More Fiya: A New Collection of Black British Poetry, edited by Kayo Chingonyi, brings together a wonderful array of outstanding poets whose linguistic flair and wide-ranging perspectives excite, inspire and challenge in equal measure. As a companion, Canongate is also republishing the 1998 anthology The Fire People: A Collection of British Black and Asian Poetry, edited by Lemn Sissay.
A novel featuring the young Joseph Stalin might not sound like summer entertainment, maar Stephen May’s Sell Us the Rope is fresh and original: jaunty, cunning, thought-provoking but never solemn. For nonfiction, and a venture into the strange world of coincidence and prediction, try Sam Knight’s The Premonitions Bureau. It’s a book hard to classify, but wholly fascinating: lewendig, nimble, its subject poised on the frontiers of the possible.
On Agoraphobia by Graham Caveney took me by surprise: simultaneously a memoir and a fascinating cultural history of the condition, it’s entertaining and erudite. I was similarly gripped by Sarah Polley’s essay collection Run Towards the Danger: frank, sometimes painful stories about growing up, exploitation and recovery from a really fine actor, director and writer. And one of my favourite novels of last year is out in paperback. Bleakness and anxiety aren’t emotions everyone wants to experience on a sun lounger, maar Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms is brilliantly funny, sharp and slender. She’s an exceptional writer, a modern Muriel Spark.
Readers love characters but writers love structure because the structure is the answer – it is the story. Jennifer Egan is a genius of structure, en The Candy House is a thrilling read. It is a narrative dance, and like all great dances it is done with pleasure and with heart. It also makes your brain go doinnggg. Take it slowly: turn this multifaceted jewel of a thing in the light. Emilie Pine is a great writer to read when you don’t know why you are sad. Rut & Pen is about two people who face their ordinary, heartbreaking problems with tenacity and grace, and Pine seems to hold the reader safe in a way that feels right for the times – a truly compassionate book.
Reading Elizabeth Day’s Magpie gave me the kind of noir-ish high I usually only get from reading the best of Gillian Flynn. Heavily pregnant Marisa, who has just moved into a gorgeous house with her doting partner, Jake, appears to have the life she has always dreamed of – except that the menacing new lodger, Kate, seems intent on stealing it for herself. Day’s novel is a psychological thriller with a strong thematic pulse: it brilliantly co-opts genre conventions to evoke the way both motherhood and infertility can sometimes be experienced as a sort of fever dream. Nothing beats a summer afternoon in the company of a book as addictive as this.
Kamila Shamsie’s Best of Friends will be out in early autumn, and is a shining tour de force about a long friendship’s respects, disrespects, loyalties and moralities. Shamsie never compromises. This novel is of a rare quality, and even more evidence of her ability to write fiction that’s simultaneously vividly alive to its time and so good and true that it’s as if it has always been with us. The other recent pleasure for me was Irene Solà’s When I Sing, Mountains Dance. Translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, this novel about, wel, alles, is fine-tuned to a kind of astonished and astonishing connectivity that’s an act of revolutionary revitalisation up against the odds of any despairing.
Easily the most exciting new book I’ve read in the past year is Jo Ann Beard’s Festival Days. It is a knockout – a collection of nonfiction narratives that read like short stories, plus one short story that makes you wonder if it, ook, is nonfiction. Masterly sentence by sentence, entirely original in method, the pieces are full of death and the threat of it, but their effect is the opposite of funereal. Beard’s wry voice and her clear-eyed compassion make her the best sort of company.
Two books, Anuradha Roy’s novel The Earthspinner and Sumana Roy’s meditation How I Became a Tree, from an India befouled by chauvinists and their will to power, offer some release from today’s human-made ordeals. With their tender attentiveness to the non-human, these narratives speak of more compassionate and resilient modes of existence than those devised by the perennially agitated makers of history.
A while ago, an astute friend recommended an American poet called Mary Ruefle. Sy is 70 and lives in Vermont – she’s a big discovery who is going to keep me going all summer. Her tone is wry and knowing, ironic and angled. She likes statements, or what seem like statements, but nothing is certain. She can move from jokes to dead seriousness in a single seamless second, as though John Ashbery met Wisława Szymborska in a dark Vermont wood. Ruefle is also a great essayist – see her book Madness, Rack, and Honey – with insights on literature and life that are unexpected, original, witty and sharp.
