Books to light up lazy days: Boyd Tonkin picks the best in glittering global literature

As all eyes settle on South Africa, we should remember another international tradition that crosses continents in its search for moments of magic
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From media loudmouths to supermarket special offers, the brashest messengers around us have yelled a simple story about the events that begin in South Africa today. On the one hand, we are told, half the nation will now sink into a beer-befuddled month-long obsessive trance in which the minutiae of Slovakia's encounter with Paraguay in Bloemfontein will count for more than any matter of the heart and home – or even of life and death, as Bill Shankly reputedly said. On the other, an equal share of the population – mostly but not exclusively defined by differing chromosomes – will settle down to the separatist bliss of evenings of rom-com DVDs, glasses of cut-price rosé, and merrily unchaperoned outings to watch Sex and the City 2.

Dare I suggest that many people might be just a little more complicated than that? Not a few people (of whatever gender) who enjoy watching the odd football match might also fancy reading their way into other parts of the planet over the coming weeks. The personal choice of new fiction for the summer that follows does not pretend to be an escape from the World Cup. For a start, it includes one novel (Eshkol Nevo's World Cup Wishes, from Israel) with a plot that pivots on soccer fandom and the group loyalties – and tensions – that spring from it.

Another (David Trueba's Learning to Lose, from Spain) has as one of its principal characters a figure richly typical of our times, but conspicuously absent from serious fiction: the young, impressionable footballer whisked from one country to another and marooned among strangers. To his credit, Sebastian Faulks, in his 2009 novel A Week in December, also took the trouble to create a migrant star – in that case, a quizzical Polish striker in London. Mostly, however, our stereotype-ridden culture tries to compel us to agree that if you love x, you should loathe y. So good fiction (and the folk who appreciate it) must huddle in one camp, good football (and ditto) in another. It's a game of two halves.

Or, perhaps, not. The new or newly translated novels in my list come from five continents and embody an international art, and business, that in its global reach has few parallels. Apart from music and movies, one of the only other activities that matches it for planetary coverage is – football itself. Any hulking multinational can standardise auto parts or chocolate bars and flood the world with them. To globalise a sense of soul, and the brand of thrilling narrative that gives it form, takes a finer kind of skill.

Both arts – or both businesses – have a history steeped in the routes, and rhythms of globalisation. Football famously evolved from a scrum for muddied village oafs into a widely exported British trademark of empire and commerce that the locals soon began to adopt, adapt and improve. Fiction, flag-waving scholars used to argue, moved in much the same direction, spreading out from its modern roots in 18th-century middle-class Britain to the rest of Europe, then to the rest of the world. Now we hear a far more mixed story of its origins. Without Cervantes and Don Quixote, no British or European novel – but without medieval Arab, Persian, Indian and other "oriental" types of tale, no Cervantes either. Even further back, the romances and satires of ancient Greece and Rome can also lay claim to a large share in the novel's genetic inheritance. Contemporary fiction, it turns out, draws historically on a talent pool quite as broad and deep as that of a Premiership club with a chequebook-waving billionaire backer.

All of which takes us a fair distance from the question of what to read when that clincher between Honduras and Switzerland fails to thrill. This entirely subjective selection of novels – all of them first published in Britain this year – includes new work from some of the towering figures in global fiction today. It also has a sprinkling of high-grade beach reads and some idiosyncratic takes on the sort of places and people that seldom find their way into mainstream "summer fiction" picks.

If this global picnic spread shows just how much of the world and its stories now fall within the remit of authors who write originally in English, it also offers a generous portion of novels that come to us thanks to the indispensable craft, and art, of the translator. Whether you want to shut out, or to complement, the action on the pitch, something here should match almost every mood. And, however you rate their authors' performance, none will ever force you to bury your heart thanks to a cracked toe, a strained groin or even a wounded knee.

The House Of The Mosque

Kader Abdolah, trans. Susan Massotty (Canongate £12.99)

Dutch-based, but raised in Iran, Abdolah in this richly sensuous novel recaptures the country of his youth as the Shah's regime begins to crack and Islamic revolution nears. The family of Aqa Jaan, rooted deeply in provincial life and its lore, registers past and present through legend rather than news. Yet the shifting realities of power impinge on remote Senejan, as a mythical realm collides with the iron dogmas of the new regime.

