15 Books To Get Stuck Into This Summer

15 Books To Get Stuck Into This Summer

Looking for something uplifting or powerfully moving to read in the sunshine? Our pick of new and notable recent novels – from both established authors and newcomers – offers a little something for everyone.

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Actress by Anne Enright

From Booker Prize-winning Irish author Anne Enright comes this moving novel about fame, sexual power and a daughter’s search to understand her mother’s hidden truths. This is the story of Irish theatre legend Katherine O’Dell, as told by her daughter Norah. It tells of early stardom in Hollywood, of highs and lows on the stages of Dublin and the West End. But this romance between mother and daughter cannot survive Katherine’s past, or the world’s damage. As Norah uncovers her mother’s secrets, she acquires a few of her own. Then, fame turns to infamy when Katherine decides to commit a bizarre crime. Actress is about a daughter’s search for the truth: the dark secret in the bright star, and what drove Katherine finally mad.

“Her writing is always pitch perfect, but this is truly exquisite. If there is such a thing as the perfect novel, this is it.” – Nigella Lawson

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Before My ​Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney

When she was young, Mary Rattigan wanted to fly. She was going to take off like an angel from heaven and leave the madness of troubled Northern Ireland behind. Nothing but the ‘Land of Happy Ever After’ would do for her. But as a Catholic girl with a witch of a mother and a silent father, things did not go as she and her best friend Lizzie Magee had planned. Now, five children, 25 years, an end to the bombs and bullets, enough whiskey to sink a ship and endless wakes and sandwich teas later, Mary's alone. She's learned plenty of hard lessons and missed a hundred steps towards the life she'd always hoped for. Will she finally find the courage to ask for the love she deserves? Or is it too late?
“A really lovely book. I loved reading it.” – Mariella Frostrup, author of Dear Mariella
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Summerwater by Sarah Moss

From the acclaimed author of Ghost Wall, Summerwater is a devastating story told over 24 hours in the Scottish Highlands, and a searing exploration of our capacity for both kinship and cruelty in these divided times. On the longest day of the summer, 12 people are cooped up with their families in a faded cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents. A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy enters the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped up in their own cares, but increasingly alert to the new community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others. Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night falls.

“Sharp, searching, thoroughly imagined, it is utterly of the moment, placing its anxious human dots against a vast indifferent landscape; with its wit and verve and beautiful organisation it throws much contemporary writing into the shade.” – Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall

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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

On a summer's day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon has a fever. Her twin brother Hamnet searches everywhere for help. But their mother Agnes is over a mile away in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs, and their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week. Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name (though a slight variation) was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written. Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, this is a must-read.
“Miraculous.” – Observer

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Still Life by Sarah Winman

In 1944, in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa – as the Allied troops advance and bombs fall around them – two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening together. Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view. These two unlikely people find kindred spirits in each other and Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades. Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence to London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

“Readers will want to prolong the pleasure of Sarah Winman’s beautiful novel Still Life as long as possible. It is a book to get lost in, the kind of story that bolsters the heart and soul. I loved it.” – Donal Ryan, author of The Spinning Heart

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Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

It’s 1957 in the south-east suburbs of London. Jean Swinney is a features writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of 40 – living a limited existence with her argumentative mother. When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. But the more she investigates, the more her life becomes strangely intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen herself, her husband Howard and her charming daughter Margaret. But they are the subject of the story Jean is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. Jean cannot bring herself to give up the chance of finally tasting happiness, but there will be a price to pay.
“This is one of the most tender, beautiful books I have ever read. Please, please order it now. I honestly don't want you to be without it. It is exquisite.” – Lucy Mangan, author of Bookworm
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The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

It is 1974 on the island of Cyprus. Two teenagers, from opposite sides of a divided land, meet at a tavern in the city they both call home. The tavern is the only place that Kostas, who is Greek and Christian, and Defne, who is Turkish and Muslim, can meet in secret. In the centre of the tavern, growing through the roof, is a fig tree. This tree will witness their hushed, happy meetings and their surreptitious departures; and it will be there when the war breaks out, the capital is reduced to rubble, and the teenagers vanish and break apart. Decades later in north London, 16-year-old Ada Kazantzakis has never visited the island where her parents were born. Desperate for answers, she seeks to untangle years of secrets, separation and silence. And the only connection she has to the land of her ancestors is a fig plant growing in the back garden of their home.

“One of the best writers in the world today.” – Hanif Kureishi, author of The Black Album
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Summer by Ali Smith

Ali Smith's ‘Seasonal’ quartet concludes with Summer, one of last year’s most-anticipated books. As with the previous three, Smith wrote this book in ‘real time’, reacting to the events of the day, and pushed for as quick a publishing turnaround as possible, resulting on what the Evening Standard called “the first great coronavirus novel”. In the present, Sacha knows the world's in trouble. Her brother Robert just is trouble. Their parents are having trouble. And the world's in meltdown. In the past, a different brother and sister know they're living on borrowed time. This is a story about people on the brink of change. They're family, but they think they're strangers. In this worthy conclusion, Smith explores what people who think they've got nothing in common actually do have in common.
“A maestra's portrait of her age… remarkable” – Guardian
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A Theatre For Dreamers by Polly Samson

