25 of the best books of the year so far

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(Image credit:

Penguin / Farrar, Straus, Giroux

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Book covers: The Bee Sting, Hangman, The Fraud

From troubled Irish families and shocking French showmen to a court case in Victorian Britain, these are BBC Culture’s picks of the best fiction of the year so far.

The Fraud by Zadie Smith (Credit: Penguin Random House)

The Fraud by Zadie Smith (Credit: Penguin Random House)

The Fraud by Zadie Smith

In her first historical novel, Zadie Smith examines 19th-Century colonialism, with several interwoven plots that take place over half a century. At the centre of the story is a real-life trial of a man claiming to be Sir Roger Tichborne, thought to have died at sea, and heir to a huge fortune. The trial is seen through the eyes of Eliza Touchet, with interludes depicting the life of Andrew Bogle, an older formerly enslaved man who is acting as a witness in the trial. It is an “exuberant” novel, says The Observer, and bears the author’s usual trademarks: “the boisterous narrative intelligence; the ear for dialogue; the chronic absence of boring sentences”. There is also a lightness of touch: “Every few pages I was struck by how light the novel feels, despite its length and epic themes. The short chapters glide tellingly between decades and scenes.” The Conversation describes The Fraud as “a stunning, well-studied examination of Victorian colonial England,” adding that “Smith is expertly able to interweave moments of levity and humour into a book that deals with some heaviness… Historical fiction suits her”. (LB)

North Woods by Daniel Mason

US author and doctor Mason, who published his first book, The Piano Tuner (2002) while still at medical school, is now an acclaimed writer of historical fiction. His sixth novel – which explores four centuries of history through a house and its inhabitants on a small patch of New England land – has received rapturous reviews for its virtuosity and form-bending experimentation. “Daniel Mason’s latest novel is one of those rare books that truly deserves the description ‘spellbinding'”, writes The Observer, while The New York Times calls it “eccentric and exhilarating”. (RL)

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray (Credit: Penguin Random House)

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray (Credit: Penguin Random House)

The Bee Sting by Paul Murphy

Paul Murray – best known for his acclaimed 2010 novel Skippy Dies – returns with a “wildly entertaining, completely convincing, and deeply moving family saga,” says LitHub. The story is “told with such deft management of time and mystery and perspective that I defy anyone not to get completely swept away by it”. Blending comedy and drama, the bumper-sized book centres around two well-to-do rural Irish families, whose unfolding calamities are paralleled in a slow-building ecological disaster. The story is told from different family members’ points of view – with each perspective giving further insights and revelations. It’s a “tragicomic triumph”, says The Guardian. “With The Bee Sting, Murray is triumphantly back on home turf – troubled adolescents, regretful adults, secrets signposted and exquisitely revealed, each line soaked in irony ranging from the gentle to the savage.” (LB)

The Glutton by AK Blakemore (Credit: Granta Books)

The Glutton by AK Blakemore (Credit: Granta Books)

The Glutton by AK Blakemore

The true story of the French Revolution-era peasant-turned-performer, Tarare, who swallowed just about anything – including rats, cats and corks – for money is the thrilling premise of The Glutton, the second novel from British poet AK Blakemore. Her first, The Manningtree Witches (2021) which fictionalised the 17th-Century Essex witch trials, was shortlisted for the Costa Prize. With Tarare’s wild and poignant tale and Blakemore’s poetic prose, The Glutton is “one of the most remarkable novels of the year,” according to The Guardian. “[Blakemore] plants our faces so closely against the glass of the past that it feels at times unbearably vivid” writes The Evening Standard. (RL)

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

The author of The Dutch House and Bel Canto is back with a new novel Tom Lake. When Lara’s three twenty-something daughters return home to northern Michigan during the pandemic, the four women set about picking cherries from the family orchard. While working, Lara recalls the story of Peter Duke, a now famous actor, with whom she shared a romance decades before at a theatre company called Tom Lake. As a result, her daughters examine their own lives – and are forced to reconsider everything they thought they knew. “Tom Lake is a fascinating story beautifully told,” says the New York Journal of Books, and the novel’s structure “is wonderfully measured, as Patchett weaves the fine details of dual timelines together”. The Washington Post praisesthe book’s “remarkable warmth”, and Pratchett’s “wisdom about love” – Tom Lake, it says, “reminds us why she’s beloved”. (LB)

Hangman by Maya Binyam (Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Hangman by Maya Binyam (Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Hangman by Maya Binyam

