Float through summer with the best holiday reading

Float through summer with the best holiday reading: Our critics select the perfect books to pack for your getaways

  • Critics and authors reveal a selection of must read books to pack for your holiday
  • Stephanie Cross recommends The Language of Birds by Jill Dawson
  • Sara Lawrence suggests reading The Book of Love by Fionnuala Kearney

LITERARY FICTION

Selected by Stephanie Cross

The language of birds by Jill Dawson (Sceptre £18.99, 272 pp)

THE LANGUAGE OF BIRDS

by Jill Dawson (Sceptre £18.99, 272 pp)

Jill Dawson has always had a knack for spotting sensational true-life stories and making from them intelligent, thought-provoking and terrifically absorbing page-turners.

Her latest is no exception. The Language Of Birds is based on the infamous Lord Lucan murder case, but Lucan — here re-imagined as Dickie, the charismatic, mustachioed Earl of Morven — isn’t the focus. Instead it’s the nanny’s story that Dawson has chosen to tell.

Yet ‘Mandy’ is so much more than a victim, and if the conclusion of this novel is undeniably devastating, what goes before is often joyous. The sights and sounds of vibrant Seventies London pop off the page, and the whole thing crackles with life, ideas and — hurrah — unapologised-for female desire.

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson (Cape £16.99, 352 pp)

FRANKISSSTEIN

by Jeanette Winterson (Cape £16.99, 352 pp)

Winterson’s brainy romp begins on the rain-lashed shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, where Mary Shelley is about to be struck by the idea for Frankenstein.

Shortly after, we’re whisked off to more-or-less present day Memphis Tennessee, where transgender doctor Ry Shelley is falling for Artificial Intelligence genius Victor Stein. As the two strands begin to merge, so Winterson teases away at other boundaries — between genders, life and death, fact and fiction, human and machine — to great, and hugely entertaining, effect.

Mummy’s boy and sex-bot inventor Ron Lord is a cover price-justifying comic creation too.

Selected by Anthony Cummins 

The porpoise by Mark Haddon (Chatto & Windus £18.99, 336 pp)

THE PORPOISE

by Mark Haddon (Chatto & Windus £18.99, 336 pp)

The so-so novels Mark Haddon published after The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time hinted that he didn’t yet know how to follow its incredible success.

That changed with the dark, snarling stories of his 2016 collection The Pier Falls, and his brilliant new novel confirms the sense of a gifted writer letting his talent off the leash at last.

A time-travelling adventure for grown-ups, it cuts magically between a lonely, daydreaming girl, Angelica — raised by a mega-rich father hiding dark crimes — and the swashbuckling escapades of an ancient Mediterranean prince whose story uncannily echoes her own.

Mind-bending yet marvellously readable, it stakes Haddon’s claim to be one of the best writers in Britain right now.

The death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (Scribe £12.99, 112 pp)

THE DEATH OF MURAT IDRISSI

by Tommy Wieringa (Scribe £12.99, 112 pp)

It hardly screams ‘beach read’, but this brutally searing mini-masterpiece has haunted me all year. We follow two young Dutch women lured into crime while on holiday in Morocco, where their parents were born.

Hoping to earn some extra cash, they let a small-time crook persuade them to hide a poor villager in their car when they take the ferry back across the Mediterranean. On reaching Spain, though, they find the stowaway has suffocated to death. Panicking, the women drive on — his body still in their boot — while figuring out what to do next. The horribly tense set-up leads to a razor-sharp exploration of migration that, at just over a hundred pages long, proves remarkably far-reaching.

Selected by Claire Allfree

Late in the day by Tessa Hadley (HarperCollins £16.99, 288 pp)

LATE IN THE DAY

by Tessa Hadley (HarperCollins £16.99, 288 pp)

You know you are in safe hands with Tessa Hadley who, on a sheer sentence-by-sentence level, delivers more enjoyment than almost any other living writer.

This latest explores the complicated hidden relationships between two bohemian couples that become nastily exposed when affable, affluent Zachary dies unexpectedly from a heart attack. Zachary was once a boyfriend of Chris’s but it’s her husband who has an affair with Zach’s fabulously indolent widow Lydia, leaving Chris to reassess everything about the self she has become.

Hadley writes with such compassion and wisdom about these privileged but rudderless people that you’ll be hanging on to every word.

