Summer reads: books to drift away with....
Our critics pick their best reads of the year so far - and unearth some long-forgotten classics - to keep you company this summer.
Family members murder each other in House of Names (Viking), yet Colm Tóibín’s outstanding new novel is notable for its restraint. This retelling, indeed reimagining, of the famous Greek myth about the House of Atreus has all the poise and deceptive simplicity you’d expect from this author and is as engrossing as anything he’s written.
At more than 600 pages, The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Doubleday) is a sprawling and sometimes far-fetched affair, but John Boyne is an exuberant storyteller, and narrator Cyril is an engaging and often very funny companion in this saga of a gay man’s experiences throughout several decades of life, both in Ireland and elsewhere.
Due out soon, Midwinter Break (Jonathan Cape) is Bernard MacLaverty’s first novel in 16 years, and while its story of crisis in an ageing couple’s relationship may call to mind such recent movies as Le Week-end and 45 Years, MacLaverty has always been his own man and his quietly penetrating insights yield many moments of recognition.
From the archives: Anyone who loves the street life and cafés of Lisbon should read Pereira Maintains (Canongate) by the recently deceased Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi. First published in 1994, this story of an ageing, overweight and widowed journalist risking all during Salazar’s repressive regime will stay long in the reader’s memory, not least for its haunting evocation of time and place.
We are truly living in a golden age for new female writing. Among my favourite books of the year has been Gail Honeyman’s debut, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (HarperCollins). Eleanor — 30 going on 70, basically — is not a character you’ll forget in a hurry. And Honeyman has managed a brilliant weaving of light and shade; black humour and crushing tragedy. Reese Witherspoon has already snapped up the film rights.
Also destined for the big screen soon is Ruth Fitzmaurice’s I Found my Tribe (Penguin, out on July 6). Element Pictures (The Lobster, Room) will adapt this real-life account of a woman, whose husband has motor neurone disease, who finds support amid the ‘Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club’ in a Greystones cove. As Ruth flings herself into the freezing Irish waters, she becomes weightless in a life that can certainly seem heavy at times. To my mind, Fitzmaurice’s brilliantly lyrical ear and gentle humour makes this a none-too-distant relative to the likes of Joan Didion and Cheryl Strayed.
Another real-life memoir that packs a similar punch is the haunting Hunger (HarperCollins) by famed US feminist/writer Roxane Gay. Overcoming trauma in her early life, Gay recalls how she ate and ate to make her body a fortress for her soul, until she reached over 35 stone. Real-life accounts don’t get any more searing or raw than this. I gulped down this incredible tale, with its dense and brilliant writing, in two sittings.
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong (Scribner) is quirky and zeitgeisty: a diary of a young woman coming apart at the seams as she returns home to California to help out with her father, who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Think The Garden State mixed with a soupçon of Douglas Coupland.
From the archives: If you haven’t already had the pleasure, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Vintage) has been everywhere this summer for all the right reasons. Although written in 1985, her dystopian tale of a world where women have been reduced to chattel resonates for all the wrong reasons and has made into a very unsettling TV series. If you’re not yet familiar, do yourself a favour and read the book first.
Written by Noah Hawley, creator of the brilliant Fargo series, Before the Fall (Hodder) is the finest thriller I’ve read all year. And possibly the finest novel, full-stop. It’s a superb mixture of addictive mystery and existential meditation centred on an Atlantic plane crash, told in beautiful prose. Nerve-shredding, evocative and often very moving.
Another American Renaissance man, folk-musician John Darnielle, delivered his second novel this spring in Universal Harvester (Scribe). It’s a strange and unsettling story of a guy working in a video-store who notices someone has been messing with the tapes. Is the cause supernatural or more earthbound? Think Don DeLillo and David Lynch teaming up to write a book inspired by the Japanese horror movie Ringu.
In non-fiction, James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History (Vintage) is ideal summer reading for anyone interested in popular science, philosophy, culture high and low, and the deepest, weirdest, most mind-bending subject matter of all: time. What is it? How do we define it? Most importantly, can we invent cool machines that’ll whisk us back in it so we can assassinate Hitler with a laser blaster we’ve already picked up in the future? (Answer: only in fiction, sadly.)
Meanwhile in Why? What Makes Us Curious (Simon & Schuster, out July 27), astrophysicist and author Mario Livio explores the titular question. Where does it come from, this intrinsic human need to know why?
