Summer Reading – 8 books to add to your summer tbr pile

Here we go then – eight books I have enjoyed reading this summer…

A Summer Reunion by Fanny Blake

A warm and uplifting summer holiday read. Four old friends (though their relationship is somewhat more complicated than that…) meet up for a reunion in the holiday home of one of them (Amy). They are all at a turning point in their lives, all for different reasons. Each one of them needs time for reflection and has something they need to address from the past.

By a lucky coincidence (!) the most prominent person from their past happens to also be in Mallorca at the same time, though they barely recognise him at first. This enables three of them at least to give him a piece of their mind and come to terms with some of the past experiences that continue to affect their lives.

Meantime they resurrect their friendship – more or less – and find ways to move on. The women are all in their early sixties, (although they do often seem much younger, but perhaps that’s just me…) and the island of Mallorca sounds heavenly. Read this with a large glass of something suitably fizzy while at the poolside or beach on holiday. It’s escapist fiction that will keep you turning the pages.

Too Close by Natalie Daniels

A much meatier read is this interesting debut by Natalie Daniels, a novel of psychological suspense or domestic noir. This is a fascinating portrayal of a close female friendship – and what can happen when two friends and their families get ‘too close’. In this case the narrator Connie is writing from some sort of mental health facility, so it doesn’t seem to be good news… The friend in question is Ness, whose marriage has recently ended in divorce, leaving both families out of balance with one another. We don’t get to hear Ness’s POV which makes her motivation rather intriguing. But clearly this friendship has been pushed to the limits.

The other narrator is Connie’s psychologist Emma, who, against the odds becomes involved in her life and her story over and above in her professional capacity. Connie, her situation and her razor-sharp perceptions brings all the flaws and problems in Emma’s life to the surface.

Gradually, Connie’s story emerges. We learn what happened to her and her family and why she is where she is. But the question remains – will she be able to find the resources to move on? This is a cleverly written book which had me gripped from start to finish. Highly recommended.


The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn

As soon as I read the blurb, I was keen to dip into this dual narrative dual timeline story. I’m a keen plant enthusiast and amateur gardener and I love the botanical paintings in Kew Garden which apparently inspired this story. Elizabeth, a Victorian botanist’s daughter, takes on her father’s dying request to travel to Chile to search for a rare plant that is important for medical research. She loves to paint plants and flowers and is eager for the adventure – but she must beware; her father warns her that there is a dastardly rival at large also searching for the plant in question and he will stop at nothing in order to be the first to find it. Consequently, when Elizabeth travels to Chile she finds rather more than she was bargaining for.

Meanwhile Anna, a gardener in present day Australia, finds a mysterious box hidden in her late grandmother’s cottage. It contains a sketchbook with stunning paintings of plants and a small bag of seeds. Who did the box belong to and can their stories be connected? Well, yes, they can and they are. Anna travels to Cornwall to find out the rest of the story and faces a few of her own demons in the process.

This is a charming read. Both stories are fluently written though I preferred the rather more exotic story of Elizabeth. Richly evocative of place and highly descriptive. I also loved the cover!


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while and am glad I finally caught up – it has been hugely successful and I can see why.

Eleanor is a self-sufficient introvert who never steps outside her comfort zone and who has complete control of her life. She has worked in the same office for years but hardly ever talks to her colleagues unless absolutely necessary. She does the Telegraph crossword, eats pizza once a week, drinks vodka to get through the weekend and hardly ventures beyond the local Tesco. She has her own view of life and her voice is an extremely witty one. Behind this humour lies the real story – one of a damaged childhood, emotional frailty and huge loneliness and it is this contrast that makes the book both hugely funny and deeply moving.

Things change for Eleanor the day she meets Raymond, a bumbling colleague from IT. An unlikely friendship begins when they find a man, Sammy, collapsed near the office and gradually develops until Eleanor reaches breaking point and confides in Raymond. He – and regular visits to a counsellor – help Eleanor to finally acknowledge and deal with her past and move on.

An excellent read. Highly recommended.


