North & South's best summer reads for 2019

by North & South / 26 January, 2019
Reviews by Julie Cook, Elisabeth Easther, Matt Elliott, Sue Hoffart, Sarah Lang, Virginia Larson, Gianina Schwanecke, Sharon Stephenson and Jenny Wheeler. Edited by Virginia Larson.
summer reads north and south 2019
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Our top picks for beach, bach and backyard reading. 

Fiction

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton (Bloomsbury, $33)

In the first chapter of this transfixing psychological thriller, we learn that one of two “best friends” will soon be dead. Louise, an aspiring writer, has finally made it to New York City, but is working three crappy jobs just to survive. Everything changes when she becomes It-Girl Lavinia’s bestie-for-now. Lavinia shares her clothes, cocaine and condescending acquaintances in a world where money and status are a religion. In this unequal relationship, can Louise trust Lavinia and vice versa? And if an all-nighter isn’t photographed, filtered and Instagrammed, did it really happen? Using the present tense, Burton builds tension and creates immediacy while making the reader feel complicit. The first-time novelist has written for the New Yorker and the Wall St Journal, and as a doctor of theology is Vox magazine’s religion correspondent (yes, really). The book is being published in 14 countries and Lionsgate has the film rights. SL

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (Hachette, $38)

Like a slightly cranky Colossus, the saturnine figure of private investigator Cormoran Strike bestrides Lethal White – the fourth book in Robert Galbraith’s “Strike” series. It finds the PI stomping through London’s 2012 Olympic buzz with his agency partner Robin Ellacott, who’s still dealing with traumatic aftershocks from their last case. They take on a job that finds them knee-deep in murky political waters, but things get murkier still when a man bursts into the agency with a sketchy story of a dead child, buried years ago. Blackmail, violent political protestors, feuding families – seemingly disparate events are drawn together seamlessly, and through it all murder appears, riding a pale horse. I’d never read Galbraith (long since outed as J.K. Rowling), but I’ll now be searching out the earlier books. This sizeable summer read hooked me in with its smart, complex plot and characters that seemed to live and breathe on the page. JC

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Penguin Random House, $38)

Transcription didn’t grab me straight away. But Kate Atkinson usually writes excellent novels, so I persisted past the slow early pages – and the pace sure picked up. In 1940, 18-year-old Juliet Armstrong begins working for British counter-intelligence agency MI5, transcribing surprisingly mundane discussions between a double agent and his German-sympathiser “informants”. Then the unflappable Miss Armstrong – who is trying to get a read on her mysterious male superiors – becomes an active agent who assumes another identity (while also continuing at the typewriter). We move between the war and 1950 at the BBC, where Juliet works and everything is reassuringly “all right” – or is it? This elegant contemplation of identity lightly parodies the tired tropes of spy novels, but with details that conjure up film scenes. As usual, Atkinson highlights the usually overlooked but crucial work of women who are also expected to pour the tea. SL

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty (Macmillan, $38)

Those seeking a life-changing, mind-expanding challenge should perhaps check into some kind of detoxification retreat or try a different book. Moriarty’s thoroughly enjoyable latest offering, which places nine health-resort inmates under the care of a narcissistic director, is an easy, breezy, unashamedly entertaining read that is sometimes genuinely touching, sometimes farcical and snort-out-loud amusing in several places. The troubled Tranquillum House guests seeking transformation include three relatives, a young couple and (one of the more fleshed-out characters) menopausal, failing romance author Frances. The motley crew collectively receive more than they bargained for thanks to the highly unorthodox treatment dished out by former corporate high-flier Masha and her doting assistant Yao. Reach for this bestseller-in-the-making when you want a soak-your-feet spa treatment of a novel rather than something viciously therapeutic. SH

Take Nothing with You by Patrick Gale (Hachette, $28)

I once worked for an editor who demanded all stories “show, not tell”. She would have loved Patrick Gale, one of Britain’s best contemporary writers, who reveals the plot of his 16th novel through the tangled actions and interactions of an ordinary cast of characters. Eustace is 52, a gay Londoner with a fat bank account who falls hopelessly in love with a man he’s never met the same week he discovers he has thyroid cancer. While receiving radioactive iodine therapy, which basically involves lying still for 24 hours, he hears a piece of music that takes him back to his childhood in 1970s Weston-super-Mare, a place as grim as the trifle with tinned mandarins served at the retirement home his parents own. Said to have been loosely based on Gale’s life, this is a sweet, nostalgic and sometimes sad coming-of-age story in an era that didn’t really have room for people like Eustace. SS

Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky (Text Publishing, $37)

It's easy to take the piss out of Instagram-obsessed, chia seed-eating types – and the multi-billion dollar self-help industry – but it’s hard to do it with just the right tone over an entire book. Canadian author Sarah Selecky pulls this off with her debut novel Radiant Shimmering Light (Margaret Atwood loved it, too). Lilian Quick is a broke 40-year-old who paints dogs and their auras, recites self-improvement hashtags, and has few real-life friends. “I’m tempted to check Instagram, but it’s still early morning. I haven’t even had a cup of tea yet.” (Ginger green tea, of course.) Lilian eagerly meets up with her long-lost cousin Eleven, now a “feminine lifestyle empowerment” guru making money from bright-eyed disciples. When she joins Eleven’s sycophantic inner circle, all is not as it seems. This sharp, smart read is a timely warning to put your devices down now (and perhaps pick up a book). SL

The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters (Allen & Unwin, $37)

Just in time for the summer holidays, the sequel to Minette Walters’ gripping historical novel The Last Hours is out now – because where would you rather read about the devastating effects of the black plague than at the beach? Returning to the world of Lady Anne and her ruggedly handsome serf Thaddeus Thurkell, we discover the pair has conjured an audacious plan that will see the peasants of the feudal demesne of Develish released from servitude, with the hope of creating a fairer, more egalitarian society. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with the surviving aristocrats and clergymen who are vehemently opposed to the idea of relinquishing the power and spoils they’ve enjoyed for so long and, as a result, their resistance is strong and occasionally violent. Beautifully written, The Turn of Midnight ramps up the tension and, while no bodices are actually ripped, there is a wee hint of romance. EE

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (Penguin Random House, $37)

Maurice Swift is a good writer – albeit one who’s unable to conjure up a single interesting, original idea for a book. But he’s determined that won’t prevent him becoming the greatest writer of his generation. Swift’s ruthless authorial journey to his goal is exposed through the eyes of the people he deceives and destroys to get there. Seductively charming and astonishingly amoral, he lays waste to the life of an elderly novelist whose judgment is clouded by desire; also talented writer Edith, who marries Maurice and lives to regret it. There’s one rare failure to charm when he meets a perceptive and wary Gore Vidal. The question commonly asked of writers – “where do you get your ideas?” – has inspired an engrossing, unflinching story that reaches an immensely satisfying conclusion. Boyne’s sharp, authentic prose engages you in a tug-of-war between grudging admiration and deep revulsion at Swift’s perfidy and naked ambition. JC

summer reads north and south 2019

Severance by Ling Ma (Text Publishing, $37)

We all wonder how the end of the world will unfold and, in this iteration, the catalyst is Shen fever. The book’s narrator is New York resident Candace Chen, a millennial born in China who’s grown up seemingly dislocated from the world around her. Lacking ambition, she inadvertently lands a job at Spectre Publishing in the Bibles division. The role’s humdrum routine suits her down to the ground, yet no amount of praying can save the world from this plague. Originally from China, where Spectre’s Bibles are produced, the disease is transmitted via fungal spores. As it hitchhikes across the globe inside Chinese-made goods, humanity is decimated. When Chen finally abandons the security of her office, she joins a rag-tag bunch of survivors led by the evangelical Bob. Alternately gritty and dreamlike, this is an anti-capitalist novel perfectly pitched for these interesting times. EE

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Hachette, $25)

Less was 2018’s surprise Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. A surprise because it’s funny, whimsical and thoroughly humane (darker and more cerebral novels tend to win). Arthur Less is a gay, white, minor novelist whose latest manuscript has been rejected. He’s about to turn 50 when a wedding invitation arrives from his younger ex-boyfriend of nine years. It’s too awkward to say no, defeatist to say yes – so Less decides to skip out on his problems by accepting invitations to a bunch of half-baked literary events around the world. From Japan to Italy to a wacky Christian retreat in southern India, it turns out there’s no escaping love and heartbreak, or the pains and occasional, unexpected pleasures of middle age. There’s a quiet genius to this novel. It creeps up on you while you’re laughing at Less’s German as a second language, a madcap adventure in the Moroccan desert and having his favourite blue suit eaten by a stray dog. Perfect for those who like their satire served light and satisfying. vl

The Girl They Left Behind by Roxanne Veletzos (Simon & Schuster, $33)

