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Book Review, Books, Listings

Summer Reads 2020

Welcome to the Literary Sofa’s biggest event of the year.  This isn’t the summer any of us were hoping for but the supply of new books is as good as ever. Like everything else, my Summer Reads has encountered logistical challenges but it’s happening anyway, along with the best guest programme I can put together. See which authors have already confirmed in the Sofa Dates below.  This blog runs on love of books alone and many new readers discover it via my seasonal recommendations so your help in spreading the word is appreciated more than ever by the authors, publishers and me!

These seven novels, two memoirs and a story collection will appeal to a wide range of tastes – all titles I enjoyed and rated and you get to hear why. Whilst I’m always susceptible to a strong sense of place, that quality now carries a premium and figures especially strongly: Paris, Louisiana, California, the Greek island of Paros, Cornwall, Provence and New York City are just some of the destinations on offer.  And then there’s gorgeous writing, memorable characters/people and a below the surface journey into many different lives…

Text adapted from publicity materials.  All out now but release dates of formats still to come are subject to change.

  1. The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (Dialogue Books)

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just their daily lives that differ as adults, it’s everything. Ten years later, Desirée lives with her black daughter in the town she once tried to escape whereas Stella secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Even separated by so many miles and lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation when their own daughters’ storylines intersect? Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing.

Why I chose it: I can’t speak highly enough of this moving, intricately woven novel exploring issues of identity, secrets and inherited trauma rooted in the longstanding reality of so many people’s lived experience. I cared about these characters, and I think most readers’ perspectives would be challenged or expanded in some way by their stories.  This emotionally intelligent novel illustrates what we all stand to gain from a full spectrum of voices reflecting the world we live in.  The audiobook is superbly narrated by Shayna Small.

  1. The Lizard – Dugald Bruce-Lockhart (Muswell Press)

Obsessed with his ex-girlfriend, student Alistair Haston heads to Greece, where she is on holiday. After losing everything in a mugging on the harbourside in Paros, he accepts a job recruiting tourists to pose for a wealthy German artist but soon realises Heinrich has more than just painting in mind. Swept away on a tide of wild parties, wild sex, fine food and drugs, Alistair throws himself headlong into the pursuit of pleasure until the body of a missing tourist is found and the finger of blame points to him. Arrested but allowed to escape, the body count piles up and Alistair finds himself on the run by land and sea on a journey more breathtaking and frightening than his wildest dreams.

Why I chose it: This is a high-octane, hedonistic romp with little regard for boundaries of any kind.  If the real world feels too much, this pacy entertaining thriller will whisk you to Greece (and some gorgeous swimming pools, sigh) from your living room or back garden.

SOFA DATE: 1 July Writers on Location – Dugald Bruce-Lockhart on Paros

  1. The House of Glass – Hadley Freeman (memoir) (4th Estate)

After her grandmother died, journalist Hadley Freeman set out to make sense of a woman she’d never really known. Sala Glass was a European expat in America – defiantly clinging to her French influences, famously reserved, fashionable to the end – yet her experience of surviving one of the most tumultuous periods in modern history was never spoken about. When Hadley found a shoebox filled with her grandmother’s treasured belongings, it started a decade-long quest to dig deep into the extraordinary lives of Sala and her three brothers. The search takes her from Picasso’s archives in Paris to a secret room in a farmhouse in Auvergne to Long Island and to Auschwitz, piecing together letters, photos and an unpublished memoir.  Alongside her great-uncles’ acts of courage in Vichy France, Hadley discovers her grandmother’s equally heroic but more private form of female self-sacrifice.

Why I chose it: One of the best memoirs I have ever read, as fascinating and educational as any historical documentary with the emotional and narrative power of an epic novel.  I particularly loved the French sections and became hugely invested in the fate of Hadley Freeman’s family members. They will stay with me a long time.

  1. Scratched Enamel Heart – Amanda Huggins (story collection) (Retreat West)

A lonely woman spends a perfect night with a stranger but is their connection enough to make her realise life is worth living? Maya, a refugee, wears a bracelet strung with charms that are a lifeline to her past; when the past catches up with her, she has a difficult decision to make. Rowe’s life on the Yorkshire coast is already mapped out for him, but when there is an accident at the steelworks he knows he has to flee from an intolerable future. In the Costa prize-winning Red, Mollie is desperate to leave Oakridge Farm and her abusive stepfather, to walk free with the stray dog she has named Hal. These are stories filled with yearning and hope, the search for connection and the longing to escape. They transport the reader from India to Japan, from mid-west America to the north-east coast of England, from New York to London. Battered, bruised, jaded or jilted, the human heart somehow endures.

