Cultural Wednesday’s Best Summer Books 2022

Summer holidays are all about reading for me. As the school holidays begin here is Cultural Wednesday’s Best Summer Books 2022. Time was, before the Kindle, more than half my luggage would be taken up by books and I would still buy more at the airport book store. No temptation at the airport this year as we won’t be flying anywhere! Let me offer some suggestions for Summer reading.

DISCLOSURE: Contains Affiliate Links if you buy a book from Waterstones I will get a tiny bit of money.  Some books were given to me by publishers, others via NetGalley and others I paid good money for.  Books which I don't enjoy, don't get reviewed.
Best Summer Books what to read on holiday

Best Fiction Books Summer 2022

Good fiction, in my book, transports you to another place. Time travel, proper geographical travel or just stepping into somebody else’s shoes. It doesn’t matter, sometimes all three together.

Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

I have been a fan of Julian Barnes since I read Flaubert’s Parrot thirty seven years ago.  His latest Elizabeth Finch is every bit as captivating.  This time we meet Neil who is divorced and taking an evening class taught by Elizabeth Finch.  It was a relationship that endured until her death and beyond.  During the course of the novel we learn much about Julian the Apostate, the last pagan Roman Emperor.  Would the world be a better place if Julian’s campaign to vanquish Christianity had worked.  There are lots of big thoughts, along with the melancholy of missed opportunity.  

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgarkov

Many years ago I was seconded to the Foreign Office and sent to Ukraine for a month just after Ukraine gained independence.  Before I went, part of my preparation was to visit the BBC Ukrainian Service at Bush House.  Read The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov before you go, was the key piece of advice.  The White Guard is especially timely now as it is set in Kyiv in 1918 as the Ukrainian War of Independence rages all around.  Once you’ve finished The White Guard, The Master and Margarita also by Bulgakov is one of the best books I have ever read. 

Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth

So engrossed was I in the twists and turns of the Theatre of Marvels that I failed to change at Clapham Junction as planned and faced a far longer more complicated journey.  Zillah is an orphan from the slums who has found stardom in variety theatre.  She is on the brink of a far better life when one of her fellow performers disappears and she dives into a search that takes her into the underbelly of Mayfair and London theatre.  

Pandora by Susan Stokes Chapman

Greek myth and the Georgians two of my favourite topics in fiction.  Pandora by Susan Stokes Chapman neatly combines the two.  Dora’s archeologist parents were killed on a dig in Greece when she was a child, her uncle took her in but neglects both her and her parents business.  Edward hopes to be accepted by the Society of Antiquaries but needs something to write a paper about.  One day a mysterious vase arrives for Dora’s uncle.  Dora and Edward set about solving its mystery.  

Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu

To begin with I feared that Peach Blossom Spring might be just a little bit too topical as it starts with a family fleeing their home to escape from enemy invaders.  We are China in the 1940’s Japan is invading.  Renshu and is mother Meilin leave with only the clothes of their back.  When the Japanese are defeated civil war breaks out.  Peach Blossom Spring stretches out over 70 years, the parallels with what is happening in Ukraine are heartbreaking.  It makes you realise that people fleeing war deserve sanctuary and not to be repulsed for the lack of proper paperwork or the wrong kind of cousin.  I wept at various points but ultimately Peach Blossom Spring is a book full of hope and the promise of renewal that each spring brings.

The House with the Golden Door by Elodie Harper

Regular readers may remember that last year I loved The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper.  It was the first in a trilogy set in a brothel in Pompeii.  The House with the Golden Door is the second in the trilogy.  Amara, our heroine, has escaped the brothel and slavery and is now a free woman but still a courtesan.  Page turning stuff, now I’m counting the days until the final instalment appears next year.

Traitor in the Ice by K J Maitland 

I love an historical whodunnit. Traitor in the Ice by K J Maitland sees us in England in the years immediately after the Gunpowder plot.  The King sees treachery behind ever pillar and he has spies everywhere.  Daniel Pursglove grew up a Catholic but is one no longer.  He is sent to infiltrate Battle Abbey a notorious nest of Catholics to discover what secrets the previous spy discovered and was killed for.  

Old Friends Reunited by Maddie Please

Actual travel has been thin on the ground this week but my reading has taken me to the south of France.  Old Friends Reunited by Maddie Please introduces us to Bea Pinkerton, a bestselling novelist with writer’s block.  She heads off to stay with old school friends down in the south of France.  Much wine is consumed, fountains are fallen into, handsome men appear and a new and exciting plot comes into view.  Perfect uplifting fiction for the summer.

The Great Passion by James Runcie

I have never thought about the process of composing a great piece of music before.  After reading The Great Passion by James Runcie I always will.  We discover the story of the background to the composition of the St Matthew Passion told in the voice of Stefan Silbermann.  Stefan arrives at the St Thomas Church Choir school in the wake of his mother’s death.  He is bullied and Back, the Cantor of the church takes him under his wing.  I have felt as if I have been living in 18th century Leipzig this week and really wish that I could have been a regular at the services at St Thomas for the music.

