15 Great Books for Summer Reading
How Do You Choose a Summertime Book?
"Summer afternoon - summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."
~ Henry James
Now if you just add a good book into the mixture and you're in heaven. Books and summertime seem to go together for me because there is no better way to take advantage of being able to sit outside in the fresh air than with a good book.
Then, of course, you have to decide what the good book or books should be. What sort of thing does anyone want to read in the summer? I should think there are as many different ideas as there are people.
When I go on holiday I choose three different types of books that I think make great summer reads:
- Light and easy reads that can take a bit of interruption, ideal for the journey or by the pool or beach.
- Something more substantial, something you may have been wanting to read for a while but never seemed to have the time.
- Summery reads that conjure up that bright and balmy feeling whether by sunshine or warmth or maybe just the book cover illustration.
In my suggestions below, all of which I've read and enjoyed myself, I have tried to cover the three types and occasionally two or three at once.
In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson - Published as Down Under in the UK
I first read this book relatively recently, and purely because I wanted to read a book about Australia - and I ended up loving it.
It is a light and easy read and the UK cover art (see introduction for the image) or the US title are both very reminiscent of summer, not to mention the heat and dryness of Australia itself.
I've loved Bill Bryson's books for many years but "In a Sunburned Country" (or "Down Under" as I read it) amazed me by how much I learned and so easily. Bill Bryson is always a delight to read and informative, but I had no idea quite how little I knew about Australia.
He sets out on a journey to see Australia, not all of it unfortunately, but he does cover a very large cross section from the capital, Canberra, to the wide open spaces of almost anywhere not near the coast. There are some useful maps at the beginning to help you keep your bearings because I did find my geography let me down when trying to follow in my mind's eye.
The book was published in 2000, so that's quite some time ago. I have no idea if it seems dated to those who know Australia, but I suspect the book will be just as enjoyable even if it is.
"I don't wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game. "— Bill Bryson on the sport of cricket
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Chosen because it fits into my easy reading category. If you're like me, you'll find it compulsive, something of a page-turner, entertaining and yet at the same time gives you something to think about. It has now been made into a movie and I can't wait to see that.
"She's wearing a tight red sweater and a red skirt and enough makeup to scare a hooker."
"I wait on white ladies who walk right out the bedroom wearing nothing but they personality..."— Kathryn Stockett
It is set in Mississippi during the 1960s, a time when the civil rights movements were growing but when society was still segregated. It tells the story of what it was like to be a black maid at the time.
Some criticise it for the lightness of touch because this is a serious issue and I can't deny there is something of a conflict there. However, if it makes anyone think a little more about the subject while at the same time being entertained, it is no bad thing. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed it, it did make me think, and I did connect with the characters.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A book from my childhood and memories for me. I first read it when I was nine years old, at school, and I still love it.
It sits nicely in both the summer atmosphere and easy to read sets.
"If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden."— Frances Hodgson Burnett
Mary, Mary, quite contrary is the main character in the story, newly arrived from India, totally self centred and rather unhappy. Right from the start it resonated with me because I'd just arrived in Ireland from having been brought up abroad (though not an orphan like Mary) and was struggling to fit in.
Mary feels unwanted by everyone, explores the house and garden, meets a boy called Dickon, finds an invalid cousin, and together Mary and Dickon cure his problems with fresh air and exercise. Put like that it doesn't sound so interesting but the whole is a world of magic and happiness. As a child the magic, happiness and wonders of nature in the garden were all I needed, but as an adult I found myself equally interested in the deeper issues: neglect of children, mortality, tolerance.
If you're a gardener, you'll love it. For me the garden was the centre of the story.
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
The first of two by Barbara Kingsolver but I make no apologies. This one is obviously chosen for its name and because it does indeed describe the course of one summer. It's a wonderful book.
An alternative by the same author is Flight Behaviour, and I'd recommend that equally.
The loudest sound on earth, she thought, is a man with nothing to do.— Barbara Kingsolver
I've seen a description of Prodigal Summer as a book that is part romance, part biology textbook. So unfair! While I can see where that particular reader is coming from, there is so much more to it than that.
It is set in a southern Appalachian valley with the stories of three people woven together, people who are tied with the lightest of threads to give us a magical story of relationships and nature.
