Summer Reading

​Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

This beautifully written novel is a subtle examination of the effects of Victorian imperial ambition on both the lives of the indigenous people of South Australia and on those seeking to subjugate them. The novel follows one English family, the Finches, telling their story through the eyes of the eldest daughter Hester. It chronicles her initial feelings of duty and responsibility towards her family which are gradually undermined by the growing conflict she witnesses between the beliefs they claim to espouse and the way in which they behave. This is thrown into sharp relief when a boy from the Ngarrindjeri tribe becomes a part of their lives. Wonderful characters people this book, where the personal seamlessly unveils the political, against the backdrop of the stunning yet often brutal Australian landscape.

​The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The heroes of classical antiquity are brought alive by Miller’s sensual and original language as she follows the life of Achilles from childhood to his destiny in Troy. However, it is the figure of Patroclus who really takes centre stage at least for the first part of the novel. It is chiefly through this character that Miller finds a way of reinterpreting the classical world in a way which gives the book an emotional realism for the modern reader. It is a book, essentially, about decisions and destiny but is rich in the nuances of a developing relationship and contains some beautiful writing which makes the physical world the author describes vivid and affecting.

​The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen

This book contains many of the key elements I love about Scandinavian fiction: an isolated and harshly beautiful setting, a spare yet moving prose style and characters who appear to be living simply yet are unconsciously addressing some of life’s most fundamental concerns. In telling the story of Hans Barroy and his family, Roy Jacobsen shows us at close quarters what it means to live when life has to be built daily, with the characters’ bare hands and the support of their small familial community.

​Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

I was initially dazzled by the cover of this book, and being interested in Art, New York and the ‘80s, was desperate to start reading. In the prologue we meet the young artist Raul and his mother in a heart-breaking situation during a Résistance meeting in a basement in Buenos Aires. Then Tuesday Nights in 1980 becomes an emotionally charged journey through New York’s underground art scene following Lucy as she embarks on her first time away from the comforts of home back in Idaho, and is suddenly thrown into the hedonistic world of radical artists, journalists and collectors, with Raul at the heart of everything. I think fans of Armistead Maupin and Kate Atkinson will love this book.

​Where the Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt

This is a travelogue with a difference, rather than following established trails, it traces the paths of the European winds. Nick Hunt explores the personification of the winds as gods, as well as clearly explaining the development of meteorological understanding and the history of reading the weather. He entertainingly reports his journeys into the wild winds, including Helm that races over Cross Fell in the Pennines. His writing is full of fascinating side trips into the history, landscape, culture of place and the people he meets along the way.

​We Were the Salt of the Sea by Roxanne Bouchard

This is an original, poetic, yet often very funny novel, about the search for identity through family history and the relationships we have both with individuals, and the wider community in which we live. Catherine Day is searching for mother, Marie Garant. She’s travelled to Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula where she hopes to track her down. But instead she finds a mystery surrounding Marie’s death and a group of locals who all seem to want to thwart her search. Add to this a newly arrived police inspector who’s undergoing his own relationship crisis, and you have all the ingredients for what is actually a very unusual crime novel. In its lyrical language, humorous and complicated characters it’s a wonderful depiction of a community undergoing change, reflection, revelation and finally resolution.

​A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

A recent favourite with our Cogito book group, this book is a witty life affirming read, with supremely intelligent writing and Spark’s unfailing eye for razor sharp satire. Centre stage is the rather majestic figure of Mrs Hawkins, a young war widow battling with the pretensions, machinations and general madness of the publishing industry. The author pleasurably weaves an eccentric mystery into the lives of her wonderfully drawn characters, while Nancy Hawkins is a true literary heroine, blazing with integrity.

​Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

Set on board an Australia bound ocean liner just before the outbreak of World War II, this mystery novel is a clever blending of golden age crime and contemporary perspectives on class, gender and racial politics. Lily Shepherd is heading for a new life in Australia, concealing a tragic past, and trying to fit in with the disparate group of individuals she meets on board. But in the claustrophobic environs of the ship, alliances are forged and broken, and the mysterious death of a troubled woman Lily has befriended creates a febrile tension amongst the passengers which heightens dangerously as they near their destination. This is a superbly atmospheric, brilliantly paced novel; peopled by complex flawed characters whose secrets are only slowly revealed to the reader.

​Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss

I read this a few years ago and since we’re heading over to Iceland this summer, I suggested that my husband read it too. It has reminded me what a brilliant book this is and how much I enjoy Sarah’s writing. An honest, intimate and funny account of a year spent living in Iceland, a country on the edge of Europe where the latest technologies exist alongside elves and hermits. While living and working in Reykjavik, Sarah Moss explored the wild, evolving landscapes of volcanoes and icefields, learned the intricacies of Icelandic cuisine, watched the northern lights and gradually adapted to a new way of life with her family.

​The Visible World by Mark Slouka

A sweeping wartime love story that spans decades and continents, from New York to Czechoslovakia, the 1940s to the present day. Beautifully written in prose that is somehow lush and economical at the same time, this novel skilfully blends romance, history, memoir, mystery and adventure.

​Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Set against the backdrop of New York as it emerges from the Depression, this novel is a sparkling, witty portrayal of people trying to find their place in a changing world. The style and dialogue is a real treat - a great homage to thirties Hollywood, yet the characters still manage to navigate thought provoking choppy moral waters as their stories progress. Although very different from his latest novel A Gentleman in Moscow, this book is alive with the author’s dextrous use of language in his creation of wonderful atmosphere and characters.

​Tin Man by Sarah Winman

I very much enjoyed Sarah Winman’s first two books, particularly When God was a Rabbit but Tin Man really stands out and demonstrates the strength and humanity of her writing. This is an emotionally engaging story about the friendship between two boys, Ellis and Michael and the way in which the world around them shapes their bond. Sarah’s writing is warm and tender in its understanding of life’s challenges, the intimacy of our emotions and the behaviour of human nature. As a reader, you are drawn into Ellis and Michael’s world, sharing their journeys to the extent that you put your own life on hold – I read it in two days.

​The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

I listened to Sarah Waters read chapters of this book at an event in Manchester years ago, and instantly became a fan of her delectable writing. This beautifully crafted novel introduces four characters all living in London during and after the Blitz; Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan; and charts, with terrific narrative tension, their lives backwards to 1941. The Night Watch explores those brave souls who were on the frontline of a London community devastated by war, those who walked the streets during blackout, the ambulance drivers who climbed the wreckage searching for life. It is also a novel about a fabulous 1940s gay community and their courage in living and loving a secret life.

​The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Like many, music is a big part of my life and living in Manchester for over twenty years, I have submerged myself in music, regularly buying vinyl from a very similar shop (Vinyl Exchange) that Rachel Joyce writes about in this gorgeous book. The Music Shop is a restorative read full of the soundtracks of our lives and powerful messages about the importance of community and independent shops. I also attended Rachel’s stirring talk at Hexham Book Festival which has made me even more of a fan of her writing. A book to share with those you love and definitely those who love vinyl.

​The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This is a rich, complex, and devastating book – part dystopian thriller, part science fiction, and yet chillingly believable at the same time. Margaret Atwood skilfully creates an alternative vision of 21st century America that is brilliantly executed, psychologically astute, and completely addictive!

​Why Did You Lie? by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

This is a real treat for all lovers of Nordic Noir fiction – brilliantly atmospheric, an excellent tricky structure and an array of utterly convincing characters. After the tense prologue the novel begins with four people making repairs to an isolated lighthouse off the southern coast of Iceland, this is followed by our introduction to police officer Nina, who’s struggling with tragic personal circumstances as well as problems at work. Finally, we find Noi, his wife Vala and son Tumi returning to their Reykjavik home to find it strangely changed. We don’t know how or why these characters are connected, but each story is utterly compelling and cleverly woven into a thrilling depiction of lives shattered and long forgotten actions coming to light, with very sinister consequences.

​The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Seamlessly combining memoir, biography, philosophy and art history, this evocative and daring book takes one of society’s last taboos – loneliness – and examines it through the lens of art, artists, and culture in one of the world’s loneliest cities, New York. Olivia Laing raises questions not only of artistic inspiration and its origins, but also of the society we live in and what it truly means to be alone. A compassionate, moving, and sometimes humorous insight into a difficult subject, this is summer reading for those who like something a little different!

