Every so often a book lands on my desk to be read in advance of an interview, which is so beautifully written and absorbing I can’t wait to meet the author. My stand-out novel of the year is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Profile Books, paperback, £8.50 plus £1.50 p&p). It’s the story of Cora, who’s released from a miserable marriage when her husband dies. She leaves Victorian London for Colchester and becomes involved with the vicar and her passion for naturalism. It’s about love, faith and myth. I loved it.
Waiting to be read is I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad (Virago, paperback, £14 incl p&p) by Souad Mekhennet, the Muslim daughter of parents who came to Germany as guest workers. As a journalist she sought to understand contemporary Islamic militancy: something we all need to know.
Book Club, Drivetime, Radio 2
I know it might seem a cop out, but for my book of the year so far, I’ll pick Days without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber, paperback, £8.50 plus £1.50 p&p), which won the Costa Book Award. I’ve read nothing like it for years. The easy bit is to say it’s about two young Irishmen fighting the Indian Wars and the American Civil War who then, amid the horrors, fall in with an orphaned Sioux girl. Every page is a thing of poetic beauty.
One I can’t wait to get hold of is Munich by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, published 21 September). I can’t think of a writer I admire more. His consistency is remarkable, his writing crystal-clear and his research awe-inspiring. Here he’s back writing about Germany, specifically the Hitler/Chamberlain meeting of 1938 that led, infamously, to the “peace in our time” paper-wafting from the British prime minister. Conclave, Harris’s last novel, showed that he is at height of his powers.
Open Book, Radio 4
Flesh and Bone and Water (Viking, hardback, £12.75 incl p&p) is a remarkable debut from Brazilian emigrée Luiza Sauma. It’s the story of Dr André Cabral, a long-term London resident who receives a letter from Rio that catapults him into the past and the shameful moment he’s been running from all his life. It’s a wonderful evocation of a privileged Ipanema beach childhood, a searing critique of a deeply divided society and – with its intoxicating combination of tropical heat and overpowering passions – the perfect beach read.
Next on my list, I was recently exhorted to attempt completing George Eliot’s Middlemarch (Penguin Books, paperback, £6.99 plus £1.50 p&p) so, true to my word, I’m going to give it another try (my fourth!).
Bookclub, Radio 4
I’m looking forward to reading the first volume of diaries from David Sedaris, Theft by Finding (Little, Brown, hardback, £17.49 incl p&p), because he makes me laugh so much. In an era when US satire is outpacing our own he’s a sharp, humane and hilarious voice that never fails to make you smile – and sometimes weep. Apparently effortless humour is difficult, and precious. He’s the real thing.
The books I’d recommend for summer are Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill (Faber & Faber, paperback, £8.50 plus £1.50 p&p), which is a political romp in 1750s New York (population: 7,000). And, to round off an American-themed selection, you must read Days without End (see Simon Mayo). The winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, among other awards, it’s sublime.
Front Row, Radio 4
Richard Ford’s Between Them: Remembering My Parents (Bloomsbury, hardback, £12.75 incl p&p) was a Radio 4 Book of the Week and I spoke to him about it on Front Row. It’s a love story about a salesman who takes his wife on the road. They live an itinerant existence travelling across the American South during the Great Depression until she becomes pregnant with their only son, who grows up to become one of America’s greatest novelists. Beautifully written, it evokes mid-20th-century America like an Edward Hopper painting.
For my holidays, I’m looking forward to reading The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson (Faber & Faber, paperback, £8.50 plus £1.50 p&p), which was shortlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. It’s about an English governess who gets caught up in the Russian revolution. She moves into a commune led by an inventor who wants to revolutionise daily life with his innovations. But then one day he disappears.
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