The books you REALLY want to read this summer
It’s all very well bringing a selection of worthy tomes on vacation, but given the strict baggage allowances most airline companies operate, Allison Pearson thought you might be better off packing a verified hit read on holiday
Publishers may beg to differ but, as far as I’m concerned, Beach Read is an oxymoron. Like moon picnic or grateful teenager — it sounds divine, but is impossible to achieve in practice. Battling sand, wind-ruffled pages and a squint of direct sunlight, only the very worst book can thrive.
At this time of year, it’s hard to avoid those features in which the great and the good share the titles they will be taking to Umbria, Corfu or Vietnam. Far from making you sprint to your nearest bookshop, such recommendations may induce sinking feelings of inferiority or laugh-out-loud disbelief.
Take the recent Holiday Reading contributor who said he would be packing Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. How many Sex on the Beach cocktails would it take to get through that? And then there’s the swanky crowd who claim they will spend August “re-reading Herodotus”. Notice the sly one‑upmanship of that “re-reading”. Heaven forbid our learned friends should be caught cracking open the latest Lee Child.
Political wonks are prime offenders, forever boasting that they plan to read Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon B Johnson. Only four volumes! Are these chaps not acquainted with the Ryanair baggage allowance? Do none of them have children? At least if harassed holiday wife feels like braining pompous hubby, volumes two, three and four of the life of LBJ are close at hand.
It all reminds me of the opening scene of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing where Henry, a playwright, has been invited on to Desert Island Discs and is scrabbling to come up with a shortlist. “The trouble is, I don’t like the pop music that it’s all right to like,” he wails. Erin Kelly, author of the cracking psychological thriller He Said/She Said, points out that writers of commercial fiction — aka Books People Actually Buy — are seldom invited to nominate their choices for summer.
The Well-Intentioned Novel
You pack Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies. Classy choice! When you get to the villa/hotel, you find a bookshelf of airport trash. Try as you might to get into the Mantel, the shelf of trash calls to you like a mermaid on a rock. It’s hot; the air-con has left you with desiccated brain. This is how you end up on the second afternoon reading a Katie Price novel (Bring up the Boobies?) instead. The rule here is simple. You are never going to finish a demanding book if there is any alternative reading matter on the premises, including pizza menus and Facebook.
Captain Corelli’s Delusion
There are believed to be as many abandoned, half-read copies of Louis de Bernières’s weighty tome (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) in Greece as there are stones in the Parthenon.
“It’s set in the country where I’m going.” Fine. But that doesn’t mean it’s much cop as holiday reading. Victoria Hislop’s The Island is a shining exception, as is Jason Goodwin’s Yashim the Detective series, perfect entertainment whether you happen to be in Turkey or not, while Paddy Leigh Fermor’s travel writing (the best ever) can infuse even a dank St David’s caravan with the scent of thyme.
If your summer books factor in frequent interruptions, dozy afternoons and mild inebriation, so much the better. Throughout my early 30s, I always took a volume of Proust away with me, still under the illusion I might read it. Bless! After I had children, and once I accepted that holidays do not conform to perfect library conditions, I chose novels with strong storylines, where it was easy to pick up the thread.
“Can they make waterproof books?” asks a friend who takes her three grandchildren to France every year. “Mine always end up in the pool.” There speaks a real reader, not some up-himself literary tipster.
This year, my friend is taking Dirty Havana (Cuban crime), The Attenbury Emeralds (Dorothy L Sayers’s detective novel completed by Jill Paton Walsh), a couple of old faves (Nancy Mitford books and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and — on my recommendation — This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell. I would read the Maastricht Treaty if it was written by O’Farrell. If you don’t know her work, start with After You’d Gone, an unforgettable tale of grief.
This week, I decided to ask Twitter for “truthful tips for summer reading”. The reaction was instant and rather wonderful. Hundreds of heartfelt recommendations poured in. Not a definitive list, but I’ve tried to include the titles that cropped up most often for you.
