Culture: The bucket-list books to read this summer
Looking for a page-turner to pack in your summer holiday suitcase? Alice Ryan asks some of Velvet’s favourite local authors to recommend five books that shaped their life - and previews their newest novels, out now
Often inspired by real-life events - her latest novel, The Bewitching, draws on a 16th century Warboys witch trial - Jill Dawson’s novels are known for combining compelling plots with lyrical prose. Twice listed for the Orange Prize, the Fenland author is also an award-winning poet and runs a mentoring scheme, Gold Dust, for new writers
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Growing up in various counties in England, these were the books that made me dream from a very young age of living simply, away from people, like Laura did in the stories, in a wilderness setting. I did just that in my twenties, living in a very rudimentary log cabin in the USA, with a well for water, no electricity and surrounded by Ponderosa pines. I think those books had a lasting effect on me as I now live in an eco-house in a Fen village, and what I love best is the emptiness of the landscape and the feeling of aloneness on my walks or swimming in the river.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Another novel of landscape that had an indelible impact on me, I studied Tess of the d’Urbervilles for A level. Heartfelt discussions in the sixth form about Tess’s passivity, what Hardy called her ‘fatal dreaminess’ and ideas of whether she was therefore to blame for her own downfall seem to be echoed today in many of the current debates around women and #MeToo. The mark of a good novel is that it outlives its own time. I think as a girl I didn’t bother too much with the nature descriptions, but in my forties I re-read it and appreciated them anew and the vernacular language of the rural characters, too.
Sula by Toni Morrison
In my twenties it was all about books with the lovely striped spines or green covers, published by The Women’s Press and Virago. My favourite of these was Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, an amazing book that looks at transgression by a woman and how communities made her a scapegoat for all their wider fears and desires. (That’s a theme that’s in my current novel about witches, The Bewitching, so I reckon that went in very deeply, too.) Toni Morrison’s writing is so powerful that it changed my ideas about the way a story might be told forever.
Weird Sister by Kate Pullinger
When we moved to the Cambridgeshire Fens from London I read Weird Sister by my friend Kate Pullinger. It is the true story of the witches of Warboys, albeit given a twist and a contemporary setting. This novel definitely planted the seed for the one I’ve just completed, 20 years later: The Bewitching, set also in Warboys and Ramsey and based on the same 16th story of witchcraft and persecution.
Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
Landscape, place, and a rationed lyricism in the prose dominate my choices. I love Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Divisadero. It’s so erotically charged and melancholy, with its descriptions of addicts, card-sharps, forlorn people conjured with such precision, who fall in love and out of it in excruciating ways. Reading Michael Ondaatje and what he can achieve with his prose makes me feel as if I’ve entered another world, almost a dream state: what better recommendation for a writer could there be?
The Bewitching by Jill Dawson is out now, published in hardback by Sceptre and priced £20. Described by the Daily Mail as “timely, devastating and superbly realised”, it centres on Alice Samuel, an elderly woman accused of witchcraft by the daughter of a neighbouring family - a family she herself believes far from God-fearing. Sleep-stealingly absorbing from first page to last, the story of Alice’s frenzied persecution is pertinent not only to the past, but - in times of #MeToo and fast-igniting fake-news hysteria - to present and future, too.
Famed for penning psychological thrillers which tug at family ties - including her 2012 debut Tideline, a Richard & Judy Book Club pick which rocketed up the bestseller lists - Penny Hancock’s fifth novel, The Choice, is out this summer. She lives in a village just outside Cambridge
Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden
The book that most stays in my memory as a child is Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. Nona is desperately lonely when sent from India to live with her cousins in London. But when two Japanese dolls arrive in a box in the post, the Miss Happiness and Miss Flower of the title, Nona sets out to make them a traditional Japanese house to make them feel at home. I related, as so many children must do, to the sense of not fitting in, and I also loved the instructions in the back of the book on how to make the dolls’ house.
