Summer holidays bring lots of nice things. Sun. Cheap wine. Lovely cafes in French squares, beach trips and long lunches. Also time.
I did my research for my summer reads well this year. A mix of recommendations from friends, family, Instagram, and Amazon resulted in one of the best sets of books I’ve read back to back in a while. A special thanks to the surprisingly un-stingy Stansted for letting my blatantly over the limit suitcase slip through the net (there was no one on the flight anyway tbf). Here’s the list…
- A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
For the first 200 or so pages, this was a slow burner. But when I got into it, this was the kind of book that you read on your lunch break, while someone is dealing out the cards…basically anywhere you can squeeze in a couple of pages.
I won’t go too much into the plot here, as the layers of revelations (both good and heartbreakingly bad) are key drivers of this masterpiece. But the basic premise follows 4 male friends living and working in New York City, as they navigate through post uni life. One of the main characters, Jude, has a particularly mysterious past, and it is the slow discovery of this childhood and the way it haunts him into present day that forms the backbone of the novel.
At over 700 pages, A Little Life is a bit of a mammoth. But I’ve rarely read a book so beautifully constructed, where little snippets of dialogue, descriptions and small observations resonate so strongly. It’s sad, it’s real, it’s heartwarming, and its subject matter is dark, uncomfortable and extremely difficult to read in places. But get it on your reading list ASAP.
2. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (2018)
This is the ‘it’ book this summer. The one on every book club list, the one doing the rounds through word of mouth. And yep, I jumped aboard the hype train, and I’m very glad I did, because above all else… it’s just a bloody good story.
Everyone loves a murder mystery. And this particular whodunnit, set in the marshlands of North Carolina in the 1960s is a cut above many others. It follows the character of Kya, who, abandoned at a young age in the swamp by her family and ostracised by the nearby community, is forced to rely on the nature around her to fend for herself. Her isolation is shaken over the years by two guys, Tate and Chase. When Chase is found dead (this isn’t a spoiler don’t fear, you’ll discover this on page 1) the strange marsh girl is an immediate suspect.
Where the Crawdads Sing has all the staples of a classic; a strong female lead, a mysterious death, a romance, a court case, two timelines and a villain. But what sets this book apart, is that intertwined amongst these key staples, is the naturalistic setting and Kya’s total dependence on it. Kya’s interaction with the ‘wasteland’ provides for her when others do not, and it is this characterisation and shining respect for Mother Earth where humanity has failed her that makes this particular murder mystery so unique and special.
3. Girl, Woman Other, by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)
Evaristo brings us 12 chapters, which each features a different woman with individual flaws, struggles and experiences of modern Britain. The women’s lives intermingle and cross over throughout, and covers a whole range of common themes such as immigrant experience, racism, and familial relationships.
Spanning several generations, geographical locations (from Newcastle to London and Cornwall) and industries, these women show Britain in an entirely new light. The contrast between the experiences of the first generation immigrants to the second and third is encouraging… but the present day struggles of modern black women still show there is a long road ahead.
Evaristo’s style took a little getting used to. Full stops and capital letters are not her friends – she does not use a single one of either throughout. But once I got over this the words flowed a lot faster, and I really appreciated Evaristo’s total genius. The woman is a poet and a powerful social commentator, and the result is absolutely spellbinding.
4. The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive, by Phillipe Sands (2020)
An absolute corker historical detective work of art. History, espionage, escape through the Dolomites, with key players such as Nazi war criminals, the Vatican and the CIA.
The Ratline was a famous Nazi escape route, which after the war allowed Nazis to escape through Europe into South America. This account follows the story of Otto Watcher, a senior Nazi who was indirectly responsible for the deaths of over 800,000 Jews – including the authors own family. After the end of the War, Otto attempted an escape route through the Ratline, with the help of his wife Charlotte and a dodgy bishop. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1949 before making it to Argentina, which opened a whole can of worms and incriminated the highest players of the time; the Church, the US and the Soviet Union.
Author Philippe Sands flits seamlessly from past to present. A key theme in the Ratline is children of Nazis coming to terms with the actions of their parents and grandparents, and carrying the heavy shame and burden that has been left to them. Horst Watcher, the son of Otto plays a big part in The Ratline. Unlike many other descendants of Nazis interviewed, Horst refuses to condemn his father’s actions in the Holoucast. His utter refusal to admit that Otto was indeed a mass murderer and insistence that he was a good man draws anger from many other nazi descendants and victims of his crimes, and reiterates the complicated relationship many still have with their relativelty recent past.
The mounting excitement of The Ratline as it reaches its climax as to what happened to Otto, from the use of diaries, archives and interviews of family members of CIA agents and families of Nazi war criminals will keep you on the edge of your seat for the entirelty.
5. Unimagened, by Imran Ahmad (2007)
An autobiography of Imran Ahmad, who at age one is brought from Pakistan to South London with his family to start their new life in the 1970s. Ahmad attends primary and secondary school as the only south Asian boy, experiencing everyday racism and accepting it as a part of life. Throughout Uni and also his fist job in the city, he is torn between his Muslim beliefs and the pull of the Western world; high school parties, girls at uni and afterwork drinks as a few examples.
This was a good, quick read. Think ‘Big’ Tom Hanks vibes; Ahmad had a witty innocence and indignance about him that was very endearing. It lost a couple of stars as there was too much car chat that went over my head – but pretty good apart from that.
6. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (2009)
I rarely get over excited about reading blurbs. But Frida Kahlo hanging out with Leon Trotsky in 1930s Mexico? Sign me up.
I wasn’t disappointed. The novel is told from the perspective of fictional Harrison Shepard, made up from his diary extracts, newspaper clippings and letters. It follows his early experiences with his mother on an idyllic small Mexican island, his employment as a plaster mixer, a cook, a secretary and a driver by both Kahlo and Trotsky in bustling Mexico City, and his later life and ordeals in Cold War America.
This is a perfect definition of historical fiction. Through the poignant, witty and ever insightful observations of Harrison, the reader is transported straight into revolutionary Mexico, understands life as a political exile in the household of Leon Trotsky, and witnesses a particularly dark chapter in American history, that of the communist witch hunts.
Barbara Kingsolver is a magnificent writer. Her descriptions of Mexico in particular made me want to book the first available flight through Skyscanner (in a Utopian non-Covid world, of course). And her portrayal of historical figures, namely Kahlo and Trotsky expertly brought them to life so vividly you’d find yourself forgetting that they were actually real people. The Mexican Nationalist artist and the Russian Communist Exile were the unlikeliest of pairs, but their collective influence and stain on this particular era sets a 10/10 foundation for a great summer read.