Summer breeze, summer reads. A fleeting, mercurial yet precious thing, this is a season for edging out the Easyjet baggage allowance with an ambitious haul from Waterstones and pages curled by chlorine and Fanta Limon, translated fiction that deposits you further than a park in Hackney, and absolute bangers like this book about Brits abroad from the year 2000.
If you’re feeling as flush as you are horny in the heat, why not cop a softcore porn mag about the chicas of Ibiza from IDEA? For something more wholesome, photographer Chanel Irvine captures the wonders of English summers in her magic, intimate photobook – its rituals, absurdities and beautiful banalities, and all the vinegar-soaked chips, Battenburg-bodied swimmers and heaving pub gardens.
This month’s selection of books includes some exciting reissues, debuts and translations; bath reads, polemics and scandal-starters. It’s also been a year since Amelia Horgan’s Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism, a succinct, incisive book that rails against the working world as we know it and all live by – it’s worth a read after last week’s British transport strikes. Meanwhile, Shon Faye’s stylish and compelling The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice is recently out in paperback form. Faye reclaims the “transgender issue” from the culture wars to explore what it means to be trans in a transphobic society, making the case for trans liberation as a movement that would recast society in its most caring, freeing form for us all, with incredible clarity.
Below, find the best of the rest.
Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel
I’ve not read such capacious writing on the subject of motherhood since first picking up Jamaica Kincaid or reading Jenny Offill’s “art monster” in Dept. of Speculation. Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey, devotes tight prose to the complicated structure of identity around being (or not being) a mother and explores the constant negotiating women must do in the process. It’s a subject that’s well-trodden, but it’s still consistently treated as a universal experience – Nettel approaches mothering with originality and oceans of empathy. Some of her deftest insights arrive trojan horse-like with her light touch, stealthy and startling: “Just as someone who, without ever having contemplated suicide, allows themselves to be seduced by the abyss from the top of a skyscraper, I felt the lure of pregnancy.”
Alina and Laura are two friends, both independent and career-focused women in their 30s, who have so far resisted moulding their lives around domesticity. While Laura decides to be sterilised, Alina opens herself up to motherhood. Alina’s pregnancy becomes more complicated and concerning, and Laura fixates on a neighbour’s troubled young son (and the young family of pigeons on her balcony). It is totally gripping – blind spots I never even thought to look for on womanhood and motherhood are lit up. Though Laura is the protagonist, the short and sharp chapters that flit between the two women are captivating, their stories equally urgent. It’ll stay with you, whatever your own thoughts, resistance or reticence to the subject. Still Born is Nettel’s fourth novel and the first of the Mexican writer’s work to be released by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Tenants by Victoria Spratt
Victoria Spratt is a fierce journalist, activist and housing rights campaigner. From her days at the now-defunct Debrief, where she ran a massively successful campaign to ban letting agents fees, to her work today as the i paper’s housing correspondent, documenting the schisms in the lives of renters made deeper by Tory Britain, there’s really no one else to approach this very British beast.
Tenants is as much an astute political and social analysis as it is a moving, radical call to arms. Spratt traces the political ventricles that brought us to the crisis. With surgeon’s scalpel-like dexterity, she highlights all the reasons why there’s such a gap in decent housing, finding the throughline between lofty issues. How it affects our whole selves is striking – the now-farcical dream of home ownership, our sense of community, politics, our health and social lives is all laid bare in accessible, research-backed work. Housing is, in Spratt’s own words, “the base from which we engage with society, with our community.”
With millions of stories of renters in crisis and a heft of research she’s been doing since 2017, she distils an expanse into human stories. Tony faces eviction rather than retirement, Limarra isn’t “homeless enough” to get council support, and it’s high stakes for Kelly and her asthmatic son Morgan, with a rented property far from their trusted doctor. A few months later, Morgan is dead.
You’ll come away from this book seething, but stay armed with Spratt’s clear view of how we solve this crisis – and join a renter’s union now!
