'But what shall I take to read?' Before a holiday, do you dash into a bookshop, only to find your head mysteriously emptied of all those things you've been meaning to read? Try this brief guide to some of the best of the current titles


Our Game by John le Carre, Hodder pounds 16.99. Le Carre has boldly reinvented his main man, the emotionally damaged upper-class Brit playing spy games for real. In a "post-Sov" world, old habits ("tradecraft", of course, but also deeper reflexes: boredom, need for causes and foes, addiction to codes, danger, secrecy and betrayal) are harder to dismantle than the Berlin Wall itself. Far from an afterthought, this is one of his best.

The Information by Martin Amis, HarperCollins pounds 15.99. Amis's self-conscious half-million pound novel is about literary rivalry between a good but unpublishable novelist plotting against a lousy but bestselling one, who is also his friend. But plots are not the main thing with Amis. His muse is Comedy and style is his substance.

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, Phoenix House pounds 16.99. If you want sun, sand and Sartre, try this pan-European bestseller from Norway about 15-year-old Sophie's philosophical education. Plot as such hardly matters, the story is a crash course in Great Thinkers and their Thoughts - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance minus the choppers.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, Gollancz pounds 14.99. "What came first, the music or the misery?" asks Hornby's never-grew-up record-shop owner in this story of love and vinyl, revisiting in fiction the same depressive- obsessive humour which made Fever Pitch so delightful.

Therapy by David Lodge, Secker pounds 15.99. Lodge here leaves academia and introduces us to the world of an unlearned TV scriptwriter with problems physical, marital and existential. Therapy seems the answer and while it ultimately does little for his hero, it gives Lodge a handy multi-purpose comic metaphor for human relationships.

Small g: a Summer Idyll by Patricia Highsmith, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99. Highsmith was the most psychological crime novelist of her time, examiner of cold deeds and colder hearts, but this Zurich fairy story of a pentangle of gay-straight love complications is, as the blurb notes, a "departure". The author herself sadly departed earlier this year, leaving this to be published posthumously.

Journey to Ithaca by Anita Desai, Heinemann pounds 13.99. There's more than one journey in this novel about the West's obsession with India. Matteo values his ashram "Mother" more highly than his wife Sophie, who decides to debunk the female guru. Her quest in turn reveals an Egyptian dancer's convoluted journey in the 20s from Cairo to Pondicherry. Assured and beautiful stuff, whether or not you're heading East.

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber pounds 15.99. The newly-OBEd author of The Remains of the Day here gives us a second tail-coated repressive to go with his butler Stevens. Ryder is a put-upon concert pianist whose reality is weirdly like dream-life - full of amnesias, embarrassments, time-loops, missed engagements, contingent absurdities. Might chime with that package tour.

Splitting by Fay Weldon, Flamingo pounds 14.99. Inside every woman, according to Weldon, a plethora of other selves waits to emerge. The guises of her multiple heroine (Angelica, Jelly, Angel, Angela, Lady Rice) are familiar - sensible secretary, spoilt aristo, nympho with heart of gold, neurotic daddy's girl, etc - and Weldon might chiselled more vigorously at the old stereotypes. But the book's crackling dialogue, and her own sardonic brand of sit-com, make entertaining reading.


Boyfriends and Girlfriends by Douglas Dunn, Faber pounds 14.99. Half of the tales in Scottish poet Dunn's second collection are examples of understated, no-nonsense, slice-of-life, small-town realism; half are sparkling satires with a hint of fantasy; each is a contemporary object-lesson in short story art and technique.

The Afterlife by John Updike, Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99. Updike has always kept thematically in step with his own ageing and that of his contemporaries. But age in these stories takes on an unsettling quality of alienation, whereby the old become strangers, tourists, spectators in their own lives. Some inclusions are uneven, others as good as anything he's done.

Skinned Alive by Edmund White, Chatto pounds 12.99. White's stories of gay life pre- and post-Aids proceed by the measured accumulation of perceptions and detail, never forcing a conclusion. Many are quasi-autobiographical or at least first-person. And whether elegiac, ironic or comic, he speaks with a light and sure voice.

Heart Songs by E Annie Proulx, 4th Estate pounds 13.99. The startling originality of Proulx's way with words is here put in the service of 11 stories of backwoods America, of grudge and revenge, of the secrets of the hunt. Her descriptive power is such that when not laughing or cringing you're gasping with envy.