Elektra by Jennifer Saint

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint was one of my favourite books of last year.  Jennifer Saint has plundered Greek myth again for her second novel Elektra.  Elektra follows the story of three women all bound together by one man Agamemnon.  Clytemnestra was his wife, sister to Helen of Troy and mother to the second woman Elektra.  Cassandra was a Princess of Troy, cursed to see the future but not to have her prophesies believed.  A curse swirls around the family of Agamemnon, will Elektra escape the curse or is she bound to follow in the bloody footsteps of her forebears.  Every bit as good and page turning as Ariadne.

Hope For the Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas

Regular readers will know that I am a fan of the Railway Girls series written by my friend Maisie Thomas.  When Maisie was plotting the latest, Hope for the Railway Girls she asked for my help.  Did I know of a work of art featuring a dog that one of the characters might have seen in a London gallery in the 1930s.  I immediately thought of Brizo the Otter Hound who hangs in the Wallace Collection.  Obviously I think that Brizo is THE hero of Hope for the Railway Girls but why not have a read and see whether you think Brizo or one of the Girls is the star.

Lily by Rose Tremain

Back in 1983 I bought Granta’s Best Young British Novelists which features extracts from what Granta considered to be the 20 best upcoming novelists.  Many of those have been reading companions for the last 38 years.  Rose Tremain was one them, her latest novel Lily has kept me entranced this week.  It tells the tale of Lily, a foundling who has a deep and dark secret.  We are told in the opening sequence that she has committed murder but we don’t know who.  We learn Lily’s story via a series of flashbacks.  Wonderful atmospheric stuff.

Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Wier

I love historical fiction especially written by Alison Weir.  This week I have been immersed in Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Weir.  Elizabeth was the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, sister of the Princes in the Tower, wife of Henry VII, mother of Henry VIII.  I knew about Elizabeth but had never really thought about her Alison Weir brings her to vivid life.  Absolutely fascinating.  Last week I visited Raby Castle home to Cecily Nevill Elizabeth’s grandmother on our tour of County Durham.

Best Summer Non-fiction Books Summer 2022

Facts I love a good fact. Even better is a set of new facts related to a subject that I already know that add extra depth and excitement.

Shadowlands: A Journey Through Lost Britain by Matthew Green

When I was a child we used to take our caravan to the cliffs at Dunwich at the weekend.  Every year the cliffs eroded a bit more, taking an abandoned graveyard with them.  It was said that if you listened hard enough you could hear the bells of the long drowned church ringing at night.  How could I resist Shadowlands: A Journey Through Lost Britain by Matthew Green.  Shadowlands tells the story of lost and disappeared communities in Britain including Dunwich.  I just loved this delve into the creation and destruction of thriving communities.  Definitely one for the archeologically inclined.

Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich 1945 – 1955 by Harald Jahner

Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich 1945 – 1955 by Harald Jahner tells the tale of the ten years after World War II in Germany.  We see cities reduced to rubble, the majority of the population in the wrong place (there were 8.5 million soldiers in foreign Prisoner of War camps who needed to come home plus another 8 million forced labourers) and the German population feeling self pity rather than guilt.  The sheer scale of devastation and reinvention in the decade after the war is jaw dropping.  Germany is a country that I know well, indeed used to live in, but much of what I read was completely new to me.  Harald Jahner is German and old enough to remember the decade after the war, he has written an unsentimental, non judgemental, absolutely fascinating book. 

1922: Scenes from a Turbulent Life by Nick Rennison

In 1922 the world was emerging from a global pandemic and was ready for change.  Sound familiar?  1922: Scenes from a Turbulent Year by Nick Rennison takes on a month by month journey through 1922 looking at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of fascism, the birth of Modernism and the BBC.  The changes that happened 100 years ago resonate still.  2022 looks to have aspirations to follow suit. 

How to Enjoy Poetry by Frank Skinner 

How to Enjoy Poetry by Frank Skinner is short as befits a poetic volume and does what it says on the tin.  Frank Skinner takes us through Pad, Pad by Stevie Smith word by word.  He is funny, witty and thought provoking, like a good poem really.  I found How to Enjoy Poetry in the excellent Beerwolf Books in Falmouth a pub bookshop combination which Mr CW and Teen One both appreciate.  

White Ship by Charles Spencer

I love a good history book.  The White Ship by Charles Spencer tells the story of the chaos that followed the death of Henry I’s heir and only legitimate son in the sinking of the White Ship.  The death of William AEtheling left England without an undisputed  heir.  After Henry I died, the English nobles were unwilling to accept the rule of his daughter Matilda.  Civil war, plots and betrayal followed.  Charles Spencer brings the era after William the Conqueror and before Henry II to vivid life.  It made we want to visit Winchester and Normandy.  

Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser

Clothes, textiles and history … three of my favourite things.  Worn tells the story of the clothes on our back by relating the stories of linen, cotton, silk, viscose, nylon and wool.  It is a fascinating tale but one that will have you questioning your clothes buying habits.  Wool seems to be the most ethical way to go, I’m allergic to wool.  Fascinating, thought provoking book.  

Which books will you read this summer?

If you seeking geographically themed reading inspiration check out my guides to books to read in The Netherlands, Germany and California.


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