This Year’s Summer-Themed Reading: Lippman, Lively, Nicholls & More

Sun, warmth and rival feelings of endlessness and evanescence: here were three reads that were perfect fits for the summer setting.


Sunburn by Laura Lippman (2018)

While on a beach vacation in 1995, a woman walks away from her husband and daughter and into a new life as an unattached waitress in Belleville, Delaware. Polly has been known by many names, and this isn’t the first time she’s left a family and started over. She’s the (literal) femme fatale of this film noir-inspired piece, as bound by her secrets as is Adam Bosk, the investigator sent to trail her. He takes a job as a chef at the diner where Polly works, and falls in love with her even though he may never fully trust her. Insurance scams and arson emerge as major themes.

I liked the fact that I recognized many of the Maryland/Delaware settings, and that the setup is a tip of the hat to Anne Tyler’s excellent Ladder of Years, which was published in the year this is set. It is a quick and enjoyable summer read that surprised me with its ending, but I generally don’t find mysteries a particularly worthwhile use of my reading time. Put it down to personal taste and/or literary snobbery.


Heat Wave by Penelope Lively (1996)

My fourth Lively book, and the most enjoyable thus far. Pauline, a freelance copyeditor (“Putting commas into a novel about unicorns”) in her fifties, has escaped from London to spend a hot summer at World’s End, the Midlands holiday cottage complex she shares with her daughter Teresa, Teresa’s husband Maurice, and their baby son Luke. Maurice is writing a history of English tourism and regularly goes back to London for meetings or receives visits from his publishers, James and Carol. Pauline, divorced from a philandering husband, recognizes the signs of Maurice’s adultery long before Teresa does, and uneasily ponders how much to hint and how much to say outright.

The last line of the first chapter coyly promises an “agreeable summer of industry and companionship,” but the increasing atmospheric threats (drought or storms; combine harvesters coming ever nearer) match the tensions in the household. I expected this to be one of those subtle relationship studies where ultimately nothing happens. That’s not the case, though; if you’ve been paying good attention to the foreshadowing you’ll see that the ending has been on the cards.

I loved the city versus country setup of the novel, especially the almost Van Gogh-like descriptions of the blue sky and the golden wheat, and recognized myself in Pauline’s freelancer routines. Her friendships with bookseller Hugh and her client, novelist Chris Rogers, might be inconsequential to the plot but give Pauline a life wider than the confines of the cottage, and the frequent flashbacks to her marriage to Harry show what she had to overcome to earn a life of her own.

This was a compulsive read that was perfect for reading during the hottest week of our English summer. I’d recommend it to fans of Tessa Hadley, Susan Hill and Polly Sansom.


Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls (2019)

The title is a snippet from Romeo and Juliet, which provides the setup and subject matter for this novel about first love during the golden summer of 1997, when Charlie Lewis and Fran Fisher are 16. Charlie thinks he’s way too cool for the thespians, but if he wants to keep seeing Fran he has to join the Full Fathom Five Theatre Co-operative for the five weeks of rehearsals leading up to performances. Besides, he doesn’t have anything better to do – besides watching his dad get drunk on the couch and scamming the petrol station where he works nights. Charlie starts off as the most robotic Benvolio imaginable, but Fran helps bring him up to scratch with her private tutoring (which is literal as well as a euphemism).

Glimpses of the present day are an opportunity for nostalgia and regret, as Charlie/Nicholls coyly insists that first love means nothing: “love is boring. Love is familiar and commonplace for anyone not taking part, and first love is just a gangling, glandular incarnation of the same. … first love wasn’t real love anyway, just a fraught and feverish, juvenile imitation of it.” I enjoyed the teenage boy perspective and the theatre company shenanigans well enough, but was bored with the endless back story about Charlie’s family: his father’s record shops went bankrupt; his mother left him for another golf club colleague and took his sister; he and his depressed father are slobby roommates subsisting on takeaways and booze; blah blah blah.

It’s possible that had I read or seen R&J more recently, I would have spotted some clever parallels. Honestly? I’d cut 100+ pages (it should really be closer to 300 pages than 400) and repackage this as YA fiction. If you’re looking for lite summer fare reminiscent of Rachel Joyce and, yes, One Day, this will slip down easily, but I feel like I need to get better about curating my library stack and weeding out new releases that will be readable but forgettable. I really liked Us, which explains why I was willing to take another chance on Nicholls.

Note: There is a pretty bad anachronism here: a reference to watching The Matrix, which wasn’t released until 1999 (p. 113, “Cinnamon” chapter). Also a reference to Hobby Lobby, which as far as I know doesn’t exist in the UK (here it’s Hobbycraft) (p. 205, “Masks” chapter). I guess someone jumped the gun trying to get this ready for its U.S. release.