Kate Charlesworth’s Sensible Footwear is a lively graphic memoir that doubles as a comprehensive history of modern British LGBTQ+ life: it’s a wonderful reminder of just how much fun, love and friendship has been had in the fight for queer rights. Julia Armfield’s novel Our Wives Under the Sea, about a woman whose wife returns a bit peculiar from a submarine expedition gone wrong, is terrifically odd. And I defy anyone not to be utterly beguiled by Nell Stevens’s Briefly, a Delicious Life. A story of George Sand, Chopin and a teenage Spanish ghost, it’s a lush, gorgeous, really special read.
My Dead Book by Nate Lippens is the most electrifying thing I’ve read in a long time, a poetic, compressed novella about queer loss and addiction that reminded me of Gary Indiana and William Burroughs. And while we’re on the subject of queer excess, do not miss Bad Gays by Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller: a tour de force of the shadowy side of gay identity.
For those who enjoyed this year’s TV adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s novel Life After Life, Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister is the thriller equivalent. A loving and law-abiding son stabs a stranger to death in the street. His mother awakes next morning to find she has gone back in time to the previous day. And it keeps happening, the gaps of time widening. Can she work out why the crime took place – and maybe even stop it? This is a phenomenally clever brain teaser with a lot of heart. I also loved The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola, set in Paris in 1750. A king obsessed with automata, a genius inventor, court intrigues, vanishing children and a charismatic young heroine determined to uncover the truth: this is historical fiction with a fantastical twist, done with verve and skill.
As a spy-thriller addict, I roared through Mick Herron’s new Slough House novel, Bad Actors, with the odious, odorous genius Jackson Lamb at its heart, and a couple of loathsome main characters who surely only coincidentally resemble well-known British political figures of our time. I’ve also recently read back to back the Basque writer Dolores Redondo’s superb Baztán Trilogy of (sort-of) noir/crime novels, starting with The Invisible Guardian, as well as the trilogy prequel, The North Face of the Heart. In poetry, I highly recommend Jason Allen-Paisant’s superb first collection, Thinking With Trees; and I’m also deep in the newest translation of the oldest poem: Sophus Helle’s version of the ancient Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, which Helle has translated from the Akkadian, with verve and drama.
Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is so beautiful and so strange. Set in a fantastical labyrinthine house, it has a daring and a grace that are quietly, transportingly spectacular. If you were looking for a book that distils the concept of wonder, this is the one: it feels like a work of pure generosity. For children’s books, I love everything Sharna Jackson has written: her most recent, The Good Turn, is a sharp, deliciously witty mystery, which salutes community and compassion without ever moralising.
Goat Days by Malayalam writer Benyamin is an epic little 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 a glimpse into thrilling fictions created out of domesticity and the perils of intimacy.
Alexandra Heminsley’s Under the Same Stars, out in July, is a satisfying family mystery set on a remote and starkly beautiful Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle. I’ve also enjoyed travelling to Mexico in three timeframes with Anna Hope’s insightful and elegiac new novel The White Rock. Two of my favourite prose stylists have new books this summer: Emma Forrest’s Busy Being Free, a heart-rending and acerbic memoir of appetite and abstinence, and Cressida Connolly’s masterful novel Bad Relations – it has been a joy to see it garnering the ecstatic reviews it deserves.
I am obsessed with the poet Frank O’Hara. Meditations in an Emergency, syne 1957 collection, reprinted in March, really is my book of the year. Nou dadelik, I’m reading Also a Poet by Ada Calhoun, a memoir about her father, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, and his obsession (there are many of us) with O’Hara. It’s a wonderful book about a daughter imitating her father who’s busy imitating O’Hara, and about New York and the magic of O’Hara’s poetry. Ook, Pakistan is producing incredible films, music and literature right now. Other Names for Love by Taymour Soomro comes out in July and is a moving first novel about fathers and sons, longing and the struggle of being at home in the world.