After the trials and tribulations of the past 18 months, the summer holidays can’t come a moment too soon. July and August are the perfect time to relax in the sun (we’re keeping our fingers firmly crossed) and put your feet up with a good read.
So whether you’re planning a staycation or venturing further away from home, here are 10 of this summer’s most riveting novels.
From psychological thrillers that will keep you on your toes to thought-provoking fiction that will give you something to discuss at the dinner table, there’s something here for everyone.
When it came to making our choices our chief criteria were that the novels should be original, beautifully written and impossible to put down. In other words, we were looking for the kind of reads you’ll want to recommend to all your friends.
We’ve picked books by a wide range of writers. Some are big names already, such as Lisa Jewell and Alex Michaelides. Others, like Emma Stonex and Meg Mason, made their literary debuts this year and are authors with bright futures ahead of them.
The subjects covered in this year’s batch of novels span a host of different genres too – from Christy Lefteri’s lyrical story of an overworked housemaid in Cyprus to AJ Pearce’s entertaining tale of a well-meaning magazine agony aunt during the Second World War.
The best books to read this summer are:
Best overall – Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason: £12.15, Hive.co.uk
Best novel written in lockdown – The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell: £13.94, Bookshop.org
Best hard-to-predict plot – The Maidens by Alex Michaelides: £10.99, Hive.co.uk
Best upbeat story – Yours Cheerfully by AJ Pearce: £13.94, Bookshop.org
Best psychological thriller – The Lies We Tell by Jane Corry: £7.99, Waterstones.com
Best thought-provoking story – Songbirds by Christy Lefteri: £14.99, Foyles.co.uk
Best seascape story – The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex: £10.61, Amazon.co.uk
Best friendship story –The Island Home by Libby Page: £11.65: Hive.co.uk
Best coming-of-age novel – Snowflake by Louise Nealon: £12.99, Waterstones.com
Best original premise –True Crime Story by Joseph Knox: £11.65, Hive.co.uk
‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Martha Friel is one of those fictional characters that you can’t get out of your head. Clever, beautiful and married to the saintly Patrick, the 40-year-old is also friendless, virtually jobless, sad and broken. Written in the first person and chockablock with sharply witty lines, Meg Mason’s debut novel relates the story of Martha’s bohemian upbringing in Shepherd’s Bush, her dysfunctional family life, her failing marriage, her depression and her struggle to work out exactly why she feels so messed up. The moment we’d finished this dazzling, spiky, darkly funny book, we wanted to read it all over again.
Buy now £12.15, Hive.co.uk
‘The Night She Disappeared’ by Lisa Jewell, published by Century
Best: Novel written in lockdown
Lisa Jewell is in pulsating form in her latest novel. A teenage mother heads out on a date with her boyfriend, leaving her beloved baby son with her mum. But the couple don’t return – the only clue is that they were last seen at a pool party at a mysterious mansion in the woods. We didn’t think Jewell could better The Family Upstairs but The Night She Disappeared is just as gripping and kept us turning the pages till the early hours. Even more impressively, this is Jewell’s “lockdown novel”. For eight weeks she “mooched about disconsolately”, saying she couldn’t write. Then she rented a writing space across the road from her house – and hey presto, this book is the result.
Buy now £13.94, Bookshop.org
‘The Maidens’ by Alex Michaelides, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Best: Hard-to-predict plot
The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelides’s debut novel, shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller lists in its very first week and has since sold 4 million copies around the world. The Maidens is his second novel, set in the cloistered corridors of a Cambridge college. The main character is Mariana Andros, a psychotherapist who is mourning the death of her beloved husband. When her student niece Zoe calls to tell her that her best friend has been murdered, Mariana rushes to Cambridge to console her and finds a sinister world behind the city’s ethereal beauty. Michaelides is a stylish writer who seamlessly weaves Greek mythology, psychology and murder into his writing and this atmospheric thriller keeps you guessing till the end.
Buy now £13.94, Bookshop.org
‘Yours Cheerfully’ by AJ Pearce, published by Picador
Best: Upbeat story
The sequel to the bestselling Dear Mrs Bird takes up the story of Emmeline Lake, the newly appointed agony aunt at Woman’s Friend magazine. As well as answering letters from lovelorn readers, the ebullient Emmy throws herself into a campaign to recruit more women to the war effort. Determined to highlight the important role played by female factory workers, she’s shocked to discover the struggles they face – like lower pay than the men and next to no childcare – and resolves to do something about it. AJ Pearce’s second novel is every bit as captivating as her first – a delicious blend of wartime history, sympathetic characters and a healthy dollop of humour.
