Cool reads for the hot summer

Summer is too short to waste on the wrong book. From Soviet clas­sics to Euro­pean crime, here’s our guide to the best books for those swel­ter­ing days

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‘Ihad that fa­mil­iar con­vic­tion that life was be­gin­ning over again with the summer,” says Nick Car­raway in The Great Gatsby. “There was so much to read, for one thing and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giv­ing air.”

Summer is just around the cor­ner, and with it, new books. Like F Scott Fitzger­ald’s nar­ra­tor, we can be rein­vig­o­rated by both. Whether plan­ning a short break or a long hol­i­day, here are some ti­tles – some stim­u­lat­ing, some purely en­ter­tain­ing – that are well worth pack­ing.

One of the big­gest books of the summer, in­deed one of the big­gest of the year, is Arund­hati Roy’s The Min­istry

of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness. Twenty years on from her Booker Prize-win­ning de­but

The God of Small Things, Roy’s long over­due sec­ond novel is a pop­u­lous, panoramic fan­ta­sia, full of ram­bunc­tious en­ergy and ri­otous colour but also ten­der emo­tion and valiant strug­gle.

At its cen­tre is An­jum, a hi­jra (male-tofe­male trans­gen­der), and her per­sonal jour­ney across In­dia and around hos­tile forces to a grave­yard refuge where she fos­ters sol­i­dar­ity and un­der­stand­ing among like-minded souls and ec­centrics. We will have to wait two decades to see if the book has the same en­dur­ing after­glow as its mirac­u­lous pre­de­ces­sor; right now, though, it shines quite bril­liantly.

Also deal­ing with trans­for­ma­tion and iden­tity in In­dia, with not one char­ac­ter but five, is Neel Mukher­jee in his pow­er­ful and deeply ab­sorb­ing A State of Free­dom. Weav­ing to­gether warts-and-all nar­ra­tives of in­di­vid­u­als from di­verse back­grounds, Mukher­jee presents an un­flinch­ing por­trait of a trou­blingly di­vided so­ci­ety and ex­am­ines the lengths a per­son will go to get out of a rut and change the course of their life.

Orhan Pa­muk de­liv­ers an­other ac­com­plished novel that plays in and around his na­tive Is­tan­bul. Part-mys­tery tale,

part-fa­ble, The RedHaired Woman tells of the fil­ial bond that de­vel­ops be­tween a worker and his young ap­pren­tice, and the threat posed to the re­la­tion­ship by an en­thralling flame-headed mem­ber of a trav­el­ling the­atre com­pany. Stay­ing with No­bel Prize-win­ners, Svet­lana Alex­ievich’s first and most fa­mous book, The Un­wom­anly Face of War, is pub­lished for the first time in English.

In her last book, Boys in Zinc, she de­scribed her­self as “a his­to­rian of the un­trace­able”, and once again she ex­pertly as­sem­bles a se­ries of si­lenced or un­sung voices, this time be­long­ing to Soviet women who lived through the Sec­ond World War. We get tales of courage and hor­ror from cap­tains, tank driv­ers, nurses, doc­tors, snipers and pi­lots, but also the views and fears of women on the home-front and in oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. The re­sult is a shat­ter­ing, mes­meris­ing oral history which reveals an un­seen side of the war.

Stay­ing with non-fic­tion, Ibram X Kendi pro­vides a lu­cid, clear-eyed study of how anti-black sen­ti­ment ar­rived in the United States from Europe and be­came em­bed­ded in so­ci­ety over the cen­turies. Stamped from the Be­gin­ning: The De­fin­i­tive History of Racist Ideas in Amer­ica won the National Book Award for Non-Fic­tion and its in­sight­ful teach­ings and shock con­clu­sions make for both sober­ing and in­cen­di­ary read­ing.

