Top summer books - must reads to pack into your holiday suitcase

virginia geraghty

virginia geraghty - Credit: Archant

This is the season when many of us head off and try to snatch some time to recharge our drained batteries.

summer reads

summer reads - Credit: Archant

Whether your place of retreat is the back garden or a secret cove in a foreign land, UCS Bury St Edmunds’ English Lecturer Virginia Geraghty has recommended some great reads to take on your summer holiday

Thrillers and Chillers.

Okay – you might be heading off to a tranquil place but the need for a good heart-stopping shock could be the order of the day.

summer reads

summer reads - Credit: Archant

This year saw many readers twitching impatiently for the release of The House at the Sea’s End by Elly Griffith. It is her third novel in the Ruth Galloway series (though you can read them as ‘stand-alones’) and Griffith continues to impress. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist and in this novel we she her unearthing corpses at a Norfolk coastal dig – they are not ancient bodies but date from the Second World War. As she begins to delve into the mystery of these finds she also begins to unearth a dangerous secret certain people are still prepared to kill for. Well-plotted, strong characters and a face-paced thriller.

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Despite critical condemnation there are few novels that can beat Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code for consistent page turning escapades. Academic Robert Langdon accidental stumbles across a murder at the Louvre, Paris. From that moment on he is both the hunter and the hunted as he tries to untangle the crime; he discovers that a shadowy religious cult – ‘Opus Dei’ - is at the heat of the crime. Langdon begins to unravel a religious riddle of enormous consequence which the cult are determined he will not reveal. Can he crack the code and avoid assignation? Great for a holiday read - hot, fast and furious.

To keep you awake at night turn to Laura Beukes’s Broken Monster. Set in the decaying city of Detroit, Detective Gabi Versada has to manage an ever increasing crime-load. One criminal, however, soon becomes central to her life, a serial killer – the broken monster. As his crimes escalate Versada realises that these homicides are more than the enactments of a maladjusted murderer – there is something unworldly, even supernatural about them. Though a new voice, Laura Beukes has already been referred to as a young Stephen King. A thriller-chiller that thrills and chills.

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Raymond Chandler is famous for being a founding father of the ‘hard-boiled’ school of American crime writers. His characters are gritty, cynical and often cruel yet his prose is subtle and his novels are exquisitely structured and plotted. In The Long Goodbye we meet his most famous character – Philip Marlowe. Marlowe (surprising moral), meets a drunken stranger - Terry Lenox. Marlowe sees Lennox safely home but, unfortunately for Marlowe, Lennox’s wife is later found murdered and Lennox has disappeared. To clear his name and discover the real killer we travel with Marlowe through the glitzy, ruthless world of Los Angeles. A dark novel full of taut writing that undermines the notion of the American dream…

Have you packed Zorba the Greek?

Have you packed Zorba the Greek? - Credit: Archant


Romantic novels and holidays seem to go hand-in- hand; below are a couple of new titles and a couple of classics that might compliment your holiday tipple.

Monica McCarthy has written a series of historical romantic novels that form The Highland Guard Series. Her recent work, The Arrow, continues the series. Set in the 14thcentury during the Scottish Wars of Independence we meet fifteen year old Cate of Lochmaben. The sole survivor of an attack on her village her existence is due to Gregor ‘Arrow’ MacGregor. An elite highland warriors, Gregor takes little notice of the child that he saves but when he meets her five years later Cate has grown into womanhood. Beautiful and determined – Cate sets out to capture the love of Gregor but how can she? Strong characterisations, settings and plotlines will have you reading (and dreaming) deep into the night.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is set in the dazzling world of 19th century St Petersburg. It is an epic tale of astonishing passion and limitless love. The beautiful, intelligent and moral Anna Karenina is married to man 20 years her senior; the marriage functions but her main focus is her son. Then she meets Count Vronsky a man of endless fascination. Their attraction is compelling but dangerous and so begins the sweeping tale of love, sacrifice and loss. A novel that explores the unstoppable nature of love – overwhelming.

Fall With Me, by Jennifer L. Armentrout, has hit the mark with many. A mix of romance and thriller, Fall With Me tracks the story of Roxy. Intelligent and independent Roxy has one weakness – Reece Anderson. Having had a crush on him since she was fifteen years old he seduces her with ease yet it is no more than a one night-stand. Hurt but proud, Roxy is soon faced with a more terrible difficulty; having been a witness against a perpetrator of a hate-crime he is now out of prison and seeking revenge. Roxy is frightened and alone. One person steps forward to help, Reece Anderson. A slow-burning novel that relies on edgy, sexual tension.

Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, consistently hits the top ten of romantic reads probably due to the thumping storylines, great characterisations and the crackling sexual tension between the two central characters, Scarlett O’ Hara and Rhett Butler (toned down for the film). The story follows the life of Scarlett and her journey from young girl to experienced woman – a journey that sees her survive the struggles of life during the American civil war. It also sees her learning about the hunger of desire and the depth of love. Rhett Butler remains the touchstone for the dangerous, charismatic lover no woman could ever, ever, ever turn down…

History and Biography

What can be more fascinating then delving into past worlds and past lives that make us who we are or what we could be? Take your time this summer to check out a few of the following.

