As promised, my July books newsletter is on my recommended reads this Summer. Now, what constitutes a recommended read? Well, that’s a whole other tinyletter in itself but what I’ve gone for in my list below are books I’ve recently read and that have been published in the past few years.
There is one notable exception to that rule but I only read Just Kids relatively recently and I’m recommending it left, right and centre. And I know you won’t regret choosing that one, if you haven’t read it already.
But, as a collection, I think the books below are a feast of writing. Whether its debut authors, established names or prize winners, they are all page turners. We’ve memoirs of unique lives, historical fiction, psychological dramas, blistering non-fiction, modern classics, sci fi and fantasy, first-class literary fiction and pop culture. And more.
My list below is a Top ELEVEN (11 is my lucky number – born 11/11. Stick that in your diary and send me a card!) but more than this, for each book below I have suggested three alternatives. That’s for those who’ve already that book and want other crackers in a similar vein. Or vice versa – perhaps you’ve read one of the alternatives. OR you may read that particular book and think, give me more!
Well, in the words of Britney Spears, I’ll give you more.
You cannot lose! Literally, pick one. Any of them. Or all. These are AMAZING books.
Now this one is deceptive as, from its synopsis, you’d think this was sleepy and dreamy – perhaps even dreary. But hell no! This is a whip-cracking smart book that keeps all of Ottessa’s trademark darkness yet wraps this mood in an ever-developing ever-spinning plot.
Here we follow our narrator – a rich young New Yorker whose life on the Upper East Side is funded by her hefty inheritance – as she consciously and deliberately attempts to medicate herself into a narcotic hibernation. Alienation, depression and rational thought blur to cause us to question whether our narrator is mad or sane. And given that we are set in 2000 – the suggestion of what’s to come with 9/11 hanging thick in the air – this terrific book also causes us to question the very definition of a fulfilled life. I absolutely adored this – addictive and challenging.
Alternatives: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Vintage), £8.99 – read the book that kicked off Ottessa’s extraordinary rise to cult writer par excellence. Eileen is a dark drama about a complicated, impressionable woman who becomes obsessed with a new girl in town; Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (OneWorld), £12.99 – from jilted brides that manifest as furies to teenage girls that feed only on small birds, from children who appear as butterflies to couples who entrap single travellers stuck at their local railway station, this collection of dark and surreal short stories is spellbinding.; Florida by Lauren Groff (Windmill), £8.99 – a masterclass in writing about the edges of everyday life. This collection of short stories that all link to the Sunshine State captures loneliness, alienation, abandonment and inner resourcefulness in the most creative of tales.
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcot (Windmill Books), £8.99
Swan Song is utterly divine. It swept me up and I just couldn’t put it down, despite it being set around a man and a subject I know remarkably little about for Swan Song is a fictionalised behind-the-scenes novel of Truman Capote’s fall from grace from New York’s high society after the publication of the salacious ‘La Cote Basque 1965’ from his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.
The plot itself is titillating, of course – the gossipy mercurial Truman Capote exposing the secrets of those who called friends, and those whose favour he depended on to fulfil the decadent lifestyle he craved, in a thinly veiled fictional account leads to such a backlash that it plunges him into a deep depression – but it is the writing in this debut novel that astounds most of all. It is vivid, addictive and whips up a terrific portrait of a deeply contradictory and complex man, contrasting scenes from his unorthodox childhood with those from the gilded bubble he ended up in that he lanced through his own actions.
Alternatives: The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersch (HarperCollins), £14.99 – the Kennedys play a big part in Swan Song but they were a dynasty not averse to drama themselves. This infamous journalistic account lays bare the scandals of a family that has seemingly never had to face the consequences for their conduct; Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing by Lee Server (Bloomsbury), £14.99 – one of the most lauded biographies of the Golden Age of Hollywood. This is a revealing and tender account of how the Most Beautiful Woman in the World™ lived a life of excess but ended up dying alone in a flat in London thousands of miles away from home; The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead (Little, Brown), £20 – an extraordinary biography of an extraordinary woman that reveals Leonora’s own recollections of her notorious life spent in the hedonist days of inter-war Paris with the likes of Picasso, on the run from the Nazis with her lover Max Ernst, and fleeing an asylum in Spain for a new life in Mexico.
Just Kids by Patti Smith (Bloomsbury), £8.99
I have yet to meet anyone who hasn’t been knocked out by this memoir. Patti takes us back to 1970s New York as she wrestled herself free from restrictive family ties for a bohemian life of art, self-expression and relationships including, most notably, her intoxicatingly fascinating relationship with the equally pre-famous and not-yet-known Robert Mapplethorpe.