Watching Women & Girls by Danielle Pender
“Every aspect of her body or personality was up for inspection: too big, too small, too available, too hidden, too much, not enough.” There’s an innate understanding as a woman in the world that we are being watched, gazed, bored into. How others watch us, how we watch them and ourselves. That tensing of the shoulders when a cat caller suddenly announces themselves; the studying of our own selfies; the culture we perform to and project. Danielle Pender explores that impact on women’s exterior and interior lives with brevity, depth and wry humour. She is the founder and editor of the impossibly chic and sharp Riposte magazine – which recently published its delightful food-themed issue – and now a debut author with this short story collection, Watching Women & Girls.
There’s the complex mother/daughter relationship, one woman’s tumult of an affair with an older man, a dominatrix and her client, among others, hopscotching patriarchy, sex, class, race, motherhood and selfhood. The stories journey through how women are watched and perceived, and how they can defiantly stare back.
Notes on Heartbreak by Annie Lord
Heartbreak is both hyper-specific and universal. No one could ever possibly experience the all-consuming devastation of your first-ever boyfriend unceremoniously dumping you in a regional town Costa Coffee like you did (just me?), but there’s stop-in-your-tracks pop culture and literature that just gets that feeling of pure enamour, that can so quickly freefall into ruin. Annie Lord’s Vogue column does just that and her debut Notes on Heartbreak is its vivid, open-hearted continuation. Lord writes fresh from the breakup of a five-year relationship and tells her love story in reverse. This book confirms Lord’s cult following – she is self-deprecating and funny, pulse-racing and impetuous in a way that’s both thrilling and aching to read, all while approaching the total grief of heartbreak with a shrewdness and consideration that’s still quite rare.
Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh
Lapvona, the latest novel from My Year of Rest and Relaxation writer Ottessa Moshfegh, is her most grotesque and macabre book yet. The body horror of her TikTok famous novel and debut Eileen is bulked up for Lapvona, a folk horror set in a Mediaeval fiefdom with a chequered cast of misfits, despots and unholy souls.
This book dials up Moshfegh’s fascination with the repulsive, the gaseous, the human body and nature at its most gross and grim. Murder, rape, eating shit. That all said, it’s an addictive read, reeling in the curious with a leftfield choice of an opening note – “I feel stupid when I pray.” Yep, a Demi Lovato lyric. The language and scene-setting will lodge itself in your mind, whether you can stomach it or not: adult breastfeeding, perverse pube plucking, a scene with a shit-covered grape and so much incest. Ensconced in the faeces, misery and debauchery is a simmering interrogation of faith – religious or otherwise – and a curious, unjudging journey into humanity’s craters.
Nevada by Imogen Binnie
The cult novel from 2013 is back with a much-longed for reissue and its very first international release. Nevada was first published on the hallowed, DIY and now defunct Topside Press, which also published early work by Torrey Peters, author of Detransition, Baby. Binnie scrambled the landscape of trans literature – then-dominated by memoir – with Nevada, a rapid-fire road trip novel unconcerned with appealing to mass audiences, finding pleasure and pain in various trans experiences. “All the books I read are about carrying the past around with us,” says chaotic and punk protagonist Maria Griffiths. There are no laborious concessions to cis people.
Starting in New York in 2008, we meet Maria, who has just gone through a break-up, with her bookshop job at risk and facing homelessness. On top of all that, she’s always forgetting to take her oestrogen pills. So what does she do? Buys a fuck load of heroin and hijacks her ex-girlfriend’s car with the vague idea of driving out west. In the state of Nevada, Maria meets James Hanson, a mopey stoner and possibly closeted trans woman, who she resolves to help. It’s decadently written, profane and funny, and unafraid of delving into sticky situations. It is steeped in early ‘00s lore (raise your hand if you lived through Livejournal) and deadpan humour. It is also beautifully, fleetingly intimate. One particular scene where Maria explains how she shaves her face and puts on make-up is stunning. I really recommend the audiobook too, read by Binnie, for your own unhinged road trips.
All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Angus Davidson
“This is not a novel that turns its face away from evil,” Sally Rooney writes in the forward for All Our Yesterdays, “like any story of the Second World War, it tells of almost unendurable grief, loss, violence and injustice. But it is also a story about the possibility of knowing what is right and living by that knowledge, whatever the consequences.”