I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

As a fan of Maggie O’Farrell I was really looking forward to this one. It is autobiographical – O’Farrell chronicles 17 of her own ‘near misses’ as in near death experiences (the title is taken from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar). These include a haemorrhage during childbirth, childhood encephalitis, dysentery and having a machete held at her neck in Chile! These episodes are not written chronologically, but offer us glimpses of the author as an adult here, a teenager there, a child later on, and are self-contained essays titled with the body part most at threat in each particular case. Some are dramatic, some are thoughtful, some are life-changing.

I enjoyed reading these – often shocking – shapshots of O’Farrell’s life, though ‘enjoyed’ hardly seems the right word, and it is a fascinating book to dip into as there is no particular thread that links the stories apart from that of truth and near-death (a strong thread when you come to think of it). The beauty for me is in the author’s prose style: sparse, sophisticated and elegant. And I finished reading with huge admiration for her resilience. Anyone who is struggling – whether with a ‘difficult’ baby or with their own physical frailty might well be heartened by reading this book.


Watching You by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell holds another masterclass on how to write a cleverly constructed, twisting and turning thought-provoking domestic noir with what seems like consummate ease.

There are three viewpoint perspectives. Joey, sister of Jack, an eminent surgeon, has recently married lovable hippie Alfie, and the couple have moved into Jack and wife Rebecca’s charming painted house on Melville Heights in Bristol. But Joey cannot settle and pretty soon she becomes hopelessly infatuated with Tom Fitzwilliam, charismatic headmaster of the local comprehensive who lives two doors away. He and his wife Nicola have a son Freddie who has undiagnosed Aspergers and spends most of his time taking pictures of teenage girls. The cast thickens… Freddie and Joey own the first two viewpoints. The third belongs to teenager Jenna – one of Tom’s pupils and one of Freddie’s subjects of mild obsession. Jenna’s mother is convinced that Tom is somehow gang-stalking her and that everyone is mistaken about him – he is not a pillar of the community at all. But is this paranoia, mental illness or simply a case of mistaken identity?

All these complex characters are connected as the story begins and ends with the same grisly murder. But how are they connected? Lisa Jewell will keep you guessing as she weaves her narrative – because she is simply brilliant at what she does.


The Love Child by Rachel Hore

Rachel Hore’s writing is warm and uplifting and her characterisation so fine and detailed that the reader lives their experiences with them and feels their happiness, their loss, their pain.

The Love Child is a story about adoption. Alice is ‘adopted’ by her stepmother and misses the love and easy affection of her late mother. Whilst working as a nurse during the first world war, Alice falls in love, gets pregnant and loses her beloved fiancé to war. Her stepmother is horrified to hear of her pregnancy and insists she has the child adopted. Little Irene grows up similarly with a mother who having later had a natural born son does not fully appreciate or love her.

Can Irene and Alice make a success of their separate lives, will they find happiness and will they ever find one another again? Rachel Hore explores society’s changing attitudes towards women – their career and their chastity – during the 1920s and 30s. Highly recommended.


The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

An inspiring and true story of one couple’s decision to walk the South West Coastal Path. Moth and Ray have made a bad investment that leads to them losing all their money and the home that they have built up from nothing. At the same time, Moth is diagnosed with a debilitating disease that could and should lead to death within a few years. What should they do? What can they do?  For some reason even they don’t fully understand, they decide to walk the South West coastal path as backpackers, wild-camping all the way.

The book follows their journey. It includes interesting snippets of information about places they pass on the way and insightful comments about homelessness.. But primarily it’s the story of their emotional and physical journey and how losing everything (material) enabled them to find something even more precious.

By its nature, there is a repetitive feel to this story, an onward slog, and experiences that are similar to those gone before. I also found myself questioning the authenticity of the writing since Raynor wasn’t actually writing this journal whilst walking, but much later. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to be in awe of this couple’s achievement and to admire their spirit of determination. And the integral message of living life in the moment, being kind to people and living for love, is one (or three) that we can all take heed of.

© Rosanna Ley
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