The Nine Books You Should Read On Holiday
The fiction and non-fiction titles to unpack poolside this summer
Ah, summer. The time when MR PORTER’s hard-working devotees will be taking their well-earned rest. Depending on their wont, they may be idling by the pool of a villa in the Tuscan hills, swinging in a hammock under the dappled shade of a broad-leafed tree in Dorset, or just, you know, in the garden with several bottles of wine. In any case, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get some reading done. Relax, turn off your mobile phone and sink into a good old analogue form of entertainment, one that will supply ideas and images to nourish your imagination long after the book is finished and you have returned to the daily grind.
Here, we suggest a good-sized armful of books that will entertain and enlighten, from the hottest new titles in the world of fiction to the non-fiction books whose talking points will keep you looking smarter than the next person around the water cooler when you get back to work. Here are angels and demons, dentists and corner shops, green men and ice-cream vendors. There should, we earnestly hope, be something here to appeal to everyone.
01. An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent
by Mr Owen Matthews
If you like spy stories, and you haven’t heard of Mr Richard Sorge, you’re in for a treat. This German/Russian spook was regarded by everyone from Mr John Le Carré to Mr Kim Philby (whose description of him lends Mr Owen Matthews’ book its title) as the greatest spy of the 20th century. Playing the Nazis off against the Japanese, and selling them both down the river to Mr Joseph Stalin’s Russia, Mr Sorge’s intelligence gathering changed the course of WWII. Mr Sorge was no dull backroom boy, either. A drunk, an epic womaniser and a serial daredevil who courted death in a series of high-speed motorcycle crashes, he charmed the socks off everyone he met. He may have been the only person in history to have been simultaneously a card-carrying member of the Nazi and Communist parties. He dodged death on the battlefields of WWI and in Mr Stalin’s purges. He drunkenly announced he was going to kill Mr Adolf Hitler in a room full of Nazis. And he lied with such ease that even his closest associates described him as unknowable. Mr Matthews has delved in Soviet archives to produce the fullest portrait of this remarkable man yet written, and has written it with a thriller writer’s verve.
02. Angels: A Visible And Invisible History
by Mr Peter Stanford
Here’s an unexpected fact. More people in the UK now claim to believe in angels than God. Why does our fascination with these winged creatures outlive our belief in the thing that, at least ostensibly, makes them meaningful? Mr Peter Stanford’s remarkable and learned book offers some suggestions, via a tour through the history of angels and angelology from the earliest biblical accounts right up to Mr Robbie Williams, and tells you an enormous amount you’ll be glad to know along the way. When did they get wings and halos, for instance? What’s the difference between a cherub and a seraph? How have they moved up and down the heavenly hierarchy? Are there angels in Islam and Zoroastrianism? How on earth did the prophet Enoch end up with 72 wings and 365 eyes? And did St Thomas Aquinas really concern himself with how many of them can dance on the head of a pin? Everything in this book is fascinating. You come for the weird facts and crazy prophecies; you stay for the subtler and more moving reflections on psychology and theology that Mr Stanford teases out of his subject. We’re loving angels.
03. Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias In A World Defined By Men
by Ms Caroline Criado Perez
Here’s a book that all chaps should read. Ms Caroline Criado Perez is best known as the person whose campaign to have a woman on a British banknote landed Ms Jane Austen on the tenner in your wallet. Now she raises her sights from currency to the current state of everything in this book. She has discovered that the world is unthinkingly man-centric in a zillion different ways, many of them unfair and some downright dangerous. It’s probably just annoying, for instance, that Fitbits routinely underestimate the number of steps that female users take because they’re calibrated to a male stride. But that it took until 2011 for car manufacturers to include experiments with lady-sized crash-test dummies? That stab-proof vests for police officers still default to male shapes and proportions? That any number of drug-testing and other medical protocols have been calibrated to male physiognomies (meaning, for instance, that women are 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed after a heart attack)? Not ideal, I think we can agree. Food for thought – and action.
04. The Corner Shop: Shopkeepers, The Sharmas And The Making Of Modern Britain
by Ms Babita Sharma
Ms Babita Sharma, now a senior BBC News presenter, grew up over the family corner shop in Reading. Here, she uses her own experience as the entry point to a lively and friendly history of modern Britain from street level, ranging from the early years of the 20th century to the modern day. As she points out, Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s father ran a corner shop, and the story of these general stores and mini-marts tells the story of our urban communities and how, from the 1960s onwards, they played a part in defining the immigrant experience. “The humble corner shop is at times the most foreign of places, yet also the most British of institutions,” says Ms Sharma. “Look beyond the advert-filled shop windows and broken door frames and you’ll discover a human story that is every bit as remarkable as the history it rests upon.” If nothing else, this book will cause the reader to reflect nostalgically on the national story as he pops down in his pyjamas and duffel coat for a packet of Rizlas and a couple of bags of Maryland Cookies.
