At the weekend I was a little vocal on Twitter about how disappointed I was in The Guardian’s Holiday Reading Guide for the summer. Here I do want to preface that a) I know that I am probably not the person that this guide is aimed at… but b) I normally like these guides because they introduce me to some books I would never have heard of. To my mind this was not the case with the produced list of books which frankly look like they have gone through all the prize long lists, the best seller lists and then popped them into a very long guide. There seemed to be no diversity, nothing particularly new to liven the bookish blood on a break away over the summer. Post rant several people said I should have a go and so I thought ‘sod it, I will’. However to be a bit different I decided that I’d compile two lists. The first, a list of books I have read and would recommend. The second, books I haven’t read but I have on my list of summertime reading material (if the sun ever bloody turns up) as I thought that might make it less predictable and will appear tomorrow. Here are today’s titles…
Fiction… Which might not be to everyone’s taste as each one of them has quite a punch not normally associated with ‘a good beach read’ but I like a bit of depth on a holiday read like I do anytime of the year.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Anthony Marra (Hogarth Press, £14.99, out now)
In a snow-covered village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as her father is abducted in the middle of the night by Russian soldiers. Their life-long friend and neighbour, Akhmed, has also been watching, and when he finds Havaa he knows of only one person who might be able to help. For tough-minded doctor Sonja Rabina, it’s just another day of trying to keep her bombed-out, abandoned hospital going. When Akhmed arrives with Havaa, asking Sonja for shelter, she has no idea who the pair are and even less desire to take on yet more responsibilities and risk. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis, revealing the intricate pattern of connections that binds these three unlikely companions together and unexpectedly decides their fate.
Possibly one of the most amazing books I have read in a long, long time. So much so the review has taken me over two weeks to write, it will be on the blog over the weekend. In the interim, this is one of the most affecting books on war I have ever read. It won’t be everyone’s ideal summer read as it is incredibly confronting but it is a book that will quite possibly change your life let alone your summer.
Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma – Kerry Hogan (Vintage Books, £7.99, out 4th of July in Paperback)
When Janie Ryan is born, she is destined to be the latest in a long line of Aberdeen fishwives. Ahead of her lies a life filled with feckless men, filthy council flats and bread & marge sandwiches. But Janie isn’t like the rest of them. She wants a different life. And Janie, born and bred for combat, is ready to fight for it.
It is a very assured, bluntly honest and highly crafted debut novel filled with laughter and heart ache, it is full of reality, it can be grim but it also celebrates life and all walks of it and might have you reassessing some of the subconscious assumptions you find you make about some of the people you pass in the street, and about books with quirky long titles.
Ghana Must Go – Taiye Selasi (Viking Books, £14.99, out now)
A stunning novel, spanning generations and continents, Ghana Must Go by rising star Taiye Selasi is a tale of family drama and forgiveness, for fans of Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is the story of a family – of the simple, devastating ways in which families tear themselves apart, and of the incredible lengths to which a family will go to put itself back together. It is the story of one family, the Sais, whose good life crumbles in an evening; a Ghanaian father, Kweku Sai, who becomes a highly respected surgeon in the US only to be disillusioned by a grotesque injustice; his Nigerian wife, Fola, the beautiful homemaker abandoned in his wake; their eldest son, Olu, determined to reconstruct the life his father should have had; their twins, seductive Taiwo and acclaimed artist Kehinde, both brilliant but scarred and flailing; their youngest, Sadie, jealously in love with her celebrity best friend. All of them sent reeling on their disparate paths into the world. Until, one day, tragedy spins the Sais in a new direction.
It is a book filled with hidden depths and one that left me feeling a real mixture of emotions; heartache, shock, horror and also hope. At a mere 318 pages I think that is an incredible accomplishment and am very much in agreement with anyone else who thinks Taiye Selasi is one author to most definitely watch out for.
All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld (Jonathan Cape, £16.99, Out now)
Jake Whyte is the sole resident of an old farmhouse on an unnamed British island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. It’s just her, her untamed companion, Dog, and a flock of sheep. Which is how she wanted it to be. But something is coming for the sheep – every few nights it picks one off, leaves it in rags. It could be anything. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumours of an obscure, formidable beast. And there is Jake’s unknown past, perhaps breaking into the present, a story hidden thousands of miles away and years ago, in a landscape of different colour and sound, a story held in the scars that stripe her back.
