Most of my top five recommended beach reads for this summer are a little dark and freaky! Does that say something about me right now? Am I in need of a serious dose of sunshine and light? Or maybe everyone is tuned in to the same vibe… Wherever this summer takes you, here are the titles I recommend you fill your e-reader with before jetting off – the best summer books for 2016!
Evie Boyd is fourteen and desperate to be noticed. It’s 1969 and everywhere the heat of a Californian summer beats down and restless, empty days stretch ahead.
Until she sees them. The girls. Hair long and uncombed, jewellery catching the sun. A scattering of young women who are everything she is not, each utterly sure and at one with everything seemingly beyond Evie’s reach. And at their centre, Suzanne, black-haired and beautiful.
Willingly, she begins to drop into their tranquilised circle, oblivious of the danger that sits so cruelly at its centre. If not for Suzanne, she might not have gone. But, intoxicated by her and the life she promises, Evie follows the girls back to the decaying ranch where they live.
Was there a warning? A sign of what was coming? Or did Evie know already that there was no way back?
Trippy, hot and totally messed up. We’re in Charles Manson territory here and Cline takes us into the mind of lonely, bored, unloved, 14-year-old Evie who is seduced into the hippie cult living hear her Californian home town in the late 60s. I’ve only previously read a little about the killings conducted by Manson’s followers and this story plays loosely with these details. It’s definitely not a factual account but more of an investigation into how someone so young and tediously middle-class could become sucked into something so wild.
There’s Evie as an adult now and Evie as a teen then, matched with a developing sense of how her choices and experiences affected her whole life. We also see the misplaced glamour that comes with such notoriety and how only someone so young and vulnerable could not have questioned the events that were unfurling around her. I especially loved the inclusion of the character Suzanne and how she’s the key element that draws Evie in and holds her there, not the Manson-like leader. I think the story is definitely better for having a lesbian protagonist be our inroad to such a moment in history.
Jim Francis has finally found the perfect life – and is now unrecognisable, even to himself. A successful painter and sculptor, he lives quietly with his wife, Melanie, and their two young daughters, in an affluent beach town in California. Some say he’s a fake and a con man, while others see him as a genuine visionary.
But Francis has a very dark past, with another identity and a very different set of values. When he crosses the Atlantic to his native Scotland, for the funeral of a murdered son he barely knew, his old Edinburgh community expects him to take bloody revenge. But as he confronts his previous life, all those friends and enemies – and, most alarmingly, his former self – Francis seems to have other ideas.
When Melanie discovers something gruesome in California, which indicates that her husband’s violent past might also be his psychotic present, things start to go very bad, very quickly.
Never in a million years did I think I would find myself emotionally investing in a character like Francis Begbie. It would never have occurred to me that it was even possible. Yet, there I was empathising with him, hoping he would work things out for the sake of his wife and children. Yep, he’s married, is an acclaimed artist and is living a booze-free life in sunny California. A very big stretch if the imagination, I know. But then I’ve only ever read Trainspotting, a very long time ago, so I can’t claim to have kept up to date with the character’s journey since then. Thankfully the story takes us slowly and carefully from the unfamiliar to the very familiar but Welsh is clever not to rush this.
For Begbie, his old life is very far away, both mentally and geographically, although the past is never really as far away as we would like to think it is. I was interested to read that Welsh is living in the US now and I wondered how much of his own experiences of returning to Edinburgh (which I imagine has transformed greatly in the last two decades and yet still remains the same) influenced the story. It also made me excited to see the Trainspotting 2 film that is currently in production! This is a really great read for those familiar with its origins.
The Northern Lights. A luxury press launch on a boutique cruise ship. A chance for travel journalist Lo Blacklock to recover from a traumatic break-in that has left her on the verge of collapse. Except things don’t go as planned.
Woken in the night by screams, Lo rushes to her window to see a body thrown overboard from the next-door cabin. But the records show that no-one ever checked into that cabin, and no passengers are missing from the boat.
