I’m imagining the kind of holiday that involves long hours in a hammock with a glass of something cold – or possibly by the log fire in a Scottish glen – rather than one of the wholesome variety that involve blisters forming under the walking boots, the husband peering at the map, and teenagers asking why are we here, and please can we go somewhere sensible next year?
So – what books would I pack for the hammock or hearth? Well, let’s start with something to bring on that languorous holiday feeling. Joanna Trollope’s recent Daughters-in-Law, for example. Atmospherically set under the vast skies of Suffolk, the novel explores family tensions – something Trollope does so incisively. A controlling matriarch struggles to let go of her sons, while her three daughters-in-law each in their own way fight back. The result? Chaos.
If the air-conditioning has broken down and you’re longing for a proper cup of tea, you might find an antidote in Erica James‘s The Hidden Cottage – another beautifully-characterised family story: secrets, loyalties and temptation in an English village. The setting’s idyllic and the characters became my friends – apart from the villains, of course.
Now for something completely different: Alan Bennett’s volume of two novellas, Smut: Two Unseemly Stories. Marvellous. These had me smirking guiltily to myself this week, as I sat reading in a couple of stolen hours outside a café. They have wit and quirkiness and – let’s face it – some quite smutty smut. It was like spending an afternoon in the company of a very amusing, wicked but wise raconteur. It’s a compact book, perfect for whipping out of your backpack in a Mexican bus station. Beware though – you may blush if someone looks over your shoulder.
The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri N. Murari deserves a place in your in-flight bag. Set in war-torn Kabul, the blurb describes it as ‘Bend it like Beckham in a Burka,’ but this doesn’t do justice to the heart of it. The story has its comedic moments and is not as harrowing as you might expect, but at the same time it’s a terrific evocation of fear, love and courage. I learned much about Afghanistan’s history and life in Kabul under the Taliban, especially for women, and was rooting for our heroine and her team from the first page.
A few years ago my family was staying in a village on a Pacific Island. I’d run out of reading material and the nearest bookshop was across several hundred miles of ocean. In a tin-roofed store, we found a tiny book exchange used by passing yachties. For some reason most of the books were in German; but I picked up a mildewed, salt-encrusted copy of The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier. It’s seen a few hurricanes, I’ll wager. The story is set in a French chateau, and is about a man who has another’s identity forced upon him – that of his doppelganger, a French aristocrat with a crazy family and a crumbling business. I was stunned. Like all of du Maurier’s work, I found it intelligent and compelling but never self-satisfied; altogether one of the best found-on-holiday books – or indeed books of any kind – I’ve ever read.
I love a historical novel, and a recent guest left me her copy of Robert Harris’ Pompeii which, for some reason, passed me by when first published. Harris is one of those storytellers who can evoke a time, a place, and an atmosphere without ever letting his writing get in the way of the story. Set under Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Harris vividly draws Roman politics and a growing tension as the inexplicable – and unthinkable – begins to happen. Like those citizens of Pompeii, I felt an almost superstitious awe as the mountain finally exploded. Terrific stuff.
Finally, I’m going to make room by my hammock for Bill Bryson’s At Home: A short History of Private Life. I gave a copy to my husband and watched him chuckling away, but haven’t found time to read it myself yet – I’m waiting for a holiday. Bryson has to be one of the funniest men on the planet. He has me crying with mirth, while always learning something new. And at 483 pages, I’ll have enough to keep me occupied even if the ferries home are all cancelled.
We’re heading into winter here in my adopted home of New Zealand, but I love a vicarious summer holiday – so bon voyage, one and all. I’m with you in spirit.
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