​The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

First published in 1936 this novel still has freshness and immediacy which transcends the all but vanished world it describes. Olivia, daughter of a respectable middle class family, one unhappy marriage behind her and possessor of vague artistic ambitions, begins an affair with Rollo, a childhood acquaintance and now a married man. The subject matter must have been somewhat scandalous at the time but this is a very serious, heartfelt study, of the painful complexity of relationships. At its core the novel is asking why it is often genuinely impossible to completely understand others, while only gaining self-knowledge as the result of acute suffering. It’s a rich and rewarding read, full of empathy and a genuine desire to portray a reality which is flawed yet fascinating.

​The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

This is one of my favourite Kate Mosse novels. Evoking the countryside of early twentieth century West Sussex as brilliantly as she depicts Carcassonne and the Languedoc, the eerie sense of place is one of the many gothic joys of this book. It is part mystery, part family drama and part a hymn to a profession which now appears somewhat eccentric and even gruesome. The novel’s eponymous heroine Connie Gifford is determined to find out why her father’s life has collapsed into despair and alcoholism and to answer some questions about her own childhood in the process. However, this brings her into great danger and as the threats seem to cloud in on her life, the novel leads to a classic gothic climax with Connie battling her demons alone in a strange house as flood waters rise all around…

​The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

This exquisitely researched novel swept me along on a breath-taking journey through the exotic lands of Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Peru and Tahiti. Alma Whittaker, a young botanist, following in the footsteps of her father, boldly goes where very few women have gone before her. This is 1800 and Alma’s brave, inquisitive spirit leads her into a lifelong exploration of moss, other cultures and her own desires. She meets many fascinating characters on her quest; sea captains, abolitionists, missionaries, artists, astronomers and the insane. Elizabeth Gilbert crafts a beautiful tale which captures natural science, religion and life as a female scientist spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

​Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

These short stories tell the tales of Indians in exile. Spanning the globe from Boston to Bengal, Lahiri writes with subtle humour and an understated elegance of the challenges and conflicts faced everyday by those attempting to navigate between two very different worlds.

​Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed by Will Storr

Whether you love selfies or hate them, this book is a fascinating history of human self-obsession and the quest for societal, cultural and personal perfection. Storr’s writing is engaging and light, despite the sometimes provocative and unsettling subject matter, and the book is surprisingly entertaining. This is summer reading with bite!

​The Girl in Green by Derek B Miller

This story begins in 1991 at the time of the first Iraq war, when an American soldier, Arwood Hobbes and an English reporter, Thomas Benton, fail to save the life of a young girl, whose brutal murder haunts them and influences the paths their lives will take. Twenty-two years later Arwood thinks he spots the same girl on a television report amongst a group of refugees in Kurdistan. This precipitates a risky rescue mission wherein Arwood and Thomas set out into dangerous territory requiring help and co-operation from military personnel, locals and foreign aid workers, all trying to put people before politics.

​Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

This is a marvel, one of the most gently subversive and radical novels I’ve ever read. First published in 1926 it tells the story of Laura Willowes; dutiful daughter and affectionate aunt but always an adjunct in the homes of others. But this is where society decrees that she should be, so why does Lolly feel so quietly dissatisfied? The author allows us to feel the frustrations of Lolly’s constrained life and the strictures of social propriety, in ways that are both clear sighted and beautifully humorous. But can Lolly escape from her well-meaning conventional family and what will she do with her independence once gained? Years ahead of its time, this is an original and beautiful novel about self-discovery but it’s also extremely politically astute with a great flair for satire.

​Anam Cara by John O’Donoghue

This is a beautiful, exquisite book – a synthesis of poetry, philosophy, nature writing, lyrical prose, and spirituality that leads the reader through the Celtic legacy of mysticism and reverence for spirit in order to discover your own “anam cara”, or “soul friend”. A book to be savoured, enjoyed, and returned to again and again.

​The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland

It seems odd to describe a book where the main character has a heart transplant as a fun and uplifting read but it is a testament to Stephanie Butland’s writing that she achieves this. Ailsa Rae has had severe heart problems since birth, several heart operations and finally a heart transplant. There is a positivity and humour that runs through the novel but the book also raises several poignant questions, ultimately how do you live life fully particularly when all you’ve know is how to survive?

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