Holiday reading

The <em>New Statesman's</em> critics and contributors recommend the books they have most enjoyed thi

Stephen Bayley

Two remarkable new books have just come my way. The first is Ophelia Field's The Kit-Cat Club - Friends Who Imagined a Nation (HarperPress, £25), about the group of Whig luminaries that included Vanbrugh, Congreve, Addison and Steele. The second is Em and Lo's Sex: How To Do Everything (Dorling Kindersley, £18.99). I like Field because it is the sort of brainy, literate history that most publishers have forsworn. It reminds you of an England where values were not determined by retailers. As for Sex, it's "written" by sassy New Yorkers with a popular website for those in search of inspiration in matters of penetration. It is both explicit and coy, thus noteworthy. I will take it away as a powerful anaphrodisiac, a specific against lust inflamed by rosé, heat and dust.

Lucy Beresford

Often on holiday, it takes days to shrug off the work life and properly relax. Charles Cumming's terrific Typhoon (Michael Joseph, £18.99) will speed up the process. The novel is set in vividly realised Hong Kong and Shanghai, where the worlds of espionage, political intrigue and exotic women shadow militant Islamic groups being groomed to wreak havoc at Beijing's Olympics. Cumming trained briefly with MI6, and his inside knowledge adds piquancy to this intelligent thriller, as strong on emotional literacy as is it on spycraft. Once relaxed, try the elegance of Siri Hustvedt's The Sorrows of an American (Sceptre, £16.99), in which the psychiatrist Erik Davidsen unpicks both his own past and the stories of his patients to make sense of who he is today. This is a novel of deep wisdom and careful storytelling, but one that shows hope to be double-edged. Or Frank Tallis's Fatal Lies (Century, £12.99), which blends Christie-esque murder investigations in turn-of-the-century Vienna with early Freudian musings. It's an entertaining combination that oozes atmosphere and tickles the brain.

William Boyd

As you contemplate your newspapers this summer, underpin that flow of "news" with Gordon Burn's brilliant and unsettling novel about what the media fed us in the summer of 2007: Born Yesterday: the News as a Novel (Faber & Faber, £7.99). Audacious, funny and very, very shrewd, it fully confirms Burn's burgeoning reputation as one of our most innovative and exciting writers of contemporary fiction. J G Ballard is an incredibly knowing and savvy autobiographer and the latest instalment of his life and times - Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton (Fourth Estate, £14.99) - further illuminates the myriad connections between the man and the work. We now see the origin of those classic Ballardian themes and tropes and their deep source in his personal history. One of the most astonishing and original bodies of work in postwar fiction is bathed in a clear and revelatory light.

Craig Brown

One of a succession of electrifying moments in Patrick French's biography of V S Naipaul, The World Is What It Is (Picador, £20), comes when Naipaul asks the newly married Pinters to lunch in the 1970s. He makes the mistake of serving nut roast as a main course. Pinter fails to eat it. Naipaul is offended. The invitation is never repeated. Lady Antonia's Sybil Fawlty-ish thank-you letter ("nut cake is a new discovery for me!") is an unintended comic gem. In another life, Vidia and Harold might have formed a fine comedy duo to rival Roy Barraclough and Les Dawson's Cissie and Ada. Les Dawson's Secret Notebooks (JR Books, £15.99), overlooked by the review pages, is a treasure trove of bons mots to enliven even the stiffest lunch party. "There was hardly anything on his plate. Did you see his bean sprout?" "It's a wonder he's got the energy." Many of Dawson's jokes have the compressed energy of poetry, playing tricks with the imagination by delivering a bizarre image to the reader and then forcing him to assemble it: "I wouldn't say the room was small but you had to buy bananas ready peeled."

Michael Bywater

Alec Wilkinson's The Happiest Man in the World (Vintage, £8.99) tells the true - though you'll initially swear it's fictional - story of Poppa Neutrino, who was plain David Pearlman until a dog bit him in Mexico. After two years of sickness, he celebrated his recovery by changing his name and setting out to live by his pure ethical lights, floating around the world on a series of increasingly baroque home-built rafts. Now in his seventies, Neutrino is still at it. He is an odd cross between Diogenes, hippie, Ulysses and bum; his life is inspiring and marvellous, and how one would hate to live it. Scarlett Thomas conjures an intricate, closely dreamed cityscape in the strange and captivating The End of Mr Y (Canongate, £7.99). A junior don in a fictional Canterbury discovers a route into a netherworld shaped by the collective thoughts of those dreaming it. There's a touch of Kevin Brockmeier's Brief History of the Dead, a sprinkling of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, but Thomas beats both in her imagining of the urban dreamscape. I recognised the city I visit regularly in my dreams; you will recognise yours. An alternative life and an alternative city: perfect holiday stuff.

