Unfortunately, this post is a mammoth one, because the more I thought about the paperback books you should travel with right now, the more I remembered why I liked each one so much. I mulled over favourite lines and clever themes, and it became harder to cull the synopsis for each of these tantalising reads.
I chose paperback books because, not being an e-reader fan, this is the way I like to read on holiday – preferably no hardbacks, unless they’re lightweight. A decent paperback copes much better than a hardback with being flung in a handbag or rucksack for an adventure, possibly covered in sun cream or snacks, and these four key paperback recommendations (along with four more titles for further reading) will keep you gripped until the very last page, wherever you are in the world.
The Debut Novel: Dark Pines – Will Dean
Tuva Moodyson is not your typical crime-fighter. She doesn’t work for the police, or run a private detective agency; she isn’t as bold as Miss Marple – for one thing, Tuva is a city girl, and hates being stuck in a quiet Swedish town, Gavrik, next to a huge, imposing forest, which gives her the creeps. But go to the forest and hang out in the town she must, because she’s a local news reporter who can’t keep away from the juicy story unfolding between the trees, which recalls several murders committed decades earlier.
Dark Pines comes with an added twist: Tuva is deaf, and needs hearing aids to truly decipher conversations. There are lots of practical details linked to the hearing aids – for example, they need to be kept dry at all times, and they’re very expensive, so she can’t afford to lose them. Will Dean never patronises Tuva, but acknowledges the obstacles she faces every day.
The hearing aids play a big part in an overarching theme in Dark Pines: the five senses. The other senses are ticked off as large details (the victims are missing their eyes) or smaller ones (Tuva is amazed by the tasty home-cooked food she is given by other people). When Tuva needs to concentrate on her writing, she deliberately removes her hearing aids to focus, shutting out the world, but she can also shut people out on an emotional level.
I quickly realised I liked Tuva as a protagonist when I realised she isn’t portrayed as fearless or infallible. Her diet is mainly wine gums and takeaways. She knows there’s a world beyond the town and, in fact, she longs to escape, either to Stockholm or back to London, where she used to work, but she’s stuck in Gavrik to be close to her dying mother. Who, somehow, she never manages to see, because the plot keeps developing with these pesky ritualistic murders down in the weird forest hamlet of Mossen. Each Mossen resident is suitably odd, but which one of them is a killer? You won’t see the twist coming but, if you’re anything like me, you’ll race to the end of Dark Pines to find out.
Further Reading: The Dry, by Jane Harper, is an electrifying debut novel set in rural Australia, which sees a police officer return to the community that shunned him, where he must now investigate a domestic murder with an unlikely prime suspect. The book deals with small-town politics, domestic abuse and long-buried secrets that have to be revealed.
The Topical Book: Splinter the Silence – Val McDermid
The latest paperback in Val McDermid’s popular crime series, featuring DCI Carol Jordan and profiler Tony Hill, won’t be published until the end of February. In the meantime, familiarise yourself with the previous Carol and Tony thriller, Splinter the Silence, which is number 9 in the collection.
McDermid is a prolific writer, with several different series under her belt, as well as many stand-alone books, but this is her best-loved cast of recurring characters. Yes, there’s a clichéd will-they-won’t-they situation with Carol and Tony that has kept readers in suspense throughout the series, but both protagonists are interesting in their own right.
Carol is an alcoholic in denial, trying to bury trauma from the recent past; Tony spots a crime pattern that needs investigating, fuelled by his interest in human behaviour, but his fractured relationship with Carol means this case comes with added complications.
Of course, the subject matter is dark (the British press don’t call McDermid the ‘Queen of Crime’ for nothing): this time it’s a series of murders disguised as elaborate suicides, with each victim the target of vicious online bullying from misogynists, making it topical as well as intriguing. Carol’s team of staff also return, along with new faces, and no character is lazily drawn. This is a fast-paced feminist read that will appeal to anyone wondering how on earth an internet troll sleeps at night.
Further Reading: I See You, by Clare Mackintosh, also deals with crimes that begin on the internet – this time, a sinister dating site that appeals to as many stalkers as it does shy daters. Unlike other dating sites, it doesn’t operate on the basis of mutual consent: the women listed on the site have no idea their every move has been catalogued so random men can find them during the commute to work. I See You exposes our dangerous reliance on habits and patterns, and our constant disconnection from society, in a very plausible set-up (except the slightly off-key ending).
The Conversation-Starter: Lullaby – Leïla Slimani (titled The Perfect Nanny in America)
This book has had some serious hype surrounding it, having won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt, and bearing one of the most chilling opening lines in literature (replicated on the cover, for maximum impact): ‘The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.’ This is not a murder mystery as such: we know that Louise, nanny to two young children, has killed her charges and attempted suicide. What we don’t know is why.