The fourth shore by Virginia Baily (Fleet £16.99, 384 pp)

THE FOURTH SHORE

by Virginia Baily (Fleet £16.99, 384 pp)

Virginia Baily’s historical novels are so effortlessly enjoyable she almost slips into the guilty pleasure category, yet she is also so accomplished there’s really nothing to feel guilty about.

Her third novel is the story of an abusive love affair between a young Italian girl, Liliana, and a much older Italian fascist in Libya during the Italian occupation.

It is told in retrospect by the widowed Liliana who, now living in England, has become estranged from her family.

Yet when Liliana discovers a nephew of hers has been assassinated on the orders of Gaddafi, she resolves at last to return home. Baily sheds light on a neglected area of pre-war history in ways that are both politically astute and deeply satisfying.

POPULAR FICTION

Selected by Wendy Holden

The frank business by Olivia Glazebrook (John Murray £14.99, 288 pp)

THE FRANK BUSINESS

by Olivia Glazebrook (John Murray £14.99, 288 pp)

If you’re spending any of the summer with your family, this might strike a chord. A meditation on those close and complex relationships, it’s fabulously written, moving and funny.

It starts with a death, works through various shock revelations and ends in satisfying resolution.

Jem has not seen her father Frank for years when he dies from a heart attack in an airport. But where was he going on Christmas Eve? And what is his and Jem’s connection to the brilliantly selfish Kathleen, star of a Downton Abbey-type TV hit, and her handsome-but-flaky actor son Sonny?

To find out, Jem must confront the painful past and come to terms with the difficult present.

Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain (Gallic Press £8.99, 208 pp)

VINTAGE 1954

by Antoine Laurain (Gallic Press £8.99, 208 pp)

A glorious time-slip caper in which a glass of the blushful Hippocrene sends the characters back to the Paris of the Fifties.

Mixologist Julien, Goth girl Magalie, American tourist Bob and French businessman Hubert go on a magical mystery tour in which Edith Piaf, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali all make cameo appearances.

While they are back in the past, they manage to right future wrongs, avoid mistakes about to happen, invent cocktails and fall in love. Just wonderful.

The Strawberry thief by Joanne Harris (Orion £20, 368 pp)

THE STRAWBERRY THIEF

by Joanne Harris (Orion £20, 368 pp)

Fans of Chocolat will be thrilled at this return to Lansquenet, the rural French village setting for Harris’s most famous novel.

Wise chocolatiere Vianne is still there as, down by the river on his houseboat, is the mysterious Roux. But it’s their teenage daughter Rosette, a mute, who is the focus of this story. 

An old man has left her some land in his will, but his nasty relatives are not pleased. 

Meanwhile, trouble arrives for Vianne in the lissom shape of Morgane who opens a tattoo parlour in the village. 

Before long, even the vicar’s been inked. 

Is she a witch?

Packed with magic and mystery, this beautifully written tale is an absolute holiday must.

CONTEMPORARY

Selected by Sara Lawrence

The book of love by Fionnuala Kearney (Harper Collins £7.99, 416 pp)

THE BOOK OF LOVE

by Fionnuala Kearney (Harper Collins £7.99, 416 pp)

Pack this modern, epic love story in your beach bag and prepare to get lost in the waves of emotional wisdom it contains. Dom fell in love with Erin the first night he met her.

They have a whirlwind wedding and brush off digs about their relationship not standing a chance.

Their secret weapon is a notebook where they must write down those things they find impossible to say. But this tactic works only with brutal honesty and when a huge secret is withheld for far too long the cracks are immediate and apparently insurmountable.

I owe you one by Sophie Kinsella (Bantam Press £20, 384 pp)

I OWE YOU ONE

by Sophie Kinsella (Bantam Press £20, 384 pp)

This latest from the internationally bestselling author is a wonderful companion for a long sunny day in the garden.

Perfectly named protagonist Fixie is an out-of-control people pleaser who is so concerned with making sure everyone else is OK that she barely considers her own needs.

The hardest grafter in the family business, Fixie is resistant to pressures from her brother and sister to modernise and change it completely.

However, she isn’t used to standing up for herself or being heard so Fixie must work out what she wants to say and find her voice.

I loved it.

SHORT STORIES

Selected by Eithne Farry

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

SALT SLOW

by Julia Armfield (Picador £12.99, 208 pp)

Julia Armfield’s debut is wild and wonderful, full of mythical transformations that take place in the most ordinary of contemporary settings.