Why I chose it:  Amanda Huggins’ second collection includes short stories and flash fiction and perfectly demonstrates the power of both forms in the right hands.  Her writing is lucid, spare and emotive, capturing entire lives, characters and relationships in just a few pages, plunging the reader right into the heart of the drama.  For anyone struggling to read fiction at the moment this could be just what you need.

SOFA DATE: 15 July – Guest Author Amanda Huggins on the Importance of location in fiction.

  1. The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson (Head of Zeus) ebook now available, hardback 3 September

After the death of her mother, Rebecca begins the sad task of sorting through her empty flat. Starting with the letters piling up on the doormat, she finds an envelope post-marked from Cornwall. The contents will change her life forever. A desperate plea from her mother’s elderly cousin, Olivia, to help save her beloved home. Rebecca arrives at Chynalls to find the house crumbling into the ground and Olivia stuck in hospital with no hope of being discharged until her home is made habitable. Slightly daunted, Rebecca sets to work. But as she peels back the layers of paint, plaster and grime, she uncovers secrets buried for more than seventy years. Secrets from a time when Olivia was young, the Second World War was raging, and danger and romance lurked round every corner.

Why I chose it: I relished this dual timeframe story pulled together with unexpected threads against a vivid Cornish backdrop.  Olivia is an endearingly idiosyncratic character in her youth and old age and there are some deliciously sexy and romantic moments.

SOFA DATE: 8 July Writers on Location – Jane Johnson on Cornwall

  1. The Blind Light – Stuart Evers (Picador)

In the late 1950s, during his National Service, Drummond meets the two people who will change his life: Carter, a rich, educated young man sent down from Oxford; and Gwen, a barmaid with whom he feels an instant connection. His feelings for both will be tested at a military base known as Doom Town – a training ground where servicemen prepare for the aftermath of an Atomic Strike. It is an experience that will colour the rest of his – and his family’s – life. Told from the perspectives of Drum and Gwen, and later their children Nathan and Anneka, The Blind Light moves from the Fifties through to the present day, taking in the global and local events that will shape and define them all.  We see a family come together, driven apart, fracture and reform – as the pressure of the past is brought, sometimes violently, to bear on the present.

Why I chose it: For a long novel to hold my attention as this one did, it has to be exceptionally compelling. What moved and captivated me was the visceral intimacy and humanity with which Evers captures the interior lives of his characters.  It’s profoundly insightful on friendship, desire, family, ageing and class, with many passages of extraordinary eloquence. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys literary fiction that’s not too rarefied.

  1. The Magnificent Sons – Justin Myers (Piatkus) ebook/audio now out, hardback 6 August

At twenty-nine, Jake D’Arcy has finally got his life just right. Job with prospects: check. Steady girlfriend: check. Keeping his exhausting, boisterous family at bay: check. So why isn’t he happier? When his confident, much-adored younger brother Trick comes out as gay to a rapturous response, Jake realises he has questions about his own repressed bisexuality, and that he can’t wait any longer to find his answers. As Trick struggles with navigating the murky waters of adult relationships, Jake must confront himself and those closest to him. He’s beginning to believe his own life could be magnificent, if he can be brave enough to make it happen.

Why I chose it: Justin Myers (AKA The Guyliner) brings his signature wit and empathy to this portrait of a larger-than-life family at a crossroads.  It sparkles with humour and some great set pieces underpinned by a reflective layer concerned with self- and mutual acceptance.  He does a good job of conveying the incomprehension and preconceptions which surround bisexuality.

SOFA DATE: 22 July Guest author – Justin Myers on generational conflict

  1. The Heatwave – Kate Riordan (Penguin) ebook now, paperback 3 September

Elodie was beautiful. Elodie was smart. Elodie was troubled. Elodie is dead. Sylvie hasn’t been back to her crumbling French family home in years. Not since the death of her eldest daughter. Every corner of the old house feels haunted by memories of Elodie – memories Sylvie has tried to forget. But as temperatures rise, and forest fires rage through the French countryside, a long-buried family secret is about to come to light. Because there’s something Sylvie’s been hiding about what really happened to Elodie that summer – and it could change everything.

