More Fiya: A New Collection of Black British Poetry, edited by Kayo Chingonyi, brings together a wonderful array of exceptional poets whose linguistic flair and varied perspectives excite, inspire and challenge in equal measure. In parallel, Canongate is also republishing the 1998 anthology The Fire People: A Collection of British Black and Asian Poetry, edited by Lemn Sissay.
A novel starring young Joseph Stalin might not sound like summer fun, but Stephen May’s Sell Us the Rope is fresh and original: flippant, cunning, thought-provoking but never solemn. For non-fiction and an adventure into the weird world of coincidence and prediction, try Sam Knight’s The Premonitions Bureau. It’s a hard book to categorize, but utterly fascinating: lively, nimble, its subject poised on the frontiers of possibility.
Graham Caveney’s On Agoraphobia took me by surprise: part memoir and part fascinating cultural history of the condition, it’s entertaining and erudite. I was also captivated by Sarah Polley’s collection of essays, Run Towards the Danger: candid, sometimes painful stories of the growth, exploitation and recovery of a very good actor, director and screenwriter. And one of my favorite novels of the last year is out in paperback. Gloom and anxiety aren’t emotions everyone wants to experience on a lounge chair, but Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms is brilliantly funny, sharp and soaring. She is an exceptional writer, a modern Muriel Spark.
Readers love characters but writers love structure because structure is the answer – it’s the story. Jennifer Egan is a structural genius and The Candy House is an enthralling read. It is a narrative dance, and like all great dances it is done with pleasure and with heart. It also makes your brain work doing. Take it easy: turn this multi-faceted gem of a thing to light. Emilie Pine is a great writer to read when you don’t know why you’re sad. Ruth & Pen is about two people who face their ordinary, heartbreaking problems with tenacity and grace, and Pine seems to protect the reader in a way that’s befitting of the times – a truly compassionate book.
Reading Elizabeth Day’s Magpie gave me the kind of black high I usually only get from reading the best of Gillian Flynn. Heavily pregnant Marisa, who has just moved into a gorgeous home with her doting partner, Jake, seems to have the life she’s always dreamed of – except menacing new tenant Kate seems determined to steal it for herself. Day’s novel is a psychological thriller with a strong thematic thrust: it brilliantly co-opts genre conventions to evoke how motherhood and infertility can sometimes be experienced as a kind of fever dream. Nothing beats a summer afternoon in the company of a book as addictive as this one.
Kamila Shamsie’s Best Friends will be released in early fall and is a brilliant tour de force about the respects, disrespects, loyalties and morality of a long friendship. Shamsie never compromises. This novel is of rare quality, and testifies even more to his ability to write a fiction that is both very much alive in its time and so beautiful and so true that it seems to have always been with us. The other recent treat for me was Irene Solà’s When I Sing, Mountains Dance. Translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, this novel about, well, everything, is honed to a kind of amazed and astonishing connectedness that is an act of revolutionary revitalization against all despair.
The most exciting new book I’ve read in the last year is undoubtedly Jo Ann Beard’s Festival Days. It’s a knockout – a collection of non-fiction stories that read like short stories, plus a short story that makes you wonder if it too isn’t non-fiction. Masterful phrase by phrase, completely original in method, the pieces are full of death and its threat, but their effect is the opposite of burial. Beard’s wry voice and light-eyed compassion make her the best kind of company.
Two books, Anuradha Roy’s novel The Earthspinner and Sumana Roy’s meditation How I Became a Tree, from an India tainted by chauvinists and their will to power, offer some liberation from the human trials of today. With their tender attention to the non-human, these tales speak of more compassionate and resilient modes of existence than those imagined by ever-restless story-makers.
Some time ago, an astute friend recommended an American poet by the name of Mary Ruefle. She’s 70 years old and lives in Vermont – it’s a great discovery that will keep me on my toes all summer. His tone is ironic and complicit, ironic and oblique. She likes statements, or what appears to be statements, but nothing is certain. She can pass jokes seriously in a single second without a break, like John Ashbery meeting Wisława Szymborska in a dark Vermont wood. Ruefle is also a great essayist – see her book Madness, Rack, and Honey – with unexpected, quirky, witty, and sharp insights into literature and life.
