Old books that deserve new life by John Mitchinson: co-founder of Unbound and host of the Backlisted podcast
‘Backlisted beach reads’ is a slightly queasy formulation. We don’t really do blockbusters. But we’re as amenable as the next bibliophile when it comes to slipping a few volumes out of our tottering TBR piles and into a holiday knapsack.
The first into mine would be J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. It’s the perfect circuit breaker for a work-addled mind and it’s short enough to read in a sitting. In the same vein, James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is an exquisite fable set in the provincial Frances of the 1960s, heady with eroticism, fringed with dread (like all the best holidays).
And what about the dystopian holiday novel? Surely Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard, set in a luxury ex-pat resort on the Costa del Sol, serves to remind us that literature isn’t fussy about where it unrolls its towel.
Reading about physical activity is my second favourite holiday pastime and Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur makes wild swimming so seductive I actually spent one summer leaping into weed-choked ponds. My favourite holiday activity is drinking too much. Fancy combining this with an exotic location and the chance to knock a bona fide masterpiece off your list? Then let me recommend Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, a book that simultaneously makes you want to drink a lot more and a lot less.
Adapted books by Arifa Akbar: journalist, critic and editor of Boundless
If a good adaptation returns us to the original, then there are several film, television and stage versions of the book that we can enjoy on our sun loungers. The Secret Lives of Baby Segi’s Wives, Lola Shoneyin’s 2011 acclaimed debut novel, playing at the Arcola Theatre in London until 21 July, tackles polygamy in modern-day Nigeria from a female perspective. The glorious poetry in Shoneyin’s language must be read to be fully appreciated – the prose switches seamlessly from comedy to bathos to acute moments of tragedy. Ken Kesey’s 1962 classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, also played at the Crucible in Sheffield this summer, and while it is not exactly a beach read, it has a fierce, anti-establishment, black comedy and the renegade patient, Randal McMurphy, endures as a counter-cultural anti-hero.
A third stage production will also take you back to a darkly brilliant book: Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It has already been adapted to film by Mira Nair, and is now due to be staged by the National Youth Theatre at the Bradford Literature Festival and at Edinburgh in July. The book, about Islamophobia in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, still remains powerful, and chillingly relevant, today.
If Benedict Cumberbatch has impressed you in the Patrick Melrose TV series, Edward St Aubyn’s exquisite sentences and droll prose will blow you away. The five books that form The Patrick Melrose Novels are all you need for a two week trip away, beginning with the serious upper-class family dysfunction of his violent rape in childhood to subsequent years addled by guilt, shame, rage, addiction, self-destruction, and finally forgiveness. If you only have time for one, it should be the brilliant Booker-shortlisted Mother’s Milk.
The Hollywood film, Book Club, features a group of older women (starring Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen), intent on spicing up their lives. Fonda suggests they read E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey in their book group, and spiced up sex lives ensue, from online dating, to dating old flames and slipping Viagra tablets into the husband’s drink. For proof of the pudding, read Fifty Shades and see what comes…
And finally – in an inversion of the book adaptation, Deborah Frances-White, creator and host of The Guilty Feminist, is bringing a book of the Podcast to fans in September. Read, listen or do both!
Music books by Mathew Clayton: head of publishing at Unbound, co-founder of the Free University of Glastonbury, techno hobbyist
As Times Goes By is a memoir by the Beatles publicist Derek Taylor. He served two spells with the band, working for Brian Epstein during their initial burst of fame, he then left and spent two years in Los Angeles, before returning to help run the new Apple organisation in 1967. The reason he came back is perfectly explained in a chapter entitled ‘The Long and Winding Road’. It describes a day, in which having dropped ‘a very modest’ amount of acid, he accompanies Paul as they drive up to Bradford in a Rolls-Royce to record a brass band for ‘Yellow Submarine’. On the way back, still tripping, a detour is taken to the most beautifully named village in Bedfordshire they can find on a map; Harrold. They are invited for supper by the local dentist and Paul sits at the family piano, ‘to play a song he had written that week: “Hey Jude” it began.’ At 11 p.m. they depart for the pub: ‘the whole village was there. Paul played the piano until three o’clock when a woman stood and sang, “The Fool on the Hill” and Paul left to dance with her and kiss her on the cheek… I went and sat in the garden… and Alan Smith came out, pissed as a newt and said, “Why so sad old friend, why so sad on such a night?” “Not sad,” I said, “not sad old pal, just happy to be alive.”’
Not everyone, however, was swept off their feet by the Beatles in the sixties; a large section of the country was becoming enamoured with a far older type of music. The folk revival (and the South Downs) is the backdrop of the singer Shirley Collins’s charming memoir All in the Downs. It describes her rise to fame in the late sixties, her wilderness years when she stopped singing and worked in dead-end jobs, and her recent career revival.
At the opposite end of musical spectrum is Hold Tight by Jeffrey Boakye. It contains one hundres short chapters each focusing on a single grime track. It is, however, much more than an extended piece of music criticism. This is a highly original book that manages to be playful and irreverent whilst at the same time offering an in-depth exploration of contemporary urban black youth culture.
The rave movement that spawned grime is explored in The Secret DJ by Anonymous. Adapted from a column in Mixmag and based on the real working life of an international DJ, it is particularly good at expressing the strangeness of a life spent endlessly travelling from one nightclub to another: ‘House lights up. Sound off. The people let out. Some things should never be seen in the cold light. The club’s empty space now. Ten minutes ago the place was a wonderland of sound and light. Now it’s a dirty, empty barn. Sometimes you just stand around like a goon. Lost. Grinning. A ghost haunting the scene of its last mortal triumph.’