The thing is, you don’t even need to know that much about Patti or Robert to read this. Their paths to fame and fortune are simply the perfectly drawn factual arcs used to examine the romantic and much-idealised world of New York before it became rich. This is a city of characters, artists and hustlers trying to make it happen for themselves. NYC is hard and poverty is rife and those mean streets are captured beautifully by Patti. But this is also a profound testament to friendship – and how the nature of that must change over time as we all change.
Alternatives: The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (Canongate Books), £9.99 – when Olivia moved to New York City she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. She responded by exploring the lonely city by way of art. From Warhol to Hopper with many NYC luminaries in between, Olivia uses her love for art and the city’s great artists to illuminate the causes of loneliness, and how it can be challenged; Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myers (Serpent’s Tail), £8.99 – widely seen as the companion book to Just Kids (it even has a Mapplethorpe photo of the author on the cover) here Eileen charts her coming of age and coming out in 1970s New York. Sure, there’s alcohol, drugs and sex. But there’s poetic self-examination in this cult classic too; Everyone is Watching by Megan Bradbury (Picador), £7.99 – this is a blend of fiction and non-fiction centred around four key figures in New York’s history – Robert Mapplethorpe, Walt Whitman, Edmund White and Robert Moses. Megan takes these four lives and weaves them together in a way that brings NYC to life in all its ambition, grit, energy and sex, and broken hearts and broken dreams, as well as marginalization and that wonderful sense of a city constantly renewing itself, each generation imposing its own beliefs onto it.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari (Vintage), £9.99
I love Yuval’s work and his writing. His ability to convey complex historical and scientific theory about the human race, how we think, how we’ve evolved, and how we are likely to develop in the new technological age is awesome. His writing is fascinating, sometimes scary, but also so easy to grasp.
And so we have 21 Lessons, a series of essays – ‘lessons’ – that look to examine that gap between where we are now and where Yuval thinks the human race is heading, as laid out in Homo Deus. These lessons look at how ill-prepared we are today to challenge and successfully navigate a future that will see Homo Sapiens expire to be replaced (if we are lucky enough to survive climate change) with a technological human hybrid. Nationalism, brain hacking, the emergence of an era where there will be few jobs for any of us, and the underrated ability of the human race to do stupid things…. It’s a sobering read, 21 Lessons, but a necessary one.
Alternatives: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (Vintage), £10.99 – the million-copy bestseller that started it all. In this fascinating page-turner, Yuval weighs up the past 100,000 years of human history to consider how homo sapiens emerged as the dominant creature when such success could not have been foreseen all those years ago; Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari (Vintage), £10.99 – this followed Sapiens and in this momentous book Yuval looks at the great challenge of the future (technology) and how ongoing evolution of homo sapiens may well see the human body and mind fuse with tech as humans continue their search for a life free from illness and death. AMAZING. And sobering as hell; This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (Penguin), £10.99 – the book that changed my life. Naomi’s ability to capture the complex in conversational style is as brilliant as Yuval’s and this book should shatter any lingering beliefs anyone has that capitalism can give us the answers to climate change. This book really does change everything.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (Penguin), £8.99
I absolutely adored this book. I ADORED it. At times, potently political, at other times haunting, even gothic, The Water Cure is a radical exploration of female insecurity and power that follows three daughters brought up in an isolated compound away from men. But then men arrive…
Grace, Lia and Sky are three sisters in their late teens and early twenties who have been raised on an unidentified island by their mother and father, King, who have raised their children segregated form the real world for fear of its toxicity and violence towards women. But it quickly transpires that this is no idyllic sanctuary, with the parents obsessed with sadistic rituals.
However, when King dies in a fishing accident, their lives are thrown into turmoil; their protection against the mainland and its men gone. The question is, will the parents be proven right in their reason to be wary of men?
Alternatives: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (Fourth Estate), £8.99 – a cult classic by any standard. This is a hazy, nostalgic look into childhood, memory and the passing of time as a group of men from one town reminisce about a group of beautiful, enigmatic and elusive sisters who committed suicide many years before; The Bees by Laline Paull (Fourth Estate), £8.99 – impressive in both its ambition and execution, this is Brave New World in a beehive. We follow Flora, a bee born into the lowest class of her society but with talents way above her station. Only in an ordered society such as this, changing station is prohibited and a crime; The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Portobello Books), £8.99 – an astounding book. Such a surreal, dark but extraordinary examination of dissent, misogyny and mental illness. Yeong-hye lives an ordinary life with her husband but when she renounces meat, this choice is seen as an act of subversion and dissent and the dynamics of misogyny are brutally revealed.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Oneworld), £8.99
Barack Obama, Oprah and me. Your holy trinity is here to tell you to read this book and you should listen to all of us! Hell, the Women’s Prize jury did as An American Marriage was this year’s winner – and understandably so as this is a STUNNING novel that examines themes of racism, the American (in)justice system and commitment through an African American couple whose young marriage is ripped apart when the husband, Roy, is convicted for a crime he didn’t commit.