Margaret Drabble

I recommend two remarkable books about childhood, both very strange and exhilarating. Adam Mars-Jones's Pilcrow (Faber & Faber, £18.99) is a treasury of carefully recorded details of boyhood, both normal and abnormal, in the 1950s - a gripping, tragicomic, Proustian tale, presenting a world at once wholly convincing and wholly surprising. It claims to be the first of a trilogy and I long to know what happens next to its brave and gallant narrator. Julia Blackburn's The Three of Us (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) is just as brave. In this memoir she describes her eccentric, dangerous, wonderful bohemian parents - her father a poet, her mother a painter - and the tangled relationships in which they trapped themselves, and from which in their own ways they freed themselves. Blackburn emerged from this turmoil as a fine writer, and this book is full of understanding and reconciliation. Her mother's attitude to her impending death is admirable and unforgettable and encouraging.

Duncan Fallowell

The rediscovery of our classical heritage is an urgent task and nothing is more thrilling than the excavation of the library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, with its promise of hitherto unknown literary masterpieces. David Sider's book on the subject is not easily available, but something similar is, the magical City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt by Peter Parsons (Phoenix, £9.99). The Dedalus Book of Russian Decadence (Dedalus Books, £12), subtitled Perversity, Despair and Collapse, is a bravura wallow in emotional filth and would cheer anyone up. An hour or two in the company of these panting self-poisoners will make you feel bloomingly fit.

Johann Hari

There are two gorgeous and terrifying and inspiring new non-fiction paperbacks I would cram into any holiday luggage: George Monbiot's Bring on the Apocalypse: Six Arguments for Global Justice (Atlantic Books, £11.99) and Clive James's Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time (Picador, £14.99). Both are collections of essays, dense with learning but light to read, that dramatically raise your horizons. From the Gulag to global warming, James tangoes you through the 20th century and Monbiot wills you to transform the 21st. With them, you may be lying on the beach, but you will be looking at the stars. For fiction, I adored Catherine O'Flynn's first novel, What Was Lost (Tindal Street Press, £8.99) - a story of a vast, anonymous Birmingham shopping centre and a little girl who vanishes there in the 1980s, only to reappear on its security cameras decades later. It captures the reality of sprawling, neon, exurban Britain - of what it is like to live and work and die there - better than any novelist except J G Ballard.

Veronica Horwell

Sarah Wise, in The Blackest Streets: the Life and Death of a Victorian Slum (Bodley Head, £20), plunges into the 15 acres of the Nichol on the edge of Bethnal Green in London, which housed 6,000 people, up to ten to a room, through the 19th century. The Nichol - its hovels renting for higher prices than Kensington's and its doorless garrets open to infestations of do-gooders - was the prototype for every current global urban favela. Read it and be flabbergasted. Likewise Antonia Finnane's Changing Clothes in China (Hurst & Co, £25), a study of what the Chinese have worn over the past century and why. As you watch the Beijing Olympics, with the crowds modelling the leisurewear they manufacture for the rest of the world and with the stadium spectacles costumed like a Zhang Yimou epic, consider how recently most would have been defensively habited in a Mao suit, descended from the Sun Yat-sen tunic, which was borrowed from a Japanese school uniform, the Japanese having adopted it from the Prussians, who stole it from the French. Finnane writes about fashion as politics, and politics in fashion, with pertinence and wit.

Andrew Martin

I can strongly recommend two biographies recently out in paperback. In Agatha Christie: an English Mystery (Headline Review, £8.99), Laura Thompson probes the daunting enigma of the "Queen of Crime", and the result is as compelling as a Christie story, but far more beautifully written. Provided You Don't Kiss Me: 20 Years With Brian Clough (HarperPerennial, £8.99) is a book that progresses subtly from humour to poignancy. In it, Duncan Hamilton describes life as a young football reporter at the mercy of the mercurial Clough, who perhaps began by affecting eccentricity, and then got stuck with it, like someone pulling a face while the wind changes.

Jonathan Meades

Duncan Fallowell makes things difficult for himself by belonging to no school, by his scrupulously perverse denial of categorisation. He also owns a lightness of touch that occludes his earnestness. Going As Far As I Can (Profile Books, £12.99) is a singular account of a journey round New Zealand. The apparent aimlessness is a beard. The pursuit of a perfect rosé is a thematic feint. The search for the theatres where Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh played in 1948 merely provides a not-rigorously-adhered-to itinerary. What Fallowell is actually up to is going through the looking glass into a land of the living dead. He processes through a nation of wrecked cities and ghost people. It feels post-apocalyptic, like a report from somewhere beyond the end of the world. It is deft, intensely visual, worryingly insidious.

Alice O’Keeffe

Perhaps not beach reading, but Michael Reid's The Forgotten Continent: the Battle for Latin America's Soul (Yale University Press, £19.99) is a brilliantly researched book about the politics and society of a region that continues to be under-reported in Britain. Reid has no truck with the armchair revolutionary brigade, and instead he tells the good news story: there are increasingly robust democracies in Latin America, in which long-term problems such as wealth inequality are being tackled, albeit gradually. He preaches patience: "Nations, like men, do not have wings; they make their journeys on foot, step by step." For an afternoon on the sunlounger I'd recommend 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (Chatto & Windus, £12.99), a feisty and funny rite-of-passage novel by Xiaolu Guo. I loved the protagonist, Fenfang, whose strength of personality allows her to blossom amid the crushing anonymity of Beijing.

