Five Novels To Pre-Order Now
Plus, some excellent journalism, a new catfish yarn, a love letter that gives me hope and a TikTok that made me rofl
Bonjourno! Recently, I’ve been wanging on about how I am trying to re-read books/ tackle various classics on my bookshelf gathering dust (it’s the main reason I created Book Chat) but it cannot be denied that I also and forever love a new proof.
There’s something delicious about reading a book months before it’s out in the wild. Sometimes you can tell before even reading the book that it will be a best-seller - like if they were subject to a bidding war, or have strong pre-pub quotes, or are published by someone famous (hi, Harry). Conversely, sometimes I read a book and totally adore it - while knowing that it won’t sell well.
Here are five new novels coming for 2023 I think are great. As ever, I haven’t included any books I don’t like. I don’t mind going full critique on Book Chat, as those books are no longer in their tender infancy/ the full blast of critique, but I have no interest in doing that at a time when an author is already spending most of their time breathing into a paper bag.
I’ll do another one of these in a few months, when I’ve read some more proofs. And a little list on non-fiction, soon!
Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang (out May)
“She’d stolen my story. I was convinced of it. She’d stolen my words right out of my mouth. She’d been doing the same to everyone around her for the entirety of her career, and honestly, if I’m supposed to feel bad about getting my revenge - then fuck that.”
This is a riot. Struggling writer Juniper (our ultimate unreliable narrator) nicks her friend and best-selling novelist Athena’s manuscript while Athena chokes to death on the floor in front of her and publishes the novel as her own. The only problem is that it’s all about Chinese labourers in World War I and Juniper, who has never written about Chinese history before and has abruptly changed her surname to ‘Song’ to sound more ethnically ambiguous - is white.
Rebecca Kuang is a best-selling American novelist (of Babel) and Yellowface is a funny, sharp (occasionally slapdash) satire that will appeal to anyone even remotely familiar with the publishing world and its often oxymoronic quest for authenticity and big sales. If you liked that viral NYT piece from 2021, Bad Art Friend (which is all about friendship and ethics in art), then you will love this.
Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld (out April)
“When we nonfamous people talked to famous people, we wanted the encounter to be finished as soon as possible so that we could go describe it to our nonfamous friends.”
This is the ninth bok from one of my favourite authors, Curtis Sittenfeld, most famous for American Wife, based on Laura and George Bush and Rodham, which imagines an America where Hilary Clinton became president in 2016. (Fun/ gimp fact: I wrote my uni dissertation on her debut Prep.)
Romantic Comedy is set on a Saturday night comedy show called The Night Owls (based on Saturday Night Live) and tells the story of its sharp, cynical lead writer, Sally Milz, and her furious obsession with what she calls "the social rule": that average-looking comedians always date beautiful, famous women - but that it never happens the other way round. But then she meets a floppy-haired popstar named Noah Brewster (in my head he’s Justin Bieber crossed with Jon Bon Jovi) and finds her theory challenged... it's a brilliantly written, funny page-turner.
NB: I am very excited to be interviewing Curtis about Romantic Comedy for her UK publicity tour in April. You can buy tickets to ‘A Night in with Curtis Sittenfeld’ here.
Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan (out May)
“Grellan regarded coffee as Luke’s schtick, his leitmotif. He seemed to think nobody else drank it. When Celine had mentioned in passing last year that Luke was bisexual, Grellan had replied: ‘Ah, there you go’ - then seeing Celine’s bafflement: ‘The coffee’.
I'm a huge fan of Irish writer Naoise Dolan’s journalism and I loved her smart and sly debut novel, Exciting Times. (She was also gracious enough, that summer, to agree to an interview with me on how we can better understand autism for series 2 of Doing It Right.)
Naoise’s second novel, Happy Couple (another great title) is just as satisfying as her first, and deals with class, money, gender dynamics and bisexuality with similar ease, but is perhaps a bit more sentimental. It’s about Luke and Celine who are about to get married. They love each other - but Luke also loves his best friend Archie. And, well, Celine’s first love is the piano. So much so that she always wears a pair of white gloves - an idiosyncrasy Luke loves and rails against in equal measure. Set between London and Dublin, the novel is a beautiful exploration of love, fidelity - and whether either are compatible with marriage.
Rosewater by Liv Little (out April)
“I know for a fact that it’s possible to have mind-blowing sex without a deep spiritual connection. Sometimes there is pure fire, and it is what it is. I think about Audre' Lorde’s description of ‘fingers whispering sound’. The image of warm breath dressing a body in desire.”
The debut novel from gal-dem founder, Liv Little, tells the story of Elsie - a twenty-something South Londoner and poet who works shifts in a gay bar and casually sleeps with a roster of women to distract herself from a precarious financial situation and painful family history. The only constant in her life is her best friend, Juliet, who is as grounded as Elsie is adrift.