I flew through this book, unable to put it down. Tayari has crafted a real page-turner and one that is as fresh and contemporary as it is heartfelt and agonising. We follow the marriage from its romantic early days, through the years of separation (how does a marriage work when the two people cannot be together?) on to the fallout when the pair are finally reconciled.
There are so many layers here, from what makes marriages and relationships work to legacies of the past, from the emancipation of women to what it takes to keep moving forward. An unmissable novel executed with such craft and wisdom.
Alternatives: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin), £8.99 – shortlisted for just about every book award going in 2017, this beauty is an epic that focuses on two sisters born on the Gold Coast of Africa in the 18th century but who have very different destines. One is sold into slavery; the other becomes a slave trader’s wife. And, from here, we follow their family lines as the consequences of their fates reverberate through the generations that follow; His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband), £8.99 – this novel is mighty and I picked it as, like Tayari, Graeme takes an incident and examines it from multiple points of view. What is truth? That is a theme in this novel that tells the fictional story of a 17-year-old boy named Roderick “Roddy” Macrae, who committed a triple homicide circa 1869, using fictional historical documents. The turn in this will have your head spinning; Swing Time by Zadie Smith (Penguin), £8.99 – Zadie obviously needs no introduction but I picked this one as, much like An American Marriage, it looks at relationships that change over time. How friendships evolve and how fate and life’s journey take us in unexpected directions – and the resentments that can grow as the distance between childhood friends also grows. Beautiful but bittersweet.
The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse (Mantle / Pan), £8.99
If you’re book is going to be 600 pages long, it better be good and, bloody hell, The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse is UH. MAY. ZING. Incredibly – and rather embarrassingly – I’ve never read one of Kate’s novels before. And I also know very little about the political landscape of 16th century France(!), yet this piece of historical fiction is gripping. Oh my word, it is gripping.
Love and betrayal, mysteries and secrets, war and adventure, conspiracies and divided loyalties… It’s all here and it unfurls with the brilliance of the most fantastic page-turner as we follow a man and a woman – a young woman in receipt of a mysterious message, and a Huguenot convert at the core of the resistance – as sectarian tensions threaten to set France alight. I could not put this down.
Alternatives: Wolf Hall / Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate), £9.99 – if you haven’t read Wolf Hall yet as well as its sequel the-even-mightier Bring Up the Bodies, you have really missed out as these are scorching masterpieces of historical fiction. The finale in this trilogy is finally due to be published next March so make sure you are ready for then. Even better than the hype; The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan (Picador), £16.99 – shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, this bold and ambitious attempt to breathe life back into the Great American Novel is a momentous book that examines three generations of the same rich Kentucky family and those working on their estate. It’s a book that examines greed, poverty, racism, misogyny, prisons and the weight of history. Lurching from drama to heartbreak, this great book is a testament to the profound issues that divide American society today.
Le Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (Penguin), £7.99
2017 saw Philip P return to the much-loved world of Lyra, daemons and the Magisterium. A high-risk move given the flawlessness of the His Dark Materials but such is the man’s talents that Le Belle Sauvage really delivered. We are in prequel territory though rather than sequel as Lyra is but a few months old as this book opens in Oxford. But the young infant’s life is in danger even before it has really started.
Familiar names such as Lord Asriel can be found but Philip doesn’t focus on him. Rather, his focus is on a host of new characters, most notably the shy and reserved young man, Malcolm Polstead, who finds himself drawn into protecting Lyra – a responsibility that will force him to undertake the challenge of his life and to make a dangerous journey that will change him and Lyra for ever…
Use this summer to catch up before the next instalment is published this October.
Alternatives: His Dark Materials series, trilogy comprised of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass (Everyman’s Library), £7.99 each – like, seriously, I’m not messing now. If you haven’t read His Dark Materials you are missing out on one of the most extraordinary works of literature in this generation. These books are rightly considered masterpieces. They are an extraordinary blend of fantasy, religion and physics where we follow Lyra, a young orphan growing up in an Oxford that is sort of familiar to us but actually in a parallel universe where theocracy rules, and where science and independent thought is treasonous. But Lyra gets swept up in her Uncle’s plans to thwart the control of the Church and build a bridge to the other parallel universes. It’s incredible. And if you have read it, a reminder that there isn’t a better comfort read out there. And there’s the TV adaptation to come this Christmas…
Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Hutchinson), £12.99
Surely the biggest summer read this year and one you’re likely to see on beaches wherever you end up but that’s no surprise as this really is one of the coolest pieces of fiction I’ve read in an age.
We’re in the 1970s on the West Coast of the States where the manager of a fictional rock and roll band – the Six – is introducing them to a new singer – Daisy Jones. The result is an extraordinary road to success for all but it’s success as a price as the arrival of the cool but independent-minded Daisy starts pushing at the cracks in a band that was already battling with issues of its own.
Maybe Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac would be raising eyebrows at the plot a little as it may all sound a bit familiar, but Taylor has found such an ingenious way of writing that elevates it from the ordinary for she gives us a series of talking head excerpts, as if it’s the text for a VH1 Behind the Music special. The plot unfolds as lives unravel and you just can’t stop reading. I was sad when it ended. A hell of a ride!
Alternatives: Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon (Faber & Faber), £8.99 – you don’t need to be a Sonic Youth devotee to get so much from Kim’s iconic memoir. A fascinating reveal into the world of hard knocks as a band on the road – and how those knocks hit a little bit harder on women; Boys Keep Swinging by Jake Shears (Omnibus), £20 – I admit I love Jake Shears and of the charisma of the Scissor Sisters frontman can be found in his writing as he reveals the drama of his life as a gay man on the New York scene pushing his way towards fame; I’m Not with the Band by Sylvia Patterson (Sphere), £9.99 – a soft spot for this one as it was the first book I reviewed as a book blogger and it was a great one to start with as it a music journalist’s gloriously irreverent account of her work in the 80s and 90s rubbing shoulders with the likes of Madonna, Prince, Oasis and Blur.
This modern masterpiece won the Booker Prize back in 2015 and remains one of the most ‘wow’ books I’ve read. And one that gives me hope that sometimes, just sometimes, the prize is awarded to the right authors.
Never has Jamaican culture and history been written as vividly as this. Ostensibly set around the attempted murder of Bob Marley in 1976, it follows a host of characters linked to this terrible crime through whom we examine the poverty, violence and corruption of gang life in the Kingston ghettos, and the racism and imperialism of CIA interference in Jamaican politics and their attempts to destabilise and overthrow the socialist government of the time.
This book is violent, shocking and undeniably raw. But it is also the desperation of the lives that Marlon depicts that gives this book its power. It’s easy to trivialise this book as Tarantino-esque because of its casual violence, but this novel is far better than that; this is a stunning, visceral examination of corruption both personal and political.
Alternatives: Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr (Penguin Classics), £9.99 – one of the most brilliant and most traumatic books you will ever read in your life. An unquestionable masterpiece but a harrowing novel of lives on the mean streets of New York.; The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney (John Murray), £8.99 – an accidental killing starts a metaphorical fire that blazes its way through those living in the margins in contemporary Cork. The Glorious Heresies takes it all on and takes no prisoners: poverty, austerity politics, the Church, gangland killings, casual violence, drugs, misogyny, sex work, alcoholism, domestic abuse… It’s all here; A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador), £9.99 – nominated for just about every book prize going, this weighty novel has affected pretty much everyone who has read it. Centred around the tangled relationships of four men in NYC, it’s a powerful novel on love, trauma and the limits of friendship.
Circe by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury), £8.99
This is a masterpiece, an absolutely bloody masterpiece in every way. It’s fantastic but it is gory too. The book is a contemporary retelling of Homer’s Odyssey – but not from the boringly routine man-centric perspective, but from that of the goddess, Circe.
Born to Helios, god of the sun, Circe is spurned due to her lack of grace and beauty. But when the young goddess develops a talent for witchcraft, a gift banned and feared by the gods, she is banished to the remote island of Aiaia – a location that brings her into the world of the mortals that litter Greek legends.
Please don’t think this book might be heavy and over-earnest; it is electric. Madeline has crafted a complex woman who must navigate a world of gods and monsters, a world we think we know – Jason, Argonauts, Minotaurs and golden fleeces – but one that, on these pages, is vivid, brutal and alive. And one that is a very dangerous place for a banished goddess alone with only spells and the occult to protect her. AH-MAY-ZING.
Alternatives: House of Names by Colm Toibin (Penguin), £8.99 – Colm had much the same idea as Madeline in his retelling of the famous Greek legend surrounding King Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra and their daughter Electra that considers the legacy and violence of Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter to win favour from the Gods to ensure victory in the Trojan War, from the viewpoint of the women who plot and plan their revenge; Home Fire by Kamila Shamsi (Bloomsbury), £8.99 – The shadow of Antigone looms over this novel about an immigrant family driven to pit love against loyalty, with devastating consequences. This book won the Women’s Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and has wowed pretty much everyone who has read it in the way it has sharply shown how the tension between love and politics continues through the generations; The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (Canongate), £9.99 – Homer’s Odyssey is in the firing line again in this retelling where the great Margaret Atwood examines Penelope, the loyal wife to Odysseus who remained faithful for 20 years whilst her husband fought wars and monsters and seduced many goddesses – only for her man to slaughter her maids on his return home.