This is my last column of 2017. I gave a great deal of consideration to tone. I have a topic I’m desperate to put out into the education community for discussion and debate (the erroneous "predator" status so often unconsciously attached to LGBT+ people), but ultimately I concluded that this is a subject to attack with vigour in the new year. Neither did I want to write a kind of saccharine love letter to the teachers because, as much as my heart is full to bursting with admiration for school staff, these types of missives are often read as excuses for, or distractions from, the myriad challenges the profession is facing….and this year has been one fraught with them.
Instead, I want to share with you my top 10 books I have read this year. I figured this would be a good time to embark on such an endeavour, what with Christmas and perhaps the opportunity to do some reading/buy books as gifts looming.
For those people who only know me as a mental health campaigner and speaker, my other great passions are music (especially David Bowie) and books. Over the past decade, I’ve ghost-written autobiographies for, amongst others, an international supermodel, a Big Brother contestant, a professional ballroom dancer and a gold-medal winning Olympic athlete. I always relish the opportunity to live in someone else’s world for six months, to understand what makes them tick and to try and convey that on to the page.
Reading is also part of my self-care routine. At the end of a tough day, I love nothing more than diving into a novel and escaping into the realms of my imagination. My husband says I "inhale" books – I become utterly absorbed in them and usually finish them within a week. I always feel sad when I reach the last couple of pages, as though I am saying goodbye to a friend.
I have a penchant for audiobooks, although I don’t get on with fiction in a spoken format. Some autobiographies, however, are better when you can hear them in the voice of the person who wrote it, in my opinion.
I should stress that not all of the books below were necessarily published this year, I have just read or listened to (and loved) them since January:
How Not to Be a Boy by Robert Webb
The author deconstructs some of the "rules" he absorbed from an early age about masculinity, examining how gender stereotyping harms men and, by proxy, all of us. As I read it, I considered that pretty much every man in my life would relate to at least some of the sentiments expressed, which leads one to question who oppressive gender archetypes actually apply to, or benefit. This book is fascinating, beautifully written and easy to read.
Robert Webb is probably best known as one half of Mitchell and Webb, the star of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, which bring me to….
Back Story by David Mitchell
I listened to this on audiobook, a format I can recommend. The central premise is that Mitchell has a bad back and, in order to ease the symptoms, he takes regular long walks – during this book, the author takes the reader with him on one of his rambles and attaches each of his memories to a passing landmark.
What struck me most when listening to this is how likeable Mitchell is. Not in a cutesy, faux-self-effacing way, but in a genuinely humble and interesting way. You end the book thinking you’d love to go for a pint with him. Just not in a flat-roofed pub (you’ll understand once you read it).
How to Be Champion by Sarah Millican
Again, I’d recommend listening to this in audiobook format because who doesn’t love a Geordie accent? This is, once again, part-autobiographical, but it’s also part-emotional survival manual, with the author extrapolating life lessons from her experiences and ending each chapter with her "how to be champion" tips. I particularly enjoyed the sections near the end of the book where Millican disseminates the way women are written about in the media and spoken about online.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
This is a novel which describes itself as "about a single, childless 39-year-old woman living in New York City". Whilst technically correct, I don’t believe this summary does it justice. The style is almost but not quite stream-of-conscious and the themes are both relevant and beautifully expressed. Attenberg is one of those rare writers who can weave together a genuinely engaging story with intelligent social commentary, which reminds me of…
The Cows by Dawn O’Porter
This novel follows the stories of four women, each of whom is struggling with the expectations being placed upon them. It examines the challenges associated with balancing professional and family life, as well as the way social media has impacted users’ relationship with themselves.
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Oh, how I love Matt Haig. His talent for storytelling is extraordinary. I’ve loved everything of his I’ve ever read, and this offering is no exception. This is a story about Tom Hazard, who has a rare genetic condition meaning he ages much slower than other humans and is hundreds of years old. The narrator weaves together memories of his childhood and of eras gone-by with the present day, in which he has returned to London. The book is full of really opulent, evocative imagery, as well as a good deal of page-turning suspense.
Alice/The Red Queen by Christina Henry
These books take the bones of Alice in Wonderland and place them in reality. The original Lewis Carroll books are undoubtedly more than simply fairytales and have a dark edge – commentators have long-speculated on the possible themes of mental illness and sexual abuse. These books make those themes explicit. It’s not strictly a reimagining, however – the stories are original, merely borrowing the same characters and themes. The author succeeds in weaving together fantasy and visceral, uncomfortable reality in a way that makes for a compelling read.
Help by Simon Amstell
This is, ostensibly, bits of comedian Simon Amstell’s stand-up written down and knitted together by connecting/explanatory sections. Describing the book thus does it a disservice, however. It’s beautiful. It explores the author’s shyness as a child and how he found escape and approval through performance, as well as the challenges around being Jewish and gay, in a way that is creative and honest.
I preferred this in audiobook form because Simon Amstell’s inflections are a wonder for the ear.
How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell
Cat Marnell is often described as a "wild child", as notorious for her partying antics back in her home of New York City as for her status as a beauty editor for some of the industry’s top glossy magazines. In this book, she recounts her experiences of drug addiction, bulimia and emotional turbulence. What I liked about the tone of the book was that the author doesn’t tend to embellish her experiences with retrospective wisdom. She isn’t apologetic, despite at times behaving like the worst human imaginable. It feels honest and gives a genuine glimpse into the author’s world. It took me a while to "lock into" Marnell’s style of writing but, a couple of chapters in, I was hooked.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Remember earlier this year when model Munroe Bergdorf was sacked from the L'Oréal "diversity" campaign for writing about structural racism on Facebook? I was obsessed with that news story, as well as the reaction to it. I was fascinated by how many white people take the fact that society still (on average) privileges people who look like them and somehow interpret it as a personal slight, and start bleating about how they’re not racist and thus shut down the conversation.
Martin Luther King said "if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem", yet it seems that, almost 40 years since his death, that message hasn’t been properly absorbed. If you want a really insightful take on this phenomenon, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Books I’m looking forward to next year:
Clean by Juno Dawson
Paris Lees' forthcoming memoir
How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran
Plus, my own book, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental, is out on 31 May (which I’m obviously recommending because what sort of person would I be if I slaved over 80 thousand of my best words but then didn’t recommend it to you?).
Merry Christmas – and happy reading!
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here