One of the great pleasures of going on holiday or just staying at home, working a bit less, and enjoying summer’s long, light evenings is having proper time to read. Here are our favourite books of the year so far.
We’ve read every single one of Anne Tyler’s novels (and she’s written twenty) and seize on a new one the moment it comes out. She’s just a brilliant (sometimes underrated) novelist who writes about family life in all its complexity. Her latest book, A Spool of Blue Thread, which came out earlier this year, is Tyler at her best. It tells the story of a family backwards which is after all how most of us learn our own histories, and the last third of the novel, set in the Depression, is one of the most heartbreaking and moving sections of contemporary fiction that we’ve ever read. Like all Tyler’s work, this book is hard to put down, often laugh out loud funny and every word rings true: reading it requires no effort at all and yet the rewards are endless.
We didn’t read Alexandra Fuller’s massively successful memoir about her childhood in Africa, Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight, but someone gave us Leaving Before the Rains Come and told us how good it was and so we started with that. It’s fantastically good in fact. It’s another memoir, though this time it’s about the author’s marriage and her adult life in both Africa and the United States. We became so involved with Fuller’s story and the characters in it that we immediately ordered and read her earlier memoir too and totally see why the book became such a phenomenon. Fuller has a singular story to tell – her childhood and marriage are unlike any other and the story of both make your hair stand on end, but of course her experiences also chime universal notes, and she writes about making mistakes, living with grief and depression, coping with loss, with incredible insight and honesty. We raced through this book.
Linda Grant is our English Anne Tyler – in that we buy anything she has written as a matter of course and wait avidly for any new work. But whereas Tyler’s voice could only be American, and from Baltimore at that, Grant is British through and through which of course means a whole jumble of things -(she’s the daughter of Polish and Russian immigrants, was born and raised in Liverpool, has lived and written about Israel, and now lives in London). Upstairs at the Party, her new novel, starts off on a University campus in the 1970s. It’s funny and dark and unbelievably social-history-level accurate and sometimes we have to read certain of her sentences over and over again because they are so perfectly formed.
Sadie Jones is both a brilliant writer stylistically and also, a superb plotter. Her bestselling first novel, The Outcast, will be broadcast as a two part BBC drama on 12th and 17th July. It is Fallout, her most recent novel however, which we think of as her most accomplished work yet. Set in 1970s theatreland, the novel centres on Luke, Leigh and Paul who “seem the youngest people in the known universe” when they first meet. Fallout manages to be both a moving examination of young people attempting to save themselves and a page-turning read. We can think of no more worthwhile or enjoyable companion on holiday.
Anna Benz is an American housewife living in a suburb of Zurich with her Swiss husband and three children. She has neither a bank account nor a driving licence but what she does have is multiple lovers. The crude eroticism of her encounters and her detachment make this a haunting read. Essbaum is a poet and is, unsurprisingly, very careful about her use of language. This compelling first novel contains echoes of one of our favourite novels, Madame Bovary.
Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013, and she’s known for her utter mastery of the short story – if you haven’t read any just order any collection (Runaway is probably our favourite, but it’s hard to choose), but this is Alice Munro’s only novel – about a young woman growing up – and it’s wonderful of course. Munro wrote Lives of Girls and Women in 1988, but it’s just been reissued by Vintage in paperback so perfect for taking on holiday, though to read Munro’s prose anywhere is to be transported.
There is great joy to be had in Alexandra Shulmans’s skewering of the moneyed elite as they flit from Holland Park to Milan to Mayfair to Paris. The Tennisons are a family who appear to have everything but the arrival of the glamorous and disconcerting Fullardi siblings as well as a Russian oligarch and his beautiful, art-loving wife, disrupts the serene domesticity they have taken for granted. Shulman’s satire is insightful, however, rather than cruel. Sharply observed and surprisingly salty, this is an engrossing second novel from the editor of British Vogue.
This exhilarating and candid memoir of a neurosurgeon scooped up most of the non-fiction prizes last year and we can see why. It conveys the excitement and awful responsibility of operating on the centre of human thought, emotion and identity on a daily basis. If Marsh is even half as good a surgeon as he is a writer, the NHS should be very sorry indeed that he retired this year. David Cameron read Do No Harm over the Christmas holidays last year — if you haven’t read it yet, we suggest you do so this summer holiday.
Also must reads: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper and Mislaid, which we wrote about here, and Claire Fuller’s creepily devastating novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. We’ve heard brilliant things about both Rachel Cusk’s Outline, which was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this year, and Ali Smith’s How to be Both, which won that same prize. We’re taking away both on our holidays. Finally, we can’t write about a holiday read without mentioning Us by David Nicholls, which is actually about a family going on holiday – and it all going wrong. If you loved One Day, and who didn’t, you will love Us, which is set all across Europe and about what happens twenty years down the road of a marriage.