As Elsie’s tendency towards self-sabotage ramps up and her beloved bar faces closure, leaving Elsie penniless and rootless, the threads connecting her and Juliet fray and Elsie begins to unravel. It’s a sexy and tender book, both gritty and gentle and a homage to place in absence of family.
The Rachel Incident by Caroline O’Donoghue (out June)
“We walked that way together, and despite my longing to crack open James and live in him, it seemed like there was no time for me to ask questions. James didn’t really want to ask questions either. He wanted to make assumptions.”
The host of Sentimental Garbage is the author of two previous novels (plus a YA series) but this is her best yet - and not only for its excellent title (a riff on Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers, I imagine.) It’s about two best friends, Rachel and James - who meet in a book shop and quickly move in together - and their relationship with Rachel’s uni professor and his younger book editor wife.
I suspect reviewers might remark that it has shades of Normal People about it - because it’s about two college-aged friends and their relationship with an older, educated couple and it’s set in Ireland, which automatically sees young female novelists compared with one another. But any similarities (should) end there, because the writing style is entirely different. It’s funny, compassionate, a bit weird (but in a way that feels incidental rather than deliberate) and full of loss and love - the latter two being, I think, inextricable: to love something, is always to lose something else. I hope it nabs all the readers that it deserves.
TV, movies, docs, podcasts, poetry, letters, journalism, memes & more
A brilliant piece by Rebecca Liu for The White Review last year on the limits of female identity and personal writing by women on the internet has stuck in my brain. “The price of attention, and the means of getting it, for a girl online, is a trap. The path to your flourishing – delivering the confession – becomes indistinguishable from that of your diminishment”. Oof.
I recently watched Cutie and the Boxer, a 2013 documentary by Zachary Heinzerling about the artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, living in bickering bliss in New York. It’s intimate, quirky and clever - as a spry, sly Noriko reveals the ways in which she manages her domineering, creatively frustrated husband and creates her own art.
I was interviewed by Farrah Storr (my former editor at ELLE when I was a contributing editor for the mag) for her Substack newsletter, Things Worth Knowing. Like most journalists, I hate being interviewed (I’d rather be the interviewer!) but I love the philosophy of this column and am honoured to be part of its alumni.
Favourite article title of the year goes to Grub Street, for Welcome to my Shoppy Shop - a piece by Emily Sundberg on the ubiquity of niche food shops, aka “fancy pantry”. The Ortiz canned sardines, the Torres crisps, the Perello olives - “successfully marketing a product so that it feels local everywhere is an art”. I was nodding along to all of it.
God this made me laugh. I’m not really into mockumentaries, but this TikTok of Philomena Cunk, from the 2016 Charlie Brooker comedy Cunk on Shakespeare, quizzing a scholar on what words Shakespeare invented, is an instant mood-booster. “roflcopter?”Tiktok failed to load.
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I’m cusping on a catfish embargo (there are only so many scam stories I can ingest) but nevertheless recommend Love, Janessa, a true crime audio-doc series about Janessa Brazil: adult entertainment star and most catfished woman on the internet. Journalist Hannah Ajala, who sets out to find her, is a compelling narrator. Sweet Bobby fans, this is 4 you.
As recommended by Eva Wiseman in her excellent Guardian column, a filter DoesTheDogDie.com which “crowdsources emotional spoilers”. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked if something I have recommended includes storylines around a specific trauma. This filter allows you to avoid being caught off guard.
How could I not! David Sedaris, one of my favourite essayists, on Desert Island Discs.
I haven’t watched Women Talking (nor read Miriam Toews’ original text) but I found this piece by Mary Gaitskill incredibly thought-provoking. I really enjoy criticism when I haven’t consumed the thing it’s critiquing - I always get something out of it that is distinctly it’s own thing and in this case, it was this: “because we’ve all done it, that is, made something awful into something kooky, and, at the dinner party, sometimes awful things are kooky as hell and vice versa—even if late at night, alone, they are just hell”. I admire Mary’s commitment to nuance around sexual assault and gender dynamics - she unpicks this at length in her latest novella, This Is Pleasure, which is about a woman wondering if she was complicit in the inappropriate behaviour of an old friend.
Not to be too much of an indie slag, but I scrolled past this letter from Alex Turner to Alexa Chung the other day and was struck by its timeless loveliness. Imagine it’s a bit weird, one of your first letters to your ex-girlfriend of a decade+ ago rattling round the internet, but I hope it inspires young men to write better things to a woman after their first kiss than “that woz fun, spk soon”. Live in hope, etc etc.
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I think you mean CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS rather than NORMAL PEOPLE.
Can't wait to read Yellowface and The Rachel Incident, this is a great list.
Romantic Comedy is already one of my books of the year - and for anyone interested, my bookshop has signed copies to pre-order with silly little Curtis Sittenfeld fangirl keyrings -
I wrote about it here: