Summer books – the perfect chance to relax, unwind and let authors take you on incredible voyages of imagination. Yet with so many new non-fiction books to choose from in 2020, it can be hard to know what’s worth your time across a range of different genres.
So we’ve done the hard work for you and read, gasped, laughed and been thrilled with a collection of some of the newest non-fiction books set to hit the bookstore shelves this summer.
So hit the off button on the TV, put Netflix on pause, and head out into the sunshine armed with a good book, some dedicated ‘me time’ and prepared to be transported – from amusing tales and crime thrillers to dystopian futures and romantic adventures.
Best new fiction books to read this summer
Come Again by Robert Webb (Canongate)
Following his excellent memoir How Not To Be A Boy, writer and comedian Robert Webb brings us his debut novel, a wistful and at times wacky time-travelling novel in which a widow, Kate, whose husband has died from a brain tumour, wakes one day to find herself back in university in 1992, where they met, and sets about trying to change the future.
Webb captures the spirit of those early university days with warmth and humour, the flutterings of first love, the madness of Freshers’ Week, the hopes and dreams of the students. It’s a story about a woman having to return to the past to learn to re-engage with the present and to integrate her loss with the hope of the future.
A sharply comedic subplot involving Kate’s job in the present day in online reputation management, wiping dodgy backgrounds and unsavoury dealings of her clients from the internet, ramps up the madcap action as the book becomes crazier and more chaotic, bringing in Russian gangsters, karate experts, a car chase and a good old punch-up. It may be a poignant tale of love, grief and memory, but there are plenty of zany shenanigans to lighten the mood.
Q by Christina Dalcher (HarperCollins)
Elena Fairchild is a teacher at a new elite school, and on the surface has a perfect life, with daughters who are exactly like her: beautiful, ambitious and clever. However, when her youngest daughter scores lower than expected on a state-mandated test and is taken away, Elena intentionally fails her own test to go with her. There she discovers the darker side of a society that constantly seeks perfection.
In terms of dystopian novels, this one feels firmly middle-of-the-road. More time is needed to explore the characters, who are quite surface level for most of the book, but it is an enjoyable read.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St Mandel (Picador – ebook)
Emily St Mandel’s breathtaking 2014 novel, Station Eleven – which focused on a flu-like pandemic and the social collapse it triggers – proved eerily prescient. Read it if day-to-day life isn’t already dystopian enough for you.
The Glass Hotel doesn’t have quite the same layers of grip and intrigue. Kicked off by a case of spiteful, vitriolic graffiti at a remote hotel, and revolving around a ponzi scheme that goes under, it has the bones for a clever plot, but a hollowness pervades the story, making it difficult to connect to protagonists and half-siblings, Vincent and Paul. St Mandel depicts loss and disappointment with nuance, but a lack of momentum means even a body falling over the side of a cruise ship has little impact on your emotions. Yet, it’s a solid and shrewd read.
The Residue Years by Mitchell S Jackson (Dialogue Books)
Champ, an ambitious young black man, is coming of age in Portland, Oregon – arguably America’s whitest city. It is the 1990s and the crack cocaine epidemic is ripping through the lives of those who already face a multitude of disadvantages.
First published in the States in 2013, Mitchell S Jackson’s traumatic debut novel is written in a heightened, lyrical prose style inspired by the local vernacular. He brings to his narrative not just first-hand experience, but a profound compassion for the deadbeat dads, neglectful mothers, pimps, whores and dealers whose chaotic, intersecting lives form the basis of the story. It’s a world lacking not in love, but in consistency and stability. A world where your best friend can be your nemesis.
The Switch by Beth O’Leary (Quercus)
The Switch follows grandmother, Eileen Cotton, and granddaughter, Leena, as they swap lives for two months. Leena, who is struggling to deal with her sister’s death, has some much-needed rest from her city job, and takes over a small cottage in a quiet Yorkshire village, while newly single Eileen moves to London and discovers casual dating. It makes for a warm, witty, weepy – if a little predictable – read, as both women face challenges, but also learn a lot about themselves along the way. This book is a fun way to while away some hours during lockdown, and left us thinking that, when life returns to ‘normal’, we should take the chance to make any changes we’ve been putting off.