The opener, Mantis, sets the tone; it’s a vivid, visceral tale of an ordinary teenage girl recognising an extraordinary familial trait, as she finally grows into her own skin: ‘A suddenness of mandibles and curving neck.’

Elsewhere, a city of reluctant, weary insomniacs are taunted and haunted by their own individual Sleeps who’ve stepped out of their hosts’ bodies. And in the marvellous Stop Your Women’s Ears With Wax, we head on the road with an all-female band whose music works a siren spell on the girls who come to listen, conjuring a ‘rushing wild euphoria’ in their hearts.

Show them a good time by Nicole Flattery (Bloomsbury Circus £14.99, 256 pp)

SHOW THEM A GOOD TIME

by Nicole Flattery (Bloomsbury Circus £14.99, 256 pp)

The funny, sorrowful characters in Flattery’s bold, bracing stories are ‘sick with chaos’, in situations that have tip-tilted into the surreal.

Lives have been hollowed out — jobs lost, romances gone awry, parents gone — even as the weight of emotion has bowed them in unexpected ways.

In Sweet Talk a small-town teenager develops a hot summer crush on a much older seasonal worker as a killer stalks the country.

And in the title story, a young woman, who has been employed in the porn industry, heads back home to a pretend job in a pretend garage, and poignantly asks: ‘What have I done to deserve this life?’

DEBUTS

Selected by Fanny Blake

When all is said by Anne Griffin (Sceptre £8.99, 272 pp)

WHEN ALL IS SAID

by Anne Griffin (Sceptre £8.99, 272 pp)

Now an elderly man, Maurice Hannigan sits alone in his local hotel bar.

As he lines up five drinks, he dedicates each one to a person who has helped shape his life: his brother Tony, his stillborn daughter Molly; his disturbed sister-in-law Noreen; his son Kevin, and last, but very much not least, his late wife, Sadie, who died two years earlier.

Running through their stories is the mystery of the whereabouts of an Edward VIII gold sovereign that Maurice, when a boy, stole in an act of revenge. From these narratives emerges a portrait of a life in which revenge, love, loss, and misunderstanding all play their part.

This is a wonderful piece of storytelling that is intimate, compassionate and extraordinarily assured. Maurice’s voice has haunted me since I first read this.

My sister, the serial killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Atlantic £12.99, 240 pp)

MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER

by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Atlantic £12.99, 240 pp)

Korede is a nurse in a Lagos hospital who bares her soul to a man in a coma, confident her secrets cannot be repeated.

Just as well, since one of her greatest anxieties involves her sister, Ayoola, who has murdered her last three boyfriends and gone as far as roping in Korede to help dispose of the bodies.

When Ayoola falls for Tade, one of the doctors in the hospital, Korede has an uneasy sense of foreboding — but is powerless.

When the comatose patient regains consciousness and has clear recall of what he has been told, things take a decided turn for the worse.

Its short, sharp chapters and distinctive voice make for a funny, sassy, super-smart read that was right up my street.

The Doll factory by Elizabeth Macneal (Picador £12.99, 336 pp)

THE DOLL FACTORY

by Elizabeth Macneal (Picador £12.99, 336 pp)

Rose and Iris Whittle paint faces on dolls in Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium, but Iris nurses ambitions to be an artist.

When she catches the attention of pre-Raphaelite painter Louis Frost, she agrees to model for him if, in exchange, he will teach her to paint.

But lurking in the shadows is Silas Reed, a malign taxidermist who watches Iris from afar, nurturing his own plans for her, waiting for the right moment to pounce.

Close research is worn lightly to evoke 1850s London life in all its Dickensian glory.

Boasting distinctive characters and a gripping plot fuelled by obsession and passion, this skilfully crafted novel kept me on tenterhooks until the end.

CRIME AND THRILLERS

Selected by Geoffrey Wansell

Cari Mora by Thomas Harris (Heinemann £20, 336 pp)

Cari Mora

by Thomas Harris (Heinemann £20, 336 pp)

The first novel for 13 years from the creator of the inimitable Hannibal Lecter brings the world another memorable villain — Hans-Peter Schneider, who has not a hair on his head, not even eyebrows.

He makes his living out of trading in human body parts, but also has a desire for the $25 million in gold said to be hidden under a grand Miami sea-front mansion.

