M's top 25 favourite summer reads
1. APPALOOSA (ROBERT B PARKER, 2005) Although the Boston author was more renowned for his Spenser series of detective novels, his terse, Hemingway-like prose and crackling Chandleresque dialogue work just as well in the US Wild West. The quintessential laconic lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, and their supporting cast of comic cowboys, hard-living women and sharpshooting desperadoes will amuse and entertain. Forewarning: Parker wrote three sequels before he died suddenly in 2010; you will be hooked.
2. ATONEMENT (IAN McEWAN, 2002) Certainly one of the more highbrow reads we are suggesting, but this is a great tale of love, lust, deceit and loss. Set mainly in upper-middle-class England between the wars, the novel spans more than 60 years, with intertwining plots bound together by an event one evening and a lie that changes the course of several characters' lives.
3. ATTACHMENTS (RAINBOW ROWELL, 2011) You're not going to be overwhelmed by the intellectual nature of this book, but it will make you laugh. It also touches on human themes in a light-hearted and accessible way, such as whether to have children. A perfect beach read. But don't expect more.
4. BACHELOR BROTHERS' BED & BREAKFAST (BILL RICHARDSON, 1993) Overlook the fact that there's no plot and instead find yourself in the cosy embrace of the eccentric Canadian twins Hector and Virgil. Their B&B is a haven for similarly quirky kindred spirits, where guests bring their own book or delve into the endearing bachelors' immense library. The tales, including those of the brothers' late avant-garde mother and her foul-mouthed parrot, are colourful, poignant, human and hilarious. A book for book lovers.
5. BEING THERE (JERZY KOSINSKI, 1971) The late Polish-American author, who was quite the mysterious and controversial player in New York literary and social circles, explores the unreality of America's media culture in this tidy and engrossing little fable. Read in total belief as a quirk of fate transforms the simple-minded Chance the gardener into Chauncey Gardiner, a high-powered friend to tycoons, wise presidential adviser and sage presidential candidate himself. Get the 1979 Hal Ashby film beforehand, then watch after a day on the beach to see a brilliant, nuanced and disciplined Peter Sellers make the pages come alive.
6. THE COLLECTOR (JOHN FOWLES, 1963) Fowles's debut novel brought a record high price at the time for its paperback rights, according to the publisher. No wonder: it's a harrowing, often existential, story of a lonely young man who kidnaps an upper-class art student in the hope that she will grow to love him. The internal monologues are literary works of art, and the ending is chilling. Since the book's publication and the 1965 film adaptation starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, several serial killers, spree killers, kidnappers and other criminals have cited The Collector as the basis, inspiration or justification for their crimes.
7. COOKING WITH FERNET BRANCA (JAMES HAMILTON-PATERSON, 2005) Gerald Samper is a rather pathetic ghostwriter of sporting biographies who sets up home near the zany Marta somewhere in Tuscany. This hilarious, laugh-out-loud book tells the story of their relationship (will they, won't they?) from both points of view. Hamilton-Paterson portrays these two misfits with so much humour and such affection that by the end of the book you feel like you're part of their lives. Don't be put off by the cooking reference. This is a book to savour, but not for any culinary reason.
8. FACELESS KILLERS (HENNING MANKELL, 2003) There's nothing like a good thriller to pass the time while you're tanning. This is the first of Mankell's immensely popular series featuring the detective Kurt Wallander. It centres on the gruesome double murder and torture of an elderly couple living in an isolated farmhouse in Sweden. Wallander's only clue is that the perpetrators may have been foreigners. When this is leaked to the press, it unleashes racial hatred - always a touchy subject in politically correct Scandinavia and perhaps even more so after the horrendous events in Norway this summer. Mankell's writing is as addictive as his plots, and the character of Wallander is endlessly fascinating, with his depression, caffeine addiction and anger-management issues.
9. FOOLS DIE (MARIO PUZO, 1978) The Godfather author considered this his favourite. Like his more sprawling and better-known opus, Fools Die is set in New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas, and features a rogues' gallery from the worlds of gambling, publishing and the film industry. It's a compelling autobiographical read about a code of honour, and its thinly veiled portrait of the larger-than-life US author Norman Mailer is spot on. As a bonus, pick up Puzo's non-fiction 1977 tome, Inside Las Vegas, for a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at America's Sin City.
10. GIRLS OF RIYADH (RAJAA ALSANEA, 1997) Chick-lit from an Arabic angle, this excellent book tells the stories of four college-age friends living in Saudi Arabia, grappling with the constraints of society. Banned by the Saudis when it was published in Arabic in 2005, it is now widely available and has been an international best-seller across Europe and the US.
11. THE GREENGAGE SUMMER (RUMER GODDEN, 1958) A coming-of-age classic set in Champagne in northern France, this evocative novel tells the story of the charming Eliot; his lover, Mademoiselle Zizi; and the lovely Joss, a 16-year-old who is ripening as fast as the apples on the trees that line the banks of the Marne River.
12. HISTORY OF A PLEASURE SEEKER (RICHARD MASON, 2011) An attractive young man goes to belle èpoque Amsterdam to make his fortune, and finds the whole place much in need of his liberating influence. A sort of Dangerous Liaisons, with a beguiling and sultry leading man who can't fail to charm you, as indeed he does most of the other protagonists. This addictive and well-paced romp is well worth a day or two of your time. The title alone is enough to make you want to lose yourself in its louche world.