I love books where the brooding sense of atmosphere and menace are palpable to the reader at all times, even in the lightest of moments. ‘All The Birds, Singing’ is such a book… It is a book that I simply cannot recommend to you enough. You will be intrigued, horrified, laugh (when you possibly shouldn’t) and thrilled by an author whose prose is exceptional. I know everyone is talking about this book at the mo but sod it, its f**king brilliant.
Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden (The Friday Project, £7.99, out now)
Amal is driving his wife Claud from London to her parents’ country house. In the wake of Claud’s miscarriage, it is a journey that will push their relationship – once almost perfect – towards possible collapse. In this, his latest novel, Govinden casts a critical eye on a society in which, in spite of never-ending advances in social media communications, the young still find it difficult to communicate. A devastatingly passionate and real portrait of a marriage, ‘Black Bread White Beer’ keenly captures the abandon, selfishness, hazards and pleasures that come with giving your life to another.
This is technically cheating as I have not quite finished this as I type, however I will have by the time this goes up and a review will follow shortly. Safe to say I love this book, its one where you feel the author is speaking just to you and you want to hug the book (and maybe the author) as you read it and whenever you stop, or in my case are made to stop to clean, work or some other annoying thing.
Crime… Where I shocked myself as I only had two recommendations and yet love crime but have learnt how little I have read of it this year. Shameful. To make up for it one will give you nightmares, the other will probably make you laugh quite a lot.
Human Remains – Elizabeth Haynes (Myriad Editions, £7.99, out now)
How well do you know your neighbours? Would you notice if they lived or died? Police analyst Annabel wouldn’t describe herself as lonely. Her work keeps her busy and the needs of her ageing mother and her cat are more than enough to fill her time when she’s on her own. But Annabel is shocked when she discovers her neighbour’s decomposing body in the house next door, and appalled to think that no one, including herself, noticed her absence. Back at work she sets out to investigate, despite her police officer colleagues’ lack of interest, and finds data showing that such cases are frighteningly common in her own home town. A chilling thriller and a hymn to all the lonely people, whose individual voices haunt the pages, Elizabeth Haynes’ new novel is a deeply disturbing and powerful thriller that preys on our darkest fears, showing how vulnerable we are when we live alone, and how easily ordinary lives can fall apart when no one is watching.
With its mixture of an unusual crime, if it is indeed a crime, a compelling and disturbing psychopath/sociopath at its heart, Annabel’s domestic drama and Haynes dark sense of humour, I would say, even at this early stage, that ‘Human Remains’ will easily be one of my thrillers of the year. It is one of those thrillers that is more than just a page turner (though s clichéd as I am aware it is to say this, I literally could not put it down) and works on several layers with many hidden depths and much to say, especially about forgotten people. You think you know what is coming at the start and you have absolutely no idea then, just when you think you have it all figured out, Haynes does it over and over again with more twists and turns as you go on.
Speaking From Among The Bones – Alan Bradley (Orion Books, £12.99, out now)
It is almost Easter in Bishop’s Lacey, and the villagers are holding their collective breath as the tomb of St Tancred in the church that bears his name is about to be opened after five hundred years. And as luck would have it, it’s inveterate eleven-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce who is first at the scene. But the body she finds lying there is clearly not that of a desiccated saint. For a start there’s the pool of fresh blood, and then there’s the gasmask, from under which an unmistakeable shock of golden hair identifies the corpse as that of Mr Collicutt, St Tancred’s celebrated organist. Despite her tender years, Flavia is no stranger to murder – but even she is baffled by the peculiar circumstances of Collicutt’s death. Especially when soon after, an effigy of St Tancred appears to be weeping blood onto the church floor. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Flavia soon finds herself exploring a secret maze of underground passages beneath the church – and is drawn into the equally dark and fetid world of one of Bishop’s Lacey’s most peculiar families.
I utterly adored ‘Speaking From Among The Bones’ and I think it might be one of my favourite Flavia De Luce mysteries yet. I have to say though, Alan Bradley how could you do it to us? The cliff hanger that you are left with is just too much! (Whatever you do, do not read the last line in the book until, erm, the last line.) How are we meant to wait until next year for a new book? How?
