Summer reading: the 30 best holiday reads – chosen by authors and critics
From an evocative story set in a Trinidad graveyard to a riveting exposé of the Sacklers… Novelists including Johny Pitts, Monica Ali and Nina Stibbe on their essential holiday books
- Summer reading: the 50 hottest new books for a great escape
- Summer reading: authors recommend their favourite recent reads
Sat 2 Jul 2022 09.00 EDT
Run and Hide by Pankaj Mishra (Hutchinson Heinemann)
This novel is a searing, deeply moving account of a young man’s rise from poverty into the hi-tech globalised prosperity of the new India. Opening as the protagonist, Arun, escapes the want and brutality of his childhood home for college, the novel follows him and his equally striving friends into varied and troubled adulthoods that reveal the hidden costs of “success”. Mishra is a superb journalist, and the sensory vitality of his second novel is a reminder that fiction is the ultimate information compressor. Unleashed in the realm of human feeling, Mishra’s keen observational powers are spectacularly alive.
Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe (Picador)
I first read Patrick Radden Keefe in the New Yorker, then graduated to his debut nonfiction book, Say Nothing: an extraordinary retelling of the Troubles. I grew up in Derry and that book gave me a whole new insight into what I experienced as a child. He has now become one of those authors I will always read, no matter what the subject matter, which is why I gobbled up Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty in spite of only having the vaguest notion of who the Sacklers were. In this book, Radden Keefe not only delves into a riveting (and dysfunctional) family history but also charts the course of the American opioid epidemic. He has this ability to pick out individual incidents that illuminate the whole story, like lighting a match in a cave. Although the subject matter is complex and unwieldy, it never feels like it. A masterclass in compelling narrative nonfiction.
This is a book both ferocious and magical, the story of a boarding house of trans sex workers who discover and raise a baby in Córdoba, Argentina. It’s a trans iteration in a long tradition of Latin American literature: stuffed with marvels, humour, political critique, and storytelling that moves from macro to micro in the course of a paragraph. And yet, for all its specificity of place and culture, it’s one of the books that best illustrates the themes that link together a growing movement of global trans literature, a book that unflinchingly asks, “how do we live?”
Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World by Barry Lopez (Random House US)
Barry Lopez, one of America’s greatest nature writers, died in 2020. Embrace Fearlessly is a posthumous collection of essays, thus far published only in America, revisiting places and themes familiar to admirers of earlier books such as Crossing Open Ground and Arctic Dreams. Reading him – the steady, unshowy attentiveness to the everyday life of extraordinary places (and vice-versa) – is always a joy but here, at the end of his life, he forces himself to confront one of the reasons for his long-standing sense of the solace offered by the unpeopled world: the devastating experience, as a young boy, of falling prey to a family friend and serial paedophile.
Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser (Atlantic)
Scary Monsters is a diptych-novel with a “reversible” format, meaning one half is printed the other way up, so you have to decide which half to read first: the one set in 1980s France, in which Lili, a young Australian, attempts to model herself on Simone de Beauvoir; or the one set in near-future Australia, in which Permanent Fire Zones have been declared as climate catastrophe edges ever closer. Whichever way you read it, this is a novel of luminous intelligence about racism, misogyny and ageism. De Kretser dissects the barely concealed misogyny and racism of then, to awaken our senses to now, unsettling and disturbing our sense of where we are headed, what kind of future we might be sleepwalking towards.
A Killing in November by Simon Mason (riverrun)
This is a tale of two Wilkinses, Ray and Ryan; both DIs in Oxford, the former an uptight Balliol graduate (is there any other kind?), the latter a working-class single parent with a chip on both shoulders, a hair-trigger temper and unerring instincts when it comes to detective work. The odd couple scenario is familiar enough, but Mason avoids the obvious tropes, and rather movingly focuses on Ryan’s relationship with his young son. Well plotted, too. It’s the first in a series: start now and avoid the rush.
Fight Night by Miriam Toews (Faber)
A chaotic, spirited family of three (nearly four) prepare for great change in this touching, funny novel that sits somewhere between Lucy Ellmann and Patricia Lockwood. The narrator, 100-month-old Swiv, commentates on her life with a pregnant mother and grandmother via an ongoing stream-of-consciousness letter to her absent father. There is sharp dialogue, comic, tragic, and gloriously obscure detail (how to dig a grave in winter), beautiful meditations on life (somehow absurd and wise at the same time), world weariness, and the most sublime language but, overall, you’re faced with the immeasurable joy of family love at even the saddest times. Books as wonderful as this don’t come along very often. I adored it.