05. Machines Like Me
by Mr Ian McEwan
Mr Ian McEwan is a writer who likes to have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, and since the zeitgeist is now digital, this time it’s a digital digit. His latest novel, Machines Like Me, is his first full-length plunge into science fiction since The Child In Time (1987). Set in an alternative-universe version of Britain in the 1980s, where the country lost the Falklands War but Mr Alan Turing made some spectacular advances in artificial intelligence, it tells the story of a love triangle involving Mr McEwan’s protagonist Charlie, his girlfriend Miranda and their, er, friend Adam, who is a sort of robot, or “artificial human”. We can expect Mr McEwan’s immaculate prose to probe such issues as whether an artificial intelligence, as well as being able to think, can truly feel as humans do, what it means to create something that goes beyond our control and the meaning of love itself. We are also, sneakingly, hoping for some red-hot human-robot sex scenes. Into “uncanny valley” we go. Ooh-er!
Out 18 April
by Mr Max Porter
Former Granta publisher Mr Max Porter caused a stir with his award-winning first novel Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, in which the mythological Crow from Mr Ted Hughes’ poem enters the lives of a widowed father and his two young sons after the death of their mother. His follow-up, Lanny, is equally original and bewitching, the portrait of a commuter village in which ancient magics stir. Its presiding genius is a green man, Dead Papa Toothwort, who lives in (under, through?) the village and its surrounding woods drinking in the day-to-day gossip and babble of the villagers (Mr Mikhail Bakhtin said novels were polyphonic, but this one is especially so). He takes a special interest in Master Lanny, an eccentric, lovable and unworldly boy not yet entering the thickets of adolescence. When Lanny goes missing, the village goes into a very modern meltdown and this funny, horrible and moving book threads tendrils of the ancient green through the digital trellis of the social media age. Poetic and strange and completely compelling.
07. Black Leopard Red Wolf
by Mr Marlon James
Mr Marlon James captured the world’s attention with his 2015 Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History Of Seven Killings. This new novel, the first in a projected trilogy, takes him from the 1970s Jamaica of that book to a magic-infused pre-modern Africa full of necromancers, witches and anti-witches, malevolent spirits and mermaids, lightning birds, mad monkeys and shape-shifting monsters of every type imaginable. Its protagonist, who tells his own story from a prison cell to an unnamed confessor, is Tracker, a man who has a nose that can smell out his quarry from miles away, a wicked way with axes, one wolf eye and a secret softness in his heart. Yet Tracker lives in a violent world and when he teams up with his old friend Leopard, a werecreature of sorts, and a motley gang of mercenaries to track down a missing child, he embarks on a quest full of danger, action and betrayal. Mr James makes a rollicking entry into the world of fantasy fiction in a book that will thrill fans of the genre, but whose superb dialogue, extraordinary imaginative range and subtler themes of truth and storytelling make it a must even for those who would never ordinarily pick up a sword-and-sandals novel.
08. Reasons To Be Cheerful
by Ms Nina Stibbe
Though it can be read with entire satisfaction as a stand-alone novel, Reasons To Be Cheerful is the third in Ms Nina Stibbe’s series about the girlhood and adolescence of Lizzie Vogel. Clever, naïve, pep-filled Lizzie has just turned 18, the year is 1980 and she is moving out of the family home – where her mother (“drunk, divorcee, nudist, amphetamine addict, nymphomaniac, shoplifter, would-be novelist, poet, playwright”), stepfather and half-brother live – and into her own flat for the first time. The flat is above a dental surgery where Lizzie has been taken on as an assistant to horrible dentist JP and his nice but put-upon fiancée Tammy. Here, set out with painful precision, are all the anxieties the brink of adulthood has to offer – self-doubt, faltering excursions into young love, driving lessons, athlete’s foot – and a good deal of period detail from the jolly (Crosse & Blackwell flans, Toffos) to the less jolly (racism and freemasonry). It’s very funny and very touching and will be read with enthusiasm by anyone who remembers the beginning of the 1980s, anyone who doesn’t but would like to laugh at it and anyone who has ever undergone dental work.
by Ms Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Israeli-born Ms Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s third novel (the first two, One Night, Markovitch and Waking Lions, picked up multiple prizes) steps lightly but provocatively in the shadow of the #MeToo movement. It tells the story of a false accusation of sexual assault, made by her teenage heroine Nofar, and the way in which such accusations can spiral, as the cliché has it, out of control. Until this moment, Nofar has been bored, spending her dowdy days, unnoticed by everyone, working on an ice-cream stall. Suddenly, she’s the centre of attention in a way that is not entirely comfortable. The plot thickens when she strikes up a relationship with another fabulist, the elderly Raymonde. As the blurb puts it, “One mistake can have a thousand consequences.” Ms Gundar-Goshen trained as a psychologist and worked as a journalist, so she brings a twin understanding to the themes of her book, themes that have seldom seemed so urgent. All the smart people will be reading this one this summer.