Wednesday 24 July 2019

50 books for summer holidays - from meaty sagas to perfect poolside page-turners

 

Summer means optimum reading time
Summer means optimum reading time
We pick the best holiday reads to immerse yourself in this summer
Beach reads
Rules of the Road
You Will Be Safe Here
The Boy Who Fell
Tash Aw
The Red Word
Being Various
We, The Survivors
Rosita Boland
Knife
Notions
The Redeemed
Elsewhere
The Runaways
The City in Flames
Show Them A Good Time
Author Nicole Flattery. Pic Steve Humphreys
Hudson's Kill
Sisters By a River
The Killer Across the Table
Minor Monuments
Young Entry
The Black Prince
My Coney Island Baby
Queenie
My Friend Anna
Chaos
The Central Park Five
From Barley to Blarney
Beach reads

Whether it's a page-turner to dip into by the pool or a meaty saga to keep you company on a long-haul flight, there's something for everyone in our guide to the best holiday reads

Irish writing

* Minor Monuments by Ian Maleney * Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson * Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery

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* Being Various edited by Lucy Caldwell

* Her Kind by Niamh Boyce * My Coney Island Baby by Billy O'Callaghan * Notions by John Kelly

By Hilary A White

Welcome to Ireland, land of saints, scholars and exceptional essayists. Yes, it seems that this little island in the Atlantic is becoming a habitat for finely calibrated, lyrical and scorchingly perceptive non-fiction musings about all corners of the human condition. This year sees two titles continue to make the case following last year's now-canonical Notes to Self by Emilie Pine.

The nursery of music journalism has gone on to produce many fine writers and Ian Maleney and Sinéad Gleeson are the latest examples. The former moulded the disintegration of memory, the peaty midlands and the realm of sonic manipulation into a thing called Minor Monuments (Tramp Press), a sensual collection if ever there was one. Gleeson, meanwhile, gifted Constellations (Picador) to the world, her compendium of gold-leafed riffs, rhymes and mini epics about art, the feminine, body politics, motherhood, and the absurd medical hand Ireland's favourite woman of letters has been dealt in her life. All those years reading, interviewing and celebrating other writers seem to have paid off.

Off to the edge, and raising an eyebrow at the world, is Nicole Flattery's delightful, idiosyncratic short-story collection Show Them a Good Time (The Stinging Fly). There is always something thrilling about finding a genuinely new voice and Flattery's mix of wry surrealism, tragi-comic sidesteps and cool character voicing is a breath of fresh air. How she fares in long-form (she reports to be "slowly" working on a novel) remains to be seen but if she writes nothing other than short, sharp episodes like these for the rest of her days, we can count ourselves fortunate.

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Author Nicole Flattery. Pic Steve Humphreys

Under the 'does what it says on the tin' category is Being Various (Faber & Faber), Lucy Caldwell's go at putting together a Faber Irish short-story collection. Following on from similar anthologies by Joseph O'Connor, Kevin Barry and Deirdre Madden, Caldwell locates her (to use that awful phrase) USP with a literary exhibition of the multitude identities that encompass the word 'Irish', and how diversity is more than just a fashionable political banner. Instalments by Peter Murphy, Kevin Barry and Melatu Uche Okorie are among the many highlights.

And what of the novel? Well, it's still alive you'll be pleased to hear, never more so than in Niamh Boyce's gripping historical saga Her Kind (Penguin Ireland). Depicting the Kilkenny Witch Trials of 1324, Boyce rides into a treacherous, wolf-ridden Ireland of distant yore that is rarely visited. Here, she finds themes of clerical predation, vicious zeal and resentment of powerful women. The joy of Her Kind, however, is in its sheer page-turning intrigue and delectable atmospherics, and that classic feel that will never go out of fashion.

Of all the months for Billy O'Callaghan to land us with My Coney Island Baby (Jonathan Cape), he had to pick January. A Banville-esque breeze of deep introspection about a 25-year-long affair coming to an end is not exactly the kind of thing to help alleviate new year's gloom. But O'Callaghan is nothing if not expansive, and in his detailing of two starved lovers finding solace in one another one final time, the Cork writer brings washes of brightness into their sorry lives like those scatterings of pastel colour you see during stormy sunsets.

