Summer, lest you need reminding, is upon us, and if you're off on holiday in the coming weeks, it's time to give some thought to the titles you will be packing in your case with the towels, the toothbrushes and the Factor 30. Equally, if you're not jetting off to more temperate climes and will instead be spending your spare time indoors with the air-con turned up, a good reading companion is an ideal way to see you through to the cooler days and nights ahead. But what to choose?
The truth is, of course, that there are as many kinds of summer read as there are readers. For some, holidays are a time to indulge in a guilty pleasure or two: only light reads make the shortlist. For others, the beach is the perfect place to tackle that mighty tome that refuses to be squeezed between office hours. Whichever category you fall into, there will be something here to pique your curiosity. We've drawn on 10 of the sharpest fiction and non-fiction titles published this summer, meaning this list has something of the 2010 zeitgeist about it. Still, that doesn't mean you can't take a paperback classic or two with you, too. Hasn't that copy of War and Peace sat on the shelf for long enough?
The Surrendered Chang-rae Lee Little, Brown This deft, elegant novel cuts back and forth between the Korean war of the early 1950s and mid-1980s New York, and among three protagonists, all searching for their own versions of redemption. June is a successful, middle-aged NYC antiques dealer, who, in the book's opening pages, learns that she has terminal stomach cancer. She decides to go in search of her former husband Hector, who as an American soldier in Korea had rescued her 30 years before when she was orphaned in the war. That shared past leads them to Sylvie, another Korean orphan who cannot escape her past. The Surrendered is dense with plot and can make for harrowing reading, but it's one of the most powerful novels of the year.
Union Atlantic Adam Haslett Tuskar Rock The acclaimed debut novel by the 39-year-old short story writer Adam Haslett, who was shortlisted for the 2003 Pulitzer for You Are Not a Stranger Here, rewinds to New England in 2001, to deliver a state-of-America story that foreshadows the financial crisis and US entanglement in the Middle East. Doug Fanning is a self-made banker who will stop at nothing to promote the interests of his firm. But when he decides to build a sprawling McMansion next to the home of Charlotte Graves - who harbours old money and old-fashioned patrician values - his testosterone-fuelled world view is finally challenged. Haslett is an assured stylist, and this is a novel that skilfully excavates the lines that connect the beginning of this American decade to its end.
The Rational Optimist Matt Ridley Fourth Estate For two decades, Matt Ridley has been among the most interesting popular science writers around. In his latest, he builds a case for an unusual idea: the world, he says, is getting better, and it's doing so at an accelerating rate. At the heart of all this is his argument that the free market - which encourages the development of specialised skills - allows for a human collective intelligence that is wonderfully effective at solving our problems. Indeed, the existential problems facing us in the 21st-century are, Ridley claims, either overblown in our imaginations (climate change) or eminently solvable (poverty in Africa). Whether you are convinced by his arguments or not, good news is always welcome on holiday.
Spies of the Balkans Alan Furst Weidenfeld & Nicholson An espionage thriller writer par excellence, Alan Furst traverses his usual ground - Europe in the grip of the Second World War - in another novel as intelligent as it is gripping. We are in the northern Greek port of Thessaloniki in 1940. Hitler's blitzkrieg is sweeping through Europe. Greece looks next to be subject to the German war machine. Enter our hero, Constantine Zannis, a policeman who sets about a series of dangerous missions aimed at mitigating the impact of the German invasion. He is, of course, irresistible to women. The pages will fly by. But Furst's intelligence, and his vast ability to situate us so convincingly in wartime Europe, elevate him far above his competitors.
Driving Home: An American Scrapbook Jonathan Raban Picador Here is another, and welcome, addition to a genre that is best described as the literature of American encounter. The journalist and novelist Jonathan Raban moved to the US in 1990. He finds the States, he tells us, "fascinating, bizarre, ugly, beautiful, repellent" and for 20 years he has documented its people and their changing mores, as well as the unchanging, awesome landscapes of the American wilderness. It's hard to think of another writer who combines such a gift for the description of physical place with a deep, analytical intelligence. For the latter, see his thoughts on the strange, potent idiocies of the Bush era. But it's not all Americana: there are pieces here on Larkin, WC Fields and parenthood. Perfect for dipping into by the pool.
Red Dust Road Jackie Kay Picador The celebrated British poet Jackie Kay was raised on a Glasgow housing estate by communist parents who loved to play Cole Porter records. But Helen and John Kay had adopted her, and in Red Dust Road, she recounts the search for her biological parents, a Scottish nurse and a Nigerian student who met at a dance in Aberdeen. It's a journey that takes us back to Kay's childhood, where she gazes at pictures of Nelson Mandela and imagines she might be looking at her father, through 1980s London and Kay's own motherhood to a meeting in Abuja in 2003, where she finally stands face-to-face with the stranger she has sought for so long. A heartfelt story and a perceptive look at race, identity and what it means to belong.
Men I've Loved Before Adele Parks Headline Review You, the beach and this book: it's a holiday romance minus the subsequent need to change your mobile number. If you think you don't know Parks, then think again. She's the author behind mega-sellers such as Playing Away, Husbands and Love Lies, and you've seen them in bookshops a million times. Men I've Loved Before won't disappoint Parks regulars, even as it pushes into somewhat new territory. Natalie is a successful, mid-30s career woman, married to Neil and happy with their metropolitan professional existence. But when Neil announces - contrary to a decision the pair made long ago - that he wants a baby, Nat freaks out and starts looking up her exes. Oh, Nat. It's not going to end well. Or is it?
Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Talented Lives Daisy Hay Bloomsbury No one better embodies the Romantic movement and all that we associate with it - high decadence, frilly shirts, the invention of what we now call "self-expression" - than the coterie of young poets and radicals that included Percy and Mary Shelley, Byron and Leigh Hunt. In Young Romantics, Daisy Hay has written an entertaining and sympathetic re-telling of their intertwined stories. It's all there, from Shelley and Byron's first meeting on the shores of Lake Geneva to Byron's disastrous marriage to Annabella Milbanke - they hated one another by the honeymoon - and Shelley's elopement with Mary, which prompted his first wife to drown herself. Hay proves able to combine a gossipy, gripping multiple biography with a sense of the lasting intellectual legacy of her subjects.
Crisis Economics Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm Allen Lane Nouriel Roubini is the New York University professor of economics who came to prominence when he foresaw the 2009 global financial meltdown. In 2006, colleagues called Roubini an oddball after he announced that the American housing market was a bubble set to burst. What a difference three years and a global recession make. Today, Roubini is advising governments and multinationals on how to survive the downturn. In this book Roubini argues that crises are a part of the way that market economies work, so it's best to plan for them. Only proper regulation of financial institutions, he says, can ensure we don't go down this path again, and that's no easy task. Vital reading for anyone who wants to understand how we got to where we are.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet David Mitchell Sceptre Mitchell's copious imagination has already produced at least one novel - 2003's Cloud Atlas - that is sure to last. That work saw him dazzle readers with six interlocking narratives; in Thousand Autumns, he's on more conventional fictive territory. We're transported to the Japanese island of Dejima in 1799, to follow the prissy, ambitious Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet. He is one among a small band of European tradesmen living on the island amid a Japan otherwise forbidden to foreigners. Soon enough, though, de Zoet has fallen in love with a local girl, Orito. When she disappears mysteriously, he is drawn into a dangerous rescue mission. Mitchell's attempt at straightforward historical fiction is full of the wonderful surplus - of stories, voices, worlds - that is his trademark.
Published: August 2, 2010 04:00 AM