May 02, 2022
Six interlinked stories aim to capture the uncertainty of young adulthood today with mixed results
These six short stories are almost a novel, interlinked by characters who drift and reconnect with one another in the way friends do, living a big-city, post-university life. And this is Calder’s canvas: young adulthood, and a generation simultaneously bound to one another via social media and yet lost in a disconnected modern world. It comes, helpfully, with a glowing quote from that generation’s chronicler-in-chief, Sally Rooney, who calls Reward System “an exhilarating and beautiful book”.
They’re not necessarily the two adjectives I find myself reaching for. Calder’s stories are impressively detailed in their fine-grain attention to the banal stuff-of-life and his characters’ inner agonies – from panics over not being able to remember if you locked a door to awkward social interactions in the workplace. But he writes with a cool, contemporary detachment rather than much heat. Continue reading...
Jul 18, 2021
This immersive novel, expanded from a story in the New Yorker, follows a New Mexico household facing challenges and chances of redemption
The Five Wounds began life in 2009, as a story in the New Yorker. In the run-up to Easter, in a village in New Mexico, Amadeo – a 33-year-old unemployed, deadbeat alcoholic who lives with his mother – is preparing to be Jesus in a ritual re-enactment of the crucifixion. He carries the cross and then has his hands nailed to it in front of the watching crowd, which includes his 15-year-old daughter, Angel, who is eight months pregnant.
Quade was asked by her editor if she’d considered turning the story into a novel; she thought it was finished, yet found herself repeatedly coming back to the same family dynamics. And so The Five Wounds returns as a fully formed novel about three generations striving for the redemption that Amadeo aims for and misses in spectacular fashion on the cross. Quade picks up her story with Angel’s frustrated reaction to her father’s display: what she really needs is a dad who can actually help her, not perform empty gestures. How will he hold the baby with holes in his hands? Continue reading...
Jun 21, 2021
This lively examination of disability, and a father and son’s fractured relationship, draws upon the author’s own experiences
Jarred McGinnis’s debut novel draws on his own experience of living with a disability, and his protagonist shares his name. “The distance between fiction and memoir is measured in self-delusion,” McGinnis writes, gnomically, at the start.
However close or not to the author’s life, the fictionalised Jarred certainly has no shortage of material: when he’s left unable to walk following a car crash at 26, it’s the latest trauma in a life full of them. Jarred’s mother died when he was 10, causing his father’s alcoholism to spiral and Jarred to turn into a self-destructive teenage runaway. When he rings his father, Jack, to ask him to collect him from hospital in Austin, Texas, it’s the first time they’ve spoken in a decade. Continue reading...
Jun 07, 2021
You can see why HBO is adapting this debut novel, whose blockbuster plot is laced with cynical sharpness
“The first kidnapping wasn’t my fault. The others – those were definitely me.” As opening lines go, those of How to Kidnap the Rich certainly grab the reader by the throat. It’s a grip that Rahul Raina keeps tight throughout his first novel, already optioned by HBO with Riz Ahmed as executive producer.
You can absolutely imagine How to Kidnap the Rich blazing across the screen. It roars through New and Old Delhi, sending up new money and old money, and taking an acerbic yet affectionately head-tilted, eyebrow-raised look at the corruption, hypocrisy and dynamism of modern India. Continue reading...
May 31, 2021
This concise, emotive debut novel skilfully describes a black British woman’s life informed by racism
Within a neat 100 pages, Natasha Brown’s precise, powerful debut novel says more about Britain’s colonial legacy and what it’s like trying to exist within that as a black British woman than most could achieve with three times the space.
Her unnamed narrator appears to get everything she’s striven for: a big promotion at her finance firm and further initiation into her boyfriend’s world of white, old-money privilege via a garden party. But she’s also been diagnosed with cancer and her “success” suddenly feels hollow. Continue reading...
