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Set in 18th century London, The Fatal Tree is a rip-roaring saga laced with harsh truths, recreating the battle between Jack Sheppard, a young thief famed for his daring escapes, and the ruthlessly corrupt ‘Thief-taker General’, Jonathan Wild, from a very different perspective – that of Sheppard’s lover, the prostitute Edgworth Bess. Using historic slang to great effect, Jake Arnott evokes not only the criminal underworld, but also the parallel black and gay subcultures, as they collide with the double standard of high society and the literati.

Even in a life as fabled as Marilyn Monroe’s, there are undeniable arcs: from the moment of her discovery in 1945, to the final, tumultuous year of 1962. Somewhere between lies the heady interlude when she left Hollywood behind. With a poet’s delicacy and verve, Elizabeth Winder captures the rhythm of Marilyn’s love affair with New York.

Perhaps the most gorgeous book I’ve seen this year, Billie Holiday At Sugar Hill shows a  musical legend in all her grit and glamour, captured onstage and off with a photo-journalist’s eye for detail.

Julie Buntin’s extremely promising debut tells the story of Cat, a librarian in her 30s, still haunted by the mysterious death of her wild-child teenage friend, Marlena. Although this might sound like the basis of a suspense novel, it’s really more of a character study, looking at the complex relationship between the two girls, and also a sensitive depiction of the ravages of drugs and abuse upon the young and disadvantaged in America’s rural hinterlands.

Emma Reyes was a Columbian painter of the mid-20th century, known for her friendships with Frida Kahlo and others. This book, based on a series letters written to a friend over many years, forms a ‘memoir in correspondence’ of her impoverished childhood, which also inspired her art. This slim volume is utterly illuminating, and heartbreaking.

A visceral, and terrifying retelling of the Medea legend, from her marriage to Jason and voyage with the Argonauts, to her banishment and final revenge. While not wedded to mythology – Jason’s golden fleece is given short shrift – David Vann’s Medea is elemental and imposing, and her tragic demise is thereby transformed into her most powerful act, ensuring her immortality.

This collection of stories from pioneering filmmaker Kathleen Collins touches on personal conflict amid the social changes of the 1960s and 70s. With her elegant, vivacious style, Collins subverts preconceived notions of a black feminist space in the literary canon.

One of several first novels I’ve enjoyed recently, this bittersweet love story between a lonely Dublin lad and a troubled older woman delivers both beauty and pain.

Julie Lekstrom Himes blends historical fiction with fantasy, concocting a romance between Mikhail Bulgakov and his ‘Margarita’, set against the grim background of Stalin’s purges.

Another powerful debut, this coming-of-age tale enshrines the tragic love between a boy and his mother, set against a backdrop of political unrest in Argentina.

This year I also loved The Dollmaker, Harriette Arnow’s reissued novel about a country wife set adrift in wartime Detroit; Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s searing memoir, and Patricia Bosworth’s slice of fifties bohemia; Little Deaths, the first novel from Emma Flint, based on a notorious child murder case; and Joan Didion’s South and West, culled from abandoned notebooks and still exquisite.

Finally, the Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta passed away this year. Her richly autobiographical novels such as Second Class Citizen explore the tensions between traditional African culture and life in modern Britain.