Every year at around this time I am asked the same question by book-hungry colleagues and friends – what books can I take away on holiday? And I tend to recommend something I have read recently, usually a novel which has featured on the bestseller lists or literary prize shortlists. However, I have a stockpile of go-to summer reads, books which I return to like old, reliable friends when the sun makes an appearance. These should not be confused with ‘beach reads,’ which are something entirely different. I am talking about books which capture and distil the essence of summer, books that invoke the carefree spirit of the season, books which greet you like a long, icy-cold drink on a hot day. Books which carry with them the very scent of blossom, of sea-salt, of sangria. More often than not, they are slim, sexy volumes (perfect for slinging into a raffia basket) they are witty, entertaining and fun (for me a ‘summer’ book can not deal with heavy subject matter) and, for those who care about such things, they will make you look reasonably intelligent and literary on the beach/in the park/on the tube.
THE CAMOMILE LAWN by Mary Wesley
One look at this delicious cover and you get a sense of the heavy, languorous air, thick with desire. It’s August 1939 and five cousins descend on their Aunt’s crumbling Cornish cliff top home for their annual summer holiday. Full of reckless abandonment and on the cusp of war, their is a sense that life will never be the same again. The book follows the cousins, Oliver, the exotically named Calypso, Polly and Walter and Sophie through war, into adulthood and beyond. They will all look back on those long, heady summer days spent on the camomile lawn as some of their happiest and most pivotal. Written when Wesley was into her seventies, this is a sophisticated and stylish novel featuring some of the most wonderful, hilarious dialogue I have ever encountered and unforgettable characters.
THE PREGNANT WIDOW by Martin Amis
Martin Amis you say? Why yes indeed. Even I was suprised at the brilliance of this novel, first published in 2010. I thought Amis was on the wane when he came up with this beauty. Set in the summer of 1970 we follow the short, funny-looking but astoundingly virile Keith Neary (remind you of anyone dear reader?) on a formative trip to Campania, Italy with three friends. His thoughts are dominated by the foxy Sheherazade and her ‘beyond-incredible breasts,’ his days are punctuated by ridiculous sexual shenanigans and anxiety about getting a piece published in the TLS (just your average 21-year old) but at the same time he is trying to come to terms with the increasing feminism of the 1970s and the ‘terrifying’ sexual-empowerment of women. Critics called this novel a ‘regathering of creative energies’ after a run of absolute boobs (forgive the use of the word) and it certainly is that. Reminiscent of his first book, THE RACHEL PAPERS and with all the humour of a classic Kingsley Amis (it reminded me of DIFFICULTIES WITH GIRLS), if you have been burned by Amis before, it’s time to give him another try.
THE ENCHANTED APRIL by Elizabeth Von Arnim
Now for something a little more twee, a book you could happily pass to your Grandma. First published in 1922, this book continues to delight almost a whole century later. It is the story of four very different women who respond to an ad in The Times to spend a month (the month of April) in a mediaeval Italian castle in San Salvatore. ‘Lulled by the mediterranean spring, the violet mountains and the sweet-scented flowers, they gradually shed their public skins and discover a harmony each of them have longed for but none has known’ (taken from blurb). It is a journey of self-discovery for this ordinarily very prim and private women. The prose is as breathtaking as the scenery it describes, you will pause to savour the beauty of the writing as it gathers you up and transports you to the Italian hills. Mesmerising and poetic, this novel never fails to astound.
LOVE FALLS by Esther Freud
Many of Esther Freud’s novels could be considered as ‘summer’ books, the sea and the coast being a recurring theme in her writing. However, this for me is the most memorable – as I picked this book from the shelf, I could almost feel the heat of the sun and the tang of the chlorine emanating from it’s covers. This is a coming of age tale, following 17-year-old Lara as she discovers the pleasures and pain of first love on a family holiday to Italy. Featuring a wonderful account of the Palio in Siena (a legendary horse race) and beautiful renderings of the Italian countryside, this is the perfect choice for that Italian villa holiday you have planned (real OR imaginary)
THE LEMON GROVE by Helen Walsh
This is a recent addition to my summer repertoire (it was only published in March 2014) and it isn’t pictured because I read it on kindle while I was in Sri Lanka, sipping fresh Mango juice, the sea lapping at my toes. However, although I firmly believe the situation in which you read a book can colour your opinion, this is a genuinely great novella. We follow Jenn, a woman who is coming to terms with middle age, on her annual summer holiday to Mallorca with her husband Greg, step-daughter Emma and Emma’s new boyfriend, Nathan. Jenn finds herself inexplicably drawn to Nathan and becomes increasingly jealous of her step-daughter’s youthful beauty and optimism and resentful towards her husband’s constant pandering to her. This is a tale of forbidden lust, extreme and destructive desire – the sexual tension in this book is palpable. The writing is sensual and suggestive, the atmospshere is steamy. Walsh’s writing is nuanced and tactile, her descriptions of food leave your mouth watering and her sex scenes are erotic and affecting without tipping over too far into Fifty Shades territory. The only criticism I had about this book was that it wasn’t long enough – I read it in one frenzied burst and was left (forgive the sexual metaphor) begging for more.