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Book Review, Books, Listings, Short Stories, Sofa Spotlight

Summer Reads 2018

I’m delighted to be bringing you my Summer Reads 2018.  I’ve been hard to impress recently but the outcome is a selection of compelling and powerful titles which I really loved and for each one I tell you why!

As always, there is a wide variety of settings – Italy [1], Australia [4], Chicago/Paris [8], Finland [9], Palestine/Israel [12], five which take place in the UK, and many more locations, if you include the superb short fiction collection [3] and anthology [11]. Both historical novels are set in the 1920s [1,12], and there’s a vivid return to the 1980s [8].  There are two brilliant YA/Crossover novels [2,4] and two tense and stylish literary thrillers [6,7].

Common themes crop up whenever I do this, and this time they align with my interests as a writer; many have an intense focus on relationships, whether sexual [3,5,8,10,12] or familial [1,2,4,6,7,9]; several feature complex personal or moral conflicts and/or have intense topical relevance [4, 9,10,12].  The quality of writing is consistently superb and every one shows emotional intelligence.

A record number of the authors will be joining me on the Literary Sofa soon – see SOFA DATES below.  I hope you’ll keep us company and find something here that you love (and please share the listing on your networks and with your book-loving friends – it helps justify all the time away from my manuscript!)


1 THE MADONNA OF THE MOUNTAINS by Elise Valmorbida (Faber)

Italy, 1923 – Maria Vittoria is embroidering a sheet for her dowry trunk. Her father has gone to find her a husband, taking his mule, a photograph and a pack of food: home-made sopressa sausage, cold polenta, a little flask of wine. There are no eligible men in this valley or the next one, and her father will not let her marry just anyone.  Despite Maria’s years, she is still healthy. Her betrothed will see all that. He’ll be looking for a woman who can do the work. And the Lord knows Maria will need to be able to work. Fascism blooms as crops ripen, the state craves babies just as the babies cry for food. Maria faces a stony path, but one she will surely climb to the summit.

WHY I CHOSE IT: A complex and intimate portrait of a woman’s life over decades, inextricably bound to place and political context.  Lyrical and moving with gorgeous descriptive prose.

SOFA DATE: 6 June – Elise Valmorbida – Writers on Location on the Veneto, Italy

2 NOTES ON MY FAMILY by Emily Critchley (Everything With Words) YA edition already out, Adult edition 4 July

A vivid present tense account of life in a dysfunctional family told by a perceptive thirteen year old girl. Lou, her sister Sarah and brother Mickey discover that their parents are going to be doing a ‘trial separation with a view to permanent’, and that their dad is having an affair with a sixth former. Meet Lou, her siblings, her mum and dad, her nan who does seances, her friend Faith who has six mums and dads (all gay) and Hammy, the escaped hamster.

WHY I CHOSE IT: A poignant, funny and recognisable take on family life which has real depth. Lou’s unique and engaging voice will resonate with readers of all ages.

SOFA DATE: 13 June – Emily Critchley on Writing a Crossover Book

3 THE CARTOGRAPHY OF OTHERS by Catherine McNamara (Unbound) 31 May

A collection of twenty stories that take place from fumy Accra to the Italian Dolomites, from suburban Sydney to high-rise Hong Kong. Lives are mapped, unpicked, crafted, overturned. Each story inhabits a location that becomes as vital as the characters themselves, men and women who are often far from home, immersed in unfamiliar cultures, estranged from those they hold dear. Love is panicked, worn, tested in this collection that explores the geography of the body and the migration of the heart.

WHY I CHOSE IT: These stories pulse with an energy and originality which makes them feel alive.  As with her earlier work, I especially admire and appreciate McNamara’s virtuosic exploration of desire and sex: explicit, direct and sensual.

SOFA DATE:  Catherine McNamara on Writing about Sex and Desire

4 BETWEEN US by Clare Atkins (Black Inc.) paperback original

Anahita is an Iranian asylum seeker who is only allowed out of detention to attend school, the one place she can be a ‘regular Australian girl’. Jono needs the distraction of an infatuation. In the past year his mum has walked out, he’s been dumped and his sister has moved away. Lost and depressed, he feels as if he’s been left behind with his Vietnamese single father, Kenny.

Kenny is struggling to work out the rules in his new job as a guard at the Wickham Point Detention Centre. He tells Anahita to look out for Jono at school, but quickly comes to regret this, Who is this girl, really? What is her story? As Jono and Anahita grow closer, Kenny starts snooping behind the scenes.

WHY I CHOSE IT: Against the bleak and shocking backdrop of the global refugee crisis, this is a tender and moving tale of first love, family bonds and tough choices, told in three uniquely believable and compelling voices.