Enter the house’s caretaker, the indomitable Caridad Mora, who was trained as a child soldier in Colombia.

A supreme thriller with a great female protagonist, this is Harris at his wry best.

Accidental Agent by Alan Judd (S & S, £14.99, 272 pp)

Accidental Agent

by Alan Judd (S & S, £14.99, 272 pp)

This superbly crafted spy story, written by a former soldier and diplomat, focuses on Charles Thoroughgood, head of MI6 — or ‘C’ as he usually known. Brexit is on the horizon and the Intelligence Service is tempted to spy on Britain’s present colleagues in the European Union. He knows his Foreign Office masters would like to know what the EU is thinking privately, while at the same time he may have a family connection to a suspected terrorist who is on the loose in Britain.

Intricate and compelling, it gives an all-too-plausible glimpse of how espionage actually works.

November Road by Lou Berney (HarperCollins £12.99, 320 pp)

November Road

by Lou Berney (HarperCollins £12.99, 320 pp)

One of the most remarkable novels of the year, this tells the story of New Orleans mob lieutenant Frank Guidry, who is told to deliver a car to Dallas in the days before the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.

In the wake of the shooting, Guidry goes on the run to avoid death at the hands of one of the mob’s most notorious hitmen.

Guidry sets off for Las Vegas but encounters a young mother and her two daughters along the way. At first they are his camouflage, but then he falls in love. It is poignant, bittersweet and unforgettable.

The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem (Atlantic, £16.99, 336 pp)

The Feral Detective

by Jonathan Lethem (Atlantic, £16.99, 336 pp)

this is set on the hippy fringes of Los Angeles, where Phoebe Siegler is looking for her friend’s missing daughter and hires eccentric private detective Charles Heist to help her.

It emerges that the girl may have become involved with one of the two groups that hide out in the Mojave Desert, known as the Rabbits and the Bears.

Heist himself has been a member of both groups — hence his ‘feral’ nickname — and together Siegler and Heist set out to rescue the missing girl. Packed with unusual characters, it is captivating.

Come Back for Me by Heidi Perks (Century £12.99, 432 pp)

Come Back for Me

by Heidi Perks (Century £12.99, 432 pp)

On Evergreen, a tiny island off the Dorset Coast, a long-buried body is unearthed and suspicion falls on the 100 or so inhabitants.

Stella Harvey, who left the island in a rush 25 years ago along with her family, is deeply shocked by the discovery, not least because the remains are found beside what was formerly her family home.

She goes back to investigate, and finds herself drawn into what is in effect a locked room mystery.

Subtle, elegantly told, and with enough twists to satisfy any detective fan, it is razor sharp and impossible to put down.

PSYCHO THRILLERS

Selected by Christena Appleyard

Those people by Louise Candlish (S&S £12.99, 400 pp)

THOSE PEOPLE

by Louise Candlish (S&S £12.99, 400 pp)

Candlish — author of bestseller Our House — has invented a whole new fiction category: psychological thriller wrapped in property porn.

This is set in the competitive micro-climate of an outer London road where the residents bask in the entitlement that flourishes through living close to the best state schools and amid ever increasing property prices.

But when downmarket Darren and Jodie move in and run their second-hand car business from the street, the smug residents face a dilemma.

How far will they go to protect their parking spaces and their property prices from the Darren and Jodie effect?

Their story is told against the backdrop of a police enquiry into a mysterious and violent crime.

Beautiful bad by Annie Ward (Quercus £12.99, 400 pp)

BEAUTIFUL BAD

by Annie Ward (Quercus £12.99, 400 pp)

This has the kind of high-powered plot that would make an all-night Netflix binge. The action switches from the romantic Balkans to Kansas in middle America. Maddie, a young U.S. travel writer, falls in love with a soldier who is suffering from PTSD. We learn that Maddie is now the mother of a toddler and is dealing with the aftermath of horrific facial injuries.

The story is told in vivid flashbacks. The extraordinarily dramatic opening one describes a horrendous murder scene in Maddie’s Kansas home, although the writer manages to conceal who is actually dead. Just when you think you have worked it all out, you find out you were wrong.

Which is as it should always be.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

THE SILENT PATIENT

by Alex Michaelides (Orion £12.99, 352 pp)

Alicia Berenson is a beautiful young artist who, for no apparent reason, suddenly murders her husband. She then refuses to talk and is sentenced to life in an institution.

