There’s something special about the books we read over summer – sunshine and holidays seem to lend themselves to creating the most memorable and magic reading experiences. Here at NWN we’re eagerly compiling our summer TBR piles, so read on to find out about the books we’re planning to take on our summer holidays.
I’m hoping to pick up a copy of Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Tom Lake. Patchett is one of my ‘I would read her grocery list’ writers, so I’ve been on the lookout for anything new from her. Maybe it’s the daisies on the cover, or the cherries mentioned in the blurb, but I think it would pair well with a picnic.
I’m also going to treat myself to Lorrie Moore’s latest, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home. Moore’s books are rare and funny and wonderful (and when I say rare, I mean it. This is her first book in 14 years). Her books are worth waiting for. She writes the sort of sentences that will make you say ‘Ha!’ out loud and look around for someone to read it to. I can’t wait to take her along to the beach with me.
This summer, I am going ‘home’ to Northern Ireland, where my mum is from and we visited every school holiday throughout my childhood. On the long drive to Stranraer, my brother and I would practise our Northern Irish accents – my mum calling over her shoulder from the passenger seat to correct errors of intonation – so that by the time we disembarked the ferry at Larne we were pretty sure we sounded just like our cousins. My adulthood equivalent is a diet of books by Northern Irish authors, accompanied, I wish, by a diet of clove rock, brandy balls and cinnamon lozenges – hard sweets that somehow never crossed the Irish Sea.
Top of my list are Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses, a story of love and loss set during the Troubles, which is on the Women’s Prize 2023 shortlist; Dance Move, the latest short story collection by Wendy Erskine, who first came to my attention through the Gordon Burn Prize with her brilliant debut Sweet Home; and Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell, another short story collection that includes her story, ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’, which is set in the liminal, liberating setting of a long-distance journey. It won the 2021 BBC National Short Story Award and if you have 30 minutes, treat yourself to a recording of it here.
I’m excited for Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman. Both Newcastle dwellers, their warm study of four brilliant post-war women developing broader pictures of being human and of other ways of ‘knowing’ the world than the prevailing culture allowed, is right up my street. Even better, it comes warmly recommended by Lessons in Chemistry‘s Bonnie Garmus; I am still completely cherishing protagonist Elizabeth Zott’s voice, months on.
I also can’t wait for the timely, graphic memoir in The Talk, by Darrin Bell. Bell is known in the US particularly as a vital visual explainer of how it feels to grow up in a world that repeatedly treats you as other. As a peer artist of Bell’s recounts, ‘the talk with my white sons boiled down to ‘Be kind.’ It’s hard to overstate the distance between that admonition and ‘Stay alive.’’
For seasonal meditative reflection (and as all things celtic loom large over summer), I’ve just re-read Anam Cara (Soul Friend) by John O’ Donoghue and will now do the same with Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, because a) I still can’t believe as a lifelong lover of the Highlands I’ve only discovered this book, through an enthused colleague at NWN and b) because of Shepherd’s descriptions around elements, senses and the seasons. I’ll get back into fiction properly by Autumn!
I don’t have any big summer holiday plans, but I’m excited to bring picnic blankets and iced tea to the park for some sunny reading sessions. I plan to kick off my summer reading with The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, in advance of going to see the stage production on its national tour in Newcastle. Neil Gaiman is one of those authors I always intend to read more of, so I’m glad for an excuse to dip into his backlog.
I’ve also just picked up E Lockhart’s Family of Liars, the new prequel to YA mystery thriller We Were Liars (which is now being hailed as a ‘TikTok phenomenon’, but I was obsessing over it back in 2014); and Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, who writes with the most beautiful prose and indulgent fantasy worldbuilding. I have very fond summer reading memories of both authors, so I hope their books will once again be the perfect companions for the season.
