It’s blockbuster season. Blockbuster books season, that is.
Every September and October the biggest books of the year are released, just in time for Christmas shopping – and we’ve rounded up 10 of the best.
Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
I’ll read Lucy Barton in whichever phase of life she finds herself in, even if that phase is living-in-small-town-with-ex-husband-during-lockdown. Before you roll your eyes at another lockdown novel, know that you are in the masterful hands of Elizabeth Strout and that, far from triggering, this was a cathartic, expansive and even joyful reading experience.
As with any of Strout’s novels, reading her characters elicits a kind of mirror neuron reaction: you honestly feel the gratification when a reader tells Lucy what her book meant to them, how she thanks them “for getting what the book was actually about”; similarly, you feel the sting and shame when Lucy’s ex-husband no longer wants to hear about her sadness over her brother’s sad life. These moments are what literary critics praise as Strout’s “radical empathy” and it’s the reason we keep returning to her books and her deeply human characters and their rich interior lives. – Laura
Less is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer
I’m constantly recommending Andrew Sean Greer’s Less to people who are searching for that unicorn novel that is equal amounts literary and fun. You know, the kind of novel that doesn’t avoid the hard stuff, but that delivers the hard stuff with such humour and style that you hold the book to your chest and embrace it rather than ugly cry on the train reading it.
Very happily, its follow-up Less is Lost has just published and now I have two books to recommend in the unicorn genre. Like the first book, the sequel (which can totally be read as a standalone) is a part-travel, part-love story that follows the lovable and entirely awkward Arthur Less as he road trips across America pondering life’s big questions: Will love conquer all? What is America? Should one ever grow a handlebar moustache? This is a joyous, affecting and charming novel that reads so easily thanks to Greer’s technically pristine prose (there’s a reason he won the Pulitzer for Less). – Laura
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
If immersing yourself in a specific history is the reason you read, then you will want to get your hands on Maggie’s O’Farrell’s latest novel as soon as possible. Lap up the glamour and pomp of Renaissance Italy complete with luxurious weddings, candlelit dinners and very heavy tapestries in The Marriage Portrait – a story of a young duchess and her battle for survival set against a treacherous and troubled court. If you loved O’Farrell’s 2020 Women’s Prize-winner Hamnet because of the badass Agnes, then I think you will be just as enamoured by her latest heroine Lucrezia who is the beating heart of this atmospheric page-turner. – Laura
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
I was a smidge apprehensive bringing Celeste Ng’s latest novel with me for a long weekend at a cute Airbnb. Why ruin the rural relaxed vibes with dystopia? Turns out, it was the perfect companion (it rained all weekend and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough). Like her previous novels Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere, this is a family drama interested in race and relationships. Add to the agenda police violence, political protest, the unbreakable love between a mother and child, revolutionary poets, book banning and the power of art, and you’ve got yourself a story as intellectually stimulating as it is heart-wrenching. Ng’s most riveting and powerful book to date, I can’t wait to see its (inevitable) TV adaptation. – Laura
Liberation Day by George Saunders
Come for the literary cred you’ll get from your book club for reading the Booker Prize-winning author’s latest story collection, and stay for the surprising connection you make with a character living in an underground amusement park. Yes, things do get a little weird in the nine stories that make up this collection. But more than weird, Saunders’ writing is subversive, profound and so much fun. As a review in The Times instructed, the only way to “experience Saunders’s oblique, farcical, tragic world is to dive right in. It will take the top of your head off, but it’s worth it”. You’ve been warned! – Laura
Wildflowers by Peggy Frew
Let’s get one thing clear: this is not a book for everyone. No, there will be plenty of readers for whom this novel – about the fractured relationships between three damaged sisters – is far too too dark and depressing.
But if you can manage the subject matter – which covers drugs, addiction and mental illness – you’ll discover a novel that is beautifully written, with characters that are poignantly drawn and a plot that makes for compulsive reading. Set in Australia, Wildflowers follows three sisters as they seek to rebuild their once-strong sibling bonds. Dark at times, yes. But ultimately hopeful, even joyful, and an author I’ll definitely be reading again. – Anna
How Many More Women? by Jennifer Robinson & Keina Yoshida,
She is Julian Assange’s lawyer, held Amber Heard’s hand during the British defamation trial launched by Johnny Depp, and she has acted for countless victim survivors of violence. Now, Jennifer Robinson – a human rights lawyer who grew up on NSW’s South Coast – has released a book, together with fellow lawyer Keina Yoshida, exposing the myriad ways in which victims of gendered violence are silenced. How many women draws back the curtain on laws around the world and how they work to silence women (and benefit powerful men), and takes readers inside the Johnny Depp defamation case. Prepare to be outraged. – Anna
Seeing Other People by Diana Reid
Her first novel, Love And Virtue, scooped a slew of awards and marked her out as an author to watch. (It was also one of my favourite books of 2021.) Now Diana Reid has released her second novel, Seeing Other People, a compulsive read that once again focuses on a group of 20-something friends and the entangled relationships and moral dilemmas that preoccupy them.
However, unlike her first novel – which reached into the zeitgeist for inspiration and probed contemporary issues like consent, sex and power – the analysis in Reid’s latest book is directed inwards and downwards, to questions around self-awareness, selfishness and self-love.
There was a period a year or two when every second book publicist would pitch at least one of their authors as the “next Sally Rooney”, but with Seeing Other People, Reid actually suits this description. Her characters are – to this ageing Millennial, at least – intimidatingly self-aware and perceptive. I enjoyed this book – both for the story and also the inadvertent education on Gen Z.
Undoctored by Adam Kay
I’m married to a doctor who rarely talks about his work, so reading Adam Kay’s first memoir, This Is Going To Hurt, was both illuminating and alarming. “Is it normal for this to happen?” I’d ask Andrew, after reading some particularly egregious example of management incompetence, or a patient’s inventively self-inflicted injury. “Oh yes, all the time,” he’d reply.
Funny, clever and fuelled by Kay’s still-simmering anger at the treatment of doctors in the NHS, This Is Going To Hurt sold millions of copies and was adapted for TV, with Ben Whishaw in the lead role. This follow-up memoir, Undoctored, details what happened next, as well as exploring incidents from Adam’s past via ‘flashback’ chapters. It’s still funny (I particularly love the section where he excoriates government ministers seeking to blunt the impact of his tweets, now read by millions), but this second book feels more personal, and Kay’s account of being raped in a New Zealand sauna is heart-breaking. If you loved This Is Going To Hurt, you’ll adore the follow-up – perhaps even more. – Felicity