As the summer hots up, so do the books. Freelance journalist Sarah Shaffi picks August’s best new releases.
It’s a great month for books about women finding their power or changing their lives.
Christina Dalcher’s Vox is shaping up to be one of my favourite novels of the year, although its premise of a world where women are punished if they speak more than 100 words a day is terrifying.
In Bitter Orange, the third novel by Claire Fuller, a previously shy woman falls in with a seductive couple, and her life is changed forever.
There are two great short story collections in my recommendations - Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People and Alexia Arthurs’ How to Love a Jamaican explore the experiences of women, and men, of colour in America and beyond.
The Light Between Us by Katie Khan is a love story with a twist, while Anna Quindlen’s Alternate Side is about a love that has grown a bit stale.
Washington Black is the story of a slave and his journey to freedom. In Early Riser, Jasper Fforde imagines a world in which 99.9% of the population hibernates in winter.
And finally, in non-fiction there is Jean Hannah Edelstein’s memoir of loss and life, This Really Isn’t About You, and Gina Miller’s Rise, which gives advice on how to speak out in personal, political and professional arenas.
Vox by Christina Dalcher
In an alternative America, but one not very difficult to imagine, women and girls are now only allowed to say 100 words a day. Any more, and they are electrocuted via a bracelet. Jean resents this new life and her husband, and is afraid for both her young daughter’s future and her older son’s increasing involvement in a movement in which women will one day be completely silenced. When Jean is called on by the President to go back to work to find a cure for the illness plaguing his brother - an illness which has taken away his words - she soon realises the position of power she thought she was in is very, very fragile. This is a terrifying look at government control, the lengths men will go to to silence women and the power of language, and it stands as a reminder that words are a hugely powerful weapon.
Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller
Now an old woman on the verge of death, Frances recalls the summer of 1969, which she spent at a dilapidated country house writing a report on its garden architecture. There, she fell in with Peter and Cara, a glamorous couple staying in the rooms below her attic abode. A lonely, homely person, Frances enjoys the attention from the couple, but as she becomes more entangled in their lives, the boundaries between truth and lies begin to blur, and a small crime brings on a bigger one that will haunt Frances forever. Fuller is a master at summoning the atmosphere of a heady, hot summer that thrums with tension, and Bitter Orange is perfectly paced to keep you intrigued from beginning to end.
(Fig Tree, £14.99)
The Light Between Us by Katie Khan
Thea and Issac were once close but have grown apart, with Issac living in America and Thea working to prove that time travel is possible despite what academic naysayers may believe. When Thea goes too far in her quest, she is thrown out of Oxford University, but she and her friends know that the experiment they ran did… something. When Issac returns home to help Thea, it’s to find that neither of them are prepared for what they will discover when he gets there. This is a love story, but with a great twist that takes it beyond a classic “will they, won’t they?”.
Heads of the Coloured People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
This debut collection of short stories interrogates the supposed post-racial era that we live in. Stories cover police brutality, the media narratives created about black people, gender politics and more. Characters are put in catastrophic and petty situations - from a teenager who is bullied as her YouTube fame increases to a professor who wages a war of attrition against the woman who shares his office. Thompson-Spires’ stories are dark, have a cutting sense of humour, and are entertaining and essential.
(Chatto & Windus, £14.99)
This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein
Edelstein was in bed in New York surfing OKCupid when her father collapsed and died at his home in Baltimore. In this memoir, she recounts how the loss of her father overturned her world, and how she coped with her grief, as well as faced her own mortality. Never sentimental, this memoir is by turns extremely funny and extremely sad; Edelstein is a wonderful writer, and this is a stunning book.
Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen
Nora and Charlie Nolan live a charmed life in New York City, secure in a neighbourhood where the residents all use the same handyman, have watched each other’s children and dogs grow up, and know that getting a parking space is the ultimate status symbol. But an act of violence changes Nora’s life and the neighbourhood becomes a symbol of a divided city, with fault lines also opening in Nora’s marriage. A book about being a mother, a wife and a woman at a moment of reckoning, this is an acutely observed story.
Early Riser by Jasper Fforde
With the recent heat, it’s a little difficult to imagine winter right now, but in Early Riser Fford transports readers to a cold world, no matter what the weather may be doing outside the pages of the book. In Early Riser, 99.9% of the world’s population hibernates during winter, protected by an elite corps called the Winter Consuls. Charlie Worthing is an apprentice to Winter Cosul Jack Logan, who has warned his new recruit about the horrors of winter. But nothing can prepare Charlie for what he is about to encounter in a remote region in the middle of Wales. Original and full of imagination, this is a rich novel that features monsters both real and imagined.
(Hodder & Stoughton, £20)
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
It’s easy to see why this novel of slavery and freedom has made the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Edugyan tells the story of Washington Black, just 11 when two English brothers take the helm of the Barbados sugar plantation he is a field slave on. He is selected as a personal servant to one of these men, Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde, whose has become obsessed with building a hot air balloon. When his idealistic plans are shattered, he and Washington must escape the island, but after Titch disappears Washington is left to make his way alone, following the promise of freedom. An absorbing and deeply moving story.
(Serpent’s Tail, £14.99)
How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs
Arthurs examines the lives of Jamaican immigrants in America and their families back home in this excellent short story collection. From a story that chronicles the breakdown of a friendship between two women at the same university in New York to a tale of a teenager whose parents, worried by her behaviour, leave her with her grandmother on a trip to Jamaica, Arthur explores the experiences of the Jamaican diaspora, the way privilege protects from the realities of being black, and familial resentment. This exciting collection of stories is both sharp and lyrical.
Rise by Gina Miller
Miller’s name became known across the UK when she successfully challenged the government’s authority to trigger Article 50 without parliamentary approval. In doing so, she also became the target of racist and sexist abuse, and she and her family were also physically threatened. In Rise, she looks at the times in her life she faced adversity, and imparts lessons on how to speak out when the odds seem stacked against you. This is essential reading from one of Stylist’s Women of the Year 2017.