The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1866 by V.A.C Gatrell is a fascinating insight into the mentalities, emotions and ideas that circled notions of punishment in England. Gatrell’s research is of a very high order but his writing is accessible and clear. The work tracks the attitude and rituals that surrounded public executions and how and why attitudes began to change. Fascinating.

With interest in Richard the III at a high, Alison Weirs’ Richard the III and the Princess in the Tower has been updated and re-released. Meticulous research is framed by Weir’s sharp writing and orderly structure. She explores and challenges the myths about Richard and the princes that have been reiterated through literature and film. Refreshing and revealing.

In 1970 Dee Brown released his history of the Native American Indians in his Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and it has never been out of print since. The work chronicles the struggles of the Native Americans in the Nineteenth-Century West and posits that the US government consciously and systematically put in place a programme of ethnocide. He tracks the displacements and enforced relocations that contributed significantly to the destruction of the culture and social infrastructure of Native Americans. Absorbing and heartrending.

The ‘big reads’ of biography remain constant and worthy of packing - Churchill (by Roy Jenkins); John F. Kennedy (An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek), Mandela (his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom) and Elizabeth I (David Starkey) but a couple of ‘off piste’ biographies might be worth reading between the sunburn.

How did Josephine Baker, an American black woman born into poverty and extreme deprivation, eventually become one of the highest paid performers in Europe and gain French burial with full military honours? If you read Ean Wood’s biography The Josephine Baker Story you will be able to trace the extraordinary brilliance and fortitude of Baker, singer, dancer, French Resistance fighter, civil rights leader. Astonishing!

Steve Jobs, the mastermind behind the rise of the Apple phenomenon, invited renowned biographer, Walter Isaacson, to write his biography. Uh oh! Sounds like an invitation to read sanitised ego. Jobs, however, insisted that he should have no control over the content and should not be able read the work before publication. Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs, charts an extraordinary man who dared to be different. It also tracks and humanises the ad hoc rise of the technologies that now dominate our world.

Culture Vultures.

If you are interested in tackling a literary ‘bucket list’ the following suggestions will certainly keep you going through the summer. One of the best places to start is with Homer’s Odyssey – a colossus of a text which has woven itself into the psyche of Western civilization. That said it is ripping yarn full of adventure. The story is of Odysseus and his crew journeying home to Ithaca after the Trojan wars. They encounter cannibals, a man eating Cyclops, a hypnotic witch-goddess and more. Each episode highlights the courage and the folly of the human condition. Epic starts here.

Can any literary list avoid a Russian great? Dostoevsky psychological thriller Crime and Punishment consistently appears in the lists of ‘greatest novels of all time’. Raskolnikov, an impoverished student with a profound sense of entitlement plans and enacts the crime of murder and robbery upon a vile money lender. Enter dogged police officer, Porfiry, who tracks Raskolnikov and a psychological game of cat and mouse unfolds. Throughout we are forced to question our own moral (or immoral) positions. The novel dared to show the killer, the motive and the crime at the start – an approach that would later change the course of TV history as a scriptwriter, who began reading Crime and Punishment whilst writing the series Colombo, changed his script from the typical ‘who dunnit’ to how the cop proved it…

Flaubert’s Madam Bovary was a daring experiment that rejected grand stories of high society to track the life of a ‘boring’ parochial doctor and his ‘silly’ empty wife. What unfolds is an epic story but not as we know it. Emma Bovery, in attempt to enliven her dull life, starts a series of adulterous affairs. We see life through her eyes, her husband’s and the mix of lovers who feast upon Emma’s romantic folly. Tragic, scandalous and ultimately fascinating.

Often referred to as the greatest novel of the twentieth century James Joyce’s Ulysses tracks the life of Leopold Bloom over 24 hours. Bloom echoes Homer’s hero Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman mythology) and the desire to find ‘home’. The monsters and sirens are replaced by ordinary people that cross the path of Bloom and the Mediterranean is replaced by Dublin city. Yet the struggles and challenges of love, life and existence are equally weighty to the modern individual. A work that is both playful and significant.

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And Finally:

A Sense of Place.

Reading a novel can often reveal the heart and the bones of a culture more than any travel guide. Here is a small selection.

Mark Miles’ The Savage Garden takes you to the sensuous nature of Tuscany. A young English student sets out to write an academic thesis on a Renaissance Villa garden just outside Florence. What he discovers is a sixteenth century murder mystery and a present day romance that echoes the heat and beauty of a Tuscany day. A slowly unfolding mystery romance that could only be set in Italy.

The novel Alexis Zorba (often referred to as Zorba the Greek) by Nikos Kazantzakis reveals the ardent and forceful nature of the Greek heart. The novel begins with the narrator deciding to reject his dull intellectual existence and seek new possibilities – it as this moment he meets Zorba – an extraordinary man with a lust for life. Their journey sweeps through many emotional highs and lows; passions and failings. An odyssey that is as wild, wilful and as magnificent as the Grecian landscape.

Tahir Shah’s The Caliph’s House is a captivating account of a sophisticated Londoner swapping his world of film-making and writing to renovate a run-down Casablancan mansion. Between swotting up on the complexities of Moroccan plumbing and plastering he has to contending with learning that in Casablanca time is relative – oh and djinns (ghosts) do exist. Wonderful.

Before you finally sit on the suit-case to close it, give yourself sometime to locate a novel that can take you to the heart of your holiday location. If it’s your back garden you may have to write the novel yourself!

Bonne Vacances!

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