I recently reread Anita Brookner’s first novel A Start in Life (Penguin), and it left me thinking that maybe all novelists should be forbidden from publishing until they are 53; that way they would already have a finished style and a mature, cogent, individual view of the world. This nearly faultless novel also reflects on the competing truthfulness of Balzac versus Dickens. (Balzac died at 51, so the Brookner rule can’t apply to him.) But for the moment I am engrossed in Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary Second-Hand Time (Fitzcarraldo), an oral tapestry of post-Soviet Russia.
Solar Bones (Tramp) by Mike McCormack is the monologue of an ordinary man which – skilfully, gradually, tenderly – discredits the meaning of ordinariness. A novel without a single full stop, it is easily the most all-consuming and splendid sentence I have ever read. Mia Gallagher is another Irish writer who deserves greater attention from overseas. Her second novel is as rich in texture as it is vast in reach. Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island) is made up of several voices, from an elderly woman’s memories of 1940s Bohemia to a troubled transsexual in contemporary Dublin.
These two books yanked me in and pulled me under with their first paragraphs. I cannot wait to swim with them deep into the summer. The Tusk that Did the Damage by Tania James (Vintage). An elephant, a poacher, a collision of desperate needs. This novel is going to destroy me completely … I cannot wait. An Unnecessary Woman Rabih Alameddine (Corsair). I adore Rabih Alameddine. Now it’s out. I am preparing for a soulful, brilliant, spiced and incredibly delicious feast.
Treat yourself to a blast of poetry this summer. Anyone remotely interested in the art form should read Craig Raine’s wonderful My Grandmother’s Glass Eye: A Look at Poetry (Atlantic). Feisty, provocative, learned, passionate – it is a seminal, lasting work. And then two poets to follow up. Jamie McKendrick’s magnificent, intricate, profound Selected Poems (Faber) clearly establishes him as a modern master. And a first collection from Sarah Howe, Loop of Jade (Chatto), shows that new voices can still carry their own unique freight of subtle music married to acute intelligence
It looks like a good summer for stories about America by women, which I hope will serve as a distraction from political realities that keep outstripping fiction. First, I cannot wait to read The Theoretical Foot (Bloomsbury), the only novel by the great American food writer MFK Fisher. A story of Americans abroad in the late 1930s, against the backdrop of the coming war, is right up my street. Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth (due in September from Bloomsbury) is the latest novel from a writer I’ve long admired; I’ve heard it described as her masterpiece. Telling the story of an American family over the last five decades, its title nods to our endangered “commonweal”. Hannah Kohler’s first novel, The Outside Lands, comes garlanded with praise from writers including Lionel Shriver, who must be viewed as something of a one-woman tough crowd. What sets it apart is that this story of an American family riven by the Vietnam war has been written by a young British woman who wasn’t even born when the action of her story takes place. Finally Lionel Shriver’s brilliant satire of America, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (Borough), offers a prophetic glance at the dangers into which toxic governments can lead us: in the few months since publication events are already proving her right, which is frankly terrifying.
Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (Faber) is a compact and lovely book. Porter thinks around the aftermath of loss through three tight-knit views; a bereaved husband, his sons and the volatile character of Crow, who mediates the experience. His writing inside the heads of the young boys is great. As I’ll be spending time in Scotland this summer, I’m going to get my hands on Another Green World: Encounters with a Scottish Arcadia by artist Alison Turnbull with Philip Hoare (Art/Books 2015). It’s a book of drawing, text and photography about Linn Botanical Gardens, a slice of deep horticultural magic on the Rosneath peninsula in Argyll.
I’m currently reading Matthew Todd’s Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy (Bantam), which asks the somewhat controversial question: “What’s wrong with LGBT people?” This powerful book, I believe, will save lives. I’d like to see every gay man reading this over the summer. YA writers continue to write some of the best – and most overlooked – novels out there and I recommend Goldy Moldavsky’s Heathers-esque Kill the Boy Band (Macmillan), and Irish debut author Claire Hennessy’s Nothing Tastes As Good (Hot Key), a refreshingly original examination of teenage eating disorders.
