Six must-read summer fiction books – reviewed by our experts

Six must-read summer fiction books – reviewed by our experts


Summer is here and many people have more time to read. Whether you’re looking for a steamy read for the beach, a twisty mystery to pass the time on a long train journey or an engrossing work of historical fiction to accompany you to the park, our experts in literature have you covered with a series of recommendation’s of novels released in 2023.


Transworld

Set in 1950s America, we meet Elizabeth Zott as she packs her daughter’s lunchbox before work. She writes: “Fuel for learning” and “Don’t automatically let the boys win” on slips of paper tucked in beside the sandwiches. For she is no quaint housewife, and this is no ordinary story of a woman balancing a career with love, domesticity, and motherhood.

Uncompromising, direct and fiercely intelligent, Elizabeth Zott is a woman before her time.

Refused the opportunity to complete her beloved research, she defies expectations when forced into a role outside of the lab she transforms her reluctant TV housewife persona into TV scientist, empowering women along the way.

Throughout the book Zott points out the inequalities she suffers because of her gender with a cutting matter-of-factness that boils everything down to chemistry.

Garmus has created a love story that defies the tropes and presents a powerful woman attacking life on her own terms.

Reviewed by Vanessa Marr

2. Tokyo Express by Seichō Matsumoto, translated by Jesse Kirkwood


Penguin Modern Classics

No good ever comes of the number 13 – just ask the triskaidekaphobes of this world. So it should be little surprise that a novel which starts on 13 January on Platform 13 of a Japanese railway station soon takes a sinister turn.

A couple of corpses are found splayed side-by-side on a remote beach, the tableau suggestive of a love suicide. Their pristine appearance and cyanide-spiked breath support this conclusion. Veteran detective Jutari Torigai does not.

He passes the baton of suspicion on to policeman Mihara and what follows is an intricate investigation spanning the length and breadth of the country. An investigation that will implicate some of Japan’s most powerful people.

Matsumoto’s slimline novel has become a classic in his native Japan since its 1958 publication. Now, with its first English-language translation, a whole new readership can appreciate why. There’s fastidious plotting, direct reproductions of police documents so that the reader can do their own detecting and enough red herrings to make a decent-sized sushi platter.

Reviewed by Naomi Adam

Book cover featuring a hotel and dahlias.

Hachette

In this affectionate restaging of the whodunit genre, a group of people have gathered for a convention to celebrate the work of the late mystery writer Lettice Davenport, creator of the Miss Marple-like detective Dahlia Lively. Little do they know they have walked into what will quickly become a real-life murder mystery.

An unusual aspect of this whodunit is that it follows the detectives closely, something avoided by the classic detective novel to maintain mystery until the end. In a Poirot story, for example, the famous detective will talk about looking into and doing all sorts of things that the reader won’t be party to until the big reveal of who the murderer actually is.

The ingenious structure of The Three Dahlias resolves this problem by having three detectives, each hiding details but also acting in turn as Sherlock’s sidekick Watson to the others.

That these detectives are three actresses who have played Lively on film and television allows for satirical observations about modern fandom and celebrity. One of the stars believes that playing Lively has given her amazing powers of deduction, while the youngest wonders if her celebrity indiscretions will alienate a frighteningly obsessed Dahlia fandom. A witty homage to both Christie and Cluedo.

Reviewed by Christopher Pittard

Book cover featuring a girl typing at a typewriter.

Bloomsbury Publishing

Nicole Flattery’s first novel, Nothing Special, is somewhat more anchored in reality than her debut short story collection, Show them a Good Time, which was a series of oddball vignettes, witty and disturbing in turn.

The story begins in 1966 and charts the journey of high-school dropout Mae, who finds herself employed as a typist at Andy Warhol’s studio, The Factory. While the depth of Flattery’s research is clear, a dreamlike ambience pervades the book. Warhol himself lingers on the sidelines – a mythical and rather sinister figure – while familiar references to Campbell’s Soup or Marilyn Monroe are nowhere to be found.

Mae herself is best described as a female Holden Caufield. A rebel without a cause, she is acerbic, listless and fixated on what she sees as phoniness in others. Her isolation and neuroses are heightened by her work transcribing Warhol’s conversations. Like Mae, the reader cannot help but be seduced by the sordidly appealing world which Flattery evokes.

Reviewed by Paddy Brennan


Transworld

Armchair travellers can readily picture Tokyo – vibrant with neon lights and pulsing with nightlife – but in his latest love letter to the country, Nick Bradley takes the slow train to rural Japan. Flo, an American character who first appeared in his bestseller The Cat and the City, chances upon an
intriguing novel, Sound of Water. We read her translation as she grapples with some of the issues of failure and freedom shared by its main character, Kyo.

Kyo has been sent away from Tokyo to his grandmother’s house in order to focus on his studies. Upon arrival, he is scornful of the first-name familiarity of the Onomichi locals but soon its quiet pace and the intensity of his relationship with his grandmother lead him to profoundly question his life choices. Meanwhile Flo undertakes the same journey to the town to try and track down its elusive author.

It’s easy to become immersed in the stories of Flo and Kyo but this gentle readability doesn’t preclude tough questions about who had autonomy and who was free to self-define in mid-century Japan.

Reviewed by Tory Young

6. The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts by Tiya Miles


Random House

This inspiring, moving and deeply spiritual “dual time” novel is loosely based upon research by the historian Tiya Miles, who introduces readers to the often-overlooked ownership of enslaved people by Native Americans. She deftly guides the reader through this complex history via the lives of three strong, contemporary women: Jinx, Cheyenne and Ruth.

Their interests in the former plantation (the Cherokee Rose) leads them to Georgia during a time of upheaval. Miles cleverly explores several timely issues, including slavery’s multiple layers of oppression, women’s botanic knowledge and the fight for historic preservation in the face of commercial pressures.

Until the three women discover a diary hidden on the plantation, the history of the Cherokee Rose had been found mostly via oral testimonies from descendants of those who had lived there. Their stories sit outside formal archives, which have a history of discrimination.Revised for re-release in 2023, this novel invites comparison of the history we find both within and outside the archive.

Reviewed by Emily West

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