When the sun is shining, what’s better than lounging around with a good book? And when it’s not, at least a good novel offers a distraction for a ruined staycation or a rain-soaked sojourn abroad. So what to read as the days get longer and the weather (in theory) gets warmer?
For something to dip into – between a swim and a poolside cocktail, perhaps – Nickolas Butler’s new short story collection is an absolute gem. Beneath The Bonfire, from the author of the dazzling novel Shotgun Lovesongs, offers a feast of stories set in fast-drinking, wild, rural America, dealing with passion, responsibility and hope. The best of the bunch is Morels, about three lifelong friends navigating a hiking trip that takes a sinister turn, but the titular tale, about an annual ritual on a frozen lake, is also deeply intriguing. There’s a story here for every taste
Keeping with the education theme, Things We Have in Common is the debut novel from Tasha Kavanagh, set in a run-of-the-mill secondary school. Yasmin, an overweight teenager with an insensitive stepfather, an uncontrollable penchant for Cadbury’s Turkish Delight, and not much else going for her, develops a crush on golden girl Alice. But there’s a fine line between a harmless infatuation and an unhealthy, uncontrollable obsession, and Yasmin is struggling not to cross it. When Alice disappears, her fantasies start colliding with reality – but is she putting herself at risk? It’s a taut psychological thriller that will leave you guessing to the end.
For a lighter read, Judy Blume is back with her first adult novel in 15 years. Sadly, the eponymous Ralph – ask a fan of her iconic coming-of-age tale Forever if you’re not sure what I mean – doesn’t make an appearance, but In The Unlikely Event is still delightfully entertaining. Set in 1950s New Jersey during a series of air accidents, it focuses on teenage heroine Miri and the friends and adults around her as their small town reacts to the tragedies. It’s good clean fun for the most part, but her storytelling is as fine as ever, and Blume’s gossipy style will keep you hooked.
If you want a novel to get truly stuck into, Tessa McWatt’s Higher Ed is an unflinching look at the impact of public spending cuts on a down-and-out London university. Following several characters with tangential and direct links to each other, including lovesick lecturer Robin, ambitious student Olivia and worldly Polish waitress Katrin, it’s rather like a grittier version of John Lanchester’s Capital; a story about the challenges and quirks of urban living. ‘Espresso, macchiato, latte, chocolate marquis, Chanitlly cream, tiramisu: English is not in so many things at Epicure,’ thinks Katrin of her posh Islington cafe, in one of many spot-on observations. With Higher Ed, McWatt brilliantly and sympathetically contributes to the conversations being had all around contemporary London. Unfortunately, it’s not out until August; this is one for a late summer break.
If you haven’t read it yet, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins picks up where Life After Life left off, telling the story of Ursula’s charming younger brother Teddy as he navigates war and peace, love and parenthood, and changing times. Like Versions, the story spans almost a century, but it never loses pace. I fell head over heels with Teddy, who is compelling at every stage, and you will too. A must for your summer book bag.
For another mid-century saga, Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us is a meditation on the ‘what if’ question; a sort of intelligent fiction take on Sliding Doors. Eva and Jim meet as students at Cambridge, and it’s clear theirs is a ‘great love’, or at least has the potential to be one. But what if they didn’t meet at all? Or what if they did, but then went their separate ways. Barnett offers three versions of events covering the next five decades, providing a triple helping of family strife and romantic drama. You’ll have to pay attention, but her attention to detail means half the fun is to be had in picking up the red herrings and deciphering the clues she weaves into the different stories.