Favorite summery passage: “This summer’s a bastard, isn’t it? Sun comes out, sky’s blue if you’re lucky and suddenly there are all these preconceived ideas of what you should be doing, lying on a beach or jumping off a rope swing into the river or having a picnic with all your amazing mates, sitting on a blanket in a meadow and eating strawberries and laughing in that mad way, like in the adverts. It’s never like that, it’s just six weeks of feeling like you’re in the wrong place … and you’re missing out. That’s why summer’s so sad – because you’re meant to be so happy. Personally, I can’t wait to get my tights back on, turn the central heating up. At least in winter you’re allowed to be miserable” (Fran)



Plus a couple of skims:


The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin (2018)

I’d heard about Hinton’s case: he spent nearly 30 years on death row in Alabama for crimes he didn’t commit. In 1985 he was convicted of two counts of robbery and murder, even though he’d been working in a locked warehouse 15 miles away at the time the restaurant managers were shot. His mother’s gun served as the chief piece of evidence, even though it didn’t match the bullets found at the crime scenes. “My only crime was … being born black in Alabama,” Hinton concludes. He was a convenient fall guy, and his every appeal failed until Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (and author of Just Mercy, which I’d like to read) took on his case.

It took another 16 years and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Hinton was finally released and now speaks out whenever he can about justice for those on death row, guilty or innocent. Almost the most heartbreaking thing about the book is that his mother, who kept the faith for so many years, died in 2012 and didn’t get to see her son walk free. I love the role that literature played: Hinton started a prison book club in which the men read Go Tell It on the Mountain and To Kill a Mockingbird and discussed issues of race and injustice. Although he doesn’t say very much about his life post-prison, I did note how big of an adjustment 30 years’ worth of technology was for him.

I don’t set a lot of stock by ghostwritten or co-written books, and found the story much more interesting than the writing here (though Hardin does a fine job of recreating the way a black man from the South speaks), so I just skimmed the book for the basics. I was impressed by how Hinton avoided bitterness and, from the very beginning, chose to forgive those who falsely accused him and worked to keep him in prison. “I was afraid every single day on death row. And I also found a way to find joy every single day. I learned that fear and joy are both a choice.” The book ends with a sobering list of all those currently on death row in the United States: single-spaced, in three columns, it fills nine pages. Lord, have mercy.


The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk (2009)

Having moved away from Bristol, Cusk and her family (a husband and two children) decided to spend a summer in Italy before deciding where to go next. They took the boat to France then drove, made a stop in Lucca, and settled into a rented house on the eastern edge of Tuscany. It proceeded to rain for 10 days. Cusk learns to speak the vernacular of football and Catholicism – but Italian eludes her: “I too feel humbled, feel childlike and impotent. It is hard to feel so primitive, so stupid.” They glory in the food, elemental and unpretentious; they try a whole spectrum of gelato flavors. And they experience as much culture as they can: “we will learn to fillet an Italian city of its artworks with the ruthless efficiency of an English aristocrat de-boning a Dover sole.” A number of these masterpieces are reproduced in the text in black and white. In the grip of a heatwave, they move on to Rome, Naples and Capri.

If I’d been able to get hold of this for my trip to Milan (it was on loan at the time), I might have enjoyed it enough to read the whole thing. As it is, I just had a quick skim through. Cusk can write evocatively when she wishes to (“We came here over the white Apuan mountains, leaving behind the rose-coloured light of the coast … up and up into regions of dazzling ferocity where we wound among deathly white peaks scarred with marble quarries, along glittering chasms where the road fell away into nothingness and we clung to our seats in terror”), but more often resorts to flat descriptions of where they went and what they did. I’m pretty sure Transit was a one-off and I’ll never warm to another Cusk book.


DNFs: Alas, One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley were total non-starters. Maybe some other day (make that year).


See also my 2017 and 2018 “summer” reads, all linked by the season appearing in the title.


Have you read any summer-appropriate books lately?

26 responses

  1. The Nicholls has had a mixed reception hasn’t it? I may give it a miss. Penelope Lively seems the likeliest for me from your selection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Nicholls is definitely missable (or can be experienced as the film or miniseries it will inevitably be turned into).

      I think you’d get on well with Lively.


  2. I loved Penenlope Lively’s Heat Wave. I’d recommend The Photograph if you’re interested in reading more. I tend to slip my brain into neutral when reading books like Sweet Sorrow, although I do think One Day is gold standard commercial fiction. This one sounds less tightly structured.

