Summer books that sizzle – whether it’s sunny or not
It’s hard to beat the pleasure of settling down on a sun lounger or sofa with a good book. Here are 25 of the season’s best to choose from
Read hot: summer reading at Bull Wall, Dollymount. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
1 Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon (Vintage, £11.99)
We tend to think children will resemble their parents, but Andrew Solomon’s utterly fascinating, beautifully written and deeply moving new book examines what happens when the apple really does fall far from the tree. Solomon spent nearly 20 years meeting families in which children’s identities don’t match those of their parents, from deaf and transgender people to people living with severe disabilities and mental illnesses. Thoughtful and humane, Far From The Tree, which recently won the Wellcome Prize for Science Writing, isn’t a short book, but it’s totally gripping from beginning to end.
2 Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)
This dazzling firework of a debut novel is a reminder of how inventive and original historical fiction can be. Set in the court of Charles I in the 1630s, it is the story of Lady Venetia Stanley, a celebrated beauty fiercely determined to hang on to what she believes are her fading looks – even if that means consuming a dubious anti-ageing potion called Viper Wine. It is an intriguing story, told in effortlessly sparkling prose, but what really makes the novel such a joy is the fact that Venetia’s alchemist husband, Sir Kenelm, can somehow absorb ideas and images from the future, quoting David Bowie, dancing to Joy Division and enabling Eyre to play with time periods and pop culture in a way that feels utterly fresh.
3 Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy by Tim Moore (Yellow Jersey, £14.99)
In May, people on Ireland’s east coast watched the racers of the Giro d’Italia zooming by with their lightweight machines and aerodynamic outfits. However 100 years ago, the Giro was a much more dangerous (and uncomfortable) proposition) – in 1914 only eight of the 81 original racers completed the gruelling course. So of course Tim Moore decided to recreate their trip, complete with a 1914 bike and authentic period racing garb. Anyone who has read French Revolutions, Moore’s very funny account of how he cycled the Tour de France route, will not be disappointed by this hilariously painful, and poignant, adventure.
4 The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes (Penguin Michael Joseph, £14.99)
Jess Thomas is a single mother working as a cleaner and living in a run-down estate with an enormous dog, a depressed and bullied goth stepson and a young daughter who might be a mathematical genius. When Jess’s daughter, Tanzie, gets a chance to compete in a maths competition that could change her life, Jess finds herself relying on her employer, Ed Nicholls, to take her entire family (and dog) there. But Ed has some troubles of his own. Few writers are Moyes’s equal when it comes to writing intelligent, moving commercial fiction, and this is a very engaging novel.
5 The Wolf in Winter by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99)
This may be private detective Charlie Parker’s 12th outing, but John Connolly is still on top form. There’s a touch of both The Wicker Man and Shirley Jackson’s chilling story The Lottery in The Wolf in Winter when Parker finds himself in a secretive small town called Prosperous. He is investigating not only the death of a girl who seems to have been killed by the mysterious organisation that runs the town, but the supposed suicide of her father, who had wanted Parker to look into her death.
6 The Good Italian by Stephen Burke (Hodder & Stoughton, £13.99)
Eritrea became an Italian colony in 1890 and, by the 1930s, 70,000 Italians lived in the country. Dublin writer and film maker Stephen Burke’s intriguing debut novel asks how their lives might have intersected with those of the people whose country they occupied. It is the story of harbourmaster Enzo Secchi, who falls in love with his Eritrean housekeeper, Aatifa. An already loaded relationship becomes even more so when Mussolini’s expansion into east Africa leads to the criminalisation of relationships between Italians and Eritreans and makes it impossible for Enzo and his friends to ignore the true nature of colonial power.
7 Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (Penguin Viking, £12.99)
Maud is in her 80s and dementia is robbing her of her memory, but she is sure of one thing – her friend Elizabeth has gone missing. And yet nobody, from the police to her daughter Helen, takes her seriously. Unable to remember what exactly she has said or done, or indeed what has been said to her, Maud is the ultimate unreliable narrator, but the reader is firmly on her side throughout this original, moving and sometimes blackly comic novel.
8 Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99)
When the novelist Gary Shteyngart was growing up, his mother dubbed him Failurchka, a self-created hybrid Russian- English word which means “Little Failure”. The Shteyngarts had moved to the United States from the USSR in 1979, when Gary was seven, and his memoir is a wildly hilarious and genuinely moving account of a Jewish boy from Leningrad finding his own identity in a country that may never quite feel like his own. It is also a portrait of a very memorable family, illustrated with some truly extraordinary photographs (the young Gary’s sailor suit was quite something).