But Theo Faber, a young psychotherapist, is convinced he can get through to her and persuade her to open up to him.

The author’s own experience of working in a psychiatric unit is key to the compelling atmosphere and raw storytelling.

Although the premise might sound simple, the plot is satisfyingly twisty with a gobsmacking conclusion and the book offers a rare insight into why damaged people are so uniquely equipped to harm others, and the part played by those who seek to help them.

HISTORICAL

Selected by Elizabeth Buchan

Once upon a river by Diane Setterfield (Doubleday £12.99, 432 pp)

ONCE UPON A RIVER

by Diane Setterfield (Doubleday £12.99, 432 pp)

Author of the much praised The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield has gone even better with this novel.

Set in the mid 19th century, it centres around the Thameside Swan Inn famous for its storytelling gatherings.

One night, an injured stranger bursts in, carrying a drowned child. Who are they? And what is their connection to the gathering?

Miraculously, the child comes back to life. The individual histories unravelling from this moment of high drama are, at first, seemingly disparate but there is a connection between them, which is gradually, and skilfully, unravelled.

A meditation on our hunger for stories, and how influential they are in our lives, it is a winning fusion of myth, folklore, magic and the new scientific discoveries of the time. I was captivated by it.

A thousand ships by Natalie Haynes (Mantle £16.99, 368 pp)

A THOUSAND SHIPS

by Natalie Haynes (Mantle £16.99, 368 pp)

The ten-year Trojan War which ended bloodily with the sack of the city is the stuff of countless myths and retellings.

In A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes’s declared ambition is to pick up on the old legends and ‘shake’ them until the women hidden in them step forward. She succeeds triumphantly.

Here are Helen, Penelope, Iphigenia, Cassandra, Hecuba: a procession of Greek and Trojan wives, daughters, sisters and warriors who suffered untold damage as their men were slaughtered, wounded and traumatised.

A multi-perspective narrative, it is clever, fluently written, passionate and a welcome different perspective on a war that took so much from everyone involved.

For me, it was an eye-opener.

Get them off their iPads and into a magical story

Selected by Sally Morris 

PICTURE BOOKS

Tad by Benji Davies (Harper Collins £12.99, 32 pp)

TAD 

by Benji Davies (Harper Collins £12.99, 32 pp)

The smallest tadpole in the pond, Tad watches her older siblings grow bigger, lose their tails and disappear as she stays tiny and scared of Big Blub, the notorious fish who lurks in the shadowy depths.

Eventually Tad is alone and, as Blub comes looking for her, she is forced to take a giant leap of faith.

An absolutely stunning book about growing up and the little steps we must all take to conquer our fears.

Alfie on holiday by Shirley Hughes (Red Fox £6.99, 32 pp)

ALFIE ON HOLIDAY

by Shirley Hughes (Red Fox £6.99, 32 pp)

We were first introduced to Alfie and his family in 1981 and yet Shirley Hughes’ gentle, uplifting stories about small domestic moments feel just as fresh today.

Here Alfie takes a trip to the seaside with his grandma when sister Annie Rose is ill, and makes friends on the beach with a boy called Lee.

But — in a situation so familiar to parents — the next day Lee goes to play with other children, leaving Alfie feeling rejected and vulnerable.

Beautifully illustrated and with a heartwarming message about true friendship, this is perfect for every suitcase.

Paper planes by Jim Helmore, illustrated by Richard Jones (Simon & Schuster £6.99, 32 pp)

PAPER PLANES

by Jim Helmore, illustrated by Richard Jones (Simon & Schuster £6.99, 32 pp)

Inseparable best friends Mia and Ben spend their days by a lake, playing games and building a collection of increasingly complex paper planes.

But then disaster strikes and Ben’s family move away, leaving the children inconsolable. How will they stay in touch?

This touching and thoughtful book is beautifully illustrated and the message, that friendship triumphs over distance, will resonate with readers of any age.

Kind by Alison Green (Scholastic £12.99, 48 pp)

KIND

by Alison Green (Scholastic £12.99, 48 pp)

With an introduction by Gruffalo illustrator Alex Scheffler, this valuable book discusses kindness in all its forms — from listening to others to learning to say hello in a different language — and each page is illustrated by a different renowned children’s artist.

