Meditations on modern life and raging women: July’s best new books

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Sarah Shaffi
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A woman in a bikini reading a book in the summer sunshine, UK

Don a massive hat, slather on the sunscreen and settle down with one of these fabulous new books, chosen by freelance journalist Sarah Shaffi.

As the temperatures soar, the only warning I have for you is to not get so absorbed in a book while reading outside that you forget to apply sunscreen… although this month’s releases are so good that is a distinct possibility.

There are some great debuts out this month, in both fiction and non-fiction. Beck Dorey-Stein recounts her time working as a stenographer in President Barack Obama’s White House in From the Corner of the Oval Office, a book that is as much about friendship and love in the workplace as it is about politics and personalities. In another, yet very different memoir – Heart Berries – Terese Marie Mailhot looks at mental health and the legacy of inter-generational trauma.

Rachel Heng’s first novel Suicide Club is a dystopia, but one that feeds into our current obsession with clean eating, extreme fitness and the effects of these, while What We Owe by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde is a slim novel about a woman who receives a cancer diagnosis with rage instead of grace, causing her to examine her life as a refugee, and her relationships with her mother and daughter.

Women full of rage can also be found in Megan Abbott’s latest, Give Me Your Hand, in which two former friends find themselves in a sinister situation as they compete to work on a scientific study about an extreme form of PMT.

In Jill Johnson’s The Time Before the Time to Come, we accompany a woman as she sets out to rediscover her Maori heritage, while in Fatal Inheritance by Rachel Rhys a dissatisfied wife receives a mysterious bequest, setting her off on a journey filled with excitement and danger. There’s another dissatisfied wife in Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, a beautiful story showing that you can start living at any age.

Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet explores how 21st century living is taking its toll on us, and offers advice for staying healthy and happy in the face of too much of everything.

And finally, in Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible, Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinene offer advice and inspiration for black British women to succeed in life, love and work.

Happy reading!

What We Owe by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde, trans by Elizabeth Clark Wessel  

In this short yet remarkable novel, Nahid learns she has cancer, and just six months to live. Following her diagnosis and her daughter Aram’s revelation that she’s pregnant, Nahid reflects on her previous life in Iran, her marriage, and her escape as a refugee to Sweden after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Rather than a gentle meditation on a life lived to the full, What We Owe is filled with the rage of a woman who has been through trauma and loss, who has been left haunted by violence, and who wants more from those that love her.

(Fleet, £14.99)

Suicide Club by Rachel Heng  

In the near future, immortality is almost a reality, if you’re rich and follow the law. Lea has a great job, a lovely boyfriend and hasn’t eaten sugar in years, but one wrong move puts her under Ministry surveillance, and soon everything begins to unravel. Meanwhile, Anja is facing the not-quite death of her mother, who has had so many bad modifications that she can’t actually die naturally. The two women are brought together by the Suicide Club, an organisation whose members indulge in society’s forbidden pleasures - meat, jazz, sex and death. As well as being a provocative and engrossing novel, Suicide Club has plenty to say about our obsession with health fads, and the way they are often only accessible to the rich.

(Sceptre, £12.99)

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

As 17-year-olds, Kit and Diane were best friends, until Diane told Kit a secret that broke their friendship for good. Now an adult, Kit is on the verge of becoming part of a team studying premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a severe form of PMS which can result in rage and violence at its most extreme. But then Diane walks back into Kit’s life, this time as a professional rival, and the secret from years before blows everything apart. This is a chilling thriller, but it’s also a look at professional rivalries and how women are treated and have to act in the workplace.

(Picador, £14.99)

From the Corner of the Oval Office by Beck Dorey-Stein  

In 2012, Dorey-Stein stumbled into a job as a stenographer at the White House. For the next four years, she went almost everywhere President Barack Obama went, recording his remarks. During that time, she had a unique perspective on the Obama administration, made friends and observed great (and not so great) women in the workplace. And she fell in love with a colleague, leading the political to become personal. As someone who loves the TV show The West Wing, From the Corner of the Oval Office spoke to my geeky heart, and gives great, sometimes surprising, insights into what it’s like to work for one of the most powerful person on the planet.

(Bantam Press, £14.99)

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot  

In her first book, Mailhot recounts being hospitalised and facing a dual diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder. During her time in hospital she begins to write, and the result is this gut punch of a memoir. It’s a story of family - Mailhot’s mother was a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners, her father an abusive drunk who died in mysterious circumstances. It’s a story about love, and Mailhot’s relationships with men. And it’s a story about the legacy of being American Indian. This is extraordinary writing - vulnerable and full of rage, literary and absorbing - and this book deserves to win awards.

(Bloomsbury Circus, £12.99)

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig  

In his latest non-fiction book, Haig takes a personal look at how to feel happy, human and whole in the 21st century, when we’re bombarded with bad news, social media updates, and the pressure to be a certain way or buy a certain product. Mixing anecdotes with a look at scientific studies, and peppered with advice throughout, this is a rough guide to how to live in the moment, and appreciate modern life without letting it overwhelm you.

(Canongate, £12.99)

The Time Before the Time to Come by Jill Johnson  

In London, Victoria is divorced, living in less than perfect circumstances with her young children, and drinking far too much. Into her life comes Wiremu, a Maori storyteller, who helps Victoria feel more connected to her Maori heritage. Set between London and New Zealand, this is the tale of Victoria’s rediscovery of who she is and her roots. Intertwined within the present day storyline are Maori tales told by Victoria, her father and Wiremu. This is a rich book about self-discovery, and how the people who came before us can help make us what we are today.

(Own It!, £16.99)

Fatal Inheritance by Rachel Rhys  

When Eve Forrester gets a letter telling her she has received an inheritance from a man she doesn’t know, it sets her off on a journey to the French Riviera to find out more. Away from her dull husband, Eve finds out her inheritance is a gorgeous villa, and she begins to live the kind of life she only previously dreamed of. But things turn dark when rivals to her unexplained fortune begin to emerge, and Eve must solve the mystery behind the bequest before events turn deadly. I loved Rhys’ first novel, Dangerous Crossing, and Fatal Inheritance also skilfully merges period drama and crime, with a dash of glamour thrown in.

(Doubleday, £16.99)

Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinene  

This guide to life for black British women covers everything from education to work to dating and features advice, statistics and personal anecdotes from both Adegoke - a journalist and the founder of Birthday Magazine, which is aimed at black teenage girls - and Uviebinene - marketing manager at a leading global brand. Peppered throughout are interviews with dozens of Britain’s most successful black women, including Denise Lewis, Malorie Blackman and Amma Asante. This is a pull no punches look at being a black woman navigating life, love and work in Britain, and is highly readable and inspirational throughout.

(4th Estate, £16.99)

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

Like What We Owe, Tyler’s latest novel features a woman looking back at her life and how the choices she made got her to her current position, but in Clock Dance the reflection is much more peaceful, at least on the surface. Aged 11, Willa Drake’s mum went missing; aged 21, Willa was proposed to; aged 41, she lost her husband in an accident. Now at 61, Willa gets a call to say her son’s ex-girlfriend has been shot, and needs help. Despite never having met Denise or her young daughter, Willa flies across the country to help, accompanied by her reluctant husband. There, she finds herself becoming part of a community, and listening to her own desires for the first time in her life. Tyler’s writing is effortless to read, and this story of an ordinary women just sings.

(Chatto & Windus, £18.99)

Image: Les Anderson


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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.