Long Days And Balmy Nights: The Most Evocative Books Set During The Summer

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by Anna Brech |

In the summertime when the cotton is high and a periwinkle sky is streaked with contrails, it often feels like anything is possible.

Heated romance, life-changing adventure, sinister acts of violence: all may play out against the dank heat of hazy days and languorous nights.

Here, we look at 14 books that conjure up a sense of summer at its most potent and transformative.

From mysterious crimes to sweltering affairs, fiercely loyal friendships and road trips that change everything, these thrilling reads play out against a backdrop of relentless sunshine.

Read on for a journey redolent with love, heartbreak and loss of innocence...

Tigers In Hot Weather by Liza Klaussmann

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In the heat of family summers shared on the idyllic island of Martha’s Vineyard, a rotting secret lingers. The spirit of 1960s high society sings through in Liza Klaussman’s highly acclaimed novel.

But amid the boat parties, the tennis matches and gin cocktails down at the club, a brewing sense of tension is never far off. Who killed the woman in the woods? As an unnerving act of random violence takes centre stage in the small island community, lifelong relationships unravel, marriages fracture and neighbourhood gossip flares. Life will never be again.

A scorching summer read that beautifully captures the heady delights of childhood, love and the devastating impact of neglect. It’ll keep you in thrall throughout.

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The Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

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Desperate to patch up a fractious relationship with her mother, the magnetic and troubled Vivi, Siddalee delves into the lifelong bond between Vivi and her three childhood friends – otherwise known as the Ya-Yas.

No ordinary pals, these girls forged a tight-knit and territorial gang that gleefully rallied against the strict conventions of 1930s Louisiana. Through long, humid summers, they held midnight ceremonies and went skinny dipping in the creek. They tore up the road in their red convertible, a thermos of potent Bloody Marys never far from hand. And they supported one another through unimaginable horrors of domestic life.

Rebecca Wells exactly captures the delights of female friendship in this powerhouse of a book, which lives and breathes summer and its joie de vivre spirit.

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Atonement by Ian McEwan

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On a scorching day one summer in 1935, 13-year-old Briony watches her older sister Cecilia dive into the garden fountain of their country home. Robbie, a house guest - who like Cecilia, has recently graduated from Cambridge - watches her too.

This one chance act will change all three characters’ destinies forever, as Briony – misreading the chemistry between Robbie and Cecilia – commits a terrible crime. It will take her years to fully grasp the consequences of what she’s done, and even longer to atone for it.

Ian McEwan’s highly-charged story of sin and forgiveness is masterfully told. Tense, shocking and heart-breaking in equal turn.

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Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

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A single mother in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment heads to Morocco in the 1970s, her two young children in tow. Esther Freud draws on her own past to weave this delightfully colourful tale of love, optimism and adventure in the chaotic alleyways of Marrakech.

Told through a child’s eye, the allure and eccentricities of the hippie trail are brought into sharp focus. Money is tight and triumphs hard-won; but with long, ambient nights filled with poetry, music, snake charmers and the sweet scent of Shisha pipes, it is never, ever ordinary.

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett

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In the racially charged world of Mississippi, 1962, Miss Skeeter – a white woman living in a viciously segregated world – embarks on a dangerous quest. She decides to document what live is really like for “the help”; the black women who tend to her and her friends, who wash their clothes, bring up their children and are privy to their deepest secrets.

In the unlikeliest of circumstances, she becomes friends with Aibileen, a maid mourning the loss of her own son, and Minnie, who is covering up a “terrible, awful thing” committed in revenge against her boss. In the heat of dusty days and cricket-filled nights, they collude to break down boundaries that have been in place for centuries – to extraordinary effect.

This unmissable read from Kathryn Stockett will have you devouring pages late into the night.

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A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian

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In the summer of 1943, as war grips Britain, two young women are sent to stay in a cottage in Devon. Revelling in their new-found independence, they are catapulted from their sheltered lives into learning about love and sex - and the price women often pay for both.

This engrossing page-turner from the author of Goodnight, Mr. Tom showcases the author's talent for storytelling with older, more adult themes.

In an era where women were outcast for falling pregnant outside marriage, this summer coming-of-age tale will leave you reeling, and yearning for more.

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The Beach by Alex Garland

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Every backpacker worth their salt has hit the Khao San Road in Thailand. But few get off the beaten track. Richard and his friends, however, stumble upon a secret. A beach community, hidden hundreds of thousands of miles from the tourist trail, where a self-styled utopia is in full blossom.