The Mother Code by Carole Stivers (Hodder and Stoughton)
When everything currently seems to be precursored by the phrase, ‘In these unprecedented times…’ the world of Carole Stivers’ novel, The Mother Code suddenly doesn’t quite seem so impossible. In the not too distant future on Earth, the human race is at risk, there is a mysterious illness – presenting with flu-like symptoms. With the aim of wiping out a terrorist cell, and leaving no evidence, the US government-funded research into weaponising a virus. After secretly testing a bioweapon named IC-NAN in the desert, it spreads across the country.
Flashforward to 2060. Humankind’s survival is in the hands of a generation of genetically engineered youngsters born to, and raised by, machines, following the Mother Code. But as the children mature, so do the machines. Has the government made another mistake in trying to safeguard future on Earth? The Mother Code is a dystopian tale for all, which is scarily relevant right now.
Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh (Pengiun)
In Sophie Mackintosh’s second novel, a paper slip allocated in a compulsory lottery determines the fate of hundreds of girls every day. White means you will become a mother; a blue ticket deals you the illusion of freedom. Dare to muddy the waters between these trajectories and you will be banished like Calla, granted a 12-hour head-start before the eerie emissaries begin their hunt. Illicitly pregnant, having gouged out her enforced birth control, she lurches north with the vague hope of crossing the border to safety, forging alliances with other women along the way. Told with ragged prose that catches the breath, Calla’s journey articulates the irrepressible desires and wounds that can lie deep within, and is marked by a claustrophobia that never stops pressing in from the margins. This unsettling reimagining of the anxieties and pressures around motherhood lays bare the alienation that comes when your body is not truly yours.
Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth (Headline Review)
A teenage girl goes missing in Hazel Barkworth’s fascinating if sometimes flawed first novel. It is not missing 15-year-old Lily who is the centre of the story though, which is largely a journey into the frustrated and obsessive mind of teacher Rachel whose daughter Mia is one of Lily’s friends. Rachel’s relationship with her daughter is becoming increasingly strained during a heatwave, as Mia develops into a young woman with a mind of her own. Mia’s father Tim is working away and Rachel misses her husband, envies her daughter, and longs for something she lost which was never a good fit anyway. Barkworth’s characters aren’t always developed enough for the reader to care about them fully – although they’re never two-dimensional – and the location is unusually, but perhaps deliberately, vague. It’s an interesting character study though and seems like a novel that would be worth another read.
Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight (Bloomsbury Circus)
Part journal, part research log, part love note, Hex details the life of a listless botanist in New York through a series of notebook entries. Biological science PhD student Nell is obsessively lovesick with her university mentor Joan Kallas, and when she’s suddenly expelled from Columbia, her life comes undone. The story meanders with Nell’s fragile emotional state, and instead of an unravelling plot thread, Hex offers a snapshot into the tangled lives of Nell, her friends, and Joan; each character fully realised and emphatically flawed. Despite its toxic undertones, the promise of poisonous drama is disappointingly absent. Instead, language awkwardly blooms. Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s poetic style is at odds with Nell’s bluntness. Sometimes lists of intimate details about a person or situation stretch into entire paragraphs, while at others, the prose barely skims over emotional depression. Disjointed and disconnected, the story descends into emotional darkness. Under the guise of detoxifying the relationship between poison and antidote, Hex is ultimately a study on human relationships and the many manifestations of love – obsessive, unrequited, lust and in marriage.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King (Picador)
Lily King perfectly captures the ennui of life as you age out of your twenties, into those slightly more ‘grown-up’ years – especially when the direction you’re going in isn’t what you’d imagined for yourself. In Writers & Lovers Casey is waitressing while trying to outrun huge debts and finish her novel, but she’s also wading through grief over her mother’s sudden death, and the anguish of a broken love affair. Then she finds herself torn between two men, Silas, young and inconsistent, and Oscar, older, who comes with two kids. King is unfailingly astute, be it on the casual pain people can obliviously inflict upon you, to the flickering memory of a family member’s transgression, or the salvation enthusiastic, supportive friends can provide. And the prose is visceral, reading it you can feel the anxiety Casey feels “buzzing” in her limbs, the fury she has for incompetent chefs, and the onslaught of tears she tries to out-pedal on her bike. Witty and affecting, Writers & Lovers explores where grit can get you, even when everything appears to be falling apart.
