Great reads: 20 books to unwind with this summer

Illustration: Andrew Rybalko/iStock/Getty

From established talent to rising stars, and whether you prefer fact or fiction, all of these books deserve a place on your reading list in the months ahead

The Last Day at Bowen's Court

The Last Day at Bowen’s Court
By Eibhear Walshe
Somerville Press, €15

When the married novelist Elizabeth Bowen met Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie in early 1941, it was the beginning of a complicated relationship that would last until Bowen’s death three decades later. Eibhear Walshe’s poignant and powerful new novel traces their story through a sequence of encounters in London, Cork and Rome, from the passion of their early affair to Ritchie’s marriage and beyond.

Dead Famous

Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen
By Greg Jenner
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99

With a cast that includes everyone from Rita Hayworth to Florence Nightingale, Greg Jenner’s Dead Famous is a dazzling account of how the modern celebrity was born way back in the early 18th century. Illustrating his points with enjoyable anecdotes and plenty of jokes, he shows how a celebrity distinctly differs from someone who happens to be famous or renowned. Jenner explains complex ideas just as well as he tells ripping yarns, and the result is an entertaining and fascinating book.

The Guest List

The Guest List
By Lucy Foley
HarperCollins, £12.99

After the massive success of her first crime novel The Hunting Party, Lucy Foley invites another group of privileged people to an isolated spot, with compelling and deadly results. The Guest List is set on a (fictional) island off the coast of Connemara, where guests are gathering for the wedding of golden couple Jules, an online magazine editor, and Will, a Bear Grylls-esque TV star. As the guests arrive, tensions mount – and then a body is found. Moving between different points of view, this is an excellent thriller that will leave the reader guessing until the end.

One Two Three Four, The Beatles in Time

One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time
By Craig Brown
Fourth Estate, £20

You may, understandably, think that you really don’t need yet another book about
The Beatles. But Private Eye satirist Craig Brown has the rare skill of telling old stories in original ways, and his new book tells the tale of John, Paul, George and Ringo through a series of more than 100 vignettes, from glamorous parties to impressively scuzzy Hamburg bedrooms, from Aunt Mimi to Joe Orton. Unpredictable, sometimes moving and often very funny, this is a wonderful book that manages to make the world’s most famous band feel utterly fresh and exciting again.

The Liar’s Daughter
By Claire Allan
Avon, £12.99

When Heidi finds out her stepfather Joe McKee is dying of cancer, she feels under pressure to care for him in his last days. Joe brought Heidi up after her mother died, but while the rest of his Derry community see him as a kindly saint, only Heidi knows what he put her through. The arrival of Joe’s own estranged daughter Ciara makes things even more tense. When Joe dies, the police announce that he was murdered – and it’s clear that both women have a very good motive. Claire Allan’s latest thriller is a tightly wound tale of deadly family secrets.

The Last Day

The Last Day
By Andrew Hunter Murray
Hutchinson, £12.99

Andrew Hunter Murray’s brilliant debut novel is set in 2059, almost 30 years after the Earth’s rotation ground to a halt, leaving half of the globe in perpetual daylight while the other half is plunged into eternal darkness. Britain is in the tiny temperate daylight zone of northern Europe, but its relatively secure status comes at a price. When scientist Ellen Hopper is summoned to London by her former college mentor, she finds herself drawn into a dangerous world of secrets and betrayal. The dystopian world is incredibly well realised, the characters are well drawn and the plot is nail-bitingly tense.

Dressed for War

Dressed for War
By Julie Summers
Simon & Schuster, £20

2020 isn’t the first time journalists have had to put out newspapers and magazines in extraordinary circumstances. Audrey Withers was editor in chief of British Vogue during the second World War and kept the magazine going even when the staff had to work in a bomb shelter. With a cast of characters that includes Cecil Beaton and Lee Miller (who reported on the liberation of Buchenwald for the magazine), this biography of Withers is a fascinating portrait of a groundbreaking woman who was determined to create a magazine that celebrated women’s brains as much as their style.

A Talented Man

A Talented Man
By Henrietta McKervey
Hachette Books Ireland, £13.99

It’s 1938, and Ellis Peters is living in shabby genteel splendour with his widowed mother and their paying guests. Ellis’s dreams of literary glory have come to nothing – but the discovery of a letter from Bram Stoker’s widow in his uncle’s papers inspires him to forge a sequel to Dracula. What begins as a scam becomes an act of heartfelt homage, but when it looks like the truth will come out, Ellis crosses the line from forger to killer. Irish writer Henrietta McKervey’s fourth novel is very entertaining, with a Patrick Hamilton-esque anti-hero who may leave the reader hoping he’ll get away with his nefarious crimes.

The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Hamish Hamilton, £15

Hiram Walker was born into slavery in the Virginia plantation owned by his white father. He grows up as one of the enslaved, or what he calls the “Tasked”, but as a young man he discovers that he has an extraordinary supernatural gift – and it can be put to use in helping his fellow Tasked escape from bondage to freedom in the north. The debut novel from multi-award-winning journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates was compared to the works of both Stephen King and Toni Morrison by the New York Times, and with good reason. It’s a gripping and vividly imagined story, lyrically
told.

Hamnet

Hamnet
By Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder Press, £14.99

In 1596, an 11-year-old boy died of the plague in a house in Stratford-upon-Avon. His name was Hamnet Shakespeare, and just a few years later his father would write a play called Hamlet. Irish author Maggie O’Farrell has long been fascinated by Shakespeare’s lost son and her incredibly evocative new novel brings Hamnet and his family to vivid, heartbreaking life, tracing the boy’s final days and going back to tell the story of his parents.

