It’s that time again, and I’m excited to bring you this year’s Summer Reads selection. My search sprang many surprises, producing a dozen fantastic books revealing all kinds of lives: from the real and ‘ordinary’ to some which are anything but, plus several dogs! The majority are set during different periods of the 20th century – unusually for me, only three are contemporary – and yet all of these books, whether heartrending, hopeful or in most cases, both, shine a light on the present. Settings range from the Scottish highlands, London, Nottingham and Shropshire to Italy, Greece, Ukraine, the former Rhodesia, USA and Australia, several relating physical as well as emotional journeys. The writing is excellent and every one of them delivered what I look for: to be made to think, feel, and to care about the characters.
As there were too many great finds to include today, on 10 July I’ll be sharing some informal thoughts on six more as an add-on. Meanwhile, I’m delighted that 7 of the authors will be joining me here on the Literary Sofa in a stellar summer guest line-up – see the SOFA DATES below. Happy summer reading – I hope you find something you love!
In order of first UK release starting with those already available. Text adapted from publicity materials.
Hollywood, 1938: When she learns that MGM is adapting her late husband’s masterpiece, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, for the screen, Maud Gage Baum sets about trying to visit the set. The moment she hears Judy Garland rehearsing Over the Rainbow, Maud recognizes the yearning that defined her own life story, from her rebellious youth as a suffragette’s daughter to her coming of age as one of the first women in the Ivy League, from her blossoming romance with Frank to the hardscrabble prairie years that inspired his famous work. With the young actress under pressure from the studio as well as her ambitious stage mother, Maud resolves to protect her – the way she tried so hard to protect the real Dorothy.
WHY I CHOSE IT: Beyond its appeal to fans of the film (the only one I watched repeatedly as a child), I was won over by this uplifting story of Maud Baum, a strong and resourceful woman contending with the hardships of the American Dream and an unshakable dedication to her husband’s artistic ambitions.
Nina X has no mother and no father and has never met another child; instead she has Comrade Chen, and Comrades Uma, Jeni and Ruth. Her closest emotional connection is with the birds she sees when she removes the plasterboard that covers her bedroom window. Comrade Chen has named her The Project; she is being raised entirely separated from the false gods of capitalism and the cult of the self. He has her record everything in her journal, to track her thoughts. To keep her ideology pure, her words are erased, over and over again. But that was before. Now Nina is in Freedom, and all the rules have changed. She has to remember that everything is opposite to what she was told, and discovers that Freedom is a very confusing and dangerous place. Nina X has a lot to learn.
WHY I CHOSE IT: Nina’s story hit me hard; both her ignorance and deprivation whilst isolated from the outside world and the shock of being exposed to it as an adult were brilliantly and movingly depicted. I am rarely convinced or comfortable with men portraying intimate female experience but this was handled with insight and sensitivity.
Dr Ruth Hartland rises to difficult tasks. She is the director of a highly respected trauma therapy unit. She is confident, capable and excellent at her job. Today she is preoccupied by her son Tom’s disappearance, so when a new patient arrives at the unit – a young man who looks shockingly like Tom – she is floored. As a therapist, Ruth knows exactly what she should do in the best interests of her client, but as a mother she makes a very different choice – a decision that will have profound consequences.
WHY I CHOSE IT: For me a standout in the psych thriller genre, combining elegant writing, near unbearable suspense and genuine psychological depth which reflects the author’s professional experience in the field. It so consumed me that I almost missed my stop three times in one evening and finished it in under 24 hours.
SOFA DATE: 5 June – Guest Author – Bev Thomas on the ‘Good Enough’ Mother
My name’s Griz. I’ve never been to school, I’ve never had friends, in my whole life I’ve not met enough people to play a game of football. My parents told me how crowded the world used to be, before all the people went away, but we were never lonely on our remote island. We had each other, and our dogs. Then the thief came. He told stories of the deserted towns and cities beyond our horizons. I liked him – until I woke to find he had stolen my dog. So I chased him out into the ruins of the world. I just want to get my dog back, but I found more than I ever imagined was possible. More about how the world ended. More about what my family’s real story is. More about what really matters.
