Our critics choose the best holiday reads of the summer

Great holiday escapes: Wherever you’re going, slip one or two of these in your bag – there’s something for everyone in the best reads of the summer, as chosen by our critics

  •  Critics and authors reveal selection of must read books to pack for your holiday
  •  Wendy Holden recommends At the Table by Claire Powell
  • Jamie Buxton recommends A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske  

At the table by Claire Powell (Fleet £14.99, 336 pp)

Paper cup by Karen Campbell (Canongate £14.99, 336 pp)

POPULAR

SELECTED BY WENDY HOLDEN 

AT THE TABLE

by Claire Powell (Fleet £14.99, 336 pp)

The Maguires have problems; parents Linda and Gerry have just separated, daughter Nicole is an alcoholic and son Jamie is drifting into a disastrous posh marriage.

Their stories knit together via meals and drinks. 

The best is the bust-up in the bijou wedding barn. Brilliantly well-written.

PAPER CUP

by Karen Campbell (Canongate £14.99, 336 pp)

Kelly’s homeless, with alcohol and drug issues. 

She’s on a park bench in Glasgow when a drunk hen-party bride gives her money — and, by mistake, her engagement ring.

 Can Kelly return it in time for the wedding? 

A journey begins, in more ways than one. Moving, funny, amazing. 

One moonlit night by Rachel Hore (S&S £16.99, 480 pp)

ONE MOONLIT NIGHT

by Rachel Hore (S&S £16.99, 480 pp)

Maddie’s house is bombed in the Blitz and husband Philip is missing after Dunkirk. 

With her children, she seeks refuge at Philip’s childhood home, and encounters odd relatives and a hidden past. 

But the biggest surprise is yet to come. Gripping, romantic, dripping with wartime atmosphere.

LONDON, WITH LOVE

by Sarra Manning (Hodder £16.99, 432 pp)

Jenny and Nick are North London teenagers who form an unbreakable bond at school. 

She loves him, but he’s unattainable. They take on the world in their careers and their stories cross all the time. 

But will they ever get together? A history of hipster style as well as a fabulous romcom.

SCI-FI & FANTASY 

A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske (Tor £16.99, 384 pp)

SELECTED BY JAMIE BUXTON

A MARVELLOUS LIGHT

by Freya Marske (Tor £16.99, 384 pp)

In Edwardian England, magic’s a game for a few aristocratic families, until one renegade stops playing by the rules and upsets the well-established order.

This brilliant debut, blending romance, adventure and whodunnit, is told with real panache and elegance. 

 In a word, enchanting.

All the seas of the world by Guy Gavriel Kay (Hodder £22, 512 pp)

Venomous lumpsucker by Ned Beauman (Sceptre £20, 304 pp)

ALL THE SEAS OF THE WORLD 

by Guy Gavriel Kay (Hodder £22, 512 pp)

You’re immersed in a beautifully detailed fantasy renaissance world, then swept along in its warm, deep, dangerous currents.

 Here be silks and swordplay, undreamed-of wealth and terrible danger for Lenia and Rafel, two hard-bargaining seafarers, as they battle fate, enemies and their own doubts to survive.

VENOMOUS LUMPSUCKER 

by Ned Beauman (Sceptre £20, 304 pp)

Cynical eco-consultant meets furious eco-scientist in this somewhat brutally satirical and grimly hilarious eco-thriller. 

 How does the corporate world respond to mass extinction? It turns it into a business opportunity. 

Then the very rare venomous lumpsucker threatens to derail the gravy train.

HER MAJESTY’S ROYAL COVEN 

by Juno Dawson (HarperVoyager 14.99, 464 pp)

What does a modern witch from Hebden Bridge deal with?  Teenagers with identity issues, love affairs, siblings . . . and Armageddon.  

Members of the Royal Coven — first established by Anne Boleyn no less — must put divisions aside to battle ancient evil. 

Warm, witty and cleverly subversive.

To paradise by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador £20, 720 pp)

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy (Bloomsbury £14.99, 320pp)

We were young by Niamh Campbell (W&N £14.99, 288pp)

Hex by Jenni Fagan (Polygon £10, 112pp)

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas (Picador £14.99, 256pp)

The exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson (Mantle £16.99, 336pp)

Recitatif by Toni Morrison (Chatto & Windus £9.99, 96pp)

Free love by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape £16.99, 336pp)

Love marriage by Monica Ali (Virago £18.99, 512pp)

LITERARY FICTION 

SELECTED BY ANTHONY CUMMINS

TO PARADISE

by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador £20, 720 pp)

The author of the harrowing bestseller A Little Life split the critics once again with an intricate triptych that moves from a subtly counterfactual 19th-century New York to a climate-ravaged surveillance dystopia 100 years hence.