I’d recommend Shrill by Lindy West (Quercus). It’s a perfect antidote to the upcoming “summer body” tyranny that is directed at women every year at this time of year – she writes about fatness in a way that made me really question the toxicity of diet culture. It’s not just about being fat, it’s about being a fat, opinionated woman, and the push back she gets for it. Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water (William Collins) is my serious recommendation: a meaty read about the tendrils and overhang of British colonialism. Read it if you want to ask big questions about Britain, race and responsibility. Finally, I’m three years late to it, but I’ve just finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (4th Estate). It was a total joy. People recommended it to me because I used to blog about race, like the protagonist. But it’s about so much more – love and loss and politics. Completely engrossing, take it on some long train or coach journeys, and watch the time fly by.
Yasmine El Rashidi
I am some way through Ben Ehrenreich’s
The Way to the Spring (Penguin), which is a chillingly beautiful, albeit heartbreaking, chronicle of Palestinian life in the West Bank. It’s written with immense empathy, but is equally grounded, and urgently real.
I’m curious about Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo), which is a close reading of poetry and why people detest it; this from someone who has essentially organised his life around the art. I read, and admire, everything he writes.
Confessions (WW Norton Company) adds to Rabee Jaber’s oeuvre of novels that mine his strife-torn country, Lebanon. He expertly excavates history, time and again.
I’ve heard great things about Elnathan John’s Born on Tuesday (Cassava Republic). John is a satirical columnist and lawyer in Abuja, and the novel is the story of a street boy unwittingly caught up in the tumultuous politics of Nigeria. It sounds like one to read alongside editor Ellah Allfrey’s eye-opening collection of non-fiction writing from the African continent Safe House (Cassava Republic).
My top recommendation is the riveting, gorgeous, poetic, insightful, winner of the National Book award,
Negroland by Margo Jefferson (Granta), a memoir of growing up posh and black in Chicago in the 1950s. Negroland is a sharp-eyed cultural commentary on an era of America that has often been too simply told.
I’m not sure how to describe Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat), a collection of idiosyncratic, candid, devastating essays, except to say that it’s the most brilliant book I’ve read in years. Anyone who has been amazed (and rightly so) by Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (Melville House) should read this book posthaste. I have been haunted by Megan Bradbury’s debut, Everyone Is Watching (Picador), ever since I read an early copy months ago. Through the lives of four historical New Yorkers, it dramatises more powerfully than any other novel I know the interdependence of artistic making and urban life.
Alexander Chee’s wild opera of a novel, The Queen of the Night (Michael Joseph), follows the life of the fictional Lilliet Berne from the American plains to the great courts of Europe, passing through prisons and brothels along the way. It’s the perfect summer read: swift, smart, immersive, and gorgeous.
Perhaps my very favourite book this year is Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. It is poignant and spare – we are told little about the narrator – yet we gain the fullest possible picture of her life and her losses through what is left unsaid. Charles Fernyhough’s latest, The Voices Within (Profile), is on my list because it so intriguingly challenges conventional assumptions about the self as unified and coherent, while also posing the question: how might that which we deem pathological be shaped by the mores of our times?
I loved David Szalay’s new novel All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape), a darkly comic exploration of masculinity. Such powerful writing, marvellously exact and penetrating – and all about how we’re mixed up inextricably with the rest of Europe. Apollo have reissued Eudora Welty’s second novel Delta Wedding, and I’m halfway through its exquisite account of a hazy, troubling Mississippi summer in the 1920s. A little girl whose mother has just died goes to stay with her exuberant cousins on their cotton plantation; I can’t imagine why I haven’t read it before, as I’m passionate about Welty’s writing.
As a counterpoint to these dark fictional explorations, I’m greatly enjoying the lucid, reasoning intelligence and vivid character sketches in English Voices (Simon Schuster), a collection of Ferdinand Mount’s essays on literature and history and politics, that speaks with depth and sophistication to our political moment.
The book that impressed me most recently was Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. It’s an extraordinary book, slim, potent, unquantifiable and extremely companionable, especially, but not only, if the reader has recently been bereaved.
Due to be published in late summer is Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians (Faber). This is probably one of the most eagerly awaited books of the year, after her debut, A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, shouldered through the ranks of formal, normal prose to remind readers what the novel can do in the hands of a truly gifted, undaunted, visionary writer. Set in the drama circles of London, lit with sexual energy and the quick, synaptic power of McBride’s narrative idiom, her new work looks set to flex this remarkable talent again, and in new ways.
