated by African people spending ‘valuable’ time braiding their hair) to chemical relaxing salons in Fifties Brixton via Harlem, Black Power and the complex arguments of hair politics today. 

Pulled together with meticulous research, Don’t Touch My Hair is an unmissable read by a writer who’s set to become a household name.

(Out 2 May, Penguin)

A chorus of unheard women: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo


In this snapshot of Britain from 1905 to the present day that unites Newcastle with Cornwall, Evaristo tells the tales of 12 interconnected characters who are mostly women and mostly black. Ambitious, flowing and all-encompassing, she jumps from life to life weaving together personal tales and voices in an offbeat narrative that’ll leave your mind in an invigorated whirl.

Filled with lines you’ll want to highlight, “it’s the commodification of it that bugs me, Ams, once upon a time feminists were so vilified by the media it turned generations of women away from their own liberation because nobody wanted to be denounced as one, now they’re in a lovefest with it”, this is an exceptional book that unites poetry, social history, women’s voices and beyond. You have to order it right now in fact.

(Out 2 May, Penguin)

The voice that needs to be heard: Lowborn by Kerry Hudson


Today, there are 4.5 million children living in poverty in Britain. How this is possible in a developed modern country is truly bewildering and writer Kerry Hudson’s memoir gives voice to what a childhood besieged by poverty and uncertainty actually means. As Hudson explains in her introduction, she’s escaped “bad food because that’s all you can afford… the higher rate of domestic abuse… ice-cream vans selling drugs at the school gates…” but her childhood included the trauma of rape, sexual assault and foster care.

As Hudson explores her own experiences, she also travels back to the towns where she grew up to see first-hand the dehumanising effect of food banks, how a lack of jobs and hope destroy communities and how a government that portrays poverty as a moral failing is even now viciously betraying generations of children.

(Out 7 May, Vintage)

The anxiety liberation: First, We Make The Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson 


Sarah Wilson is most famous for pioneering the no-sugar movement but in this moving, sensitive and inspiring part-memoir, part-handbook, the former editor of Australian Cosmopolitan proves herself to be a writer of immense insight and poetry. For this is not a self-help book in the traditional sense (as the title conjures up); this is not about attempting to outrun or suppress anxiety but about learning to understand it, live with it and in, some ways, love it for making it us who we are.

From explaining the psychological impacts of our world and how they cause our hardwired biological selves to become anxious to looking at simple ways of helping our brains find calm (walking next to water, just not getting involved with emails thanks), this is comfort and serenity in book form. (Plus, it has an absolutely smashing cover that looks great on a bedside table – don’t underestimate the power of beautiful things around you.)

(Out 16 May in paperback, Transworld)

The truth about violence: What Red Was by Rosie Price


The real pain of Rosie Price’s, What Red Was, is its ability to reflect just what sexual violence can do to its victims: how a life can be altered in just a few minutes and that one act can have such profound impact in so many different ways.

With shades of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty or Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, protagonist Kate finds herself drawn to her friend Max’s beautiful and affluent family only to be trapped by those same bonds after she is attacked by one of their own. Bringing together themes of survival, agency, complicity, self-denial and, ultimately, courage, this assured book is one of the most powerful debuts you’ll ever read.

(Out 9 May, Vintage)

The twisting thriller: I Know Who You Are by Alice Feeney


You know how sometimes you just want to escape into a well-done twisty thriller? Then Alice Feeney’s I Know Who You Are has you covered. Aimee is a just-about-to-make-it starlet and things are going well until one day (after a nasty argument) her husband goes AWOL and her bank account is emptied. Flashback to 1987 and a motherless six-year-old Ciara meets Maggie who assures her that she’ll be looking after her from now on…

Filled with a sense of dread and confusion (it’s chock full of allusions to gingerbread and The Wizard Of Oz), Feeney weaves an addictive plot that’s confident and the right side of jaw-dropping. Pick it up and you’ll gulp it down within hours.

(Out 16 May, HQ)

A story of grief and hope: Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene


Reading this book is not an easy thing but it is an incredible life-affirming and moving experience that’ll make as much of an impact on you as Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air or Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk. Painfully, the book opens with an accident that leads to the death of Greene and his wife’s two-year-old daughter, Greta. 

Caught in shock and anger, it’s a brutal exploration of the couple’s grief but also a tentative exploration of how they (and their friends and family) slowly but surely find a way to rediscover love and hope in the every day and also begin to embrace the future. You will weep and weep while reading Greene’s words but are guaranteed to find something truly beautiful within its pages.

(Out 16 May, Hodder & Stoughton)

The mind-blowing fiction: The Heavens by Sandra Newman 


“What if you had a chance to save the world?… But, what if, in order to save it, you had to run the risk of making it worse?” This is the story of Kate and Ben who fall in love in the year 2000. There are no wars across the planet and a woman is in the White House. They fall asleep wondering what will happen between them and then… Kate wakes up as Emilia in 1593 and everything she now does will have startling repercussions in the year 2000 and her relationship with Ben.

If this sounds like a bonkers tale then it is but Sandra Newman is also a writer of immense imagination and talent so let it sweep you along with wonder. It’ll leave you ruminating on what makes us human, how the world works and our shared history – and is quite unlike any other book you’ll pick up this year.

(Out 2 May, Granta)

The flight of imagination: The Seven Or Eight Deaths Of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames


This sweeping tale moves from Calabria to Connecticut over the course of a century encompassing a rift between two sisters, Stella and Tina, their childhood, their nightmare father and a childhood filled with strange incidents and near-death experiences.

Thanks to gorgeous writing from Grames, it’s full of beautiful passages and is the perfect book to take with you on holiday but be warned: it’s not a comfort read. The family’s poverty and struggle to find new lives in America alongside suppressed secrets and resentment between the sisters conjures up a messy, complex and convincing story of women struggling to find their true power.

(Out 7 May, Hodder & Stoughton)

The Nineties insider: Lunch With The Wild Frontiers by Phill Savidge


Back in the day Phill Savidge was the PR behind some of Britpop’s biggest names: Suede, The Verve, Elastica and Pulp and this is the tale of the messy, exciting and truly invigorating whirl that created an unparalleled moment in British music.

Hilariously uncensored (Savidge refers to Led Zeppelin-wannabes Kula Shaker as “contrived and derivative in equal measure” while a seedy Suede photoshoot features strangers having sex in the bedroom much to the drummer’s interest), it’s also a fascinating and funny step back in time to a world where demo cassettes and weekly music papers ruled Britain.

(Out 24 May, Outline Press)

Main image: Unsplash by Alexis Brown

Book jackets: Supplied