Summer Reading

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

This is a wonderful novel, which not only illumines the human heart with its brilliant insights but also tackles early twentieth century gender politics with gusto. The year is 1928 and we’re introduced to our heroine Mattie Simpkin in typical bravura style as she tries to thwart the theft of her handbag on Hampstead Heath. Mattie is a former militant suffragette; a woman of huge energy and intelligence who feels somewhat adrift now that the right to vote has been won (for some that is, not all). Together with former comrade in arms, Florrie Lee, whose unrequited love for Mattie is one of the book’s most poignant aspects, she endeavours to find a renewed sense of purpose in her post suffragette life.

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

This is a singular, beautifully written novel which slowly and subtly worked its way beneath my skin. Set in an isolated village in fifteenth century Somerset, the novel has a mystery at its heart which is really secondary to the thing it really seeks to explore: the vagaries of being human and whether when tested, our belief system is one which can truly be translated into action. The village priest, John Reve, is tasked with looking into the disappearance of one of Oakham’s most illustrious residents, Thomas Newman. As we follow Reve in his dealings with the villagers, whose care is his responsibility, we believe he’s trying to discover the truth and yet things are not as straightforward as they seem. Richly atmospheric and innovative in structure, this novel drew me stealthily into the concerns of the medieval mind and the existential crisis of a man of faith.

The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford

A deeply personal exploration into the meanings and importance of trees in our lives. The author weaves history, science, myth and fable; drawing inspiration and revealing roots of memories that lie buried in earlier, often largely unconscious childhood encounters and associations. This style of writing powerfully connects the author to the reader; I began thinking about how trees have played a part in my life, like the willow tree in my parents’ garden that I, aged six and dressed as a fairy, used to trail my wand through. Certainly, this is a book to cherish, a book to sit and read up against the trunk of a tree this summer.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This is a one-in-a-lifetime book; a book that dazzles, mesmerises, and enchants. When I finished it, I found myself desperately wanting something similar to read – and yet there is nothing similar, which is partly what makes it so special! Erin Morgenstern weaves fantasy, illusion, and the slight darkness of the Victorian circus into a tale of love and magic that will stay with you a long time after you’ve read the final page.

Norwegian by Night by Derek B Miller

This is an incredibly gripping debut novel by an American writer who works for the UN and currently lives in Norway with his family. The idea of uprooting oneself and trying to assimilate into another culture is a prominent theme in this interesting book.

The novel, set in Oslo, has the plot and pace of a thriller with the central character rescuing a young boy after his mother has been murdered in his apartment block. However, its overriding concern seems to be with the effect of and attitude towards conflict at individual, family and national level. The main character Sheldon Horowitz is a veteran of the Korean War, and a large part of the novel concerns his seeking what he sees as atonement for the death of his own son in the Vietnam War. Meanwhile other characters have been involved both as aggressors and victims of the more recent conflict in the Balkans. By turns moving and comic this is that quite rare thing – a genuinely thought provoking thriller.

American by Day by Derek B. Miller

When I read Norwegian by Night a few years ago, it was the book I most enjoyed that year. Miller’s follow up to it, American by Day, has an excellent chance of being my favourite book of this year. With Norwegian detective Sigrid Odegard finding herself in up-state New York, Miller cleverly uses the backdrop of a thriller to explore issues of race, culture and social standing. Written with a gradually quickening pace and more than a dash of comic observation, you certainly don’t need to have read Norwegian by Night to enjoy American by Day, but if you do think you might read both books, I would definitely read Norwegian by Night first.

Frieda by Annabel Abbs

Behind every great man, so the saying goes, is a great woman. What the saying doesn’t add is that those women are too often forgotten, lost in the volumes of history or relegated to the footnotes. In this lushly written, beautifully crafted second novel, Annabel Abbs redresses the balance for the ‘real Lady Chatterley’, Frieda von Richtofen, whose scandalous affair with a young D H Lawrence was the inspiration behind many of his most famous works. Frieda’s complex character is brought vividly to life, while the underlying debates about feminism and the nature of emancipation still resonate today.

