How’s your summer going? Mine’s been great and incredibly busy so far – definitely time to wind down with my last post before taking a nice long break*. I’m glad to hear that many of you are enjoying books you discovered on my Summer Reads selection and/or the guest author series which ended last week with a very popular and relatable post on resilience by Peter Papathanasiou. I’d like to thank all of my recent guests for their entertaining and interesting contributions: Writers on Location Judith Heneghan on Kiev, Alison Layland on Shropshire, and on various themes related to their latest releases, Ros Franey, Bev Thomas and Louisa Treger.
Today, in a Literary Sofa first, I’m bringing you a Summer Reads Extra, in the form of five more books worth recommending, including two which I hadn’t yet read when I made my original choices. The blurbs are adapted from publicity materials and as with the main listing, I share my verdict on each one.
For Lucy, marriage to Mark provided an anchor after several years of drifting casually across countries, into jobs and out of relationships. Now 42, bewildered by the demands of motherhood and dissatisfied with her work, she has also grown resentful of her husband – Mark has serious difficulties of his own and whilst harsh self-reliance has kept him sane, it has alienated his wife.
When Lucy falls in love with Angus, a pianist in his sixties, her shock is extreme. Adamant that she will not deceive her husband, she instead asks his advice. Mark’s reaction is startlingly unorthodox, leaving Lucy to steer an impossible course between duty and desire, adventure and security. As her marriage falters and Angus presses for commitment, she is forced to choose between family and self, with lifelong consequences for everyone.
My Verdict: I knew when I heard Mary Loudon read from her book months ahead of release that it was my kind of thing – as writers we share many themes and interests. This is a thought-provoking read for anyone who’s ever questioned the boxes and social conventions our lives are expected to fit and so often don’t. The novel itself confounded my expectations and my response to the emotional drama of an open affair was influenced by a visceral reaction to one of the characters (no, of course I’m not going to tell you who or what). It shows depth and maturity and is beautifully written – I can imagine this novel sparking some very interesting discussions, and not just in book groups!
2010: Sixteen-year-old outsider Willem just wants to be left alone with his books and his dog. Worried he’s not turning out right, his ma and her boyfriend send him to New Dawn Safari Training Camp. Here they ‘make men out of boys’. Guaranteed.
1901: The height of the second Boer War in South Africa. Sarah van der Watt and her son are taken from their farm by force to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp where, the English promise, they will be safe.
My Verdict: High profile books rarely make an appearance here but I’m making an exception for what will undoubtedly be one of my Books of 2019. As the blurb suggests, there are two very different strands to this novel. They take a surprisingly long time to converge but the emotional impact is greater for it. South Africa has fascinated me since I first went there in 2000 and I felt the diligence and respect of Barr’s lengthy research came through on the page. I also liked the use of Afrikaans words and phrases and recognised the voices. This is a serious and disturbing novel, revealing facts which shocked me in both time frames, but the brutality is juxtaposed with huge compassion and tenderness. It moved me deeply – to tears once or twice – and the quality of the prose, which soars in any eventuality, played a big part in that.
Tobi and Ella’s childhood in East Berlin is shrouded in mystery. Now adults living in London, their past is full of unanswered questions. Both remember their family’s daring and terrifying attempt to escape but the fall-out remains elusive. Where did their parents disappear to, and why? What happened to Heiko, their little brother? And was there ever a painting of three blue horses?
In contemporary Germany, Aaron works for the archive, making his way through old files, piecing together the tragic history of thousands of families. But one file in particular catches his eye; and soon unravelling the secrets at its heart becomes an obsession.
When Ella is left a stash of notebooks by her mother, and she and Tobi embark on a search that will take them back to Berlin, her path crosses Aaron’s, and together they piece together the details of her past.
My Verdict: The events of this period of German history hold an enduring fascination for many and fans of The Lives of Others (film), Deutschland 86 (TV) or Anna Funder’s Stasiland (non-fiction) will appreciate this story which held particular resonance for me as I was a student in West Germany in 1987-8 and had the unforgettable experience of visiting the GDR during that time. Hardach’s portrayal combines authenticity with the poignancy, humour and lightness of touch she brings to ordinary lives in the grip of brutal and tragic events. An elegant, accessible novel with characters I really cared about.
Luke Greenwood is in crisis. His wife of 32 years is leaving him for a much younger man. Now local hard men have set their sights on his café and are taking an interest in what’s left of his family. A story which grapples with some of the big questions of our time: how do you make a long marriage work? What does the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’ actually mean? And is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?
My Verdict: Stephen May’s work has appeared regularly on the Sofa, most recently with an excellent piece on his signature subject of manhood last year. And this latest novel shows him still on form, not just as someone who ‘gets blokes’ – although he absolutely does – but who gets the messy, needy complicated business of being human. Even with a spiral-bound early proof, I hesitate to turn the pages down – I did so TWENTY times on reading this novel. Those weren’t soundbites or slick sentences; they were the bursts of connection so many of us read for, where we think, ‘yeah, that’s how it is. You’ve put into words something I’ve felt or thought about.’ There is, as ever, a great cast and a nice play-off between humour and cynicism. It’s sweet, it’s sharp – I still don’t know what a Northern Powerhouse is, but I’m not sure it matters.
As a child, seeing her mum devastated by losing her longed-for babies, Charlotte wished another woman could give her mother what she so craved. Now Charlotte’s a mum herself, she vows to help others achieve their dreams of becoming a parent. When she meets Malcolm and Brenda on a surrogacy website, it seems that she has found the perfect couple. In their late forties, they’ve spent their life building a successful business and travelling the world, but there’s just one thing missing. When Charlotte falls pregnant with twins, the pair are overjoyed. But are Malcolm and Brenda all they seem? As secrets unravel, Charlotte is forced to face that she has handed her babies over to virtual strangers.
My Verdict: I only read a handful of psychological thrillers each year and I choose them carefully, knowing that I often find the dramatic premises hard to invest in. On that score I certainly chose well with this one, which was almost too realistic, a very worrying reflection of the UK’s unregulated surrogacy system. I don’t recommend starting it if you have anything important to do – it hijacked my day and I literally couldn’t put it down. Charlotte’s naïeveté was so alarming I had to find out how it ended – it was a pretty stressful ride! If it has this effect on a tough sell, just think how much fans of the genre are going to love it…
I hope you find something which appeals here – do also check out the main Summer Reads selection which has a dozen more brilliant books. *This weekend I’m starting a complete break from blogging and social media until the end of August, to commune with nature in the Canadian Rockies and Montana, and like last year, to read nothing but older books and novels in French. Have a great rest of summer and see you in September!