The best summer reads for 2019

    5 July 2019

    Lanny by Max Porter

    Following his acclaimed debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter has not just cemented his reputation, but cast it in solid gold with Lanny. The title character is an eccentric young boy growing up in a quiet English village under the watchful eye of his mother and a local artist who takes him under his wing. A mysterious, shape-shifting spirit called Dead Papa Toothwort is also keeping tabs on him. To give away anything more about the plot would ruin the surprise of what unfolds. Porter’s book is strange and poetic, but also hilarious and moving, and it’s short enough to read in one or two sunlounger sessions. If there’s a finer novel published in 2019, I’d be surprised.

    Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

    Like Lanny, this is a short but perfectly judged book. Moss’s narrator Silvie is a young woman on an unusual weekend away with her mother and father, plus a group of students and their professor: this motley bunch are spending a few days in the Northumberland countryside living as if they were ancient Britons. Moss brings her characters and their pastoral surroundings to life with breathtaking economy and skill. Slowly but surely, the tension, caused mainly by the menace emanating from Silvie’s permanently angry dad, builds to a devastating conclusion that will linger with you long after you have turned the final page.

    In Sunshine or in Shadow by Donald McRae

    Donald McRae is a magnificent sportswriter, and covering boxing his speciality. His previous books about the fight game – Dark Trade, In Black & White: The Untold Story of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, and A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith, are all superb, as is this latest one, which explores boxing’s role in The Troubles. McRae focuses on legendary Belfast boxing trainer Gerry Storey, whose gym attracted Protestant and Catholic fighters alike, including a young Barry McGuigan. By any measure, Storey’s tale is an extraordinary one, which McRae recounts with a novelist’s flair. The book’s most remarkable section chronicles the weekly visits Storey made to the Maze prison in the months following the deaths of the 10 Catholic hunger strikers, in order to train both Loyalist and IRA inmates in the sweet science.

    Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

    Irish writer Kevin Barry channels both In Bruges and Waiting for Godot with this novel about two Irish gangsters stalking a Spanish port in search of a missing girl. Barry’s prose, which melds violence, profane comedy and tender lyricism, will be warmly embraced by those who read and loved the dystopian nightmare that was City of Bohane, his breakthrough book. Newcomers will, I’m sure, relish getting swept up in Barry’s twisted universe for the first time.

    The Chain by Adrian McKinty

    This is one of the most anticipated thrillers of the year, with endorsements coming from big hitters such as Stephen King, Don Winslow and Dennis Lehane. The premise is a terrifying one – a young girl is kidnapped and will only be released (and spared a violent death) once her mother snatches another child and that child’s parents have themselves turned abductors, thus continuing a long-running criminal enterprise. This is just about the perfect summer read for crime nuts – properly gripping and written in razor-sharp prose. The hype for The Chain is fully deserved.

     Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe

    For a light-hearted read, pick up Nina Stibbe’s latest Lizzie Vogel novel, which recently won the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. This is the third book in the series, but the fact I’d never read one before didn’t hamper my enjoyment. The story, based on Stibbe’s own experiences of growing up in Leicester, follow an 18-year-old Lizzie as she takes up work for a monstrous dentist. What follows includes eye-watering dental procedures, disastrous driving lessons and something called a “thigh vagina” (Let your mind boggle!).  It’s frank and funny, and concludes on a genuinely poignant note.

    A Half-Baked Idea by Olivia Potts

    Olivia Potts, Spectator Life’s Vintage Chef, has written her debut book, a heartfelt memoir about how, following the death of her mother, she gave up her job as a barrister to train as a cordon-bleu pastry chef. As regular readers of her weekly Spectator Life column, and now this lovely book, will attest, it has proved to be a very wise career move.

    Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

    Keeping up with all the latest “must-reads” can be an onerous task, and, like me, you’re probably still ploughing through recommended books from the last few years. If so, Kamila Shamsie’s award-winning reworking of Antigone, which tells the contemporary story of a British Muslim family facing up to extremism in its midst, is definitely one to catch up with.

    The Judge: More than Just a Game by Robin Smith with Rob Smyth

    With the World Cup not exactly going to plan for fans of English cricket, lovers of the sport can distract themselves with this fine autobiography in which Robin Smith, who scored more than 4,000 Test match runs for England, documents his eventful career and the mental health problems that have dogged him in retirement.

    More Orgasms Please by The Hotbed Collective

    My wife, Lisa Williams, co-wrote this excellent book about sex and relationships, so I’m recommending it to you, albeit reluctantly. Reluctantly because of the potential accusations of bias and because of what the title might suggest about me.

    My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

    Like Home Fire, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation garnered plenty of buzz last year, and deservedly so. The American author, a surprise Booker Prize nominee back in 2016, has created a hilarious and twisted black comedy about a young woman attempting to alienate herself from life in New York city by sleeping for as many hours a day as she possibly can.

    Middle England by Jonathan Coe

    Most British holidaymakers will be looking forward to being able to put the endless Brexit squabbling to one side for a week or two, but if you’re a glutton for political punishment, try Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, a witty and bang-up-to-date state of the nation novel.