In 1930s Northern Italy, 16-year-old Anna is pregnant from a fling. Her family marry her off to an eccentric older man to save her reputation and she is whisked off south. There, everyday life and personal traumas run parallel to a country being ravaged by war and a growing fascist threat. Two families – one rich, one poor – are interlinked by these various planes of anxiety. It’s a beautiful, intricate story.
When you first discover the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, you feel like you’ve been let in on a secret. That’s how I felt when I first read the lucid, dark novella The Dry Heart. The wheels of the Natalia Ginzburg revival have been turning for quite some time now, so if you haven’t got on board, now’s your chance. She has a signature incisive candour and plain-spoken wit – in All Our Yesterdays, she uses this to explore how we keep our dignity and generosity towards others amid chaos and catastrophe. To add, Daunt Publishing’s series of covers for their Ginzburg reissues are gorgeous, and this black and white image with green and orange borders is maybe my favourite.
Immanuel by Matthew McNaught
Faith remains a diaphanous topic – the Twitter timeline is punctuated by Gen Z’s supposed pivoting to “Trad Cath” and religion is a silent strongarm on politics. Matthew McNaught approaches faith and religion with real empathy, generosity and measure, all from his unique insight into the veiled world of evangelical Christianity. Immanuel is a compelling read from the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize winner, who explores his upbringing in an evangelical Christian community in Winchester. He unpacks the cultish Synagogue Church of All Nations, a cloistered community in Lagos that attracted his childhood church friends and hundreds of others. In the years since, multiple accounts of violence, sexual abuse and shaming have come from SCOAN’s ex-followers. McNaught looks into his own relationship to his religious upbringing with nuance, in a blend of essay, memoir and reportage that asks us in turn to question what community and faith means today. Incredibly emotional, yet clear-eyed and generous.
The Visitors by Jessi Jezewska Steven
The Visitors is an unsettling and oddball novel by Jessi Jezewska Stevens, saturated by her own experiences of activism and her caustic wit. It’s speculative fiction that’s set against the financial crash in New York, ripping through Occupy Wall Street. But historical accuracy isn’t the goal here. Stevens reimagines the real protest movements of the time with eco-hactivist group GoodNite, a collective on a mission to reset society with a digital blackout that would erase debt and erode state control. A thrilling prospect, IMO.
What follows is a freewheel into the surreal. C is a down-and-out, depressed textile artist deep in financial troubles, divorced and suffering after a botched hysterectomy. She begins to hallucinate a talking garden gnome, who is obsessed with the impending technological collapse, and her own mental demise mirrors the state’s. It’s a story of loss, loneliness and debt – both emotional and economic – where our sexual desires are as vulnerable to spyware as our smartphones. It’s both a bold, imaginative play on very recent history and a trenchant prophecy of the terrifying times we’re collectively staring down the barrel of. Stevens’ writing is elegant and dry, with playful language that makes it even more engrossing to read – truly, I was only slowed down by my frequent Notes app-ing of great words like “horripilation”.
Vladimir by Julia May Jonas
There’s a devious touch of romance novel king Fabio vibes from the US release of Vladimir’s cover, which features a soft, hairy chest (the UK release’s cover is beautiful, too). But rather than a titillating, whimsical romance romp, Vladimir is a spiral through slippery sexual politics.
Vladimir’s narrator is a professor in her 50s, slaloming through academia and a mid-life crisis. She is whip-smart and dark: “When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell that they also loved me.” Her husband – also a professor – is accused of sexual harassment by several students. Their previous agreements around extra marital affairs are recast. And with the arrival of a new professor, the alluring, handsome, celebrated novelist Vladimir, she mounts a dark obsession that begins a descent into the mulch of sex and power. She interrogates her roles as a teacher, mother and wife; her age, appearance and femininity; and her own relationship to and wielding of power. Her nose is to the fire.
Jonas’ writing is audacious, augmenting a story that could otherwise have gotten corny or crass: “Longing was energising my muscles and organs and brain. Longing was replacing my blood with fizzy, expansive liquid”. So saucy. There is the urgent question of pitting moral goods against impulses of the heart and human desire. And that end twist will get you.