Seven of the best for summer reading

If you are looking for a choice read (or two) over the bank holiday, Nicki reviews some of the most interesting reads that have come into the shop in the last weeks:

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst (PB, Picador, £8.99)

Alan Hollinghurst has a claim to be one of the best novelists writing today. He manages to write beautiful books that are not only worth the effort of reading at a detailed level, but his characters and plotting are all in tune at the same time.

His latest just out in paperback ‘The Stranger’s Child’ is an epic story of a group of characters centred around a poet and the house, Two Acres, where we all first meet Cecil, shortly to die in the First World War. 

As the story progresses, so does the century, and the fame and literary standing of the poet alters over time –  either in tune with the century, or up against it – a comment on the arbitrary nature of lasting literary reputation. The fortunes of the family similarly mark and reflect the changes of the twentieth century, which begins with house parties and closes with Cecil’s house, Corley, being turned into a school, Two Acres ‘carved into horrible flats’.

It’s big in scope, but also full of detailed nooks and crannies. Definitely a book to get lost in.

If you want to take a book on holiday that bears a good, long time to focus, this could be the perfect choice. It’s been compared to both ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and is probably one of the best books to be published this year.

You, Joanna Briscoe (PB, Bloomsbury, £7.99)

When Cecilia returns to her chaotic family home she is forced to confront many secrets she thought she had left behind. What starts as a story of tensions between a mother and daughter unfolds as a story of obsessive teenage love. 

With a taut plot, full of unexpected turns and memorable characters, the Dartmoor setting and hippy-commune childhood memories all create an atmospheric tale which delves deeply into a period of the characters' lives that resonates to the present. 

It all adds up to a taut and compelling story about how a child can misread people's intentions, but how it is never too late to put right mistakes of the past. A story with shifting viewpoints and secrets slowly revealed and understood – a great one for the beach bag.

Hotel at the corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford
(PB, Allison & Busby, £7.99)
Seattle and the internment of its Japanese residents as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old Chinese boy is at the heart of this story of clashing cultures; between Henry and the Japanese girl he falls in love with and will never forget.

The memories of Henry, are sparked by the opening of a long-forgotten cellar in the Panama Hotel (the hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet). In the cellar where are stored the belongings of dozens of Japanese families who, of course, never returned to claim them.

In lots of ways reminiscent of ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie, the main thrust of this ultimately uplifting story is one of how children can put aside the long-held prejudices of their ancestors and discover their differences are more than outweighed by what they have in common.

But essentially this is a love story – a story of first love in the summer, of jazz, and of Henry and Keiko, the girl he will never forget.

Sanctuary Line, Jane Urquhart (HB, Quercus, £16.99)

Entomologist Liz has returned to the land on the shores of Lake Erie to further her studies into the migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly. 

Now 40, she returns to a family farm now crumbling and deserted. Why did the Butlers end up not being able to spread their wings, grow, and return strengthened year by year?

Full of symbolism, the writing meticulously paints a growing portrait of an idyll always shadowed by dark, with sadness never far away, as, through Liz’s scientific eyes we begin to dissect the truth she only ever saw before as a child. 

Liz’s butterflies may have to contend with sudden changes in weather, even changes in landscape. But she revisits the Butler family tragedy – having to contend with the much less predictable human frailties - the ability to make bad decisions or simply fall in love with the wrong person.

‘Sanctuary Line’, by Jane Urquhart, is the story of returning to your former family home to make sense of your past – and how humans can sometimes be more fragile than butterflies. It’s a lovely, engrossing read, beautiful, despite its sadness.

The novel is the seventh for Urquhart, one of Canada's most popular and respected authors and is wonderful for evoking atmosphere, exploring the importance of place, even if that place is overshadowed by a sense of loss.

Smut, Alan Bennett (PB, Profile Books, £6.99)

Alan Bennett’s comic dissection of middle England focuses on what happens behind bedroom doors in two stories about sex among the unsexy. Great if you fancy a chuckle.
Alan Bennett always manages to conjure up small domestic situations quite blissfully. The main character in ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson, the first of two novella-sized stories, features a widow looking for ways of bringing in a little extra cash.

The second story features a lot more conniving and far less innocence, with an interesting quintet of characters all going on as normal with a growing set of secrets and lies.

Smut is not a word I’ve come across a lot recently, but is the perfect title for Alan Bennett’s latest book which features unseemly goings-on, although discreetly behind bedroom doors.

Freeing Grace, Charity Norman (PB, Allen & Unwin, £7.99)

Baby Grace was abandoned by her father before she was born, her mother shortly afterwards, then her mother died. David and Leila are desperate for a baby, although not high on the adoption list, being older parents and of mixed race. 

So goes the set-up of this novel about parenthood and adoption.

There is lots of enjoy, not least Charity Norman’s writing, in this story about families and parenting. I liked her language – choice of words, ability to write in a funny and engaging way.

Grace’s dad, Matt, has belatedly decided to fight the adoption, although the fact that he is still at school, has a drug habit and no means of supporting himself and the child are, understandably, held against his chances of successfully calling a halt to the whole proceedings. Is he ‘good father’ material – and has he any chance of making it for the long haul and steering a baby through to adulthood? Or is it just a whim?

David is a patient, inner-city curate, his lovely wife’s had ‘plenty of practice at sticking on smiles since David took this job’. Lovely Leila finds time for everyone and even neatly sidestep’s David’s father’s drunken leering, and sneering from her mother-in-law.

Some of the main story is told through the eyes of Jake – a New Zealander with a passionate hatred of the idea of settling down, who is unwisely brought in to assist Matt with fighting the adoption. It all gets a bit too unlikely, but it’s grippingly told with plenty of poignant moments and charm.

Even so, there is a lot to like. Lots of thoughtful things about the expectation of what being a parent means when you hold a tiny, vulnerable new-born that you are responsible for. To finding you are still responsible for a big, hairy, ungrateful adult some years later who still demands unconditional love.

Island of Wings, Karin Altenberg (PB, Quercus, £7.99)

The island of St Kilda, 1830. Into a society still living the same ways since the days of the ancestors, comes single-minded minister, Neil MacKenzie and his new wife, Lizzie.

Neil is as full of missionary zeal as anyone going to convert native Africans to Christianity, but isn’t prepared for the discovery that such a barren part of the Empire is within his country’s own shores.

Lizzie is prepared to be fashionable and proud of her position, and is utterly unable to relate to the locals. She speaks no gaelic, finds their communal and harsh way of life far removed from her previous life on the mainland.

Swedish author, Karin Altenberg, in beautifully expressed prose (English is her second language) brings to life the shared poverty of the burrows where the islanders live, the floors full of accumulated filth that is shovelled out to fertilise the fields in spring. The hand-to-mouth lives, seabirds providing the most valuable natural resource, even to the fulmar oil to provide their lighting. No furniture and with no wood, only driftwood to provide nowhere near enough coffins.

Expect, like Lizzie, to get drawn, in as we hear how no trees can withstand the weather and the salt, and the seabirds provide a sparse but sustainable living on the far outreaches of a country that has already seen so much change.

As her husband decides that only change will bring these souls closer to God – sanitary housing, a system of crops, it is Lizzie who finds she is learning from the locals and considers who is really closer to God.


So - do you have any other recommends for new holiday reading? Post suggestions below (you should be able to do this without needing to log in!). Share a great holiday read just published...

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