The top choice for holiday reading by far. (Possible therapeutic diversion from wanting to murder members of your own family?) Universal acclaim for Susie Steiner’s Persons Unknown, second in the Manon Bradshaw detective series, and a follow-up to Steiner’s dazzling Missing, Presumed.
Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said is so ingenious it has invited comparisons with Ruth Rendell at her best.
Novelist Ian Rankin, and many others, raved about The Dry by Australian Jane Harper. A breathless page-turner set in blistering outback heat — so “perfect for a rainy British summer”.
The great crime novelist Sophie Hannah suggested two classics, The Memory Game by Nicci French and SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep.
To that lot, I would add the compulsive Cormoran Strike novels by JK Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith). A BBC adaptation starts at the end of the August, so you can feel smug if you’ve read them already.
Finally, the highly rated To Kill the President by Sam Bourne. The US has elected a volatile demagogue as its leader. Where do these writers get their ideas from?
Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny, a story about having a special-needs child, tipped as “a comic masterpiece”. Also, it’s endorsed by Kate Atkinson, one of the greatest purveyors of fiction pleasure known to woman (if you haven’t read Case Histories and Life After Life please buy them right now).
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, a singular, moving story about a lonely woman, gets a massive thumbs-up from readers I really trust.
“Anything and everything by Lisa Jewell,” I was told, especially Then She Was Gone and I Found You.
For romance fans, “Anything by Jill Mansell”, but start with Three Amazing Things About You.
In Naomi Alderman’s Baileys Prize-winning The Power, women
develop the ability to deliver electric shocks though their fingers, leading them to become the dominant gender. Billed as science fiction, this is pretty much standard behaviour for mothers herding teenagers through departures at Dublin Airport.
Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, a pastiche of an 18th-century novel, might trigger the “well-intentioned” klaxon, but this picaresque tale of a young man’s adventures in early Manhattan attracted so much love that it’s a shame not to include it.
Huge praise for I Found My Tribe by Greystone’s based Ruth Fitzmaurice, an uplifting debut about life after her husband’s diagnosis with motor neurone disease.
Equally lauded was Clover Stroud’s The Wild Other (family tragedy, horses, landscape, sex). The Reverend Richard Coles’s Bringing in the Sheaves: Wheat and Chaff from My Years as a Priest is a thing of joy.
Hillbilly Elegy, J D Vance’s revelatory account of growing up dirt poor in the Appalachians, is the book if you want to understand the rise of Donald Trump. Some searing honesty also from one of Britain’s best bobbies, Chief Superintendent John Sutherland, in Blue: A Memoir — Keeping the Peace and Falling to Pieces.
Slight change of tone from Rod: the Autobiography. In one of the best celeb confessionals, the sandpaper-larynxed Mr Stewart gives stomping good value with a little gentle prompting from his co-author, the brilliant Giles Smith.
The Robert Harris
Such a reliably fantastic summer read, the author earns a category of his own. One of my best memories: sitting on a hotel terrace in Sorrento gazing across the Bay of Naples with Harris’s enthralling Pompeii in one hand and an Aperol Spritz in the other. His latest, Conclave, about a papal succession, joins a long line of unputdownables.
Comedian Jenny Eclair highly recommends her own collection Listening In. “Totes ideal for the interrupted reader,” enthuses the author.
Quite right too. They’re fabulous and only 10 pages apiece, so perfect between dips. Try also the matchless Alice Munro.
Patrick O’Brian’s historical novels. Mary Renault’s stupendous The King Must Die.
“Anything by Molly Keane.” “One should never travel without PG Wodehouse.” Or Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (the most bittersweet, laugh-out-loud infidelity novel.) “I have re-read Georgette Heyer since I left school in 1970.”
“I’m 49 and nothing is better than bingeing on the entire Anne of Green Gables or Little Women books, for me that’s a perfect summer of reading.”
Well, that’s your lot. A few to get you started. There is no “right kind” of book, only that which gives us pleasure. No Herodotus. Maybe he’ll get in next year.