Antonia Quirke

Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films by Joseph Lanza (Aurum, £18.99) is a nutty, hysterical bowl through Russell's huge oeuvre of television and feature films. The many random biographical details (for example, when Ken was little he thought a gorilla lived next door) add up to a tenderly enthusiastic portrait of the great man. Architectural Voices: Listening to Old Buildings (Wiley, £24.99) by Saskia Lewis and David Littlefield is a collection of essays considering 15 buildings that have decayed and been reinvented, asking in which ways the buildings themselves (from Soho brothels to bomb shelters in Australia) have guided the architects and artists that have tramped through them. It's an intense, quite trippy read, particularly the poetic essays by Lewis, also the book's chief photographer ("this place is not cursed with fussy shadow-gaps, or shamed by a dent or a crumpled edge . . .")

Sukhdev Sandhu

Liao Yiwu, perhaps the most censored writer in modern China, is also responsible for its most gripping chronicle: The Corpse Walker (Pantheon, £12.72), inspired in part by the oral histories of Studs Terkel, is a terrifying, funny and unputdownable collection of interviews with a cross-section from the lowest rungs of the country, among them human traffickers, grave robbers, lepers, blind erhu players and sleepwalkers. They tell, often at grave risk not only to themselves but to Yiwu, jailed for four years after writing a poem about Tiananmen Square, stories that span many decades and are darkly pungent in their evocation of the daily humiliations they suffered under Mao and right up to the present. The British literary scene is famously indifferent, hostile even, to experimental and avant-garde fiction. Kudos then to Book Works for getting Stewart Home, one of the country's top comic writers, to commission a series, entitled Semina, in which new and daring writers run riot with language, form and ideas. The first two works, Maxi Kim's One Break, A Thousand Blows! (£8) and Bridget Penney's Index (£8), are both sharp, haunting and full of verve. Slender in size, they teem with ambition and excitement.

Ziauddin Sardar

Daya Kishan Thussu's News as Entertainment (Sage, £65) makes gruesome reading for a news junky like me. Thussu suggests that news is now little more than infotainment. In the global "infotainment sphere", style and spectacle are all and any substance is ruthlessly relegated to the margins. US news is a euphemism for neoliberal imperialism dressed as entertainment. In India, TV news is increasingly based on the conventions of Bollywood. The arguments are not new, but Thussu's empirical evidence is worth the extortionate price. The heritage of the Indus River also needs to be saved. In Empires of the Indus (John Murray, £20), Alice Albinia tells the story of one of the longest rivers in the world. Starting in Karachi, she travels north and over 5,000 years in time. Stories of saints and gurus, nomads and invaders, emperors and explorers, bustling cities and scintillating ancient texts, are vividly brought to life. As history, it is spellbinding. As the first book of a young writer, it's an impressive achievement.

Jane Shilling

Emma Smith, born Elspeth Hallsmith in 1923, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her first book, Maidens' Trip, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for her second, The Far Cry. The Great Western Beach (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is her memoir of a childhood in Newquay between the wars. It is an astonishing evocation of the condition of being a small child in a world that can seem marvellous, inexplicable and terrible, all at the same time. The Spare Room (Canongate, £12.99) is Helen Garner's first novel for 16 years: a shortish, vivid jewel of a book on a difficult subject - a visit to the narrator, Helen, by an old friend, Nicola, who is dying of cancer (but brightly refusing to admit it). Garner's elegantly furious comedy unfolds at a tremendous pace and demands to be read at a sitting.

Helen Simpson

Charlotte Mendelson's When We Were Bad (Picador, £7.99) is a perfervid romantic comedy, elegantly written and wonderfully readable, in which the likeable Rubin siblings struggle for emotional freedom from their natal family's powerful embrace. In altogether more buttoned-up pre-war mode, but with enthralling unearthings, John Preston's archaeological suspense novel The Dig (Penguin, £7.99) hooks the reader until the very last excavation on the final page.

Francis Wheen

Charlatan: the Fraudulent Life of John Brinkley by Pope Brock (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20) isn't just the appalling, hilarious story of an American quack who made a fortune in the 1920s by implanting goats' testicles into men who required sexual rejuvenation. It's a cautionary tale for our own times about celebrity culture, pseudo-science and the marketing of bollocks. Another masterpiece of debunking that deserves a wide audience is The Rising Damp Myth by Jeff Howell (available from Askjeff.co.uk at £16.99). Howell, a professional bricklayer and university lecturer, demonstrates through exhaustive experimentation that "rising damp" in houses doesn't exist: it's a lucrative scam invented by damp-proofing companies in the 1960s. Who would have thought a book about moisture meters, chemical injections and capillary action could be so riveting, and so funny?

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism