Quirky protagonists and adventurous women: May’s best new books

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Sarah Shaffi
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As summer approaches, here are May’s best releases, perfect for reading on a beach, in the park or in the comfort of your own home.

May is a really strong month for stories about women facing danger or disaster of different kinds, sometimes triumphing, sometimes - just like in real life - not.

In Sarah Pinborough’s Cross Her Heart we meet three women hiding aspects of themselves, while in Darling by Rachel Edwards a new wife and her stepdaughter vie for the affections of the man of the house, with dangerous consequences. In Lena Andersson’s Acts of Infidelity, translated by Saskia Vogel, a woman finds she has become a mistress, while three generations of women are the subject of Elaine Castillo’s brilliant saga America is Not the Heart.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s gorgeous The Map of Salt & Stars goes back and forth in time between a mapmaker’s adventurous assistant and a young refugee, both in search of home.

Quirky protagonists are at the centre of Molly Flatt’s The Charmed Life of Alex Moore and Anna-Marie Crowhurst’s The Illumination of Ursula Flight.

Two giants of fiction are back with new books: Kate Mosse returns to epic historical fiction with the first in a big new series, The Burning Chambers, while Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It is her first collection of short fiction.

And finally, in non-fiction, Akala takes a look at class and race - a subject that only seems to get more and more relevant by the day - in the searing Natives.

Happy reading!

Cross Her Heart

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Pinborough’s last novel, Behind Her Eyes, had a twist so incredible that I still think about it. In Cross Her Heart, we again meet characters who are hiding things. There’s Lisa, who has built a safe home away from her abusive husband John but never talks about him. Ava, Lisa’s teenage daughter, is falling in love, but not with her boyfriend. And Marilyn, Lisa’s best friend, has a life that looks perfect but is far from it. When Ava saves a young boy’s life and draws media attention, the three women’s lives are completely changed, and damaging long-buried secrets come to the fore, drawing danger near. This is a pacy, twisty thriller that will hook you with its first few pages.

(HarperCollins, £12.99)

The Map of Salt & Stars

The Map of Salt & Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

After the death of her father, Nour, her mother and her two older sisters move to Syria, where Nour’s parents grew up. But soon war breaks out, and after their home is destroyed Nour’s family must leave to seek shelter elsewhere. Their journey across Syria, Jordan, Egypt and beyond is a mirror of that taken by Rawiya, a 16-year-old girl who hundreds of years before left home, disguised herself as a boy and became apprentice to a famed mapmaker. I loved the dual timelines in this novel - both are full of tension and love and danger. This is a beautifully told, magical novel about journeys and finding your way home.

(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99)

Darling by Rachel Edwards

Darling by Rachel Edwards

The morning after the Brexit referendum, Darling meets Thomas at the supermarket. Within months they are married, and Darling sets about trying to win over her new stepdaughter, Lola, who is dismayed that her dad has married a black woman. As the months pass, the two clash in a battle for Thomas’ attention, with Lola becoming increasingly spiteful and Darling worried that her stepdaughter is getting involved with a racist political party. This is an exploration of race in post-Brexit Britain and a tense novel about creating new families that explores the lengths people will go to to find and keep love. As it goes on, it becomes clear that Darling is not the story you thought it was.

(4th Estate, £12.99)

Natives by Akala

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala

This book by musician, educator and hip hop artist Akala is a meditation on class and race, a takedown of white supremacist thinking and a history lesson of the kind you should get in school, but don’t. Akala takes as his starting his own experiences as the child of a white mother and black father - including the times he was stopped and searched by police and the time a teacher who didn’t like him told him that “the Ku Klux Klan also stopped crime by killing black people”. From there Akala explores how race and class have determined the treatment of people across the world, but particularly the Western world, for centuries. This is a searing, thought-provoking book that is sure to force people to confront their squeamishness about race and class.

(Two Roads, £16.99)

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

The Burning Chambers is the first in a new series, beginning in Carcasonne in 1562. We meet Minou Joubert, the daughter of a bookseller, who receives an anonymous note simply saying: “She knows that you live.” From there Minou travels to Toulouse, where a religious divide is deepening and where she reencounters Piet Reydon, a young Huguenot convert. It’s been a while since Mosse has written a big, historical epic and it’s worth the wait - The Burning Chambers is an immersive book full of intrigue, romance, war and adventure that you can just sink into.

(Mantle, £20)

The Illumination Of Ursula Flight by Anna-Marie Crowhurst

Ursula Flight, born on the night of an ill-auguring comet, has a difficult future written in the stars. A wannabe actress in a time where women are expected to be wives and mothers only, she begins an education with her father, who fosters in her a love of reading, writing and astrology. When Ursula marries, it is expected she will put up and shut up, but she’s too spirited for that, and continues to indulge her passion for playwriting. Following a meeting with an actress, Ursula’s yearning for the theatre only increases. This historical novel is full of fun and laughter, a little bit of heartbreak, and a good dollop of playfulness.

(Allen & Unwin, £12.99)

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

I’ve been a fan of Sittenfeld’s work since I read Prep, a novel about the viciousness of teenage girls. In her first short story collection Sittenfeld’s attention is turned to adults, but she’s still looking at the way women interact with each other. Among the stories are The Nominee, in which Hillary Clinton (never named, but it’s her) reflects on her relationship with a woman journalist over the years. In A Regular Couple, a woman on her honeymoon bumps into a former schoolmate and old resentments and hatreds come flooding back. And in Bad Latch a new mum chronicles her changing perception of a fellow mother. As always, Sittenfeld is witty, perceptive about human behaviour, and leaves you missing her characters after you’ve shut the book.

(Doubleday, £16.99)

Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson

Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson, trans by Saskia Vogel  

This is a follow up to Andersson’s Wilful Disregard, but you don’t need to have read that to appreciate the craftsmanship of Acts of Infidelity. Ester Nillson meets actor Olof Sten when he’s in a play she’s written. She falls quickly in love, and believes Olof is on the verge of leaving his wife. But it soon becomes clear that Olof is in no rush to divorce, and doesn’t object to Ester’s affections either. As the years pass, Ester realises she’s become Olof’s mistress. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to punch a fictional character more than I want to punch Olof, who is infuriating and cruel. Andersson’s book is cutting and honest, and Ester’s situation and feelings are frustrating, complicated and so, so real.

(Picador, £14.99)

America is Not the Heart

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

Hero De Vera is already on her third life when she arrives in America from the Philippines. She’s been offered a fresh start by her uncle Pol who, along with his wife Paz, knows better than to ask about Hero’s previous lives. But Pol and Paz’s daughter Roni, the first American-born daughter in the family, isn’t afraid to ask Hero about her damaged hands. This is a gorgeous saga about three generations of women from the same family struggling with their history and the promise of a better future.

(Atlantic Books, £14.99)

The Charmed Life of Alex Moore

The Charmed Life of Alex Moore by Molly Flatt

This debut is a story about modern life and success with a magical, mysterious twist. Alex Moore’s tech start-up is rising fast, but success wasn’t always guaranteed. Just six months before Alex was unhappy and in a dead-end job, until her life changed overnight, literally. The clues to that overnight transformation lie in the Orkney Islands, where Alex discovers the world’s oldest secret, and finds out that her stratospheric rise has caused a glitch that could have damaging consequences. The Charmed Life of Alex Moore is a highly original novel with a protagonist you’ll root for.

(Macmillan, £14.99)

Image: Prasanna Kumar on Unsplash


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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.