Kindles at the ready, Readers, when it comes to books –our round-up of new releases and recommended favourites for 2023 is designed to give you a TBR—to be read—list to treasure this year.
The best books to read in November
If the drawing in of November nights has your world feeling a little smaller, this month’s selection of new releases does the opposite, leading your imagination to destinations as far flung and unknown as the International Space Station and into worlds past, present and future, with a sprinkling of funny-sad romance and high gothic in between.
In the year since ChapGTP sent the world into a tailspin, all sorts of claims and counterclaims have been made about what the future of AI might mean for the future of all of us. So this novel about Marian Ffarmer, a septuagenarian poet – inspired by real-life American poet Marianne Moore – who is invited to collaborate on ‘an historic partnership between human and machine’, could not be more timely. Even more so because it was partly assisted by AI, including a poetry generation model custom designed for this task. (It is worth noting, however, that all machine-generated text featured in the work – shaded in grey throughout – was edited by the author).
Such gimmickry, while intriguing, is in many ways the least interesting thing about the novel as a whole, which – as Marian is forced to confront and analyse what she has lost in the pursuit of her lifelong belief that to create her art she has had to close herself off to everything and everyone – questions the value of all artistic collaboration, human or otherwise. An absorbing and fascinating read.
This month marks the 25-year anniversary of the launch of the International Space Station and Harvey’s new novel is a fitting addendum to debates around a vessel that has been both hailed as playing a crucial part of the humans-in-space programme and criticised as a waste of the £120b it has so far cost to build and maintain. We follow six fictional astronauts and cosmonauts across 24 hours – and 16 full orbits of Earth – as they go about their day, bearing witness to the account of the wonder, strangeness and downright tedium of life aboard the ISS: the endless tasks that keep them safe from the death that is just ‘four inches of titanium’ away. But in between all the busyness of life inside, the real story lies in what’s outside. Harvey does a wonderful job in capturing the fragile, wondrous beauty of our blue planet as seen through the eyes of this handful of men and women as so very few of us will ever – in this lifetime – likely do. Ironically for a work so founded in technology, it is one of the most compelling pieces of nature writing you’re likely to read this year. Part celebration, part rallying cry and part mourning rite, it should be compulsory reading for us all.
Alderton needs no introduction and as such it would have been easy for the Everything I Know About Love author to follow up her bestselling fiction debut, Ghosts, with another tale of a woman in search of romance. Instead, she switches narrative perspective entirely to focus on the male half of a couple (stand-up comedian Andy) in the wake of the breakdown of his four-year relationship with Jen. Alderton’s prose is relatable, funny and sad as Andy struggles through – and with – his feelings across wallowing days and drunken nights, ably assisted a warm cast of supporting characters, not the least of whom is Jen, who has a version of their story to tell of her own. Together they help lead Andy along his rocky road to emotional enlightenment. Lovely.
This looping, time-jumping narrative opens with an injured soldier lying on a WWI battlefield and pushes forward to that soldier’s return to England and his wife, Helena. As the pair try to bridge the gap of his post-war trauma, John reopens his photography business and is stunned to discover the faces of the dead swim up through the developing chemicals to appear beside his sitters. And so Michaels sets the tone for her carefully woven tale of love, loss and memory in a century-spanning tale that crosses landscapes and lives over four generations in which the ‘ghosts’ of the past are both ever-present and evanescent. For all the sparsity of its prose, Held it is filled with big ideas – Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize-winning discoveries; Darwin’s theory of evolution – lightly told and traced with a poet’s eye for language and detail. A mesmerisingly powerful tale of love, hope and the ties that bind.
Alderman follows up The Power – her award-winning speculative novel about what happens when women are suddenly able to deliver electric shocks with a single touch – with another sweepingly ambitious speculative tale that is bound to deliver similar success. With the world perilously close to destruction, we follow a handful of tech billionaires (who are both amusingly and terrifyingly recognisable as archetypes of some of the leading tech bros of our day) as they plan to sit out the apocalypse in their various doomsday bunkers. Enter a handful of rogue players who envision another path, the leading players of which, in narrative terms, are former cult member-turned-tech powerhouse Martha Einkorn and her erstwhile lover, survivalist Lia Zhen. Pacey, thrilling and with a superb twist, Alderman chooses not – as so many novels of this type do – dwell in the dystopia, but offers a genuine vision of a new, Earth-positive future. Fun.