Mornings in Jenin

Susan Abulhawa (Bloomsbury £11.99)

Billed as the first mainstream English-language novel of the Palestinian experience after 1948, Abulhawa's saga of displacement and exile ought to open hearts and may even change minds. Three generations of one family undergo explusion, persecution, refugee-camp confinement and then a scattering across the oceans. The lurching life of the patriarch's granddaughter, Amal, serves as the focus for a whole people's tragedy.

Parrot and Olivier in America

Peter Carey (Faber & Faber £18.99)

An Australian in the US for two decades, Carey transmits his outsider's perspective through a vivid historical lens. In the early 19th-century, a vagabond French nobleman (inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville) and his earthy English servant discover the brash young republic. Comic, eccentric, full of droll surprises, this engaging ramble through the life and language of the times finds a new way to address the old transatlantic love-hate affair.

Spooner

Pete Dexter (Atlantic £12.99)

Somewhere in the weird badlands between 'Forrest Gump' and Richard Ford, this undervalued Southern novelist builds a winningly digressive all-American Bildungsroman out of a rackety career. Ill-starred from birth, Warren Spooner drifts from backwoods Georgia into doomed stabs at baseball and journalism, seeking to please his god-like step-dad, Calmer. Dexter's winding road charms even when its destination seems obscure.

Theodora

Stella Duffy (Virago £15.99)

For her first venture into historical fiction, Duffy aims high indeed: the legendary life of Theodora, "actress, empress, whore". In sixth-century Byzantium, the girl with nothing rose from turning every trick imaginable at the circus and elsewhere to supreme power as a skilled, shrewd consort of Justinian. How did she do it? Baffled or bigoted historians still find a mystery in her ascent; this fiction delivers colourful, compelling answers.

The Betrayal

Helen Dunmore (Fig Tree £18.99)

Admirers of Dunmore's 'The Siege' will need little prompting to re-visit her Soviet Leningrad, depicted a decade after the city's near-death experience at Nazi hands. In 1952, survivors Anna and Andrei, teacher and doctor, must now outwit the enemy within as Stalin's senile tyranny wraps its fingers around their family. As before, a backdrop of dread and risk allows Dunmore to savour everyday sensation and emotion with lyrical intensity.

Solar

Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape £17.99)

Beyond its climate-change topicalities, McEwan's first overtly comic novel promises sunshine on several other fronts. His idling Nobel laureate Michael Beard, a brilliant buffoon, furnishes a mordantly witty portrait of genius gone to seed. Meanwhile, Beard's adventures in search of scientific salvation – from Reading to the Arctic, Berlin to New Mexico – generate some sparkling scenes from a frantic, carbon-gulping life on the move.

The Memory of Love

Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury £17.99)

Readers who know of Forna's roots in Sierra Leone might expect this novel to trace a familiar tale of naïve outsiders doing their baffled best in a war-ravaged land. Those elements do find a place as, in Freetown, psychologist Adrian pursues his mission to heal strife-shattered minds. But this is a far subtler book than its headline theme implies, as his encounters with locals young and old lead Adrian deep into the secrets of memory and desire.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

Rebecca Goldstein (Atlantic £12.99)

If brain craves a strenuous work-out while body relaxes, Goldstein has the programme – and it comes fizzing with smart jokes as well. In a narrative that perms campus satire with an ambitious novel-of-ideas about religious belief, New England academic Cass tumbles into celebrity as a media-friendly, sort-of-soulful atheist. The mishaps that his fame brings allow Goldstein's sophisticated comic art to frolic in the gulf between faith and facts.

Everything Flows

Vasily Grossman, trans. by Robert Chandler (Harvill Secker £15.99)

Finished in 1963, this blazing testament – a kind of essayistic fiction – by the author of 'Life and Fate' hardly counts as a new book; but this is its UK debut. Freed from the Gulag after Stalin's death, Ivan embarks on a journey around his blighted past and into the hidden history of the Soviet Union. Case by moving case, crime by hideous crime, he uncovers not the errors of a madman or a clique, but the bone-deep corruption of an entire system.