The most interesting recently published book I have read so far this year is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (Vintage). It moves from our pre-human past to ancient human times, and on to the present and to our possible post-human future. It’s provocative and fascinating and opinionated, and although it is non-fiction it does something that the best fiction does: it makes the familiar seem unfamiliar. It altered how I view our species and our world.
Yuval Noah Harari
I picked up Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of Isis (Corgi) with a heavy heart, dreading that it would be a sensationalist lightweight playing up to western fears and biases. It turned out to be a deep, well-balanced and thought-provoking account with a genuine feel for Middle Eastern realities.
My next pick is Serhii Plokhy’s The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (Oneworld). Whereas the collapse of the communist block was probably inevitable by the late 1980s, the collapse of the old Russian empire was anything but. Written like a good thriller, The Last Empire recounts how chance events and quirky personalities led within a few months in 1991 to the disintegration of the empire built and maintained by generations of Russian tsars and Soviet apparatchiks.
A recently published book that I plan to read is by Frans de Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Granta). De Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics was one of the most important and hilarious science books I have ever read, so I am keen to see what insights his new book might offer about animal behaviour, animal cognition and human myopia.
I’ve been looking forward to The Girls (Chatto), Emma Cline’s debut. Set in a hippy commune and drawing loosely on the story of the Manson family, it has at its heart the intense and sometimes dangerous relationships that blossom between teenage girls.
I love novels that blend fact with fiction, so Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer (Sceptre), which reimagines Patricia Highsmith’s escape to the Suffolk countryside in 1964, sounds right up my street.
First there is My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. The narrator of this luminous and surprising book is stuck in hospital due to an undiagnosed illness when her emotionally distant but strangely soothing mother comes to visit. What follows are snippets of gossip, memories and realisations about writing, most of which come back to a central theme of mothers and their failures. Sympathetic, subtle, and sometimes shocking.
Before I read SPQR by Mary Beard (Profile), there were myths about Rome I half-remembered and didn’t understand, there were senators and emperors I thought were purely fictional, there were hundreds of years of republic I hadn’t realised were significant. Brilliant for readers like me, whose study of classics was a little stunted or now feels quite distant.
There are also two books I am dying to finish this summer. The first is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Rich and gorgeous from the first page with a mysteriousness I am desperate to explore. The second is Everyone Is Watching by Megan Bradbury. Vivid, full of deadpan humour and very, very unusual.
I tried really hard to save this for the summer, but I’m as addicted to Frances Wilson’s writing as her latest subject, Thomas De Quincey, was to opiates, Romantic poets and murder. Guilty Thing (Bloomsbury) is an irresistible journey through the life of the obsessive, anarchic original flâneur. Borges said De Quincey was an almost infinite world of literature in one man. Wilson succeeds in conjuring this world in one exhilarating, rigorous and humorous book that is the most enjoyable journey into hell you’re ever likely to take.
We know now that history is made of multiple individual voices and not grand univocal master narratives, but Svetlana Alexeivich actually knows how to write it that way. Second Hand-Time is, at one of its many levels, about what the Soviet Union was and what its legacy still means. Alexievich is one of the very small number of Nobel literature laureates who are predominantly non-fictioners, and reading this book shows why – she writes a new form of history unlike anything that goes before. Last weekend, reading her deep exploration of what a Russian world would be without the myths of nationalism, I realised I had in my hands a book that transcends its geography and makes it essential reading in Brexit Britain.
Andrew Michael Hurley
Having loved After Me Comes the Flood, I can’t wait to read Sarah Perry’s latest novel, The Essex Serpent, set in the strange marshlands of Essex. Fell by Jenn Ashworth (Sceptre) is a fantastically dark and unsettling story of healing and hope set in Morecambe Bay. Finally, Himself by Jess Kidd (Canongate). This debut novel looks to be an intriguing story of family secrets and haunting in the remote west of Ireland.
Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (Viking) is a moving, unflinching memoir of a family torn apart by the savage realities of today’s Middle East. The crushing of hopes raised by the Arab spring – at both the personal and national levels – is conveyed all the more powerfully because Matar’s anger remains controlled, his belief in humanity undimmed. Graham Swift’s exquisite, brief Mothering Sunday (Scribner) shows love, lust and ordinary decency straining against the bars of an unjust English caste system. Coming this autumn is a true leftfield wonder: Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End (Faber) is a violent, superbly lyrical western offering a sweeping vision of America in the making, the most fascinating line-by-line first person narration I’ve come across in years, and at its heart, a tender gay love story.
