Welcome to my Sofa Spotlight for Summer 2017 – despite my switch to a shorter quarterly format, this is the full dozen as with my previous Summer Reads selections because I’ve found so many excellent novels. Far more than could be included, which says a lot about those which made the cut – plus I now include my reasons for choosing each one below. There’s a wide variety of settings, period, themes and genres to appeal to many tastes, although as always some unintended patterns emerged (so, a good day for adolescent characters, France and forests!). For many of us, summer means more time for reading, not lower expectations – I hope you find something here you love and I look forward to hosting many of the authors on the Literary Sofa in the next few months.
In order of UK publication date starting with those already available. Text adapted from publicity materials.
Helen is an experienced astronaut with a NASA position and a struggling grown-up daughter who needs her but when, at fifty-three, she is offered a place on the training programme for the first mission to Mars, the most realistic simulation ever, she cannot refuse this last chance. Her fellow astronauts are Sergei, a gruff Russian whose teenage sons are less of a mystery to him then they think; and Yoshi, who wants to prove himself worthy of the wife he has drifted apart from. The three will be enclosed for months in a tiny craft, but as they look to the stars, what are they missing back home?
Why I chose it: This novel has real philosophical depth delivered with a humane and accessible touch and it’s great (and rare, though I don’t get why) to see an older female protagonist. There were so many exquisite moments that I had to devise a new system of turning down the pages in my proof.
Webster College: an elite New England campus and a world of learning where creativity and inclusiveness are the presiding principles. Naomi Roth, a feminist scholar, is named to the coveted position of Webster’s president. When a student protest materializes, Naomi initially supports the movement, feeling proud and protective of the protesters, her own daughter Hannah among them. But the protest begins to fester, attracting students from other institutions and media. Attention begins to focus on one charismatic student, a Palestinian immigrant named Omar, and both the tension on campus and the essential conflicts in Naomi’s personal life begin to overwhelm her until she finds herself facing an impossible and ultimately tragic conflict.
Why I chose it: I enjoy a good campus novel and that’s exactly what this is. Captures the febrile atmosphere and the burdens of leadership through issues currently topical and contentious around the world, including immigration and gender equality.
1891: When twenty-two-year-old Olivia is coerced into marriage by the cruel Alistair Sheldon she leaves England for Egypt, his home and the land of her own childhood. Reluctant as she is to go with Alistair, it’s in her new home that she finds happiness in surprising places: she is reunited with her long-estranged sister, Clara, and falls – impossibly and illicitly – in love with her husband’s boarder, Captain Edward Bertram. Then Clara is abducted from one of the busiest streets in the city. Olivia is told it’s thieves after ransom money, but she’s convinced there’s more to it. As she resolves to find her sister, she falls deeper into the shadowy underworld of Alexandria, putting her own life, and her chance at a future with Edward, the only man she’s ever loved, at risk.
Why I chose it: A complex, layered novel which captures the place and time with exceptional vividness. The deft plotting balances glorious romance and beautiful settings with shocking squalor and brutality, making this much more than a period piece.
Sofa Date: 19 July – Writers on Location – Jenny Ashcroft on Egypt
Mark Chadwick is cycling home from work, eager to get back to his pregnant wife Katy and two children, when he sees the police calling at his house. He knows exactly why they are there and he knows that the world he has carefully constructed over twenty very deliberately uneventful years is about to fall apart. He could lose everything. A story of a toxic love gone wrong, with a setting that moves between present day London and 1990s Cambridge.
Why I chose it: May’s writing is invariably lucid and intelligent – he has a talent for portraying the inner life of men and the contradictions and absurdities of contemporary life without recourse to blokeyness. Touching, frank and compelling.
Sofa Date: 7 June – Guest Author Stephen May on Writing Men and Emotion
1745: Adélaïde, teenage daughter of Louis XV, doesn’t think much of the conventions of Versailles. She prefers fencing to fashion. When her father’s beautiful bourgeois mistress – hastily bestowed with the title Madame de Pompadour – moves into the palace, she can’t help but admire her. Then Adélaïde finds the banned ‘pornographic’ novel Le Portier des Chartreux and her world is thrown into confusion. The more rules Adélaïde breaks, the harder it is for her not become swallowed up by the court that created her.
1789: Fear stalks the palace corridors as the women of Paris storm the gates and the court of Louis XVI must leave Versailles for good.
Why I chose it: Poignant, sexy and evocative, there is a timeless quality to Adélaïde’s reflections on the turmoil of adolescence and double standards in society. It portrays a later reign, but fans of TV drama Versailles will love this: just as rich, but less arch.
Sofa Date: 28 June – Guest Author Kate Brown on Writing about Adolescence
2010: Failed war correspondent Lawrence Leith has retreated to a small town in rural Provence where he is taking refuge after the end of his marriage and the loss of his job. When a friend from the past arrives in town, he stirs memories that Lawrence has been trying to forget, of a dusty road in the Congo where everything went disastrously wrong. Martin Elliott is convinced Lawrence needs to get back in the game but when that involves returning to Africa, Lawrence isn’t convinced until he meets Isabelle Vernet, the woman leading the trip. When Martin goes missing, Isabelle’s and Lawrence’s lives are thrown together and the lies that bind the three of them start to unravel, revealing truths no one could have expected.
Why I chose it: The Provence setting, which I know well, is skilfully evoked, as are all the settings and relationships in this tense and engaging story of divided loyalties and the conflict between personal responsibility and professional ambition.
Sofa Date: 21 June – Writers on Location – Terry Stiastny on Provence
Following a string of affairs, Karl and Eleanor are giving their marriage one last shot. They’re moving with twelve-year-old daughter Irina from Brooklyn to upstate New York, to an isolated house in a forest near the town of Broken River. Before their arrival, the house stood empty for over a decade and the reason is no secret. Twelve years previously, a brutal double murder took place there, a young couple killed in front of their child. The crime was never solved, and most locals consider the house cursed. The family may have left the deceptions of their city life behind them, but all three are still lying to each other, and to themselves. Before long their duplicity will unleash forces none of them could possibly have anticipated, putting them in mortal danger.
Why I chose it: Lennon is a stylish and original writer. This genre-defying novel is freaky, profound, funny, sad and gripping – and more besides. Not the first time I’ve been impressed by his insights on relationships and his understanding of women.
July 1935: In the village of Aldwick on the Sussex coast, sixteen-year-old Hazel faces a long, dull summer with just her self-centred mother Francine for company. But then Francine decamps to London with her lover Charles, Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts arrive in Aldwick, and Hazel’s summer suddenly becomes more interesting. She finds herself befriended by two very different people: Lucia, an upper-class blackshirt, passionate about the cause; and Tom, a young working-class boy, increasingly scornful of Mosley’s rhetoric. As Hazel is drawn into their worlds, she believes she has found love – until one night her life takes a devastating turn.
Why I chose it: A ‘disruptive’ book, which hooked me so much I had to abandon everything! Amongst many qualities it is strong on period detail and characterisation; I really felt for Hazel and the fraught mother-daughter relationship was especially well portrayed.
Sofa Date: 14 June – Guest Author Juliet West on Social Class in Fiction
After the sudden death of his wife, Audrey, Jonah sits on a bench in Kew Gardens, trying to reassemble the shattered pieces of his life. Chloe, shaven-headed and abrasive, finds solace in the origami she meticulously folds. But when she meets Jonah, her carefully constructed defences threaten to fall. Milly, a child quick to laugh, freely roams Kew, finding beauty everywhere she goes. But where is her mother and where does she go when the gardens are closed? Harry’s purpose is to save plants from extinction. Quiet and enigmatic, he longs for something – or someone – who will root him more firmly to the earth. Audrey links these strangers together. As the mystery of her death unravels, the characters journey through the seasons to learn that stories, like paper, can be refolded and reformed.
Why I chose it: Proof that a story can be quirky and enchanting without being twee, this a mature and emotionally intelligent exploration of grief. I really liked the sex – a significant element I wasn’t expecting – for its honesty and physicality; it’s very well done.
Sofa Date: September 2017 TBC
Vernon Subutex was once the proprietor of Revolver, an infamous music shop in Bastille, and was legendary throughout Paris. But by the 2000s his shop is struggling. With his savings gone, his unemployment benefit cut, and the friend who had been covering his rent suddenly dead, Vernon Subutex finds himself down and out on the Paris streets. He has one final card up his sleeve. Even as he holds out his hand to beg for the first time, a throwaway comment he once made on Facebook is taking the internet by storm. Vernon does not realise this, but the word is out: Vernon Subutex has in his possession the last filmed recordings of Alex Bleach, the famous musician and Vernon’s benefactor, who has only just died of a drug overdose. A crowd of people from record producers to online trolls and porn stars are now on Vernon’s trail.
Why I chose it: I’ve been raving about this since last summer and it was one of my Books of 2016. Intricately woven with a large cast, this is Paris with grit, a glimpse into the lives of people often ignored in society and fiction. Full of heart and attitude, the tone is a blend of brash and tender akin to Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies.
1978: Ponte, a small community in Northern Italy: peaceful woods, discarded rubbish, a closed-down factory. An unbearably hot summer like many others, wilted flowers and trips to the waterfalls. Elia Furenti is sixteen, living in a secluded house with his parents, a life so unremarkable that even its moderate unhappiness has been accepted as normal. That is, until the day the beautiful, damaged Anna returns to Ponte and firmly propels him to the edge of adulthood. Then everything starts to unravel. Elia’s father, Ettore, is let go from his job and loses himself in the darkest corners of his mind. A young boy is murdered, shaking the small community to its core. And a girl climbs into a van and vanishes in the deep, dark woods…
Why I chose it: The bleakness and menace of this ‘Hitchcockian’ novel owe much to its brevity and the starkness of its prose. A raw and heartrending portrayal of masculinity and loneliness, the burden and complexity of family ties and the perils of crossing boundaries in a small community.
1944: Connie Granger has escaped the devastation of her bombed out city home. She has found work in the Women’s Timber Corps, and for her, this remote community must now serve a secret purpose. Seppe, an Italian prisoner of war, is haunted by his memories. But in the forest camp, he finds a strange kind of freedom. Their meeting signals new beginnings. In each other they find the means to imagine their own lives anew, and to face that which each fears the most.
But outside their haven, the world is ravaged by war and old certainties are crumbling. Both Connie and Seppe must make a life-defining choice which threatens their fragile existence. How will they make sense of this new world, and find their place within it? What does it mean to be a woman, or a foreign man, in these days of darkness and new light?
Why I chose it: The popularity of the second world war as a fictional setting shows no sign of declining and against that backdrop this novel offers fresh and moving perspectives on the human cost of war and the redemptive possibilities of displacement and chance encounters.
Which of these appeal to you? I’d love to hear which books you’re looking forward to this summer. If you like my selection, please do share it on your networks – this is a labour of love and spreading the word is what it’s all about.
If this is your first visit to the Literary Sofa, hello and I hope you’ll be back – if you’d like to receive notification of my weekly posts, enter your email in the box top right. There will be two further listings this summer: a Prime Writers’ Showcase on 5 July and my personal Holiday TBR before the blog closes down for August.
Next week I’ll be sharing a few thoughts on the paperback publication of my novel Paris Mon Amour (22 May), which will be making its first public appearance on the shelves of WH Smith Travel tomorrow!