If you are a nature lover you will love the descriptions of the natural world around us.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
This definitely fits not only into the easy reading category but also the long books requiring time to finish, though in this case it's so much of a page-turner that it may not take as long as you think. All the same, the 500+ pages in the edition I'm reading is undoubtedly long.
She had put on make-up in a colour scheme that indicated she might be colour blind.— Stieg Larsson
I found it the most compulsive thriller I have read in a long time though since then I have found more Scandinavian authors whose work I have enjoyed equally well.
It was entertaining and thrilling. What more could you ask of this type of book?
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
What could be more evocative of summer than bees? I dream of being "alone in a bee-loud glade" (WB Yeats) reading a book.
Most people don’t have any idea about all the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about— Sue Monk Kidd
A coming of age story, dealing with racial divisions in the 1960s, but it couldn't be more different from either The Greengage Summer or The Help, respectively. It is set in South Carolina and tells the story of the motherless Lily, who runs away with a servant to be taken in by bee-keeping sisters, May, June and August.
It touches on issues such as feminism, spirituality, self esteem and forgiveness. I read it very quickly and was enchanted, more than I expected to be.
The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
Not only has this book "Summer" in its title, so it cannot be ignored, but it's also set in the champagne region of France during a summer holiday.
On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did.— Rumer Godden
Another from my youth but this time I read it in my early teens. I can remember feeling so passionate about it! And that was probably because the story is a coming of age, jealousy, love, and all set in a superbly atmospheric rural area of France.
Five children leave England with their mother to stay in a rural French hotel while their father is away. Their mother is taken ill so the children are left to fend for themselves, looked after by Eliot, an Englishman staying in the same hotel. During this time the eldest girl, aged 16, blossoms and tensions arise. But it's not all passion and atmosphere, there is some mystery and drama too.
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
This was very obviously chosen for the cover art of my own copy, but it is also because it is set on a South Pacific island which turns out to be Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. On the face of it, it sounds an idyllic situation where you might happily take a holiday but...
It tells the story of the island devastated by war, where the only person left to teach the children is an eccentric old man and the only schoolbook he has is a copy of Great Expectations. I suppose the basis of the novel is the power of stories and their timelessness. The children are completely absorbed by the daily readings from Dickens, so much so that when the book disappears, they set about recreating it, piece by piece.
It isn't all happiness and light however, in fact, far from it. This is a quick and easy read that I enjoyed more than I'd expected.
A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.— Lloyd Jones
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
This is a long, long story but ultimately it's a page-turner because it is so fascinating.
Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry. He vanishes unwillingly, without warning. I wait for him. Each moment that I wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting. Why has he gone where I cannot follow?— Audrey Niffenegger
I've never read anything quite like this book - and I've read plenty! It tells the story of the marriage of Henry and Clare which doesn't sound so unusual until you realise Henry is an unwilling time traveller who moves through time ad space because of a genetic disorder. This of course leaves Clare on her own a lot of the time, not knowing when or where he will reappear - the past or the future.
I actually found it rather hard to get my mind around it so it's probably better to read it without trying to work things out logically. You will also have to be prepared for the language and sex which made me decide it wasn't a book I'd recommend to my mother. Nevertheless, an intriguing read.
Driving over Lemons by Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart started a variety of careers but ended up in Andalucia, in Spain. This first book of what ended up as a trilogy is an amusing, fast read, set in a sunny country.
The next two books are Parrot in a Pepper Tree and The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society.
Dogs slept in the road in the shade; cats slept in the road in the sun. The creature with lowest priority on the road was the car. I stopped and backed up a bit to go round a lemon.
'Drive over lemons,' ordered Georgina.
There were, it was true, a hell of a lot of lemons.— Chris Stewart
There are any number of books about people opting for an easier life in a warm climate, in France, Italy or Spain more often than not. As you can see from the subtitle, this one is set in Spain, in Andalucia to be exact. I found it easier to read and more entertaining than most of the others I've tried.
The author bought an old farmhouse without a water supply, without even a road. This is the first of three books about his experiences there. It describes a culture of seeking to live life in harmony, joy and knowledge of life and how to live in the world surrounding you.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This cannot be described as anything but a long book, but for me, an amazing one. It is firmly in the top ten of my favourite books of all time.
