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Editors’ Picks: Notable Novels of Summer 2020

recommended by Cal Flyn

Thicker Than Water by Cal Flyn

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Thicker Than Water
by Cal Flyn

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No writer could resent you losing track of the new novels being published into the chaos of summer 2020 – with the world on lockdown and protestors taking to the streets. But fiction can offer respite from a relentless news cycle, writes Five Books deputy editor Cal Flyn – and an opportunity to consider our own lives and choices through the prism of others'.

Thicker Than Water by Cal Flyn

By the author

Thicker Than Water
by Cal Flyn

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What are the best new novels of summer 2020?

It is a difficult time in which to launch a new novel. After lockdown, quarantine and shelter-in-place measures came into effect around the world, book events and literary festivals were cancelled or indefinitely postponed, bookshops closed and supply chains stuttered to a halt. Many authors and publishers opted to postpone the publication of books scheduled for summer 2020 as a result – but some did not, so there has still been plenty of notable new writing being released, even if sometimes it has struggled to attract attention against a constantly whirling backdrop of world events.

Keen readers, therefore, must take extra care to take note of recent publications this summer – especially those from less established writers – and to champion the best new books wherever they can. To that end, I have gathered some of the most notable new novels of summer 2020 – recently released or coming soon – that I believe deserve your attention in a time when attention is hard to come by.

What might we have missed?

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s moving portrait of a marriage troubled by mental ill-health, Starling Days, was published last year in the United Kingdom to critical acclaim (and was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award), but is only recently out in the United States and Canada. Full of a quiet grace and tenderness, the book opens in the aftermath of what appears to have been a suicide attempt by Mina, a Classics scholar, on George Washington Bridge. From here, Mina and her partner Oscar face an uncertain future. Softly spoken and perceptive, it is a book that asks us what it means to live when you’re not sure you want to – and how it feels to act as spectator to someone else’s pain.

Other titles already out include Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, a haunting, three-stranded novel about women separated by time but linked by male brutality. As in Wyld’s previous novels (the superlative All the Birds, Singing and After the Fire, A Still, Small Voice), she deploys here an ingeniously complex structure that jumps back and forth through centuries, bringing into alignment events generations apart so that we might view their commonalities. Lucid, menacing and masterfully constructed.

Who are the new writers to watch?

There have been some very strong literary debuts over the last couple of months – and none more notable than the British writer Paul Mendez’s bold and assured Rainbow Milk. Glowingly endorsed by such literary heavyweights as Bernardine Evaristo and Marlon James, the semi-autobiographical Rainbow Milk unfolds in two parts, the first episode – a sort of a prologue – focuses upon Norman, a Jamaican ex-boxer loosely based on Mendez’s grandfather, who emigrates to an often hostile 1950s Britain; the second follows Jesse, a young, gay, black man as he is disfellowshipped by his community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, moves to London and begins to take clients as a sex worker. Later he finds new fellowship in the literary world. As with the Wyld book, these paired experiences illustrate the way violence and prejudice reverberate and mutate over decades, but it too is taken up with the yearning for tenderness and connection. Jesse’s story in particular is raw and powerful, offering unflinching descriptions of sex and desire, and it will make you feel alive.

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Also making a splash has been Kate Elizabeth Russell’s bestselling My Dark Vanessa, an account of a relationship between a male teacher and a precocious teenage pupil, through the eyes of the woman that girl grew into. When her ex-lover is publicly accused by another former student, Vanessa is forced to reframe what has until now appeared to her the defining romantic relationship of her life as one of rape and abuse. Bleakly discomfiting, My Dark Vanessa offers a a vivid depiction of vulnerability and the lifelong impact of grooming.

Naoise Dolan’s entertaining first novel Exciting Times has just been released in the US, having shot straight into the bestseller charts in the UK and Ireland. Set in Hong Kong, a cynical Irish TEFL teacher falls in with a fast crowd of Oxbridge and Trinity College, Dublin graduates when she starts sleeping with the cold fish Old Etonian Julian, and turns a gimlet eye upon the brash, neo-colonial attitudes of his privileged friends. But when she falls for Mei Ling (“Edith”), a beautiful and hardworking lawyer, she is forced to reckon with what it means to be earnest. Crammed with rapier-sharp one-liners and an almost academic analysis of social interaction, Exciting Times’ caustic wit made me laugh out loud, then nod in agreement.

Who else is publishing novels in summer 2020?

Maggie O’Farrell’s lyrical eighth novel, Hamnet – a fictionalised account of the short life of Shakespeare’s son – appeared during the height of Covid-19 panic, so don’t miss out; the Booker Prize-winning Irish author Roddy Doyle (Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha) saw the UK release of his new Love pushed to October, but it should still appear in late June on the other side of the Atlantic. Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games fantasy trilogy for young adults, has published her highly anticipated prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakeswhich offers a backstory for the detestable bad-guy President Snow. Panem is bereft of our heroine Katniss Everdeen, but it will be a valued addition to any fan’s bookshelf, young or old.

