I’ve done this for the last couple of years on the Writers’ Hub so I thought I’d continue the tradition on my own site. Same format: ten newish books that I’ve read recently and can highly recommend, and ten books I haven’t read yet but are at the top of my To Read list for the summer.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
This is my top recommendation for the summer—read this book, if nothing else. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies she retreats from London to Essex with her son Francis where they begin to hear rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Who knew there was an Essex serpent? I’d only heard of the ‘Essex lion’ which as I recall turned out to be a slightly overweight tabby.
Somewhere in between AS Byatt and Tracy Chevalier, The Essex Serpent is jam-packed with fascinating characters, atmospheric prose and intriguing plotting. It’s a brilliant book about love and friendship, science and faith.
And just look at that beautiful cover—I’m quite sad that I bought the Kindle edition. This will definitely be going on my best book cover design list at the end of the year.
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah
Memory is a black Zimbabwean woman with albinism, on death row for the murder of a white man, Lloyd Hendricks. We don’t know how or why or even if she actually killed him and the details are spun out through the book, from her earliest memories of her childhood with her parents and two sisters, to her life with Lloyd and then later her time in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare and then a final heart-breaking revelation. There is a particularly beautiful quote at the end which sums up the book perfectly:
To accept that there are no villains in my life, just broken people, trying to heal, stumbling in darkness and breaking each other, to find a way to forgive my father and mother, to forgive Lloyd, to find a path to my own forgiveness.
Highly recommended—poignant, lyrical and intensely moving.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
I’m a sci-fi wuss—I like sci-fi-lite, speculative fiction, dystopian fiction, fantasy, but I’ve always found proper sci-fi rather terrifying. (Still traumatised from watching the Lost in Space TV series when I was a kid). And ‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’ is proper, hardcore sci-fi complete with space travel, weird looking aliens and shedloads of impenetrable sci-fi jargon. And yet I completely loved this book and I couldn’t put it down.
The Wayfarer is a tunnelling ship that creates wormhole-type shortcuts through the fabric of space and we meet the mixed-species crew on the day that a new human member, Rosemary, is introduced for the first time. Shortly afterwards they’re offered their most ambitious job yet—to travel to a distant planet inhabited by a particularly belligerent species and create a tunnel home.
Becky Chambers has taken all of the conventions of sci-fi for the structure of this novel but on top of that she has layered some incredibly rich characterization—in particular the distinguishing traits and motivations of the various alien races. (The alien’s perspective of humanity also provides a humorous note). The most poignant piece of characterisation though is the life she instils into ‘Lovey’, the Wayfarer’s AI operating system. Lovey’s personality has developed through many hundreds of hours of interaction with the crew and, even though she doesn’t have a body, they view her as a member of the crew.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a brilliantly inventive, engaging, thought-provoking read.
The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock
The Last Pilot begins with Jim Harrison, a test pilot in the Mojave Desert in the 1940’s and follows his career through to the peak of the space race in the late 60s. It starts out with a lot of technical jargon about flying and aeronautical engineering but it is very quickly apparent that the heart of the story is the relationship between Jim and his wife, Grace.
I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. It’s obviously a compliment to the author’s writing style that he has been compared to Cormac McCarthy, but it does also imply that the book might be miserable and depressing—the blurb even seems to suggest that the book is about failure and tragedy. But it’s not.
The prose does have a kind of sparse realism, but the emotional depth builds up in the spaces behind and between the lines. It is superbly written—beautiful and heart-breaking. Setting Harrison’s personal tragedy against an epic backdrop of space exploration doesn’t diminish it, instead it somehow makes it universal.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie
The Portable Veblen is a simply lovely book about an incongruous selection of subjects: marriage, familial relationships, medical advertising blurbs, the FDA approval process, and squirrels. The squirrels are the most important bit of course. I particularly enjoyed this bit of wisdom a squirrel imparts to the main character Veblen:
I want to meet muckrakers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted…
Don’t we all!
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
It’s rare to find a book with such a good message that is not at all moralistic or preachy. The Lie Tree, winner of the Costa Book of the Year 2015, is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written piece of historical fiction, woven together with dark and mystical elements and a strong feminist sensibility.
Faith Sunderly is a fourteen-year-old girl, who is, by virtue of her age, gender and the time period she lives in, rendered invisible in society and definitely perceived as less important that her six-year-old brother. Faith’s father is a clergyman and a well-known natural scientist but at the opening of the novel he has just been accused of fabricating some of his most famous fossil discoveries. The family have fled from the scandal to the small island of Vane where Faith’s father has been invited to join a fossil dig.