Not for everyone, but few novelists are taking risks like Yanagihara right now.

TRESPASSES 

by Louise Kennedy (Bloomsbury £14.99, 320pp)

Set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, this propulsive debut follows a Catholic primary school teacher who falls for a married Protestant barrister twice her age. 

A masterclass in packing vast emotional and thematic range onto a compact canvas, it’s going to Hoover up the prizes, if there’s any justice.

WE WERE YOUNG

by Niamh Campbell (W&N £14.99, 288pp)

Tip-toeing between satire and sympathy, Campbell’s quietly clever novel unfolds from the middle-aged perspective of a commitment-shy photographer energetically sleeping his way around the bright young things of Dublin’s art scene while determinedly looking the other way from the nagging ghosts of his childhood.

HEX

by Jenni Fagan (Polygon £10, 112pp)

Fuelled by righteous outrage at gender injustice, this eerie novella plays with grisly historical events to conjure a meeting between a girl jailed as a witch in 16th-century Scotland and a time-travelling visitor who brings her dismaying tales of persecution faced by women in the present.

SELECTED BY CLAIRE ALFREE

VLADIMIR

by Julia May Jonas (Picador £14.99, 256pp)

A 58-year-old married college professor becomes infatuated with her much younger male colleague in this sharply executed inversion of Nabokov’s Lolita.

Female ageing and desire, sexual agency in the era of #MeToo, the relationship between morality and art, even a nod to Stephen King’s Misery: it’s all here in this sexy stealthy slippery debut, one of the year’s hottest reads.

YOUNG MUNGO 

by Douglas Stuart (Picador £16.99, 400pp)

Magic seems to flow from the pen of Douglas Stuart, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize for his heartbreaking debut Shuggie Bain. 

Yes, his new novel is once again about a young gay lad and his alcoholic mother beating against the tide in recession-blasted Scotland.

But if one’s heart wept for drink-sodden Agnes in Shuggie Bain, this time round Stuart refuses to let his characters off the hook.

 A tough, uncompromising novel, and possibly all the better for it.

THE EXHIBITIONIST

by Charlotte Mendelson (Mantle £16.99, 336pp)

Middle-class marital dramas set in rambling North London houses are an endangered breed these days.

Thank goodness, then, for Charlotte Mendelson’s deliciously spiky black comedy about a dysfunctional couple hurtling towards a celebratory family reunion at the behest of the self-deluding patriarch, Ray, an artist who hasn’t had any professional success for decades.

 Like Tessa Hadley but funnier. And with much sharper claws.

RECITATIF

by Toni Morrison (Chatto & Windus £9.99, 96pp)

This reissued short story, the only one Morrison wrote, is perfect for whiling away the time in Departures waiting for that delayed flight.

 It’s the story of two girls who meet at a children’s home in 1960s New York and several times after that.

One is black, the other white, and the fact it’s impossible to tell which is which says as much about our own distorted relationship with race as it does about Morrison’s exquisite skill. 

So thought-provoking you’ll want everyone you know to read it.

SELECTED BY STEPHANIE CROSS 

FREE LOVE

by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape £16.99, 336pp)

Tessa Hadley’s sparkling eighth novel is her best yet — and the bar was hardly low. 

Set in 1967, it follows suburban housewife Phyllis as she jettisons her boring, bourgeois marriage for a passionate affair with a much younger man. 

A story about change and its limits, its beautifully judged ending will bring you to tears.

LOVE MARRIAGE

by Monica Ali (Virago £18.99, 512pp)

The first novel in ten years from the author of Brick Lane is well worth the wait. 

A marvellously entertaining clash-of-cultures tale, it revolves around the romance of trainee London medics Joe Sangster and Yasmin Ghorami — though it’s their parents who are perhaps most memorable. 

NIGHTCRAWLING

by Leila Mottley (Bloomsbury £16.99, 288pp)

Based on a true-life story, Nightcrawling follows black Oakland teenager Kiara as her efforts to care for others end with her falling prey to a police-run sex ring.

A remarkable achievement, potently charged and full of tough beauty, from a debut author who has only just turned 20.

THE BEWITCHING

by Jill Dawson (Sceptre £20, 320pp)

An atmospheric and powerful story of witchcraft in the 16th-century English fens, this novel’s relevance to our own era of conspiracy theories and #MeToo is clear and will keep you gripped right through to its daringly beautiful coda.

The love of my life by Rosie Walsh (Mantle £14.99, 368pp)

Sedating Elaine by Dawn Winter(Fleet £14.99, 272pp)

Hush by Kate Maxwell (Virago £16.99, 384pp)

Again, Rachel by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph £20, 608pp)

CONTEMPORARY

SELECTED BY SARA LAWRENCE 

THE LOVE OF MY LIFE 

by Rosie Walsh (Mantle £14.99, 368pp)

This beautifully written romance has all the plot twists of a psychological thriller.