The 2014 novel From Out of the City by John Kelly (yes, him off the wireless) is one of the great underappreciated gems of speculative Hibernian fiction. While he may be best known for his singularly versatile tastes in tuneage, Kelly's other great love is poetry, and his debut collection shows that he knows his way around finely tooled verse. Economical and acrobatic, the poems in Notions (Dedalus Press) cover a range of themes and subjects, from the Troubles to ornithology, some channelling a particularly immersive tension to them.

Women's writing

* Expectation by Anna Hope * Rules of the Road by Ciara Geraghty * The First Time Lauren Pailing Died by Alyson Rudd

* Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

* Lowborn by Kerry Hudson

By Tanya Sweeney

Female writers - and indeed, the readers who love them - have never had it so good. The industry is hell-bent on finding the next Sally Rooney, Gail Honeyman or Anna Burns. The good news? The next wave of female writers is ready to deliver.

Anna Hope is already being touted as the next Rooney, and Expectation (Doubleday) has been breathlessly described as a generation-defining book. Instead of young love, it's female friendship that ends up under the microscope. Hannah, Cate and Lisa live in an East London energised by art, activism and the ideals of the young. Time's giant wheel crushes each of the friends underfoot to varying degrees, and the three of them can't help but look at each other to see where they went wrong, or right, in life. It's the stuff of many an existing title, but Hope's fresh, contemporary lens makes this a compelling read.

Much like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Ciara Geraghty's Rules of the Road (HarperCollins) is a genuine feel-good hit, albeit with sobering and poignant hints of darkness. Iris Armstrong is setting out on a journey that she plans to make her last. Her close friendship with Terry has been honed over many years to near perfection. When Iris goes missing, Terry needs to take leave of her carefully manicured and orderly life and, with her dementia-addled father-in-law Eugene accidentally in tow, sets out to find her friend. Reunited with Iris, the three embark on a road trip that none of them are likely to forget. Geraghty's tightly wound adventure is as touching as it is entertaining.

Sports journalist Alyson Rudd, meanwhile, has delivered The First Time Lauren Pailing Died (HQ), a high-concept title that has been labelled as a sort of love child of Sliding Doors and The Lovely Bones. Lauren Pailing, born in the 1960s, is 13 years old the first time she accidentally dies. Yet every time she dies, she enters into a new life, and so gets to experience being a teenager and twentysomething, right up to the present day. Every time Lauren dies, her various loved ones grieve her. In each of these new lives, a man called Peter Stanning disappears, prompting Lauren on a search every time she dies. Less a sci-fi title and more an account of love, grief and mourning, this is a clever and intriguing premise, executed with impressive vim.

Candice Carty-Williams' Queenie (Simon & Schuster) treads the sort of territory that fans of Fleabag and Lena Dunham's Girls will appreciate. Here, our anti-heroine Queenie, adrift in life and in her media job, zips across modern-day London on a series of vaguely disastrous flings. She is on a 'break' from her long-term boyfriend, paving the way for a truly brilliant rogue's gallery of bad, mad and dangerous-to-know lovers. In the background, her Jamaican grandmother is harping on about how she has brought shame to the family. The Bridget Jones comparisons have been hard to avoid, although Carty-Williams has created a much grittier and saltier read.

Kerry Hudson's Lowborn (Chatto & Windus) is perhaps not everyone's idea of a breezy beach read, but this affecting personal account of a turbulent and poverty-riddled childhood in Scotland is hard to put down. Hudson's life has not been without tragedy or hardship, but she is clear-eyed and warm-hearted enough to spin literary gold out of its chaos.

 

Fiction

* You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr * The Redeemed by Tim Pears * The Red Word by Sarah Henstra * Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid * The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto * We, the Survivors by Tash Aw

By Hilary A White

Around the world in six novels turns out to be an unintentional theme to tie together a look at some of the better international fiction doing the rounds as the summer hols approach. It's also a handy reminder that no jurisdiction has the monopoly on good stories or the telling of them.