2023 has proved itself to be a bumper year for novellas and short-form fiction and this latest translation from the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature is a worthy jewel in that crown. Riffing on Dante’s Divine Comedy, Fosse’s tale of a man lost in dark and snowy forest who comes across a shining presence and two mysterious figures there to guide him ‘home’ –deftly translated by Damien Searle (who learnt Norwegian specifically to translate Fosse’s work) – is delivered in shimmering prose that touches on existentialism, destiny and the great beyond over 48 meticulous pages. ‘It’s beautiful,’ our unnamed narrator says of the canopy of stars and honeyed moon above him. ‘There’s no better word for it, no, not that I can think of anyway.’ We’ll second that.
A 25-year career spent working for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art inspired Coulson’s newest novel, which tells the story of one Kitty Walker across her century-spanning life almost entirely through the medium of the kind of descriptive labels that adorn art gallery walls. The author has fun with building a deliberate link between a woman of Kitty’s social position in the 20th-century milieu she inhabits and the value, possession and display of art (‘Post-war Kitty maintains her neoclassical form through a regimen of cigarettes, coffee, and grapefruit,’ reads the plaque for her as ‘Widow, Aged 39, 1946’). While that means the narrative can’t help being a little sketchily outlined by its nature, the writing is clever, witty and deftly – and at times poignantly – executed, and that more than earns One Woman Show its coveted red dot (aka sales sticker) from us.
There is a lot going on in this slim, elliptical novel. It opens as newly released prisoner Nealon answers the phone to an unknown caller at the exact moment he returns to his home in the Irish countryside to find his wife and child missing, and culminates in a meeting with said caller in a distant city hotel as a nationwide terrorist incident unfolds on TV screens around them. In between we learn some of Nealon’s backstory (all unpicked and retold with new light shed at the meeting that later takes place) and his (unconfirmed) involvement in a worldwide insurance scam that delivered good deeds on a near-biblical scale. As fascinating as it remains mysterious – settle back and just enjoy the ride.
Mary Shelley and her husband Percy (the romantic poet) are holed up in a villa near Lake Geneva with Lord Byron and various other companions over a weather-blighted summer. Across a series of laudanum-laced nights, the friends take it upon themselves to first tell – then compose their own – ghost stories. As the title suggests, Dutch author Eekhout’s novel creates an origin story not only for Mary Shelley’s famous literary creation but for the writer herself, drawing on Shelley’s history and more than a soupcon of poetic license to bring both stories to life. Suitably gothic and atmospheric in tale and tone.
The best books to read in October
In the month that celebrates both Black History and the annual fright-fest that is Halloween, our offering of new literary releases serves up plenty of both – sometimes (as in Jordan Peele’s anthology of new Black horror writing) in one book. Jump scares not your preferred form of entertainment? Never fear – there is plenty to entertain and enlighten you too, including a surreal hike into the Mojave Desert, a handful of brilliant new short story collections, and a delicately drawn tale in which a young woman with no memory of her past journeys deep into her own secret history.
Fans of Washington’s debut novel, Memorial, will immediately recognise the author’s familiar touchpoints of love, grief, friendship, estrangement (both cultural and familial) and food – lots and lots of food. Cam has returned to Houston from LA following the death of his boyfriend Kai. Grief-stricken, Cam’s days are a blur of casual encounters and self-sabotaging behaviour that is exacerbated by his ghostly ‘visions’ of Kai. When old friend TJ turns up at the bar where Cam works, Cam is resistant to reconnecting. In time, he returns to the bakery – run by TJ’s grandmother – where he spent his teenage years. As they settle into the familiar, familial rhythms and routines of the business, the estranged friends take a long slow circle back through their shared history until, step by step, meal by meal, Cam is finally able to begin the painful process of confronting his loss. Food as a metaphor is rarely so expertly wielded. A treat.
We meet Michel Adanson at the end of his life in Paris, in 1806. The French botanist is a man with a secret, one that he leaves clues for his daughter, Aglaé, to find. When she does, it reveals a father she never knew, during the years in which he travelled to French-colonial Senegal, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade was at its height. Adanson immerses himself in this new world, learning the local language and winning the trust, he believes, of its people.