May 16, 2021
The rollicking story of a female bareknuckle boxer in Victorian England makes creative use of the novelist’s family history
Mick Kitson’s second novel, following 2018’s Sal, is practically the definition of a ripping yarn: a plucky young “Romi” girl, Annie, is bought by the Tipton Slasher, a bareknuckle boxer, with the winnings from his final fight. He raises her like a daughter and she follows his footsteps into the ring. The sight of a woman fighting “fisty” in Victorian England draws eager crowds and brings our heroine fame, fortune and an Adonis-like prizefighter of a husband. But these illegal fights lead Annie into peril, too, as she encounters vicious opponents, enraged lawmakers and nasty toffs who want her for their private entertainment…
Kitson drew on his family’s myths – Annie and the Slasher are based on his ancestors – although he cheerfully admits the stories his grandmother told about them were notoriously unreliable. No matter: this is historical fiction rich in fun rather than meticulous fact, Kitson’s imagination allowed to roam and play. Continue reading...
Feb 27, 2021
The bestselling author on their memoir about growing up gay and black in the US, helping others to find healing, and the power of non-binary young adults
George M Johnson is a writer and activist whose first book, All Boys Aren’t Blue, is a memoir about growing up black and queer in America. The book is aimed at young adults and catalogues in candid style the author’s experiences of both trauma and healing, from childhood bullying to teenage sexual abuse, to their relationship with their family and changing understanding of their masculinity and sexuality. It was published in the US last year to widespread acclaim, reviewers describing it as a “gamechanger”, offering “a deep but clear-eyed love for its subjects”. It has been optioned for television by actor and activist Gabrielle Union. Johnson lives in Newark, New Jersey.
When did you know you wanted to write your story? Continue reading...
I knew it was time when Giovanni Melton was killed by his father, who said something to the effect of: “I would rather have a dead son than a gay son.” That was November 2017 and I was like: “This has got to stop.” So many black, queer young men being taken from us… We have to talk about it. People need to know that we are your sons and brothers, your non-identifying friends and family members, we are genderless people who exist among you – but we deserve to do more than just exist. It was time for me to write the story of what it is like to grow up knowing, from a very young age, that you do not fit into this mould of what it means to look like a boy in society.
Jan 31, 2021
This account of the author’s marriage to a man who transitioned and her relationship with her own body is thoughtful and compelling, if a little one-sided
Alexandra Heminsley’s previous books – Running Like a Girl and Leap In – established her as a cheerful advocate of exercise, encouraging women to overcome hang-ups about how they look in order to realise its benefits. In her new memoir, she finds her own relationship with her body complicated in ways she could never have foreseen.
Heminsley is certainly not short of material. In just a few years, she struggled through a hellish experience of IVF that included being mistakenly told that the baby inside her did not share her DNA, leading her to fear that the wrong embryo had been inserted, a sexual assault on a train while pregnant that went to trial, and the axis-tilting experience of her then-husband transitioning. In the very early stages of motherhood, Heminsley found herself unwittingly married to a woman. All of this contributed to an unsettling lack of agency over her own body and sense of womanhood, which forms the narrative of Some Body to Love. Continue reading...
Jan 24, 2021
An astute analysis of burnout blames our inhumane form of capitalism rather than the alleged failings of the young
In January 2019, Anne Helen Petersen’s BuzzFeed long read on millennial burnout went viral, attracting more than 7 million readers. My initial reaction was an eye-roll. I am a millennial. I know we’re all burned out, but I also know complaining about that only makes people hate us more. If there’s one thing more common than a complaining millennial, it’s a boomer complaining about complaining millennials.
And anyway, I didn’t have time to read something that long. But pretty soon, I felt like I had to. Just to keep up with everyone else on my Twitter timeline. Continue reading...
Jan 17, 2021
This acerbic debut, about a young black woman’s relationship with a rich white couple, will be among the year’s best
Luster sails into 2021 on clouds of praise, vapour trails of hype streaming behind it. “The most delicious novel I’ve read,” says Candice Carty-Williams; “brutal – and brilliant” opines Zadie Smith. Perhaps she would say that, being Raven Leilani’s mentor and former tutor at NYU.