13. I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT (ALLISON PEARSON, 2002) If you haven't yet heard of this book, then you're about to. There is a film starring Sarah Jessica Parker due out this summer based on the novel, which chronicles the life and trials of a high-flying city slicker and mother trying to balance career, childcare and a love interest. One of the best and most memorable scenes is our heroine bashing up supermarket mince pies to take to the school fete so the other mothers will think she baked them herself. Classic and a must-read for any woman who has ever tried to have it all.
14. LONESOME DOVE (LARRY McMURTRY, 1985) A story as big as the American West, originally written as a screenplay for John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda. When the project was shelved, McMurtry resurrected it as a novel 10 years later. The cast of characters around an 1876 cattle drive makes for an ennobling human comedy.
15. LORD OF THE FLIES (WILLIAM GOLDING, 1954) Big themes resound in this gripping tale of British boys marooned on an uninhabited island who descend into savagery. Individual welfare versus the common good, society versus civilisation, how power corrupts - the tension thrums, and at the end you want to weep right along with the central character Ralph for the loss of innocence.
16. ONE DAY (DAVID NICHOLLS, 2009) Again a book that you will hear a lot about this summer as the film is released starring Anne Hathaway, a strange choice given that her character in the book is a rather dumpy Yorkshire lass who lacks confidence and sophistication. This book will resonate with anyone who has ever wondered what would have happened if you had never lost touch with that special person you met as a youngster. So that's most of you. Very funny in parts with a compelling plot - a great reason not to leave your sun-lounger.
17. OPEN (ANDRE AGASSI, 2009) You don't have to be a tennis fan to fall in love with this brutally honest and fascinating account of a life that was so ruthlessly predetermined, and the effects of that on a sensitive and intelligent young man. Agassi's father groomed him to be a tennis player from birth. He would force him to hit balls spewed out by a modified ball machine that Agassi nicknames "the dragon". "A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable," reasoned Agassi senior. Agassi junior starts to hate tennis, but surprisingly, continues to hate it even when he starts to win Grand Slams. Open is one of the best autobiographies of our time. And the tennis bits are jolly good, too.
18. RACHEL'S HOLIDAY (MARIAN KEYES, 2002) We have tried to avoid too much pure chick-lit (apart from Jilly Cooper, that is), but if you want to enjoy one from the queen of the genre, Marian Keyes, then go for this early novel. Rachel gets into a spot of bother with alcohol, drugs and men and finds herself in rehab, much to her amazement and horror. The success of the book lies in its humour and in the character of Rachel, who is as endearing as she is hopeless. An amusing and engaging read - vintage Keyes - and as good a chick-lit as it is possible to find. Perfect for the beach, but not if you're seeking an intellectual challenge.
19. RED DRAGON (THOMAS HARRIS, 1981) This cunning novel unleashed on the world the psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter, who became more famous in the sequel The Silence of the Lambs. As in Lambs, Dr Lecter is called on to help a detective catch another serial killer - but the fiendish psychological price he charges is a high one.
20. RIDERS (JILLY COOPER, 1985) This is the first of the so-called Rutshire Chronicles (three novels) set in the fictional county of Rutshire. Everyone falls in love with the caddish Rupert Campbell-Black, and he is central to the success and longevity of the popular books. It's vintage Jilly and a jolly super read.
21. STATE OF WONDER (ANN PATCHET, 2011) You may have heard of Patchet's earlier book Bel Canto, which won the Orange Prize. This one is slightly more accessible, and is a good, if not lightweight, read. The story centres on a clash of personalities between two female doctors who are in the Brazilian rainforest to research a miraculous fertility drug that would enable women to keep having children late into life. It is the spiritual and physical journey undertaken by the main character, Marina, that gives this highbrow fantasy adventure the famous Patchet touch and makes it so compelling.
22. A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (BETTY SMITH, 1943) The hardy "Tree of Heaven" that survives under brutal urban conditions serves as a metaphor for humans' ability to overcome adversity. This coming-of-age story of the young Francie Nolan and her impoverished Irish-American family in Brooklyn, New York, in the first two decades of the 20th century will captivate and charm you. Its slice-of-life telling of the trials and tribulations of an immigrant community strikes a universal chord.
23. A VOYAGE FOR MADMEN (PETER NICHOLS, 2002) A thrilling read about the world's first round-the-world yacht race entered by a collection of amateurs, lunatics and the eponymous madman. Might be more for the madmen in your lives, but the tale of a voyage from hell is gripping. You can feel the pain, loneliness and struggle.
24. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (LIONEL SCHRIVER, 2003) You risk sunburn if you get hooked on this one, but it takes a bit of time to get into. A clever book tackling the horrific subject of high school murders, as well as the rather unsettling notion that a mother might not actually like her child. The film, starring Tilda Swinton, comes out this summer.
25. THE WHITE ALBUM (JOAN DIDION, 1970) Angst, anxiety, chaos, dread, neurasthenia, weltschmertz - who would think such subjects make for such engaging reading? The title essay in this collection of Sixties magazine pieces by the American journalist/memoirist/novelist/scriptwriter covers her nervous breakdown, and it's as compelling as F Scott Fitzgerald's was in The Crack-Up. And when she turns her laser focus on an America that at the time seemed on the verge of similarly coming apart, you'll nod your head in agreement at every cogent observation.
Compiled by Helena Frith Powell and Rick Arthur
Published: August 13, 2011 04:00 AM