WHY I CHOSE IT: A poignant near-future odyssey in the company of an endearing young narrator, this novel is beautifully written and inspires ‘big questions’ about the absurdities of life as it is lived now and what, if anything, would endure of our civilisation if we were all gone.
SOFA DATE: 28 August – Writers on Location – Charlie Fletcher on the Outer Hebrides
Kiev 1992. Rachel, a troubled young English mother, joins her journalist husband on his first foreign posting in the city. Terrified of the apartment’s balcony, she develops obsessive rituals to keep their baby safe. Her difficulties expose her to a disturbing endgame between the elderly caretaker and a local racketeer who sends a gift that surely comes with a price. Rachel is isolated yet culpable with her secrets and estrangements. As consequences bear down she seeks out Zoya, her husband’s fixer, and the boy from upstairs who watches them all. Home is uncertain, betrayal is everywhere, but in the end there are many ways to be a mother.
WHY I CHOSE IT: It’s a joy to read a novel in which the elements fuse so harmoniously: taut but lyrical prose, an exceptionally vivid sense of place, politics and culture but also of a time neither recent nor of the distant past. A dark and angst-filled study of alienation redeemed by unlikely alliances.
SOFA DATE: 12 JUNE –Writers on Location – Judith Heneghan on Kiev
If Stella Fortuna means ‘lucky star,’ then life must have a funny sense of humour.
Everybody in the Fortuna family knows the story of how the beautiful, fiercely independent Stella, who refused to learn to cook and who swore she would never marry, has escaped death time and time again from her childhood in Italy, to her adulthood in America. She has been burned, eviscerated and bludgeoned; she has choked, nearly fallen out of a window, and on one occasion, her life was only saved by a typo. But no woman survives seven or eight deaths without a reason. In a tale which spans nine decades, two continents, and one family’s darkest, deepest-buried truths, the answer awaits. . .
WHY I CHOSE IT: A long novel with a huge cast makes this a surprising choice but before long I was immersed in the eventful lives of the Fortuna family, particularly its brave and long-suffering women. A vibrant account of the Italian-American immigrant experience, its darkness shot through with warmth and humour.
Growing up in a strict religious family between the wars, Annie Lang witnesses disturbing events that no one can explain. Only the family dog may know the answers. Years later, Annie returns from France to find her brother in a mental hospital and her friend and ally Millie Blessing vanished. With the help of her childhood diary Annie turns detective to try and understand the past. What she discovers threatens to ruin all their lives, unless they can somehow atone for what has happened.
WHY I CHOSE IT: Annie has a unique voice and character to match – I really cared about her. I liked the Nottinghamshire setting and being plunged into her innocent and understandably confused view of events which are unpalatable even to adults, exposing the misogyny and double standards of a patriarchal society and its institutions.
SOFA DATE: 19 June – Guest Author – Ros Franey on Inventing Truth
8. THE DRAGON LADY – Louisa Treger (Bloomsbury)
Opening with the shooting of Lady Virginia ‘Ginie’ Courtauld in her tranquil garden in 1950s Rhodesia, The Dragon Lady tells Ginie’s extraordinary story, so called for the exotic tattoo snaking up her leg. From the glamorous Italian Riviera before the Great War to the Art Deco glory of Eltham Palace in the thirties, and from the secluded Scottish Highlands to segregated Rhodesia in the fifties, the narrative spans enormous cultural and social change. Ostracised as a foreign divorcée at the time of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, Ginie and her second husband, Stephen Courtauld, leave the confines of post-war Britain to forge a new life in Rhodesia, only to find that being progressive liberals during segregation proves mortally dangerous. Many people had reason to dislike Ginie, but who had reason enough to pull the trigger?