Educated by Tara Westover

It is difficult to believe that this is a true story. Tara Westover grew up in Idaho, her family live completely off grid; no birth certificates, no education and certainly no medical “interference”. To the young Tara, this was normal behaviour. Tara describes how she was faced with pain and loneliness as she started to question her father’s decisions and speak out about the physical and psychological abuse from her older brother. Central to the book is her quest for an education and the unusual path she has taken to acquire it. She seizes opportunities with determination and uses her ability to overcome challenges to equip her for a better future. Tara is a remarkable individual and her story is a powerful insight into lives lived on the fringes of society.

Inhuman Resources by Pierre Lemaitre

Pierre Lemaitre’s crime writing is often characterised by innovative plots and unconventional lead characters, Inhuman Resources is no exception. Here, former HR executive, Alain Delambre, takes a most surprising role in this intriguingly constructed story. Less gritty than Lemaitre’s Camille trilogy, the book begins with an almost gentle tone examining Alain’s fall down the employment ladder and its effect on him, before developing into a full-blown action thriller. An excellent option if you like your crime novels to be a bit different from the norm.

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

I loved the fact that this book truly shines a light on Mary Shelley. As fascinated as I am by her famous mother, father and husband, she really does deserve to emerge as a woman, a writer and a mother on her own terms. Although Mary’s fame endures because she did indeed (as a very young woman) write Frankenstein, it feels as if her often difficult life hasn’t been properly explored. Fiona Sampson’s attempt to redress this imbalance feels wonderfully fresh and illuminating, revealing a complex figure emerging from history, as she is finally able to take centre stage!

I Found my Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice

When Ruth Fitzmaurice’s husband is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, the lives of the young family of five are suddenly and dramatically upturned. Ruth in her struggle to cope, turns to wild swimming in the Irish sea with a small community of women. This along with her writing, gives her much needed solace and joy. Despite her husband’s deterioration, so he is only able to communicate with his eyes; the book charts Ruth’s startlingly brave optimism and hope. A beautiful painful book that flows like the tide and left me feeling in utter awe of Ruth and her courage. A swimming memoir, a writers’ journal, a testament to love and so much more.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

A reimagining of the last days of the Trojan war may seem unfamiliar territory for Pat Barker, yet in this outstanding novel her towering abilities as a writer are deployed with breath taking skill. Briseis, queen of Lyrnessus, has been captured and enslaved by Achilles; forced to survive as best she can in the Greek camp. This was the fate of a great many women in Homer’s Iliad, but we know this about them and little more. Here Pat Barker conjures in brutal, harrowing detail what such a life could have been: the lack of agency and equality cruelly distorting all relationships. One of Pat Barker’s great strengths is her ability to portray the physical sensations of her characters’ experiences and this she does to brilliant effect here; we feel Briseis’ terror, anger and confusion coupled with an emerging steeliness which enables her to survive.

Still Water by John Lewis-Stempel

One of John Lewis-Stempel’s great gifts is understanding and presenting fascinating aspects of nature that would on first inspection often seem quite unglamorous - and so it is with Still Water, a fabulous discussion of the humble pond. John’s depth of knowledge and dedication to close observation are combined with a lyrical writing style that really make his descriptions sing. Historical references and excerpts of poetry add further notes of interest. Still Water is a joy to read and is sure to make you linger a little longer next time you walk past a pond.

West by Carys Davies

I loved the spare beauty of this novel which encompasses so much with so few words. The story is a deceptively simple one with the transcendent air of myth; American pioneer Cy Bellman leaves his home and family on a quest to discover a giant beast, the bones of which have allegedly been unearthed in Kentucky. While Cy follows his dreams into a land of both physical and spiritual extremes, he believes his daughter, Bess, to be safe at home living with his sister. However, by abandoning his paternal duties, has he in fact left Bess prey to threats of a different, more insidious kind? The insightful, menacing portrayals of both the unknown wilderness and the familiar domestic landscape are utterly compelling and the emotional engagement I felt with both Cy and Bess has been long lasting.

