Hi and welcome to the first part of my Summer Reads selection that’s less about sun, beaches and cocktails – great as they are – and more about these being the most absorbing, emotionally engaging and thought-provoking books I’ve discovered recently and can’t stop talking about. I tell you why I picked each one and am delighted that some of the authors will be joining me on the blog soon including Julie Owen Moylan and Lynn Bushell.
1 Voting Day – Clare O’Dea (Fairlight Books)
In February 1959, Switzerland held a referendum on women’s suffrage. The men voted ‘no’. Clare O’Dea explores that day through the eyes of four very different Swiss women. Vreni is a busy farmer’s wife, longing for a break from family life. Her grown-up daughter Margrit is carving out an independent life in Bern but finds herself trapped in an alarming situation. Esther, a cleaner, is desperate to recover her son who has been taken into care. Beatrice, a hospital administrator, has been throwing herself into the ‘yes’ campaign. The four women’s paths intersect on a day that will leave its mark on all their lives.
Why I chose it: I found this novella very moving and beautifully written. The elegant way the women’s lives intersect reminded me of Daniela Krien’s fabulous Love in Five Acts. O’Dea gets under her characters’ skin so quickly and many of the issues they face are unfortunately still resonant today.
2 Last Resort – Andrew Lipstein (W&N)
Caleb Horowitz is twenty-seven, and his wildest dreams are about to come true. His manuscript has caught the attention of the literary agent, who offers him fame, fortune and a taste of the literary life. He can’t wait for his book to be shopped around to every editor in New York, except one: Avi Dietsch, a college rival and the novel’s ‘inspiration.’ When Avi gets his hands on the manuscript, he sees nothing but theft – and opportunity. Caleb is forced to make a Faustian bargain that tests his theories of success, ambition and the limits of art.
Why I chose it: This literary thriller manages to be both hilariously far-fetched and wryly recognisable to anyone who knows the publishing industry. Caleb is quite a character (make of that what you will). A very entertaining read with such a transporting sense of New York City that I missed my Tube stop three times in two days. I only noticed compiling this list that there are three New York books here – six years after my last visit, the call is getting stronger…
3 Madwoman – Louisa Treger (Bloomsbury)
In 1887 young Nellie Bly sets out for New York and a career in journalism, determined to make her way as a serious reporter but life in the city is tougher than she imagined. Down to her last dime and desperate to prove her worth, she comes up with a plan to fake insanity and have herself committed to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island. There, she will work undercover to expose the wretched conditions faced by the patients. But when the asylum door swings shut she finds herself in a place of horrors, governed with unimaginable harshness and cruelty Cold, isolated and starving, her days of terror reawaken the traumatic events of her childhood. She entered the asylum of her own free will – but will she ever get out?
Why I chose it: Portrays the character and era of real life investigative journalist Nelly Bly with extraordinary and often shocking vividness, giving due credit and visibility to a woman with a mission who smashed every personal and professional obstacle she faced. Over a hundred years later, in a world where things feel irredeemably bleak, a welcome reminder that individuals can contribute to meaningful change and that some things have improved over time.
4 An Olive Grove in Ends – Moses McKenzie (Wildfire Books)
Sayon Hughes, a young Black man from Bristol, dreams of a world far from the torn betting slips, burnt spoons and crooked solutions his community embraces; most of all, removed from the Christianity of his uncaring parents and the prejudice of law-makers. Growing up, Sayon found respite in the love and loyalty of his brother-in-arms, Cuba; in the example of his cousin Hakim, once the most infamous drug-dealer in their neighbourhood, now a proselytising Muslim; and in the tenderness of his girl, Shona, whose own sense of purpose galvanises Sayon’s. In return, he wants to give the people he loves the world: a house atop a grand hill in the most affluent area of the city where they can find joy and safety. But after an altercation in which a boy is killed, Sayon finds his loyalties torn and his dream of a better life in peril.
Why I chose it: A literary novel enriched by Jamaican patois on almost every page, this deserves attention for its complex interrogation of racism, faith, family and community through a large cast and a compelling story. The fact that the author is in his early twenties is genuinely astounding. I liked that it’s set in Bristol because it’s a relatively rare novel setting. My eldest son lives there and I’d love to discuss it with my younger one, 20, who often enjoys my fiction tips. Straight to the top of the list.
