This summer's must-read books

Time Out critics review some of this year's best summer titles

The holiday is booked and the beach beckons, all you need is something to read. Time Out's critics select their summer reads to help you pass the time under that parasol.

This summers best books

  • The Uke of Wallington by Mark Wallington

    Eager to exorcise the demons that prevented him from hitting the musical big-time, Mark Wallington sets off on a cross-Britain tour of open-mic nights. His weapon of choice: the ukulele, an instrument that would be perfectly suited to his Bryson-esque, self-deprecatory tone, had it not been for the fact that hipsters have recently adopted it as their fashion accessory of choice. While accounts of his gigs start to get slightly samey towards the middle of the book, the author rescues himself with some fabulously researched accounts of the cities, towns and villages he visits. By the end, all that self-deprecation makes sense, because while Wallington's caricature of himself is certainly likeable, Britain is the undoubted star of this highly enjoyable read. Reviewed by David Clack.

  • The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. by Jacques Strauss

    Jacques Strauss's debut novel offers a convincing glimpse into the end-of-apartheid days, filtered through the eyes of a sensitive 11-year-old. As a device, it may not be new, but it's beautifully executed; without the clumsy heartstring-yanking that so often comes with a child narrator enjoying the benefit of tragic hindsight. In many ways, the political insight serves as a subplot to Jack's laugh-out-loud pre-teen insights. He recalls the tribulations of pre-puberty in sticky Technicolor, and while his upbringing, with its divisions between black and white, Afrikaans and English, snake attacks and afternoons baking by the pool, will be foreign to most, many of his childhood recollections are squirmingly familiar. It all makes for transportive reading, and it's impossible not to become absorbed in the minutiae of the 11-year-old's life, from sibling cruelty to physical development, and horrified when it takes a downward turn. An impressive debut. Reviewed by Katie Dailey.

  • Heft by Liz Moore

    In a Brooklyn brownstone, Arthur Opp pads about from kitchen to sofa. He weighs 550 pounds and he hasn't left his home in ten years. His only connection to the outside world, aside from the delivery men who supply him with groceries, is through the letters he writes to his former student, Charlene Turner. He hasn't seen her in some two decades and, in her own letters to him, she's failed to fess up to depression, alcoholism, lupus and her teenage son, Kel. In outline, Heft, sounds like a bleak prospect, but US author Liz Moore has a light touch. She's not comedic, exactly, but she never takes her characters too seriously, letting their drama and sadness trickle through slowly rather than undamming any torrent of emotion or sentimentality. This knack is largely down to her seemingly effortless, economic prose, as well as her appreciation of the notion of loneliness, from Arthur's physical segregation and Charlene's emotional isolation, to Kel's more slippery feelings of abandonment. Reviewed by Zena Alkayat.

  • The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber

    Hot on the cynical heels of last year’s Bard-bashing ‘Anonymous’, scholar and poet Ros Barber is the latest to call William Shakespeare a big fat phony. But while Roland Emmerich’s film positioned Edward De Vere as the mother of all ghost writers, Barber’s suggestion is that it was Christopher Marlowe – a contemporary of Shakespeare who was supposedly stabbed to death in a pub brawl in 1593 – who’s really responsible for penning some of English literature’s most celebrated works. Literary historians will no doubt have a field day picking over anachronisms, but for the most part this highly ambitious debut is an engrossing read. A surprisingly accessible one, too: written in toned-down Elizabethan English, Barber’s blank verse may look intimidating, but it’s actually very forgiving, without ever giving the impression that she’s pandering to the plebs. Some scenes are characteristically convoluted and will require a second pass, but even these are brought to life by smatterings of exquisitely poetic descriptions and turns of phrase worthy of the Bard himself – whoever he was. Reviewed by David Clack.

  • The Card by Graham Rawle

    While the term ‘unique’ is unquestionably over-applied to modern literature, Graham Rawle’s 2005 debut, ‘Woman’s World’, truly was one of a kind. Made up entirely of words and phrases snipped, pasted and scanned from more than a thousand vintage women’s magazines, it was a painstakingly crafted stroke of obsessive genius, a brilliantly original ransom note of a novel. And while this new book sees Rawle return to traditional techniques, ‘The Card’ is every bit as much to do with compulsion and fixation. Its main character Riley Richardson has a touch of OCD. A nerdish bubblegum-card collector (whose eccentricities include only eating meals with alliterative components), Riley becomes convinced he’s being covertly hired to carry out a secret government mission. Taking his lead from a trail of cards he finds in the street (each designed by Rawle, who is still better known as an artist than a novelist), our man soon finds himself wrapped up in the sort of paranoia-driven escapade Alfred Hitchcock would be proud of. What Rawle doesn’t nail, though, is the pelican-chinned director’s knack for a slick twist ending. And although the book’s conclusion isn’t the strongest, the rest is of such quality that for once this hardly matters. Reviewed by David Clack.

  • On the Front Line: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin by Marie Colvin

    In September 1999, Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin was one of three journalists to defy instructions to evacuate the besieged UN compound in Dili, East Timor. Instead, she opted to stay with the civilians trapped inside, thus shaming the UN into reversing its decision to pull out and saving the lives of more than a thousand women and children in the process. As she says in her piece covering this incident, simply felt it would have been wrong for the UN to have promised these people freedom and then to have abandoned them to certain death. Indeed, throughout this collection, Colvin's allegiances tend to lie not with any political movement or government, but with the innocent people who have had the misfortune to get caught up in the policies of world powers and dictators. Her job, she says at one point, is to simply, bear witness to, humanity in extremes. Spanning 25 years and encompassing wars in the Middle East and the horrors of Kosovo and Chechnya, as well as several bizarre meetings with Colonel Gaddafi, these pieces form a grimly compelling narrative. A narrative that leads to Colvin's sad death earlier this year, when a similar decision to stay and bear witness while covering the Syrian uprising in the besieged city of Homs saw her luck finally run out. While, On the Front Line, could have perhaps benefited from a little more editorial input, an index, maps, and some historical context-setting would not have gone amiss, with events in Syria still very much front-page news it is perhaps understandable why it has been published with a sense of urgency. An important book though: every school and library should have a copy. Reviewed by Wayne Gooderham.

  • The Book of Life by Stuart Nadler

    Nadler is a master of the withheld detail. His debut, The Book of Life‚ is a collection of seven short stories about middle-aged Jewish men with shit family lives and younger Jewish men with no family lives at all. It's propelled by the small-scale opera of normal life: affairs, divorces, filial decay, more affairs. Words like rare, poignant and utterly absorbing were thrown around Stateside when the book was released there last year, and it's hard to disagree. Nadler's prose is airtight, his characters coloured-in with a careful, attentive hand. These may be short stories, but they're no mere sketches. Perhaps most impressive, however, is the amount of plot Nadler manages to eke out of so few words. His stories perform a kind of striptease, exposing key details at moments handpicked for maximum impact. Often on the final page, a new bit of information is revealed that changes everything. It makes for thirsty reading, consumed in great gulps. Sharing as they do the same thematic and geographical boundaries, Nadler's world starts in New York City and ends in New England, with the occasional plot- enabling nod to some far-off place like San Francisco, the seven stories here comprise a coherent, even complete whole. Fans of both the short story and the novel will find plenty of sustenance. Reviewed by Nick Aveling.