SOFA DATE:  Writers on Location – Clare Atkins on Darwin

5 THE LAST ROMEO by Justin Myers (Little, Brown) eBook already out, paperback 31 May

James is 34 and fed up. His six-year relationship with Adam has imploded, he hates his job making up celebrity gossip, and his best friend Bella has just announced she’s moving to Russia. Adrift and single in loved-up London, James needs to break out of his lonely, drunken comfort zone. Encouraged by Bella, he throws himself headlong into online dating, blogging each encounter anonymously as the mysterious Romeo. After meeting a succession of hot/weird/gross men, James has fans and the validation he’s always craved. But when his wild night with a closeted Olympian goes viral and sends his Twitter-fame through the roof, James realises maybe, in the search for happy-ever-after, some things are better left un-shared. Seriously, wherefore art thou Romeo . . .

WHY I CHOSE IT: All the ingredients which have made The Guyliner’s* blogs and columns such a hit, but in different proportions. Hilarious and insightful, it’s the perfect blend of heart, spark and snark.

*Myers’ alter ego – I’ve been a fan for years

6 GAMBLE by Kerry Hadley-Pryce (Salt) 15 June – paperback original

Greg Gamble: he’s a teacher, he works hard, he’s a husband, a father. He’s a good man, or tries to be. But even a good man can face a crisis. Even a good man can face temptation. Even a good man can find himself faced with difficult choices. Gamble thinks he can keep his head in the game. He thinks he’s trying to be good. Until he realises everyone is flawed.  And for Gamble, trying to be good just isn’t enough.

WHY I CHOSE IT:  Thrillingly tense and claustrophobic portrayal of an ordinary man on the edge. Spare stylish prose, acute observation and a haunting sense of place.  I’m a convert to Black Country noir!

SOFA DATE:  Kerry Hadley-Pryce Writers on Location on The Black Country

7 A STATION ON THE PATH TO SOMEWHERE BETTER by Benjamin Wood (Scribner) 28 June

For twenty years, Daniel Hardesty has borne the emotional scars of a childhood trauma which he is powerless to undo, which leaves him no peace. One August morning in 1995, the young Daniel and his estranged father Francis – a character of ‘two weathers’, of irresistible charm and roiling self-pity – set out on a road trip to the North that seems to represent a chance to salvage their relationship. But with every passing mile, the layers of Fran’s mendacity and desperation are exposed, pushing him to acts of violence that will define the rest of his son’s life.

WHY I CHOSE IT:  Wood’s outstanding talent takes a different turn on this (almost) unbearably gripping, disturbing and heartrending road trip. I couldn’t put it down and weeks later, it still won’t let me go.

8 THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai (Fleet) 5 July

In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to secure an extraordinary donation of 1920s paintings. Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDs epidemic grows around him. One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico’s funeral, he finds his partner is infected, and that he might even have the virus himself. The only person he has left is Fiona, Nico’s little sister. Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago epidemic, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways the AIDS crisis affected her life and her relationship with her daughter.

WHY I CHOSE IT: Captures the fear, suffering and grief of the early years of the AIDS crisis in Chicago but also the joy, the relationships and sense of community, through the eyes of Yale and a large and vibrant cast of characters I came to care about.  Loved the art angle too.

9 THE SUMMER HOUSE by Philip Teir, translated from Swedish by Tiina Nunnally (Serpent’s Tail) 12 July

Erik and Julia and their two children are heading for the house by the sea on the west coast of Finland where they will spend the summer. From the outside they are a happy young family looking forward to a long holiday together.

But under the surface, their happiness shows signs of not lasting the summer. Erik has just lost his job but hasn’t yet told the family. And the cracks deepen with the arrival of Julia’s childhood friend Marika – along with her charismatic husband Chris, the leader of a group of environmental activists that have given up hope for planet Earth and are returning to a primitive lifestyle. A story about life choices and lies, about childhood and adulthood. How do we live if we know that the world is about to end?

WHY I CHOSE IT: With a genuinely transporting sense of place and languid summer vibe, this is a stimulating and articulate novel driven by character and ideas, and is thus inevitably more about questions than answers. (Like all good fiction!)

SOFA DATE:  Philip Teir  – Writers on Location on Jakobstad, Finland

10 PUTNEY by Sofka Zinovieff (Bloomsbury Circus) 12 July

 It is the 1970s and Ralph, an up-and-coming composer, is visiting Edmund Greenslay at his riverside home in Putney to discuss a collaboration. Through the house’s colourful rooms and unruly garden flits nine-year-old Daphne – dark, teasing, slippery as mercury, more sprite than boy or girl. From the moment their worlds collide, Ralph is consumed by an obsession to make Daphne his. But Ralph is twenty-five and Daphne is only a child, and even in the bohemian abandon of 1970s London their fast-burgeoning relationship must be kept a secret. It is not until years later that Daphne is forced to confront the truth of her own childhood – and an act of violence that has lain hidden for decades.

