Seven Beach Reads To Make You Look Smart This Summer
From In Our Mad And Furious City to The Wych Elm, seven books to pack for your next vacation
For many of us, a summer holiday is the only time we get to read a book without the interruption of Netflix, work and the unending joys of 4G. Books are heavy, so it pays to consider what you pack carefully. Just because you’re heading to the world of sun, sea, sand and lack of responsibility, it doesn’t mean you have to take a trashy book. In fact, what better time to catch up with those zeitgeisty novels you’ve been stacking up on your nightstand?
Here is a hand luggage-sized list of beach reads that are worth immersing yourself in while you’re immersed in a pool. From a genre-bending murder mystery to a Xanax-dosed thriller, or a post-Brexit digital dystopia to a serial killer caper set in 1970s Belgravia, this is summer fiction that won’t require you to leave your sense of discernment at the check-in desk.
01. The Wych Elm
by Ms Tana French
A head injury, PTSD and a Xanax habit – how’s that for an unreliable narrator? This masterful psychological thriller from “the new Donna Tart” has a “lucky little prick” as its protagonist, but you won’t envy him for long. Toby Hennessy is rich, handsome, in his late twenties, and has a gorgeous girlfriend, as well as a job in an art gallery. When he is brutally attacked in his flat, his sense of entitlement is shattered. Toby seeks refuge in the ancestral family home of Ivy House, filled with vases of wilting roses and memories of druggy teenage parties with his cousins. He keeps company with his Uncle Hugo, a genealogist who is dying of a brain tumour. What does privilege do to our sense of empathy? And why, in the garden, is there a human skull tucked within the old elm tree?
02. In Our Mad And Furious City
by Mr Guy Gunaratne
Featuring an epic rap battle on the top deck of a bus, this tense debut novel unfolds over 48 hours with the frantic pulse and linguistic exuberance of grime. The setting is a north London housing estate, where three friends look forward to a summer of football, music and freedom. But the murder of an off-duty soldier (there are echoes of the killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby) sparks riots while a wave of radicalism is sweeping through the local mosque. Author Mr Guy Gunaratne is a Londoner of Sri Lankan descent and his five narrators all have “elsewhere in their blood”. Often told via the “ennet”s and “yuno”s of street vernacular, it’s a gritty but tender coming-of-age story about the immigrant experience, urban alienation and the fragility of community.
03. The Winker
by Mr Andrew Martin
Don a pair of green sunglasses and a suit with preposterously large lapels to read this period murder romp set in the boiling hot summer of 1976. Lee Jones is a faded rock star with an elfin pinch of Mr Marc Bolan about him, whose faintly sinister psychedelic pop was once the soundtrack to the summer. Now he struts through London in pursuit of another route to fame and is soon making headlines as serial killer The Winker, who winks at his female victims before he murders them. Blood and exotic cigarette ash are spilt in equal measure. Mr Andrew Martin’s dedication to period detail is such that he has even recorded a couple of songs attributed to Jones (“Picture Show” and “Blue, Blue Day”, which you can listen to online). If you want to linger longer in the seedy world of 1970s rock ’n’ roll, follow this with Daisy Jones & The Six, Ms Taylor Jenkins Reid’s fictional oral history of a Fleetwood Mac-type band, which Ms Reese Witherspoon is now turning into an Amazon series.
04. Washington Black
by Ms Esi Edugyan
Replete with knife fights, Arctic blizzards and hot-air balloon escapes, this historical adventure story begins on a sugar plantation in Barbados. The publishers weren’t too wide of the mark when they pitched it as “a mash-up between the film 12 Years A Slave and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights”. George Washington “Wash” Black, an 11-year-old field slave, is chosen as the manservant to an eccentric abolitionist and inventor. When a man is killed and a bounty hunter starts stalking Wash, the pair head off together across the globe in search of freedom of one kind and another. Ms Esi Edugyan’s writing has both the horror and the lyrical beauty of Mr Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave film adaptation, but her fictional world is also full of scientific discoveries and fabulous inventions. What other narrative of 19th-century slavery also takes in the biology of marine life and the physics of air travel?
05. Ghost Wall
by Ms Sarah Moss
Modern-day domestic violence and ancient ritual sacrifice are overlaid in this slender folk horror novel. At the height of summer, in the wilds of Northumberland, a group of amateur historians and student anthropologists have come together for an experimental enactment of Iron Age life. With them is 17-year-old Sylvie, whose bus driver father is obsessed with early man, and who insists on authenticity during this exercise at all costs. The group even builds a ghost wall, a replica of the crude barricades of stakes and skulls that ancient Britons used to ward off enemy invaders. Sylvie is haunted by the story of one bog girl who met a violent death. She is also discovering a desire to leave home, make her own choices and start speaking her mind. At 160 pages, Ghost Wall isn’t going to strain your arms on the beach, but it does pack a shocking punch.
06. Perfidious Albion
by Mr Sam Byers
New technologies, old vices. Described by one critic as “like an episode of Black Mirror as scripted by a ‘woke’ Martin Amis”, this sharp and funny dystopian satire is set in a post-Brexit Britain, where political tension shows no signs of abating. In the fictional town of Edmundsbury, the Always England party is stoking hatred, a multinational tech company has sinister designs on the residents of the local council estate and masked men are terrorising townspeople by exposing their private emails and pornographic tapes. Our favourite character is Jess, girlfriend of the over-exposed columnist Robert Townsend, who uses multiple online personas to research internet misogyny. Mr Sam Byers is at his best when Jess calls out a culture of “beatified masculine emotion” in which women lose again, as woke men are busy “sweeping up awards for feeling things”. Ouch.
07. The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle
by Mr Stuart Turton
Although it only struck him after publication, first-time novelist Mr Stuart Turton was hugely influenced by his love of video games when he wrote this Costa First Novel Award-winning thriller. A 1920s country manor is filled with eccentric guests, all gathered to celebrate the birthday of beautiful young heiress Evelyn Hardcastle. So far, so Ms Agatha Christie. But The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle sets the murder mystery genre spinning with time travel, body swaps and a series of potentially infinite reloads. All the best fictional detectives try to get inside the heads of a killer. For Mr Turton’s amateur sleuth, that undertaking is literal as he inhabits the body and psyche of each suspect in turn. Can he solve the riddle from the inside out to prevent the murder – and without being knifed by the psychopathic footman?