From poetry to pop culture and from millennial angst to female friendships, there’s something for everyone in this line-up of top ten new books to read on staycation …
Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell, Sceptre, published July 14
As David Mitchell’s first novel in six years, Utopia Avenue has been hotly anticipated and might be the most improbable British band you’ve never heard of. Emerging from London’s psychedelic scene in 1967, folksinger Elf Holloway, blues bassist Dean Moss, guitar virtuoso Jasper de Zoet and jazz drummer Griff Griffin together created a unique sound, with lyrics that captured their turbulent times. The band produced only two albums in two years, yet their legacy lives on. This is the story of Utopia Avenue’s brief, blazing journey from Soho clubs to the promised land of America, just when the Summer of Love was receding into something much darker – a kaleidoscopic tale of dreams, drugs, love, sex, madness and grief; of fame’s Faustian pact; and of the collision between idealism and reality as the Sixties drew to a close.
How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right?: Essays on Modern Life, Pandora Sykes, Hutchinson, published on July 16
One of the two voices behind the phenomenally successful podcast The High Low, Pandora Sykes is also a former fashion editor and a lifelong bookworm. In this her debut book, she discusses modern millennial life. From faster-than-fast fashion to burnout, the explosion of wellness to the rise of cancel culture, Sykes interrogates the stories we’ve been sold and the ones we tell ourselves. Wide-ranging, thoughtful and witty, How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? explores the anxieties and myths that consume our lives and the tools we use to muddle through.
Small Pleasures Clare Chambers, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Set in the suburbs of London in 1957, Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of 40 – living a limited existence with her truculent mother: a small life from which there is no likelihood of escape. When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. But the more Jean investigates, the more her life becomes strangely intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen is now a friend, and her quirky and charming daughter Margaret a sort of surrogate child. And Jean doesn’t mean to fall in love with Gretchen’s husband, Howard, but Howard surprises her with his dry wit, his intelligence and his kindness – and when she does fall, she falls hard. Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness. But there will be a price to pay – and it will be unbearable.
The Weekend, Charlotte Wood, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Charlotte Wood’s new novel is a powerful study of female friendship. Says Wood, “The Weekend is about three women in their 70s – Jude, Adele and Wendy – who come together over a couple of long, hot days to clean out the beach house of their recently deceased and beloved friend Sylvie. At this point in their lives, each of these women knows exactly who she is: they know what their lives have been about and they can more or less foresee how things will unfold for them from here. But over the weekend they spend together, they find that all of those uncertainties are completely and dramatically shattered. I wrote this book because I think our culture seems to have decided that after a certain age complex change is no longer open to us, and in that place of change there can only be stasis or degradation. But I believe we’re constantly changing in all kinds of ways, right up to the last moments of our lives. And this novel is staking a claim for the courage to allow this deep and continuous change to go on, to push back against society’s insistence that this possibility vanishes as we age.”
Love after Love, Ingrid Persaud, Faber & Faber
Set in Trinidad, it takes a few pages to get into the island patois but once you do, it adds so much colour to the story. Betty is a fierce woman, who has a dark secret. When her son, Solo, finds out what Betty did to his alcoholic father the discovery shatters their once beautiful relationship. Betty tries everything to reconnect with her precious son who runs away to America. Ultimately Love After Love is about a mother’s unconditional love for her son.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Rodham is a reimagining of Hillary Clinton’s life if she hadn’t married Bill. Split into three parts, it begins by exploring the early life of Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham at Yale and in Arkansas which is largely based on true events, portraying Hillary’s promise and ambition amidst Bill’s burgeoning political career. The novel then takes a turn in the second part, offering an alternative narrative to the true history of the couple, and follows Hillary after she leaves Bill and sets out on her own political career, ending up in the final part which sees Hillary and Bill thrown together again in unlikely circumstances – with a special cameo by Donald Trump. It’s a gripping and compelling novel and while its overarching theme is a tale of politics, campaigning and competition, at its essence it is a novel about one woman’s exploration of her own worth and potential free from any shadows which might otherwise block her path.
Exciting Times, Naoise Dolan, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Eva is an Irish girl in Hong Kong, disillusioned with home and teaching TEFL just to keep herself ticking over when she meets British banker Julian. They have a “sort-of” relationship which becomes even more complicated when Eva meets and falls for a Hong Konger, Edith, while Julian is away on extended business. The ensuing triangle of connections means that Eva has to evaluate what she wants, who she wants and even where she wants to be. Read a full review of Exciting Times here.
The Women Who Ran Away, Sheila O’ Flanagan, Headline Review, published on July 23
Deira is setting out on the holiday she’d planned with her long-term partner Gavin, who will not be amused when he finds out she’s “borrowed” his car. Since their brutal break-up Deira’s not been acting rationally – maybe a drive through France will help her see things differently. Grace, meanwhile, is also travelling alone, each stage of her journey outlined in advance by her late husband, Ken. His last decision was a surprise – could there be more surprises to come? There’s only one way to find out, galling though it is to dance again to Ken’s (controlling) tune. Thrown together by chance, Grace and Deira find it’s easier to share secrets with a stranger, especially in the countryside of Spain and France. This is a life-affirming novel about the power of intergenerational female friendships.
Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass, Lana Del Rey
For fans of audio books and poetry, Lana Del Rey will be bringing her debut poetry anthology to life in an audiobook, released on July 28. Says Lana, “Violet bent backwards over the grass is the title poem of the book and the first poem I wrote of many. Some of which came to me in their entirety, which I dictated and then typed out, and some that I worked laboriously picking apart each word to make the perfect poem. They are eclectic and honest and not trying to be anything other than what they are and for that reason I’m proud of them, especially because the spirit in which they were written was very authentic. I’m happy to donate a substantial portion of the proceeds to go to some Native American organisations I have always wanted to donate to, because of the experiences that I’ve had which have greatly shaped my own life course.” The full collection features more than 30 poems and a hardback print edition will be published on September 29.
Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, Headline Publishing
Maggie O’Farrell wrote her latest novel because of a lifelong fascination with the story behind Shakespeare’s famous play, Hamlet. Set in 1580, the main character in this novel is not Shakespeare, but his wife, Agnes, with whom he falls in love at first sight, and marries after a brief courtship. Their marriage, however, is not straightforward and is put under huge strain, and is made difficult by Shakespeare’s frequent absence from the family home. Perhaps unusually, Shakespeare’s name is never actually mentioned in this story – it is Agnes who is the star. The plot follows the devastating grief Agnes, Shakespeare and their daughters suffer when eleven-year old Hamnet dies, Ultimately, however, the loss of Hamnet inspires the playwright to write one of his most famous dramas, and, in this novel, it is this play that ultimately saves Shakespeare’s marriage. Find out what Maggie O’Farrel is reading.
Do you think you have a story to tell? Now is the chance to get it on paper and possibly win a prize. TU Dublin – Tallaght Campus and Red Line Book Festival are inviting writers to submit work for its annual Short Story Competition, which closes on August 19. The competition will be judged this year by award-winning author Rob Doyle, whose latest book Threshold was published to critical acclaim earlier this year. Now in its fifth year, the competition offers €500 as first prize and attracts entries from all over the world. The 2020 anthology of shortlisted stories will be called “Creation, Cosmos, & Caboodle”, although there is no restriction on theme or style for entries; writers are invited to respond to this title if they wish and submit entries of between 1,500 and 2,000 words. Winners will be announced at the Red Line Book Festival, from October 12 – 18; For full details visit www.redlinebookfestival.ie.
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