It would be remiss of me not to mention two books that I have recently worked on at Unbound. James Cook’s Memory Songs is the first properly literary take on the Britpop years. Cook retells his own experiences of that heady period as the bassist in the band Flamingoes, and alongside this he decodes a number of the era’s key songs. Matthew Herbert’s The Music is ‘a novel told through sound’. More explicitly, it is a novel told solely through a series of descriptions of sounds. It is boldly experimental and unlike anything else you will have ever read.
Fiction by Phil Connor: commissioning editor at Unbound
If you’re only going to read one book this summer make it Jessie Greengrass’s Sight. The Women’s Prize shortlisted novel – featuring Sigmund and Anna Freud, the surgeon-cum-collector behind the Hunterian Museum, John Hunter, and the accidental inventor of the X-ray, Wilhelm Röntgen – is easily my book of the year so far. The balance of Greengrass’s sentences combined with the unexpected and perfectly chosen words is reminiscent of the great W. G. Sebald.
Jesse Ball’s Census follows a father and his son, who has Down Syndrome, as they travel from the town of A to the town of Z collecting information for their mysterious census. This is a beautiful story of love set in an utterly unique world with hints of both Beckett and Berger. I’ve never read anything like it and was completely blown away.
Olivia Laing’s first foray into fiction possesses all the immense quality of her previous work. Living somewhere between Ali Smith and Rachel Cusk, Crudo reimagines the artist Kathy Acker in a post-Brexit Britain as she prepares for her imminent marriage. It’s a sharp, funny tale of learning to love at the end of the world from one of the most exciting contemporary writers.
Bitter Sun follows four kids who discover a body in the American mid-West and then attempt to solve the murder. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam draft, Beth Lewis ekes every drop of intrigue out of the small town in this classy thriller. You’ll love Johnny, Jenny, Rudy and Gloria so much that reading the book will feel like you’re solving a mystery with your best friends.
The always brilliant Sarah Moss returns with what might be her best book yet: Ghost Wall follows teenager Silvie and her family at an Iron Age reenactment, but her father’s obsession with finding some inherent British-ness risks endangering both the reenactment and Silvie herself. Ghost Wall is a characteristically brilliant, intelligent account of an impossibly complicated relationship.
Michael Hughes’s Country is a re-telling of Homer’s Iliad set in Northern Ireland; it’s a gritty thriller complete with all the violence and beauty of Ancient Greece. This powerful novel is full of blistering writing that leaps off the page and is perhaps the first great fiction about The Troubles since Dermot Healy.
Tramp Press continue their brilliant publishing with the funniest, darkest book of the year. Jade Sharma’s Problems follows the incredibly smart, incredibly self-destructive Maya through the collapse of her marriage, her dead-end job, her ambivalent lover, her dying mother and, oh yeah, her heroin addiction. Trust me, you won’t read anything else like this debut this year.
Non-fiction by Katy Guest: contributing editor at Boundless, new projects editor at Unbound and freelance reviewer
Whether you’re trapped in a British heatwave, or downpour, or swanning off on your holidays, if there’s non-fiction in your luggage this summer the chances are it is trying to tell you how to be happier. Even when you’re not lying on a beach.
Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet, the follow-up to his bestselling Reasons to Stay Alive, offers practical advice about how to stay sane in an increasingly crazy world. One good answer: delete the Twitter app from your phone while you’re on holiday and talk to someone you like instead. Eugenia Cheng’s The Art of Logic, similarly, is about ‘How to Make Sense in a World that Doesn’t’. It’s not your typical beach read – it’s full of diagrams and mathematical symbols – but that late-night heated debate by the pool might go a lot smoother if you apply the language and rules of mathematical logic. Guardian science blogger, neuroscientist and stand-up comedian Dean Burnett goes straight to the source of happiness in The Happy Brain: The Science of Where Happiness Comes From, and Why. Access to green spaces and a job that doesn’t drive you round the bend are recommended. Emma Gannon’s The Multi-Hyphen Method: Work less, create more, and design a career that works for you aims to help with that last one. The author-blogger-broadcaster says that the ‘portfolio career’ is the new way of working, and that it’s not nearly as scary as it may seem. Carving out genuine time off is crucial. Similarly, Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené, The Art of Not Falling Apart by Christina Patterson and Eat, Drink, Run by Bryony Gordon provide inspiration and attitude by the bucketful, showing young women that they can achieve pretty much anything – with varying combinations of sweat and tears.
Three very different memoirs and a biography will make great holiday reading. To Throw Away Unopened by the Slits guitarist Viv Albertine is gritty, rude and full of punk spirit. Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life is the first non-fiction book by the novelist Rose Tremain, and tells the story of her own post-war childhood. It’s a much less colourful world than Albertine’s, but not without a pinch of punk spirit of its own. Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan will make you long for your own early favourites, and maybe re-read a few. Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave (with an introduction by Alice Walker), is a brilliant piece of journalism by the novelist Zora Neale Hurston, written in the 1930s but buried in a university archive and unpublished until now. In it, Hurston painstakingly tells the story of the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade. It’s electrifying reading.
For a more tranquil time, pick up The Pebbles on the Beach: A Spotter’s Guide by Clarence Ellis (2 August). This 1973 book is republished, with a new introduction by Robert Macfarlane, and serves either as a gorgeously geeky on-the-spot field guide, or something to read while dreaming of the beach. ‘Pebble hunting is a pleasant and health-giving hobby . . . and all but those who are nearing the last stages of decrepitude can enjoy it.’
Unbound books – find your favourite here