Books Magazine

Summer Reads 2015

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello


Welcome to SUMMER READS 2015, the 12th Literary Sofa listing of recommended new and recent titles.  It’s been a very enjoyable task but deciding is never easy.  As always, I have read every title here and many more in full and since variety is the key to an interesting selection, several excellent novels with notable similarities had to go head to head for a place in the final thirteen.  The result is a wide range of locations, styles and subjects, catering to a wide range of tastes.  This time settings are dominated by the UK: Bristol [2], London [3], Yorkshire [5], Cornwall [9] and the banks of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal [13]; and North America: Toronto [4], Los Angeles [6], Chicago [7], New York City [8], the Mojave Desert [10] and the entire Midwest [12], with a strong dash of European flavour from Paris [1] and Rome [11]. 

At least four are inspired by real people or events: the Bloomsbury Group [2], the 1992 LA riots  [6], the Space Race [10] and the life of Mazie Phillips [8].  Two are highly compelling crime/thrillers, exploring the multicultural complexities of Paris, and the danger of trial by public opinion [2].  Find yourself transported to life in a cult [5], a ‘60s Chicago jazz club [7], a quiet but deadly Cornish seaside town [9] or unbalanced by suburban motherhood [4].  Unusually, there’s a common thread running through almost all of them and that is family – families of all kinds and configurations.  I hope you find something amongst my choices that you’d like to read this summer and would love to hear which ones entice you –  see end of post for your chance to win your ‘most wanted’.

The authors of some of these books will be joining me on the blog during June and July, alongside others I couldn’t include today.

Numbers for ease of reference. Titles already available in the UK listed first, the rest in order of UK publication date. Text adapted from publicity materials.

Arab Jazz cover
1. ARAB JAZZ – Karim Miské (Maclehose – translated from French by Sam Gordon) out now

Kosher sushi, kebabs, a second hand bookshop and a bar: the 19th arrondissement in Paris is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood where citizens of many cultures live, love and worship alongside one another. When Ahmed Taroudant’s melancholy daydreams are interrupted by blood dripping from his upstairs neighbour’s mutilated corpse, the murder of Laura Vignole and the pork joint placed next to her set imaginations ablaze. Ahmed finds himself the prime suspect but detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot are not short of leads. What is the connection between a disbanded hip-hop group and the fiery extremist preachers that jostle in the streets for attention? And what is the mysterious new pill taking the area by storm? In his debut novel, Karim Miske moves seamlessly between the streets of Paris and the synagogues of New York to reveal the truth behind a horrifying crime.

Vanessa and her sister jacket
2. VANESSA AND HER SISTER – Priya Parmar (Bloomsbury) out now

London, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the four Stephen siblings find themselves at the centre of the circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group.  So far Vanessa Bell has never sold a painting. Her sister Virginia Woolf’s book review has just been turned down by The Times. Lytton Strachey has not published anything. E. M. Forster has finished his first novel but does not like the title. Leonard Woolf is still a civil servant in Ceylon, and John Maynard Keynes is looking for a job. Together, this sparkling coterie of artists and intellectuals throw away convention and embrace the freedom of being young, single bohemians. But when Vanessa falls in love, the brilliant but demanding and possessive Virginia is no longer the main focus of her sister’s attention. Feeling abandoned, she careens toward self-destruction and madness and as tragedy and betrayal threaten the family, Vanessa must decide if it is finally time to put her own happiness first.

Burnt Paper Sky cover
3. BURNT PAPER SKY – Gilly MacMillan (Piatkus) – ebook out now, paperback 27 August

Rachel Jenner only turned her back for a moment. Now her eight-year-old son Ben is missing. But what really happened that fateful afternoon?  Caught between her personal tragedy and a public who have turned against her, there is nobody left who Rachel can trust. But there is someone with a passionate commitment to solving the case – the clock is ticking to find Ben alive and for DI James Clemo, the pressures of his first high-profile investigation push him to the limits.

