THE BEST OF SUMMER READING

A good book is as essential as suntan lotion on holiday: it's the perfect time to catch up on the hot titles of the last six months. We suggest a few that our critics enjoyed

Fiction

The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle, Cape pounds 14.99. Paula, Doyle's bruised and beaten heroine reinvents herself out of wretchedness with a narrative self-assertion course: impassioned, dignified and richly humane, and a further proof of Doyle's ever-deepening talent.

The Pope's Rhinoceros by Lawrence Norfolk, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 15.99. A historical novel of many strands, not the least of which is a stunning recreation of life in 16th-century Rome. Richly imagined, superbly paced, painstakingly researched, and utterly gripping - it's enough to restore your faith in The Novel.

The Last of the Savages by Jay McInerney, Bloomsbury pounds 15.99. The ex-Bratpacker tackles Big Themes in his Fitzgeraldian study of class, race and friendship in the Deep South.

Last Orders by Graham Swift, Picador pounds 15.99. Mourners meet in Margate to scatter the ashes of Jack, their butcher friend who wanted to be a doctor. With a perfect ear for dialogue, Swift unfurls their love for each other with unselfconscious ease. Put a tenner on it before the Booker hoopla begins.

Enigma by Robert Harris, Arrow pounds 5.99. Harris sets his espionagery in Bletchley Park, the code-cracking hothouse where eager geniuses worked to decipher U-Boat messages with early computer technology. As Brits battle bravely with the Hun's binaries, our hero realises that there's a traitor within the base. A thousand poolside torsos will go red this summer while their owners avidly turn these pages.

Slowness by Milan Kundera, trs Linda Asher, Faber pounds 12.99. As he abandons his native Czech for the tongue of his adopted France, Kundera's prose remains powerfully persuasive, filled with delights both intimate and esoteric. Read it wearing dark glasses at the boulevard cafe.

Kitchen Venom by Philip Hensher, Hamish Hamilton pounds 16. Magic realism below- stairs at Westminster. An elliptical tour through the digestive system of the Commons, this satire has the authority of personal knowledge combined with bizarre humour. The powers-that-be weren't amused, though; Hensher was subsequently sacked from his job as a Commons clerk.

The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester Picador pounds 15.99. Living up to the hype, this arresting first novel centres on the life and opinions of gourmet and aesthete Tarquin Winot. In flights of discursive dandyism, Winot narrates his ascent to affectation's murderous heights. Chew it over after dinner.

The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder, Phoenix House pounds 16.99. Dad and young Hans Thomas are on their way from Norway to Greece to find Hans Thomas's runaway mother. Fellow travellers of a philosophical bent should pack this riddling mindbender, a follow-up to Sophie's World, in their rucksacks.

The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine. Viking pounds 16. Rendell-as-Vine takes a tip from Graham Swift and goes mystery-making on the fens. Dark secrets nursed in an old folks' home and the tape- recorded testimony of a dying woman are the key ingredients in this monochrome psychological thriller.

The Dream Mistress by Jenny Diski, Weidenfeld pounds 15.99. A fashion-designer stumbles over a vagrant who turns out to be her estranged mother. Auto- biography troubles the margins of Diski's powerful, painful story of an unconventional family reunion.

Altered States by Anita Brookner, Cape pounds 14.99. To berate a Brookner novel, as some critics have done with this one, for failing to provide grand and stormy passions, is about as appropriate as to criticise it for not giving the cricket score or a history of aphids. This year's model is in fact vintage Brookner, with a discreetly rich range of characters each so "unprepared for happiness" that their lives are a delicate construction of pride, compromise and avoidance of pain.

Love Again by Doris Lessing, Flamingo pounds 15.99. A battalion of sensitively- drawn characters work together on a theatrical project: Lessing charts the relationships between them with unparalleled skill: tremendous writing from a twentieth-century giant.

Double Take by Eleanor Bron, Weidenfeld pounds 15.99. Bron is definitely one of those who think that luvvies ought really to be called toughies, but the heroine in this entertaining backstage drama, actress Bella Provan, is drawn with a cool hand, and the background - the squabbles and romances of a troupe attempting to create an "actors' theatre" as opposed to one run along traditional dictatorial lines by a director - is certainly one she knows well and can dramatise effectively.