In addition to Scheffler we enjoy artwork from Quentin Blake, Michael Foreman, Nick Sharratt, David Roberts and many more, and £1 from each book sold will be donated to Three Peas, a charity helping refugees.

YOUNG FICTION Age 5-8

The curse of the school rabbit by Judith Kerr (HarperCollins £12.99, 80 pp)

THE CURSE OF THE SCHOOL RABBIT

by Judith Kerr (HarperCollins £12.99, 80 pp)

Judith Kerr sadly died in May this year, but fortunately left this delightful book to be published posthumously.

When Angie is asked to look after the classroom pet rabbit, Snowflake, she’s delighted. 

But older brother Tommy is appalled and when Snowflake pees on visitors and generally causes mayhem in the house, Tommy blames him for all the bad luck the family is having. But is Snowflake actually a lucky charm?

Quietly funny and illustrated with soft, black and white drawings, this is a lovely end to a glittering career.

Evie and the animals by Matt Haig (Canongate £12.99, 256 pp)

EVIE AND THE ANIMALS

by Matt Haig (Canongate £12.99, 256 pp)

Like Dr Dolittle (and her grandma), Evie can read the thoughts of animals and begins to communicate with small pets before graduating to the lion at the local zoo.

Her dad wants her to keep her ability a secret because this apparently harmless skill will put her in deadly danger if others find out. 

He warns her that there is someone out there who wants to be the only person with the Talent and who will come to find Evie if she continues.

There are many environmental messages in this touching tale, which reinforces the importance of being true to yourself.

AGE 9-12

Malamander by Thomas Taylor (Walker £7.99 304 pp)

MALAMANDER

by Thomas Taylor (Walker £7.99 304 pp)

When Violet Parma suddenly appears at the Grand Nautilus Hotel in Eerie-on-Sea, orphaned Herbie Lemon, aged 12, has his life turned upside down. Instead of running the hotel’s Lost and Found service, he must help her solve the mystery of her parents’ disappearance from the beach twelve years earlier.

In doing so, they uncover the mysterious legend of the malamander, a sea creature whose solitary egg, laid once a year, has the power to grant human wishes.

This is a remarkable debut bubbling with dry humour, richly drawn characters and a wonderful sense of place.

Let’s hope that the Herbie and Violet team reappear for more swashbuckling adventures.

The Umbrella mouse by Anna Fargher, illustrated by Sam Usher (Macmillan £6.99, 288 pp)

THE UMBRELLA MOUSE

by Anna Fargher, illustrated by Sam Usher (Macmillan £6.99, 288 pp)

In 1944, a London umbrella shop is bombed, leaving orphaned mouse Pip alone and homeless.

She begins an intrepid journey to her mother’s family in Italy, taking with her a rare antique umbrella.

Scared and lost, she’s rescued by Noah’s Ark, an underground band of dogs, rats and birds who work for Churchill’s Secret Animal Army and the French Resistance.

Together they cross the Channel and carry out a dangerous and vital mission. Don’t let the animal characters and Usher’s lovely, delicate illustrations fool you that this is a cute story: it’s full of vivid wartime detail and tragic deaths.

But the heart-tugging character of Pip and the fast paced action are a perfect combination in a gripping story that celebrates the role of animals in war.

The good thieves by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury £12.99, 336 pp)

THE GOOD THIEVES

by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury £12.99, 336 pp)

What a writer Rundell is. She creates the heady atmosphere of Prohibition-era New York, wonderfully engaging characters and a fast-paced mystery adventure and weaves them together with the most beautiful writing style.

Here Vita, newly arrived with her mother in the Big Apple, pledges to help her widower grandfather win back the family’s ancestral home that he has been conned out of by a menacing mafioso.

Enlisting the help of a pickpocket and two circus performers, she plots to recover a missing jewel from under the conman’s nose. An exciting read for all ages.

When we were warriors by Emma Carroll (Faber £6.99, 256 pp)

WHEN WE WERE WARRIORS

by Emma Carroll (Faber £6.99, 256 pp)

With her characteristic narrative skill, Carroll interlinks three stories revisiting characters and places from her previous bestsellers, Frost Hollow Hall and Letters From The Lighthouse, to create this exciting historical drama.

In the title story, siblings evacuated from London to Devon in 1942 help to reveal the secret history of Frost Hollow Hall while in the second episode, young Olive’s discovery of a body on the local beach uncovers wartime invasion plans.

