Cultural Wednesday’s Best Summer Books 2023

Summer holidays are all about reading for me. As the school holidays begin here is Cultural Wednesday’s Best Summer Books 2023. 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 2023

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.

The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier

Books and Myth two things I love.  A mythical book, I’m sold.  The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier tells the story of a book with a life of its own.  Beatrice is a convent librarian, for years it has been  just her and the convent books. Then one night two injured women are left outside the convent.  One of them presses a manuscript into Beatrice’s hands.  Powerful men want the book destroyed, will Beatrice listen to what the book wants to tell her? Entrancing, time traveling and wonderful.

Dazzling by Chikodili Emelumadu

A bit tricky one, this one.  It took me along time to get into it but when I did I loved it.  What held me up was that the story is told in different voices and one of the voices is a Nigerian dialect.  Much as I stumbled over Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Anyway Dazzling by Chikodili Emelumadu tells the story of Treasure and Ozoemena and is steeped in Nigerian mythology.  Treasure’s father has died and turning her world upside down, she meets a spirit who promises to bring her father back but at a price.  Ozoemena’s theatre has disappeared but she has a destiny to become a leopard to defend her people.  Children begin to go missing at a girls boarding school and firework display of magic realism with a distinct Nigerian flavour kicks off.  

I, Julian by Claire Gilbert

“All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well” wise words written by Mother Julian of Norwich at 15th century anchoress.  Mother Julian fascinates me.  Her visions and message of love and optimism chime with me.  When I saw I, Julian by Claire Gilbert  a fictional autobiography of Mother Julian I knew I had to read it.  I enjoyed it, the process of becoming an anchoress is especially good.  There are some Norwich topographical things that niggle, but I’m guessing that not many will have walked from Elm Hill to St Julian’s Church.  

Shadow of Perseus by Claire Heywood

Regular readers will know that I love a retelling of a Greek myth (any old myth really), this week I have been reading Shadow of Perseus by Claire Heywood.  Guess what its all about Perseus.  Our hero is the son of Danae, maybe the son of Zeus.  A prophecy says that Danae’s son will kill her father, so her father puts her to see in a rickety boat hoping that she and her unborn child will die.  They don’t.  Perseus then goes on to kill the Gorgon.  We learn of Perseus through the eyes of his mother, the Gorgon and Andromeda, his wife.  Perseus not as heroic as all those paintings of him make out.  I loved Shadow of Perseus, Claire Heywood is very deft at turning the well worn tale into something new and convincing.

Morgan is My Name by Sophie Keetch

Give me the retelling of a Greek myth and a happy woman.  Turns out that a retelling of the Arthurian myth also makes me happy. Morgan is my Name by Sophie Keetch tells the story of Morgan La Fay.  Step daughter of Uther Pendragon.  She is banished to a nunnery where she discoverers that she has a mysterious healing power.  Recalled to court, she cannot forgive Uther Pendragon for murdering her father and her rebellion pits her against Merlin.  Putting her life and all those she loves at risk.  The first in a trilogy, I am already looking forward to the second instalment.

Rivers of Treason by K J Maitland

I love an historical whodunnit.  Even better a series of historical whodunnits where you get to “know” your hero.  I first “met” Daniel Pursglove in The Drowned City and have enjoyed meeting him again in Rivers of Treason by K J Maitland.  We are the early years of the reign of James I just after the Gunpowder plot and  religious plots are all around.  Daniel has returned to Yorkshire where he grew up with scores to settle but trouble follows him around and soon we are deep into witchcraft, treachery and religious persecution.  My nose has been deeply buried in the book and now I’m eagerly awaiting Daniel’s next adventure.

The Garnett Girls by Georgina Moore 

Meet the Garnett Girls … mother Margo and her three grown up children Rachel, Imogen and Sasha.  Star of the show is the Isle of Wight where the girls grew up.  We learn each girls story as we do their collective picture comes into view. At the heart of everything is the all consuming but doomed love affair between Margo and the girls’ father Richard.  Spellbinding. I read the final two chapters through tears.  One small point, as I was reading I thought that Margo was older than me and the girls younger but that I was closer to their age.  Midway through there is a reference to the death of Elvis … firmly dating Margo as two years old than me.  It was one of those moments when you realise that your self perception is way off mark!