"Dazzling debut" might be a thinly worn maxim but it is accurate in the case of Damian Barr's You Will Be Safe Here (Bloomsbury). The second Boer War (1899-1902) is regarded by some as "the last gentleman's war" but Barr's multi-generational novel reminds us that it was anything but. The inhumanity that leeched out from that conflict (it was famously the setting for the British to debut a new tool in warfare, the concentration camp), Barr illustrates, still exists in a substrate of South African society. Cruelty begets cruelty is a message delivered with a striking cast of voices and dexterous thematic grounding as the story traverses whole eras.

The embers of war burn hotter in The Redeemed (Bloomsbury), the third interlocking element of Tim Pears' West Country Trilogy. Drenched in the clothing of its era (rural England during and after the World War I) and effortlessly executing a marriage of adventure, love, coming-of-age and deep poignancy, Pears' latest has that classic feel that only pops up in the publishing calendar a few times each year. And if you're a newcomer to the pastoral trilogy, fear not - they work splendidly in isolation.

War of a very different kind broke out in Canadian author Sarah Henstra's second novel, The Red Word (Tramp Press). We are taken to that alien realm of the US college campus and its bizarre culture of frat houses and sororities. An outsider is taken in by a house of radical feminists, drawing her into a war with a notoriously misogynistic frat house. The setting lends itself to scandal and capers, but it is raised above the average by Henstra's stylistic verve and a widescreen take on what is in reality a serious matter.

You've probably heard mention of Daisy Jones and the Six (Hutchinson). Taylor Jenkins Reid's immaculately honed mock-rock-bio ranks under the "alarmingly effective category", mapping as it does the inflation and inevitable puncture of a late-1970s band (fashioned after Fleetwood Mac). Structured to resemble an in-depth rock bio, its litany of interview snippets from the titular LA Queen, The Six, and those in their orbit result in cutting confirmations, delicious denials and blurred edges to the history. Those lamenting the death of rock 'n' roll will likely inhale its nostalgic oomph.

Fatima Bhutto (niece of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir) waded into one of the thorniest subjects in global politics - Islamist extremism - with staggering sensitivity and intuition. The Runaways (Viking) is a multi-focal novel in the tradition of South Asia's great migrant writers, all patient characterisation and colourful family trees. Three disparate individuals from very different settings converge in a harrowing climax as the whys and hows of radicalisation are teased out (hint - religion is only a tiny part of it).

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Tash Aw

There's also much food for thought in Malaysian writer Tash Aw's We, the Survivors (4th Estate). The twice-Booker nominee paints a tale of desperation and hard times in a modern Asia that is in flux and leaving many behind. Aw pans back further and further as a protagonist with blood on his hands recounts his story to a researcher. As the saga's backdrop congeals, so too do the reasons behind his actions.

 

True crime

* The Killer Across the Table by John E Douglas and Mark Olshaker * The Dark Side of the Mind by Kerry Daynes * Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O'Neill and Dan Piepenbring * My Friend Anna by Rachel DeLoache Williams * The Central Park Five by Sarah Burns * Fat Freddie by Stephen Breen

By Darragh McManus

If the allure of crime fiction is that it allows us to process our subliminal terror of suffering in a psychologically safe place, true crime raises the stakes - and raises the thrill factor.

These things really happened, we know that for a fact, but we also know a more salient and powerful fact: they didn't happen to us. The shivery excitement, nearly transgressive, of being intimately close to evil hearts and deeds is accentuated by verisimilitude. And the dread is leavened by that knowledge: this time, at least, it wasn't me.

Serial killers are the embodiment of those subconscious fears: the mythical monster made flesh, the nightmare come to life - entire worlds of rage, hate and pain distilled into one unholy essence. The Killer Across the Table (William Collins) delves deeply into these tortured and torturing minds, but be not overly afraid: you're in good hands with the guides.

The subtitle runs "From the authors of Mindhunter": John E Douglas is the groundbreaking FBI agent who almost single-handedly invented behavioural analysis and profiling; Mark Olshaker his long-time collaborator on writing projects.