The group is private but close-knit, the rules are simple. Each man and woman helps one another in a self-sustaining paradise. But like all paradises, it’s fragile. A freak accident with a shark sets the foundations spinning – and the utopia crumbles, with devastating consequences.

A fiendishly pacey story from Alex Garland, which takes the concept of a summer adventure and plays it to extreme.

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To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee’s seminal tale of racism in Depression-era Alabama is narrated by tomboy youngster Scout Atticus. One hot summer, a black man is charged with raping a white woman, in an alleged crime that scandalises the small-town community and sends tensions soaring. As her father is tasked with defending the case, Scout begins to question all that she has known about her world and the people in it. No longer is hers a carefree existence where folks drink iced tea on the porch to ward off the relentless heat.

Whether you’re reading this coming-of-age novel for the first time or re-visiting it from childhood, it can’t fail to captivate with its breakdown of meaty themes, from the loss of childhood innocence to human dignity and the inherent difference between right and wrong.

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Cuban Heels by Emily Barr

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A young married couple struggling to adapt to parenthood decide to take a sabbatical to Havana, accompanied by their six-month-old baby. Little do they know, their neighbour - who has been listening into their conversations on the baby monitor - decides to follow them. She's lonely and is fighting her own issues; she decides she wants their lives instead.

Emily Barr has a real skill for building up a mood of suspense, and capturing a vivid sense of place.

She keeps us guessing here in the humid streets of Cuba, right up until the end.

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Have your jazz hands at the ready and your gin rickeys poised for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale of Bright Young Things gathered on the glittering shores of Long Island in the 1920s.

Told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, who observes the carefree exuberance of the Roaring Twenties at its best and most destructive, after moving to New York in 1922. Nick’s next-door neighbour is the enigmatic mogul Jay Gatsby and his cousin, Daisy, lives right across the bay with her philandering husband Tom.

Like Nick, you can’t fail to be drawn in by this captivating world of wealth, ambition and deceit. Relish every gulp, as with a freshly-made mojito.

Buy it here.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

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A barbeque is a timeless summer rite, but we promise you’ll never look at one in the same way after reading Fannie Flagg’s wickedly funny and devastating book.

Alabama’s resident bee charmer Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison have been friends from childhood, but when Ruth’s abusive former husband goes missing in their small town, the police come knocking with questions.

This wonderfully endearing read is an ode to friendship, cooking and extraordinary courage. It shows us how love, in all its messiness, really does conquer all. We challenge you not to laugh out loud, and weep – almost simultaneously – as you chomp your way through it.

Buy it here.

Small Wars by Sadie Jones

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When promising soldier Hal is transferred to Cyprus in the mid-1950s, his wife Clara and their toddler daughters must go with him. The scenery is beautifully remote, the beaches tranquil. But the island is on the brink of war, with the British forces struggling to retain control against armed guerrillas.

After Hal witnesses a terrible crime committed by members of his own battalion, he and his entire family are plunged into an impossible situation. Will they be able to hold together their marriage - and themselves - during the long, anguished summer of uncertainty?

A taut and compelling tale from the ever-talented Sadie Jones.

Buy it here.

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

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Sophie Kinsella is a laugh-out-loud author and The Undomestic Goddess certainly doesn't disappoint when it comes to delivering a few hearty guffaws.

Samantha is a high-powered lawyer working in London who's been billing every minute for as long as she can remember. When a freak mistake costs her her job, she ends up by some random dash of fate in a mansion in Gloucestershire, masquerading as a housekeeper for Eddie and Trish.

Samantha doesn't know how to bake, iron or even work a toaster. Pretending to be a domestic goddess as she escapes her frenetic city life will test her. But the lushness and peace of a Cotswold summer might just teach her the joy of slowing down a little, too.

Buy it here.

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

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Miss Honeychurch’s measured Edwardian background is far less passionate than her piano playing would suggest – that is, until a trip to Italy and a torrid encounter with the mysterious George in a Florentine poppy field rocks her very soul.

She returns to Surrey, her self-absorbed fiancé and a summer of afternoon teas, tennis and careful manners. But somehow, the memory of her time in Italy, and an experience that shifted her world on its axis, just won’t shift – especially when George and his father move to a nearby cottage.

A charming and timeless novel from E. M. Forster that illuminates the power of soul-searching, love and self-discovery against the backdrop of the blooming English-Italian countryside.

Buy it here.

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