Books

Voyages of discovery: See the world with our summer reading picks

Even if you've opted for a staycation this year, exploring worlds outside the UK is just a matter of opening a book. These brilliant new releases will take you all over the globe

1-Occasional-Virgin

The Occasional Virgin, Hanan Al-Shaykh (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

Born and brought up in Beirut, novelist Al-Shaykh has been described as the Jane Austen of the Arabic world. Her new novel, The Occasional Virgin, transports us to the shimmering Italian Riviera, and conjures up the blazing azures, delicious salty smells and vibrating warmth of the Mediterranean as convincingly as it does the passion and angsts of its lead characters, Huda and Yvonne.

This is a funny, honest and sensual novel, about female friendships, Arabic wisdom, self-knowledge, romance, sex, men, and the alluring laps, licks and kisses of The White Sea. You can float on it for a while, but it will take you deeper than you might expect.

2-How-are-you-going-to-

How Are You Going to Save Yourself, JM Holmes (Out August 9, Sceptre, £14.99)

This debut novel from award-winning short story writer Holmes comes with an impressive list of suggested comparisons including Junot Díaz and Denis Johnson. A tale about the lives of four young black male friends in contemporary America, it’s easy to see why such luminaries have been summoned for support, but this bright, thoughtful, sassy novel has the wit and temerity to stand on its own feet. Holmes’ dialogue-rich writing is pacey and evocative, brimming with some beautifully descriptive metaphors which give it a poetic kind of magic. What affection Holmes has for his characters, and how contagious it turns out to be. 

3-how-to-love-a-jam

How to Love a Jamaican, Alexia Arthurs (Out August 9, Picador £14.99)

This is an impressively assured debut short story collection focussed on the varied experiences of Jamaican immigrants to America. Alexia Arthurs left Jamaica for Brooklyn when she was 12; her knowledge and closeness with her characters and their memories of the people, customs and weather of that unique island gives these stories a strong ring of truth, and a warm open-minded empathy.

That’s not to suggest these tales are all about the noble aspirations of good people, and their dreamy nostalgia for the home they left behind. Arthurs has a full comprehension of the complexities of Jamaican life and the hierarchies and prejudices which damage and haunt its diaspora, especially those ex-islanders who clash with the American dream. Arthurs’ debut is a cool, savvy, rich and colourful pleasure, delivered by an ‘immigrant’ writer as tuned in to Lena Dunham as she is to old-wives’ tales in rural Jamaica. 

4-Crudo

Crudo, Olivia Laing (Picador, £12.99)

Everything about this delightful debut novel from acclaimed arts journalist and essayist Olivia Laing encourages the reader to relax and enjoy. Perhaps it begins with the seductive cover, a pastel-coloured smorgasbord of Mediterranean seafood. But beyond that there is a feeling of being in such wise, confident, secure hands that resistance is futile.

It’s ironic then that the story itself – an anxious forty-something writer (based on Kathy Acker) embarks on marriage while fretting about the pending Trump-sponsored apocalypse – is a study of daily despair. Crudo is full of very funny observations about the current perilous state of the world and the neurosis it breeds, as well as some painful memories of dark moments in Kathy’s past. Through an unusual kind of third-person stream of consciousness, Laing zings Kathy to life. The reading experience is so easy and rewarding, one can come to terms with the greedy fly settled on that moist crabmeat on the front cover. 

5-Immigrant

Immigrant, Montana, Amitava Kumar (Out August 2, Faber and Faber, £14.99)

It’s very possible you haven’t acquainted yourself with Indian-born Amitava Kumar, writer of several outstanding political and cultural books, and one previous novel, the terrifically titled Nobody Does the Right Thing. Welcome to Immigrant, Montana, the perfect place for you to meet Kumar.

Best known for his bold and penetrating investigations into race, immigration, and the war on terror, Kumar is often mentioned alongside co-intellectuals like Ben Lerner and previous collaborator Teju Cole. But sheer chutzpah drives his latest novel – a first-person telling of a young Indian man’s political and romantic life in New York academia – with equal fervour. Full of stirring insights into the Indian immigrant’s cultural experience, including his various, often unfulfilling, sexual exploits, this is a very funny, frank novel with shades of early Roth, Updike and Woody Allen. Damn fine. 

