What we’re reading: Summer holiday edition
As I move from reading glasses to sunglasses this summer my poolside reading list includes two obsessions: Kudos, the final part of Rachel Cusk’s awesome and completely absorbing trilogy and Deborah Levy’s memoir/philosophical mash-up essay collections, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living which both pay re-reading.
I’d also recommend two brief and brilliant novels: West by Carys Davies which blew me away – an epic Western in just over 100 pages and Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, a chilling novella set on Hadrian’s Wall about history, gender and authenticity (see also everything else these two writers have written). And then a book of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado which I’ve heard great things about and a new novel, Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong which Miranda July loves, so I’m in.
To start off this Summer, I’m going to be reading a book that’s been on my wishlist for over a year and still awaits me: Anna Thomasson’s A Curious Friendship, about the unlikely and intimate coterie that revolved around the seemingly antithetical figures of Rex Whistler and Edith Olivier in the interwar years.
On a very different note, I’m excited to get stuck into Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure. This novel about three sisters living in the shadow of a sinister patriarch and his cruel ‘therapies’ looks haunting and profoundly unnerving – two things I love in a beach read, bizarrely.
I’ll also be tackling the new novel from Esi Edugyan, Washington Black. I loved her Half-Blood Blues, and this story about the misadventures of an eleven-year-old field slave and his eccentric, abolitionist master looks like it will be a complete page-turner. Finally, I’ll be saving my most indulgent read for last: Rachel Rhys’s Fatal Inheritance, a psychological thriller set on the glamorous French Riviera in 1948. An English housewife trapped in a dull marriage is catapulted into the decadent world of Mediterranean society, only to find that her inheritance of a mysterious fortune has earned her some dangerous rivals…can’t wait!
I’m excited to be packing my gorgeous proof copy of Kate Atkinson’s forthcoming novel, Transcription, in my suitcase this June. Due to be published in September, it’s described as the story of Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited as a young woman by an obscure wartime department of the secret service and I can’t wait to read it.
I’ve been a fan of American author Meg Wolitzer’s insightful and witty writing ever since my colleague, Claire, pressed a copy of The Wife into my hands a few years ago. Her latest novel, The Female Persuasion: A Novel, will be accompanying me to Mallorca. It’s been described by the New Yorker as telling ‘a timely story of political awakening and personal reckoning’ I know I’ll devour it.
Finally, feeling inspired by recently watching the fascinating Joan Didion Netflix documentary, The Centre will not hold, I’m taking a slice of 1960s California with me to Spain by packing Didion’s seminal 1968 essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Red Winter by Anneli Furmark (Drawn and Quarterly), set in 1970s Sweden, is exactly the kind of book I like to read on the beach. Told against a backdrop of deep winter, this graphic novel traces an affair between married mother Siv and Ulrik, a communist, and the bewildering impact their actions have on Siv’s children.
I’d like to spend indolent Sunday afternoons in August reading Neel Mukherjee’s novel A State of Freedom (Vintage). The novel draws together the stories of five different characters in a hard-hitting, honest and revealing portrait of contemporary India.
Oedipa (Guillemot Press), the debut collection by Amy McCauley, is a poetic reimaging of the Oedipus myth, written as drama. The collection has been lovingly produced and is beautiful to hold, with fascinating artwork. I’m saving it for my Solstice read, as the poet instructs in the prelims.
Though I’d love to be spending my holidays on Shetland, my family have opted for a warmer destination this year – but at least I can take along Malachy Tallack’s novel, The Valley at the Centre of the World (Canongate). Set amongst a small Shetland community, the novel is written in exacting prose that explores the depths of the people who inhabit the valley, tracing gradual shifts that lead to significant, long-term change.
I will be continuing to read mid 20th Century women writers like Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark and Elizabeth Taylor, I love their genteel subversiveness, wry humour and pinpoint portraits of often flawed characters. I will also start the Patrick Melrose series of novels by Edward St Aubyn, about an aristocratic heroin addict, the product of a privileged but abusive childhood. The recent press about David Nicholls’ adaptation for Sky Atlantic made me really want to read them.
I can also recommend 21 Miles, a memoir by Jessica Hepburn, who following 11 failed IVF attempts chose to swim the English Channel. While putting on weight to prepare for this feat of endurance Jessica interviewed 21 women and asked each of them the question ‘Does Motherhood Make you Happy.’ It’s a frank, open-hearted memoir, that made me cry.
Other things I’ll be packing are Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, a novel about the rise and fall of Truman Capote and his betrayal of the society women who confided in him. Also I’ll Be Gone in The Dark which by all accounts has the makings of a true crime classic like Capote’s In Cold Blood, it’s the author Michelle McNamara’s obsessive search for the Golden Gate Killer.
Unfortunately, my Summer holiday is technically an Autumn holiday. So rather than a lounger on the beach, I will have to make do with the old fishing chair in my back garden for summer down-time.