Camino Winds by John Grisham (Hodder & Stoughton)
After a hurricane devastates Florida’s Camino Island, bookstore owner Bruce Cable finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation. Soon a mysterious drug, a billion-dollar care company and multiple contract killers appear from the shadows in a fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable read. Camino Winds is the second instalment in this series, and it is good to be back on the island. Luckily it’s different enough from its predecessor to feel fresh and new, while Cable is a likeable protagonist that has been more fully developed this time around. The novel has enough plot twists to keep you engaged without it feeling exhausting. Another compelling read from Grisham, and will satisfy old fans and please new readers alike.
Latitudes Of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup (riverrun)
So far in 2020, it’s been hard to forget that humanity has yet to escape the rhythms of the natural world. In that sense, Shubhangi Swarup’s debut novel, Latitudes Of Longing, very much fits the zeitgeist, though that alone is a poor summary. It is a thoughtful, even philosophical, book and the result of years of immersive research in the locations described, from the islands of the Indian Ocean to the high Himalayas. The tectonic changes of the landscape are as much a part of the drama as the triumphs and disasters of the human characters. Their stories unfold movingly in four sections, each with only a loose connection to the last and each set in a different corner of the Indian subcontinent. The ecological and geological richness of their surroundings enhances, rather than overwhelms, the emotional intensity of the characters. A unique and rewarding read.
Looking For Eliza by Leaf Arbuthnot (Trapeze)
It’s often hard to consider a book on its own merit when it’s potentially ‘the next so-and-so’ and it was initially the same with Looking For Eliza, which could be compared to Elizabeth Is Missing or even Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. But what sets this book apart are the characters – a gay PhD student, Eliza, and widow and poet, Ada, in her mid-seventies – rather different to the usual single, straight 30-something protagonist you might find in up-lit. Set among the dreamy spires of Oxford, Looking For Eliza will be a tonic for anyone missing Normal People and its studenty, Dublin setting, and explores unlikely friendship. Isolated Ada advertises herself as a ‘Rent a Granny’ while Eliza is lonely, estranged from her mum, newly single and a less affluent member of the student society, among wealthier peers. A classic unlikely couple, they come together to inadvertently help the other blossom creatively again. But the friendship is by no means a softly-softly one, with the Brexit referendum thrown in for good measure. You’ll need (and want) to hang on till the very end to see if lasting companionship truly blossoms.
The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers (Piatkus)
Jake D’Arcy, 29, is seen as the boring one in his boisterous family, but when his younger brother Trick comes out as gay, he finally confronts the lifelong suspicion that he might be bisexual. The Magnificent Sons is the story of two brothers coming to terms with their sexuality, but feels more complex and real than most ‘coming out’ stories. On the surface, it seems like just Jake’s story, but it is more than that and Myers has written an enjoyable cast of characters that accompany him on his journey. The writing is raw and honest, and even if at times it means characters are not entirely likeable, they remain real. However, there are a few too many subplots that sometimes crowd the page and don’t always feel necessary.
Set My Heart To Five by Simon Stephenson (4th Estate)
The premise of Set My Heart To Five by screenwriter Simon Stephenson is both sweet and silly, but then a tad annoying as you get deeper in. Jared, a dentist bot circa 2054 can “no more feel than a toaster”, and yet, he begins experiencing worry, and then even crying at old movies. Guided by a ‘Feelings Wheel’ given to him by a doctor Jared does not consider a friend, the android finds himself both “bamboozled” and propelled (ok, chased) across America, all the while trying to come to terms with his newfound emotions. Intriguing, yes, but the delivery is self-aware to the point of grating at times. Jared’s repetitive use of phrases (“Ha!”, “10/10”, and “Humans I cannot!”) is amusing at first, but halfway through you do want to say to Stephenson, ‘We get the point. Ease up, will you?’. The slipped in mentions of what’s happened to the planet, and how humans have adapted (presciently, everyone seems to work from home, and Elon Musk has a lot to answer for), are knowing and playful, but the finale runs out of steam, and an emotional punch – despite Jared’s emotional growth – is somewhat lacking.
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