The Lost by Mari Hannah

This is the first book in local author Mari Hannah’s new series featuring detectives David Stone and Frankie Oliver. This is a fantastically complex story of family betrayal and revenge set right on our doorstep in the Northumberland countryside. Things begin to unravel for the apparently happy and well-adjusted Parker family, when their son Daniel goes missing, resulting in Stone and Oliver being assigned to the case. As the detectives begin their investigation, they begin to unearth sinister secrets while simultaneously dealing with upheavals in their own personal lives. True to form, Mari’s writing here is utterly gripping, so much so that it’s very hard to put the book down once you’ve started reading!

Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson

This elegant, powerful, and incredibly moving novel is based on the true story of French artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore (born Lucie Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe respectively). Told through Marcel / Suzanne’s eyes, the narrative unfolds through their younger years in Nantes, the glittering café-focused art world of Paris in the 1920s, and the grim and dangerous world of occupied Jersey in the Second World War. Lovers, stepsisters, and pioneering experimental artists, Cahun and Moore were women ahead of their time, and Thomson handles the sometimes-difficult twists and turns of their lives and personalities delicately and with flair. If you like your summer reading with some bite, then this could be one to try!

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

This was a real highlight of all the books that I read last year. Suffering financial misfortunes and bad health, Raynor Winn and her husband come up with what most people would probably think of as a crazy idea. With no home and only a handful of coins in their pockets, this courageous pair, literally put one foot in front of the other and walk the South West Coastal Path - in their way and at their pace. For me, it was this pace that makes The Salt Path such an exceptional read. The rhythm of the writing has a constant, gentle pace and much like the action of walking, enables you to leave things behind, Raynor explains how they move forward on this desperate part of life’s journey. This is an incredibly brave and honest account of the hardship they faced, how fragile our lives can be and the inspiring strength and determination we can find both within ourselves and from the natural world around us.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

This crime novel is a mind-bending tour de force, with a plot so complex you might want to make notes as you go along. With nods to both the ‘country house’ murder of crime writing’s golden age and another to the sinister speculations of dystopian fiction, this novel has its protagonist Aiden Bishop, inhabit a variety of different host bodies in a quest to discover the murderer of Evelyn Hardcastle. But who is Bishop? Where is he? And what tricks is time playing on him? This is a hugely entertaining, roller coaster of a read, which is at times genuinely poignant and at others shot through with a menacing undercurrent which seeps right off the page. Prepare to be dazzled.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

This is a classic that more people should read. The brutal reality of the First World War, the innocent loss of life, the senselessness and injustices are all vividly described, but what makes this book especially powerful is that it was written by a German soldier and the men trying to kill him are British. Staggeringly, it was published in Germany in 1929 but the book was then burned by the Nazis and Remarque was later deprived of his German citizenship. Amongst the gritty descriptions there are also moments where the beauty of humanity shines through; helping a fellow man, the comradery and the excitement of discovering some extra food. As with J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, Remarque has provided much for the reader to consider in what is a fairly short book – true craftsmanship.

A Boy in the Water by Tom Gregory

How does an 11 year old boy swim the English Channel? Now in his forties, but writing as his 11 year old self, Tom Gregory recounts his heroic attempt to swim this great expanse of water. He interweaves the story of how swimming became such a central part of his life, with the importance of the companionship of his fellow athletes and the essential respect and trust on which his relationship with his coach was built. The nostalgia of the 80’s radiates off the page, the mix tapes, and childhood freedom; a simpler time when winning a Blue Peter badge was every child’s dream.

The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Connell

This historical crime novel is an absolute favourite, beautifully written with a knowing eye cast toward its antecedents, it still manages to bring a wonderful freshness to the genre. Set in Victorian London, it strikes an almost perfect lyrical yet strange tone right from the outset, as we witness the very peculiar death of a young seamstress. The narrative then drives us on as we’re introduced separately to the various characters who will be key to unravelling the cause of her demise. I felt as if they would genuinely be at home in a novel by Wilkie Collins yet with subtly different shades to their personalities which render them so relatable. A bluff yet insightful CID inspector, an ambitious newspaper columnist and a young man adrift searching for his lost uncle; all in their very different ways, provide huge quantities of both heart and humour.

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