From immersive fiction to provocative short stories: 10 must-read books for January

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Sarah Shaffi
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New year, new you? I prefer new year, new books, and, luckily, there are plenty to get stuck into this month.

If you’re after immersive historical fiction, there’s Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, Mary Lynn Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock.

Leila Slimani’s Lullaby and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties are unsettling books examining the roles and lives of women.

For something a little more fairytale-like, but still with depth, I recommend Katherine Arden’s The Girl in the Tower.

If you’re after contemporary fiction, P Z Reizin’s Happiness for Humans is a wonderful commercial read, while Sarah Vaughan’s Anatomy of a Scandal is a dramatic courtroom thriller, and Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come is a satirical look at modern life.

And finally, if you’re after some non-fiction but don’t want to face the real world, Fiona Sampson’s biography of Mary Shelley is one to put on your list.

Happy reading!

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

In 1943, Hana is kidnapped and becomes a “comfort woman”, one of thousands of women forced to become sexual slaves for Japanese soldiers. In 2011, Hana’s sister Emi makes her way to Seoul for an annual pilgrimage. White Chrysanthemum follows Hana as she tries to find her way home and Emi as she tries to rid herself of decades of guilt. This is a hugely affecting, captivating read - I cried for most of the second half.

(Chatto & Windus, £12.99)

Lullaby by Leila Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor

This is a short novel which pulls no punches – its opening sentence is brutal. Lullaby, winner of France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, follows a couple who employ a nanny. To them, Louise seems perfect (we know from that shocker of an opening that she is far from), but as the nanny inserts herself into Paul and Myriam’s life, she becomes increasingly strange, and jealousy and resentments arise.

(Faber & Faber, £12.99)

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

The short stories in Her Body and Other Parties examine the challenges of being female and the ways in which women’s bodies are often violated. In The Husband Stitch, a woman in a successful marriage finds her husband still wants more. In Eight Bites, a mother who has an operation to lose weight finds herself with an unexpected house guest. And in Difficult at Parties, a woman deals with the aftermath of a terrible incident. Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, science fiction and magical realism, horror and comedy, this is a provocative and powerful collection.

(Serpent’s Tail, £10)

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

Subtitled “The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein”, this biography explores the life of the woman behind one of literature’s most famous creatures. Starting from the circumstances of Shelley’s birth - the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to Shelley, and revolutionary philosopher William Godwin - this is a detailed and intimate portrait of the real person behind Frankenstein. 

(Profile, £18.99)

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

This epic tale covers generations of the same family, from Kintu Kidda in 1750, who on a pilgrimage to pay his respects to a new king commits an unwitting act and unleashes a curse, through to 2004, and his descendent Kusi Kamu. Kintu is both about the struggle of one family to break free from the curse laid upon them, and a reimagining of Uganda’s history. It’s original and completely absorbing.

(Oneworld, £12.99)

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

I’m always reluctant to recommend sequels, but The Girl in the Tower makes sense even if you haven’t read the first in the Winternight series, The Bear and the Nightingale (which you should read – it’s wonderful). In Russia, bandits are burning down and sacking villages. When Dmitrii, grand prince of Moscow, and Sasha, a monk, embark on a journey to find the bandits, they come across a young boy  – who Sasha recognises as his sister Vasya. This is a sumptuous and beautiful literary fairytale taking inspiration from Russian myths and fairytales, about a woman challenging expected gender norms in her world.

(Del Rey, £12.99)

Happiness for Humans by P Z Reizin

Aiden just wants Jen to be happy and he’s intent on finding her the perfect man. The only problem is, Aiden is a piece of software, albeit one with access to all Jen’s devices. The advantage is that he can search the whole of the internet and engineer meetings between Jen and suitable candidates. This is a sweet romantic comedy that asks what it really means to be happy (and also takes a gentle look at the scary idea of technology taking over our lives).

(Sphere, £12.99)

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

When politician James Whitehouse is accused of rape, prosecuting barrister Kate seeks justice for his alleged victim. Meanwhile, James’s wife Sophie must stand by the man she knows as a loving husband and father, despite a secret from his past at Oxford as part of an elite drinking club. Moving between the present and the past, this is a timely thriller about marriage, but also about power, who wields it, and how that affects who we believe.

(Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

Set in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka, de Kretser’s novel is about stories and storytelling. The Life to Come follows a number of characters, including wannabe novelist Pippa, her friend Cassie, who is trying to force a relationship with Ash, a British man of Sri Lankan descent who is happy to use his heritage to his advantage, and Celeste, who is trying to convince herself that her feelings for her married lover are returned. Funny and satirical, this is a biting look at the way we present ourselves and the way we are seen by others.

(Allen & Unwin, £16.99)

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

This lavish historical novel set in 1785, follows two unlikely acquaintances - merchant John Hancock, who acquires a mermaid that becomes the talk of the town, and Angelica Neal, a courtesan of great accomplishment. A story of curiosity and obsession, this is full of rich detail and is a book to get lost in as you avoid the cold weather outside.

(Harvill Secker, £12.99, out on January 25)

Main image background: Jeremy Thomas


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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.