For summer indulgence I am hoping to read an advance copy of Erotic Vagrancy by brilliant biographer Roger Lewis, about the passionate, terrible and tempestuous relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, out later this year. I also want to read Women’s Prize shortlisted Trespasses, set just outside Belfast during the Troubles; I’ve heard great things about it. I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel is a novel exploring the power struggles of human relationships, told through the prism of one toxic relationship. It encompasses status anxiety and the distorting effect of social media, and it sounds great. I was left reeling by Eliza Clark’s debut Boy Parts, and her second, Penance, sounds like a worthy follow up, about the murder of a 16 year old in a seaside town. In a slippery quest for truth it’s told through interviews, research and correspondence with the killers themselves. I am also going to read All the Devils are Here as featured in a recent episode of my favourite pod Backlisted. A kind of biography of the declining resort towns of the Kent coast featuring the ghosts of murders and mad artists, faded Carry On Stars and clandestine fascist networks. Sounds fascinating/terrifying.
I am currently reading and greatly enjoying, Hello Beautiful by Anna Napolitano – set in Chicago and beginning in the late 1970s, it’s the story of four sisters and their changing lives, loves, triumphs and disappointments. It’s very loosely based on Little Women (sometimes each sister worries that they are like Beth) and I’m gripped by the complicated dynamics and love between the Padavano sisters. The novel was released to much acclaim in the US a few months ago and is published here in July – it’s an immersive and compelling summer read and ideal for readers (like me!) who love Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Strout.
Another book I absolutely loved reading recently was Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Small Worlds – it’s set over the course of three summers and moves between South East London and Ghana. It’s about the ever-complex father-son relationship, identity, belonging and community. There is also dancing and food. Read it if you can!
I take the selection of holiday books very seriously. I’m heading to Portugal in a couple of weeks and require a cocktail of novels to sustain me. Firstly, a totally gripping crime novel. On a trip to Italy last year I read Stacy Willingham’s A Flicker in the Dark and I think I might pick up her latest All the Dangerous Things, this time. Willingham has all the pace of Karin Slaughter, along with the stifling American South setting, but without quite so much gore.
Secondly, something epic, to make the most of having an entire week devoting to reading (and sightseeing/socialising with esteemed friends etc…). Having just finished Demon Copperhead, I’m looking for something to give me a similar feeling and think I’ll finally get around to reading In The Distance by Hernan Diaz. This is described as a sort of historical western novel. It’s a solitary tale of ‘loss and survival’, which might not sound like the most upbeat holiday read, but I read Trust by Diaz last year and loved it so feel I’m in safe hands.
Top it all off with a stack of miscellaneous fiction. I’ll need something a bit dark and brutal – I’ve picked up I’m A Fan by Sheena Patel – and something funny and heart-warming, which this year could only be Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld, whom I adore.
It is a truth reluctantly acknowledged that I am a slow reader – a very inconvenient quality for someone with an ever-growing TBR pile and a job full of constant new temptations. This summer, however, I’m planning to put all the new releases aside and finally read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. After years of rave-reviews from friends and fellow writers, I’ll be taking my compact little second-hand copy away with me, and can’t wait to dive into this chunky read.
Perhaps late to the party but I recently read Max Porter’s heart-breaking and surreal Grief is the Thing with Feathers. It is wonderful and darkly hilarious, and I loved it. Considering adding Porter’s Lanny to this summer’s must-read pile (ahead of the upcoming film starring Rachel Weisz).
As part of the Newcastle Poetry Festival, I recently saw the effervescent Kris Johnson read from her gorgeous collection Ghost River (published by Bloodaxe, 2023). I am so looking forward to getting lost in the poetical landscape of the American Pacific Northwest.
I am also eager to read the fabulous Isabel Allende’s new book, The Wind Knows My Name (published just yesterday, at time of writing). Allende is renowned for weaving the political and personal through rich writing, set in a global context which makes you reflect on our world, whilst we move through hers. Spanning continents and decades, The Wind Knows My Name looks set to fit nicely within her oeuvre and I’m looking forward to warm summer evenings in our yarden reading this one.