The Best Fiction Books » Best Fiction of 2023

Notable Novels of Summer 2023

recommended by Cal Flyn

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn

out in paperback

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape
by Cal Flyn

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New novels are piling up ready for summer 2023—but which of them should go straight to the top of your reading list? Five Books deputy editor Cal Flyn offers a round-up of some of the most notable fiction titles of the season, including eagerly anticipated novels from Emma Cline and Naoise Dolan, plus a fictionalised account of the making of a blockbuster movie by Tom Hanks.

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn

out in paperback

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape
by Cal Flyn

Read
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What are the must-read novels of summer 2023?

One of the most hotly anticipated books of summer 2023 must be Emma Cline’s new novel The Guest. Set at the end of a long hot summer on Long Island, we follow a manipulative 20-something as she infiltrates the social circles of the American elite. Cline is an able storyteller and a master narrator of the inner lives of amoral young women. It’s another hazy, intriguing tale from the author of The Girls, her bestselling 2016 story of cult-motivated murders in 1960s California. Like Sally Rooney, Cline is that rare literary beast—a critic’s darling who also sells by the shedload.

Naoise Dolan, the young author whose caustic debut Exciting Times made a splash back in 2020, will publish her second novel. The Happy Couple charts the upcoming nuptials of Luke and Celine, an Irish couple who found themselves getting engaged as an alternative to breaking up, including the perspective of several members of the wedding party. It is, The Guardian reports, “less love triangle, more sex pentangle”, so be prepared for bed-hopping and a more general debate about what it means to live happily ever after.

The book I’ve been jabbering about to anyone who will listen is Catherine Lacey’s new novel Biography of X, which is a tricksy, intriguing book comprising a faux biography set in a contemporary, but counterfactual United States. In it, the grieving widow of a renowned, controversial performance artist named ‘X’—whose iconoclastic, identity-switching work echoes that of Cindy Sherman and Sophie Calle, among others—attempts to piece together her wife’s mysterious origins, and in doing so offers a glimpse into a reality in which the American South seceded under a theocratic regime in the wake of the Second World War. It’s at once moving and bewildering, and terribly clever—quite extraordinary. If you haven’t picked up a copy yet, now’s the moment. It’s the novel other novelists have been pressing into each others’ hands.

Lorrie Moore (Birds of America, Self-Help) is best known for her masterful—and often very funny—short stories, but is also a talented novelist. Her new book I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Homebilled as “a ghost story set in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries,” will be out in June. And Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island) returns with Small Mercies, a superior thriller set in 1970s Boston in the tense months that follow a ruling aimed at desegregating local schools. A missing white girl; a black man found dead—are these the sparks that will finally set the tinderbox alight?

What about notable debuts—which first novels are making a splash in summer 2023?

Alice Winn’s In Memoriam—a love story set during the tumult of the First World War—came roaring out of the starting gates and straight into the bestseller lists. In it, two heartsick schoolboys are forced to confront their feelings for one another amid the horror of war. It’s been endorsed by such literary grandees as Maggie O’Farrell and Garth Greenwell; The New York Times has also described it as both “devastating” and “tender”. (See also: Winn’s recent Five Books interview in which she recommended five of the best WW1 novels.)

The actor Tom Hanks has published a second book, his first novel, which offers a behind-the-scenes account of the creation of a blockbuster movie: The Making of Another Major Motion Picture MasterpieceIt’s received somewhat mixed reviews (The Washington Post described it as “thoroughly engaging”; The Guardian said it was “a bland busman’s holiday”) but has already garnered plenty of column inches and will certainly find a large audience. (Hanks’ first book, a collection of short stories in which typewriters featured prominently, is reported to have sold 234,000 copies in the UK alone.)

And the American stand-up Steven Wright, known for his deadpan one-liners, has also ventured into fiction for the first time with Harold, an absurdist, stream-of-consciousness novel set over a single day in a third-grade classroom, as thoughts flit through the mind of an eight-year-old boy. As The New York Times explains, “The book’s central metaphor is a description of Harold’s thought process as a room with one window and a riot of birds flying around. Occasionally one flies out. That represents an idea. It’s a view of creativity that is random and unpredictable. Isn’t it a bit scary? What happens if the birds stop flying out?” It won’t be for everyone but it’s an interestingly experimental approach from one of the most influential comedians of our age.

Any other personal highlights?

I’m excited about Megan Nolan’s second novel, Ordinary Human Failings, which will be out in July. This is her follow-up to the incisive Acts of Desperation, which took the form of a post-mortem of an obsessive, power-imbalanced relationship. This new book follows an ambitious news reporter whose investigation into a child’s sudden death on a 1990s London housing estate leads him to an Irish immigrant family with a notorious reputation. But are they at fault? Nolan specialises in the creation of emotional landscapes so bright one can barely look at them.

Finally, look out for Caleb Azumah Nelson’s second novel Small Worlds, which was published this month in the UK and shot straight into the bestseller charts. Set in South London among its Ghanaian diaspora, this—like his first novel Open Wateris a lushly-written love story set to a powerful musical soundtrack; Small Worlds also digs deep into the immigrant experience and intergenerational trauma.

 

As ever, such a round-up can only ever offer a tiny glimpse of the wealth of newly published novels. We’d love to hear what you’ve enjoyed recently and what books you have on pre-order. Get in touch with us by email or on social media to let us know.

May 20, 2023

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Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn is a writer, journalist and the deputy editor of Five Books. She writes for The Guardian and Granta, among others. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, her nonfiction book about how nature rebounds in abandoned places, was shortlisted for numerous awards including the Baillie Gifford Prize, the Ondaatje Prize and the Wainwright Prize for writing on global conservation. She was named the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 2022.

She writes regular round-ups of the most notable new fiction, which can be found here. Her Five Books interviews with other authors are here. Follow her on Twitter: @calflyn.

Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn is a writer, journalist and the deputy editor of Five Books. She writes for The Guardian and Granta, among others. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, her nonfiction book about how nature rebounds in abandoned places, was shortlisted for numerous awards including the Baillie Gifford Prize, the Ondaatje Prize and the Wainwright Prize for writing on global conservation. She was named the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 2022.

She writes regular round-ups of the most notable new fiction, which can be found here. Her Five Books interviews with other authors are here. Follow her on Twitter: @calflyn.