5 Conversations on Love – Natasha Lunn (Penguin – essays)
After years of feeling that love was always out of reach, journalist Natasha Lunn set out to understand how relationships work and evolve over a lifetime. She turned to authors and experts to learn about their experiences, as well as drawing on her own, asking: How do we find love? How do we sustain it? And how do we survive when we lose it? In Conversations on Love she began to find the answers by talking to:
Philippa Perry on falling in love slowly
Dolly Alderton on vulnerability
Stephen Grosz on accepting change
Candice Carty-Williams on friendship
Lisa Taddeo on the loneliness of loss
Diana Evans on parenthood
Emily Nagoski on the science of sex
Alain de Botton on the psychology of being alone
Esther Perel on unrealistic expectations
Roxane Gay on redefining romance
and many more…
Why I chose it: The friend who told me about this did me a favour which I’m passing on if you haven’t come across it. I was blown away both by seeing things I’ve worked out for myself (there are some) and by what I could learn from these honest conversations which – as comes up repeatedly – are the key to real connection. It takes a wider, deeper view of love than the usual – this makes so much sense to me. Essential reading (I never say that BTW) if you’ve ever felt anything for anyone; I understand myself, other people and my characters in a new way which is a spectacular return on £9.99.
6 The Lovers and the Dustman – Lynn Bushell (Independent)
The two women Stanley Spencer loved most were his wife and fellow artist Hilda Carline and his muse, gay vamp Patricia Preece. When Stanley met Patricia in a Cookham tea-room in 1929 he was thirty-eight and looking for a muse to re-invigorate his painting; Patricia was looking for an income. She had a volatile relationship with her long-term lover, painter Dorothy Hepworth, but neither showed any sign of giving up on it, even when Stanley persuaded Hilda to divorce him and married Patricia a week later. By 1950 he had signed over all his assets to her and was renting a shed in the garden of the house he’d once owned. Patricia refused to consummate the marriage or grant him a divorce and continued living with Dorothy. When Stanley was knighted in 1959, she took the title ‘Lady Spencer’. But who was this ‘unnatural’ woman who lured his boat onto the rocks?
Why I chose it: Literary Sofa regulars will know I have a thing for novels about artists and this is the second time artist Lynn Bushell has triumphed in the endeavour (her novel Painted Ladies was my favourite Book of 2019.) With a charming Cazalet Chronicles vibe and a set-up you couldn’t make up, it’s Bushell’s dry wit which steals the show and often had me laughing out loud.
7 One Body – Catherine Simpson (Saraband – memoir)
By the time she reached her fifties, Catherine had experienced period pain, childbirth and early menopause, alongside love and laughter, a career in journalism, and raising two daughters. Like many of her peers, along the way she’d dieted, jogged, sweated, tanned, permed, and plucked—always attempting to conform to prevailing standards of “acceptable womanhood.” But when a medical crisis comes along, she can no longer pummel her body into submission and is forced to take stock. From growing up on a farm where veterinarians were more common than doctors, and where illness was “a nuisance,” she now faces the nuisance of a lifetime. One Body is the demystifying, relatable, often hilarious, and sometimes hair-raising story of how Catherine navigates her treatment and the emotions and reflections it provokes. And how she comes to drop the unattainable standards imposed on her body and simply appreciate the skin she is in.
Why I chose it: I’ve admired two-time Sofa guest Catherine’s previous fiction and life writing and her latest work offers a disarmingly frank and visceral account of her most intimate experiences (including breast cancer) which any woman will relate to. I respect this kind of openness which takes huge courage and vulnerability. The result is an important contribution to the discourse on women’s health and rights which doubles as a warm and engaging read.
8 Fight Night – Miriam Toews (Faber)
Swiv has taken her grandmother’s advice too literally. Now she’s at home, suspended from school. Mom is pregnant and preoccupied – and so Swiv is in the older woman’s charge, receiving a very different form of education from a teacher with a style all her own. Grandma likes her stories fast, troublesome and funny. She’s known the very worst that life can throw at you – and has met it every time with a wild, unnamable spirit, fighting for joy and independence every step of the way. But will maths lessons based on Amish jigsaws and classes on How to Dig a Winter Grave inspire the same fire in Swiv, and ensure it never goes out? Time is running short. Grandma’s health is failing, the baby is on the way, as a family of three extraordinary women prepare to face life’s great changes together.