Any personal highlights?

One of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, Catherine Lacey (Nobody Is Ever Missing), is releasing her fourth book, Pew – a creepy tale set in a small Southern town, in which a stranger of indistinguishable gender and ethnicity pitches up in the local church, and is soon hearing the confessions of the town’s residents as they prepare for their ominously-named Forgiveness Festival: Rachel Cusk meets Shirley Jackson. A modern day fable about what we project onto others. It’s out now in the UK, and will appear in July in the US.

I’m also very keen on the American writer Kate Zambreno’s Drifts: a wise and fragmentary autofictional work. In it, a novelist working on a never-ending book sweats over her journals but after seven years – like Kafka and Rilke in their time, as she notes – finds herself disheartened by how little she has to show for it. It reminded me of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, specifically her protagonist’s obsession with ‘art monsters’ – those one-track-minded geniuses who forsake all else on their path to glory. Drifts also has perhaps my favourite ever epigraph (César Aira: “It should be remembered that the bulk of the work they were doing was preliminary: sketches, notes, jottings.”) which I have pinned up above my desk, for solace on my less productive days.

Sophie Mackintosh’s Blue Ticket is probably the summer 2020 novel I most feverishly awaited. It’s due to be published later this month in the US, and has been pushed to August in the UK in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. I can promise you that it is worth the wait: if you enjoyed her hallucinatory first book The Water Cure, then you will be delighted with Blue Ticket, which offers another eerily-dreamlike dystopia – this time, set in a world in which young women are randomly allotted their role in life at the onset of puberty (motherhood or childlessness) – that is, they are relieved of the burden of ‘having-it-all’. We meet Calla, a female chemist whose hedonistic lifestyle grinds to a halt when she feels herself driven to impregnate herself against all rules.

As with so much speculative fiction, this fantasy world – so alike ours in many ways, and yet so alien in others – offers the opportunity to make close study of aspects of our own society in a vacuum, that is: without the usual baggage that comes with political debate. There’s a beautifully poignant moment when a group of on-the-run pregnant ‘blue ticket’ women take in a ‘white ticket’ woman outlaw who refuses children, an inversion of their own situation, in an awkward yet sympathetic stand-off that spoke much to my and my peers’ present circumstances.

What novels do we have to look forward to in late summer 2020?

Coming up this summer, and available on pre-order now, are new novels from Five Books alumnus Daisy Johnson (Sisters), and the beloved Australian author Kate Grenville (A Room Made of Leaves), while Eley Williams – author of the fantastically experimental 2017 short story collection Attrib. and other stories – will publish her first full length novel The Liar’s Dictionary.

Ali Smith is to publish the final book of her seasonal quartet, Summerin early August, while the cult Italian novelist Elena Ferrante will release The Lying Life of Adults, both of which represent major literary events. Look out too for DBC Pierre’s Meanwhile in Dopamine City and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom come August. Plus be sure to pre-order your copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Jackdue in late September.

It’s been a stressful and disconcerting time, these last few months – and there’s no clear end point in sight. Many have been struggling to concentrate on fiction, but for me fiction has always offered an escape, a distraction, food for the soul. So: keep up with new publications if you can, and support the writers who produce them by buying their work, spreading the word and attending online events where you can.

Let us know what novels you are enjoying in summer 2020, by getting in touch on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

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Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn is a writer, journalist and the deputy editor of Five Books. She has been a contributing editor for The Week magazine and a reporter for The Sunday Times and the Telegraph. Her writing has appeared in Granta, The Guardian, Prospect, The Sunday Times Magazine and others. She is the author of Thicker Than Water, a work of narrative non-fiction about colonialism in Australia, and the forthcoming Islands of Abandonment. She was made a fellow of the MacDowell Colony in 2019.

Cal regularly interviews experts on the subject of literary fiction and nonfiction, nature, environment and psychology: find those interviews gathered here. She also writes regular round-ups of the best new books, which can be browsed here. Follow her on Twitter: @calflyn.

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Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn is a writer, journalist and the deputy editor of Five Books. She has been a contributing editor for The Week magazine and a reporter for The Sunday Times and the Telegraph. Her writing has appeared in Granta, The Guardian, Prospect, The Sunday Times Magazine and others. She is the author of Thicker Than Water, a work of narrative non-fiction about colonialism in Australia, and the forthcoming Islands of Abandonment. She was made a fellow of the MacDowell Colony in 2019.

Cal regularly interviews experts on the subject of literary fiction and nonfiction, nature, environment and psychology: find those interviews gathered here. She also writes regular round-ups of the best new books, which can be browsed here. Follow her on Twitter: @calflyn.