12 of the best books of the year so far

Must read

By Rebecca Laurence and Lindsay Baker, 

Vintage/MacMillan/Grove Hardcover Book covers of Loot, James and Wild Houses (Credit: Vintage/MacMillan/Grove Hardcover)Vintage/MacMillan/Grove Hardcover

From a Dickensian state-of-the-nation novel to a “wildly original summer thriller”, these are BBC Culture’s picks of the best fiction of the year so far.

Caledonian Road by Andrew O’Hagan

“A sensational state-of-the-nation novel with a cast of dozens” is how the Irish Independent describes Caledonian Road, Andrew O’Hagan’s most ambitious novel yet. Having won the Christopher Isherwood prize for Mayflies, and been nominated for the Booker, the Scottish author has now written a sweeping, London-set, satirical novel that has been compared to the social novels of both Dickens and Tom Wolfe. It tells the story of 52-year-old Scot Campbell Flynn, a celebrity writer and academic, as he encounters an ensemble cast of characters, from minor royals and Russian oligarchs to human traffickers and grime artists. It is an “addictively enjoyable yarn,” says The Guardian, “with the swagger and bling of an airport bestseller and an insider’s grasp on the nuances of high culture… a book simultaneously dazzled and disgusted by the city it depicts”. (LB)

My Heavenly Favourite by Lucas Rijneveld

Lucas Rijneveld, together with his translator Michele Hutchison, won the 2020 International Booker prize for his debut, The Discomfort of Evening. His latest, “a dazzling addition to the oeuvre of an author with prodigious gifts” according to The Guardian, is set in a farming community in the Netherlands, its narrator a 49-year-old vet who is fixated on a 14-year-old girl. Reijneveld’s creation is, writes the FT, “a relentless, demanding novel” which nevertheless confirms the writer’s “singular, deeply discomforting talent”. Comparisons with Nabokov are inevitable, but Rijneveld “squares up deliberately to Lolita” writes The Guardian, “taking a more serious approach to their shared subject”. (RL)

Green Dot by Madeleine Gray

Green Dot follows the snarky but self-aware 24-year-old Hera as she attempts to find connection and meaning in her life, taking a job on a news website, and soon falling for an older married journalist, Arthur. Despite cynicism in all other areas of her life, she becomes besotted with him, and – despite herself – begins to long for a conventional, picket-fence happy ever after. A debut novel, Green Dot has been widely praised, and compared favourably with the likes of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones and Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss. The Irish Times observes that “despite the arch and exuberant writing style, there is a bleak undercurrent to the book”. iNews describes it as “a brilliantly bawdy novel… a Fleabag-style debut [that is] actually worth the hype”. (LB)

Doubleday/Simon & Schuster (Credit: Doubleday/Simon & Schuster)Doubleday/Simon & Schuster

The Sleepwalkers by Scarlett Thomas

Billed as “Patricia Highsmith meets The White Lotus”, the new novel from the author of the acclaimed The End of Mr Y is a wildly original summer thriller that begins as a just-married couple arrive at their luxury hotel on a Greek Island – reeling from the dramas of their wedding, and withholding secrets from one another. Told through letters, torn notebook pages and transcripts, The Sleepwalkers wrongfoots and surprises the reader at every turn, descending into a dark, Gothic mystery. “Through her bold storytelling,” writes The New York Times, “The Sleepwalkers becomes a work of peculiar, gonzo genius.” (RL)

Wild Houses by Colin Barrett

The first novel by short story writer Colin Barrett is set in a small town in Ireland. A sweet-natured teenage boy, Doll, is kidnapped by a local gang, taken as collateral for his elder brother’s crimes. It’s “a superb Irish tale of violence, loyalty and loss”, says the Telegraph, and maintains the “energy and verve” of his previous stories. The Washington Post calls it “an electric thriller”, with masterful touches of comedy, as “tense moments suddenly burst with flashes of absurdity or comic exasperation”. Praising the novel’s authentic feel, the Post adds: “Barrett’s dialogue, spiked with the timbre of Irish speech and shards of local slang, makes these characters sound so close you’ll be wiping their spittle off your face… The craft of Wild Houses shows a master writer spreading his wings – not for show but like the stealthy attack of a barn owl.” (LB)

Henry Holt and Co./W.W. Norton & Company (Credit: Henry Holt and Co./W.W. Norton & Company)Henry Holt and Co./W.W. Norton & Company

Change by Édouard Louis

When Édouard Louis’s coming-of-age memoir-as-novel The End of Eddy was first published in 2014, it turned the then barely 20-something into a global literary sensation. Like the works that followed, such as Who Killed My Father? (2018) and A Woman’s Battles and Transformations (2022), Change, first published in France in 2021 as Changer: méthode, is a companion piece to Louis’s other works, which together make up a kind of Louis literary universe of interconnected characters and timelines. Change is, according to The Telegraph, “the most nuanced and candid portrait of Louis’s life yet”, while the TLS writes: “Change displays exhilaratingly the boldness of invention that underlines the author’s desperation to explain himself, his constant search for better ways to express the contradictions inherent in his violent struggle for freedom from violence.” (RL)

Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi

Hero Tojosoa accepts an invitation that she was expected to turn down, and finds herself on a chaotic hen weekend in Prague, hosted by her estranged friend Sofie. As the group of women converge to celebrate, each of their individual versions of the past come together too, and we are reminded that all stories can have many different perspectives. The novel abandons conventional narrative, turning into several stories within the story, and becoming unexpected in many ways for both the reader and the characters on the page. “The bold, lucid, and experimental latest from Oyeyemi portrays Prague as a city of dreams and mysteries,” says Publishers Weekly. Another Magazine, meanwhile, praises Parasol Against the Axe’s originality: “Oyeyemi’s vision is vast and enigmatic, carried by sentences so crisp and lithe, this is like nothing you’ve ever read before.” (LB)

Choice by Neel Mukherjee

“A strangely uplifting, exquisitely droll heartbreaker of a book,” writes The New York Times of Choice, the latest novel from the author of the Booker-shortlisted The Lives of Others. Beginning with the story of Ayush, an editorial director at a London publishing house, Choice is divided into three distinct but interconnected narratives that cross the globe, together exploring ethical dilemmas and the notion of free will through the contemporary concerns of climate change and global poverty. Choice is “a brilliant, bleak, moral maze of a novel” writes The Guardian, which offers no easy answers. (RL)

Graywolf Press/W.W. Norton & Company/McClelland & Stewart (Credit: Graywolf Press/W.W. Norton & Company/McClelland & Stewart)Graywolf Press/W.W. Norton & Company/McClelland & Stewart

Victim by Andrew Boryga

“I wasn’t trying to play the victim until the world taught me what a powerful grift it is.” This is the opening sentence of Victim, a novel presented as the memoir of flawed protagonist and Bronx native Javi Perez, who plays the game of tragic storytelling to his own advantage. Javi learns that his background – murdered father, single, struggling mother, best friend an imprisoned gang member – is the perfect route to fame and fortune, and he is soon creating – and selling – stories around his identity in order to gain recognition as a writer. This shrewd “hustling Icarus”, as the New York Times Book Review describes him, is at this centre of this “energetic and deeply satisfying debut novel”. The Southern Review of Books praises the author’s mastery of character: “Boryga’s character development is exceptional. He draws the reader into Javi’s psyche, experiencing his constant rationalisations, the fear of being caught, and the occasional pangs of guilt.” (LB)

Blessings by Chukwuebuka Ibeh

Blessings tells the story of shy protagonist Obiefuna’s struggle to fit into a society where homosexuality is criminalised, homophobia is unquestioned and where any gender non-conformism is condemned. When he is caught in a clinch with another boy, his conservative, dogmatic father is outraged, sending him off to a strict Christian boarding school. First love and first enmity soon follow, as Obiefuna matures and learns how the world works.The Observer describes Blessings as a “an emotive, affecting debut”, achieving “a blend of the particular and the universal, glossing traditional storytelling with a literary finesse that adds style without scaring the horses”. It is a “sublime coming-of-age tale, ” says the Guardian. “In a novel of secrecy, silences and silencing, Ibeh’s sentences throughout are fastidiously pruned.” (LB)

James by Percival Everett

For anyone previously unfamiliar with Everett’s decades-long career, they will likely know him now, after his acclaimed 2001 novel, Erasure was turned into the Oscar-nominated 2023 film American Fiction. Everett’s latest is a reimagining of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the point of view of the enslaved Jim, which hits all the familiar narrative beats of its inspiration while creating a dazzling (and very humorous) new work. “Gripping, painful, funny, horrifying, this is multi-level entertainment,” writes The Observer, “a consummate performance to the last.” (RL)

Scribner/Riverhead Books (Credit: Scribner/Riverhead Books)Scribner/Riverhead Books

Worry by Alexandra Tanner

The candid, funny narrator of Worry is Jules, a 28-year-old aspiring writer from Florida. Having moved to Brooklyn following college, she is working in an uninspiring job and spending her spare time endlessly scrolling influencers on social media, when her troubled younger sister Poppy turns up, needing a place to stay. Together, the siblings navigate the battles of adulthood, with the airless apartment the claustrophobic setting for their regression, internet addiction and co-dependence. “A fabulous comic novel of young adult angst,” is how The New York Times describes Worry, in which the “fixations, disappointments, aversions and maladjustments of adulthood” are laid bare. The Washington Post points out that the novel is “paced like the internet: petty micro-dramas create a sense of movement, but mostly nothing happens”. Ultimately, says the Post, Worry is a “a bitingly funny, extremely online novel about sisterhood”. (LB)

If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can’t-miss news, delivered to your inbox twice a week.

For more Culture stories from the BBC, follow us on FacebookX and Instagram.

More articles

Latest article