Sensible Footwear by Kate Charlesworth is a vivid graphic memoir that doubles as a comprehensive history of modern British LGBTQ+ life: it’s a wonderful reminder of the fun, love and friendship that reigned in the fight for gay rights. Julia Armfield’s novel Our Wives Under the Sea, about a woman whose wife returns a little strange from an underwater expedition gone wrong, is terribly strange. And I defy anyone not to be completely taken in by Briefly, a Delicious Life by Nell Stevens. A story of George Sand, Chopin and a teenage Spanish ghost, it’s a lush, beautiful and truly special read.
My Dead Book by Nate Lippens is the most electrifying thing I’ve read in a long time, a poetic, compressed short story about queer loss and addiction that reminded me of Gary Indiana and William Burroughs. And while we’re on the subject of queer excess, don’t miss Bad Gays by Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller: a tour de force of the hidden face of gay identity.
For those who enjoyed this year’s TV adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s novel Life After Life, Gillian McAllister’s Wrong Place Wrong Time is the thriller equivalent. A loving, law-abiding son stabs a stranger on the street to death. Her mother wakes up the next morning to find that she has gone back in time to the previous day. And it continues, the time gaps widen. Can she figure out why the crime happened – and maybe even stop it? It’s a phenomenally clever puzzler with a lot of heart. I also loved Anna Mazzola’s The Clockwork Girl, set in Paris in 1750. A king obsessed with automatons, a genius inventor, court intrigues, missing children and a charismatic young heroine determined to discover the Truth: It’s historical fiction with a fantastic twist, done with panache and skill.
As a spy thriller junkie, I scoured Mick Herron’s new Slough House novel Bad Actors, with the obnoxious, smelly genius Jackson Lamb at its heart, and some repulsive main characters who surely look only like coincidentally to well-known British political figures. in our time. I also recently read in quick succession the superb Baztán by the Basque writer Dolores Redondo Trilogy of (kind of) crime/dark novels, starting with The Invisible Guardian, as well as the prequel to the trilogy, The North Face of the Heart. In poetry, I highly recommend Jason Allen-Paisant’s superb debut collection, Thinking With Trees; and I’m also immersed in the new translation of the oldest poem: Sophus Helle’s version of Old Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, which Helle translated from Akkadian, with verve and drama.
Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is so beautiful and so strange. Set in a fantastical labyrinthine house, it has a boldness and grace that is quietly, transportingly spectacular. If you were looking for a book that distils the concept of wonder, this is it: it looks like a work of pure generosity. For children’s books, I love everything Sharna Jackson has written: her latest, The Good Turn, is a sharp, delightfully witty mystery that salutes community and compassion without ever moralizing.
Malayalam writer Benyamin’s Goat Days is an epic short novel about an immigrant trapped in the Saudi desert, learning to love goats and planning a very risky escape. The Quilt and Other Stories by the late Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai gives us insight into compelling fictions created from domestic life and the perils of intimacy.
Under the Same Stars by Alexandra Heminsley, out in July, is a satisfying family mystery set on a remote and starkly beautiful Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle. I also enjoyed traveling Mexico in three periods with Anna Hope’s insightful and elegiac new novel The White Rock. Two of my favorite prose stylists have new books this summer: Emma Forrest’s Busy Being Free, a heartbreaking and acerbic memoir on appetite and abstinence, and Cressida Connolly’s masterful novel Bad Relations. it deserves.
I’m obsessed with poet Frank O’Hara. Meditations in an Emergency, his 1957 collection, reprinted in March, is truly my book of the year. Right now I’m reading Ada Calhoun’s Also a Poet, a memoir about her father, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, and his (many of us) obsession with O’Hara. It’s a wonderful book about a daughter impersonating her busy father impersonating O’Hara, and about New York and the magic of O’Hara’s poetry. Moreover, Pakistan is currently producing amazing movies, music and literature. Taymour Soomro’s Other Names for Love comes out in July and is a moving debut novel about fathers and sons, the longing and struggle to be at home in the world.