Alchemy by S J Parris

We have already established that I have a weakness for an historical whodunnit.  My fondness for the genre started with Heresy by S J Parris. Back in 2010 I met defrocked Italian monk Giordano Bruno for the first time.  He was In Elizabethan Oxford sleuthing out a murderer and nest of Catholics.  Imagine my joy when I saw that Bruno was back.  Alchemy has him in Prague in the court of Emperor Rudolf.  An alchemist has been murdered and Bruno plunges into the cosmopolitan world of Prague to find who killed and why.  

Atalanta by Jennifer Saint

Atalanta was the only woman to set sail with Jason and his Argonauts.  Her tale is retold by Jennifer Saint.  I confess that whilst I had heard of Jason and Hercules and knew of their tussles with the Harpies  and Sirens, knowledge of Atalanta had failed to stick.  Jennifer Saint weaves a wonderful story and once read you will never forget Atalanta ever again.

River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer

We start with Rachel hearing that whilst slavery has been abolished, she is required to work for nothing for another two years.  That night she runs away.  From there we follow her on a mission to find her children who were sold away from her. Our journey starts in Barbados, goes to the banks of the Demerara river and then Trinidad in pursuit of the five children.  I learnt much about slave rebellions, about the fact that end of slavery was not in fact the end of enslavement.  Most of all I was caught up in the story, unable to put the book down until I knew where the children were.

Heroines by Laura Shepperson

Yup, I can’t resist a retelling of a Greek myth.  Heroines by Laura Shepperson retells the story of Phaedra.  We start as crowds are flocking to Athens for a scandalous trial.  The Queen of Athens has accused her stepson of rape.  Men will determine the outcome of the trial but the women are determined that their voices will be heard.  Retold in the manner of a Classical Greek play with three acts and chorus.  

Courage of the Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas

My friend Maisie Thomas writes the Railway Girls series of novels.  They are set in Manchester during the Second World War and follow the fortunes of a group of women who work on the Railways.  Courage of the Railway Girls is the seventh in the series.  This time the girls are planning a wedding, embarking on a romance and facing dilemmas about secrets and friendship.  Page turning, heart warming and packed with historical tidbits. 

A Vintage Vacation by Maddie Please

Clover Harringtion is 61 and about to be promoted to the board of her City firm.  Out of the blue every changes and she sets off to stay with her cousin in her Italian trattoria.  Then Clover’s mother turns up too, staying up all night playing poker and embarking on a romantic liaison.  But what about Clover, is she ready for romance and new beginnings?  I love Maddie’s books they always make me smile and are the perfect accompaniment to a train journey or curled up on the sofa.

Foxash by Kate Worsley

Many things drew me to Foxash by Kate Worsley.  The cover with its woodcut rural scene and the location a Land Settlement farm in Essex being the two main ones.  In the the aftermath of World War One Lettie and Tommy have headed south for a new life, working their own farm.  He is a miner, not a farmer.  Their new next door neighbours are rural to their fingertips.  Everybody has secrets.  Menace looms over everything.  I confess that I found the unrelenting menace a bit, well menacing.  

Henry VIII: The Heart and the Crown by Alison Weir

Alison Weir has been written a series of novels each one focussing on a different wife of Henry VIII.  Each one made me think differently of each wife in turn.  Now she has turned her gaze on Henry.  Henry VIII The Heart and the Crown by Alison Weir managed to made me view Henry in a different light.  I’d really thought about how young he was when he came to the crown with no sage adult figure from his childhood to guide him.  He really was a teenager with a great many very glittery and tempting things on offer.  Absolutely excellent, I’m now pondering who she will write about next year … I’d quite like Mary Tudor, Henry’s sister.

Best Summer Non-fiction Books Summer 2023

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.