The Destiny of Nathalie X by William Boyd, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 9.99. Boyd fans not be disappointed by his latest itinerary of 9 stories: pre- war Lisbon, modern LA, Vienna during World War I, the south of France are among the exotic locations. His technique is as spare and effective as ever.

The Vanishing Princess by Jenny Diski, Weidenfeld pounds 9.99. Life is a bitch for Diski's female protagonists, but they face it with bravery, resourcefulness and a remarkable openness to new experience in these stories, which vary from inner city grunge to re-worked fairy tale.


Angus Wilson by Margaret Drabble, Secker pounds 20. The first biography of a novelist whose career fell in a gentle curve from celebrity in the '50s to undeserved neglect at his death four years ago. Drabble, his friend for 25 years, writes warmly and in considerable detail of a contradictory man who once said "the human personality is not open to invasion".

Konin by Theo Richmond, Cape pounds 18.99. If you want to read just one book on the Holocaust, this story of a small town in Poland whose Jewish population was wiped out would be a fine choice. The author's personal quest, the rich background, the disparate fates of victims and survivors alike, all make this a superbly focussed vehicle for understanding the whole immense tragedy.

Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms by Sally Festing, Viking pounds 20. The first biography of this steely and self-disciplined sculptor, whose presence still permeates her garden and studio in St Ives. The picture of her thrifty Yorkshire girlhood, early artistic work, marriage to Ben Nicholson, the birth of triplets and her lonely but uncompromising later life make for a more vivid appreciation of the work, and adds to the evidence about why women artists of Hepworth's calibre are so rare.

Landscape & Memory by Simon Schama, HarperCollins pounds 30. Schama's Citizens gave a human-scale view of the elemental events of the French Revolution. His new book is a survey of ideas about nature and the elements themselves, and of the myths which have, from the beginning of culture, underpinned them. The book is massive, vivid and consolingly optimistic about the teetering marriage between us and the planet.

Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu by Simon Callow, Cape pounds 20. Citizen Kane was a search for the key to a man's life. Now Welles gets the same treatment in Callow's first volume of biography, which reaches only to age 26. Feeling no need to bend the knee, he is sceptical but authoritative.

The State We're In by Will Hutton, Cape pounds 16.99. When Labour was swept from grace in 1979, it was on a wave of anger at the condition of Britain. How much angrier we should be now, finding manufacturing not reformed but wiped out in favour of the 3-card trickery of fast-buck finance? Hutton is indeed angry, but his analysis is cool and persuasively logical.

Tom Paine: A Political Life by John Keane, Bloomsbury pounds 25. The author of The Rights of Man was closely attuned to his time, but his message was timeless. He lent inspiration to two revolutions, the American and the French, and was progenitor of many ideas that are commonplace today, including the welfare state. This vigourous Life sets out to show how much we can still learn from a man whose life was chaotic but his mind so clear.

Louis MacNeice by Jon Stallworthy, Faber pounds 25. The Irish one in the Macspaunday poetry corner is 32 years dead, so this first biography comes not before time - a sympathetic, elegant narrative, keen to play down the '30s context in favour of the Irishness, but not generally overanalytical about a great writer who has been sorely neglected.

Riding the Retreat: Mons to the Marne, 1914 Revisited by Richard Holmes, Cape pounds 20. Holmes tells how he rode his mount Thatch to Flanders, tracing the route of British cavalry in 1914 and detailing its fate. Such a deployment in that theatre of war was farcical enough; that they then proceeded to charge against wire and machine-guns was a sad, reckless folly.

River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins, Weidenfeld pounds 9.99. Dawkins is a populariser of science and a polemicist against theology. This common reader's account of evolution and genetics develops themes from his The Selfish Gene and other books, and is the familiar mixture of warm excitement and cold lucidity.

The Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks, Picador pounds 15.99. From the man who introduced us to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, seven new "tales of metamorphosis brought about by neurological chance". For Sacks, swimming against all prevailing hi-tech currents, medicine is primarily an art. More surprisingly, he presents his to us patients as no less artists and visionaries.

Celestine by Gillian Tindall, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 17.99. In the early 1860s, an inn-keeper's daughter received tender letters from at least four young men, each in his way both typical and extraordinary: the correspondence survived. Gillian Tindall uses this hoard as a time-capsule of a lost world, as well as an object for her own searches. The obvious holiday reading for anyone visiting central France, and wanting to inhale.