Exciting Times

Exciting Times
By Naoise Dolan
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £13.99

Ava is a 22-year-old Irish woman in Hong Kong, where she teaches English to children and has drifted into living – and sleeping – with a posh English banker called Julian. Ava isn’t exactly sure what she wants from her complicated relationship with Julian – and then she meets Edith, and things get even more complicated. From the opening page, Ava’s voice is electrifying and frequently very funny; Naoise Dolan’s debut novel really is as good as everyone says it is.

The Street

The Street
By Ann Petry
Virago Modern Classics, £9.99

Lutie Johnson moves to a rundown apartment building in Harlem with her young son Bub. Leaving her job as a maid and her unfaithful husband, she’s determined to start a new life and give Bub a decent future. But the world won’t make that easy for her. First published in 1946, when it became the first book by a black woman to sell more than 1 million copies, and now reissued with an introduction by Women’s Prize winner Tayari Jones, The Street is as readable, as heartbreaking and as relevant now as it ever was.

High Fire

Highfire
By Eoin Colfer
Jo Fletcher, £16.99

Eoin Colfer’s first adult fantasy is a riproaring (literally) yarn. Set in the Louisiana bayou, Highfire is the story of Wyvern, Lord Highfire – aka Vern – who lives in a shack where he spends his days watching cable TV. He also happens to be the last dragon on Earth. When a teenage tearaway called Squib washes up on Vern’s island, the dragon knows he has to kill him to make sure the boy doesn’t broadcast his existence to the world. But an unlikely friendship develops between the two. With its engaging characters, good humour and outrageously dramatic plot, Highfire is a delightful romp.

Handiwork

Handiwork
By Sara Baume
Tramp Press, €13

Writer and visual artist Sara Baume’s incredibly satisfying nonfiction debut is an exploration of what it means to make something with your hands. It’s also a book about grief, love, art and birds. As someone who has knitted an entire jumper during the pandemic, I loved how perfectly Baume evokes the feeling of immersing yourself in the creation of a new object. But you don’t have to be crafty yourself to be moved and inspired by Baume’s gorgeous, insightful prose, and the way she writes about both her late father and her own creative life.

This Lovely City

This Lovely City
By Louise Hare
HQ, £12.99

It’s 1950, two years since Laurie arrived in Britain from Jamaica, and after a rocky start, he’s settled into his new life in cold, damp London. Working hard as a postman by day and playing clarinet in a jazz band by night, he plans to marry the smart, sweet Evie. But when he discovers the body of a dark-skinned baby in Clapham Common, Laurie finds himself targeted by the police. A well-told mystery, a powerful depiction of the prejudice experienced by the Windrush generation and a poignant love story, This Lovely City is a must read.

The Cutting Place

The Cutting Place
By Jane Casey
HarperCollins, £12.99

When the dismembered body of a young female journalist is found in the Thames, DS Maeve Kerrigan’s investigation leads her to an elite private club. Paige Hargreaves was working on a story about the club before she disappeared – so what exactly goes on behind its closed doors? And where does danger really lie for Maeve herself? Casey’s characters are always as engaging as her brilliantly complex mysteries, and The Cutting Place is no exception.

Staunch

Staunch
By Eleanor Wood
HQ, £14.99

If we can’t go abroad this summer, we might as well holiday vicariously. After family tragedy, serious mental breakdown and the end of a long-term relationship, Eleanor Wood knew something needed to change. And so, feeling like a “middle-class cliche”, she went on holiday to India with her grandmother and great-aunts, who were all born in India in the twilight days of the Raj before moving to London in the late 1940s. Their lives couldn’t be more different from Eleanor’s, but as she discovers in this funny, moving book, she can learn a lot from their “staunch” attitude to life.

Ann Devine, Handle with Care

Ann Devine: Handle with Care
By Colm O’Regan
Transworld Ireland, £12.99

Ann Devine, the stalwart of the Kilsudgeon Tidy Towns Committee, is back for a second very funny adventure – and this time she’s got a real battle on her hands, as she finds herself spearheading the fight to save the local post office from closure. O’Regan may be the creator of the Irish Mammy books, but with Ann Devine he’s turned a comic stereotype into a fully rounded and very sympathetic character, an intelligent woman with zero notions and a wry sense of humour. (Published July 16th)

Wonderland

Wonderland
By Juno Dawson
Quercus, £7.99

At her elite school, Alice Dodgson prefers to fly under the radar, avoiding the school’s glamorous cliques. But when gorgeous Bunny Liddell disappears, a worried Alice is determined to find her. Her search leads her to Wonderland, a debauched weekend party for London’s most privileged teens. Spiky but vulnerable, Alice – who happens to be her school’s only transgender pupil – is an appealing heroine, and the allusions to Alice in Wonderland are deliciously drawn as she bravely makes her way through a dangerous world of mad queens, strange potions and nasty games of croquet.

Butchers

The Butchers
By Ruth Gilligan
Atlantic Books, £14.99

The Butchers of the title are a group of eight men who travel Ireland slaughtering animals for the dwindling number of farmers who follow an ancient belief that eight men should be touching an animal when it dies. Ruth Gilligan’s fifth novel is set in 1996, at the height of the BSE crisis, which forms the backdrop for an unsettling but compelling story of family, love, tradition and darkness.