Why I chose it: Like nothing I’ve ever read – idiosyncratic and chaotic in a way you’ll either love or hate. Swiv and Grandma are unforgettable characters, although I was taken aback, given some of the content, to find out afterwards that Swiv is only supposed to be nine years old. Still, shaking up expectations is pretty much what this book is about. A real trip.
9 Our Wives under the Sea – Julia Armfield (Picador)
Miri thinks she has got her wife back, when Leah finally returns after a deep-sea mission that ended in catastrophe. It soon becomes clear, though, that Leah may have come back wrong. Whatever happened in that vessel, whatever it was they were supposed to be studying before they were stranded on the ocean floor, Leah has carried part of it with her, onto dry land and into their home.
To have the woman she loves back should mean a return to normal life, but Miri can feel Leah slipping from her grasp. Memories of what they had before – the jokes they shared, the films they watched, all the small things that made Leah hers – only remind Miri of what she stands to lose. Living in the same space but suddenly separate, Miri comes to realize that the life that they had might be gone.
Why I chose it: Bit niche but I was drawn to this because my debut novel features an oceanography grad student and I never thought I’d revisit the ‘abyssal zone’. The writing is exquisite, somehow spare and poetic, capturing the strangeness and fear of the deep sea from Leah’s perspective and that of Miri when her wife returns so irretrievably altered. Beautiful but devastating.
10 That Green-eyed Girl – Julie Owen Moylan (Michael Joseph)
1955: In an apartment on the Lower East Side, schoolteachers Dovie and Gillian live as lodgers. Dancing behind closed curtains, mixing cocktails for two, they guard their private lives fiercely. Until someone guesses the truth . . . Twenty years later in the same apartment, Ava Winters is keeping her own secret. Her mother has become erratic, haunted by something Ava doesn’t understand – until one sweltering July morning, she disappears. Soon afterwards Ava receives a parcel. Addressed simply to ‘Apartment 3B’, it contains a photo of a woman with the word ‘LIAR’ scrawled across it. Ava does not know what it means or who sent it but if she can find out then perhaps she’ll discover the answers she is seeking – and meet the woman at the heart of it all . . .
Why I chose it: Whenever I had to break away from this I was impatient to return to Dovie and Gillian and their lives. This debut works so well in both dimensions: as a poignant coming of age and a gorgeously romantic and tragic queer love story. Soaked in the style and ambiance of bygone New York City, this will appeal in different ways to fans of The Seven Lives of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid and Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller.
11 Any Other Family – Eleanor Brown (Legend Press) 12 August
Though they look like any other family, they are three sets of parents intertwined after adopting four biological siblings, having committed to keeping the children as connected as possible. Tabitha, who adopted the twins, crowns herself planner of the group, responsible for endless playdates and holidays, determined to create a perfect happy family. Quiet and steady Ginger, single mother to the eldest daughter, is wary of the way these complicated relationships test her long held boundaries. And Elizabeth, still reeling from rounds of failed IVF, is terrified that her unhappiness after adopting a newborn means she was not meant to be a mother at all. On their first family vacation, the three women are pushed into uncomfortably close quarters. And when they receive a call from their children’s birth mother announcing she is pregnant again, the delicate bonds they are struggling to form threaten to collapse.
Why I chose it: I was so consumed by this novel that I barely noticed a five modes of transport, six hour journey from Glasgow to London recently. (There’s a bit of a ‘literature as logistical distraction’ theme emerging.) Brown brings compassion and insight to exploring the hopes and vulnerability that make us first human, then family. I recognised these people, felt for them and frankly sometimes wanted to knock their heads together. A very unusual premise which reveals a lot that’s universal.
Which one would you pick? People are always asking where I find the time to do this and I honestly don’t know. If you like what I do please help make it worthwhile and support the authors by sharing on your networks. Hope to see you back here for the guest posts and a few more recommendations in July.
My own second novel Scent is a good summer read apparently – info here.