PAPERBACK FICTION

The Tortilla Curtain by T Coraghessan Boyle, Bloomsbury pounds 5.99. This shapes up as a West Coast Bonfire of the Vanities as wealthy Californian Jack Delaney knocks down a Mexican migrant and compensates him with a $20 bill. Boyle gets serious - at last - and delivers a stark narrative invigorated by a thick twist of his characteristically loopy humour. Recommended for middle-class backpackers newly discovering themselves in Central America.

Plain Girl by Arthur Miller, Minerva pounds 4.99. For minimalists who travel light: in 76 perfectly judged pages, Miller tells the story of Jewish New Yorker Janice and her struggle to live in the present. Her brother Herman is an unscrupulous property developer, her first husband Sam a book-dealer with his mind fixed on the imminent Socialist Utopia. The cast of characters and the Depression setting might be familiar territory for Miller, but the prose is crystal-clear and the dialogue as good as anything in his plays. An upbeat and lyrical novella.

Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf by David Madsen, Dedalus pounds 8.99. Off to Rome? See how it looks through the eyes of Peppe, the heretic dwarf of the title. Peppe is servitor to the Medici Pope Leo X, as avid an art collector as he is a pederast. A pungent historical fiction on a par with Patrick Suskind's Perfume.

The Destiny of Nathalie X by William Boyd, Penguin pounds 5.99. A collection of tales set in more exotic locations than you'll find in your average Thomas Cook brochure. The title story, a razor-sharp morality tale in which a young African director stumbles into Hollywood, is the most lustrous of this string of pearls.

The Information by Martin Amis, Flamingo pounds 6.99. Only if you seriously want to advertise the fact that you haven't already read it.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, Indigo pounds 5.99. "What came first, the music or the misery?" is the question that haunts Hornby's vinyl-sniffing hero. In considering his emotional inarticulacy and difficulties with girls, this novel picks up the baton from Fever Pitch, running with it into more complex male territories.

Electricity by Victoria Glendinning, Arrow pounds 5.99. Sparks fly between forward- looking late-Victorians in a well- controlled novel of love and technology. Adultery, rationalism, the thrill of the modern: Glendinning throws all the right switches.

Gagarin and I by Stephen Blanchard, Vintage pounds 5.99. Blanchard's prose moves with delicacy and wit through this story of a young boy's childhood infatuation with the famous cosmonaut. A book full of tenderness, richly evocative of childhood, Hull in the Sixties and the innocent glamour of the Cold War.

Splitting by Fay Weldon, Flamingo pounds 5.99. Weldon's schizophrenia-and-sex novel is an efficient revenge-comedy organised around the multiple personalities of her protagonist, Lady Angelica Rice. Internal dialogues between Lady Rice, Angelica, Angel, Angela and Jelly are the backbone of the book, and though these various psychic slices are much the usual suspects, the novel contains enough ironic fun to fill a suitcase.

Justine by Alice Thompson, Canongate pounds 12. "A huge Gothic house rears up in front of me like a leviathan raising its head out of the sea..." This slight, decadent tale with more than a nod to Huysmans, de Sade and Patrick McGrath is made all the more disturbing by its packaging. The pages are uncut, so each one has to be ceremoniously slit before you can read on. This also means that every other page is blank; perfect for jotting down phone numbers, writing itineraries and working out currency conversions.

BIOGRAPHY

The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, Penguin pounds 6.99. One of the first black British writers, Equiano's 18th-century autobiography is an exquisite, dignified demonstration of his own humanity, and that of his enslaved people. With eloquent honesty, Equiano writes of his capture, his naval experience, his self-education against the odds, and his eventual marriage to a white Englishwoman. Highly rec-ommended for those taking their holiday in former British slave colonies.

Lola Montez: A Life by Bruce Seymour, Yale pounds 20. Her name was Lola! She was a showgirl! Travellers to Spain this year might consider doing what the disgraced Eliza Gilbert did: after a brief Iberian interlude, she reinvented herself and returned to Victorian London under a new name, pretending to be a Spanish dancer (couldn't dance; couldn't speak Spanish). An amazing story of a peerless adventuress, told with great verve.