9 A God In Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury, £11.99)
If Ireland’s relationship with its men who fought in the British army in the first World War is a complex one, then so too is India’s and Pakistan’s. In 1915, Vivian Rose Spencer is a young British archaeologist who goes to Peshawar, in what is now Pakistan, looking for both an ancient treasure and her lost love; Qayyum Gul, a young soldier, is returning to his native Peshawar after losing an eye at Ypres. Soon Vivian forges an unexpected connection with Qayyum’s family, but political tensions are rising in Peshawar. Kamila Shamsie’s powerful and gripping novel explores questions of love, loyalty and national identity.
10 The Thrill of It All by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker, £16.99)
Robbie Goulding is the fictional guitarist of a fictional London-Irish band called The Ships in the Night. He is also the narrator of Joseph O’Connor’s hugely enjoyable new novel, which documents the band’s adventures from Robbie’s teens in Luton to their brief period of world domination and beyond. More than just an accurate depiction of what it is like to be in a band, it is also a touching and beautifully drawn portrait of a group of people who essentially become a new sort of family.
11 Brilliant by Roddy Doyle (Macmillan, £10.99)
Wonderfully illustrated by Chris Judge, Roddy Doyle’s rollicking new novel is the story of Gloria and Rayzer, two Dublin children whose uncle Ben moves in with them after losing his business and home. The kids’ grandmother says “the black dog of depression has climbed on to that poor fella’s back”. So Gloria and Rayzer set out to find and defeat this mysterious canine, with some help from a local vampire called Ernie and an army of kids whose families have also been affected by the dog. What ensues is a funny, scary and ultimately optimistic adventure.
12 The Living by Lean Cullinan (Atlantic, £12.99)
Lean Cullinan’s elegantly written debut novel is both a coming of age story and a compelling thriller. Her uncle may have been a well-known republican activist, but Cate Houlihan’s passionate beliefs about the Northern Irish situation have softened since moving from Louth to college in Dublin. Now a graduate with a job at a small publishing house, she’s even got an English boyfriend, Matthew. Then, however, her employer decides to publish a controversial memoir by an exiled republican, and soon Cate discovers the past is not as far away as she thought.
13 Can Anybody Help Me? By Sinéad Crowley (Quercus, £12.99)
For many new parents, the internet is a source of great solidarity and help. Sinéad Crowley’s assured thriller suggests however that perhaps sometimes, we might be better off not sharing our personal lives with anonymous strangers. Yvonne is a regular user of the (fictional) parenting site Netmammy, who realises that a murdered young woman whose body has just been found is one of her online friends and that there may be a link between the site and the murder. But will investigating detective Claire Boyle – who is pregnant and also a member of Netmammy – discover the link?
14 Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
Anyone who has picked up a copy of the New Yorker will be familiar with Roz Chast’s wonderful cartoons and her brilliant, honest and heartbreaking graphic memoir tackles a subject pretty much everyone has to face at some stage: what happens when your parents get too old to look after themselves. The senior Chasts were a devoted couple who always refused to talk about what Roz calls “the future”, but none of them could ignore reality forever. An only child, Chast’s writing and art are both funny and painful as she documents her relationship with her parents in their last years.
15 Fallen by Lia Mills (Penguin, £12.99)
It is 1916, and Dubliner Katie Crilly is still mourning her soldier brother, Liam, who died on the western front a year before. But when trouble breaks out on Easter Monday, Kate, whose family live on what is now Parnell Square, finds herself in the thick of the fighting. For one of the most significant events in Irish history, surprisingly little fiction has been written about the 1916 Rising and, in this moving and convincing novel, Mills vividly evokes how it might feel to be a bystander as your formerly stable city becomes a chaotic battlefield.
16 The Quick, by Lauren Owen (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)
This big gothic adventure is the sort of book you could happily spend an entire day devouring on a sun lounger (or indeed on an Irish sofa as the rain pours outside). When James Norbury falls into the hands of a sinister gentleman’s club in 1890s London, his sister Charlotte is determined to save him from their bloodsucking world. However she hasn’t realised quite how dark London’s shadows really are. Debut novelist Owen handles the sprawling plot and multiple narrators with Wilkie Collins-esque skill.