Few authors were better at combining the personal and political (or Twitter) than Jenny Diski. She is sorely missed, but at least she finished In Gratitude (Bloomsbury), her memoir about her time with Doris Lessing.
We’ll have to wait for the end of summer for Suzana Tratnik’s Games with Greta and Other Stories, Dalkey Archive’s translation (by Michael Biggins) of stories by the Slovenian author and LGBT activist. If the title work is anything to go by, expect subtle, bittersweet pieces about the difficulties of moving from girlhood to womanhood in the former Yugoslavia.
Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Football (Fitzcarraldo, translated by Shaun Whiteside) offers up my favourite contemporary author, writing about my favourite subject. As ever, it’s poetic and full of self-deprecatory humour, and touches on a relationship with football in ways that are both recognisable and oblique.
On the strength of having recently read Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News – a big, sweepingly beautiful observation of a man subtly unfolding himself in a wild Newfoundland winter (might also be a useful read for cooling yourself down on a hot day), Barkskins (4th Estate), according to the blurb at the back, is about the taking down of the world’s forests. No small topic there. That should take up a few weeks.
As a lover of stories, both telling and hearing them, and a firm believer in the power of storytelling – we are, after all, little more than the stories we are told, the stories we tell, and those that are told about us – I’m enormously looking forward to The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction (Headline), Neil Gaiman’s foray into some of the stories that walk the planet among us, both big and small. There are so many interesting things that have actually happened, it’s almost a pity to spend your time reading about things that didn’t.
I was first a fan of Bill Bryson after reading A Short History of Almost Everything, which was solidified after reading At Home: A Short History of Private Life, looking at why are homes are built the way they are, and using that as a lens to look at some other aspects of human history, aptly given to me as I was moving apartment. One Summer is about the real events that occurred on either side of the Atlantic in the summer of 1927 (while it mostly concentrates on the American events of that year, it includes events in Britain and France). From the first flight across the Atlantic, and the epic season of Babe Ruth, to the beginning of the end of prohibition, the first ever celebrity murder case, the first ever “talking picture” and the events that would lead the world into a global depression. Bryson takes all of these seemingly disparate events and weaves them together to brilliantly take a pulse of the times they were. As ever, Bryson has a way of writing that is both extremely humorous and vividly flowing.
I’ve been desperate to get to the novelist, activist and playwright Sarah Schulman’s The Cosmopolitans (Feminist) for months: I’ve loved her novels since the 1980s, and this tale of lonely artists in late 1950s New York sounds right up my alley. I’m also looking forward to Eileen Myles’ new and selected poems, I Must Be Living Twice (Ecco). A swaggering heir to Frank O’Hara, Myles is a fabulously casual language technician, brilliant on everything from love and politics to those plastic jars of honey that are shaped like bears. Proxies is a collection of essays on sex and books by her friend Brian Blanchfield. I dipped into “Frottage” and am already hot for more.
The annual search for an involving, original thriller for holiday reading has been triply answered this time. Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies (Quercus), kicks off with a Tokyo cop, shamefully demoted from detective to press officer, spotting an anomaly in a missing persons case from 14 years before: his reinvestigation brutally and brilliantly illuminates Japanese politics, media and culture. Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall (Hodder Stoughton) starts with a private jet crashing into the Atlantic, leaving only two survivors: flashbacks to who and possibly what were on board create a compelling combination of domestic drama and conspiracy puzzler. In Ten Days (Canongate), Gillian Slovo uses riots in a fictional London borough, provoked by a racially contentious police intervention, as the basis for a thoughtful dramatisation of the increasingly tense dynamic between the powerful and the disfranchised. Certain senior British politicians and cops might read it with winces of recognition.
Jenni Fagan’s blistering debut The Panopticon was my novel of 2013 and her follow up, The Sunlight Pilgrims (Heinemann), about a community in a Scottish caravan park during a freak winter, is what I’ll be reading during some time off in Orkney, an apt setting.
I recommend Horatio Clare’s Orison for a Curlew, an elegant and fascinating study of a bird so rare it may no longer exist, including some prescient observations about Europe. It’s beautifully produced by natural history specialists Little Toller and is nice and short, which I appreciate.