The nameless narrator of Hangman is an émigré who is returning, after 26 years away, to his place of birth in sub-Saharan Africa in order to visit his sick brother. His travels turn into a series of confrontations with the vestiges of the life that he left behind, and an exploration of what is and isn’t expected of migrants and their stories. “The real guesswork concerns the narrator’s relationship to his homeland, a place all but denatured by his benumbed observations,” says The New Yorker. Hangman is “a slim, stark, and captivatingly enigmatic debut novel” it adds, praising Binyam’s “mordant humour”. The humanity of the novel’s protagonist, says Vogue, is all the more keenly felt because of what the author leaves out: “She weaves in more than enough prosaic depth to make a 200-page chronicle of exile, diaspora, belonging, and homegoing feel urgent and emotionally resonant.” (LB)   

The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright

Dysfunctional families, art as illusion and generational trauma are the subjects explored in The Wren, The Wren, the eighth novel from the author of The Gathering (2007) and The Green Road (2015). With the precision of “a skilled weaver”, Enright’s narrative is relayed by three contrasting voices, the troubled twenty-something Nell, her middle-aged mother Carmel and Carmel’s father, the selfish and self-aggrandising poet Phil McDaragh, whose portrayal, writes The Guardian, is: “a ferocious sendup of the Famous Irish Poet”. The New York Times praises the novel’s humour and sensitivity, calling The Wren, The Wren, “a powerful, thoughtful book by one of the great living writers on family”, while The FT calls it “restless and deeply gratifying”. (RL)

(Credit: Penguin Random House)

(Credit: Penguin Random House)

After the Funeral by Tessa Hadley

“It is hard to imagine stories more skilfully paced and polished than these,” writes The Observer of After the Funeral, praising the author Tessa Hadley’s ability to create atmospheres that are “relatable, sympathetic, complicated”. In the acclaimed British writer’s fourth short story collection, a divorced couple bump into each other on the Tube; a teenager on holiday with her parents rebels; three middle-aged sisters reconvene uncomfortably at their seaside childhood home. These characters, as fans of Hadley’s work will recognise, are often “mature survivors of the 1970s or children of those survivors… comfortably off, less comfortably self-aware”, writes The Guardian, and Hadley is a master of complex – but unspoken – family dynamics, particularly between women. The Washington Post calls After the Funeral “a revelation for aficionados of the form, as vibrant and knowing as the best of Hadley’s celebrated career.” (RL)

August Blue by Deborah Levy  

Acclaimed concert pianist Elsa M Anderson – a former child prodigy now in her 30s – walks off stage mid-performance in Vienna. Next, we meet her at an Athens flea market as she watches another woman, apparently her doppelganger, buying some mechanical horse figurines. There follows Elsa’s strange journey across Europe, shadowed by this enigmatic woman. The Scotsman says of the novel: “Although it is a work of scathing intelligence, it packs a pianissimo emotional punch at the end.” It is a “seductive” novel, according to The Times, and marks “a puzzling, pleasurable return” for the author. August Blue is “exhilaratingly surreal” says iNews and “holds the remarkable balancing act that is key to Levy’s writing: perfect precision at the sentence level combined with a dedication to exploring the slipperiness of reality”, noting the author’s “knack for masterful innovation unlike anything else in English today.” (LB)

The East Indian by Brinda Charry

In this “fascinating” historical novel – a New York Times summer read – Charry sets out to document the little-known story of the first Indian immigrant to the US, inspired by the brief mention of a servant in historical records of 1600s Virginia. Tony is an orphaned teenager who is first sent to Britain before being kidnapped and sold to work on a tobacco plantation in the New World. Through Tony and the other characters’ stories, Charry – a historian – charts the 17th-Century roots of mass immigration and colonialisation, in a “sweeping, coming-of-age tale that’s more than a little Dickensian,” writes The Guardian. “Charry’s most remarkable feat with this novel,” writes NPR, “is that she wears her enormous learning and research lightly throughout.” (RL)

(Credit: Penguin Random House)

(Credit: Penguin Random House)

Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead

Two-time Pulitzer-winning author Colson Whitehead’s new novel continues the saga of crooked furniture salesman Ray Carney, who readers may know from the acclaimed 2021 novel Harlem Shuffle. Set in a chaotic 1970s Harlem, the three-part novel follows Ray as he attempts to stay out of trouble and negotiate a city running on a combination of cronyism, corruption, ego, threats and pride. “Like its predecessor, Manifesto is both deceptively substantive and sneakily funny,” says The LA Times. “There is a great deal of love in the author’s portrait of his native city, his gimlet-eyed observations.” The Guardian praises the “compelling energy of a crime thriller and the sharp wit of social satire”. Meanwhile, The Telegraph reviewer sums up: “Crook Manifesto gave me something I had missed in recent reading: joy.” (LB)