It’s 1960 and the world is dancing on the edge of revolution. Nowhere more so than on the Greek island of Hydra, where a circle of poets, painters and musicians live tangled lives, ruled by the writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, troubled king and queen of bohemia. Forming within this circle is a triangle: the magnetic, destructive writer Axel Jensen, his dazzling wife Marianne Ihlen and a young Canadian poet named Leonard Cohen. Into their midst arrives teenage Erica, with little more than a bundle of blank notebooks and her grief for her mother. Settling on the periphery of this circle, she watches, entranced and disquieted, as paradise unravels. Burning with the heat and light of Greece, A Theatre for Dreamers is a spellbinding novel about utopian dreams and innocence lost.
“Sublime and immersive. If you wish you could disappear to a Greek island right now, I highly recommend.” – Jojo Moyes, author of Me Before You
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Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe

In the summer of 1977, a naïve young woman called Calista sets out from Athens to venture into the wider world. On a Greek island that has been turned into a film set, she finds herself working for the famed Hollywood director Billy Wilder, about whom she knows almost nothing. But the time she spends in this glamorous, unfamiliar new life will change her for good. While Calista is thrilled with her new adventure, Wilder himself is living with the realisation that his star may be on the wane. Rebuffed by Hollywood, he has financed his new film with German money, and when Calista follows him to Munich to shoot further scenes, she finds herself joining him on a journey of memory into the dark heart of his family history. In a novel that is at once a tender coming-of-age story and an intimate portrait of one of cinema's most intriguing figures, Jonathan Coe turns his gaze on the nature of time and fame, of family and the treacherous lure of nostalgia.

“As good as anything he's written – a novel to cherish.”Observer

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The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

At Montverre, an exclusive academy tucked away in the mountains, the best and brightest are trained for excellence in the ‘grand jeu’: an arcane and mysterious contest. Léo Martin was once a student but lost his passion for the game following a violent tragedy. Now he returns in disgrace, exiled to his old place of learning with his political career in tatters. Montverre has changed since he studied there, even allowing a woman, Claire Dryden, to serve in the grand jeu’s highest office of Magister Ludi. When Léo first sees Claire, he senses an odd connection with her, though he’s sure they have never met before. But both Léo and Claire have built their lives on lies.  And as the legendary ‘Midsummer Game’, the climax of the year, draws closer, secrets begin to circulate…

“Truly spellbinding... In recent years, the state of the world has threatened to make us forget the simple pleasures of kisses and bluebells and thick novels that tell stories of heartbreak. Here is a book to help us remember.” – Guardian

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Home Stretch by Graham Norton

It is 1987 and a small Irish community is preparing for a wedding. The day before the ceremony, a group of young friends ­– including the bride and groom – drive out to the beach. There is an accident. Three survive, but three are killed. The lives of the families are shattered and the rifts between them are felt throughout the small town. Connor is one of the survivors. But staying among the angry and the mourning is almost as hard as living with the shame of having been the driver. He leaves the only place he knows for another life, taking his secrets with him. Travelling first to Liverpool, then London, he makes a home – of sorts – for himself in New York. The city provides shelter and somewhere Connor can forget his past and forge a new life. But the secrets will not be silenced and before long Connor will have to confront his past.

I loved Home Stretch... one of those books that stays with you so long after you've finished it.” – Nigella Lawson

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Monogamy by Sue Miller

Annie is not the first love of Graham's life but she is, he thinks, his last and greatest. Very recently, he has faltered – but he means to put it right. Here they are in marriage, in late middle age, in comfort. Mismatched, and yet so well matched: the bookseller with his appetite and conviviality; and the photographer with her delicacy, astuteness and reserve. The children are offstage, grown up and living far way; Graham's first wife, Frieda, is peaceably in their lives, but not between them. Then the unthinkable happens and Annie stumbles: did she know all there was to know about the man who loved her? And if no marriage is without its small indiscretions, how big does a betrayal have to be to break it?
“One of the most emotionally truthful novels I have ever read.” – Daisy Buchanan, author of Insatiable
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I Couldn’t Love You More by Esther Freud

Rosaleen is still a teenager in the early 60s, when she meets the famous sculptor, Felix Lichtman. Felix is dangerous, bohemian and everything she dreamed of in the cold nights at her Catholic boarding school. And at first their life together is glitteringly romantic – drinking in Soho, journeying to Marseilles – but it's not long before Rosaleen finds herself unexpectedly alone. Desperate, she seeks help from the only source she knows, the local priest, and is directed across the sea to Ireland on a journey that will seal her fate. Kate lives in 90s London, stumbling through her unhappy marriage. Close to breaking point, she sets off on a journey of her own, not knowing what she hopes to find. Aoife sits at her husband's bedside as he lies dying and tells him the story of their marriage. But there is a crucial part of the story missing and time is running out. Aoife needs to know: what became of Rosaleen? Spanning three generations of women, I Couldn't Love You More is an unforgettable novel about love, motherhood, secrets and betrayal.
“As close to a perfect novel as anything I've read in a long time.” – Ann Patchett, author of The Dutch House
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Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

This new novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning and Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Jhumpa Lahari is a haunting portrait of a woman – and her decisions, conversations and solitariness – in a beautiful and lonely Italian city. The woman moves through the city alone. But in the arc of a year, as one season gives way to the next, transformation awaits. One day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun's vital heat, her perspective will change forever. Whereabouts – first written in Italian and then translated by the author herself – brims with the impulse to cross barriers. A striking portrait of a city, it captures a woman standing on one of life's thresholds, reflecting on what has been lost and facing, with equal hope and rage, what may lie ahead.
“A fine writer, discriminating, compassionate and surprising.” – Rachel Cusk, author of Outline

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