A collection of essays by Annie Dillard, The Abundance (Canongate), including stormer “Total Eclipse”, has inspired and excited me more than anything else recently. Dillard is wild and strange, on the natural world and writing itself.
My holiday reading is usually a grisly mixture of self-improvement and books I feel guilty not to have read. No wonder I hate holidays. But this year I had high hopes: Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel (Penguin), Sarah Orne Jewitt’s The Country of the Pointed Firs and Anne Enright’s The Green Road (Vintage), all intriguing, all acclaimed.
Now, in post-Brexit despair, all I want is the darkest, bleakest, tangliest crime: bales of it. I’ll need Karin Fossum, Arnaldur Indriðason, Tana French, Belinda Bauer. And maybe Nell Zink’s Nicotine (4th Estate), for laughs.
I’m cautiously optimistic about catching up on some reading this summer, and particularly looking forward to getting stuck into Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, an ambitious and experimental work told entirely in one sentence about “order and chaos, love and loss”. McCormack’s work is never less than exhilarating, and the longer I’m kept from beginning Solar Bones the more anxious I get. I may go into hiding so I can properly wallow in it. Something just as ambitious but for later this summer, in that it’s not due until August, is The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes (John Murray), a story confined neither by era nor genre. It’s already been called “a brilliant cross between David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel”, so consider me salivating.
Also on my summer pile is Red Dirt (Head of Zeus), the debut novel by another compatriot, EM Reapy. It promises to be a visceral thriller about the “lost” Irish in Australia, and I do love a properly uncomfortable literary gut-punch (and don’t pull at all with the idea that summer reading must be lighter than one’s usual diet). And on that note I’ve just finished Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (Portobello), translated by Deborah Smith, which was at once dreamy and nightmarish, a beautiful horror and easily one of the best books I’ve read in years.
The 19th century was when the contemporary world was decisively shaped, for better and worse, and the thick galleys of Gareth Stedman Jones’s forthcoming biography of Karl Marx (Allen Lane) and Richard Evans’s The Pursuit of Power (Allen Lane) promise to throw much light on our present. In Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance (University of Minnesota), Ajay Skaria offers a refreshing perspective on that century’s universal project of liberal individualism through the moral philosophy of its greatest critic. I also look forward to Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs (Viking ) and Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace (Canongate).
Books on the go this summer include: The Awakening by Kate Chopin, an exquisite novella about a woman in 1890s New Orleans chafing against the strictures of her times; the modern classic Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, about a Berliner in 1940 who embarks on a campaign of sending anonymous anti-Hitler postcards, and the Gestapo officer ordered to hunt the dissenter; Fell by Jenn Ashworth, a fresh, lyrical novel about a sick girl, a faith healer, the woman the girl grew into, the spirits of her parents and unfinished business. In the last week I’ve finished Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (out in 2017 from Head of Zeus), a deep, broad, addictive history of a Korean family in Japan enduring and prospering through the 20th century; and the new book by Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes (Sceptre) – a poignant, cascading four-part novel about being Asian and western, about immigrants and natives, about belonging in a country and one’s skin. It’s not out until August, but if your bookseller owes you a favour, cash it in for a reader’s proof. It’s outstanding.
David Szalay’s All That Man Is has all you expect to find in a good novel: a highly distinctive tone, an original structure, excellent pace, and a jaunty wit combined with sombre seriousness: it’s a rich fulfilment of the exceptional promise in his three previous books. Geoff Dyer’s new instalment of essays, White Sands (Canongate), which concentrates on notions of place and placement, has plenty of his trademark shrugging but also (cleverly licensed by this) patches of startlingly rarefied writing as well; the combination makes the whole book compelling. Denise Riley’s new collection Say Something Back (Picador) is a moving reminder that she’s one of the best poets around.
One of the best books for young adults that I have read recently is In The Dark, In The Woods by Eliza Wass (Quercus). It tells the story of a teenage girl, Castley, and her five siblings who are forced to abide by the strict rules their ultra religious father inflicts upon them. It’s a haunting tale, and one not easily forgotten.
Shrill by Lindy West (Quercus) is a collection of essays that needs to be read by women and men of all ages. Dealing with issues like body image, fat-shaming, rape jokes and internet trolling, West’s voice is both hilarious and searingly honest.