And in the final chapters, a girl sets out to rescue animals banned from air raid shelters.

All three strands eventually coalesce with ease and will equally delight previous fans and new readers.

TEEN/young adult

Toffee by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury £12.99, 416 pp)

TOFFEE

by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury £12.99, 416 pp)

When her father’s latest girlfriend runs away after yet another beating, teenage Allison bears the brunt of his rage and must escape, too.

She ends up in Cornwall, hiding in a house owned by Marla, who has dementia and thinks Allison is her childhood friend, Toffee. In this poignant verse novel, award-winning Crossan mirrors Marla’s loss of identity with Allison’s gradual realisation of who she really is and together they develop a supportive friendship based on tenderness and need. A very special book.

THE GIFTED, THE TALENTED AND ME

The gifted and talented me by William Sutcliffe (Bloomsbury £7.99, 336 pp) 

by William Sutcliffe (Bloomsbury £7.99, 336 pp)

When 15-year-old Sam’s dad sells his company for millions, the family move from suburbia to wealthy North London where Sam, his older brother and younger sister are enrolled in a progressive school for the Gifted and Talented — neither of which applies to our hero.

Cue a very funny satire on self-obsessed creatives (Sam’s mum starts a parenting blog and takes up pottery) and liberal teachers (‘confidence is just shyness doing a handstand’) as Sam struggles to discover where he fits in — and falls for the wrong girl.

A helping of Adrian Mole, spiced with a hint of Inbetweeners, this gives a painfully accurate insight into the agonies of male adolescence.

Planetarium junior edition by Raman Prinja

NON-FICTION PICK

PLANETARIUM JUNIOR EDITION

by Raman Prinja, illustrated by Chris Wormell (Big Picture Press £10.99, 80 pp)

With the ongoing anniversary celebrations of the moon landing, what better time to look upwards into the night sky with the help of this stunning book.

Packed with facts and figures and gorgeously illustrated, it introduces complex subjects to younger readers in an exciting way and, with luck, will inspire a new generation to take giant leaps into the world of science.

Happy 30th anniversary! 

It’s 30 years since the first publication of ELMER by David McKee (Andersen Press £6.99) and this beautiful collectors’ edition, celebrating patchwork elephant Elmer’s pride in being different, comes with a fabulous, colourful print for the bedroom wall.

And who doesn’t remember the best ever book about poo?! Happy anniversary to THE STORY OF THE LITTLE MOLE WHO KNEW IT WAS NONE OF HIS BUSINESS by Werner Holzwarth, illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch (Pavilion £6.99) which is a timeless detective story involving a very smelly blob of, um, poo . . . guaranteed to have them giggling.

Percy the Park Keeper also made his first appearance 30 years ago and his latest adventure, ONE SPRINGY DAY by Nick Butterworth (Harper Collins £12.99), involves a game of hide and seek with all his favourite animal friends. Small children will love the huge fold-out page towards the end.

t’s 30 years since the first publication of ELMER by David McKee (Andersen Press £6.99) and this beautiful collectors’ edition, celebrating patchwork elephant Elmer’s pride in being different, comes with a fabulous, colourful print for the bedroom wall

Lie back with a masterpiece… and the world’s greatest spy 

NON-FICTION

Selected by Marcus Berkmann

Salvator Mundi, (pictured right) was the first ‘new’ painting by Leonardo da Vinci to be authenticated in 99 years

The Last Leonardo 

by Ben Lewis (William Collins £20, 416 pp)

Salvator Mundi was the first ‘new’ painting by Leonardo da Vinci to be authenticated in 99 years. Its discoverers paid $1,175 (£940) for it at auction in 2005; nine years later it was sold on for $450 million (£358 million), making it the most expensive painting of all time.

But is it the real thing? Ben Lewis isn’t sure, or at least he isn’t telling. This beautifully paced book, a history of the painting and all the people who’ve owned it, reads like a thriller. So much money is at stake it makes your head spin.

Not for the first time the unabashed greed and corruption of the art market is laid bare, but I’m not sure I have ever read a volume of art history so quickly and with such pleasure. Lewis also wrote a book about Soviet humour called Hammer And Tickle, but I think we can forgive him that.