Journals 1982-1986 by Anthony Powell, Heinemann pounds 20. The charm of these journals (which are readable, petty, snobbish and very funny in about equal measure) lies not so much in the genteel gatherings or the obsession with genealogy, but in a few memorable pen portraits: for instance, Mrs Thatcher's technique for removing a dinner partner's wandering hand from her leg - murmuring: "Not now. Perhaps one day".

Fisher's Face by Jan Morris, Viking pounds 16. The young James Morris wanted to be the mercurial Jackie Fisher, later Admiral and First Sea Lord: "That's the man for me," he said on first seeing the his photograph. Now the older Jan Morris has settled for an affair in the afterlife and written a self- styled jeu d'amour, an extravagant conception of breathless adulation, gossip, games and war. Probably the most eccentric book you'll read this year, and never a dull moment.

Letters From London by Julian Barnes, Picador pounds 6.99. A foreign correspondent in his own land is at risk, especially selling his copy back to the natives. But Barnes, who decoded British life to the New Yorker for 5 years, gets away with almost all of it and on Short v Kasparov and the Lloyds fiasco is inspired. He's also very funny - his index alone is a comic elaboration to keep you happy for ages. If there's only room for one small, light book in your knapsack, this could be it.


Reef by Romesh Gunusekera, Granta pounds 5.99. A slim, graceful coming-of-age story from Sri Lanka, a world declining from paradise to slaughterhouse. The narrator Triton becomes the cook of a scientist, Mr Salgado, while feeding his own curiosity about his master's wider life.

A Tidewater Morning by William Styron, Picador pounds 5.99. A 10-year-old's encounter in Virginia with a 90-year-old ex-slave; life on a wartime troopship; the death of a mother: in these three lucid scenes from the life of narrator Paul Whitehurst, Styron comes up again as one of the great realists of his generation.

Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee, Picador pounds 5.99. Following the vicious career of Victor, a sectarian killer from Belfast's Protestant ranks, McNamee's is a tough but poetic and interior view, in prose with many unforgettable phrases, as of Victor's weak father who "needed to stand up twice before he cast a shadow".

Unsustainable Positions by Esther Selsdon, Abacus pounds 5.99. A hyperactive story about 3 friends: Madeleine anxiously married; Felicity incessantly researching ziplessness with various bohunks; Eliza between the two, looking for sex, but with an unfortunate tendency to fall in love. Structurally chaotic, but very funny.

Foreign Parts by Janice Galloway, Vintage pounds 5.99. In this story of two women on a shoestring tour of northern France, Cassie is far more interested in Rona and her failed relationships with men than in scenery. The introspection leads to some stylistic posturing, but Galloway's writing has a tenderness which wins you over.

The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry, Arrow pounds 5.99. Fry's hero is Ted Wallace, a dried-up (but far from dried-out) famous poet whose cynicism is much enlivened by his command of invective and who finds himself caught up in country house shenanigans. Easy to cry updated Wodehouse, but Fry's humour has a dark underbelly.

What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe, Penguin pounds .5.99. Spacious in length and scope, this conspiracy thriller (seedy writer hired by mystery patron to write book about rich, corrupt family) is also a comic dynastic saga, a political satire on postwar Britain and much more. Very funny, very accurate.

No Night is Too Long by Barbara Vine, Viking pounds 9.99. Epicene Tim Cornish signs up for the Creative Writing MA where (failing to learn how to write) he starts a gay affair with a palaeontology lecturer. But on a trip to Alaska Tim's emotional and sexual nature are put on the line, with murder, blackmail and suspense in train. Vine here returns to form after the oddly dull Asta's Book.

A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot, Flamingo pounds 5.99. In the winter of 1917 in the front line five poilus are routinely sentenced to death for cowardice. The execution is more unusual: they're tossed into No Man's Land to take their chances. After the war the fiancee of one sets out to uncover this grotesque event, a dogged search, suspenseful and moving. Fans of Birdsong should go for this.

Every Light in the House Burnin' by Andrea Levy, Headline pounds 5.99. This story of a young girl in the 60s in north London, child of Jamaican migrants, stands comparison with some of the best stories about growing up poor - humorous and moving, unflinching and without sentiment.

The Road to Wellville by T Corraghessan Boyle, Granta pounds 6.99. A saga of bowls and bowels, set around the Kellogg brothers, creators of the world's breakfast staple. We meet the mad elder Kellogg, Dr John H., a patient caught in the fanatical clinician's clutches and a young ingenu joining the Corn Flakes Rush to Michigan. Sideswipes at veggie fascism hit the mark, but this is a more universal satire on morals, health and business.