WHY I CHOSE IT: I loved this intriguing story of a woman constantly at odds with the world around her, and the vivid and unflinching portrayal of the racial and social tensions in colonial era Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). It’s a novel built on contrasts: between glamour and hardship, privilege and oppression, delivered in lush prose.
SOFA DATE: 26 June – Guest Author – Louisa Treger on A Brutal Paradise: returning to her family roots for inspiration
9. RIVERFLOW – Alison Layland (Honno Press)
After a beloved family member is drowned in a devastating flood, Bede and Elin Sherwell want nothing more than to be left in peace to pursue their off-grid life. But when the very real prospect of fracking hits their Shropshire village, they are drawn into frontline protests. Mysterious threats and suspicious accidents put friendships on the line, and Elin and Bede’s marriage under unbearable pressure. Is there a connection with their uncle’s death? Who is trying to stop them saving not just their home and village but the wider world, and how far will they go? But far from a global threat, it seems the enemy could be closer to home.
WHY I CHOSE IT: Most eco or climate-change themed novels I’ve encountered are futuristic and tend to the apocalyptic; I appreciated the groundedness of this one set here (in the UK) and now. The author cleverly gets round the issue of ‘preaching’ with her characterisation of the prickly Bede. Wonderful descriptions of nature and a keen eye for the dynamics of life in a small community.
SOFA DATE: 3 July – Writers on Location – Alison Layland on Rural Shropshire
London: 1963. The lives of a professional shoplifter, and a young art student collide. Delia needs to atone for a terrible mistake; Tess is desperate to convince herself she really is an artist. Elsewhere in London, the Krays are on the rise and a gang war is in the offing. Tess’s relationship with her gay best friend grows unexpectedly complicated and Delia falls for a man she’s been paid to betray. At last, the two women find a resolution together – a performance that is both Delia’s goodbye to crime and Tess’s one genuine work of art.
WHY I CHOSE IT: This witty and intelligent debut crackles with personality and seedy glamour, its cast of ‘real characters’ constituting a (non-airbrushed) snapshot of the political, sexual and social climate of the early 1960s. A stylish and entertaining summer read with a cover likely to draw the crowds just as it did me.
In 1922, Paul Beckermann arrives at the Bauhaus art school and is immediately seduced by both the charismatic teaching and his fellow students. Eccentric and alluring, the more time Paul spends with his new friends the closer they become, and the deeper he falls in love with the mesmerising Charlotte. But Paul is not the only one vying for her affections, and soon an insidious rivalry takes root.
As political tensions escalate in Germany, the Bauhaus finds itself under threat, and the group begins to disintegrate under the pressure of its own betrayals and love affairs. Decades later, in the wake of an unthinkable tragedy, Paul is haunted by a secret. When an old friend from the Bauhaus resurfaces, he must finally break his silence.
WHY I CHOSE IT: The author of Mrs Hemingway triumphs with another exploration of the costs of creativity, this time art and the meticulously researched Bauhaus era from its claustrophobic bubble to the hostile world beyond. I was seduced and fascinated by the hedonism, the creative and romantic rivalries and conflicted loyalties in this tangle of flawed and beautiful people.
Peter Papathanasiou intertwines two life journeys – his own and his mother’s – over the course of nearly a hundred years, to tell the story of an astonishing act of kindness and an incredible secret kept hidden for two decades. This memoir documents the migrant experience (from Greece to Australia), both from the unfamiliar perspective of first-generation migrants and the tension felt by the second-generation trapped between two cultures. At its core, Son of Mine is about the search for identity – for what it means to be who you are when everything is torn down and questioned – and the wisdom we can pass on to the next generation.
WHY I CHOSE IT: I met the author about five years ago and on the strength of his subsequent media articles on his family heritage, I never doubted that the whole story would be published. Pete’s profession as a geneticist lends an additional angle to this honest and hugely poignant memoir – I found it a refreshing antidote to the culture of toxic masculinity.
SOFA DATE: 17 July – Guest Author Peter Papathanasiou – Resilience on the Road to Publication