Adult Onset cover
4. ADULT ONSET – Ann-Marie MacDonald (Sceptre) out now

Despite the privileges of middle-class life in Toronto, Mary Rose McKinnon, a successful author of two young adult novels in what was intended as a trilogy, isn’t coping with the demands of full-time motherhood.   Often a lone parent to two young children whilst her wife Hilary travels to pursue her career in theatre, Mary Rose lives in fear of hurting them, feelings rooted in a part of her childhood she has trouble remembering. Is her mother Dolly – the kind of big personality who makes all Mary Rose’s friends, and even waiters in coffee shops, exclaim ‘I love your Mum!’ – harbouring a dark secret about what caused Mary Rose’s childhood injuries? And is Mary Rose doomed to follow the same path?  It all  comes to a head over the course of one week when Hilary is out of town.

the followers
5. THE FOLLOWERS – Rebecca Wait (Picador) 21 May

Judith has been visiting her mother Stephanie in prison once a month for the last eight years but neither of them can bring themselves to talk about what brought them here. When Stephanie first meets Nathaniel, she is a struggling single mother and he is a charismatic outsider. In deciding to join his small religious cult high on the moors, Stephanie thinks she is doing the best for her daughter: a new home, a new life, a new purpose.  But Judith has never trusted Nathaniel and from the moment they arrive, the delicate dynamic of his followers is disturbed. Judith’s restlessness and questions unsettle the children who’ve never known life outside the cult – all except loyal Moses, who will do anything to be her friend. Meanwhile, as Stephanie surrenders to Nathaniel’s will, tensions deepen, faith and doubt collide, and a horrifying act of violence changes everything.

All Involved cover
6. ALL INVOLVED – Ryan Gattis (Picador) 21 May

In April 1992, after one of the most notorious, racially charged trials in American history, the city of Los Angeles exploded in violence.  All Involved tells the interconnected stories of seventeen characters over the six lawless, life-changing days that followed. Ernesto Vera is walking home from his job at a taco truck when three guys jump out of a car and assault him. Ernesto’s not in a gang, he’s not involved, but his sister is – and when Payasa hears that her innocent brother has been murdered, she wants revenge. As widespread rioting breaks out across the city, Ernesto’s death triggers an astonishing sequence of events, not just for the gangs involved, but for the firefighters, nurses and law enforcement officers who must deal with the consequences.

Last Night at the Blue Angel cover
7. LAST NIGHT AT THE BLUE ANGEL – Rebecca Rotert (Wm Morrow) ebook out now – paperback 21 May

In the early 1960s Chicago is a city of tensions—segregation, sexual experimentation, free love, the Cold War—but also home to one of the country’s most vibrant jazz scenes. Naomi Hill, a singer at the Blue Angel club, has been on the brink of a big break for almost a decade. Beautiful and magnetic, she’s determined to see her ambitions fulfilled, giving little thought to ten-year-old daughter Sophia, a child who has never known her father. Growing up in an adult world people by eccentric and flamboyant characters, Sophia has seen things beyond her years and understanding. Her one constant is Jim, the photographer who is her best friend, surrogate father, and protector. He’s also deeply in love with her mother. Told in alternating perspectives this is the story of Sophia’s struggle for her mother’s love and Naomi’s desperate journey to stardom.

Saint Mazie cover
8. SAINT MAZIE – Jami Attenberg, (Serpent’s Tail) 11 June

Meet Mazie Phillips: big-hearted and feisty, she runs The Venice, the famed movie theatre in the rundown Bowery district of New York City. She spends her days taking tickets, chatting with drunks and eccentrics, and chasing out the troublemakers. After closing up, the nights are her own, and she fills them with romance and booze aplenty – even during Prohibition. When the Great Depression hits and homelessness soars, Mazie opens The Venice to those in need, giving them shelter and dimes for food and booze and earning the nickname Saint Mazie. Inspired by Joseph Mitchell’s essay about Mazie in Up in the Old Hotel, fictionalised diaries, writings and interviews are woven together in this novel to honour an extraordinary life and create a deeply moving portrait of New York through the First World War, Prohibition, the boom of the 1920s, and the punishing hardship of the 1930s.