From the archives: I’ve spent a good part of 2017 working through JG Ballard’s Complete Short Stories Vol I and II. Created between 1956 and 1992 (when he just stopped dead with short stories, though he continued writing novels), it’s an incredible collection. If you already worship Ballard, this is indispensable. If you don’t, it’s a gentle introduction and gateway drug before moving on to the harder stuff, such as High-Rise or The Atrocity Exhibition. Plus it’s very long — 1,500-plus pages over two volumes — so will keep you reading until autumn (2019, possibly).
If you prefer your beach reads to come from the women’s fiction shelves, which are fit to burst this time of year, then the choice is just bamboozling, but these have been my favourites so far in 2017.
In Joanna Trollope’s City of Friends (Mantle), we find Trollope abandoning her ‘Queen of the Aga Saga’ title and setting a novel in London, where four old college friends struggle with the demands of work and family. Can women really have it all? Trollope doubts it, and she makes a very good case.
Patricia Scanlan has hit the bestseller list once again with her latest book. Orange Blossom Days (Simon & Schuster) is set in a sparkly new apartment complex in Andalucia, where Irish couple Anna and Austen arrive to enjoy their retirement. But life gets in the way. And it seems life’s getting in the way of some other residents, too.
Claudia Carroll’s Our Little Secret (Avon) is an intriguing tale inspired by the movie All About Eve. Sarah Keys is a successful lawyer who takes pity on young Lauren, a law graduate working in a dingy nail bar. Sarah finds Lauren a job at the legal firm, takes her into her home, shows her the ropes… and lives to regret it.
Due in September, Marian Keyes’ latest novel, The Break (Penguin), is about a husband opting for a six-month break from his marriage, and I just can’t wait.
From the archives: One of my favourite love stories is Peter Carey’s 1998 novel Oscar and Lucinda (Faber & Faber). It’s not chick lit. It’s dark and tragic, and obsessive-meets-compulsive and it took my breath away.
Hilary A White
A good short-story collection should always travel with you. Everyone is having a go at the format these days but fast-track straight to Carlow writer John MacKenna and Once We Sang Like Other Men (New Island). With a cinematic palette, MacKenna compiles a diverse array of lives ebbing and flowing, each picking up the pieces following the death of a mysterious cult leader known only as “the Captain”.
For someone who once won the Bad Sex in Fiction award, Rowan Somerville proves himself to be one of this year’s breakout non-fiction talents with Beat (Lilliput Press). He somehow manages to blend rigorous journalistic commentary with deep soul-searching against the hate-filled backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You’ll find poignancy and tragedy but also much wit and candour, all fuelled by smart structuring and a devotion to truth and humanity. A volume of seismic relevance today.
Right now, I’m greatly enjoying iridescent dips into Philip Judge’s hearty pastoral memoir In Sight of Yellow Mountain (Gill Books, released August 25). This spirited, amusing and affectionate account by the former UK actor and hopeless urbanite about relocating to the Irish countryside will speak to anyone who’s ever sat in rush-hour traffic and thought, “sod this”.
From the archives: JA Baker’s The Peregrine (HarperCollins) is 50 years old, so an anniversary edition is in order. Baker’s woozy, kinetic field journal is simply one of those books everyone should read once. Rarely, if ever, has nature writing been rendered powerful enough to elicit a sensory response as it does in this time-stopping diary about a man evaporating into the landscape via an obsession with local wild falcons. Robert Macfarlane — who devoted an entire chapter to it in 2015’s Landmarks — pens a new afterword, examining how, half a century later, The Peregrine still “locks on to its readers, and they pass involuntarily into it”.
Robert Webb is best known for playing a feckless, self-deluded hipster in Channel 4’s cult sitcom Peep Show. Along with his comic partner David Mitchell, however, he is also a thoughtful and engaging opinion writer. Webb’s first book, How Not to be a Boy (Canongate, published in August), which promises to be both a memoir and an exploration of masculinity, has received advance plaudits from Stephen Fry, Ian Rankin and JK Rowling.
Theresa May has been taking a hammering recently, so The Enigmatic Prime Minister by Rosa Prince (Biteback) is a useful reminder that nobody gets to 10 Downing Street without having at least some formidable qualities. Rosa Prince’s interviewees include a former press officer from Dublin who describes May as “lovely to work with” and recalls that the future PM protected her from anti-Irish bias.