The world needs many things: peace, an end to hunger, a third series of The Handmaid’s Tale. But does it really need another novel about World War II? I would have said no, until I read Roxanne Veletzos’ sweeping family saga set in 1941 Bucharest. Maybe it’s because it’s based on her mother’s life, or perhaps because Veletzos is a meticulous researcher and damn fine writer. Either way, this debut novel is a compelling read. As the Russians invade Romania, a young Jewish girl, Natalia, is left on a doorstep as her parents escape to America. She’s eventually adopted by a wealthy couple, but her past comes back to bite her when she eventually discovers her birth parents’ identity. With a backdrop of bombs, politics and sadness, Natalia finds love with a young Communist official who offers to help her escape. But should she stay, or confront her painful past? A perfect beach read. SS

Biographies

Blowing the Bloody Doors Off by Michael Caine (Hachette, $38)

Flick through this book and you might be puzzled by headings such as “Find your inner strength”, “Keep on using the difficulty” and “You define your own failures”. You could be excused for thinking 85-year-old, double Academy Award winner Michael Caine has taken the Shirley MacLaine route and become a self-help guru. Not quite. This reflective autobiography offers advice (not just for aspiring actors) on lessons the boy from Elephant and Castle learned as he slowly became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The anecdotes range from the sad and brutally honest – the abuse suffered by the young Michael at the hands of foster parents – to the self-deprecating and hilarious; a cinematic turkey such as The Swarm can only be laughed at, can’t it? This is a book about ambition, success and failure but perhaps most importantly, not taking yourself too seriously. ME

Thanks a Lot Mr Kibblewhite by Roger Daltrey (Allen & Unwin, $40)

Kibblewhite was headmaster of Acton County Grammar, from where Daltrey was expelled, aged 15. His send-off to the mischievous lad included the prediction, “You’ll never make anything of your life.” How wrong he was. Daltrey became lead singer of The Who, one of the most influential rock groups in popular music history; a capable stage and screen actor; and an enthusiastic supporter of charities, among other things. Unlike the ponderous, introspective autobiography of his remaining partner in the band, Pete Townshend, this is wonderfully light and conversational. It reads like one long interview, detailing the rise of the band from Shepherd’s Bush toilers to the world’s loudest rock group, financial mismanagement, trashed hotels, smashed instruments, infighting and so on. Daltrey dwells on few regrets, apart from being an inattentive father and wishing he could have done more for the band’s self-destructive drummer, Keith Moon. He prefers to think of himself as “a lucky bugger”. ME

In Pieces by Sally Field (Simon & Schuster, hardback, $50) and Don’t Stop Believin’ by Olivia Newton-John (Penguin Random House, hardback, $48)

Two very different memoirs, by two Hollywood “icons” who handle invasive celebrity in starkly contrasting ways. Double Academy Award (and three-time Emmy) winner Sally Field speaks in the pitch-perfect prose of a natural writer. Her account is raw, intimate and enthralling, telling of a complicated childhood and an exceptional actor’s life-long struggle to own her success. She’s a star, yes, and her story is peppered with Big Names. But her challenges are common to us all: family jealousies, emotionally unhealthy attachments, a desire to be loved that tempts her to suppress her true identity – all detailed with a delicate acuity we recognise as intricately human. Olivia Newton-John, “Australia’s sweetheart”, is reluctant to admit to anything that would compromise her image as the permanently upbeat, four-time Grammy Award winner who “conquered” both popular entertainment and cancer. As Newton-John says in her foreword: “I am a private person living a very public life… I only choose to tell stories that are entertaining or interesting.” Engaging and sometimes inspirational, but likely to be appreciated most by hard-core fans. JW

Born Lippy: How to Do Female by Jo Brand (Hachette, $38)

A regular panellist on shows like QI and Would I Lie to You, Jo Brand is well known for her Doc Martens, cropped pink hair and entertaining stand-up routine. Her new book – part memoir, part guide to life – explores how her childhood and emergence as a young woman helped her become one of Britain’s favourite feminist comedians. Rebellious teenage years offered Brand both life experience and a resource of comedic material, which she gladly shares here. Born Lippy offers insight into the struggles of modern women and is an unapologetic guide to navigating such topics as the female body, feminism and finding your look. Her matronly advice is relatable and entertainingly delivered through her dry and easy wit. A fun summer read for those looking to reignite their inner feminist and laugh heartily. GS

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.

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