When he hears of a young woman, Maram, who is rumoured to have somehow escaped the route into slavery following her abduction, he is determined to find her and hear her story, only for it to shed a horrifying new light on the cruelties and vanities of men on both sides. Diop – who picked up the International Booker Prize for his previous novel, At Night All Blood is Black – does a masterful job of showing up the racist brutalities of the slave trade and its associated cruelties and hypocrisies, something Adanson, however well-intentioned he might consider himself to be, cannot entirely avoid, and wraps it all up in a gripping, galloping narrative that challenges perceptions to the very last page.
The Oscar-winning horror director introduces this anthology with a foreword that reveals an early inspiration for the Sunken Place in his debut feature, Get Out. What he created, he writes, was the psychological equivalent of the medieval torture dungeons known as oubliettes – a place where you are ‘stripped of all agency and left alone with your struggle’. It’s a compelling driver for horror – and there is some pretty compelling horror within these pages. Featuring 19 new stories by a roster of highly-acclaimed Black writers working in and around the genre, NK Jemisin’s opening story, ‘Reckless Eyeballing’, kicks things off with a tale of a bent cop that sets the pace and tone (suitably creepy, should you need to ask) for the roster of all things horror – from witches and demons to the monsters that lie within – that follows.
At just over 130 pages, this delicate, precisely drawn novella packs a lot into its slender spine. The story opens as 19-year-old Yayoi arrives to stay with her mysterious young aunt, whose chaotic lifestyle and surroundings are at odds with her natural self-containment. Yayoi has previously left home for periods of several days when she needs space to work unspecified things out, yet: ‘There’s no coming back to what I have, not this time’, she understands, even as she prepares to leave. Sure enough, the nagging doubt that has begun to form at the centre of the mystery of her forgotten childhood is revealed – and with it, everything Yayoi thought she knew becomes forever changed. Exquisite.
There are (to paraphrase the classic American TV series) four million stories in the Eternal City, and Lahiri’s latest collection takes a peek into the fictional lives of a cross-section of some of them: the girl who looks after the holiday cottage in her mother’s absence, allowing us to gradually see the differences and crossovers in each family’s lives; the refugee whose family’s delighted at being granted a permanent residence in a suburb ‘with sky to spare’ only to run up against their neighbours’ bigotry and racism, forcing them out. In Part II, a set of stairs serves as the backdrop to snapshots of five very different individuals, an anxious ‘ex-pat’s wife’, two grieving brothers and a screenwriter among them. Lahiri knows of what she writes – the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and translator splits her time between Rome and New York – and her insider’s outsider view on the city permeates every page. Masterful.
Do we really need a ‘retelling’ of Orwell’s classic novel? Its themes are so pervasive, most people who haven’t read the original are surely aware of them – the notion that ‘Big Brother is watching you’ famously inspired the ‘big daddy’ of TV reality games of the same name. In Newman’s hands, however, the answer is yes. She turns the spotlight away from Winston Smith to focus on his lover, Julia, and in doing so pulls out the story, Handmaid’s Tale-style, to bring attention to the impact of the regime on women’s bodily autonomy, among other things. While in these ‘fake news’ times, those clear parallels with how misinformation and hate speak can bend and contort any so-called truth ensures 1984’s core message remains chillingly timely.
As first witnessed in her fairy tale-inflected debut, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Winterson has long been fascinated with other realms and spaces; this new collection is an opportunity for her to explore all of them. The stories feature ghosts both classic (the kind that haunt people and old buildings) and modern (those inside machines), and range from the humorous – the AI ‘upgraded’ husband who proves to be as much of a cad in the metaverse as he was IRL – to the genuinely chilling. Most moving of all are the ‘ghosts’ of grief, beautifully encapsulated in companion tales ‘No Ghost Ghost Story’ and ‘The Undiscovered Country’, which explore bereavement from both sides. In between, Winterson intersperses her own experiences of things going bump in the night, including at her home in London’s Spitalfields. A warm, wise and surprisingly thought-provoking addition to the spooky-season canon.
The Milk Fed and The Pisces author is back with a surreal autofiction-style novel in which an unnamed protagonist searches for both escape and the meaning of (her) life while hiding out at a Best Western on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Ostensibly there to finish writing her new novel, our ‘cosmically needy’ writer is in part escaping the pain of her dying father and the realities of life with her chronically unwell husband back home. Unable to settle down to her task, she heads into the desert and encounters a magical cactus. Things go very wrong, however, when she goes back for an impromptu, underprepared hike and gets lost. Is what follows just a sun- and dehydration-induced hallucination or a true hands-and-heart meeting with the divine? A cerebral, darkly funny take on grief, self-expression and the mystical, healing power of nature.