WHY I CHOSE IT: A bold and rigorous interrogation of a highly controversial premise. Always eloquent and often troubling, it’s certain to arouse strong and conflicting responses.  Some readers find themselves vascillating; I didn’t.

SOFA DATE:  Sofka Zinovieff on Writing a Taboo Relationship 

11 A SHORT AFFAIR – various contributors, edited by Simon Oldfield (Scribner) 12 July

In this visually stunning collection from Pin Drop, the renowned short fiction and arts studio, Simon Oldfield brings together eighteen original short stories by giants of the form, alongside exciting new voices from the prestigious annual Pin Drop Short Story Award. With a foreword by Tim Marlow, Artistic Director of the Royal Academy of Arts, each story is accompanied by a unique artwork.

Writers include: Elizabeth Day, Bethan Roberts, Nikesh Shukla, Claire Fuller, Ben Okri, Anne O’Brien, A. L. Kennedy, Anna Stewart, Craig Burnett, Douglas W. Milliken, Will Self, Jarred McGinnis, Barney Walsh, Rebecca F. John, Joanna Campbell, Emily Bullock, Cherise Saywell and Lionel Shriver.

WHY I CHOSE IT: A varied and vibrant collection of stories which demonstrate top notch writing, fresh perspective and masterful execution – and a particular treat for those who love art and fiction!

12 STRANGERS WITH THE SAME DREAM by Alison Pick (Tinder Press) 9 August

‘We came into their valley at dawn’. 1920s: Told from three vastly different points of view, the story of a group of Jewish pioneers, many escaping violent homelands, who have come together to found a kibbutz on a patch of land that will later become Israel. With tightly controlled intensity, Pick takes us into three very different minds to show how a utopian dream is punctured by messy human entanglements. Yet this is also the story of the land itself (present day Israel and Palestine), revealing the way the newcomers chose to ignore the fact that their valley was already populated, home to a people that the pioneers did not want to see.

WHY I CHOSE IT:  Painfully topical, this raw and sensual novel is one of the most skilful examples of multiple simultaneous viewpoints (and in the process, characterisation) I’ve ever encountered, its perfectly meted revelations heightening the personal tragedy and collective moral conflict.  Outstanding.

If you could choose one of these, which would it be?

For yet more suggestions, try my Spring Sofa Spotlight which also has some real stunners – and there’s always my own novel, Paris Mon Amour, details top right. At the end of July I’ll be sharing my personal English/French summer holiday TBR.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


16 thoughts on “Summer Reads 2018

  1. The Summer House looks great, my kind of read. And the Finnish setting appeals.

    Posted by louisewalters12 | May 23, 2018, 11:30
  2. Woooooo these look great!

    Posted by Elle | May 23, 2018, 16:00
  3. The Summer House appeals to me, preferring questions and a character-driven novel.

    Posted by Penny Stanton | May 23, 2018, 17:54
  4. Great to see my Creative Writing MA course mate Kerry Hadley-Pryce on the list. I followed the development of her previous novel The Black Country. She certainly has the ability to brilliantly evoke the uniqueness of the Black Country location.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | May 24, 2018, 08:04
  5. I found your Why I Chose It section really helpful. Great way to preview a book. Enjoy your summer!

    Posted by alison41 | May 24, 2018, 09:55
  6. I’m so eager to read Benjamin Wood’s new novel. And I’ve been eyeing Elise Valmorbida’s book for a while.
    Great list!

    Posted by Eric | May 24, 2018, 17:43
  7. Wow, I love the variety of this list – thank you for the inspiration! I am particularly intrigued by A Station on the Road to Somewhere Better as it sounds incredibly intense, unique and emotional. I would like to try reading some short stories too so The Cartography of Others and A Short Affair will be a great place to start!

    Posted by miscellanypages | May 25, 2018, 18:28
  8. Another fab list. Finding it hard to pick just one! But the environmental angle of The Summer House has swayed it for me. But I plan to read many of these.

    Posted by Amanda Saint | May 28, 2018, 16:35


  1. Pingback: Writers on Location – Elise Valmorbida on the Veneto, Italy | The Literary Sofa - June 6, 2018

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  3. Pingback: Guest Author – Emily Critchley on Writing a crossover novel | The Literary Sofa - June 13, 2018

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  5. Pingback: Writers on Location – Clare Atkins on Darwin, Australia | The Literary Sofa - June 27, 2018

  6. Pingback: Guest Author – Sofka Zinovieff on Writing a Taboo Relationship | The Literary Sofa - July 18, 2018

  7. Pingback: Writers on Location ̵ Philip Teir on Jakobstad, Finland | The Literary Sofa - July 26, 2018

  8. Pingback: My Poolside TBR 2018 | The Literary Sofa - July 30, 2018

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