Mrs S by K Patrick

An unnamed Australian 22-year-old “matron” arrives at an elite boarding school for girls sometime in the early 1990s. She soon becomes infatuated with Mrs S – the headmaster’s self-possessed wife; a passionate yearning and steamy affair ensue in a journey of sexuality and self-discovery. The Observer describes Mrs S as “a striking queer romance in which lust yields subtle revelations about sexual power and selfhood,” describing Glasgow author K Patrick (one of Granta’s best new British novelists) as a “distinctive new talent”. The New York Times praises “the sensuality of Patrick’s narrative,” while The TLS observes, “The intimacy and suppleness of Patrick’s writing mark it out from the stripped-clean default of much contemporary fiction.” (RL)

(Credit: Europa Editions)

(Credit: Europa Editions)

The Postcard by Anne Berest (translated by Tina Kover)

An anonymous postcard leads to a journey of discovery in Anne Berest’s The Postcard, the tale of a Jewish family devastated by the Holocaust, as well as a portrait of 20th-Century Parisian artistic and intellectual life. The winner of the prestigious French book award, the Choix Goncourt Prize, it is “powerful, meticulously imagined,” says the New York Times Book Review, and “takes its readers on a deep dive into one Jewish family’s history, and, inextricably, into the devastating history of the Holocaust in France”. The novel is, says Library Journal, “not only a significant contribution to our understanding of the Holocaust but a moving reflection on loss, memory, and the past, in equal measures heart-warming and heartrending”. The Washington Post describes The Postcard as “a powerful exploration of family trauma… transmitted in the womb or down the generations.” (LB)

(Credit: Penguin)

Victory City by Salman Rushdie

The 15th novel from the Booker Prize-winning author of Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses and Quichotte, Victory City,  described by The New Yorker as “immensely enjoyable”, is an era-spanning epic that begins in 14th-Century southern India. Its heroine is a grief-stricken nine-year-old girl, Pampa Kampana, who is instructed by a goddess to create equality for women in a patriarchal world. Kampana’s fortune, over centuries, becomes interwoven with that of the great empire of Bisnaga, the “victory city” of the title. In this novel, Rushdie has created “an alternative Mahabharata”, writes The Guardian, “an elaborate founding myth from the bare bones of history”. (RL)

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize in 2013 for her novel The Luminaries, and the New Zealand author’s latest offering, witty thriller Birnam Wood, has also been highly acclaimed. Eco-activism meets staggering affluence when the young members of an environmental rights group end up being entangled with a billionaire drone manufacturer. “Catton is not just a master at spinning a web of competing philosophies, ” says Vogue.com. “Her characters are deeply flawed but you can’t help but root for them.” The Guardian praises Catton as a “novelist of lavish technical gifts who addresses herself to the world, broadly and richly conceived.” Birnam Wood is, says the review, “another virtuoso performance: elaborately plotted, richly conceived, enormously readable”. (LB) 

Shy by Max Porter

From the author of Lanny (2019) and The Death of Francis Bacon (2021), Porter’s fourth book is another slight volume of experimental, poetic prose. Its hero is 15-year-old Shy, who we encounter as he walks away from Last Chance, a home for troubled youth, with his pockets full of rocks. Shy is Porter’s best, says The Telegraph, since his acclaimed 2015 debut, Grief is a Thing with Feathers, “an act of humanity and grace, heightened by its distinctive form and artistry.” According to the iNewspaper, it is “a dazzling bolt of prose in the long night of our times”. (RL)

Pineapple Street by Jenny Jackson

“Marvellous – clever, funny and brilliantly well observed,” is how India Knight describes Pineapple Street in The Sunday Times. The debut novel by Jenny Jackson explores generational wealth and privilege in forensic detail, following three women who are part of the super-wealthy Stockton clan, in leafy Brooklyn Heights, New York. One was born into the wealth, one has married into it, and one wants to give it away. “What is impressive about the work is that it treats rich people as fallible human beings,” says Medium. “Although these characters are imperfect, you’ll fall in love with them anyway and you’ll want to know how they turn out once the end of the book is reached.” (LB)

Maame by Jessica George

Jessica George’s debut novel became an instant NYT bestseller when it was published earlier this year; favourable comparisons have been made with another publishing sensation, Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie, from 2019. Maddie, nicknamed “Maame”, is a twenty-something Londoner with Ghanaian parents, who forgoes the regular trials of a 25-year-old existence as the primary caregiver to her father, who has Parkinson’s. A coming-of-age story about family, relationships and identity, Maame, writes The Washington Post, “isn’t always an easy story to read, but is always told with grace and compassion”. The New York Times says: “George shows the details and scope of life with such confidence and joie de vivre, it’s easy to forget she’s a first-time novelist.” (RL)