How did Hillary Clinton throw away an election that most pundits and pollsters thought she had in the bag? Shattered by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes (Crown) is a compelling fly-on-the-wall book that provides the most detailed answer yet, revealing a campaign riven by internal feuds and a candidate haunted by her inability to make an emotional connection with voters.
From the archives: Readers of a certain age will remember Saki’s hilarious short story ‘The Lumber Room’ from their Inter Cert course. What they may not know is that he wrote at least two dozen others just as good, collected in various anthologies such as The Complete Saki (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics). Playful, witty and sometimes macabre, Saki delighted in exposing the hypocrisies of Edwardian society — and since none of his tales is more than a few pages long, they are also perfect for 21st-century attention spans.
No more satisfying book has been published all year than This Family of Things (Doubleday Ireland). Alison Jameson’s novel explores the lives of awkward, lonely farmer Bird Keegan after he takes in a young girl who’s been brutally treated by her father. It’s a wise, touching story about redemption from an author with a commanding voice. Every page is a delight.
A Talent For Murder (Simon & Schuster) by Andrew Wilson re-imagines what happened during those famous 11 days in 1926 when Agatha Christie went missing at the height of her fame. The conceit here is that the so-called Queen of Crime let a close friend in on the mystery on the proviso that the truth could only be told after her death. The tone is clever, complex, indulgent; the pace relentless.
Competition for the year’s best book may be on hand in the shape of Bernard MacLaverty’s first novel in 16 years. Midwinter Break (set for publication in August by Jonathan Cape) follows a retired couple on a short trip to Amsterdam as their relationship strains under the weight of the past — a common MacLaverty theme. A new work from the author of Cal is a rare treat.
From the archives: Sarah Waters is far more prolific, but 2002’s Fingersmith (Virago) remains her standout work. The rollicking tale of pickpocket Sarah, who poses as a lady’s maid as part of her next escapade, has one of the greatest plot twists in modern fiction. It’s full of vivid, Dickensian London atmosphere and memorable characters. Haven’t read it before? You’re in for a treat.
Summer is an especially good time for catching up on books on history and international affairs. An absorbing title is Avenging Angels: Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front (1941–45) by Lyuba Vinogradova (MacLehose Press), who worked with Antony Beevor on his epics about the sieges of Stalingrad and Berlin. Here, she writes about Soviet female volunteers, who not only provided huge logistical and physical support in the farms, factories and hospitals but also on the front line where, as a crack unit of brave and dedicated snipers, they did great damage to the Nazi effort.
On the rise of the same German militarism, Jürgen Tampke has written A Perfidious Distortion of History — The Versailles Peace Treaty and the Success of the Nazis (Scribe). He argues that far from the punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty of 1918, which settled the outcome of World War I, being the central reason for the rise of the Nazis and World War II, the desire for German militarism was always there going right back to the Franco-Prussian War.
In the more personal vein, I am really looking forward to My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis. It reveals how the Anglo-Saxon world could do itself a power of good — and get over their death denial — by just copying what the Irish do with the dead by having a wake and more funerals.
From the archives: I am re-reading the haunting slim novel After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys, which captures a lonely woman’s life in Paris and London.
Several music books have crossed my desk this year but only a handful have sucked me in. A favourite is David Hepworth’s Uncommon People (Bantam), which charts the rise and fall of some of rock’s biggest stars. It’s something of an exercise is nostalgia — as last year’s 1971 was — but Hepworth is such an engaging writer that you’re happy to go along for the ride.
I was also content to be transported back to the short-lived skiffle era in late 1950s Britain thanks to Billy Bragg’s witty, informative Roots, Radicals and Rockers (Faber & Faber). It made me think anew about a genre of music that I had hitherto dismissed.
The euphoric reviews for Sarah Perry’s second book, The Essex Serpent (Profile), encouraged me to pick it up — and I’m really glad I did. It’s a brilliantly written story of one woman’s life and relationships in late Victorian England and my favourite historical novel since Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger.
From the archives: With John le Carré set to publish a new George Smiley novel, A Legacy of Spies, in September, I went back to Smiley’s first outing, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Sceptre), and found it even more compelling on a second, closer reading. Le Carré doesn’t spoon-feed his reader — you have to work to keep up with who’s who and what’s happening, but if you do you’ll be richly rewarded.