I love fiction where tiny pressures build to derailment, for better or worse: a late start, a wrong turn. In this beautiful, fierce, humane novel, coal-merchant Bill Furlong is a decent man in recession-pressed 1980s Ireland. He wants his daughters to go to the only good local girls’ school, run by the nuns on the hill, who also have a training college (or is it a laundry?), rarely spoken of. But Bill, conscientiously delivering fuel for Christmas, finds something in the convent coal-shed. He should ignore it, for everyone’s sake. But he can’t. And neither should we.
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld (Jonathan Cape)
It is no mean feat to create a novel of such subtlety and hope that opens with a body in a suitcase. The Bass Rock sidesteps through time to bring together the lives of three women in three different centuries, treading one another’s invisible paths of desire and persecution, male violence, family and the aspiration for a brighter future. The images of the Bass Rock on the news recently – amid concerns for its bird population – have brought the living spectacle of the rock back to my mind, serving as a poignant reminder of the novel’s themes of generational unity, precariousness, constancy.
Palmares by Gayl Jones (Virago)
This daring, multifaceted novel set in 17th century Brazil tells a sprawling tale about a community of Africans who escaped slavery. We follow its narrator, Almeyda, from childhood in the 1670s on a Brazilian plantation with her enslaved mother and witch-like, Arabic-speaking grandmother. Almeyda embraces her kaleidoscopic existence with vigour and imagination, mining and observing the movements of the various characters around to make sense of her world. I love the novel for its scope, its singular vision, its playfulness with form as well as the complexity of its female characters. It marks the return of a lesser-known literary giant. Discovered by Toni Morrison no less, Jones withdrew from the publishing world after a few acclaimed novels. I’m thrilled she’s returned with this bold, imaginative feat.
When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo (Hamish Hamilton)
A book set in a graveyard might not seem like much fun for a summer read, but Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s When We Were Birds juggles many counterintuitive elements, and you want to spend time wherever it takes you. Written in a gentle vernacular, it is a haunting and evocative portrait of the heady streets of Trinidad, and the bardo that connects the everyday with the spiritual world. Because the darkness of the novel is textured and soulful, there is something strangely consoling about its tone, full as it is of murky sunsets, imperfect love affairs and struggling characters you are always rooting for.
This is a stunning debut novel – a noir-inspired thriller that weaves in politics, family ties, corruption and murder, while also being sharp about different kinds of power, particularly as it relates to women. It starts in Lahore’s Old City with men coming to take a boy away from the world of courtesans into which he’s been born; it leaps forward within just a few pages to the boy grown into a police officer and sent by his powerful father back to the world of courtesans to investigate a murder. Aren’t you gripped already?
Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin (Pan Macmillan)
Although it has plenty of suspense, Alexis Schaitkin’s novel Saint X is less about the mysterious death of a beautiful young woman than its consequent, devastating ripple effect. Narrator Claire is seven when her sister Alison disappears on a family vacation to the fictional Caribbean island of the book’s title. Two days later, Alison’s body washes up. Eighteen years later, Claire is living in New York when she encounters one of the men accused of Alison’s murder. I read Saint X in a night, captivated by its mystery but also by the smart, evocative way Schaitkin writes about race, loss and place.
He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux US)
This is a book I’ve kept close to me for the past few years by Christian Wiman, an American poet. His exploration of poetry, spirituality and mortality has given me so much solace and inspiration. The book’s subtitle – “the art of faith, the faith of art” – encapsulates it nicely. Poetry is the grace we strive for but fail to embody. Art is the true mediator between earth and sky, not any religious functionary. Faith is essential for any artist. But why do we want to make art? The book came to me from another poet, Matthew Tierney, who also lives in Toronto, and he has a line that is the beginning of an answer: “Freed from the desire to fly, I flew.”
The Saint of Lost Things by Tish Delaney (Cornerstone)
I was eager to read the follow-up to Tish Delaney’s outstanding debut novel, Before My Actual Heart Breaks. Again, The Saint of Lost Things begins in rural Northern Ireland, and the narrative revolves around the lives, dramas and dark family secrets of an aunt and her niece living in a cottage near a small village. Delaney has an effortless skill to unlock the fabric and nuances of working-class family life. Thoroughly absorbing, it didn’t let me down.
