On the beach, by the pool, in the park and on the sofa
A great summer read is a hard thing to find; the story must be gripping enough to stick with when you’re two sangrias deep and a little bit sun-dazed, and smart enough that you’ll want to discuss it with friends even after you’re home. These addictive, challenging, enchanting reads will have you covered on both fronts – whether you’re travelling overseas or enjoying a staycation.
1. Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata
Keiko Furukura, a 36-year-old convenience store worker, has always been an enigma to her peers. As a child she once broke up a playground fight by hitting one of the offending boys on the head with a shovel. Even as an adult, she can’t understand why this alarmed her teachers – they had wanted the fight to stop, hadn’t they? Keiko feels most at home under the garish lights of the convenience store, where she’s worked for 18 years. Here her social interactions are governed by an extensive worker’s manual, and the sounds of the store are reassuringly repetitive. Coins clinking in a customer’s palm, a rice ball rustling free from its wrapper, become, for Keiko, a special kind of symphony in this short and snappy tale of capitalism and conformity.
2. Normal People, by Sally Rooney
Over the past year, young Irish writer Sally Rooney has proven herself to be one of the most generous and fastidious chroniclers of the millennial human heart. In her second novel (which has been longlisted for the Booker) she follows Connell and Marianne, two teenagers from the same town but with very different backgrounds, through their student years. Like her debut, Conversations with Friends, the personal and political are deeply entwined in Normal People. It’s an intimate and tender love story for our times.
3. Crudo, by Olivia Laing
Feverishly written across seven weeks (Crudo, after all, means ‘raw’ in Italian) Olivia Laing’s debut novel imagines an about-to-get-married Kathy Acker living through the summer of 2017. Agonising over the news, and particularly glued to the saga unfolding between Donald Trump and North Korea, Laing’s Kathy wonders what it is she should be doing, exactly, when it feels as though the world is about to end?
4. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh
The latest offering from the author of Eileen is a thorny tale about a privileged young woman who, armed with an incredible arsenal of sleep aides, is determined to hibernate for a year and wake up regenerated. Moshfegh’s protagonist may be maladjusted and misanthropic, but she looks like an off-duty model and is a diehard fan of Whoopi Goldberg. Spending time in her head makes for a dark, delightful and thoroughly entertaining trip.
5. Things to Make & Break, by May-Lan Tan
A visceral collection, May-Lan Tan’s stories follow characters who are haunted. In the opening tale, a bike courier finds a collection of nude polaroids in her boyfriend’s drawer and becomes fascinated with his former girlfriends. Another story sees a character go through an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy, at the same time as her sister and her husband are having a baby. There’s an irresistible tautness to Tan’s writing style, and she looks at her characters with such clear-eyed sensitivity that, as a reader, you can barely tear your eyes away.
6. The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner
One of America’s most ambitious novelists, Rachel Kushner returns with a searing story set among the unloved inmates of a women’s prison. A number of striking voices ring through this novel, but anchoring them all is the character of Romy, a young mother serving time for killing the man who stalked her. As it rides towards a cinematic conclusion, The Mars Room takes readers on an unsentimental tour of life on the fringes in this brilliant, blistering look at power and privilege.
7. How Are You Going to Save Yourself, by J.M. Holmes
Illuminating and thrumming with feeling, J.M. Holmes’ stories follow four young black friends grappling with modern masculinity and a world whose vision for them is sorely limiting. Exploring themes of race, class and sexuality, Holmes’ debut story collection marks him out as a writer to watch.
8. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller
Costa winner Andrew Miller’s latest novel is a beautifully observed historical thriller about a traumatised British army captain back from the Napoleonic wars, and the unlikely duo sent from Spain to track him down. With writing that’s elegiac and enthralling, this is a chase story with a wry edge and a romantic heart.
9. Can You Tolerate This, by Ashleigh Young
New Zealand poet and essayist Ashleigh Young counts Maggie Nelson and Melissa Broder among her fans, so you know you’re in good hands with this collection of personal essays. Demonstrating kindness, curiosity and an unflinching gaze, Young takes her readers deep into her subjects. From the complications that arise as the owner of a human body (Young was, for years, embarrassed about her noisy breathing) to the Japanese phenomenon of Hikikomori (which translates loosely as “acute social withdrawal”), Young’s writing feels fresh, fun and worth revisiting over and over.
10. The Electric Woman, by Tessa Fontaine
This colourful memoir is about a young graduate student who, struggling to cope with her once-vivacious mother’s declining health, joins a travelling circus. Hoping to find within herself some of the daring and spontaneity that her mother was known for, Tessa Fontaine becomes a snake handler, a fire-eater and an escape artist. Threaded through luminous descriptions of life on the road with the sideshow are passages exploring Tessa’s tangled relationship with her mother. This is a moving story about human resilience, the imperfect bond between mothers and daughters and the magic that holds them together.