    Enjoy the rest of your summer, reading and otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know about where you are, but it’s already feeling positively autumnal here: lots of ripe blackberries, and damp chilly days. On to the next season’s reading!

      Sweet Sorrow is mostly set in that one 90s summer. I didn’t think the looks to the future added much. It lacked some of the charm of One Day, though in the end I liked those two about the same; Us was more of a standout.

      I don’t know much of Lively’s fiction, so it’s good to get a recommendation.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Socks, boots, jeans and sweater plus raincoat this morning but I’m not giving up yet!


    2. Oh dear, I’d better get out a jumper for this afternoon’s walk to Waitrose!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been tempted to buy the newish Penguin edition of Heatwave and I think your review might have tipped me over the edge! It does sound very good indeed – just my type of thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My copy was a gem of a find from a library book sale — everything at 3 for £1! Based on what little I know of your taste, I’d say it’s a must-read for you.


  4. Do go back to The Go-Between; it is a class above the rest. I’m not a great thriller reader. Either but I was sent a copy of Lippman’s After I’m Gone for review and thought it better than average if you ever feel tempted again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do love that most of Lippman’s books (like Anne Tyler’s) are set in Baltimore, which is just 30 miles from where I grew up. I’d be willing to try something else by her.

      It could well be a question of timing and mood with the Hartley — I’d picked up Heat Wave a few weeks earlier and not gotten past the first couple of pages, but when I tried again during our own heat wave it was just right.


  5. I struggled with the only two Lively books I’ve read, Moon Tiger and Going Back, but may give her another try some day – I like her writing but I feel like at novel-length it all dissolves into description and waffle. I also liked One Day & loved Us, and will read Sweet Sorrow, although I’m not impressed by Nicholls’ dismissal of teenagers’ feelings!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Moon Tiger is the one from her back catalogue that I’m most interested in reading. Heat Wave was very taut; I spotted no waffle.

      I’m pretty sure Nicholls was being tongue-in-cheek with that passage, since he devoted well over 300 pages to teenage emotions 🙂 I’ll be interested to see how you like Sweet Sorrow compared to Us.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I get the sense Moon Tiger is a bit longer than some of her others? I’m not sure that waffly is the right word; I’m struggling to describe what I mean. It’s a kind of floweriness that’s OK for a bit but then gets too much for my taste.


    2. I didn’t much care for her style in the two autobiographical works I read, Dancing Fish and Ammonites and Life in the Garden. The only other novel I’d read by her (in 2012) was How It All Began, which I have literally no recollection of — so it can’t have been very memorable!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a shame. I’d been vaguely thinking of reading her other autobiographical book, Oleander, Jacaranda (basically because I like the title!)


    3. I do plan to read that one: what I’ve encountered of her writing about her childhood in Egypt is very evocative.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Sunburn is on my shelves unlike the others you mention – thrillers are my comfort reads. I heard the Nicholls on the radio 4 serialisation, so feel no need to read the book – those errors should have been spotted! As to my own summer reading, just read Ian Ross’s Beached in Calabria, which was a light and entertaining memoir. I’ve given up on Bill Bryson too, having recently consigned the Road to Little Dribbling to the charity pile within a few pages.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sunburn was a good quick read during a few hot days in Italy. I keep trying new mystery authors but often end up disappointed, or indifferent.

      I’m going to try again with Bryson’s upcoming book on the body, but a lot of his recent books have been subpar. I enjoyed Little Dribbling well enough, though his tone takes a bit of getting used to — much more cynical and mocking than before.


  7. I’m considering joining a read along of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries instigated by Trevor at his Mookse site. It’s set in August at the start – but VERY long. I’ve finished the few P. Lively novels I own, so may slip in something lighter first, like Convenience Store Woman

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d not heard of the Johnson, though I know the name Mookse from the Booker Prize reading group on Goodreads. Enjoy the rest of your summer reading!


  8. I read a very early novel by David Baldacci, One Summer, not at all typical of his later writings. However, I enjoyed his exploration into illness, death, grief, young love, starting over, the ocean and beach life.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  9. I enjoyed Sunburn a lot. I found it very diverting with a great style. The weather here in NI has been terrible this summer so I am completely ready for Autumn now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s been a miserably damp day today — getting in practice for the Bank Holiday 😉


  10. I loved Ladder of Years so maybe I should try Sunburn.

    Also, the Lively looks good. I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read by her: Moon Tiger, The Road to Lichfield, Passing On, and How it All Began. She’s an author I need to revisit.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. […] particularly taken with the first couple I read by her, so I’m glad I tried again this year (with Heat Wave and then this). It’s just a shame that the copy I found in the free bookshop where I volunteer has […]


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