Welcome to the second instalment of my 2022 Summer Reads – shorter than the original selection but right up there on quality with the bonus of two titles translated from French. I was delighted by the enthusiastic response to the recommendations I shared in June and hope you find yet more inspiration for your TBR list here – what could be better in this weather than lounging around reading under a large parasol with a glass of something ice cold? (OK, swimming is also good.)
In an exciting first, tomorrow I’ll be recording a special Summer Reads episode of Chiltern Voice Book Club with Antonia Honeywell, matching 12 books (all of today’s list and half of last month’s) with songs. I’ve had huge fun planning this and am looking forward to it going live at 2pm on Sunday 17 July on chilternvoice.fm. Hope some of you will be able to join us or listen on catch-up.
DISCRETION – FAÏZA GUÈNE translated by Sarah Ardizzone (Saqi Books)
Yamina Taleb is almost 70 and strives for a quiet life, grateful to the country that hosts her and her adored family. But her children feel differently about life in Paris. They don’t always fit in, and it hurts. Omar wonders whether it’s too late to change course as he watches the world pass him by from the driver’s seat of his Uber. His sisters are tired of having to prove themselves and their allegiance to a place that is at once home, and not. When the Talebs go away together on holiday – not to the motherland, but to a villa-with-pool rental near the Atlantic coast – they come to realise just how strongly family defines our sense of belonging. Moving between Algeria and Paris, Discretion evokes the realities of a first- and second-generation family as they carve out a future for themselves in France, finding one another as they go along.
Why I chose it: Faïza Guène has an incredible gift for exploring the complex challenges and experiences of France’s community of Algerian origin through stories that feel universal. Realistic but not bitter, full of compassion and humour that make for a highly enjoyable read without detracting from the serious issues that form part of real French life. Once again, this is largely down to her vibrant and endearing characters, and it’s good to see the life of an older woman (traced back to her birth in the Algerian thread) given centre stage.
ACTS OF SERVICE – LILLIAN FISHMAN (Europa Editions)
Eve has an adoring girlfriend, an impulsive streak and a secret fear that she’s wasting her brief youth with just one person. So one evening she posts some nudes online. This is how she meets Olivia, and through her, the charismatic Nathan. Despite Eve’s better instincts, the three soon begin a relationship that disturbs Eve as much as it enthralls her. As each act of their affair unfolds across a cold and glittering New York, Eve is forced to confront the questions that most consume her: what do we bring to sex? What does it reveal of ourselves and each other? And how do we reconcile what we want with what we think we should want?
Why I chose it: Having also written a novel in which sexuality and a three-way relationship feature heavily, this was always going to pique my interest. I loved the writing, the directness of the sex and the unapologetic but nuanced intellectualism which I see more often in French writing. After attending a very stimulating launch event last week in which the author was interviewed by Johanna Thomas-Corr, I need to re-read it to be sure what I think about some of its deeper questions, especially the dissonance between sexual identity and sexual behaviour.
CROSSROADS – JONATHAN FRANZEN (Fourth Estate)
It’s December 23, 1971, and heavy weather is forecast for Chicago. Russ Hildebrandt, the associate pastor of a liberal suburban church, is on the brink of breaking free of a marriage he finds joyless – unless his wife, Marion, who has her own secret life, beats him to it. Their eldest child, Clem, is coming home from college on fire with moral absolutism, having taken an action that will shatter his father. Clem’s sister, Becky, long the social queen of her high-school class, has sharply veered into the counterculture, while their brilliant younger brother Perry, who’s been selling drugs to seventh-graders, has resolved to be a better person. Each of the Hildebrandts seeks a freedom that each of the others threatens to complicate.