A Way in the World by VS Naipaul, Minerva pounds 6.99. Disillusion and betrayal seam Naipaul's set of nine stories about colonialism, which include Raleigh on his last doomed voyage to the West Indies, a political agitator into the Guyanese jungle and a Trotskyist prophet facing the corruption of an African regime he's supported. In each case, we see the entropy of political idealism into cynicism, aggrandisement and folly.

Women & Ghosts by Alison Lurie, Minerva pounds 6.99. Lurie's ghosts - avengers, wreckers and sometimes murderers - come to mock our pretensions and vanities. Lurie carefully inks-in the context of the hauntings: a US Embassy in West Africa, timid girl moving in with male-chauvinist, Halloween in Edge City, the cult of dieting. In Lurie's hands supernatural comedy can also be subtle satire.


Dark White: Aliens, Abductions and the UFO Obsession by Jim Schnabel, Penguin pounds 6.99. In America millions can believe that sparky little figures with antennae, bald heads and putty faces often drop by to pick up humans for amusement and instruction, before restoring them to their homes like borrowed videos. And clearly not all abductees are fully re-wound on return. Schnabel's approach is scholarly, deadpan.

The Man in the Ice by Konrad Spindler, Phoenix pounds 7.99. Four years ago in the Tyrolean Alps, a half-naked body was found protruding from the ice. Having lain dead for 4,000 years, it was remarkably preserved with shoes, clothing, weapons and other personal items. The archaeologist in charge here offers priceless insights into European life back beyond the historical horizon.

The Death of Economics by Paul Ormerod, Faber pounds 6.99. According to Ormerod, bedrock notions in classical economics - competitive equilibrium, the quantity theory of money - are really mush while macro-economic modelling is less precise than a fairground cork-gun. Ormerod wants economists to be less like astrologers and more like weatherman. Great fuel for those holiday arguments.

Carrington: A Life of Dora Carrington by Gretchen Gerzina, Pimlico pounds 10. Carrington was an affectionate, vital and original woman who yearned for love, violently attracted men but was evasive about sex. Her platonic life with the gay Lytton Strachey, whilst dangling other lovers, was a solution, yet it led to her suicide at 40. This is a useful annexe to her matchless letters and diaries; La Thompson's film opens in the autumn.

A J P Taylor: A Biography by Adam Sisman, Mandarin pounds 7.99. Taylor provoked much academic venom, revelled in it and never minded appearing inconsistent. His style - radical, fluent, incisive and cynical - appealed over the heads of his historian peers and made him almost a popular hero. Sisman is good on his character: emotionally tangled and not likeable, but extremely singular.

Franco by Paul Preston, Fontana pounds 9.99. That the Caudillo cared more for himself than his people is the theme of this exceptional biography. In reptile terms, he was a boa constrictor, liking to squeeze his opponents to extinction. His banal mind was proud of its Galician peasant ambivalence, allegedly responsible for Spanish WW2 neutrality. In fact, one look at Spain's knackered economy and Hitler was glad to leave Franco to one side.

Speed Tribes: Children of the Japanese Bubble by Karl Taro Greenfeld, Boxtree pounds 7.99. Tokyo is the most pulsating leisure market in the world but whether for a techno-clubbing office girl, porn video star, Japanese Hell's Angel, drinks hostess and her drooling executive clients, yakuza debt-collector, drug pusher or hard-right revolutionary, fun is a tough business. Brilliant material: part reportage, part fiction, wholly extraordinary.

Romans: Their Lives and Times by Michael Sheridan, Phoenix pounds 7.99. "There are no real Romans left" Sheridan writing about the eternally changing stock-pot of the city's population. Sheridan, who was the Independent's Rome correspondent for ten years, provides acute sketches on, among other topics, the Latin heritage, the Papacy and the Red Brigades.

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean, Penguin pounds 6.99. The airborne division of the US Forestry Service's worst disaster, when 13 "firejumpers" were killed by a fire 45 years ago in Montana, is related here by an author who died with his work unfinished. Feeling with its fingertips towards the essence of tragedy, this is a great book, rich in metaphor, philosophy and adrenalin.

City Lights by Keith Waterhouse, Sceptre pounds 6.99. Waterhouse has knocked out some of the best novels about growing up since the war. Now we can enjoy a browse through the source material: his account of his own early life in Leeds in the Thirties and Forties, from short trousers to rookie journalist. Needless to say it's a gem.


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