Summer Reads: Our Top Picks
You may prefer exploring a capital for a chic city break, or spending two weeks working on your tan by the beach, but no matter the pace of your prospective summer holiday, I have the books that you want to read.
If you want...the intelligent thriller
Social Creature - Tara Isabella Burton - Bloomsbury
Slick, sexy, and dark, Social Creature is a novel about identity and wealth. Think The Great Gatsby crossed with The Talented Mister Ripley, but set in a very contemporary Manhattan. Louise, our impoverished and struggling protagonist, meets the glamourous and extremely wealthy Lavinia, and they become firm friends – even moving in together. But underneath the glossy surface of perfect selfies, champagne, and private clubs, Burton drags us into the depths. From the very beginning, she says, “Here’s the thing. Lavinia is going to die soon. You know this” – and yet the circumstances and subsequent events are still shocking.
If you want…the historical blockbuster
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock - Imogen Hermes Gower - Harvill Secker
Newly out in paperback, this has more than enough to tempt people who tend to shy away from historical novels. Gower immerses you in a simultaneously glittering and sordid vision of Georgian London, following Mr Hancock - who finds himself in possession of a (dead) mermaid - and Angelica Neal - a charming, vain, and exquisite courtesan. Dropping in and out of brothels, grand houses, and domesticity, Mr Hancock wants nothing more than to replace his mermaid curio with a live one. This comes at a cost, and with a mermaid and a siren under the same roof, Gower manages to mix a compelling story and original voice with a subtle yet insistent warning.
If you want...the unconventional memoir
Natives - Akala - Hodder & Stoughton
It feels unfair to categorise Natives as simply a memoir. It’s partly a biography, partly a political book, and partly a well-researched history. Much like its author (Akala is responsible for the excellent Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, has an honorary doctorate, and describes himself a wannabe Max Planck turned wannabe gangsta), this book is impossible to pin down neatly. What it does do is bring personal experience, legal rulings, and history into an absorbing and eminently readable account of what it means to be mixed race in Britain today, and the long-lasting legacies of colonialism. If that all sounds a little heavy for summer, Akala’s sardonically droll writing leavens the subject without diminishing its impact.
If you want...the dizzying literary debut
Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday - Granta
We could discuss the prevalence of debuts here, but that’s entirely another piece [Sylvia, will you please stop with this personal polemic when you are trying to recommend books to the sophisticates of Oxfordshire? – Ed.] Ahem. Asymmetry is a completely assured first novel, looking at power and power differentials through three slightly different lenses. In the first, Alice shacks up with a very powerful writer. In the third, said writer is giving a wonderfully en point Desert Island Discs interview. But in between there is the story of Amar, an Iraqi-American growing up in America as part of an immigrant family. Asking fascinating questions without any clear answers, not only will this be a wonderful novel to devour on holiday, it will make you sound clever at dinner parties for months. Win/win.
If you want…a witty essay collection
Calypso - David Sedaris - Little, Brown
If you haven’t read any David Sedaris, what have you been doing? If you have, I’m sure that the announcement of a new essay collection will make you abandon this article and go straight to your nearest bookshop. Calypso has a slightly darker flavour than Sedaris’ previous offerings, but the wry, cynical, mostly-true flavour that characterises his work won’t disappoint the aficionado, and will draw in the novice. It is a mark of restraint that Sedaris left a truly shocking anecdote for this, his tenth book. I won’t spoil it, but if it were my story I wouldn’t be able to help telling it to every new person I met.
If you want…the big history book
France: A History - John Julius Norwich - Hodder & Stoughton
Sometimes all you want is a thick history book, written with quite a bit of zest, that follows where you are going. As I’m writing this article in a garden in Paris (I know, life is hard) I wanted to include some Francophilia here. The sadly late JJN shines through as his best friendly donnish self - an avuncular tutor who invites you in for a glass as he expounds on 2000 years of French history, from the Gauls through Charlemagne and Julius Caesar to de Gaulle. With a deft but gentle touch, he goes through sex, death, and tennis and it either complements a summer holiday to France or gives you a sudden desire to visit.
If you want...to tear your teenager away from their phone
Run, Riot - Nikesh Shukla - Hodder Children’s
If you think that young adult fiction is all vampires and werewolves, you haven’t been keeping up. Nikesh Shukla has written a taut crime-thriller set around a single night in Firestone House, a tower block in London. As Hari, Jamal, Anna, and Tamal try to unravel how deep the corruption in their building goes, tensions rise in a crackingly fast-paced and urgent plot. Plus, being written by Shukla, it’s also perfect to pick up after your teenager has finished with it.
If you want...the one to discuss over dinner
Behold, America - Sarah Churchwell - Bloomsbury
Written with Churchwell’s characteristically enthralling style, Behold, America covers US political history through the lens of the American Dream. Of course, it touches on Trump, but manages to contextualise the rise of America First and Make America Great Again by exploring the historical conflict between Puritanism, liberalism, and colonisation. If this all sounds rather heavy, it actually reads like a terrific story and has plenty of novel conclusions to chew over.
If you want...the classic beach read
The Wives - Lauren Weisberger - Harper Collins
Sometimes, all you want from a summer book is a bit of light escapism. A sort-of sequel to The Devil Wears Prada, The Wives follows Emily Charlton, ex-assistant to the fashion editor Miranda Priestly and successful stylist to the stars, in her move to suburbia. Here she meets a publicly scorned model, and sets up a plan to rehabilitate her image and scorn the model’s ex in turn. With just enough tart satire to stop the frothiness being overwhelming, this is the perfect book to read by the pool with a large fruity drink.
So, pack your sunglasses, sun cream, and a selection of these titles and you’ll be all set for the summer season.