Per­se­cu­tion of a dif­fer­ent kind is on show in Stalin’s Me­te­o­rol­o­gist: One Man’s Un­told Story of Love, Life and Death by Olivier Rolin. One morn­ing in 1934, Alexey Wan­gen­heim, a lov­ing family man and the highly re­spected head of the Soviet Union’s me­te­o­rol­ogy depart­ment, was ar­rested on a trumped-up charge and later ex­iled to a gu­lag where he lived out his re­main­ing years on a frozen is­land with thou­sands of other po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. Rolin has drawn on the let­ters and draw­ings Wan­gen­heim sent home to un­cover his heart­break­ing story and re­veal his cruel fate. Read­ers who are af­ter some­thing less heavy­weight and more es­capist should reach for Ben­jamin Black’s Prague Nights. Black is the al­ter-ego of John Banville, the au­thor of the hugely suc­cess­ful Quirke nov­els which fol­low the in­ves­ti­ga­tions of a pathol­o­gist in 1950s Dublin, and The Black-Eyed Blonde, which con­tin­ued the hard­boiled ad­ven­tures of Ray­mond Chan­dler’s Philip Mar­lowe. Black’s lat­est mys­tery is an­other pe­riod piece, a thrilling and at­mo­spheric who­dunit set even fur­ther back in six­teenth-cen­tury Prague.

An­other ex­cit­ing and tightly plot­ted his­tor­i­cal crime novel is A Nec­es­sary Evil by Abir Mukher­jee (no re­la­tion to Neel). Mukher­jee’s de­but novel A Ris­ing Man took us into the dark heart of the British Raj in 1919 and in­tro­duced Captain Wyn­d­ham and his side­kick Sergeant Ban­er­jee of the Cal­cutta Po­lice Force. His sec­ond novel takes place a year later and sees his dogged duo in­ves­ti­gat­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion of a Ma­hara­jah’s son. This fun se­ries has legs.

The third in­stal­ment in a looser and more lit­er­ary se­ries, An­thony Quinn’s Eureka brings back the epony­mous hero­ine of his last novel, Freya, for a vi­brant, he­do­nis­tic romp through Lon­don’s swing­ing six­ties. With her on this out­ing is a wannabe ac­tress trapped in a re­la­tion­ship with an older man, and a screen­writer up to his eye­balls in drugs. Quinn isn’t as big as he should be; with luck, this zesty, punchy, yet also hard­edged black com­edy will give him the read­er­ship he deser ves.

From nov­els which evoke a past chap­ter to those that en­cap­su­late a present con­cern. Dina Nay­eri’s Refuge is a sear­ing and mov­ing med­i­ta­tion on the mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence. Nay­eri – born in Iran dur­ing the revolution and later sub­ject to two years of refugee camp dis­place­ment – tells the story of an es­tranged Ira­nian fa­ther and daugh­ter: the for­mer stay­ing in Iran, the lat­ter flee­ing to the United States. Against the ebb and flow of their sep­a­ra­tions and rec­on­cil­i­a­tions, Nay­eri charts the des­per­ate jour­neys and the hopes and fates of other refugees of dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties seek­ing sanc­tu­ary in Europe. A timely read and a com­pelling one.

Two spell­bind­ing de­but nov­els stand out this summer, both of them vivid com­ing-of-age tales fronted by mem­o­rable char­ac­ters. Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida is a young man’s quirky, drily com­i­cal and al­ways en­gag­ing ac­count of lone­li­ness, ob­ses­sive­ness and, of all things, wrestling. This is no niche novel aimed solely at wrestling en­thu­si­asts. Habash’s odd­ball nar­ra­tor will charm any­one who roots for an un­der­dog – or, in his words, who “falls for life’s left-be­hinds”.

Gabriel Tal­lent’s My Ab­so­lute Dar­ling – de­clared a mas­ter­piece by Stephen King – takes us into the con­fined world of an­other lonely soul, a 14-year-old girl named Tur­tle. When she ven­tures out of her bub­ble and gets a taste of friend­ship and love, she re­alises there is an­other life away from her abu­sive fa­ther. Tur­tle’s escape and battle for sur­vival is con­veyed in ur­gent, im­mer­sive prose which trans­ports and trans­forms us. Few first nov­els leave such an in­deli­ble mark.

Fi­nally, those who pre­fer shorter fic­tion should look out for Ann Beattie’s lat­est col­lec­tion of sto­ries, The Ac­com­plished Guest. One of the United States’ finest prac­ti­tion­ers of the form, Beattie ex­plores un­likely al­liances, dif­fi­cult af­fairs and the tri­als of age­ing in th­ese beau­ti­fully ob­served and per­fectly ren­dered East Coast-set tales. As ever, the most painful or heart­felt sce­nar­ios come with bite, heft and even acer­bic wit.

Fic­tion in all shapes and sizes by writ­ers of many stripes. Or in other words, some­thing for ev­ery­one this summer.

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