Exhausted and emotional, Lo has to face the fact that she may have made a mistake – either that, or she is now trapped on a boat with a murderer…
I’m yet to read Ware’s first novel, In A Dark, Dark Wood (about a hen-do gone wrong) but I really like the way she channels Agatha Christie for the new millennium. The book opens with travel journalist Lo (short for a longer name I forget – I wasn’t a fan of this, to be honest) waking to find someone has broken into her flat and is still there. The anxiety from this experience is carried through most of the story quite successfully, I thought. In fact, this book deals with the stigma of people suffering mental health problems (depression, anxiety, paranoia) really well – how their perspectives are questioned, how they even question their perception of their own experiences themselves.
Lo goes on a week-long boutique luxury cruise as a perk of her job and there’s nothing like being trapped out on the Norwegian Sea with a group of strangers and no way of contacting your loved ones to really amp up the anxiety. I think Ware is very clever with the setting of this story and whilst it does get a little schlocky towards the end (pretty much every modern thriller does, right), I still really enjoyed this book and was gripped from start to end.
A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment by John Preston
Behind oak-panelled doors in the House of Commons, men with cut-glass accents and gold signet rings are conspiring to murder.
It’s the late 1960s and homosexuality has only just been legalised, and Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal party, has a secret he’s desperate to hide. As long as Norman Scott, his beautiful, unstable lover is around, Thorpe’s brilliant career is at risk.
With the help of his fellow politicians, Thorpe schemes, deceives, embezzles – until he can see only one way to silence Scott for good.
The trial of Jeremy Thorpe changed our society forever: it was the moment the British public discovered the truth about its political class.
Illuminating the darkest secrets of the Establishment, the Thorpe affair revealed such breath-taking deceit and corruption in an entire section of British society that, at the time, hardly anyone dared believe it could be true.
Having attempted to read Michael Bloch’s rather dense book about Jeremy Thorpe last year (I only made it through a third), I was excited to discover this much more manageable account of this jaw-dropping story. I had never even heard of Thorpe before last year; I didn’t even know that the British Liberal’s were their own party before they formed the LibDems. This whole Profumo-era period of history feels incredibly dated even though it was only half a century ago.
Homosexuality was only just legalised and a missing National Insurance card ends up motivating the head of a political party to plot to kill his former lover. It’s all a bit bizarre and very gripping – a fantastic example of the old ‘stranger than fiction’ adage. What was most surprising though was how hilarious the book is. My partner had to put up with me chortling along as I read key sections of this book. Preston obviously had a lot of fun writing this story and has obviously done an incredible amount of research into the key characters involved in this story. It’s a very easy read and the story flows really well, so it’s the perfect non-fiction beach read.
Twenty years later and they were supposed to be grown-ups…
Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Summer in the city . . .
College friends Elizabeth, Zoe and Andrew had a band, grew up, settled in New York and now they were still living round the corner from one another (and in each other’s pockets).
One hot summer as their kids come of age, making those first hesitant steps into adulthood, it’s the parents who find that the lives they’ve so carelessly stitched together begin to slowly unravel . . .
Finally – something a little lighter! No murder in this one thankfully (but that’s not much of a spoiler alert, I promise you). If the modern incarnation of Brooklyn was a book would this be it? Quite possibly so as it has all the elements: ageing hipsters, booming house prices, the feeling that Manhattan is this very separate city. Back in the 90s, Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe were in a riot-grrl type band with Lydia, who later went onto to have a huge solo career before OD’ing. Meanwhile, they are all now rapidly approaching 50 with the appropriate mid-life crisis warnings and fear of empty-nesting. Their combined offspring, Ruby and Harry are now hitting the age when their parents all met, yet none of the adults are ready for them to take on the world in the same way they did.
I quite liked the combination of characters, old and young, and really enjoyed the way the individual narratives are woven together. It deals with exploring personal boundaries with partners, family and friends – something that I personally have been dealing with lately. It’s also one of those books that felt like the story was meandering a little at the start but I was more than happy to follow these characters around for a while. So when things really got moving and everything came to a head, I was a little disappointed to let them go. A really lovely read.
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