6-The-Extra-Man

The Extra Man, Jonathan Ames (Out on August 2, One/Pushkin Press, £8.99)

LA-dweller Jonathan Ames has mastered the art of the clever, fun-to-read page-turner. Whether they are smart thrillers like You Were Never Really Here (recently made into a major movie with Joaquin Phoenix), or showcases for his particular kind of literary bon viveurism, such as the joyous Wodehouse homage,Wake Up Sir!, his books are escapist bliss-missives. His latest novel, The Extra Man, is about the unlikely friendship between dashing but troubles truck cross-dresser Louis and failed writer/successful escort Henry. It has all the hallmarks Ames’ fervent band of followers cherish – it’s funny, intelligent and elegantly written, full of eccentric charm and with such a warm openness to the world’s oddballs and their quirky but profound relationships you can’t help wishing Ames was on the school curriculum. 

7-In-the-Garden-of

In the Garden of the Fugitives, Ceridwen Dovey (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99)

Australian/South African writer Ceridwen Dovey’s first novel, Blood Kin, drew enthusiastic plaudits from the likes of JM Coetzee and Colum McCann, who praised her nuanced combination of allegory, political analysis and story-telling. She continues in this vein with her impressive follow-up, In the Garden of the Fugitives, in which a revived 20-year-old relationship between a flailing filmmaker and her one-time mentor evolves into a fascinating power struggle, fuelled by guilt, recrimination, and the holds of memory and sexual desire. Dovey’s work has weight, but it also has a lightness of touch, which makes for a gratifying read. 

8-A-terrible-Country

A Terrible Country, Keith Gessen (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99)

Unsurprisingly, the theme of returning, whether literally or psychologically, to the much-changed home of one’s birth, is particularly popular among novelists this year. With his intriguingly named A Terrible Country, Russian-born New Yorker Keith Gessen – who translated into English the great Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl (we are not worthy) – adds an original, intelligent, insightful voice to the oeuvre. His tale of a young man who moves from New York back to the ‘shithole’ of Moscow to look after his ageing grandmother works beautifully on both levels; as an examination of a century of unsettling rapid transformation in the mother country, and an insight into a young person confronting an identity which slips in and out of his grasp. Gessen depicts modern love affairs – between the despots and their people, between the unsteady young man and his fiery activist girlfriend – with such expertise, one feels he/she is learning something on every page. 

9-Perfidious

Perfidious Albion, Sam Byers (Out August 2, Faber & Faber, £15.99)

We won’t struggle to find a post-Brexit dystopian novel in the near future (if not for the next three decades), but Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion is likely to stand out among the crowd. Yes, his vision is of the dark, depressing kind mocked by enthusiastic Leavers – tribalist Britain is in a fragile state dictated by fear, anger, reproach and threat; grassroots right-wing groups are in the ascendency; lives twist and turn in the blink of a tweet. But some would argue that version of the future is based on basic common sense, so fair enough. What’s notable about Byers is his Amis-esque grasp of the absurd, his mastering of contemporary street dialogue, and his ability to tell a compelling, thoroughly modern story. 

11-Travelling-in-the-Dark

Fairlight Moderns collection, Various authors

New publisher Fairlight has put together a delectable compilation of modern novellas from writers all over the globe, and they’ve secured a few real zingers among the splendid, eclectic bunch of collectible little books in gorgeous pastel-coloured jackets.

Karen B Golightly’s Arkansas-based There Are Things I Know is a charming and touching story about what happens when Pepper, an eight-year-old boy who “sees the world a little differently from most people”, has his life thrown violently up into the air. New Zealander Emma Timpany brings us a thought-provoking tale, about a mother being forced to confront her past with a view to preserving her beloved son’s future in Travelling in the Dark.

Those are just two of the five (with more to come) sumptuous Fairlight releases – all available for around £7. Perfect capsule summer reads; delightful presents for book lovers.

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