 Emma and Leo are married with a daughter but Leo doesn’t know his wife has kept huge parts of her past concealed. 

As Emma’s lies slowly unravel, he realises he has no idea who she is. 

A gripping love story perfect for a lazy day on the beach.

SEDATING ELAINE

by Dawn Winter (Fleet £14.99, 272pp)

This black comedy stars Frances, an engaging anti-heroine, whose life is a mess.

 Frances is not looking for a relationship when she meets Elaine but she does owe money to threatening drug dealers.

 Thinking Elaine could help pay them off, Frances asks her to move in. 

Unable to get any peace, Frances then decides to sedate Elaine. Hilarious, tender, crazy and beautiful.

HUSH

by Kate Maxwell (Virago £16.99, 384pp)

Stevie is 38, single and desperate to be a mother. 

She is at the top of her career game when she decides to undergo IVF using a sperm donor.

She doesn’t imagine work will change and is shocked to be aggressively side-lined by her boss. 

She also doesn’t imagine she might not enjoy motherhood or bond with her baby. Raw and compelling.

AGAIN, RACHEL

by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph £20, 608pp)

This is the sequel to 1997’s contemporary classic about addiction and treatment, Rachel’s Holiday. 

Here, Rachel is now head counsellor at the rehab she once attended.

She’s in a relationship, on great terms with her loved ones and adores gardening. 

The shock reappearance of a man she never got over throws this peaceful existence into chaos. 

Funny, heart-breaking and so wise.

Lessons in chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday £14.99, 400pp)

The school for good mothers by Jessamine Chan

Black cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

DEBUTS

SELECTED BY FANNY BLAKE

LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY

by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday £14.99, 400pp)

Research chemist Elizabeth Zott is a single mother and the disenchanted presenter of a TV cookery show in the 1950s. 

A woman who refuses to conform, she engineers a quiet revolution among American women.

I adored this confident, witty portrait of an unforgettable woman and her time.

THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD MOTHERS

by Jessamine Chan (Hutchinson Heinemann £12.99, 336pp)

I was fascinated and intrigued by this feminist dystopian novel set in a school attended by mothers who have failed their children.

 Single mother Frida leaves her baby for two hours and is judged guilty of neglect. Her time in the school is more than a little disturbing but will it make her a better mother?

BLACK CAKE 

by Charmaine Wilkerson (Michael Joseph £14.99, 400pp)

Once inseparable, Benny and her brother Byron have been estranged for years. 

Brought together by the death of their mother, they listen to a recording in which she unwraps the secret truths about their family. 

A heartfelt story of loss, lies and reconciliation that captivated me.

THE LOVE SONGS OF W.E.B DU BOIS 

by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Fourth Estate £9.99, 816pp)

Narrated by a young woman, Ailey Paul Garfield, her own story is intersected by stories from generations of her family in the American deep South.

Reflecting the black history of America, this is an immersive novel that is also lyrical, thought-provoking — and an absolute must-read.

by Sophie Irwin (HarperCollins £14.99, 352pp)

Sophie Irwin’s delicious debut follows the career of captivating, conniving Kitty Talbot. Against a glittering Regency backdrop, Kitty snares affable Archibald de Lacy, but her plans are upended with the arrival of his brooding elder brother, Lord Radcliffe, who is more than a match for clever Kitty…

The Whalebone Theatre: Joanna Quinn

THE WHALEBONE THEATRE

by Joanna Quinn (Fig Tree £14.99, 560pp)

A crumbling old country manor, three unconventional siblings and the looming threat of war makes for a classic coming of age tale, as imaginative Cristabel, sweet Flossie and charismatic Digby attempt to find their roles in life. Brimful of charm, and wonderfully immersive, this is a captivating read.

SHORT STORIES 

SELECTED BY EITHNE FARRY

THE SECRET LIVES OF CHURCH LADIES

by Deesha Philyaw (One £14.99, 224 pp)

Funny, moving and tender, these nine stories hone in on the sex lives of black women in the American South, as they negotiate desire and shame and rage and religion. Vividly drawn, emotionally candid and beautifully pitched, it’s an outstanding debut.

HOMESICKNESS 

by Colin Barrett (Jonathan Cape £14.99, 224pp)

Conversational, funny and beautifully sad, these slow-burn stories from the award-winning Barrett are populated by misfits and loners living in small town Ireland, where life is volatile, emotions run high and valuable lessons are hard-won. Brilliant stuff.