But she’s also right: Luster is both brutal and brilliant, and a debut that’s sure to still be topping best-of-the-year lists in 12 months’ time. Leilani’s story of Edie, a broke 23-year-old black woman who gets involved with a wealthy older white couple, cuts to the quick of the often grim realities of being young and black in the US today. But it’s wincingly funny, too, Edie’s dry observational narration dissecting office, racial and sexual politics – and the way all three intersect, uneasily – amid the grind of city living and online dating. Continue reading...
Jan 04, 2021
This unflinching tale, about two men falling in love on a Mississippi plantation, draws its poetry from ancestral voices
In a letter to the reader at the start of Robert Jones Jr’s debut novel, he says he was compelled to write the book after hearing voices insisting he ask the question “Did Black queer people exist in the distant past?” and then share the answer: of course they did.
The whispering was that of his ancestors, while the voices of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, too, seemed to reach out and encourage him from their writing. Continue reading...
Nov 08, 2020
A disgraced politician is sent back to his shadowy alma mater in this heady, captivating novel set in an unnamed European country
After publishing seven books for young adults, Bridget Collins’s first for adult-adults – The Binding – became a break-out bestseller last year. Now comes The Betrayals, another sumptuous act of imaginative world-building that looks set to prove similarly, well, spellbinding.
If you’re looking for an absorbing, transporting work of fiction – and why would you not be? – The Betrayals is just the thing. It’s set in an unnamed European country in the 1930s, in an elite, remote university named Montverre, which is dedicated to the study of the mysterious grand jeu – a subtle game bringing together elements of music, mathematics and meditation, in order to allow “communion with the divine”. Collins was inspired by the Glass Bead Game of Hermann Hesse’s novel, and her descriptions of the grand jeu remain equally enticing and elusive. Continue reading...
Oct 25, 2020
The poet and musician’s essay on our need to combat alienation through creativity is refreshing
Kae Tempest has added one more string to an already crowded bow: On Connection is the first nonfiction work by this Mercury prize-winning musician, Ted Hughes award-winning poet, acclaimed playwright, novelist, and chief creative chronicler of the last decade. It’s also Tempest’s first publication since changing their name from Kate, and using they/them pronouns.
On Connection is a book-length essay whose subject has been somewhat overtaken by recent events. Its thesis – that our need for connection can be fostered by creativity in general and live art in particular – has become all the more compelling since lockdown. Who hasn’t missed the electric charge that crackles between artist and audience? Or felt frustrated at how live music and theatre are undermined and dismissed by a government that fails to recognise their immense value? Continue reading...
Oct 13, 2020
The bestselling Japanese author of Convenience Store Woman offers another offbeat tale of a heroine at odds with society’s expectations
Japanese writer Sayaka Murata scored an international bestseller with her last novel, Convenience Store Woman, a brilliantly observed story of a neurodivergent woman who has finally found sanctuary working in a shop, where the clear guidelines for behaviour allow her to pass as “normal”.
The heroine of Earthlings, Natsuki, is cut from similar cloth: a detached observer who struggles to make sense of the rules of life, and later the expectation that she must get married and have children. But this time, Murata dials up the trauma. Continue reading...
Oct 04, 2020
A sensation in Japan, this two-part novel explores womanhood, bodily disgust and motherhood with a surreal intensity of focus
It’s not often that a book comes garlanded with both lavish praise and laughable criticism, but Breasts and Eggs has been labelled “breathtaking” by Haruki Murakami and “intolerable” by Shintaro Ishihara, the former governor of Tokyo. Mieko Kawakami’s novel reportedly riled conservatives and the literary establishment in Japan on publication in 2008, but went on to become prizewinning and bestselling. Now it’s a buzzy release here. But while Breasts and Eggs features incisive commentary on being a woman and a mother, and some surreally intense passages, I struggled to understand the fervour it’s inspired.
But then, the book itself is a funny sort of whole: Breasts and Eggs is in two parts, with different translators. The first began life as a blog before being turned into the original acclaimed novella, while the second part was added a decade later. Continue reading...
