I thought I’d stick to the same format as last year’s list: ten newish books that I’ve read recently and can highly recommend (in no particular order), and ten books I haven’t read yet but are at the top of my To Read list for the Summer.
1. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
A God in Ruins is a companion book to Kate Atkinson’s brilliant Life After Life, and focuses on Ursula’s younger brother Teddy—in particular his time as a RAF fighter pilot in World War I. Atkinson is a literary magician: she has the ability to conjure three-dimensional characters from a selection of seemingly random glimpses, to time-travel across generations, and to pull a rabbit out of the hat for an incredibly powerful and moving finale. Full review here.
2. The Bees by Laline Paull (Fourth Estate)
I’ve always believed that talking insects belong strictly in the realm of animated movies, but Laline Paull has convinced me otherwise—it is quite an astonishing achievement to write a gripping, emotionally-wrenching, page-turner about the life cycle of a bee. Full review here.
3. Our Endless Numbered Days by Clare Fuller (Fig Tree)
One of those books you probably should not read if you have recently become a parent, Our Endless Numbered Days has a similar theme to Emma Donoghue’s Room, except the protagonist is spirited away by her survivalist father to a remote area of Bavarian Forest and told that the world has ended. Very gripping and very creepy.
4. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (William Heinemann)
Set aside the controversy, take into consideration the context in which it was written and enjoy the book for what it is—an insight into Harper Lee’s writing process. Personally, I don’t believe that the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman is incompatible with the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird—it is realistic that a grown-up Scout would become disillusioned with the seemingly heroic father of her childhood. There are plenty of people out there, however, who have taken Atticus's moral downfall to heart even more than his daughter does in the book. Full review here.
5. The First Bad Man by Miranda July (Canongate)
In the same surreal and hilarious realm as AM Holmes’ fiction, Miranda July’s controversial novel is about the sexual liberation of an unlikely forty-something heroine—the repressed and uptight Cheryl Glickman. The First Bad Man is definitely not for the squeamish, it has a grossness-quotient on a par with Helen De Witt's Lightning Rods, but when you get past Cheryl’s increasingly bizarre fantasies, the resolution is actually heartfelt and moving.
6. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews (Allen & Unwin)
Read the book before you see the movie. This is a more realistic version of The Fault in Our Stars—the unromantically-named protagonist, Greg, does not have any major epiphanies, does not say or do any of the right things around Rachel (the dying girl), and definitely does not become a better person for having known her. This is the most convincing teenage boy voice I've read in a long time—inane, profane and solipsistic to the point of being quite annoying. Nevertheless this is an incredibly moving story, particularly in all the things that it doesn't say. It is also very funny.
7. The Dark Light by Julia Bell (Macmillan)
This is the dark and suspenseful story of ‘New Canaan’—a doomsday cult on a remote island and the relationship between two girls: Rebekah who has grown up on the island, and Alex, a troubled teenager, newly exiled there by social services. The dangers of fundamentalism are, in this case, not just theoretical—the girls soon realise that they, and everyone else on the island, are in mortal peril.
8. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury)
You could do a lot worse than learn how to write a short story from Margaret Atwood. This is a brilliantly imaginative, vividly drawn collection and I particularly enjoyed the fact that these stories all have more mature protagonists.
9. The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood (Scribner)
Another sinister island—this time housing a mysterious artists’ retreat, called Portmantle, off the coast of Istanbul. The Ecliptic gradually reveals its secrets: how resident, Elspeth Conroy, found herself there, what the enigmatic ‘ecliptic’ is and what significance it has for Elspeth. Compelling and beautifully written—particularly the articulation of Elspeth’s artistic process.
10. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Vintage)
I was late to this party but if you haven’t read this one yet, do. Since it's a memoir about grief and falconry, written by an academic, I was expecting it to be quite pretentious—instead it is incredibly visceral and moving. Helen Macdonald dissects her own emotional state, in the wake of her father's death, with surgical precision, while she trains Mabel the Goshawk and writes about author TH White’s ill-fated attempt to train his own hawk. Deserving of all the literary acclaim it received.
TEN BOOKS ON MY TO READ LIST:
1. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus)
I’m looking forward to Anne Tyler’s latest book, even though I have not read any of her work since I was a teenager. (While other teenagers went through rebellious phases, I went through an Anne Tyler phase.) It’s also on the Booker longlist—one of the few I recognised.
2. The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (Faber & Faber)
An eccentric Earl has a plan to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside—sounds fun. (Also sounds a bit like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which I enjoyed.) I haven’t read Sarah Hall before but she comes highly recommended by many writers I respect.
3. All the Days and Nights by Niven Govinden (The Friday Project)
I am already a fan of Niven Govinden’s beautiful, insightful prose based on his last book, Black Bread White Beer, and so I am looking forward to this one—the story of an artist and her muse in eighties America.
4. The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock (Myriad Editions)
Benjamin Johncock’s debut novel is about Jim Harrison—a pilot in the era of the American space race, and his family. It has been generating a lot of positive feedback on Twitter—Joanne Harris compares the author to Cormac McCarthy and Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
5. The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
I love the gorgeous retro-style hardback edition of this book. Eva and Jim meet at Cambridge in 1958 and from this point we follow three different versions of their future based on the decisions they make. Supposed to be Life After Life meets One Day meets Sliding Doors. You had me at Life After Life.
6. The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books)
I really enjoyed Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, and her new book, coincidentally, sounds a bit like Life After Life: a story of the twentieth century traced through the various possible lives of one woman. Are you picking up a theme here?
7. Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh (Canongate)
This one has been pitched as a contender for the title of ‘the next Gone Girl’—a ‘creepy tale of loneliness and teenaged obsession’. I'm up for that.
8. Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner (Jonathan Cape - 6 August)
This looks amazing—Evie Wyld’s visual memoir, illustrated by Joe Sumner, based around her childhood obsession with sharks.
9. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador – 13 August)
Everyone is raving about this one even though it is apparently a supremely depressing book. It has also accumulated a galaxy of five-star reviews and it is on the Booker longlist. I’ll give it a go to see what the fuss is about, but I might save it for when I am feeling particularly buoyant and require taking down a peg or two.
10. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury – 24 September)
A new Margaret Atwood? Yes please!