Why I chose it: On a friend’s recommendation I disappeared for hours on end into this huge novel on a recent holiday to Spain, and that’s a good way to approach it. Franzen is literary Marmite, somewhat prone to pretension and self-indulgence, but his first novel The Corrections is one of my all-time favourites and for my money, his gift for capturing both American and family life is expertly displayed here, from deep inside the heads and hearts of the various Hildebrandts. Franzen paints a scary picture of how little we know from the exterior of what’s really going on with those closest to us, and a vividly retro portrayal of the era.
GINGER AND ME – ELISSA SOAVE (HQ) 21 July
Wendy is nineteen and living alone. All she wants is to drive the 255 bus around Uddingston with her regulars on board, remember to buy milk when it runs out and to just be ok. Since she lost her mum there’s no one to remind Wendy to eat, what to do each day and most importantly to love herself. But Wendy is ready to put herself out there. She joins a writers’ group where the other writers are total amateurs, unlike Diane Weston – a famous local author who likes and sometimes even comments on Wendy’s tweets. Everything changes on a rainy day when Wendy meets Ginger, a teenager with flaming orange hair. For the first time, Wendy has a real best friend. But as they begin the summer of their lives, Wendy wonders if her life would be simpler if they’d never met. And that’s before she realises just how much of a mess Ginger is about to get them in…
Why I chose it: This book won the inaugural Primadonna Festival Prize in 2019 and I’m sure the strength of the voice played a big part in that, both in terms of the Glasgow setting and establishing an immediate rapport with Wendy and the unique way she experiences life. A coming of age novel which veers between loud out loud funny, deeply sad and downright excruciating, this is the story of two vulnerable young women with big hearts and big challenges, and of the power of emotional connection.
THE ANOMALY (L’ANOMALIE) by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter (Michael Joseph) Paperback release 4 August
Originally featured in my French Fiction Special last September
Everyone on the flight that day had been leading a double life. Blake: a family man/an assassin for hire. Joanna: a formidable lawyer/an insecure woman. Slimboy: a promiscuous, straight rapper/a closeted gay man. When their flight from Paris to New York encountered a terrifying, unexpected bout of turbulence, they all feared for those lives. So upon landing safely, they are happy to put the flight behind them, and continue as normal. The events that follow, however, are anything but normal. For not one plane emerged from the storm – but two. Everyone on the flight that day thought they had been leading a double life. They were wrong – until now. And as they prepare to meet their doubles, they must ask themselves:
Can you ever truly be yourself, if there are two of you?
My View: I can’t recall describing any book as a work of genius but it feels apt for the 2020 Goncourt winner. A crazily inventive blend of high-concept and thriller – neither of which are my usual thing – with a very French intellectual and philosophical side (like I said…), this is in a different league to other attempts in a similar direction. It’s clever, funny, gripping and thought-provoking. Prepare to wonder what you’re doing with your one short life.
THE FAMILY RETREAT – BEV THOMAS (Faber) 16 August
When Rob decides the family needs to get away for the summer Jess is not convinced – won’t all the things they’re escaping be waiting for them on their return? But the kids are thrilled, and before long their idyllic Dorset cottage, the sea air, and the feel of skin sticky from sun-cream, lollies and sand, begins to work its magic. Jess allows herself to sink into the holiday vibes – the family even make new friends. As the summer heat intensifies Jess – ever vigilant – unearths a secret, a problem she’s sure she can help solve. But things are not always as they seem. The water may look inviting but even the gentlest looking waves can hide the deadliest undercurrents. As autumn approaches, Jess – and the reader – will come to realise this is going to end in a way no-one could have imagined…
Why I chose it:
As with her debut A Good Enough Mother, Bev Thomas’s professional experience in the field brings something to the psychological thriller genre which should be a given: psychological depth. Jess is a GP whose career has suffered an unwanted interruption and when you’re in a bad place, sometimes it takes more than a beautiful place to move forward. I felt very involved in this complicated woman’s dilemmas and as unsettling developments mount up, particularly with the seemingly perfect family next door, the tension reaches almost unbearable levels. Highly compelling and emotionally intelligent.