(Credit: Random House)

The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley

In the Survivalists, Aretha, a lawyer, moves in with her coffee-entrepreneur boyfriend, Aaron, and his doomsday-prepping housemates. What follows is a half-joking exploration of capitalism, gun ownership, and what it takes to survive in the modern world as a black American. “Learn her name, because Cauley is one of the funniest writers at work today, period,” says the Los Angeles Times. Vulture agrees, describing Cauley as “one of the smartest and funniest writers working today, and this novel is a chance for fans to spend even more time with her cutting critiques of the flaws in American culture.” (LB)

Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin

Based on her own mother’s story, and interweaving real historical events with fiction, Cecile Pin’s debut novel begins in 1978, three years after the last US troops have left Vietnam. Young orphan siblings Anh, Thanh and Minh flee their village, first to Hong Kong, making their way as refugees towards the uninviting landscape of Thatcher’s Britain. Their journey is accompanied by the voice of their younger brother, Dao, a lost soul who speaks from the hinterland between the dead and the living. Wandering Souls is “subtle and gripping”, writes the LA Times, while the iNewspaper says: “this is a powerful and timely debut about seeking asylum; about what life is when it is ripped from its origins, and how happiness and identity can be found again on foreign shores.” (RL)

The Garnett Girls by Georgina Moore

Set on the UK’s Isle of Wight in a beloved but crumbling family home, Sandcove, three very different sisters and their unconventional mother tackle life and long-held family secrets. The Sunday Times best-selling debut novel by Georgina Moore explores whether or not children can ever truly be free of the mistakes their parents make. “Each of the main characters is flawed yet relatable,” says The Independent, “and the family dynamics between the strong women are portrayed perfectly by Moore. An immersive novel which leaves the reader feeling they have become part of the family.” It’s a confident debut, according to The Observer. “With Moore’s evocative prose it’s easy to see why The Garnett Girls is being likened to works by Penny Vincenzi.” (LB)

Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood

This 15-strong short-story collection is Atwood’s first publication since The Testaments. Divided into three parts, it is dedicated in part to Atwood’s partner, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019; scenes from the marriage of Tig and Nell sandwich a disparate bunch of tales that encompass everything from aliens to pandemics. Old Babes in the Wood is “a gripping read,” writes the FT, which highlights “themes that are always at the heart of Atwood’s work: the haunting presence of traumatic histories, profound imbalances of power and opportunity in the world today, and society’s darkest possible futures”. The Guardian says: “There are chips and fragments of lives, full of sass and sadness”. (RL)

Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry

When he’s faced with the past he would prefer to forget, retired policeman Tom’s life is thrown into further confusion. In the Irish author’s ninth novel, Barry explores how the effects of violence and abuse reverberate across generations. Old God’s Time is a “reckoning with violated innocence,” says the Irish Independent. “The familiar story of the crimes of church and state is told in a fresh and spectacular way.” Meanwhile, iNews describes the book as a “profound state-of-Ireland novel”. Barry, it says, is “a master storyteller… exploring the fluid border between the real and the unreal, and its relation to trauma”. (LB)

This Other Eden by Paul Harding

This is New Englander Harding’s third novel: following Enon (2013) and his 2009 debut, Tinkers, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. It is in This Other Eden, though, “that Harding’s gifts have found their fullest expression”, writes The Observer, praising “the depth of Harding’s sentences, their breathless angelic light.” Inspired by historical events, the story is set on Apple Island in early-20th Century Maine, which the mixed-race Honey family have called home for generations, until they are abruptly cast off the island. This Other Eden, writes The New York Times, is “a novel that is both devastating and meditative.” (RL)

(Credit: Random House)

Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld

In this humorous take on Hollywood romcoms, Sally Milz is a comedy TV script writer who finds herself in an unlikely relationship that skewers all her assumptions about romance. Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the hit novels American Wife and Rodham. The author, says The Guardian, “isn’t above giving readers what they want – and that’s exactly what she does in this affable, intelligently crafted tale of work and love… Throughout, the novel’s command of structure, pace and dialogue is faultless.” The Washington Post points to Sittenfeld’s “quick-paced prose”, and praises how vividly she depicts everyday life at the TV station where her protagonist works. “The work becomes terrifically exciting and reminds us how rarely we get to see what people actually do at the office.” (LB)

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