Pathogenesis by Jonathan Kennedy

Everything you know about history … thing again.  Pathogenesis by Jonathan Kennedy is a book that turns history on its head.  It wasn’t great men that shaped history but teeny tiny bugs.  Disease is what caused the Roman and Inca empires to fall.  Hannibal failed in his attempt to invade Rome because of malaria.  Feudalism came to an end because of the Plague.  I absolutely loved this take on history that undoubtedly has a germ of truth within it.  A brilliant read, especially as we begin to emerge from Covid into a world that has undoubtedly changed.

Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry

A Mothers Day gift from Cultural Young Man Two.  Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry is a slim volume that explains how the art world works and what an artist does with the aid of many drawings.  The complex web of artists, museums, galleries, collectors and you and me is examined with wit and panache.  At times I snorted with laughter and others having an “ah, of course” moment.  A well chosen gift.

The Dress Diary of Anne Sykes by Kate Strasdin

Once upon a time I used to make most of my own clothes.  At that time I used to keep swatches of all the fabric that I had used in my diary.  Turns out I’m not the only one.  Kate Strasdin came was given a book containing many fabric swatches.  Six years of painstaking research revealed that they had been collected by a woman called Anne Sykes in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign.  Each swatch was accompanied by a note about who wore the fabric. The Dress Diary of Anne Sykes is a fascinating social history of dress, industry and empire.  Anne’s family were involved in the manufacture of cloth and she and her husband spent time living in Singapore.  

The Amur River: Between Russia and China by Colin Thubron

Another gift from Cultural Yong Man Two this time for Christmas. The Amur River: Between Russia and China by Colin Thubron.  Teen Two has raided my shelves and read In Siberia and Behind the Wall among others by the same author and so selected his latest travelogue for me.  The Amur River rises in Mongolia, in an area that Genghis Khan grew up in and declared sacred, it is still closed off and sacred today.  From there on it wends its way to the sea forming the border for Russia and China for much of its route.  As ever a fascinating glimpse into an area most of us will never visit.  

Thanks for Sharing by Eleanor Tucker

How much stuff do you have that you rarely use?  The drill that you used once?  The fancy frock, bought for a wedding and never worn again?  Next time you need a big ticket, rarely used item how about sharing one? After all we rent cars on holiday, why not at home?  So many questions, all answered by Thanks for Sharing: How I Gave Up Buying and Embraced Swapping, Borrowing and Renting by Eleanor Tucker.  Eleanor looks at the sharing economy, the most well known example of this is AirBnB.  Turns out there are apps out there for sharing pets, clothes, parking spaces, cars and even food.  The book is part memoir, part how to guide and part economic history.  Read Thanks for Sharing it will change your life.

Shape of a Boy by Kate Wickers

When I was pregnant with the Cultural Teens I declared that the four of us would be walking the Camino de Santiago in the autumn.  Well Mr CW and I would be walking with the babies strapped into papooses. Needless to say this didn’t happen, looking after baby twins was way more challenging than I imagined.  We went to Northumberland and stayed in a National Trust cottage with the God Parents instead. Kate Wickers was way more adventurous.  She was out there travelling to far flung destinations from when her youngest was three months.  The arrival of two more babies in the coming years didn’t diminish her travels.  Shape of a Boy – My Family and Other Adventures tells of the Wickers family adventures over the years.  Many of the stories have elements that make you think that never leaving the house is a good option but every thing always works out in the end.  Definitely the book to read if you are the kind of person for whom sitting on a sun lounger is an alien occupation. 

Danubia by Simon Winder

History and geography go hand in hand in my head.  Simon Winder celebrates both in Danubia.  It is his idiosyncratic take on the history of the Habsburg family.  It takes a look at how one family came to control much of Central Europe and Spain for centuries and how the decisions that they made still affect lives today.  All viewed from through the prism of Simon Winder.  I laughed out loud at several points.  This summer we stayed in Lier and visited the church where Philip the Handsome married Juana of Aragon thus setting the whole Habsburg domination off.  Having read Danubia I now have many more castles and churches that I need to visit.

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.


Share your thoughts

Substack sign up