1. Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson
For her debut book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, published in 1995, Kate Atkinson received the Whitbread (later Costa) medal. Since then, she has released a number of books, including the critically praised Life After Life (2013), which was last year turned into a BBC TV series and two of which were also awarded Costa prizes. Shrines of Gaiety, a film about an infamous businesswoman who runs a string of Soho nightclubs, is full of sensuality, intrigue, and vice. It is set amid the dancers, drinkers, and gangsters of “Roaring” 1920s London. Shrines of Gaeity is, according to The New York Times, “a cocktail of fizz and melancholy, generously poured,” while Atkinson is “a keenly sympathetic observer of human foibles, one who can sketch a character in one quicksilver sentence“. The novel is “a marvel of plate-spinning narrative knowhow,” writes The Observer.
2. Cult Classic by Sloane Crosley
Best-selling In order to create a New York City anti-rom-com that is also a satire on internet millennial life, Sloane Crosley, a writer for the New York Times, blended themes of love, luck, and hipsterism. Publishers Weekly describes Cult Classic as “a witty and fantastical story of dating and experimental psychology in New York City… Thoroughly hilarious [and] sharply perceptive… Crosley has found the perfect fictional subject for her gimlet eye”. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, says: “Crosley’s writing is as funny as ever, with a great line or clever observation on nearly every page… Her fascinating conceits – entertaining and compelling in their own right – are the engines of the narrative, but her insights into contemporary life are the fuel.”
3. Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart
In his second book, Douglas Stuart, the Booker Prize-winning author of Shuggie Bain (2020), tells the poignant queer love story of Protestant Mungo and Catholic James, who meet on a Glasgow council estate in the post-Thatcher era and fall in love. “Young Mungo is a suspense story wrapped around a novel of acute psychological observation. It’s hard to imagine a more disquieting and powerful work of fiction will be published anytime soon about the perils of being different,” says Maureen Corrigan, book critic of NPR’s Fresh Air. “If the first novel announced Stuart as a novelist of great promise, this confirms him as a prodigious talent,” writes Alex Preston in The Observer.
4. The Candy House by Jennifer Egan
In the 2011 book A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Bix Bouton appeared in a supporting role. Now that The Candy House has opened, he is back as a digital visionary looking for his next “utopian idea” as CEO of the enormous internet company Mandala. The novel’s investigation of the loss of privacy in the digital age and how technology flips the world upside down is sparked by Bouton’s creation, Own Your Unconscious. Meanwhile, the underlying temptation metaphor of Hansel and Gretel’s “candy house” permeates the book. It is an “exhilarating, deeply pleasurable” novel, says Prospect, while The New York Times calls it “a spectacular palace built out of rabbit holes”.
5. Either/Or by Elif Batuman
In a sequel to her 2017 Pulitzer Prize-nominated debut novel The Idiot, Selin Karadag, a Russian literature student in her second year at Harvard University in 1996, continues her experiences in Batuman’s semi-autobiographical second book. Soren muses on the meaning of life through the Danish philosopher’s thesis of the choice between morality and hedonism, using her literature syllabus as her guide. She begins by reading Kierkegaard’s famous philosophical work. “Either/Or is a sequel that amplifies the meaning of its predecessor while expanding its philosophical ambit,” writes Charles Arrowsmith in The Washington Post, while Sophie Haigney in The New Republic praises Batuman’s “brilliant, funny observations.”
6. Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson
Margo Jefferson combines critique with narrative in her follow-up to 2015’s Negroland, recounting personal events and family members she has lost in addition to jazz greats, artists, and authors she admires. The seasoned critic tackles the central issue of black female identity by drawing on a rich life filled with cultural experiences and new thinking about the role race has played in her life. “Her approach is an almost poetic presentation of fragments of her experiences as they ricocheted off artists whose work and lives she has found meaningful,” says The Washington Post. “It’s an extraordinary reading experience – the first book I recall wanting to reread immediately after reaching the end.” Or, as The Observer puts it: “It is impossible not to be stirred by her odes to fellow black American strivers of excellence.”
7. In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom
According to Hephzibah Anderson in The Guardian, the memoir is “a courageous howl.” After learning that her husband had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2019, author and psychotherapist Bloom set out to help him end his life. This experience is chronicled in the book In Love. The story moves around, describing the difficulties and bureaucratic red tape Bloom faces as well as the moral dilemmas surrounding assisted suicide, all the while painting a vivid portrait of her husband, the architect Brian Ameche, with wisdom, compassion, and a touch of gloom. The memoir acts as a powerful testament to the couple’s “stickily close” and tender relationship, as Bloom, writes Salley Vickers, also in The Guardian: “has written about him [Brian] with all the brave-spirited, undaunted love to which the book bears stupendous witness.”
8. Love Marriage by Monica Ali
In the tragicomic book Love Marriage, Yasmin, a junior doctor and obedient daughter, learns to question her preconceived notions about those around her as her wedding day approaches. Yasmin must reflect on what a “love marriage” actually entails when secrets, deceit, and infidelity are revealed in both her family and that of her betrothed. This is Monica Ali’s most well-received work since 2003’s Brick Lane, which was a finalist for the Booker Prize. It is a “rich, sensitive and gloriously entertaining novel – her fifth, and possibly her best,” says the TLS, and “juggles so many questions and plot lines that we keep expecting one of them to break free and become detached… yet everything remains utterly coherent and convincing.” The Spectator praises the novel too: “It dares to be deliberately funny,” it says, and is “absolutely terrific… genuinely touching.”
9. Tiepolo Blue by James Cahill
A reclusive 40-something Cambridge art historian named Don Lamb is currently writing a monograph on the works of the titular 18th-century Venetian master. In 1994, when the contemporary art world is undergoing fast change, Lamb is transferred from Cambridge to manage a gallery in South London. There, he meets Ben, a young artist who introduces him to the city’s hedonistic nightlife and forces him to face his sexuality. Tiepolo Blue combines “formal elegance with gripping storytelling,” writes the FT. “[Its] delicious unease and pervasive threat give this assured first novel great singularity and a kind of gothic edge,” writes Michael Donkor in The Guardian.
10. Fire Island: Love, Loss and Liberation in an American Paradise by Jack Parlett
Jack Parlett includes his own autobiographical asides in his reflective look back at the well-known LGBT party island in New York. The end product is a widely praised place-based narrative about hedonism, reinvention, and release. The New York Times says: “[Parlett’s] concise, meticulously researched, century-spanning chronicle of queer life on Fire Island captures, with a plain-spoken yet lyric touch, the locale’s power to stun and shame, to give pleasure and symbolise evanescence.” The book examines the culture and social hierarchies of Fire Island’s communities, and it is filled with references to the mid-century literati, including WH Auden, James Baldwin, and Patricia Highsmith. “Utopias tend to be flawed in revealing ways,” says the TLS, and this “sets the tone for an island history that’s deeply felt and keenly judged.”