Buy now £12.15, Hive.co.uk
‘The Lies We Tell’ by Jane Corry, published by Penguin
Best: Psychological thriller
Former journalist Jane Corry spent three years working as a writer-in-residence at a men’s high security prison – an experience that helped to inspire her addictive psychological thrillers. In her latest nail-biting story, loving parents Sarah and Tom wake in the middle of the night to find that their teenage son Freddie has arrived home in a distraught state. He says he’s done something terrible and begs them not to go to the police.
Artistic Sarah and buttoned-up Tom react very differently – but what will be the fall-out for their marriage and for Freddie himself? As always with Corry’s novels, the story has more twists and turns than a fairground rollercoaster. But she also asks some thought-provoking questions: how far would you go to protect your child?
Buy now £7.99, Waterstones.com
‘Songbirds’ by Christy Lefteri, published by Manilla Press
Best: Thought-provoking story
Christy Lefteri’s previous book, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, was a worldwide bestseller and her latest, with its exquisite writing and moving story, looks set to do just as well. Nisha works as a maid in Cyprus, cooking, cleaning and caring for her employer’s nine-year-old daughter Aliki. For the past 10 years Nisha has only seen her own young daughter back in Sri Lanka through the screen of her phone.
The only person she confides in is her secret lover Yiannis, a poacher who earns his living by illegally trapping the tiny songbirds that migrate from Africa to Europe each year. This is a powerful tale that shines a light on the domestic workers who cross the world in search of freedom only to find themselves trapped – exactly like the songbirds of the book’s title.
Buy now £14.99, Foyles.co.uk
‘The Lamplighters’ by Emma Stonex, published by Picador
Best: Seascape story
If you’re fascinated by the lighthouses that keep watch along the coast, you’ll love Emma Stonex’s mesmerising debut novel. Inspired by a real-life event, it’s the tale of three keepers who vanish in mysterious circumstances from a remote Cornish lighthouse, miles from the shore.
The door is locked from the inside, the clocks have stopped and the weather log describes a massive storm – yet the skies are clear. No one can fathom what happened but 20 years on the women the lighthouse keepers left behind are still struggling to move on with their lives. Stonex writes lyrically about the power of the sea and the effects of isolation.
Buy now £10.61, Amazon.co.uk
‘The Island Home’ by Libby Page, published by Orion Books
Best: Friendship story
Former journalist Libby Page excels at writing heartwarming stories that leave you with a smile on your face. Her first two books – The Lido and The 24-Hour Café – were bestsellers and she looks set to have a hit with her third book too. Lorna and her teenage daughter lead a quiet, uneventful life in London until they take a break on the Isle of Kip, the tiny, remote Scottish island where Lorna grew up.
Lorna left Kip 22 years earlier in mysterious circumstances and hasn’t had anything to do with her family since. Not surprisingly, she’s anxious about how the close-knit islanders will react to her return. This is an uplifting, easy-to-read story about friendship, community and working out where you truly belong.
Buy now £10.99, Hive.co.uk
‘Snowflake’ by Louise Nealon, published by Manilla Press
Best: Coming-of-age novel
Louise Nealon’s debut novel is a delight: it’s original, tender and at times incredibly funny. It’s the story of 18-year-old Debbie, who lives on a dairy farm with her eccentric family. Her mother Maeve doesn’t get up until midday, lives with a young lover “who was stitched into his John Deere overalls when he came out of the womb” and is convinced that her dreams are prophecies.
Her hard-drinking uncle Billy sleeps in a caravan, usually with a bottle of whisky for company. But when Debbie gets a place at Trinity College, Dublin, commuting back and forth from the farm and finding herself poles apart from her sophisticated new friends, her life starts to unravel. Nealon is definitely a writer to watch.
Buy now £12.99, Waterstones.com
‘True Crime Story’ by Joseph Knox, published by Transworld
Best: Original premise
If you like crime fiction and haven’t yet discovered Joseph Knox then you’re in for a treat. After garnering high praise for his three novels about Aidan Watts, a flawed Manchester detective with a complex family background, he’s now written his first standalone novel.
True Crime Story follows the eight-year investigation into the baffling disappearance of young Manchester University student Zoe Nolan. But the story is told through the eyes of two writers – Evelyn Mitchell and Knox himself – and through a series of fictional interviews with Zoe’s friends and family. This clever novel reads like a true crime story (at times you have to remind yourself it’s fiction), which makes it all the more compelling.
Buy now £11.65, Hive.co.uk
The verdict: Best novels to read this summer
Our top choice is the utterly brilliant Sorrow and Bliss, Meg Mason’s darkly funny debut novel about secrets, mental health and dysfunctional families. Sharp, tender and wise, it’s a novel we can’t stop thinking about.
The runner-up by a whisker is The Night She Disappeared. Lisa Jewell’s story of a missing teenage couple is one of her best: dark, twisty and unputdownable.
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