Their book, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, was filmed as Netflix's outstanding drama series of the same name. (Season 2 is due soon - anticipation, control thyself.)

Douglas has interrogated some of the most notorious serial killers in history: Charles Manson; Jeffrey Dahmer; Ed Kemper; and David Berkowitz, the 'Son of Sam'. Here, he zooms in on four lesser-known but equally intriguing killers. They're a diverse bunch, from child murderers to the hospital attendant nicknamed 'Angel of Death' after dozens of patients died at his hands. It's grim and unsettling, but necessary work. As the book puts it: "If you want to understand the artist, look at his art. If you want to understand what makes a murderer, start here."

Douglas isn't the only steely-eyed soldier at this particular frontline. In The Dark Side of the Mind: True Stories from My Life as a Forensic Psychologist (Cassell), we meet Kerry Daynes, a British forensic psychologist who "delves into the psyche of convicted men and women, to understand what lies behind their often brutal actions".

Daynes has journeys into the Minotaur's lair of max-security prisons, major police investigations, secure hospital wards, courtrooms…and the labyrinthine headspace of some of the worst people imaginable.

Manson is set to feature in Mindhunter Season 2; he's also appearing in Tarantino's new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And why not: the psychopathic cult leader has always seemed more fictional than real. Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties (William Heinemann), by Tom O'Neill and Dan Piepenbring, presents a story so surreal and outlandish, it just couldn't be made-up. Expect conspiracy theories, cover-ups, celebrities and spies, hippie chicks in the Summer of Love and spooky CIA mind-control ops.

Equally preposterous, and thus equally plausible as truth, is My Friend Anna (Quercus). Rachel DeLoache Williams tells the tale of one Anna Delvey, a fake "Russian heiress" whose sophisticated con-artistry deceived New York high society (making it, one might unkindly add, the closest thing possible to a victimless crime).

Of all NYC movers and shakers, none hits the scene quite like Donald Trump. Currently doing some political job in Washington DC, in a previous life he was a big-shot property magnate. That's when Trump famously took out newspaper ads demanding the death penalty for The Central Park Five (Hodder & Stoughton). The only problem was that the black and Hispanic teenagers charged with rape and assault of a white woman were innocent. Sarah Burns' book - "a story revisited in light of the acclaimed new Netflix series When They See Us" - examines this miscarriage of justice.

Fat Freddie (Penguin Ireland) explores the "gangster's life (and) bloody career" of Freddie Thompson, a fixture in our criminal courts since he was 17. Investigative journalist Stephen Breen sketches out the strife and crimes of this inglorious yahoo, including not one but two deadly feuds: Crumlin-Drimnagh in the Noughties and the ongoing Hutch-Kinahan vendetta.

 

Classics

* Frost in May by Antonia White * Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns * The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann * Young Entry by Molly Keane * The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch * The Complete Mapp and Lucia by EF Benson

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Forced to pack books from only one publisher to read on holiday, The Virago Press would be hard to beat. Launched as an avowedly feminist imprint more than 40 years ago, Virago never let politics take precedence over quality, and its Modern Classics series rediscovered scores of books by unjustly neglected female authors.

The very first book issued on the list back in 1978 was Antonia White's Frost in May (Virago). First published in 1933, this semi-autobiographical novel draws inspiration from White's girlhood at a convent school in England. It's a classic coming-of-age story, as fresh and relevant as the day it was issued.

Barbara Comyns' own debut novel, Sisters by a River (Virago), was billed in the mid-1940s as "The Novel Nobody Will Publish", which seems strange now. It has deliberately peculiar spelling and punctuation, as befits its young narrator, one of six titular sisters - though only five appear in the book on account that the last unnamed sibling "would hate to appear in it"; but the whole thing is so quirky and original, like nothing written before or since, that it only adds to the charm.

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann (Virago) was chosen as one of the 40 books to be reissued in deluxe anniversary editions to mark the publishing house's 40th birthday last year - hardly surprising, since Virago's founder Carmen Callil has called it "the bible for women of my generation... (it) was our Bridget Jones's Diary".