The Unforgotten cover
9. THE UNFORGOTTEN – Laura Powell (Hesperus Nova)  3 July

1950s: Fifteen-year-old Betty Broadbent helps her erratic and beautiful mother run the Hotel Eden, a boarding house besieged by reporters keen for juicy gossip and eye-catching headlines following the recent murders of several young girls in their Cornish seaside town.  Among the newspaper jackals, the quiet, serious Mr Gallagher stands out, a source of fascination for Betty, who is desperate to be noticed by him and not be treated as a child. With an atmosphere of suspicion and fear looming over the town, he and Betty take risks getting to know each other, through snatched conversation and illicit meetings.  She starts to keep secrets from her mother, her friends and even herself. Secrets that will echo through the years, affecting the lives of many.

The Last Pilot cover
10. THE LAST PILOT – Benjamin Johncock (Myriad) paperback original 9 July

Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history, The Last Pilot begins in the bone-dry Mojave Desert during the late 1940s, where US Air Force test pilots are racing to break the sound barrier. Among the exalted few is Jim Harrison: dedicated to his wife, Grace, and their baby daughter. By the 1960s, the space race is underway and Harrison and his colleagues are offered a place in history as the world’s first astronauts. But when his young family is thrown into crisis, Jim is faced with a decision that will affect the course of the rest of his life – whether to accept his ticket to the moon and at what cost.

Early One Morning cover
11. EARLY ONE MORNING – Virginia Baily (Virago) 23 July

A grey dawn in 1943: on a street in Rome, two young women, complete strangers, lock eyes for a single moment. One has been herded on to a truck with her husband and young children to be driven off into the darkness.  The other, Chiara, is about to flee the occupied city for the safety of her grandparents’ house in the hills. Loudly claiming the woman’s son as her own nephew, Chiara demands his immediate return and only as the trucks depart does she begin to realize what she has done. She is twenty-seven, single, with a sister who needs her constant care, a hazardous journey ahead and now a child with no papers who refuses to speak. Three decades later, Chiara lives alone in Rome, still haunted by thoughts of Daniele, the boy from the truck. And when she receives a phone call from a teenage girl claiming to be his daughter, it’s time to face the past.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest cover
12. KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST – J Ryan Stradal (Quercus) 6 August

Who is Eva Thorvald? To her single father, a chef, she’s a pint-sized recipe tester and the love of his life. To the chilli chowdown contestants of Cook County, Illinois, she’s a fire-eating demon. To the fashionable foodie goddess of supper clubs, she’s a wanton threat. She’s an enigma, a secret ingredient that no one can put their finger on. Eva surprises everyone. On the day before her eleventh birthday, she’s cultivating chilli peppers in her wardrobe like a pro. Abandoned by her mother, Eva arms herself with the weapons of her unknown heritage: a kick-ass palate and a passion for food bordering on obsession. Over the years, her tastes develop and so does her ambition to be the greatest chef in the world. But along the way, the people she meets will shape her – and she, them – in ways unforgettable, riotous and profound. By the time her mother returns, she knows exactly who she is.

Summer of Secrets
13. THE SUMMER OF SECRETS– Sarah Jasmon (Black Swan) paperback original 13 August

In the summer of 1983, when Helen is sixteen, the Dover family move in next door, making Helen’s lonely world a more thrilling place. She is infatuated with the bohemian Dovers, especially the petulant and charming Victoria. But the summer ends suddenly one tumultuous evening, and the next day Helen wakes up to discover that the family have simply disappeared. What went wrong that summer’s evening? Why does Helen feel like something terrible happened, but she can’t remember what?  Then one day, thirty years later, Victoria comes back.

Congratulations to these talented authors and as always, an enormous thank you to the editors and publicists who send me proof copies and keep me in the loop all year round. I run The Literary Sofa to spread the word about good books, so if you like my selection please tell your friends/share on Twitter and Facebook. And if this is your first visit I hope you’ll be back soon.

For more great book tips, see my Fiction Hot Picks 2015  – for holiday reading I especially recommend Peter Nichol’s THE ROCKS, set in sun-drenched Mallorca.

*SUMMER READS COMPETITION – ends Tuesday 26 May, 5pm UK *

Three winners picked by random number generator will win the title of their choice.

*    Regretfully, due to high postage costs, the competition is open to UK/Europe residents only.  Prizes courtesy of the publishers with thanks.

*    To enter, leave a comment below nominating the ONE title you would like to win.  (No need to give your contact details as I can see your email address in administrator mode.)

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