17 Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent (Penguin Ireland, £12.99)
“I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.” From its opening sentence, Liz Nugent’s psychological thriller grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. Oliver Ryan is a hugely successful children’s author who one day beats his illustrator wife Alice into a coma. But what turned him into the sort of man who could commit such a horrific act? Oliver’s past is revealed through both his own voice and the voices of those who know him, creating a convincing portrait of a terrifyingly ruthless man.
18 From Out of the City by John Kelly (Dalkey Archive Press, £10.50)
Set in Dublin in the not-so-distant future, John Kelly’s new novel is a grotesque and blackly comic satire narrated by a mysterious old man called Monk. He keeps many of the city’s residents under surveillance – especially his neighbour, an ex-academic called Shroeder whose life becomes even more complicated when the president of the United States is assassinated at a dinner in Dublin.
19 Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn (Picador, £12.99)
It seems only fitting that Edward St Aubyn should recently have won the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction with this very enjoyable satirical look at the world of literary prizes. Centred around the fictitious Elysian Prize, this witty novel follows the fortunes both of several nominated authors and the panel who are judging their works, allowing St Aubyn to turn his sardonic gaze on everything from bad thrillers to the question of what makes a book worth reading. Don’t expect the complex darkness of St Aubyn’s stunning Patrick Melrose novels – this is an altogether lighter read, shot through with moments of profundity and grace.
20 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Abacus, £8.99)
One of the most celebrated books of the past 12 months starts with a bang – literally – as young Theo Decker emerges from the bomb in the Metropolitan Museum in New York that kills his mother clutching a priceless Dutch painting. As Theo goes from New York to Las Vegas and back to New York again, the painting goes with him, a treasure and a curse that will gradually lead him into murky waters. The Goldfinch may be very long, but it’s always engaging, with a sprawling, Dickensian cast and an equally Dickensian fairytale quality.
21 The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Tinder Press, £13.99)
This powerful novel is based on the true story of Sarah Grimké, a girl from a slave- owning southern family in early 19th-century America who grew up to be a leading abolitionist and women’s rights activist. When she was 11, she was “given” a slave girl roughly her own age, Hetty, as a present. Unable to refuse the gift, she taught Hetty to read. In Monk Kidd’s new novel, a compelling and humane exploration of race, class and gender, Sarah and Hetty both tell their stories. Very little is known of the real-life Hetty, but Monk Kidd has given her a vivid and memorable voice.
22 We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail, £7.99)
Once, Rosemary Cooke’s family seemed whole, but now her relationship with her parents is strained to breaking point, her brother is on the run from the law and she hasn’t seen her wild, irresistible sister Fern since she was five. There is a brilliantly revealed twist, which I won’t reveal here – I was spoiled in advance and wished I hadn’t been. Suffice to say that Rosemary’s relationship with Fern has had a profound effect on the person she is and on the course of her life. As the narrative moves back and forth, from Rosemary’s childhood to her college, we gradually discover why. A profound, moving and enchanting look at a very complex family.
23 Frank: The True Story That Inspired The Movie by Jon Ronson (Picador, £7.99)
Writer and film maker Jon Ronson’s memoir of his time as the keyboard player of the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band is both a very odd story and a funny and touching exploration of eccentricity. His experiences inspired Lenny Abrahmson’s acclaimed film Frank, which Ronson co- wrote, but this is a totally different story, told with Ronson’s usual wit and deadpan charm.
24 The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (Sphere, £20)
When a writer whose fiction contains deeply unflattering portraits of fellow authors disappears, his wife calls in private investigator Cormoran Strike to investigate. Soon the troubled but decent detective is exploring London’s literary world, uncovering surprising secrets at every turn. Galbraith is, of course, JK Rowling, who proves here that the effectiveness of the first excellent Strike mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling, wasn’t a one-off.
25 The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield (Persephone, £12)
First published in 1930, EM Delafield’s novel about an increasingly frustrated upper-middle-class housewife is a hilarious and subversive gem. As the unnamed woman struggles with children, a grumpy husband, annoying neighbours, housekeeping and, eventually, her own burgeoning literary career, she proves herself to be one of English literature’s most likeable and self-aware heroines. Delafield has just gone out of copyright, leading to several lovely new editions, but only Persephone’s has the charming original illustrations.