Worried that it might have aged? Just try the first few pages; every note is pitch-perfect. Irish author MJ Farrell, also (maybe now better?) known as Molly Keane, is another author who enjoyed a new round of fame late in life. Young Entry was published when Keane was just 21, and remains ridiculously pleasurable, not least because of its Anglo-Irish heroine, Prudence Lingfield-Turrett, a girl of whom it's said that "a ladder in favourite silk stockings could reduce her to tears, just as a phrase of wild poetry made her drunk with ecstasy". Such girls are unbearable in real life, but irresistible in fiction. A small confession - this one is available on Amazon Kindle through the UK store for £3.99, but is otherwise out of print. The original paperback editions are such beautiful objects in their own right, though, with those dark-green covers and distinctively old-fashioned typefaces, that they're well worth chasing up in secondhand book stores.

The next book wasn't published by Virago, but one could well imagine that it might be once out of print in decades to come. Iris Murdoch only died in 1999 and yet already seems to have slipped into unfashionability, which is not so much a shame as a scandal. It's difficult to pick a single title, but I'm plumping for The Black Prince (Vintage) just because it's benn a while since I last read it and remembering the story makes me want to dive back in. The lives of two rival authors - one older, blocked, unlikeable; the other young, successful, universally adored - clash to tragic, but also comic, effect. No one writes better about self-deluded middle-aged men than Murdoch.

Finally, for the token man on the list, who better than EF Benson, partly because I assumed for years that he was a woman? The Complete Mapp and Lucia (Wordsworth Classics, two volumes) needs no introduction. Suffice to say that this saga of two rivals, female this time, in a small English village weighs in at over 1,000 pages of sheer comic brilliance, all for less than the price of a cocktail. How can any discerning reader possibly resist?

 

Thrillers

* The City in Flames by Michael Russell * Hudson's Kill by Paddy Hirsch * The Boy Who Fell by Jo Spain * The Body in the Castle Well by Martin Walker * Knife by Jo Nesbo

By Myles McWeeney

Mystery and thriller series featuring a recurring lead character bring added value to the reading experience. Take Michael Connelly's 21 Harry Bosch books, Lee Child's 23 Jack Reacher adventures and Jane Casey's nine Maeve Kerrigan outings, all series that carry the reader along on our hero's often rocky life journey, filling out backstories and personal and work relationships in a satisfying manner. Here are some recommended series reads hitting bookshops around now, the majority of them Irish, a great indicator of the strength of current crime fiction scene in this country.

In The City in Flames by Michael Russell (Constable) we meet, for the fifth time, Detective Garda Special Branch Inspector Stefan Gillespie, the half-German son of a Co Wicklow sheep farmer who is sent undercover to London at the height of the Blitz to investigate IRA involvement in the running of German spies in Ireland and an assassination attempt on Éamon de Valera. As ever, Russell seamlessly weaves real-life historical figures into a compelling tale of espionage and betrayal, painting an unforgettable picture of suspicion and intrigue in Ireland, London and Berlin during what we called 'The Emergency'.

Hudson's Kill by Paddy Hirsch (Corvus) takes the reader back to the virtually lawless, corrupt and filthy New York of 1803. This is the second outing for young revolutionary Irishman Justice 'Justy' Flanagan, who studied law at Maynooth, now appointed a marshal in the city's nascent police force. When a young black prostitute is found gutted and dead, Justy and his street-wise friend and ally Kerry O'Toole must try to find the killer before the warring black and Irish gangs take the law into their own hands. This fast-moving murder mystery will tick all the boxes for lovers of historical thrillers.

The Boy Who Fell by Jo Spain (Quercus) features DCI Tom Reynolds in his sixth investigation. In two weeks, Tom will become Chief Superintendent, but must risk his promotion and the regard of his team when he questions the investigation of a murder of a privileged teenager at the request of a friend in the Force. This takes a sharp look at Ireland's wealth divide and questions just how tolerant of difference Irish society really is.

We move to France for The Body in the Castle Well by Martin Walker (Quercus), the 12th in the series featuring Bruno Courreges, Chief of Police of St Denis in the Périgord, France. Over the years we have seen Bruno, who loves good food, wine and his friends, rise from being a minor town functionary to a competent and popular regional police chief without ever losing his common touch.

Here, Bruno must look into the mysterious death of a popular, well-connected young American student who cast doubt on some of the attributions made by a local wealthy art dealer in a case that delves into France's ugly colonial past.

Knife by Jo Nesbo (Harvill Secker) is the 12th featuring the brilliant but chaotic Swedish detective Harry Hole. Back on the bottle, Harry wakes with a monumental hangover, his girlfriend Rakel has thrown him out for good, an old foe who he knows will probably rape and kill again has just been released from jail, and he's covered in someone else's blood with no memory of the night before. Totally immersive. Nesbo writes like a dream - Scandi Noir at its very best.

Travel

* Liferider by Laird Hamilton * From Barley to Blarney by Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon

* Elsewhere, by Rosita Boland * Mud And Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin and other Geniuses of the Golden Age by Sara Wheeler * Rediscovering Travel by Seth Kugel * The Woman Who Rode a Shark by Ailsa Ross

By Pól Ó Conghaile, Irish independent travel editor

For a writer, I don't read half enough books. I blame my too little reading on too much writing. By the time I've written thousands of words every week - notes, drafts, stories and news - my brain feels too full to take books in, although there are some exceptions. I do take reading inspiration from my travels. A spontaneous discovery, a personal connection, a moment that leaves a lasting impression… any one can break my book block.

I'm just back from Maui, the Hawaiian island famous for its monster wave, Pe'ahi (Jaws). One of the surfers that put Jaws on the map was Laird Hamilton. Maui is a small island, where everyone seems to know everyone else, and I kept hearing people talk about this guy. His surfing. His records. His physique ("I put my hand on his shoulder, and it was like touching cables," one man told me).

Today, Hamilton is a fitness and nutritional expert, with a new book, Liferider: Heart, Body Soul, and Life Beyond the Ocean (Penguin), that reads like a mix of self-help and philosophy. Hamilton is 55. If this helps me look half as well at that age, I'll be happy-out.

Two other people who stuck with me were Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, whom I met in Dublin last year. The Northern Irish duo run New York's Dead Rabbit - voted world's best bar in 2015 - and they've just published From Barley to Blarney: A Whiskey Lover's Guide to Ireland (Andrews McMeel). Whiskey is driving tourism, and this is their hand-picked selection of Irish distilleries and pubs, along with a history of whiskey-making in Ireland. If you've seen the TLC that goes into the Dead Rabbit's menus, you'll know they don't do design by half, either.

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Rosita Boland

Irish journalist Rosita Boland's Elsewhere: One Woman, One Rucksack, One Lifetime of Travel (Doubleday) is also on my list. I've always admired Boland as a feature writer and I knew she travelled, but not this widely, and not for this long - the nine essays in Elsewhere run from a solo trip to Australia to the ice-strewn landscapes of Antarctica.

It's a long time since I've been to Russia, and I'm thinking about a trip - which sparked an interest in Sara Wheeler's Mud And Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin and other Geniuses of the Golden Age (Jonathan Cape). Wheeler wants to get past the mono-dimensional Russia portrayed in the media, and to follow in the footsteps of its literary greats. It's in hardback now, but due out next year in paperback, as is another keenly awaited travel title, Seth Krugel's Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious (WW Norton). Krugal you may know as The New York Times' 'Frugal Traveller', and the paperback version will advise us how to get the best out of digital tech, without being shackled to it. Hmm. Good luck with that.

Finally, if you're buying for children, take a look at The Woman Who Rode a Shark and 50 More Wild Female Adventurers (AA Publishing), by travel writer Ailsa Ross with illustrations by Amy Blackwell. Similar to the Rebel Girls series, it's a compendium of 50 female travellers and trailblazers, ranging from Amelia Earhart to scientist Silvia Earle. The book is heavily pitched at young girls, but I enjoyed discussing its stories with my nine-year-old son. Perhaps some day, he'll be able to read and write with more success than me.

Read more: Listen up! The best audio books for your holiday

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