Why I chose it:  Great summer domestic noir, well written with bags of holiday atmosphere. I’ve spent a lot of time in Provence and reading this made me long to be back. There’s a really compelling and creepy storyline which tangles with the hard-hitting subjects of maternal ambivalence (to put it mildly) and whether anyone is born evil.

9. Coming up for air – Sarah Leipciger (Transworld)

On the banks of the River Seine in 1899, a young woman takes her final breath before plunging into the icy water. Although she does not know it, her decision will set in motion an astonishing chain of events. It will lead to 1950s Norway, where a grieving toy-maker is on the cusp of a transformative invention, all the way to present-day Canada where a journalist who is battling a terrible disease risks everything for one last chance to live. Coming Up for Air takes inspiration from a remarkable true story.

Why I chose it: Absolutely stunning and unusual novel consisting of what appear to be three unrelated stories, but the way the author ultimately brings them together makes it all make sense.  The strands are moving in their own right, the whole even more so.  The writing is exquisite, especially in the tender depiction of a same-sex relationship.

SOFA DATE:  Mid-September – Guest author Sarah Leipciger on mixing the real and the fictional

10. Wine Girl – Victoria James (memoir) (Fleet)

Aged 13, Victoria James started her first job in a diner in New Jersey. Aged 19, Victoria was serving sugary Cosmopolitans in a restaurant off Broadway. Aged 21, Victoria was named the US’s youngest sommelier, working in Michelin-starred restaurants, serving the finest wines to pair with spectacular foods. The groping patrons she learned to handle, but behind the scenes, the world of high-class dining was a mess of fractious relationships and unacknowledged abuse. Victoria had to hit rock-bottom before finding her way back to the industry she loves. Wine Girl is the memoir of a young woman breaking free from her traumatic childhood. It’s the story of overcoming the notoriously corrosive restaurant industry, and of the restorative power of a glass of wine with friends.

Why I chose it: I was swept up in this account of a young woman’s resilience and determination to overcome rural poverty and abuse to make it in the most exclusive (in both senses) and unlikely field. It holds some very unpalatable revelations about the exploitation and sexism rife in NYC’s fine dining scene – I was genuinely shocked by the continuing prevalence of attitudes and behaviour more commonly associated with the 1950s.

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.


11 thoughts on “Summer Reads 2020

  1. Great selection! I already had The Vanishing Act on my radar but will also add The Lizard for a bit of escapism and Wine Girl as I enjoy a good memoir. Look forward to Part Two!

    Posted by helenmackinven | June 17, 2020, 11:31
  2. Another new novel on twins with a troubled childhood is HALF by Sharon Harrigan. She uses the first person plural, insightful and painful as they grow up, separate and struggle to regain their bond in adulthood. After studying the psychology of growing into adulthood after/during difficult parental relationships, this book rang so true. It’s getting great reviews, from Univ of Wisconsin Press in U.S.
    I so enjoy your take and context.

    Posted by Catcher, Caught | June 17, 2020, 12:22
  3. Four on this list will be added to my collection of summer reads soon…The Vanishing Half, The Sea Gate, The Heat Wave, and Wine Girl!

    Posted by kcchandler7 | June 17, 2020, 17:44
  4. Your lists are always a highlight of the year and this summer reads is no exception. There’s such variety here, something to suit every kind of mood reader in me! I have Coming Up for Air, The Blind Light, Wine Girl and The Lizard on my stack already but now want to add Hadley Freeman’s memoir and Brit Bennett’s novel to their ranks.

    Posted by Kath | June 19, 2020, 16:32
  5. I couldn’t pick just one I liked the look of. The Lizard, Heatwave and The Vanishing Half will all be on my list for the summer

    Posted by Ellika McAuley | June 19, 2020, 17:48


  1. Pingback: Writers on Location – Dugald Bruce-Lockhart on Paros, Greece | The Literary Sofa - June 30, 2020

  2. Pingback: Writers on Location – Jane Johnson on Cornwall | The Literary Sofa - July 8, 2020

  3. Pingback: Guest Author – Amanda Huggins on the Importance of location in fiction | The Literary Sofa - July 15, 2020

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