As summer brings the promise of sunshine and long days, there’s an intimidating mountain of new summer books to choose from to fill our holiday time.
Never fear – our books editor has selflessly sat in a darkened room going through them so you don’t have to. Here’s a goldplated collection of summer fiction Big Issue favourites and sparkling debuts (so your future selves can say you read the new literary superstars first).
This collection of short stories from the consistent Hadley is as good as any of its imaginative, insightful predecessors. Hadley has mastered the art of illuminating those brief, commonplace domestic moments which pass without fanfare but create ripples which never subside. Like Alice Munro and Raymond Carver, she uses everyday language and plain, metaphor-free sentences to match the everyday experiences she is chronicling. It’s an effective style, with the understated prose, like the events themselves, slipping by almost unnoticed, but marking seismic emotional changes. Just a list of the subjects tackled in this collection makes the mouth water – estranged sisters pretend not to recognise each other, a teenage girl is made to see her parents without the rose-coloured filter, a pandemic-enforced home carer becomes obsessive with her neighbour. Irresistible fiction.
It’s hard to know where to begin when praising this extraordinary debut. Somtochukwu is known (or ‘marked’ as he puts it) as a gay activist in his native Nigeria; he has already shown himself, at the tender age of 23, as a man of unusual courage and self-belief. And this story, about two very different young men navigating their growing affection and outsider status in very different ways, will rightly be heralded as a powerful critique of homophobia and ignorance. But rest assured, this is not a didactic or message-heavy novel. Instead, it is a beautifully wrought love story with great emotional intelligence, rendered in some exquisite writing. It is from its character and authenticity that its real power comes.
Irish literature is blooming right now; every month seems to introduce a new raft of wonderful writers. Exciting times. Sometimes though, it’s nice to be reminded of the seasoned modern greats who paved the way. Dublin’s Paul Lynch has been a lynchpin of the Republic’s internationally celebrated output for over 10 years, his profound investigations of place, identity, religion, and memory consistently compared to names as awesome as Dostoevsky, Heaney, Nabokov and Emily Dickinson.
In his typically lyrical, lulling style, Lynch pulls off a masterstroke here, setting his futuristic story, of a nation made fearful and suspicious by their tyrannical government’s surveillance, in the most familiar of settings, his home country. The chill, so close to home, is blood curdling. It’s a curious, magical trick – taken alone Lynch’s poetic sentences might seem indulgent, even pretentious. In augmentation they cast a spell which feels like being slowly, soothingly, hypnotised. Once you’re under, you’re under for good.
It’s very easy to say this is an updated female-skewed American Psycho, which is why I’m saying it. This is no bad thing. Bret Easton Ellis’s famous horror, celebrated for its brilliantly funny take on pumped-up male competitiveness, the god of materialism and disturbing psychological breakdown, was a masterpiece. Giving it a Killing Eve-style makeover turns out to be a very rewarding experiment. Wallace’s debut has the chutzpah of those landmark works, and she writes like a dream, with an easy flow and sharp wit. Like Ellis, she is skilled at writing fast-paced, authentic dialogue, summing up her characters best by simply letting them talk.
Another Dubliner lauded by The Big Issue is Emma Donoghue; her novels Room, The Pull of the Stars and The Wonder were slobbered over on these pages. Here she posits another intriguing premise; the story of the real-life Gentleman Jack, Anne Lister, and her secret lover, the half-Indian Eliza Raine.
The time-jumping novel begins with a shy, motherless 14-year-old Raine, deemed a “young lady of colour” by the well-intentioned school head, failing to settle in at her New York boarding school. Lister – “a shrimp of a thing” but big-talking and apparently impervious to derision – lands in the classroom like a politely delivered hand grenade.
Given to bold claims, frank questions and steely, penetrating stares, the young Lister is likeable and believable. Her brightness brings to light not just Raine as a girl, but also as a character for the reader. It is this force which propels the novel, a beautifully wrought tale of flirting, friendship, romance, and regret. “For the rest of my life,” writes the older Raine, “I’ll be transported back to dreams of memory’s private theatre, where our girl selves still move and chat and laugh.”
This terrific debut by a young American with Iranian heritage is a story about formative change and recalibration. Like his convincingly drawn protagonist K, Khabushani began life in America, bore the sudden shockwave of moving to Iran, then returned to America, all before he had any real understanding of his own cultural, social or sexual identity. Here, through the eyes of K, the youngest of three brothers living with a brutish father, he explores the raw pain and occasional ecstasy of a precarious coming of age as an Iranian-American Muslim in two very different terrains. This moving novel says joltingly profound things about the gift of a loving mother, the sweet agony of a secret romance, the often very funny perils of being the youngest of three brothers sharing notes on puberty.
It seems Whitehead, two-time Pulitzer winning writer of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, was as taken with the characters of his Harlem Shuffle as the rest of us. He returns with a companion piece to that eminently enjoyable 2021 novel, this time honing in on Harlem furniture shop owner Ray. After four years on the straight and narrow after a career in which the lines were rather looser, Ray decides to hit up his old cop fixer on an attempt to get Jackson 5 tickets for his beloved daughter. Not one of his better choices. Plot-wise there aren’t a huge amount of surprises in Crook Manifesto. But as well as being funny, effortlessly streetwise, and criminally pleasurable to read it’s also politically enlightening and quietly incendiary.
“I expected she wanted to adopt a cat, or she wished I would get a real job… I did not expect her to say within a year she would… (“hopefully”) strap herself into a rocket and blast into deep space.” This is the quirky and highly amusing premise of Deborah Willis’s first novel, told from the perspective of a guy whose girlfriend and fellow hydroponic weed dealer has entered a TV show to win a one-way trip to Mars. He doesn’t take the rejection of their sofa-based relationship well, and she’s peeved he can’t just be happy for her. Funny, increasingly touching and occasionally shocking, I can’t imagine any fiction lovers not enjoying this sparky debut.
Fans of DeWitt’s hit novel French Exit will revel in his latest vivid portrait of a mundane life slowly unpeeled to expose the tender damaged flesh below its ostensibly sturdy skin. Bob Comet is a retired librarian. He lives alone, “not unhappy”, friendless but not craving company. He fills his solitary days with reading, pottering in shops, stopping for coffee. It is this casual acceptance of the ebbs and flows of the days which lead to him detouring to take a confused old woman back to her retirement home. The notion to volunteer at the home strikes him and he surprises himself by embracing a more rewarding phase of his retirement.
This is the story of a man who finds unexpected meaning in connection, but struggles when the traumatic past he thought lay dormant is poked back into life. It’s a touching, affectionate novel, showing, without cliche or agenda, that engagement in old age is a courageous act to be applauded.
Three murderers, Karl Marx’s daughter and a vegetarian vicar walk into a bar and… write the first Oxford English Dictionary. OK, it doesn’t happen quite like that. It took thousands of expert wordsmiths, astronomers, naturists, suffragists, pornographers, murderers and other everyday ordinary folk decades to compile the 414,825 entries which define our language. This history, sourced from the author’s discovery of the address books of the dictionary’s famous editor, publisher James Murray, is as fascinating as the array of wonderful words they filled their dictionary with.
Chidgey, the New Zealand author of Remote Sympathy, demonstrated her empathy with young readers in two children’s books. Her new novel again showcases her understanding of that time of romantic friendships, people pleasing, selfishness and shifting loyalties. Justine lost her mother when she was very young, so it’s no surprise when she is drawn to her new teacher, the beautiful and vivacious Mrs Price. This fixation results in a terrible event which will haunt her adult self forever.
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