This month in books sees some incredible new talent in the form of Anton DiSclafani, NoViolet Bulawayo and Bee Ridgway, whose debut novels take us from a North Carolina riding camp in the 1920s to a Spanish battlefield in 1812 and a Zimbabwean shantytown. But our favourite release this month is Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is strange, magical and utterly breath-taking. Check out our best reads for June here.
Words: Stacey Bartlett
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
It’s a very rare thing, maybe once a decade, for a novel to come along and within a few pages you know you’re reading a future classic. If you haven’t heard of Neil Gaiman yet you can be forgiven, but this, his sixth adult novel, will firmly cement his handprints in the literary walk of fame. The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with a grown man revisiting the countryside home of his childhood – a childhood defined by a single summer when a series of events began with the suicide of a man in a car on the lane. What follows is a dreamlike sequence of sinister magical occurrences, the only salvation from which comes in the form of Lettie Hempstock, the girl from the farm at the end of the lane, who claims there’s an ocean in her back garden and that her grandmother saw the Big Bang.
Philip Pullman famously said: “Without stories we wouldn’t be human beings at all”, and this is one of those stories that is almost primitive in its power – it captures you heart and soul, and makes you grateful we have storytellers like Gaiman to feed our minds and stoke our imaginations. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is this year’s big bang book.
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
Evie Wyld only had one novel published when she was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, and with this, her second, she’s proved us all right. Main character Jake is an Australian sheep farmer forging a new life for herself on a bleak British island with her flock of sheep, but someone, or something, is killing them off. Shunned by the locals and distrustful of people in general, we learn that Jake has escaped a menacing past in Australia, and Wyld’s brutal descriptions of Jake’s lonely life on the farm and the barren, isolated outback where she is held hostage are terrifying in parts. All the Birds, Singing is a genuine literary thriller and showcases Wyld’s raw talent.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani
When Thea Atwell is sent from her affluent family home in Florida during the Great Depression to an elite all-girls boarding school in the North Carolina mountains, she finds it hard to forget the scandal that shocked her family and left her in disgrace. As she struggles with homesickness – particularly for her twin brother – new friendships and the attentions of the married camp leader, Thea learns that distancing yourself from your problems doesn’t mean they go away. A mixture of Mallory Towers meets Cruel Intentions, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a sumptuous, sun-drenched read that is perfect for the summer.
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
During the Battle of Salamanca in 1812, the last thing British soldier Nicholas Falcott remembers is being charged by an enemy on a black horse. A moment later he wakes up in a London hospital in 2003 next to a man claiming to be from a mysterious organisation called the Guild, who says Nicholas can never go back. In 1815 in Devon, Julia is keeping vigil by her dying grandfather’s bed, with no-one left in the world – but then Nick and Julia are brought together in the 21st century and realise they are facing a dangerous enemy. The River of No Return is a swash-buckling romp of love, adventure and time travel, and is a captivating debut from Bee Ridgway.
Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
Yvonne Carmichael is a happily married genetic scientist who, after giving evidence at a House of Commons Select Committee, finds herself caught up in a passionate encounter with a complete stranger in the chapel underneath Westminster. That single decision spirals into disaster, and Yvonne ends up in the dock at the Old Bailey on trial for murder. Louise Doughty has written a gripping thriller that calls our own thoughts on morality into question and is impossible to put down. Intelligent and captivating, Apple Tree Yard makes you realise how one bad decision can change the course of your life forever.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Alina Starkov is a solder in the First Army of Ravka, and is content as long as she has her best friend Mal by her side. But during a disastrous journey across the impenetrable black hole of darkness, the Shadow Fold, Alina’s secret powers are exposed as she tries to save Mal’s life, and she is quickly spirited away to join the Grisha, the kingdom’s magical elite. There she attracts the attentions of the Darkling – the fiercely handsome most powerful Grisha of all – who is convinced Alina is the answer he has been looking for. Shadow and Bone is the first novel in the Grisha trilogy and is George R.R. Martin with added glamour, more kick-ass girls and a magical love triangle at its core.
Things That Are by Amy Leach
Amy Leach’s collection of mini-essays, divided into ‘Things of Earth’ and ‘Things of Heaven’, are an ode to the natural world – from jellyfish in space to why donkeys are like gods and everything in between. Leach teases the written word like an elastic band, stretching time and belief and meaning, and although her writing might not be for everyone it’s impossible to feel indifferent to her hymn-like prose that is reminiscent of a young Jeanette Winterson. She compares love to vines, stars to sea cucumbers, and when you’re reading, you can’t help but feel you’ve plunged down the rabbit hole with her in this unique book. Read an extract here.
The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
The first astronauts’ wives were the WAGs of the 1960s – as America battled to win the race to land the first man on the moon with the Mercury Seven, the world’s media trained in on their supportive young wives. As these seven women became overnight celebrities, so came the magazine covers, column inches and afternoon tea with Jackie Kennedy. Lily Koppel has written a fascinating account that reads like a novel of the real women whose friendships survived the decades when some of their marriages did not. Mad Men meets Footballers Wives in this glamorous tale of America’s heroes’ right-hand women.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
In this sparky, colourful novel, NoViolet Bulawayo draws on her childhood experiences of growing up in Zimbabwe, where she lived until she moved to America aged 18. Her ten-year-old heroine Darling is a plucky resident of Paradise – which is actually far from it. She and her friends talk of Madonna and David Beckham as they pick guavas and sing Lady Gaga at the top of their voices as they play in the sun-baked dirt of their shanty town. Lots of buzz surrounds Bulawayo’s debut, and she has won various prizes for her short stories. We Need New Names is full of life – you can almost feel the sun on your arms and hear the birds in the trees – and Bulawayo is certainly one to watch.
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Best-selling literary author Curtis Sittenfeld returns with Sisterland, the story of identical twins Violet and Kate, who share the peculiar ability to foresee the future. Now grown up and leading separate lives – Violet is a psychic medium and Kate is raising her family – they are thrown together again when an earthquake hits their hometown of St. Louis. When Violet goes on the news to share her prediction that another, more devastating earthquake will hit, Kate is mortified and the sisters are forced to reconcile their fraught relationship. Sittenfeld has written a tender portrait of the ties that bind, and her lyrical insights of everyday life are what sets her apart as one of today’s great writers.