Books dealing with the collapse of rural Ireland have littered the shelves of bookshops in recent years and it now takes a special novel to stand out. In Solar Bones Mike McCormack takes many stylistic risks and, my god, do they pay off. This is an inventive, beautiful book that deserves to be widely read.
I’d recommend The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes (John Murray), which draws on Blake, Milton, Jack the Ripper and the Y2K bug to create a strange, witty and dazzlingly clever fable on art, ambition and morality.
Daisy Johnson’s Fen (Jonathan Cape) is a collection of strange, half-magical short stories set in an eerie fenland landscape: I’ve had my eye on it for weeks, and am very much looking forward to losing myself in her world.
In non-fiction I want to read Jay Griffiths’ memoir of manic depression Tristimania (Hamish Hamilton), and Dan Richards’s Climbing Days (Faber) about mountains and finding out about his great aunt Dorothy Pilley. In poetry, Eileen Myles’s I Must Be Living Twice, Luke Kennard’s Cain (Penned in the Margins) and Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (this will be a rereading, because it’s the best thing I’ve read in ages). I also want to start the new Lian Hearn series, Tale of Shikanoko Book 1: Emperor of the Eight Islands (Picador). And I will take The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul (Peirene Press 2012), because the publisher promises me it is cool Danish literary noir with profound things to say about death. Sold!
I’ve just finished rereading Dickens’s Bleak House for a talk I’m giving in Aberdeen in a few weeks. Always a pleasure to eavesdrop on Dickens’ wide and wild cast of players. In August I’ll be interviewing some writers at the Edinburgh International book festival, which means poring over the latest offerings by musician Tim Burgess, comedian Stewart Lee and thriller writer Frederick Forsyth. After all of which I can get back to the tottering to-be-read pile by my bedside.
It has been a busy year as children’s laureate and I’m looking forward to a relaxing countryside break with some good books. As an illustrator I believe in the power of words and pictures, so I’ve chosen three books that are outstanding examples of this. The first is Anything That Isn’t This by Chris Priestley (Hot Key). This is a superbly illustrated YA novel set in an atmospheric Kafkaesque European city. The 70 gouache illustrations in grey tones are beautifully atmospheric and draw the reader effortlessly into the story. Alexis Deacon is a favourite illustrator of mine and he has written and illustrated one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read. The pace of the narrating is deft but the frames take my breath away. Geis (Nobrow), pronounced “Gesh”, is a book you can go back to and find new wonders each time. The last book on my summer picnic blanket is Jim Kay’s sublimely illustrated edition of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Bloomsbury). Jim is an illustration wizard and this is a beautiful, spellbinding book.
Firstly Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. There will come a time when anyone wanting to understand the deep physical and psychic impact of sexual abuse will read McBride. This is the brilliant, troubling, must-read of the summer.
Walter Benjamin, the foremost Marxist cultural critic of the 20th century, is not best known for his literary writing, so much praise is due to the editors for bringing together a newly translated collection of his short fictions, The Story Teller (Verso), in which he shows our iniquitous material world suffused and sabotaged by the uncanny like no one else.
Finally Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid Book VI (Faber). Despite the poem’s imperial moments, Heaney manages to align its voice with the wounded and homeless, and with life’s spirit, against the horrors of war. Never more timely.
Spanning generations, Yaa Gyasi’s spectacular debut Homegoing (Viking), out in the US now and in the UK next year, considers the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade from both sides of the ocean. The narrative centres on half-sisters Effia and Esi, one a wealthy woman married to a British man in Ghana, the other captured and sold as a slave in America. In considering the divergent lives of their descendants, Gyasi confronts those thorny questions of culpability and identity that still plague the African diasporic community.
Tedious as I find the geopolitical classification of novelists, I well understand why Alejandro Zambra is described as “Latin America’s new literary star”. His latest, Multiple Choice (Granta), could be called an experimental novella, written in the form of a multiple choice examination (specifically, the Chilean version of the Sats). Brilliant, innovative, beautiful – David Markson’s Vanishing Point meets Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her.
At the top of my summer reading choices is Hisham Matar’s The Return. I have always admired Matar’s tender and compassionate but equally strong and compelling voice. A son’s search for his father and a sense of belonging, the tension between homeland and exile, and the mixture of the personal with the political – they all appeal to me. Another book that I am looking forward to reading is The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer (Simon Schuster). Timbuktu was once a cultural hub and a centre for ideas, creativity, and books, both in Arabic and African languages. Hammer highlights the clash between two opposing interpretations of Islam – those who want to destroy free thinking and pluralism, and those who are determined to save the libraries, the wisdom of centuries, from such fanatics.