Maybe he's been in Africa so long he has forgotten that we Christians have our own system of marriage, and it is called Monotony.— Barbara Kingsolver
It tells the story of a missionary who uproots his family, his wife and four daughters, from their life in the USA to a remote part of Africa which can be reached only by air. None of them had any idea of what was waiting for them.
The story is told through the eyes of the missionary's wife and daughters, in alternating chapters. It is so wonderfully written that you know who is speaking immediately by the tone and voice. The descriptions of life in Africa are so marvellous that I could imagine myself back there (I was brought up in Africa) amid the humidity and lush growth, the insects, snakes and sometimes dangerous animals.
There are people who argue with the negative view it has of Christianity and the west, but for me it is so well written it transported me to a different world. I ask no more of a book. I don't have to agree with everything it says to enjoy it.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
A light and easy read, perfect for a holiday, maybe even to visit Guernsey itself.
I am to cover the philosophical side of the debate and so far my only thought is that reading keeps you from going gaga.— Mary Ann Shaffer
Unexpectedly, I enjoyed this book. I don't normally like books based on correspondence, epistolary I believe is the technical term. The letters are exchanged shortly after the end of the Second World War between a writer in London and the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The writer, Juliet Ashton, eventually goes to Guernsey to meet these people and finds out their individual stories.
The plot, such as it is, is fairly unlikely, but enjoyable all the same. In spite of the fluffiness, I did learn about Guernsey during the war years and about the island, and the book passed a few hours very pleasantly.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
A Thousand Splendid Suns is a book you cannot rush. You will need time to read it.
Each snowflake was a sigh heard by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. All the sighs drifted up the sky, gathered into clouds, then broke into tiny pieces that fell silently on the people below.— Khaled Hosseini
Through the lives of two women, Laila and Miriam, both married to the same man, we learn the history of Afghanistan over a 30 year period, from the Russian occupation until after 9/11. It gives you some understanding of what the people of that country have suffered over the years and it does this not by stressing the conditions under which they live but by concentrating on their individual personalities.
It isn't the easiest book to read but it does reward you with an excellent story that will stay with you.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Again, a book chosen purely for its name. Years ago I sent The Summer Book to a friend as a summer gift without having any idea what it was about. It was a success!
"A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she had lost the urge."
"It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin. There are no stars yet, just darkness."— Tove Jansson
Written by Tove Jansson, The Summer Book tells the story of a young girl spending summer holidays with her grandmother on a small island off the coast of Finland. The child's mother has died and her father seems to be away most of the time so she and her grandmother spend their days talking, discussing and exploring their world.
Tove Jansson, you may remember, was the author who wrote the Moomin books for children. This, though, is a book for adults with messages for anyone who will notice them.
It's a very short book so it won't take long to read, but read it you must. You won't regret it. It's quiet, it's beautiful.
Footprints in Paris by Gillian Tindall
This is the book I have most recently read and it fits resoundingly into the category of long books you might not otherwise have time to read.
The whole concept of a restaurant - a 'restoring place' - was new then and specifically French. In England and in most other countries, there were only inns to serve travellers or parties gathered there for a special occasion. Otherwise, places to sit down to a meal, outside private houses or guest houses, hardly existed.— Gillian Tindall
Gillian Tindall has traced a family's history in Paris from the end of the Napoleonic wars more or less to the present day. It ends up as a very readable history of Paris from the point of view of real people. It will delight anyone who loves Paris, or who loves history or genealogists. Oddly, and this did add to my enjoyment, it touched upon many places that feature in my own family history.
It is a beautiful piece of research, with maps, family trees, timelines, bibliography, footnotes, but at no point did I feel I was reading an academic exercise. It gives you an impression of Paris like no other. It brought Paris to life for me.
Video: Top Books
I started looking for a video to offer somebody else's selection of summer reading. I quickly discovered that almost all books/reading videos are presented by shrieking young girls who start of "Hi guys!!!!!" I'm sure the content would be perfectly good but I couldn't get past the start.
This one, too, started in a similar way but not to the same extent. One day I'll find something by a more mature presenter who doesn't feel the need to be over-enthusiastic.
Do tell me if you have a book I absolutely must read this summer, or maybe let me know how you choose a summer book.