The Real and the Romantic by Frances Spalding (Thames and Hudson)
It isn’t very packable, but I’m hopeful I will somehow manage to secrete in my luggage Frances Spalding’s big new history of English art between the wars. Turning its delectable pages, I know already that the joy and intense interest of this book will come courtesy of the attention given by its scholarly but always readable author to less well-known names, Gerald Brockhurst, Winifred Knights and Algernon Newton duly taking their place alongside the Nash brothers, Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland. What could be better when lying by the pool than to gaze on a brooding etching by the inestimable FL Griggs? A crisp portrait by that master, Meredith Frampton?
Vladimir by Julia May Jonas (Picador)
Having grown up on campus novels – I am the child of a funny, frisky academic – I’m always in search of good new ones, even now. For this reason, I read this first novel by Julia May Jonas even before it was published in Britain (I ordered an American edition), and so exciting did I find it, I might just give it a second whirl before the summer is out. A quick summary: female professor whose husband, also a professor, is accused of Bad Things (think #MeToo crimes) does some pretty Bad Things herself as a po-faced and appalled campus looks on. Sexy and satirical and incredibly gripping, this somehow all too believable novel is impossible to put down.
Alison by Lizzy Stewart (Serpent’s Tail)
Graphic novels don’t usually last long enough to make for perfect holiday reading, but I’m determined to read this imminently forthcoming book while I’m away. I loved Stewart’s last book, a collection of stories called It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be, and I’m hopeful this full-length graphic novel will be as good (Tessa Hadley has already described it as “subtle and deliciously complicated”). Set in the late 70s, it tells the story of newly married Alison, who upends her life after an encounter with an older artist. But will bohemian romance lead to enduring love or only to patchouli-scented disappointment? Stewart is a considerable talent, and I can’t wait to find out what she does with this eternal story.
The Last Days of Roger Federer by Geoff Dyer (Canongate)
Geoff Dyer is the nearest thing I have to a literary crush; I get overexcited whenever I’m in his presence, book-wise. I gather that some of the reviews for his latest book, an exploration of the achievements of middle age, have been somewhat disobliging, but I honestly couldn’t give a damn. Pearls before swine, and all that. Dyer is a writer who can make anything interesting and funny, and for such singular reasons, too (it’s the sheer Geoff-ness of Geoff that we, his fans, adore). Friedrich Nietzsche, JMW Turner, John Coltrane, Jean Rhys: all appear in this uncommon treatise, though of course it also comes with trademark scenes from Dyer’s own, vastly less celebrated (though not by me) artistic life. An enormous treat in prospect.
Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso (Picador)
In general, I’m suspicious of what I think of as “shard” books, by which I mean those slight, prickly little novels in which the narrative is broken into pieces, each paragraph floating on the page. But I will make an exception for Sarah Manguso’s first novel , reviews of which have made it sound – to put it mildly – right up my street. Set in Brahmin New England, it is narrated by Ruth, a child who is entirely surrounded, it would appear, by people whose battered, beleaguered hearts long froze hard against the world. From what I can gather, Manguso’s stop-start narrative builds to a gelid climate, which will also do nicely if my holiday should happen to coincide with another heatwave.
The Perfect Golden Circle by Benjamin Myers (Bloomsbury)
Without knowing it, I’d been looking for a book that gave me the same visceral, iconoclastic thrill I got from Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. Ben Myers’s seventh novel, The Perfect Golden Circle, is it. A study in male friendship and British identity, this fictional retelling of the pranksters who fooled a nation with their crop circles is a warm, rollicking, heart-expanding read. You’ll never forget the time you spend in the company of Calvert and Redbone, the eccentrics at the heart of the novel.