Faith, a budding natural scientist herself, possesses a passionate curiosity that gets her into trouble but also serves her well as she investigates a suspicious death and explores the properties of the mysterious Lie Tree. Faith is a great character—possessing all of the intelligence and strength of mind you would hope for but combining it with occasional spitefulness and sullenness that just makes her more real.
The Lie Tree itself, a tree that thrives on human lies and yet bears fruit that illuminates truth, is a brilliant invention at the heart of this story. Altogether it’s a beautifully crafted, thrilling, intriguing story and Faith is an inspiring character.
One by Sarah Crossan
Winner of the Carnegie Medal and the YA Book Prize in 2016, One is the story of conjoined twins Tippi and Grace told in prose-poetry from the perspective of Grace. It is beautifully written, insightful, gripping and terribly moving—a book that messes with all of your preconceptions about conjoined twins.
This book was actually recommended to me by my nine-year-old, who LOVED it and nagged me until I read it too.
I bought it in hardback and I love the eye-catching turquoise and cerise cover design and the American cover design looks amazing too.
This Savage Song by VE Schwab
I would read a dishwasher instruction manual written by Victoria Schwab. There seems to be no limit to her imagination, I loved both of her Shades of Magic books, and This Savage Song introduces us to a brand new, brilliantly weird universe.
It all sounds a bit Romeo and Juliet (the Baz Luhrmann version, of course)—the city of Verity is split down the middle and ruled by two families with opposing philosophies, the Harkers and the Flynns. Their children, Kate Harker and August Flynn, start out spying on each other and then end up going on the run together. But of course, there are monsters and this is no simpering romance.
I loved this story, particularly the musical component, and can’t wait for the next instalment.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Agnieszka lives in a quiet village in the shadow of a malevolent, corrupted forest—the only person who can keep them safe is a wizard called The Dragon. In return for his help, though, he selects one young woman to serve him for ten years and Agnieszka is convinced that this time he’s going to take her best friend, Kasia.
These days it is fashionable for forests to signify wisdom and goodness, so it was refreshing to encounter a forest-as-creepy-villain, with shades of Tolkien.
Uprooted is a magical, thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable read.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)
Plagued by terrible nightmares, a once dutiful and submissive wife, Yeong-hye, decides to become a vegetarian and seek a more ‘plant-like’ existence. Her husband becomes increasingly sadistic in response, her sister’s husband, a video artist, becomes obsessed with documenting her, but all Yeong-hye wants is to become a tree.
I’m almost hesitant to recommend this one as it is dark and disturbing—not exactly a ‘beach read’, but if you’re not put off by that The Vegetarian is also hauntingly beautiful, uncanny, powerful and intensely moving.
Translated by Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian was also the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016.
TEN BOOKS ON MY TO READ LIST:
The Muse by Jessie Burton
Next up in my Wimbledon book club, I’m sure I don’t need to say much about The Muse because, if you read The Miniaturist, then I’m sure you were planning on reading this one too. Another beautiful cover.
The Girls by Emma Cline
The viral hit of the summer, as recommended by Lena Dunham amongst others—a Charles Manson-type scenario, set in California in the summer of ’69.
The Museum of You by Carys Bray
I loved A Song for Issy Bradley so I’m definitely going to read Carys Bray’s next novel—Clover Quinn curates an exhibition of her dead’s mother’s things to surprise her Dad.
My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal
Been meaning to read this one for a while—the story of Leon and his little brother Jake and what happens when they have to go into foster care.
Nothing Tastes As Good by Claire Hennessy
YA fiction, Annabel is dead and has been assigned as Julia’s ‘ghostly helper’—she’s convinced it’s her job to help Julia get thinner, but is that really what she’s supposed to be doing?
The Otherlife by Julia Gray
Another YA novel I’ve been looking forward to: mystical alternate worlds, Norse mythology and exclusive boys’ school friendships—an interesting mix.
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
Part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series—a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. I’ve never actually read Taming of the Shrew but I loved Ten Things I Hate About You—that’s got to count for something, right?
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
This one has been nominated for all of the major awards and is about a relationship between a mother and daughter. I’ve got Olive Kitteridge loaded up on the Kindle right now, so might just have to read that one first.
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
Winner of the Costa Books First Novel Award in 2015, this one has an intriguing cover and an even more intriguing name. What or who is the ‘Loney’—I’ll let you know when I find out.
Mooncop by Tom Gauld
This one will actually only be published at the end of the Summer but I’m looking forward to it anyway. You may have seen Tom Gauld’s whimsical comics in The Guardian, Mooncop is about the adventures of the last policeman living on the moon—I’m imagining a kind of contemporary Little Prince.