Slimani follows Louise and her employers, Myriam and Paul, exploring how their relationship changes over time. Though Myriam is presented as a workaholic who doesn’t want to be a housewife and is bored by her children, this doesn’t wholly paint her in a bad light. She has a great career and is ambitious. She gets no help from Paul, who has never really considered taking a day off from his music industry job to help out (despite the fact that she earns more than him). I don’t feel Slimani is passing judgement on working women, and it’s refreshing to read about the boring side of having kids – not just the usual spiel about every moment being infinitely precious. I imagine much of it is a bit brain-numbing, and Myriam has clearly felt lonely in her Parisian neighbourhood.
However, it’s clear that Myriam and Paul take Louise for granted. She’s recovering from relationship issues and debt, and doesn’t see her daughter any more. She lives in a grotty flat, with only one friend to rely on, and there are clues that her mental health is deteriorating: she alternately lashes out at the children or smothers them with attention and bends over backwards for her employers. Her self-sacrificing behaviour is interwoven with low self-esteem and a feeling of utter defeat. When Louise is set up with a man at her friend’s wedding reception, Slimani writes, ‘He is the kind of man she deserves. A man no one wants but who Louise will take, the way she takes old clothes, second-hand magazines with pages missing, even waffles half-eaten by the children.’ (p.126).
As you get closer to the end of this brief but engaging book, you can feel Louise’s sense of reason crumbling away, and Myriam and Paul expecting even more from their nanny, even though they feel awkward around her. It’s a messy emotional journey, but one that explores issues of emotional intelligence, the value of childcare, gender stereotypes, and immigration (Louise’s friend, Wafa, becomes part of a sham marriage). Believe the hype and dive straight into Lullaby/The Perfect Nanny.
Further Reading: All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg, is the anti-Bridget Jones book that 20-40-something women need to read. It doesn’t demand happy endings and neat conclusions, and its heroine, Andrea, has a darkly comic dating life, rather than something light and frothy. Some of her encounters are downright miserable, she doesn’t want children or a wedding, and her family life is decidedly chaotic (though, like Bridget, she does have an interfering mother and well-meaning but insulting friends): top of the chaos list, her baby niece is terminally ill. The book jumps around in time, providing snapshots of Andrea’s life, and it’s a realistic portrayal of being a single woman today.
The Literary Surprise: Flesh and Blood: A History of My Family in Seven Maladies – Stephen McGann
Flesh and Blood takes a forensic look at family history, examining how the illnesses our ancestors and existing family suffered from have made them who they are. I rushed out to buy this in hardback, but I’m glad to see the upcoming paperback version (released in the UK on 25th January 2018) will give even more exposure to a truly original book that blends the emotional punch of Who Do You Think You Are? with intriguing medical cases.
If you only know Stephen McGann as the actor behind reliable Doctor Turner in Call the Midwife (which his real life wife, Heidi Thomas, brilliantly writes), you may need a primer: he’s one of five children, four of whom are actors, and he also happens to be a deeply profound writer. What’s more, he has an MSc in Science Communication from Imperial College London (sounds bizarre? McGann isn’t the only actor to love science – Alan Alda, best known for M*A*S*H, founded the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science). Therefore, Flesh and Blood is a meticulously researched book, where every imaginable illness, from agoraphobia and asthma to gangrenous necrosis, somehow has poetry within its description: first, in medical terms, then in personal terms, using his family history. If you want to read it in a poignant location, I’d suggest the Wellcome Collection or the Old Operating Theatre in London, the Hygiene Museum in Dresden (basically a medical museum), or the Pathological-Anatomical Museum in the Narrenturm, Vienna.
McGann writes that ‘Breathing is the sound our humanity makes’ (p.171) and he returns to key words and phrases that unite the medical and historical strands. He can conjure up the horror of the Titanic sinking, as ‘Exposed flesh began to blacken with frostbite’ (p.118), but also discuss psychological exposure to the First World War, because ‘maladies’ can have all kinds of effects, both physical and mental.
He also highlights the blame placed on Liverpool football fans in the Hillsborough disaster (which, sadly, he witnessed), and how the victims and survivors became seen almost as a ‘pestilence’, thanks to a police cover-up and damning media coverage. When we dehumanise groups of people in this way, we forget the individual lives behind the generalisations and the cold statistics. McGann values the individual throughout this book, but most triumphantly in the Hillsborough section, restoring dignity to people who suffered so much unnecessary pain.
Further Reading: Bleaker House, by Nell Stevens, follows a would-be author as she tries to write the novel she believes is inside. Having received a grant to travel as a research aid, Stevens takes a trip to remote Bleaker Island, in the Falklands, under the assumption that she only needs a dramatic location to bring the longed-for novel together. Her account of failure at fiction writing has become a non-fiction gem.
The question is: which one of these paperback books would you take on holiday?