Sep 27, 2020
Amina Cain’s enigmatic debut novel follows a female writer’s path from the constraints of home and marriage to creative freedom
Amina Cain’s short debut novel is easy enough to outline. Vitória works as a cleaner in an art gallery until she marries a wealthy man and can dedicate more time to her writing. But the change in her material circumstances does not prove as transformative as she hoped.
Indelicacy, though, is a thing of real delicacy, with a fine, distilled quality to the writing, every word precisely chosen, precisely placed. At first it seems almost too sparse, each chapter just a few pages, with Vitória as enigmatic and elusive as her surroundings. We’re in an unnamed country in an unnamed point in history. But there’s a slyness to Cain’s writing that cuts through, and makes the tale increasingly engrossing. By the end, you walk in step with her heroine as she finds her own path towards freedom. Continue reading...
Sep 07, 2020
There can be no better guide to the pleasures and pitfalls of middle age
It’s hard to overstate just how influential Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman was when published in 2011 – and how far we’ve come since. Nine years on and the feminism she had to advocate for has become thoroughly, totally mainstream, while perky books by clever journalists about every conceivable aspect of being a woman have proliferated in the ground Moran tilled.
But the OG is back, with a book cheerfully reflecting on what it means to be a woman in middle age. It opens with the Moran of 2011 thinking she’d cracked life, only to be visited by her future self, laughing at her naivete while gleefully wobbling a “wattle” of neck skin. She’s returned to deliver the news that middle age is where things really get tough – because you have to deal with other people’s problems: friends divorcing, parents ageing, kids becoming teenagers. “You are about to be required to hold the fabric of society together,” she warns. “For no pay.” Continue reading...
Aug 31, 2020
Cline’s follow-up to her notorious debut, The Girls, explores the insecurities of powerful people in a post-#MeToo world
Emma Cline’s debut, The Girls, came wrapped in notoriety. It was a novel about a Manson-like cult, seen through the eyes of a teenager: a heady evocation of girlhood going bad in the heat of a long California summer. It was also a novel that won an unknown 26-year-old a reported $2m advance and a heap of hype. The reviews – perhaps inevitably – both recognised the talent that prompted it and occasionally turned their noses up.
Cline used the Manson murders as a high-stakes backdrop against which to display her real themes: female relationships and the fraught forging of female identity under a male gaze. She also proved herself a distinctive stylist – The Girls was ripe with descriptive writing (air “candied with silence”, spaghetti “mossed with cheese”). It could be brilliant; it could also be overcooked. Continue reading...
Aug 03, 2020
The Brooklyn-based novelist impresses with this toxic tale of four women caught in the dazzle of South Korean consumerism
South Korea is believed to have the highest plastic surgery rates in the world, with a third of women thought to have gone under the knife by 30. Eyelid surgery and jaw slimming are among the most popular procedures, and improving physical appearance isn’t just vanity – it’s an openly recognised way to get ahead in a cut-throat job market.
This makes a grimly fascinating background for Brooklyn-based Frances Cha’s vivid debut. She knows whereof she writes: she worked as travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul, and If I Had Your Face follows four young women navigating life in this brutally competitive, consumerist city. Continue reading...
Aug 02, 2020
The idiosyncratic screenwriter’s bloated debut novel – about an idiosyncratic screenwriter – is a slog
Antkind is the debut novel of Charlie Kaufman, the Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York film-maker, and its premise is incredibly, well, Kaufmanesque. A film critic named B Rosenberg discovers an unseen stop-motion movie – a three month-long work of astonishing brilliance – and is sure it will change his life, the art of cinema, possibly the entire world. But it burns in a truck fire before he can save it. After waking from three months in a medically induced coma, B turns to hypnotism to reconstruct the film from memory.