Sparring partners by John Grisham

THRILLERS AND CRIME 

SELECTED BY GEOFFREY WANSELL  

SPARRING PARTNERS 

by John Grisham (Hodder £20, 320 pp)

These three novellas in a single volume show Grisham at his masterful best, exquisite evocations of the law though far from complimentary about lawyers. There’s one who disappears, the young killer on death row and the lawyer brothers who can’t stand each other: a minor masterpiece.

The Blackbird by Tim Weaver 

THE BLACKBIRD

by Tim Weaver (Michael Joseph £14.99, 448 pp)

A road accident sees a Land Rover plunge off the road and career down a ravine. Two witnesses watch in horror as it bursts into flames, but when the fire brigade arrives there is no sign whatever of the two occupants. The impressive Weaver triumphs again with this intricate mystery.

Aurora by David Koepp

Wake by Shelley Burr

AURORA

by David Koepp (HQ £14.99, 400 pp)

The screenwriter of Jurassic Park depicts a catastrophe where a solar storm wipes out electricity across the planet. Told from the viewpoint of a dysfunctional American family, it vividly explores how human beings cope with tragedy, and reaffirms our will to survive. It is fine story-telling. 

WAKE 

by Shelley Burr (Hodder £14.99, 368 pp)

My crime novel of the year so far, a moving depiction of the pain that a mysterious disappearance can wreak on those left behind. Nineteen years ago Evie McCreery vanished, leaving her younger sister Mina to pick up the pieces of her life. Intense and evocative, it tears at the heart-strings.

INTO THE DARK

by Fiona Cummins (Macmillan £14.99, 336 pp)

One morning the golden Holden family — father, mother and two teenagers — suddenly disappear from their spectacular home overlooking the sea in Essex. What happened? Enter DS Saul Anguish, with a record of protecting two children from a serial killer. The plot is both striking and original.

MURDER BEFORE EVENSONG

by Reverend Richard Coles (W&N £16.99, 368 pp)

In the beautiful village of Champton, home to the de Flores dynasty, the local church is presided over by Canon Daniel Clement. A murder overwhelms the congregation and further skulduggery follows.

A cosy, if slightly fey, mystery with echoes of Father Brown unfolds as Clement investigates.

 

CLASSIC CRIME 

SELECTED BY BARRY TURNER 

Post after post-mortem by E.C.R Lorac

Strictly Murder by Julie Wassmer 

A rediscovered golden age star, E.C.R. Lorac is consistently good value. In Post After Post-Mortem, (British Library £8.99, 304 pp) a seemingly perfect family is torn apart by the suicide of a brilliant daughter who is, in fact, a murder victim. An ingenious plot is backed by clever characterisation.

Ideal for light summer reading, Julie Wassmer’s Strictly Murder (Constable £8.99, 336 pp) is the latest Whitstable outing for restaurateur Pearl Nolan, who sorts out crime amid the sea shells. A tale of jealousy and betrayal plays out in a setting of gastronomic bliss.

 A high grade debut novel in the classic tradition, The Final Round by Bernard O’Keefe (Muswell Press £12.99, 340 pp) takes it out on the moneyed elite.

When an annual get together of old university chums turns nasty, it is up to Inspector Garibaldi to penetrate the scandals of an exclusive clan. The consequences are chillingly compelling.

PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS    

SELECTED BY CHRISTINA APPLEYARD 

The club by Ellery Lloyd

THE CLUB

by Ellery Lloyd (Mantle £14.99, 352 pp)

Based on the opening party night of a luxury private club, this story is packed with the awful, narcissistic celebrities that we love to hate. And there’s a glamorous murder thrown in.

Written by a former director of Soho House, this is a tantalising psychological portrait of what makes celebs tick and their toxic attitudes towards each other.

The Golden Couple by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

THE GOLDEN COUPLE 

by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (Macmillan £14.99, 336 pp)

Avery Chambers is an anarchist therapist who doesn’t play by any of the rules. 

When her opponents go low, she goes even lower. 

So cheated-on wife Marissa’s decision to hire her results in a rollercoaster read of manipulation and mind games.

The Comfort of monsters by Willa C Richards

THE COMFORT OF MONSTERS

by Willa C. Richards (Point Blank £8.99, 400 pp)

The famous murders committed by American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer provide the unsettling background for Peg’s desperate search for what happened to her disappeared sister many years ago. Moving, original and memorable.

THE PARIS APARTMENT   

by Lucy Foley (HarperCollins £14.99, 416 pp)

Every resident of this romantic Montmartre apartment is suspicious, so Jess has her work cut out discovering why her brother has suddenly disappeared. 

Vivid descriptions of Paris and an excellent cast of characters make this a riveting and original read.

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