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The best summer reads of 2014

The Vacationers by Emma Straub (Picador, £7.99)

The Vacationers by Emma Straub (Picador, £7.99)

The Posts are going on their first family holiday together in years. They have more secrets than the Kennedy clan. Not to mention the kind of dynamics that makes the Kardashians look positively functional.

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Proud matriarch Franny and her husband Jim are primed to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. Or rather would have been if Jim hadn't had an illicit affair with an intern more than half his age and got sacked from his high-flying job as a magazine editor. Now their relationship hangs in the balance and unsurprisingly poor Franny is as tightly wound as a clockwork toy.

But she's determined to gather her nearest and dearest to her bosom including daughter Sylvia, son Bobby, long-time gay best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence.

The only problem is Lawrence resents Franny for the way in which she makes him feel constantly invisible. The usually level-headed and sensible Sylvia, meanwhile, has decided to make the most of her last summer before college with a white-hot crush on her Spanish tutor. To be fair, losing her virginity is arguably the only interesting entry on an otherwise eye-wateringly dull to-do list that includes buying extra long sheets, a fridge and getting a tan.

Having headed to Miami to seek his fortune, the rattling skeletons in Bobby's closet include an ailing business and debt up to his eyeballs. To compound his woes he's going through a rocky patch with his abrasive, fitness-obsessed cougar girlfriend Carmen who Straub writes "looked like one of the Spice Girls after a decade out of the spotlight, slightly worse for wear".

With tensions left to simmer under the blazing Mallorca sun, events quickly spike towards boiling point. All credit to Straub for capturing the laugh-out-loud black humour in the most subtle of moments while creating a cast of characters who jump off the page.

Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee (Vintage Classics, £16.99)

If I close my eyes I can still smell the distinctive aroma with which I associate Cider With Rosie. The scent of the yellowing pages of a well-thumbed library copy mixing with my own liberally applied Loulou perfume and the sweet fragrance of a towering stack of pancakes freshly made by my mother.

I first read the coming-of-age tale the same teenage summer as I chanced upon The Catcher In The Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird and, um, Flowers In The Attic.

Leafing through the pages of this freshly printed edition initially felt disconcerting, like catching sight of your reflection in the mirror of an old childhood bedroom and realising how much it has changed. But the special cover illustration to mark the centenary of Laurie Lee's birth is rather gorgeous. As for the engrossing, all-encompassing magic of the story itself? It has aged not a day.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey (Viking, £12.99)

Maud is getting a tad absent-minded. Lunch is accidently eaten at breakfast time. Cups of tea are left cooling and forgotten on the kitchen worktop. A visit to the corner shop ends with a mismatched haul of groceries as she can't remember why she went in the first place.

But in an increasingly uncertain world there is one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. Dubbed "Gone Gran" - a nod to Gillian Flynn's bestseller Gone Girl - Emma Healey's debut unravels a mystery spanning some 70 years sparked after Maud discovers the muddied remains of a compact mirror she knows once belonged to the absent Elizabeth.

Given the fevered hype surrounding its publication - Viking reportedly fought off eight rivals to successfully win the book for a six-figure sum - never mind the slew of gushing blurbs that adorn its back cover ("One of those semi-mythical beasts, the book you cannot put down," enthuses Jonathan Coe), my BS antennae was on high alert.

Immediately, however, there is something so endearing and mesmerising about the voice of main protagonist Maud as she attempts to knot the frayed and broken threads of her memories back together that it had me comfortably whipping through the pages.

The Race To Truth By Emma O'Reilly (Bantam Press, £16.99)

For those not familiar with the central role Emma O'Reilly played in the eventual downfall of disgraced cycling hero Lance Armstrong, be prepared for a veritable smorgasbord of revelation.

Dublin-born O'Reilly is a former soigneur - cycling parlance for a personal masseuse, cook, cleaner and all-round general dogsbody - who worked with Armstrong in his days riding for the successful US Postal team after he returned to competitive action following his battle with cancer.

After she broke cycling's famed culture of omerta to speak out about doping, Armstrong set out to discredit her, variously referring to O'Reilly as an "alcoholic whore" and suing her for £1m.

O'Reilly may be a woman who knows where the bodies are buried, but intriguingly this compelling memoir doesn't appear motivated by revenge or vindication - although no one could fault her had she chosen to pursue that avenue. Rather it is an attempt to help salve and heal the damaged reputation of the sport she loves.

It's worth checking out for the foreword by Armstrong himself in which he comes as close to being genuinely humbled as I've heard him.

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (Viking, £16.99)

"What's the point?" ponders our leading man in To Rise Again At A Decent Hour as he contemplates a strand of floss. Granted it may be simply the typical occupational musings of a dentist, but as openers go it certainly poses a grand existential question. Sadly, it's one I also found myself murmuring as I navigated the subsequent pages.

It's seven years since Joshua Ferris first burst onto the literary scene to great fanfare with his well received satire Then We Came To The End.

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour is Ferris's third venture into the saturated market of the comic novel. From the outset its main character Paul O'Rourke is the kind of anti-hero who has you veering between sympathy and wanting to give him a hefty kick in the nuts. This is a man whose epitaph would read: dentist, insomniac, serial whiner, baseball fan.

O'Rourke spends his days attempting to plug the gaping chasm in his life, utilising everything from an afternoon mocha and pizza Fridays to hitting the golf course, and playing the banjo. Through no design of his own, however, he becomes the victim of identity theft after first a website, then Facebook and Twitter accounts are set up in his name to promote an ancient religion.

To be honest, it's not entirely my cup of tea but don't let that put you off. As an exercise in maudlin social commentary and the crippling inertia of modern life it arguably hits the spot.

The Inheritance by Tilly Bagshawe (HarperCollins, £7.99)

Sometimes you've got to give your brain a rest, disengage from the world and simply read for the sake of pure unadulterated escapism. For me, chick lit is the literary equivalent of those evenings when you know you should really have a healthy stir-fry for dinner but instead scoff the best part of a bucket of fried chicken. Junk food for the soul.

There's a raft of this genre destined for beach bags this summer, much of which isn't fit for any purpose other than to soak up excess sun screen on oily fingers.

The Inheritance thankfully bucks that trend which is why Tilly has always been my favourite Bagshawe sister (sorry Louise). There are distinct echoes of Jilly Cooper about her latest offering, featuring sultry heiresses, handsome farmers and an abundance of steamy romps.

Ajax Penumbra: 1969 by Robin Sloan (Atlantic Books, £7.99)

If you loved Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - and even if you haven't read it - this thoroughly delightful novella will have you enthralled.

A prequel to the aforementioned, it charts young Ajax Penumbra's arrival in San Francisco against the heady backdrop of 1969. In his fledgling role as a junior acquisitions officer for the Occult Literature Department at Galvanic College Library, he has been tasked with tracking down the lone surviving copy of Techne Tycheon, an enigmatic tome that has both bequeathed and lost great fortune for its previous owners.

He traverses the city's libraries and museums, scours the archives of a newspaper and canvasses the streets of Chinatown but to no avail. The last known record of the book is 1657 and then the trail goes cold.

But just when it seems Penumbra's efforts are to be in vain, he stumbles across a bookstore. This is no ordinary shop, however, rather one pulsing with a curious energy 24 hours a day.

Throw in a scuttled ship called William Gray, an ageing map of a long since vanished cityscape and a midnight descent into the bowels of the earth and we have ourselves a magical journey of self-discovery.

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