From the start, the storytelling is unstable: details change, B’s exhaustive film nerdery is riddled with malapropian errors, fiction and reality blur. Antkind eventually embraces all-out chaos: by the end, the world is on fire, flying Trump robots are at war with a fast-food corporation, hospitals are staffed by clowns, ants time travel… Continue reading...
Jul 12, 2020
An aspiring Colombian couple in Connecticut feel their marriage falling apart in this sharply observed novella
Colombian novelist, essayist and short story writer Margarita García Robayo is well known across Latin America, and widely translated, though only one collection, Fish Soup, has been available in English. Now, Charco press has followed that with Charlotte Coombe’s translation of García Robayo’s 2017 novel Holiday Heart, a novella that dissects a failing marriage with surgical precision.
After 19 years, Lucia and Pablo have stopped even “wondering why they’re still there, oozing indifference towards one another”. Then Pablo ends up in hospital with “holiday heart” – cardiovascular disease that often strikes around Christmas and new year, due to overindulging in rich food and booze. It’s not the only thing he’s been indulging in: Lucia is informed that Pablo was delivered to hospital by one of his students. She leaves their home in Connecticut to go to her parents’ holiday apartment in Miami, taking their twin children with her. Continue reading...
Jun 27, 2020
The Korean-American author on being raised by a white family, the search for her birth parents and the risk-averse nature of publishing
Nicole Chung, 39, was born in Seattle and placed for adoption by her Korean parents, before being raised by a white family in Oregon. Her memoir, All You Can Ever Know, shares her experience of the prejudice she faced as a trans-racial adoptee and her search for her birth family. The memoir was published to acclaim in the US, with the Washington Post calling it one of the year’s finest books. Chung is an editor for digital literary magazine Catapult, and lives in the Washington DC area.
What made you decide to share your experience? Continue reading...
When I was growing up, I didn’t really have a chance to read stories about families that look like mine – by which I don’t even mean families that adopted trans-racially, I mean multiracial families at all. And when I did see adoption in pop culture, it was sensationalistic or very surface level, glossing over the real issues which come up, even in happy families. As I started writing [articles] about adoption in my early 30s, I heard from a lot of people who were thinking about it and appreciated having an adoptee’s perspective. I would get these great follow-up questions, and it occurred to me that a 2,000-word essay didn’t really give the space the topic deserved. Eventually it sunk in that maybe what this really is, is a book.
Apr 06, 2020
The young Irish writer’s first novel is dry and sharp in its observation of twentysomething expat lives
I’m sorry. I really am. I know it’s frustrating that any new young female writer must find themselves compared to Sally Rooney. But I’m going to just get it out of the way, for Naoise Dolan is Irish, in her mid-20s, and her debut was previewed in literary magazine The Stinging Fly while Rooney edited it. But on this occasion, it’s more than just a question of biography: Dolan’s writing does genuinely occupy similar territory. There’s a certain dry, almost deadpan quality in her observation of the lives of her twentysomething characters – the complications of attraction, and the gap between what’s felt and what’s spoken; calmly articulated self-loathing, and precise capturing of class differences – that both authors nail down dead.
So lucky us, really. Exciting Times is a fun, snappy read – ordinarily, I’d say its short chapters could be torn through on your commute, but it’ll brighten lockdown too. Continue reading...
Mar 29, 2020
This debut novel about a girl’s relationship with her teacher is compulsively readable
When #MeToo broke, it wasn’t just about high-profile cases of abuse – it felt like a new light being shone on all past interactions, allowing us to see them differently. Everywhere you saw women talking feverishly to each other, you knew it would be about this creepy boss, or that older guy.
My Dark Vanessa – about a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Vanessa, who has a sexual relationship her 42-year-old teacher, Jacob Strane – animates this process of re-evaluation, albeit within an extreme case. Kate Elizabeth Russell resists the (now sometimes shrill) insistence on black and white in sexual dealings – instead inhabiting the mind of a vulnerable teenager, offering insight into how black might feel like white, how abuse might be taken for romance – and how this lie could be desperately clung to into adulthood. My Dark Vanessa reveals a slow journey towards a different understanding. Continue reading...