Still Water: The Deep Life Of The Pond by John Lewis-Stempel (Doubleday £14.99, 304 pp)

Still Water: The Deep Life Of The Pond

by John Lewis-Stempel (Doubleday £14.99, 304 pp)

If you’ve read any of Lewis-Stempel’s nature books before, you’ll know roughly what to expect: dense, almost poetic prose, and an extraordinarily detailed capacity for observing and delineating the natural world.

Lewis-Stempel, who is almost indecently prolific, sees and hears things others will never see and hear, and he can write about them as no one else can.

His original plan was to visit ponds up and down Britain and ‘write a watery travelogue’; instead he just sat and observed his own pond for 12 absorbing months.

Sound boring? It really isn’t. It’s a high-wire act for sure, and his habitually gloomy ecological message may make you seriously contemplate throwing yourself under a bus, but as always his book is saved by easy charm, his gimlet eye and some beautiful writing.

I keep reading his books trying to work out how he does it, and I haven’t got there yet.

Happy Old Me by Hunter Davies (S&S £16.99, 304 pp)

Happy Old Me

by Hunter Davies (S&S £16.99, 304 pp)

There’s a photo on the cover of Hunter Davies’s umpteenth book showing the author, now 82, sitting in shorts, looking tanned, relaxed and almost indecently cheerful, and that’s what this book is essentially about.

Theoretically the third volume of his memoirs, Happy Old Me really only covers the past two or three years of his life, since his wife of 55 years, novelist Margaret Forster, died of cancer.

So this is partly autobiography, partly self-help book, but mainly it’s a meditation on living a long life and trying to enjoy it to the hilt. As ever Davies writes with a delightful, self-deprecatory wit, but his book is also genuinely useful, full of nuggets of wisdom born of long life experience.

I intend to give it to my own mother, who may be the only person in the world who’s even happier than Hunter.

The Full Monty by Monty Panesar (White Owl £20, 202 pp)

The Full Monty

by Monty Panesar (White Owl £20, 202 pp)

As a team game played by individuals, cricket is notoriously full of eccentrics, and few come odder than Monty Panesar.

The first Sikh to play for England and a formidably talented left-arm spinner, he made an instant impact with his very first wicket in Test cricket — that of Sachin Tendulkar, the best batsman in the world.

Although the second half of his career was marred by mental health issues, Panesar brought a childlike glee to Test cricket and was loved by all (other than possibly Tendulkar).

His autobiography doesn’t skirt the difficult themes, but in the main it’s an uncommonly cheerful book, full of jokes and jeux d’esprit.

Panesar is now 37 so his top-level cricket career is done, but he’s still a popular figure and unusually honest about his failings. Only the hardest-hearted of us would not wish him well.

Quicksand Tales by Keggie Carew (Canongate £16.99, 272 pp)

Quicksand Tales

by Keggie Carew (Canongate £16.99, 272 pp)

Keggie Carew is a former artist in her early 60s who wrote an award-winning biography of her father as he slipped into dementia.

This book is very different, a memoir of sorts, concentrating on the many and various misadventures in her own life. Her tales would seem tall if told by anyone else, but what makes the book sing is that you completely believe her.

Talked into buying a camel in Tunisia, burgling a house in Ireland by mistake, sitting next to the actor Sam Neill at a dinner party without realising it’s Sam Neill, she relates each horror with a winning humour and the natural talent of the born storyteller.

Sensitive readers may have to pause between chapters to recover their equilibrium, and every reader will end the book astonished that she’s still alive. Uncategorisable, unignorable and unique, this is already one of my books of the year.

An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury £25, 448 pp)

An Impeccable Spy

by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury £25, 448 pp)

Richard Sorge may well be the most notorious Soviet spy you have never heard of.

During World War II, pretending to be a foreign correspondent in Tokyo, he ran a network of German and Japanese agents so successfully that his intelligence actually changed the course of the war in the Soviets’ favour.

His best friend was the German Ambassador to Japan, who spoke regularly to Hitler. His best Japanese friend was a member of the cabinet’s inner advisory council, who spoke regularly to the Japanese prime minister.

At the same time Sorge was a roaring drunk, a serial seducer of women (especially his friends’ wives) and a charming mountebank who essentially hid in plain sight, almost daring the authorities to accuse him of being a spy.

Owen Matthews, who wrote the wonderful Stalin’s Children, has produced a splendidly rounded portrait of this madman, whom John Le Carré has called ‘the spy to end spies’.

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