With Nails by Richard E Grant, Picador pounds 16.99. Or, skinny, neurotic "Swazi Boy" takes on Hollywood and wins. This mock-gauche Diary of a Somebody details home-life chez Steve Martin, Madonna, Coppola et al, and describes how scary it is being a "friend" of the volatile Sandra Bernhard. Beyond the gush, tears and tantrums, there are enough barbs and shrewd observations here to merit the title. Funny, bitchy, utterly fascinating.

The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives by Sebastian Faulks, Hutchinson pounds 16.99. Biographical sketches of three suicidal inter-war golden boys: Christopher Wood (painter), Richard Hillary (writer and pilot) and Jeremy Wolfenden (scholar and foreign correspondent). In an elegiac narrative fuelled by nostalgia, Faulks traces the careers of these dazzling young Icarus-figures, mourning their decline and offering them as the spirits of a brighter age.

Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice by Peter O'Toole, Macmillan pounds 20. A second volume of fruity reminiscence from the wild man of the English stage (it helps to imagine that exquisite voice intoning these orotund sentences). And he still hasn't even got as far as Lawrence of Arabia.

The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich, Hodder pounds 25. An accomplished biography that captures the first half of Williams's life in a wealth of hot little details. There's loadsa boys 'n' booze, much painstaking research and no mighty editorial line to dilute the quality of Leverich's sources; but at 600 pages, this is one for the back garden rather than the holiday baggage.

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Zhisui Li, Arrow pounds 9.99. A doctor writes, giving the punter a privileged view into the life and trousers of a great dictator. Its emphasis on Mao's appetites (for food, sex, and power) make the memoir an eyebrow-raiser. Light on theory, but in terms of juicy personal details, obviously a Great Leap Forward.

Major Major: Memories of an Older Brother by Terry Major-Ball, Warner pounds 6.99. For a taste of the Feelgood factor, read this story of the circus acrobat and the gnomesmith who produced two sons, one destined for the highest office, the other for long-term unemployment in glamorous Croydon. There's no axe-grinding envy here; Major-Ball is a virtuoso of conventional optimism, and has written a win- ningly artless suburban memoir. Not inconsiderably good.

Noel Coward: A Biography by Philip Hoare, Sinclair Stevenson pounds 25. A richly comprehensive picture of the century's greatest all-round theatrical figure, and the first really to get to grips with the sexual plot of his life.

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude by Ray Monk, Cape pounds 25. Uncharitably censorious first volume of a monolithic study, which takes young Bert through Oxford to his affair with Vivien Eliot (the first Mrs T S); it covers exactly half his life. Though there is a certain lack of sympathy for his subject, and some contentious quoting, Monk can't defuse Russell's powerful dynamism.

Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin, Picador pounds 16.99. Born in Rhodesia,as it then was, Godwin had an idyllic childhood but had to reassess all his easy assumptions when he chose to do his National Service in the police force before going to Cambridge. He lost a sister in the cruel upheavals of the recent Zimbabwean past and is now an exile in London. Shortlisted for the NCR prize, this memoir is a powerfully written account of a liberal mind going through the thresher of institutionalised racial violence.

Billie Whitelaw ... Who He? by Billie Whitelaw, Sceptre, pounds 7.99. Beckett's muse weights her autobiography towards her association with the dramatist, detailing the processes that formed the powerful centre of her long career. Lord Olivier is a well-drawn bit-player.

POETRY

The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney, Faber pounds 14.99. The seductive glamour of the international lecture circuit has not dulled Heaney's capacity for self-knowledge: these poems have a striking freshness and clarity. The paraphernalia of the Ulster farmyard jostles with classical themes, offering a distinctly new inflection to the homely Heaney tones.

Fusewire by Ruth Padel, Chatto pounds 6.99. Red-hot love poems from an English woman to an Irish man mix the personal and the political to surprising and moving effect, as Padel inverts the old cliche that love is a colonisation of the woman's body.

Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 by Adrienne Rich, Norton pounds 7.50. More passion and politics in this round-up of recent work by the American lesbian poet (and one-time rival to Sylvia Plath) who's more outspoken in her sixties than she was in her twenties.

Masculinity by Robert Crawford, Cape pounds 7. Witty, thoughtful analysis of the male condition, with some delicately observant domestic pieces, from a poet for whom marigolds are more likely to be rubber gloves than golden blossoms.

Clay: Whereabouts Unknown by Craig Raine, Penguin pounds 7.99. More fizzing Martianisms in a provocative and compulsively readable collection tackling the big theme, mortality.

New Selected Poems 1968-1994 by Paul Muldoon, Faber pounds 7.99. A perfect introduction to the playful, terrifyingly allusive and compressed work of the much laurelled Irish wonder-poet.

Selected Poems by Christopher Logue, Faber pounds 7.99. Satire, lyric, ballad, narrative, haiku - Logue has a go at everything here. Pitched somewhere between Fitzrovia and the Liverpool poets, he still manages moments of awesome clarity and grace.

HISTORY/TRAVEL

The Prospect Before Her by Olwen Hufton, HarperCollins pounds 25. At 654 pages, Hufton's history is harder to pick up than put down, but it is as enlightening as it is weighty. A fascinating dissection of female expectations between 1500 and 1800.

The Empire's New Clothes by Bruce Clark, Vintage pounds 7.99. A book on the New Europe with a longer shelf-life than most. Clark's gloomy vision of Russia's resurrection as an aggressive and uncompromising state is plainly put, and all the more convincing for it.

Desert Places by Robyn Davidson, Viking pounds 18. A woman's inspiring journey among the Rabari, one of the last nomadic tribes of India, with their fat, spoilt, bad-attitude camels and harsh, unforgiving lifestyle.

SCIENCE

River out of Eden by Richard Dawkins, Phoenix pounds 5.99. Thumping his copy of The Origin of Species, the firebrand atheist returns with more compelling neo-Darwinism, continuing the argument of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. Guaranteed to liven up any Christian hill-walking holiday.

An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks, Picador pounds 6.99. Mind-expanding case-history from the neurologist with a nose for a compelling tale. The story of Virgil, a man restored to sight after 50 years in the dark, is as breathtaking as anything Sacks has written. His compassion is profound, his insight unique. Unquestionably astounding.

Terrors and Experts by Adam Phillips, Faber pounds 12.99. Much more dense and difficult than the seductively simple Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, here the pop idol of the couch demonstrates his belief in psycho-analysis not as science, but as a virtuoso activity. Flamboyantly allusive and epigrammatic.

Our Place in the Cosmos by Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, Phoenix pounds 5.99. Old news since Professor Bernard Quatermass started digging up Hobs End tube station, this book contends that life on earth is extraterrestrial in origin. Their evidence mainly rests on virological studies. Mulder and Scully are on the case.

The Neanderthal Enigma by James Shreeve, Viking pounds 18. Shreeve dons his palaeo-anthropological deerstalker to solve a mystery of our (relatively) recent past. The strange death of the Neanderthal people emerges as a sobering example of Darwinism in action: Shreeve picks over the bones with satisfying narrative finesse.

The Trouble with Science by Robin Dunbar, Faber pounds 17.99. Dunbar tweaks the nose of techno-fear with this engaging investigation into our nervousness of new science and our difficulty in grasping its concepts. Essential for anyone hiding under their sun-lounger with an armful of New Age crystals.

MUSIC

Unfinished Journey by Yehudi Menuhin, Methuen pounds 20 / A Glimpse of Olympus by Diana Menuhin, Methuen pounds 14.99. A pair of intertwined auto-biographies, both focusing on the fiddle-player. Yehudi Menuhin tells of his zealous rise to international acclaim, fired by a childhood ambition verging on the demoniacal; Diana casts the flowers of her admiration at her husband's feet, and gives us a fascinating glimpse of her brief ballet career.

Arthur Rubinstein by Harvey Sachs. Weidenfeld pounds 25. A frank and revealing portrait that resists the temptation to rely too heavily on attestations of monstrosity. Steering a careful course between the bedroom and the drinks cabinet, Sachs delivers a just and readable life of a great artist.

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