Poet and novelist Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart is a collection of short stories that probe the intersection of the Chinese-American experience. Zhang, an acclaimed poet in her own right, and graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop is well known for penning her brilliant essay ‘They Pretend to be Us while Pretending We Don’t Exist’, which offers an insight into the experiences of people of colour in the literary and publishing world. As a reflection of her exacting critique and literary talent, Zhang’s short stories were first published by Lenny Letter, the hugely popular email newsletter founded by Lena Dunham and she has subsequently earned fans across the world. The pieces in Sour Heart are an extremely engaging set of stories that touch on themes of economic deprivation, cultural clashes, coming-of-age experiences, depression and immigration all told with wry humour, wit, and a unique and lively prose. Zhang is an unforgettable writer and these stories are surely the first in a long line of successful publications from her.
Evening Primrose: a heart-wrenching novel for our times
Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa has been garnering rave reviews since receiving its UK publication in 2017. The novel is primarily written as a series of journal entries to God by South African Doctor Masechaba, who documents her struggles and triumphs working in the healthcare system. In the novel, we learn of Masechaba’s personal struggles such as her endometriosis diagnosis (in fact, this book was first published in Africa under the title Period Pains) and more widely, Masechaba reflects on her society and the sexism and racism that pervades her workplace and everyday life. For example, we get a great insight into codes and norms in South Africa and the tensions between it and Zimbabwe. As Masechaba grows and experiences inequalities and injustices, she revolves to become more involved in anti-racism campaigning, with the entries recorded in Evening Primrose tracing her development to activism. Given the xenophobia being whipped up by far-right extremists in 2017, this book is a breath of fresh air – a defiant and brilliant voice amidst the darkness of hatred. Written beautifully, with creative and dreamy prose, Evening Primrose is an unforgettable book with great heart and hope. It is a must-read for these turbulent times.
Conversations with Friends
Dublin-based writer Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends is a novel that most certainly has a millennial audience in mind. Set in Dublin, Rooney’s novel is a tale of growing up, romantic and sexual trysts, the pains of moving on and reflecting on the follies of youth. The characters, particularly the main protagonist Frances may echo what many conservative commentators define as millennial ‘narcissism and self-centredness’ - but Rooney succeeds in accurately depicting the lived experience of many young people in the twenty-first century in the western world. Indeed, it is fascinating to probe the inner worlds of Rooney’s characters as they struggle to navigate through their mid-20s. This novel is an introspective and lively read which any young woman struggling to exist alongside men and the power that comes with hegemonic masculinity will find heartening. Indeed, the novel is littered with charming cultural references too, allowing readers to truly imagine themselves in the shoes of Frances and Bobbi, who enjoy everything from French art to the music of Van Morrison.
The ministry of utmost hapiness
It is hard to believe that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is only the second fiction novel by Arundhati Roy. Roy’s non-fiction work, her public readings and interviews have been inspiring generations of readers and thinkers for decades. Now, over twenty years after the publication of The God of Small Things, Roy returns with a complex, layered, evocative and demanding novel that includes snippets of poetry, non-fiction and fictional narrative. We begin by following Anjum, who is a hijra (India’s third gender) and has been shunned by society. Finding refuge in a Khwabgah with other hijras, Anjum reflects on global violence and on the trauma of living in a place like Kashmir. Roy certainly injects her own political opinions into the novel and in another narrative strand which converges with Anjum towards the end of the novel, we encounter Tilottama who represents some of the political activism currently going on in India. The relationship that is fostered between Anjum and Tilottama offers a musing on human bonds and empathy, adding another intricate layer to the novel that deals with politics, violence, gender and empathy so eloquently.
Surely one of the most exhilarating and uncomfortable reads of the year so far, White Tears is a damning indictment of the structural and institutional racisms that inform our world. Gut-wrenching, inviting, shocking and hugely engaging, this novel tells the story of Carter and Seth – two twentysomething white Brooklyn hipsters who share a deep love of music. Determined to make their success as sonic music artists, the two snapshot and dub snippets of music over other pieces in the name of art. But when the two make an ‘authentic’ blues song and Carter markets it as a rare recording by a made-up artist from the past, bad karma begins to come their way. The abuses, appropriations and racism of American music history manifest in many different ways in this book, with chilling consequences that reveal the violence, arrogance and privilege of whiteness.
Grace and the Fever
‘Fandoms’ have been a cultural benchmark since the days of The Beatles. Now with the advent of the Tumblr era, it has been said that there are no better detectives than One Direction fans. While so often fandoms have been disparaged – perhaps because overwhelmingly the young women in such groups are unashamed and unabashed about their passions and sexual feelings – Grace and the Fever is a riveting YA novel that explores just what happens if a fangirl gets the opportunity to be with the object of her affections. Grace Thomas gets just that chance one summer when she meets Jes Holloway from Fever Dream – the biggest boyband in the world. Struggling to reconcile her ‘real life’ shy and geeky identity with her online persona, Grace embarks on an exciting and at times heartbreaking adventure with Jes (all the while hiding her superfan status, of course!). A very enjoyable, utterly current read, Grace and the Fever is perfect for anyone who has ever obsessed over a celebrity and let’s face it, from Paul McCartney to Leonardo Di Caprio, to One Direction – there are few of us who haven’t!
In the vein of a gripping Patricia Highsmith novel, The Party by Elizabeth Day is a must-read for fans of unhinged sociopaths hellbent on climbing the social ladder. As a teen, Martin Gilmour wins a scholarship to the prestigious Burtonbury School where he forms a fast friendship with Ben Fitzmaurice – a rich, privileged socialite - whom he idolises. The Party traces the lives of these men throughout adulthood, where all the while Martin holds a secret about Ben close to his heart. The two meet again at Ben’s fortieth birthday party and in a setting of grandeur and wealth, secrets from the past begin to unravel. A tale of possessiveness and the desperate need to belong, The Party is a complex, engaging and well-wrought thriller, with a lavish and lively prose. It is a perfect read for dusky summer evenings.