The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
The book I most loved as a teenager echoes Rumer Godden’s themes - Lynne Reid Banks’ The L shaped room. It is set in Fifties London when it was shocking for an unmarried woman to become pregnant, but the themes of prejudice, seeking friends who accept you, and of making a home in straitened circumstances are universal.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I read Anna Karenina for the first time when I was a bit too young to really understand some of its nuances, but when I had my third child and first son, I got myself an audio player so I could listen to Anna Karenina while I did the night feeds. I found it extraordinary how a Russian 19th century fictional character could have feelings towards her son that completely mirrored mine - Tolstoy was a genius in the way he understood women’s hearts and minds.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I didn’t read a lot of crime until I wrote my first novel Tideline, which some kind reviewer compared to du Maurier’s Rebecca. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to get round to reading a classic that my mother had always loved; or perhaps the fact she loved it is the reason it took me so long! Not only is Rebecca
sensually written, but it is also the perfect page-turner, with a mind-blowing twist in the middle. Then I discovered psychological thriller writers like the fantastic Patricia Highsmith, and crime writers like Raymond Chandler. I also began to read contemporary crime and would like to give a shout out to Kate Rhodes who has written two gripping crime series, the most recent set on the Scilly isles, full of atmosphere and twisty plots.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
I have recently become a grandmother and realise grandparents rarely figure in adult fiction. However, an exception is the bolshy but lovable character Olive Kitteridge, who is a grandmother but doesn’t always find the role easy. These novels by the American novelist Elizabeth Strout brilliantly evoke sympathy in the most unsympathetic characters. I have also started reading the novels of
Tessa Hadley, who manages to portray complex relationships at all ages so accurately it makes me gasp. If I could write like either of these authors I’d be a very happy granny!
The Choice, Penny Hancock’s latest novel, is published in hardback by Mantle on July 21, priced £16.99. When Renee’s six-year-old grandson goes missing, after she herself forgets to collect him from school, the repercussions are far-reaching. Her family at war, Renee finds herself torn between the factions - and faced with a seemingly impossible choice. . . Coupling a satisfyingly juicy plot with an emotive depiction of both personalities and place - the story unfolds on an island just off London, at the mercy of times and tides - The Choice is Penny’s writing at its engrossing best.
Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, Kate Sawyer’s apocalyptic debut novel, The Stranding, published in the midst of a global pandemic to rave reviews. A Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art-trained actor, who worked on stage and screen before becoming a novelist, she lives in Bury St Edmunds
Little Women by Louisa May Allcott
I was 10 years old when I discovered the March sisters. I read it over the course of two days, in the bedroom of our friend’s house where we were holidaying. I remember the cool of the tiles on my back and drawn curtains flapping at the occasional breeze as I fell headlong into their lives in Civil War America. It was not only a transporting reading experience, but the moment I understood that though classic novels might be about people in ‘the olden days’ their stories were still captivating and their concerns, though of a different period, were relevant in a way that helped me to understand a little more of my own.
Children of The Dust by Louise Laurence
My debut novel, The Stranding, is set either side of an apocalyptic event. One of the questions I have been asked most is whether I was influenced by classics of the genre of apocalyptic fiction, such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy or On The Beach by Neville Shute. The honest answer is, no. It was only after I had written The Stranding that I read both of these novels and, whilst I enjoyed the skill of both of the authors, I found them both to be quite bleak in their view of humanity - which is quite the opposite of the story of hope that I was trying to tell in my novel. I do, however, remember being enthralled by Children of Dust as a young adult. I borrowed it from the school library and read it more than once, cover to cover; I loved it. It is a book about survival in the face of the apocalypse, about starting anew after disaster and how love and family bind us. So possibly, though I wasn’t influenced by the best-known books of the genre, reading this book so many times in the early Nineties had some influence on the central theme of my first novel: hope.
Nights At The Circus by Angela Carter
In my mid-twenties, I was working several part-time jobs to support myself as I pursued my dream of a career in acting and I wasn’t giving myself time to read anything other than scripts for the occasional audition. However, when a friend gave me Nights At The Circus for my birthday, that all changed. This incredible epic story about a woman who claims to have wings and the young reporter intent on uncovering her deception reawakened my love of literature and remains, to this day, one of my favourite novels.
The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Some of my favourite books - One Day by David Nicholls, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Berniere - use clever structure to support and enhance the telling of the story. I have probably read The Time Traveller’s Wife more times than any other book. Though when I first read it in my twenties I was swept away by the central love story and I now find it slightly problematic, I am still fascinated by the way Niffenegger has so carefully woven this tale through time with such careful detail and skill. Infact, I think I’m about due for a re-read!
Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
Ever the contrarian, last summer, when everyone was raving about Hamnet, I decided to read a different O’Farrell’s novel instead. As I’m always in the mood for reading a novel that corresponds with the season, I plumped for Instructions for A Heatwave, first published in 2013. It follows a family during the 1976 heatwave and through the internal thoughts of each character slowly reveals the cause of many rifts as the family is reunited. It was the first time I read any of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels and I have since been working through her back catalogue (including Hamnet!).
The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (Book 1 of The Cazalet Chronicles)
Although these books didn’t receive the applause they deserved at the time of publication (1990-2014), Howard’s portrait of a family from 1937-1960s is now considered a classic. My next novel This Family is a family saga and so last month, while waiting on my final copy edits, I devoured all five of the volumes that comprise Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. The first in the series, The Light Years, was written to stand alone and it does. I particularly loved how, within the lavish lifestyles and petty concerns of the privileged central characters, Howard skilfully layers her biting commentary on class, inequalities and the events of the time, rendering the novel both thought-provoking and really quite funny at times.
The Stranding by Kate Sawyer is out now in paperback, published by Coronet and priced £8.99. At the outset, heroine Ruth survives an apocalypse by hunkering down in the mouth of a dead whale on a New Zealand beach alongside a stranger; the ensuing story, which vacillates between past and present, charts both her former life and the new life she’s compelled to build. The plot is a stonker, yes, but it’s the characters Kate creates which live on in the mind long after the last page is read, so fully realised, the reader can’t help but root for them. Our breath is bated, then, for Kate’s second novel, This Family: featuring a whole chorus of characters and set on a single Suffolk day, it’s set for publication next summer.
Hailed “one of Britain’s most elegant and underrated crime novelists” by the Sunday Express, Cambridge’s Kate Rhodes is the author of two murder mystery series, starring first London psychologist Alice Quentin and now Scilly Isles DI Ben Kitto. The fifth Kitto book, Devil’s Table, is out now
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
This is the first book I remember loving as a child. I was 10 when I read it first, and even though it was written 80 years before my birth, the language was so fresh it felt like the narrator, Jim Hawkins, was speaking directly to me. I still return to this tale of bravery, terrifying pirates, and buried gold. The story moves along at a breathless pace, partly because Jim is just 16 and recording his adventures in a journal. It’s provided the template for almost every nautical tale to follow, including The Pirates of Penzance.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Greene wrote Brighton Rock aged just 34, but the book already forecasts his global success as a writer. It’s still the consummate thriller, in my opinion. I read it for the first time at 12 years old, and the seedy beauty of inter-war Brighton dazzled me, just like the characters. The novel’s crowning glory is Pinkie, its 17-year-old villain. The gang leader is simultaneously innocent but vicious, a Catholic who carries a switch-blade to dispatch his enemies with little sign of guilt. Brighton Rock still fascinates me, and I’m certain that it inspired my own career as a crime writer.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
I was given this for my 13th birthday, which felt like a perfect gift. It kindled my lifelong passion for books from the Golden Age of Crime, by writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, led by Christie herself. I loved the complex storyline of Murder on the Orient Express, which forces you to engage your brain, to work out whodunnit. It’s one of Christie’s most stylish books, and whether you love him or loathe him, Hercule Poirot is a brilliantly memorable sleuth, from his waxed moustache down to the soles of his highly polished shoes.
King Lear by William Shakespeare
I struggled with almost everything at school. My borderline dyslexia made reading a struggle, but I had to tackle King Lear at 16 or face failing my exams. I was lucky to have a brilliant English teacher, and soon the poetic language, high drama, and rapid pace of the story had me mesmerised. It was the first Shakespeare play I saw performed at the National Theatre and the actors managed to make the story feel totally relevant to the modern day. I sat on the edge of my seat, while Lear divided his kingdom between two of his daughters, who go on to treat him with utter contempt, until he loses his mind.
Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson
When this was published in 2011, I had just begun writing professionally and the book was a reminder that crime fiction works best when it’s high-octane, with very high stakes. It was such a massive bestseller, most people will know the dazzling but simple plot. The heroine is suffering from catastrophic amnesia. She keeps a journal to try to make sense of her life, because her memory is wiped clean every night when she falls asleep. I’m still impressed by the clarity of Watson’s voice and the pressing sense of danger that haunts the story, from start to finish.
Just published in paperback by Simon & Schuster, priced £8.99, Devil’s Table is the fifth instalment of Kate Rhodes’ Scilly Isles-set crime series. When first a child goes missing in a St Martin’s flower field and then a body’s found shrouded in blooms, DI Ben Kitto knows an islander must be to blame: taking the ‘locked room’ formula to the next level, a heavy fog means nobody could have come or gone from the island’s shores. A crime reader’s writer, Kate peppers her plots with teasers and twists, inviting us to help solve the mystery with her. With his dark past and - we hope, thanks to new girlfriend Nina and wolfhound Shadow - bright future, DI Ben is great company, too.
Menna van Praag
The author of five novels of magical realism, between them translated into 26 languages, in 2020 Menna van Praag published the first part of a fantasy trilogy, The Sisters Grimm, to wide acclaim. With part two out now, Menna is also co-founder - with fellow city-based author Emily Winslow - of Cambridge Creative Writing Company, running day-schools for writers
The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley
The House of the Spirits was the book that made me a writer, but The Water Babies was the book that made me a reader. I read it at 8, or thereabouts, and it struck me as the most enchanting story I’d ever encountered - a kingdom of babies living under the water! – yet at the same time it was rooted firmly in reality, and the grim life of a Victorian chimney sweep tugged at my young heart. This combination of fantastical reality continues to captivate me and it’s those books that I’m drawn to more than any other genre.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
My adoration of Oscar Wilde was a gift from my father who introduced me to the novels and plays. The original film of The Importance of Being Earnest was a firm favourite and, when I was 16, my father took me to a stage production with Dame Maggie Smith as Lady Bracknell. When, rather than attempting to outdo Edith Evans, Smith chose to cover her mouth and leave the “a handbag!” line nexpressed, she brought the house down. It remains one of the best theatre-going experiences of my life. My love for Oscar came full circle when I named my son in his honour.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Another book read at my father’s knee and one that ignited my imagination and shaped my writing life. My desire to fall down a rabbit hole that might take me to Wonderland surpassed my other childhood wish to step through a wardrobe into Narnia, yet Wonderland with its Cheshire Cat and never-ending tea parties – reflected in a life-long love of cats and cakes – suited me much better. I own more editions of Alice in Wonderland than I’d care to admit and have a slightly embarrassing, but nevertheless unquenchable thirst, for Alice-inspired paraphernalia.
The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende
I read this as a teenager – also recommended by my father – and it was the novel that set me on the path to being a writer of magical realism. I was absolutely entranced by the plethora of characters and their strange, but unquestioned, quirks. Until then I hadn’t
realised that authors for adults (Tolkien being banned in our house) were allowed to make such literary leaps and thus, for better or worse, Allende tilted the slant of my pen towards the fantastical. When I discovered Angela Carter, my destiny was set.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I believe that the novels which have the greatest impact on our lives are those we read as young adults – when our minds and hearts are wide open, when we’re eager to experience all that the world has to offer, when we’ve not yet made up our minds about everything. Rebecca, with its magnificent descriptions and incredible plot twists, left an indelible mark. I still refer to it frequently while teaching and recommend it, along with her other masterpiece, My Cousin Rachel, to everyone. Reading du Maurier is like taking a masterclass in creating suspense and atmosphere. I re-read her novels more than any others.
Night of Demons and Saints by Menna van Praag is now out in hardback, published by Penguin and priced £14.99. Three years have elapsed since the dramatic conclusion of The Sisters Grimm - book one of the trilogy, which you *must* read first to avoid spoiling the intricate plotting and engaging character arcs of the overall story - Nights of Demons and Saints finds our super-powered sisters set on different paths. Yet those paths are destined to cross once again when, at midnight on All Hallow’s Eve, they turn 21 and, in the magical land of Everwhere, anything becomes possible. . . Transporting, empowering, beautifully written, this series is a gem.
For more about Cambridge Creative Writing Company go to cambridgecreativewritingcompany.com.
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