We, the Drowned

Carsten Jensen, trans. Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder (Harvill Secker £10.95)

Jensen's epic tale of Danish seafarers is broad in the beam, sumptuously rigged, but swift and nimble when it gets under sail. From one generation to the next, intrepid and/or reckless mariners sail from Marstal harbour to leave their mark on the world and win a place in local lore. From frozen Canada to tropical South Seas, these venturesome Danes skipper a story that steers a course between the pull of the exotic and the lure of home.

Serious Men

Manu Joseph (John Murray £18.99)

The finest comic novelists know that a small world can illuminate a culture and an age. With this funny-sad debut, Joseph does just that for surging, fractious India. At the elite "Institute", lowly Ayyan toils as gofer for a grand astronomer and dreams of betterment. Arvind the lofty star-gazer sets his sights ever higher in galaxies of science and sex. Between them and their dreams looms the gravitional force of Indian – and human – reality.

What the Day Owes the Night

Yasmina Khadra, trans. Frank Wynne (Heinemann £12.99)

An Algerian former counter-terrorist agent who writes Middle Eastern political thrillers under a pseudonym, Khadra here returns home, and digs deeper into the roots of violence. This tale of family, love and war unfolds in Algeria before and during the armed revolt that led to independence. Caught between two worlds, its hero, Younes, is a sympathetic witness to the doctrines that divide people, and to the passions that may reunite them.

The Long Song

Andrea Levy (Headline Review £18.99)

In some ways a prequel to 'Small Island', Levy's lush testament plunges into Jamaican plantation life in the 1830s. Outright slavery yields to rebellion and, with abolition, gruelling exploitation. Miss July's voice, remembering this history, has a mischief to match its splendour. An age of servitude is summoned up with an eye for humour as well as heartbreak. Our storyteller's jaunty spirit leavens the pain she recalls, but never masks it.

The Wilding

Maria McCann (Faber & Faber £12.99)

Any readers still worried – even after 'Wolf Hall' – that English historical fiction must involve bodice-ripping fol-de-rol should succumb to McCann. After her Civil War imbroglio 'As Meat Loves Salt', here she sets her tale in a Restoration backwater where bloody conflict has left trauma in its wake. Language and setting both shine as cider-maker Jonathan is squeezed by universal moral dilemmas that ripen on this vividly local patch of ground.

Tiger Hills

Sarita Mandanna (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £18.99)

If this summer requires a must-read blockbuster, this debut should fill the beach-bag nicely. A leisurely family saga that unwinds from the 1870s to 1930s, it takes us to the Coorg highlands of southern India, and a tortuous love triangle among coffee-growing clans. As it tangles like the jungle and rolls like the hills, Mandanna's cross-generational melodrama seasons its soapy pleasures with lavish evocations of the landscapes and the times.

Train to Budapest

Dacia Maraini, trans. Silvester Mazzarella (Arcadia £11.99)

One of Italy's foremost writers, Maraini here turns the last century's most troubling pages as she sends her young heroine back into the darkness of recent history. In 1956, journalist Amara sets off on a fearful, exciting quest through central Europe – now in the throes of fresh upheavals. She is seeking the fate of Emanuele, a Jewish childhood friend from Florence. Her meetings en route build into a rich panorama of a continent still in shock.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell (Sceptre £18.99)

Although not a standard period-piece, Mitchell's latest tour de force does veer closer than past work to the mainstream historical page-turner And how the pages turn! In Nagasaki harbour, as the 19th century dawns, both the Dutch trading port and the walled-off empire of Japan itself face crises. Via young Jacob and his local counterparts, Mitchell evokes culture-wars and turning-points with brio, virtuosity – and a new depth of empathy.

World Cup Wishes

Eshkol Nevo, trans. Sondra Silverston (Chatto & Windus £12.99)

In Tel Aviv, in 1998, four friends prepare to gorge on World Cup TV and make wishes for the years to come. By 2002, will they have scored or flopped? Nevo, an ascending star of Israeli fiction, transforms this rather schematic device into the trigger for an exploration of the strains of everyday life against a backdrop of endless emergency. Subtly, tragically, the conflict enters their souls as time, and war, take their toll on hope.

The Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk, trans. Maureen Freely (Faber & Faber £18.99)

From the 1970s, when cocky (and engaged) Istanbul rich kid Kemal falls for shopgirl Fusun, Pamuk's most densely intimate novel stretches over 30 years of a changing society – and an enduring love. All of Pamuk's passion for his home city, and his gift for imbuing every scrap of its life with magic, finds expression in his sumptuous telling of this affair and its aftermath. Like Joyce, or Proust, Pamuk can raise domestic details on to a truly epic plane.

The Forty Rules of Love

Elif Shafak (Viking £12.99)

A lonely US housewife discovers the mystical poetry of Rumi, and love for the writer who brings it to her. It sounds like a recipe for new-age whimsy, but fans of this bold, cliché-averse Turkish novelist will expect much more. Ella's bewitchment by Scottish-born "Aziz" runs in parallel with the story of the poet and his mentor in medieval Konya. The dual narrative is marked by skittish wit and a far from soppy respect for the mysteries of every life.

Ilustrado

Miguel Syjuco (Picador £17.99)

For many, the Philippines and its pulsing energies remain a blank space on the map. No longer, after this seethingly ambitious debut. The death of a literary mentor in New York and a lost manuscript thrust its narrator into a phantasmagoric Manila, a city of clashing media and languages as well as a corrupt, cornucopian tropical metropolis. US critics have cited 'Bolano' as an obvious comparison; others may think of 'Midnight's Children'-era Rushdie.

The Swimmer

Roma Tearne (HarperCollins £18.99)

Broodingly atmospheric, this novel anchored in one sharply etched corner of England shows now close the near and far can come. On the Suffolk coast, a lonely woman's life is shaken from its course by an encounter with a refugee from Sri Lanka. While, in its different women's lives, the plot digs into grief and solitude, the ordeal of Ben yokes local cares to global woes. Without a hint of preaching, Tearne fuses intimate and public experience.

Sex & Stravinsky

Barbara Trapido (Bloomsbury £18.99)

South African-born, British-based, Trapido has a rare knack of using the breadth of outlook that this double vision brings to deepen her smart comedies of character and coincidence. Here, Caroline (Australian) and Josh (South African) attempt to synchronise their complicated English lives – themes of performance recur - as disruptive forces from the past emerge. The book's African dimensions balance and sharpen its witty family plot.

Trespass

Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus £17.99)

Set in the lovely but doomy hills of the Cevennes in France, this pastoral mystery depicts two ill-assorted sets of older people haunted by their pasts. Antiques dealer Anthony seeks a refuge from London disappointment and a twilight haven for his memories; the local Lunels nurse the furies of their feud. With an equal talent for entrancing landscape and chilling suspense, Tremain delivers a satisfying death-blow to place-in-the-sun escapism.

Learning to Lose

David Trueba, trans. Mara Faye Lethem (Portobello £8.99)

A screenwriter and director in Spain, Trueba in this involving ensemble piece shows a cinematic flair for the way urban lives intersect – and collide. Crash-style, a car accident in Madrid wraps the fates of a teenager and her father around that of a promising football pro just arrived from Buenos Aires; his career is captured with a rare insight. Against the isolation of the big city, the urge to connect with others binds a snaking, swerving tale.

The Secret History of Costaguana

Juan Gabriel Vasquez, trans.Anne McLean (Bloomsbury £16.99)

A writer who haunts writers, Joseph Conrad and his mysterious career has seldom bred a finer sequel-cum-tribute than this. Vasquez, a leading new light of Colombian literature, returns to the 1900s world of Nostromo, the building of the Panama Canal, and the fretful stand-off between fiction and history. Via the parallel figure of Jose Altamirano, a witness to Colombia's reality, the truths – and lies – of fiction come playfully, tragically, to light.

Dark Matter

Juli Zeh, trans. Christine Lo (Harvill Secker £12.99)

This German thriller-of-ideas manages to intrigue and entertain while still packing quite an intellectual punch. Physicists Sebastian and Oskar debate the nature of reality with friendly detachment – spiked with long-standing rivalry. Then a shocking crime poses a horribly material challenge to their notions of chance, order and design. Enter a hang-dog detective with ideas of his own, and theory confronts practice to clever and gripping effect.

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