Companion Piece by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
The end of Smith’s seasonal quartet left a void in the literary world. I hadn’t realised how much I’d relied on these visionary, speed-published messages from the present to help shape my view of the political moment. True to form, Smith confounded expectations and has published a fifth book to go with her quartet, a book that thrums with the same rage and artistic energy as its predecessors. Here we have Sandy, an artist, who receives a mid-lockdown call from an old friend that sets off a wild series of events. Taking in Covid and the Black Death, gender identity and violence against women, it’s another superlative novel from one of our very best writers.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (Pushkin Press)
A wonderful book whose joyful, riotous, interlaced stories combine to paint a picture of a group of women torn between the exigencies of their religion and the urges of their bodies. Philyaw finds beauty in unexpected places, lifting everyday experience into something almost sacred. It’s from an entirely different world, but I was reminded repeatedly of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway – Philyaw’s great triumph is to permit her characters to inhabit fully their rich and particular interior lives. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies has been a surprise bestseller in the US; it ought to be equally successful this side of the Atlantic.
When Bourne-Taylor finds herself suddenly transplanted to Ghana – her husband takes a job at a sports academy there – she begins to question her place in the world. She’s alone, dependent and bored. Then something falls, almost literally, into her lap – a baby bird, which she rears and then releases. H Is for Hawk trailed a host of similar narratives behind it in which authors found solace in nature, but few of them are as intelligent, poetic and moving as this one.
Invisible Child by Andrea Elliott (Cornerstone)
When Invisible Child won the Pulitzer prize, I punched the air. A work of devastating power, it tells the story of Dasani, a young woman growing up in abject poverty in New York. Dasani is a whirlwind of a young woman, roaring out of the projects that threaten to suck her back in. Elliott spent almost a decade following Dasani and her family and the book is a work of great moral and ethical power – there’s nothing voyeuristic here, just an extraordinary portrait of the human spirit under pressure.
The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (HarperCollins)
This 800-page book is a sweeping epic that journeys through the history of one African American family across several centuries. It jumps back and forth between eras, from slavery to the antebellum south to present times, and does so in a way that makes it as thrilling as a murder mystery. The book’s main protagonist, Ailey, is clever and perceptive and it’s rewarding watching her grow from an angsty kid to a gifted researcher. The stories of female characters such as Aggie, an enslaved woman intent on toppling the sadistic man who bought her from Africa, create a landscape of formidable women who show how resoluteness can change the course of history.
Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley (Faber)
This debut poetry collection is abundant with thoughtful storytelling. Each poem is ruminative and distills the intimacies of Black girl/womanhood with fascinating images, compelling observations and a nomadic sense of questioning, while honouring the concept of silence and the ways it plays out in one’s interior life. These delicate poems unpick encounters with loved ones, friends and animals (there’s a beautiful poem about snails) and also focus firmly on the wider world, with poems such as Pandemic vs Black Folk written with the sharpest of tongues.
These short stories are the kind that stay with you; Wideman deploys an experimental literary style that forces you to pause with each sentence. With emotional precision and bold storytelling, they largely cover the African American experience. There’s a letter addressed to the narrator’s son, who has been charged with murder. There’s another about two chickens crossing the road, pondering the meaning of captivity. Wideman’s stories are preoccupied with how lives are shaped by incarceration and the criminal justice system and how these experiences can warp time. His tales are not easy reads but they are extremely absorbing, with Wideman’s stream-of-consciousness style evoking raw emotion and empathy.
Out of the Sun: Essays at the Crossroads of Race by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail)
Edugyan has written a remarkable set of essays unlike anything else. This is a deeply curious book that delves into the representations of Black people in western art, studying the fine details of paintings such as David Martin’s portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Johann Gottfried Haid’s painting of Viennese courtier Angelo Soliman. Edugyan oscillates between past and present, moving from the atrocities of the slave trade in Canada to recent debates around “transracialism”. She writes from a subjective, personal perspective, too, telling intriguing stories about how her parents met, her travels as a writer and her belief in ghosts.
A Brief History of Black British Art by Rianna Jade Parker (Tate Publishing)
This book by the brilliant critic and curator Rianna Jade Parker explores the pivotal contributions that African and Caribbean-descended artists have made to the landscape of art in Britain. Though a quick read, it’s bountiful in the number of artists and histories it discusses, which will be unknown to many. Concise biographies of Frank Bowling, Anthea Hamilton, Denzil Forrester and Maxine Walters offer insight into their lives and practices, and in her introduction, Parker touches on the social and political realities affecting Black cultural production. She also writes of how and why Black British artists “have long been relegated to the niche,” and notes that the under-historicised Caribbean Artists Movement of the 1960s was a genesis point of contemporary Black British art.