The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner plunges the reader into the heart of the women’s prison system in the US. It was described as ‘extraordinarily accomplished’ in The Spectator and has made it onto the long list for the Man Booker Prize 2018. Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut is another gripping story, this one about a young man who escapes his abusive father and heads out into the Australian wilderness. Featuring Winton’s trademark brutal lyricism, its narrative voice calls to mind Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.
Also try: Willy Vlautin’s Don’t Skip Out on Me is a moving story of a Nevada farm hand who dreams of becoming a world champion boxer. It’s another brilliant novel of cracked Americana from Vlautin, who deserves to be more widely read. Painter to the King by Amy Sackville recounts the story of Velazquez’s life and times as King Philip IV assigned artist. Although often overwrought, it will prove an interesting read for devotees of art history and challenging historical fiction.
Comic Adam Kay has scored a huge bestseller with This is Going to Hurt, his memoir about his time as a junior doctor. It’s often hilarious, regularly shocking and very sad in places. The book, which Kay wrote about for Spectator Life, takes the form of a diary, making it an ideal beach read. Once you’ve read it, you can then look forward to the TV version which is already in the offing.
Also try: Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is another big hit – it’s a humourous and truthful tale of loneliness and friendship in the modern world.
Denise Mina’s The Long Drop is a gripping novel based on the true story of the night that notorious Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel went out drinking with William Watt, a relative of some of Manuel’s victims, and a man who had been under suspicion of their murders himself. The story cuts between Mina’s reimagining of Watt and Manuel’s pub crawl and the latter’s court case – this is her first foray into ‘true crime’ and it’s a cracker.
Also try: For more true crime try, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by the late Michelle McNamara, a painstakingly researched account of the hunt for the Golden State Killer, one of America’s most infamous criminals.
Denis Johnson, who died in 2017, was a brilliant American author who flew under the radar despite his prodigious talents. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, a collection of short stories is his final work, and it’s a fine book to sign off with. His most famous book, Jesus’ Son, told beat tales of assorted addicts, drifters and criminals. While there are elements of that here, on the whole this is Johnson engaging with a more mainstream world, with salesmen and university lecturers featuring prominently. The stories are contrasting in their subject matter but are connected by Johnson’s beautifully judged prose. Doppelgänger, Poltergeist, about an Elvis Presley conspiracy theory, is a particular highlight.
Also try: Another posthumous collection for short-story lovers to try is Last Stories by William Trevor.
In a year in which two literary giants, Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth, died you might feel it’s time to either give their books a first go or revisit them. The Bonfire of the Vanities, that epic satire of 1980s New York, is the obvious place to start for Wolfe, and remains a joy to read, but The Right Stuff, his journalistic account of the US space programme, is arguably the better book. For Roth, I’d suggest beginning at the end. Nemesis, a tragic account of a polio epidemic in the author’s home patch of Newark, was his final book, and it’s magnificent. Of course, you can go straight for the biggies, such as American Pastoral, I Married a Communist or Sabbath’s Theatre, but Nemesis is a beautifully succinct and moving story that serves as a perfect introduction to Roth’s world.
Also try: 2018 marks the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, making it the ideal time to read her. Try Memento Mori, Spark’s twisted comedy about death, or her disquieting thriller The Driver’s Seat for starters. Both are short enough to read in one or two sun lounger sessions.