Classics… Where I choose two titles that might not be the best known classics, I think would make a delightful read over the summer months.
Mariana – Monica Dickens (Persephone Books, £9, out now)
Mariana is the story of a young English girl’s growth towards maturity and happiness in the 1930s. We are shown Mary at school in Kensington and on holiday at her beloved Charbury; her attempt at drama school; her year in Paris learning dressmaking and getting engaged to the wrong man; her time as a secretary and companion. Like Dusty Answer, Rebecca, I Capture the Castle or The Pursuit of Love, this is one of those novels about a young girl growing up and encountering life and love which all have the common characteristic of being funny, readable and yet perceptive. But Mariana is more than this. As the Observer’s Harriet Lane wrote in her Preface, critics may have tended ‘to dismiss its subject matter: crushes, horses, raffish uncles, frocks, inconsequential jobs, love affairs…but it is Mariana’s artlessness, its enthusiasm, its attention to tiny, telling domestic detail that makes it so appealing to modern readers. As a snap-album – as a portrait of a certain sort of girl at a certain time in a certain place – it now seems, sixty years after first publication, entirely exotic.
It has elements of the real social history of the time, only fictionalised and is a proper story of our heroine growing into adulthood and all the highs and lows that this brings. It also has a cast of characters that I am desperate to revisit again and again. As I mentioned earlier on, it is an epic of the everyman really. It isn’t often I read a book and think ‘ooh I must re-read you one day’ yet I have the feeling I will be rejoining Mary many more times in the future.
Peyton Place – Grace Metalious (Virago Books, £9.99, out now)
Switch off those TVs, kill your mobiles and settle down with the most controversial book ever written. Once denounced as ‘wicked’, ‘sordid’, ‘cheap’ ‘moral filth’, Peyton Place was the top read of its time and sold millions of copies worldwide. Way before Twin Peaks, Survivor or Big Brother, the curtains were twitching in the mythical New England town of Peyton Place, and this soapy story exposed the dirty secrets of 1950s small-town America: incest, abortion, adultery, repression and lust. Take a peek …
I got the page-turning escapism that I was looking for but I also got so much more, the humour, the sadness, the shocks. I found a book that was so well written and so believable (yet incredibly and quite delightfully melodramatic) it made me care about a community and feel a part of it. I also found some characters that I will never forget and a book I will have to go back to time and time again.
Non-Fiction… Where in trying to find titles I was saddened to discover my yearly attempt to read more non-fiction is just not happening!
The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe (Two Roads Books, £7.99, out now)
Mary Anne Schwalbe is waiting for her chemotherapy treatments when Will casually asks her what she’s reading. The conversation they have grows into tradition: soon they are reading the same books so they can have something to talk about in the hospital waiting room. Their choices range from classic (Howards End) to popular (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), from fantastic (The Hobbit) to spiritual (Jon Kabat-Zinn), with many in between. We hear their passion for reading and their love for each other in their intimate and searching discussions. A profoundly moving testament to the power of love between a child and parent, and the power of reading in our lives.
‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is touching without ever being saccharine, confronting and honest without ever being emotionally manipulative. It also celebrates life and highlights that we are part of each other’s ‘life-book-club’s’ through the discussions we have at book groups, on blogs, to our friends and family, or randomly on public transport about books and the power that they have. It has also left me with a list of books to go off and read as long as my arm.
Maggie & Me – Damian Barr (Bloomsbury, £11.99, out now)
It’s 12 October 1984. An IRA bomb blows apart the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Miraculously, Margaret Thatcher survives. In small-town Scotland, eight-year-old Damian Barr watches in horror as his mum rips her wedding ring off and packs their bags. He knows he, too, must survive. Damian, his sister and his Catholic mum move in with her sinister new boyfriend while his Protestant dad shacks up with the glamorous Mary the Canary. Divided by sectarian suspicion, the community is held together by the sprawling Ravenscraig Steelworks. But darkness threatens as Maggie takes hold: she snatches school milk, smashes the unions and makes greed good. Following Maggie’s advice, Damian works hard and plans his escape. He discovers that stories can save your life and – in spite of violence, strikes, AIDS and Clause 28 – manages to fall in love dancing to Madonna in Glasgow’s only gay club. Maggie & Me is a touching and darkly witty memoir about surviving Thatcher’s Britain; a story of growing up gay in a straight world and coming out the other side in spite of, and maybe because of, the iron lady.
