Some Caribbean sun, a few daiquiris, a bit of spying and some good laughs make Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene the perfect Covid-January read. With a far-fetched plot – British Havana based vacuum clean salesman, Jim Wormold, is recruited as a spy for MI6 – it delivers some much-needed distraction. Wormold has been brutally dumped by his Cuban wife and is left to raise their 16-year-old daughter Milly by himself. Keeping glamorous Milly content is expensive and when Mr Hawthorne from the Foreign Office arrives from England, he makes Wormold an offer he can’t afford to refuse.
2020 Booker Prize winner Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is the most empathic and convincing portrayal of an alcoholic I’ve read. It’s the 1980s and Agnes Bain and her three children live in utter misery in the most deprived area of Glasgow. Shug, Agnes philandering husband, has moved on. Soon the older children start looking for the exit too until it’s only Shuggie and Agnes left. It’s the indestructible love between the two of them that carries this touching novel. This year’s first must read.
It’s an annual event now. October comes, and with it the “memoirs” of a politician unceremoniously chucked out of office in the past decade. First we had Nick Clegg, whose Politics: Between the Extremes didn’t much change prospects for Britain remaining in the EU, but attracted the attention of Silicon Valley. Gordon Brown’s largely turgid memoirs reminded us all of why he had trouble communicating with the public. David Cameron’s exhaustive For the Record took up nearly 700 pages before he could bring himself to write about the referendum. A Promised Land by Barack Obama does not depart from these efforts in its mission, but it is refreshing in its style.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is a powerful tour of the emotional realities of late-20th century Czech history. Centered on the story of the young couple Tereza and Tomas, the novel explores the themes of infidelity and meaning-making against the backdrop of the Prague Spring period of 1968. Although intellectual in tone, the novel is entirely readable, thought-provoking, and remains a vibrant lens on history as well.
Amanda and Clay – a successful, liberal New York couple – are staying in a smart rental summer house in the Hamptons with their kids. When the phone and internet connections go down and a black couple, claiming to be the owners of the house, knock on the door asking for shelter, Amanda and Clay’s proclaimed tolerance is put to the test. Who is this couple? Can they be trusted? And why doesn’t the communications network function? Cyberattack? Terrorism? War? Nuclear accident? Catastrophe looms in Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, the most unsettling and frighteningly believable novel I’ve read in a long time.
In a row of cabins along a Scottish loch, families are trying to enjoy their summer holiday. It’s been bucketing down for several days and claustrophobia is setting in. Siblings are bickering, parents’ tempers flare. (Been there?) Bored, they observe each other through the ‘French doors’ of their cheaply built wooden cabins. Some venture out and some are sent out, mostly to relive the tension building inside. Summerwater by Sarah Moss, is a quietly unsettling little book that deals with family life, secrets and conflict, set in an ominous world, which I consumed in one sitting.
Feline Philosophy – Cats and the Meaning of Life by John Gray might sound like a whimsical self-help book but is actually a subtle, engrossing and revealing read about what it is to be human. People suggest that that there is no instruction manual to life, and you would be better served discovering Meaning (with a capital M) in the great works of literature. John Gray thinks there is no such thing as Meaning. An eminent author, he has spent his career trying to rubbish the idea that there is any “meaning” to life.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson is a near impossible sell. With its dreadful cover (really??) and odd sounding storyline (twins who catch fire when they get agitated) my go-to-bookseller struggled to convince me. Luckily, I succumbed because this is an utterly surprising, funny and moving novel. It’s the story of the Lillian, an aimless loner, who’s hired by her glamorous friend Madison as nanny for her twin stepchildren. There’s a catch: the twins combust when they’re upset. If you find this plot implausible, you won’t be alone, but somehow Wilson succeeds in making it credible and what seems like a shallow novel turns into something much weightier.
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima in the FT last week piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree, albeit lethal, experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.
Readers of this blog might have noticed that I have a soft spot for novels set on sailing ships. The wilder the storms and the longer the journeys, the better, so when I came across the recently published The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton, I wasn’t hard to convince. Set in the 17th century on a ship crossing from Batavia (Jakarta) to Holland, Turton’s book is packed with wild storms, betrayals, demons, murders and a plot to make your head spin. If you enjoyed Ian McGuire’s The North Water or indeed Turton’s last book The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, this book will be for you.