Despite the lack of travel, I do plan some escapism through the power of fiction. Fascinated by the idea of the ‘wild card’ on the Booker Prize long-list, I look forward to getting lost in the rural landscape of Elmet by Fiona Mozley – the words ‘gothic fable’ standing out to me in a recent review. And, after being charmed by writer and vlogger Jen Campbell at a couple of her recent events, I finally went and got myself a copy of her modern fairytale collection, The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night. Forever fascinated by fairytales, I’ll be delving into this over the course of the summer, periodically escaping into a world of magic, superstition and the surreal…while firmly rooted in the fishing chair.
While taking advantage of the longer days and the extended battery life of the earth’s natural reading lamp, I’ll also be reading Sight by Jessie Greengrass. Sight follows a woman recounting her pregnancy while reflecting on her life; it is described as ‘a novel about how we see others and how we imagine ourselves’ – should be an intriguing summer read.
I love a summer re-read, so this year I’m taking one of my all time favourites on holiday with me. Florence King’s Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady is a witty memoir about growing up in the American south and failing to live up to the Southern Belle standards expected by your would-be grand dame Gran. I am expecting to disrupt fellow sunbathers with my laughter at King’s incredible one-liners.
Following the memoir theme, I picked Jackie Kay’s Red Dust Road from my mam’s bookshelf a couple of weeks ago. It’s a book that circulated round the family in 2010 but somehow missed me. I’m looking forward to adding my fingerprint to the folded pages and crumpled sheets read by numerous women in my family.
Finally, after a number of recommendations, I’ll be reading Madeline Miller’s Circe this summer. The book has been described as ‘the greatest hits of the ancient Greek world’, which is helpful for me as I can’t say I’m au fait with Ancient Greek’s back catalogue. I’m saving this for that rainy August weekend on the sofa when only a good book and a cup of tea will do.
I’m not going on holiday for ages, but the temperate climate of a Newcastle summer will be an antidote to my early summer reading, as Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante’s third book in the Neapolitan Novels series takes me back to the stifling heat of Naples. I absolutely loved books one and two, but needed a bit of a break to steel myself for that tough, intense world Ferrante depicts with such a beady eye. I’m ready. You’ll find me at Pani’s with a bottle of birra and my book but probably not a salami ciabatta.
I was excited to read that Marilynne Robinson has sold the rights to a fourth novel in the Gilead series to Virago. I read Home (book two) several years ago and it is a beautiful, sad book, which has really stayed with me, so I’ve finally got round to picking up Gilead (the first in the series). I’m only a few pages in, but I already feel this is going to be amazing. I love a writer with such confidence to quietly unfold a story at their own steady pace without any shocks or high drama, but simply the ability to make a reader pay attention, think and feel. Marilynne Robinson is the best.
Finally, because that all feels a bit serious, I’m also looking forward to reading You Think It, I’ll Say It, the new collection of short stories by Curtis Sittenfeld. Now there’s a writer who knows how to string a sentence. I read everything she writes and just gain so much pleasure from being in the company of her words.
Who wouldn’t want a new Louis de Bernières to read whilst lounging in the sun? Set in the interwar years across various European locations, So Much Life Left Over is described as having a ‘cast of unique and captivating characters’. As a long-time Louis fan I can very much believe that, and I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.
I’ll also be packing Emma Healey’s Whistle In the Dark. Thankfully, this new novel seems much eerier than her tear-jerking debut Elizabeth is Missing. It’s the story of a young girl who goes missing for four days and won’t tell anyone what happened to her when she returns.
Finally, I’m very excited to have a copy of Putney, the forthcoming novel from Sofka Zinovieff. The book follows Daphne and Edmund: a couple who first met when she was nine and he 25. Perhaps not the jolliest of holiday reads, but I’m sure I can spend at least one inevitably rainy summer day curled up and engrossed in this.
Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca reaches its 80th anniversary this year, which seems as good an excuse as any to finally read this modern classic. After spending much of my adult life cluelessly smiling and nodding whenever someone makes a cultural reference to either this novel or the Hitchcock adaptation, I’m excited to finally feel the smugness of ticking it off my list.
Another book I’ll be (secretly) reading is a Star Wars novel, Bloodline by Claudia Grey. After reading her YA novel Lost Stars my eyes were really opened up to how joyful it can be to immerse yourself in a world of characters and stories you’ve come to know and love. While I appreciate this is probably quite niche, I’d really recommend her writing and I’m personally excited to escape with this Leia-centric story.
Finally, I’m going to be experimenting with The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, winner of the Orange Prize 2012. I’m definitely late to the party with this one, but am keen to read it ahead of her latest Circe. The Song of Achilles is a retelling of Greek Mythology, something that would usually trigger traumatic flashbacks to Homer in High School, nonetheless I have been assured by my Classics-loving pals that it is well worth a read.