I would also recommend everyone to read The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis (Guardian Faber). Patrick Kingsley has given us a powerful, evocative book.
For those who savour indignation (one of my favourite emotions), Mark Lawson’s The Allegations is great fun, and it provides at least the illusion of an inside track on the non-fiction backstory. I loved Mark Haddon’s The Pier Falls, whose title story is either perfect beach reading, or perfectly terrible beach reading, depending on your level of perversity.
One of the best books I’ve read in recent months has also been one of the best translations. In Ladivine (MacLehose), the latest collaboration between Marie NDiaye and translator Jordan Stump, the injection of the bizarre and uncanny renders a multi-generational, women-centric saga both mesmerising and faintly sickening. In 2011, Saudi novelist Raja Alem became the first woman to win the International prize for Arabic fiction with The Dove’s Necklace (Duckworth), a surreal, meditative take on a murder mystery translated from the Arabic by Katherine Halls and Adam Talib. Finally, I’ve been looking forward to The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin. Best known for his essays on theory and culture, this is the first time Benjamin’s fiction – novellas, fables, histories, aphorisms, parables and riddles – has been collected for an Anglophone readership.
I’ve read two wonderful novels this summer: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, a rich, twisting tale of late-Victorian England, and Elizabeth Strout’s plain and beautiful My Name Is Lucy Barton, in which a woman pays an unexpected visit to her daughter in hospital. Strout writes with extraordinary tenderness and restraint. And I’ve just started David Szalay’s All That Man Is, a series of linked stories set in different parts of Europe. The book opens with a moody English teenager interrailing through Berlin and Prague, and moves on to a jobless young Frenchman who pitches up alone at a shabby hotel in Cyprus. It’s funny, sharp, unsettling, with flashes of joy – a perfect book to take travelling.
A non-fiction book about the breakup of a multi-ethnic state and the identity crisis that followed tops my list. Second-Hand Time is a series of first-person testimonies from the former Soviet Union woven into a stunning chorale by Svetlana Alexievich.
Thomas Morris’s debut story collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber) is mordantly funny and achingly true. The characters are with me many months after reading. I thought Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton was one of this year’s best novels: an intense, beautiful book about a mother and a daughter, and the difficulty and ambivalence of family life.
Mike McCormack has always been among the most adventurous and ambitious Irish writers. His novel Solar Bones, written in one single sonorous sentence, tells the story of a family in contemporary Ireland. The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine by Ben Ehrenreich (Penguin) is a result of three years spent going back and forth to the West Bank, living in the cities and villages. It promises to be a good companion piece to Dervla Murphy’s A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza (Eland) and her Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine (Eland), in which one of the wisest travel writers working now casts her penetrating eye on daily life in the Middle East. I found Hisham Matar’s The Return, in which he tells the story of his father’s arrest and disappearance in Libya, riveting.
I’ve just finished reading Ladivine by French author Marie NDiaye (MacLehose). I can’t remember the last time a novel cast a spell over me like this one did. This story of three generations of women is a mesmerizing exploration of identity, mixing mystery and magical realism in completely unexpected ways. The less you know about it in advance, the better.
The next novel I’m looking forward to reading is Louise Erdrich’s LaRose (Corsair), in which an Ojibwe man on a reservation in North Dakota accidentally shoots and kills his neighbors’ son, and subsequently offers up his own child as a replacement.
I’m not normally an avid memoir reader, but I’m eager to pick up Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom (William Collins), her memoir about her abusive father who undergoes sex reassignment surgery late in life. I’ll read anything Faludi writes, and I can’t think of anyone better to consider contemporary debates about identity through a feminist lens.
Three new novels have impressed me this summer. Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer has Patricia Highsmith as its heroine: it’s inspired by the years that the thriller writer spent in Suffolk in the early 1960s, and is fantastically moody and appealingly unhinged – a piece of sophisticated literary ventriloquism that achieves a wonderful blurring of the lines between fact and fantasy. Natasha Walter’s A Quiet Life (Borough) is based on the figure of Melinda Marling, wife of the Cambridge spy Donald Maclean: it’s a troubling, understated novel, almost hypnotic in the completeness with which it inhabits the mind of its impressionable central character. Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is set in the near future, a post-economic-meltdown US in which the privileged classes have to fight for stunned survival as civilisation slowly unravels around them. A gleeful nightmare, it made me snort with laughter even as I was shuddering – though I’m glad I read it pre-Brexit. I might need a stiff drink if I sat down with it now.