I related to it – something that only happens to your very core or bones once or twice in a blue reading moon – and empathised with it. It was the sort of book my younger self was crying out for someone to put in my hands. I can only hope some lovely relatives, librarians, teachers or other influential bods make sure this is passed on to both the younger generation, especially those who call rubbish things ‘gay’, and to everyone they know really. Books like this help make being different both more acceptable and understandable, we need them.
Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Magical/Other… A section which I tried so hard to make simply a sci-fi section but showed that I clearly barely read any and that to even try and sound au fait with the sci-fi genre would have diehard fans chastising me, but I honestly did try!
The Machine – James Smythe (Blue Door Books, £12.99, out now)
Haunting memories defined him. The machine took them away. She vowed to rebuild him. From the author of The Testimony comes a Frankenstein for the twenty-first century. Beth lives alone on a desolate housing estate near the sea. She came here to rebuild her life following her husband’s return from the war. His memories haunted him but a machine promised salvation. It could record memories, preserving a life that existed before the nightmares. Now the machines are gone. The government declared them too controversial, the side-effects too harmful. But within Beth’s flat is an ever-whirring black box. She knows that memories can be put back, that she can rebuild her husband piece by piece. A Frankenstein tale for the 21st century, The Machine is a story of the indelibility of memory, the human cost of science and the horrors of love.
I found ‘The Machine’ was a book as chilling, and thrilling, as it was emotional and thought provoking. It is also one of those books that delightfully defies any labels of genre, delightful both for the reader and as one in the eye for those who want a book to be pigeonholed if at all possible. It is the sort of book – from the sort of author – that ought to be winning lots of prizes and being read by lots of people.
The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness (Canongate, £14.99, out now)
One night, George Duncan – decent man, a good man – is woken by a noise in his garden. Impossibly, a great white crane has tumbled to earth, shot through its wing by an arrow. Unexpectedly moved, George helps the bird, and from the moment he watches it fly off, his life is transformed. The next day, a kind but enigmatic woman walks into George’s shop. Suddenly a new world opens up for George, and one night she starts to tell him the most extraordinary story. Wise, romantic, magical and funny, “The Crane Wife” is a hymn to the creative imagination and a celebration of the disruptive and redemptive power of love.
It made me cry at the start, possibly at the end and a few time, with laughter, through the middle. It has been a good few weeks since I read the book now and I still find myself pondering what has happened to the characters since, always the sign of a good read, and the writing just blew me away. Patrick Ness says in this book that “A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.” I hope this story grows to be a huge success.
Diving Belles – Lucy Wood (Bloomsbury, £7.99, out now)
Along Cornwall’s ancient coast, from time to time, the flotsam and jetsam of the past can become caught in the cross-currents of the present and a certain kind of magic floats to the surface…Straying husbands lured into the sea can be fetched back, for a fee. Houses creak, fill with water and keep a fretful watch on their inhabitants. And, on a windy beach, a small boy and his grandmother keep despair at bay with an old white door. In these stories, hopes, regrets and memories are entangled with catfish, wreckers’ lamps and baying hounds as Cornish folklore slips into everyday life.
There are those rare books that come into your life and once finished you feel a little bereft because they were so good. Lucy Wood’s debut collection of short stories ‘Diving Belles’ is one such book, in fact I loved it so much I had to ration it out to the point I was only reading one or two stories a week. I simply didn’t want to it end.
So there you are, if you managed to stay with me for the long haul then well done. Tomorrow I will be sharing with you the books that I haven’t read yet which I really fancy getting to over the summer months (if summer decides to show itself) and think some of you might like too! In the meantime don’t forget to share you thoughts on the books you have loved the most so far in the first half of the year. Also let me know what you think about the selection above, which ones have you read or been meaning to read? Also, if any of you fancy doing summer reading guides, or already have, do let me know as I would love to have a gander.