For me, summer holidays mean one thing and one thing only:
Books, books, books!
Unlimited time dedicated to reading for pleasure is something I treasure. Finding the time to read nowadays, amongst the shambles of trying to be a grown-up, has become horrifyingly challenging. A book has to be really good now to be worth travel sickness on the bus, elbowing someone in the face turning a page on the rush-hour tube, or, ultimately, sacrificing sleep and/or showering.
So alongside ice cream, a great pina colada, a flight that doesn’t fall out the sky, sunshine and quality time with my favourite people, a good story is a must-have on holiday. My favourite reads are characterised on their shelves back home by overly crumpled pages caused by intense heat and suncreamed fingers on the beach, or a distinctive smell of chlorine from overambitious times on a lilo when they’ve accidentally fallen into the pool.
This year I’m hitting the roads from Switzerland to Italy with Eduardo and whilst my “up time” will involve trekking through mountains and being relied on to navigate, my downtime is definitely being reserved for all the reading (…and all the food). Ed is demanding we pack a tent, two sleeping bags, hiking boots, roll-mats and a cooking stove, so I have limited space in terms of what I can take with me. I need to choose wisely and I have a month to consolidate my choices. Decision-making tends to send me into anaphylactic shock so any recommendations you can give me would go down very well right about now. I am easily persuaded and highly enthusiastic!
In the meantime, I thought I would put together a list of My Top Summer Reads for anyone else looking for summertime inspiration. It includes all-time favourites and also some of the unforgettable books I’ve read this year. And if a holiday isn’t on the agenda, these books are not only perfect poolside companions but the perfect lunch-break date too. Amidst the gloom of temping in the city I am making it my aim to find a pretty patch of green every lunchtime and gorge on fiction in the sun. I have pretty simple taste (probably stemming from my rebellion against everything my English degree represented) and tend to deviate towards mysteries as a guilty pleasure. This list, though, covers varying genres as I seem to have stepped out the box a little bit this year (call me girl gone wild). I hope you enjoy!
1. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
This book has been my number one recommendation since I read it earlier this year when I was travelling around Australia. If it is powerful enough to distract me from the terrors of flying long haul it is definitely worth a read. It is essential I give absolutely nothing away so I’m keeping the description simple. This story is about humanity, sisterhood, growing up, identity and family, with an utterly compelling core that questions the morals of science. This book affected me deeply and the uniqueness of its narrative makes it my must-read this summer.
2. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
I met Jessie working on a play in London just after finishing university. She was in the throws of writing her first novel, one that sounded completely fascinating, and I loved following its progress right up until it arrived in Waterstones (literature geek, not stalker). This was a book I was recommending to friends and family before I’d even read it and when I finally bought a copy I was enthralled from start to finish. The Miniaturist follows the journey of 18-year old newlywed Nella in the heart of seventeenth-century Amsterdam. As a wedding present Nella is gifted a doll’s house, but the miniaturist who crafts the contents of her house has an uncanny ability to replicate not only her present but her future. The world painted in The Miniaturist is exquisitely detailed and captivating and the mystery and allure of the novel carries right through to the end. It’s always a delight to read a debut novel and this one is perfect if you love getting lost in tales of the past.
3. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
Part of me was always expecting to get my heart broken on holiday in Ibiza. Never in a million years did I expect for it to broken by an 11-year old boy. Pigeon English tells the story of Harrison Opoku, a young boy who lives on an inner-city housing estate in London. He is the second fastest runner in his school and his races around his town provide us with an insight into growing up in the harsh realities of the streets. A fatal stabbing in his neighbourhood inspires Harrison to conduct his very own murder investigation, which leads our fateful hero and the reader into a vivid world of sight and sound, innocence and threat, life and death, in an unforgettable story of boyhood that will leave you breathless. It’s short, lightweight, sweet, simple and so incredibly relevant and insightful.
4. Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
Going from young to old now, Elizabeth Is Missing is told from the perspective of 80-year old Maud, who lives with dementia. This is spirited, unique, soulful storytelling at its best. Maud’s friend Elizabeth is missing. At least she thinks she is. Sometimes she can’t remember. And every minute brings new challenges to her memory, her discoveries, her beliefs. We muddle over every detail with Maud, who likes tinned peaches and toast, collects lost hair bands and snails in jars, and who has never recovered from her sister’s disappearance when she was a child. We have a completely unreliable narrator for a guide but it is an infectiously endearing and propelling journey to piece together not only a fragmented past but a fragmented mind.
5. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Help formed part of a ridiculously contradictive mix of books, including Game of Thrones and Fifty Shades of Grey, that got passed around between myself and eight girl friends on a trip to Spain a few years ago. Nevertheless its wrongful misplacement in that trio never once detracted from its magic and power as a novel. It might be an odd choice of mine to include The Help because I can’t imagine there are many people left who are unaware of the story it tells, either due to the book or the film version, but it deserves its place so I’m keeping it in! This intimate story, centring on African-American maids in Jackson, Mississippi in 1950s America, maintains lightness, humanity and soul at its heart, despite the injustice of segregation it depicts. You laugh and you cry at the bravery, laughter, friendship and strength of these women and their struggle for expression and freedom.
6. Nothing To Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
I borrowed this book, having very little idea of what it was about, but with a mild curiosity, because, like anyone else, I’m ‘your standard amount of’ baffled by North Korea. There are very few ways to put into words just how effective a picture this factual account of real lives in North Korea paints for a Western reader. As a journalist, Demick is thorough, but as a writer her tone is warm, personable and compassionate. We are granted an insight into the world of North Korea through stories recounted by “defectors,” who have escaped to other parts of Asia. Their journeys are remarkable; their tales are astonishing and resonant. Personal anecdotes of young love, education, family, childhood and parenthood visualise broader themes of humanity, identity, survival, repression and escape with an ever-pressing reminder that it is real, it is now, it is happening. It’s hard to find a place for the knowledge and understanding you gain after reading this book – it certainly ends but there is no conclusion. If are interested in illuminative, truthful accounts about the world we live in, this is one of the best of its kind.
7. Wise Children by Angela Carter
I’ve read this book more times than I can count. It was on the syllabus at school and one by one we all fell completely in love with its spirited retelling of life in showbusiness. The stories are told and retold by its erratic and eccentric 75-year old narrator Nora. Wise Children is sexy, it’s twisted, it’s incestuous, it’s completely mad and certainly not afraid to paint a sordid picture of life in all its glory. Its message, though, is a resounding ‘say yes to life and live it for all it’s worth.’ The style of the novel is one of carnival and magic and reality is constantly blurred with art. The themes are limitless: Shakespeare, chorus girls, fame, love, twins, fatherhood, glamour, family. If you fancy a topsy-turvy adventure down memory lane this is one for you and I do think it’s impossible not to come out on the other side rejuvenated and inspired.
8. Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Shadow of the Wind is one of my favourite books of all time and I haven’t yet met a person who hasn’t adored it. Set in a post-war Barcelona, its intricate descriptions of life in one of my favourite cities in the world are what do it for me. Zafon’s narrative captures its essence so charismatically it’s impossible not to fall in love with the streets and lives he paints, in all their darkness and intrigue. The plot centres around a young boy, Daniel, who is taken to A Cemetery of Forgotten Books; an enormous underground library of preserved, ancient titles. The idea behind this cemetery is so enchanting to anyone with a love for reading there is no looking back. The story-within-a-story that emerges is compelling and the characters perfectly defined, an effective an un-put-downable reminder of the power of fiction to transport you outside of your own reality entirely. It is the absolute perfect holiday read and the last one on my list!
Wishing you all the happiest of summers – if you do read any of these I would love to know what you thought and send any recommendations you have my way…you know my taste now! xxx