I’m saving two books that take nature writing to its surreal, shamanistic extreme: GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human by Thomas Thwaites (Princeton Architectural), and Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide
by Charles Foster (Profile). Having built a goat exoskeleton, a goat stomach (to enable him to digest grass) and two prosthetic goat front legs, Thwaites lived in the Swiss Alps for three days with a lonely goatherd. He looks, in the photographs, like an enthusiastically attired cyclist, replete with crash helmet. Charles Foster goes further in his desire to inhabit otherness, living first as a badger, where he sleeps (together with his eight-year-old son) in a sett and dines on earthworms, then as an otter, catching fish in his mouth, and finally as an urban fox, a deer and a swift. Reading does not get more escapist than this.
I’ve been reading Saleem Haddad’s novel Guapa (Other Press), about a young, gay Muslim in an unnamed country, working as a translator between Arabic and English, struggling to find a space in which to live and love safely, policed by familial shame, but also by the demands of a brutal police state. I’ve also admired John McCullough’s second poetry collection, Spacecraft (penned in the Margins), a cabinet of beautifully shaped curiosities. Combining details of quasi-scientific observation with a fabulist’s openness to the queerness of unreason, he is somehow both shrewdly sceptical and wide-eyed with wonder at once. Lesbian writing is thriving in Britain, these days. This summer I’ll be re-reading the doyenne of them all, Maureen Duffy: not only her gender- and genre-bending fiction, but also the extensive back-catalogue of her remarkable poetry.
If you only buy one …
Literary page turner
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail)
A tale of passionate friendship and intellectual curiosity set in a Victorian England where the theory of evolution is overturning all the old certainties – from religion and the role of women to politics and poverty, love and free will. Endlessly absorbing and richly satisfying.
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney (John Murray)
This year’s Baileys prize winner, the interlinked stories of chancers, gang-sters and no-hopers in Cork city, is crime caper, teen romance and blister-ingly dark social satire all rolled into one. Angry, funny and full of heart.
Book in translation
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal, trans Jessica Moore (MacLehose)
The story of a heart transplant told over a single day, this is an extra-ordinary novel about life, death and the zone in between from a rising French author.
The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood (Sphere)
A tense, poignant and ingeniously crafted mystery about a missing child, toxic relationships and family secrets.
The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)
The bestselling British authors update Arthur C Clarke’s 1971 novella A Meeting with Medusa to take the reader on a dizzying ride through time and space, while exploring the future development of cybernetics and artificial intelligence.
Book for 8-12s
A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill (Piccadilly)
A gorgeously written and profound story about books, grief and friendship. Perfect for 10-year-olds who’ve devoured all the Jacqueline Wilson books and need to move on.
The Summoner series by Taran Matharu (Hodder)
These books follow the story of Fletcher in a Lord of the Rings-type fantasy world complete with dwarves and orcs. The pace is so fast and so thrilling that even less than regular readers will be hooked. There are two books out so far: The Novice and The Inquisition.
The Long Weekend by Adrian Tinniswood (Jonathan Cape)
This study of the revitalisation of country house living between the wars offers a perfect piece of escapism, with plenty of tales of gold taps and extra-vagant parties, but also intelligent and scholarly social history.
Chronicles: On Our Troubled Times by Thomas Piketty (Viking)
The author of the bestselling Capital in the Twenty-First Century returned with this collection of short pieces, which is concerned as much with the crisis in Europe as with global capitalism – and indeed sets out the links between the two.
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Bodley Head)
Do our genes determine our physical and mental identity? Mukherjee addresses the question not only with stories of his own family but with accounts of a dangerous past and an exciting but troubling biotech future.
In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (Bloomsbury)
The last book by a superb, original and unsentimental writer is not only a diary about her lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis but of being taken in as a teenager by Doris Lessing, and looking back to her years as “a sulky, angry girl who kicked against everything, especially herself”.
• To save up to 20% on the books in the Guardian and Observer Summer reading lists, visit bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK pp over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. pp of £1.99.