Holiday reading: Essential fiction for your summer getaway

Looking for a new novel for your carry-on bag? We’ve got you covered

Jenni Fagan PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic
Jenni Fagan PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

SCOTTISH FICTION

Hex, by Jenni Fagan,Polygon, £10

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In her time-travelling re-telling of the true story of Geillis Duncan, hanged as a witch in Edinburgh in 1591, Jenni Fagan shows how the deep-seated misogyny and callously casual sexism of the 16th century are still present in our own time. Putting a magical realist twist on the story, Geillis is visited in prison on the last night of her life by a person called Iris, who has travelled through “Null and Ether” to be there. As one might expect, Fagan’s book is elegant and angry in equal measure. SK

NoViolet Bulawayo PIC: Nye' Lyn Tho

Appliance, by JO Morgan, Jonathan Cape, £16.99

This compelling, fable-like novel from JO Morgan tells the coming-of-age story of a mysterious, newly-invented machine which may or may not be able to transport matter. In each of its 11 chapters we have different protagonists, from the man who devised it to the journalist who thinks the system may be concealing a flaw, but there is only one constant: the machine. In terms of plot arc, forget about the fleeting humans because the real story is about how the technology is changing, adapting, morphing, growing and in its own way distorting us. It is the Bindungsroman of something inhuman, and it is terrifying. SK

The Voids, by Ryan O’Connor, Scribe, £14.99

This impressive debut novel follows an unnamed narrator living in a high rise flat in Glasgow which is due to be demolished to make way for gentrified new-builds. With most of the residents relocated, he starts entering the vacated flats and making an inventory of what he finds. Gradually, we learn of his troubled past and in particular of his problematic relationship with alcohol and drugs. O’Connor crams a great deal into 300 pages, but very little of it seems superfluous. Perhaps the most intriguing Scottish debut in a decade. SK

Benjamin Myers

Sea Fret, by Dilys Rose, Scotland Street, £9.99

Even those who claim not to enjoy short stories should make time for this latest collection from Dilys Rose. There are 30 here, some are very short, only a couple of pages, and they may be described as offering snatches of life, or, better perhaps, as presenting the reader with moments of individual life. In many of them not a lot happens, yet the author’s eye is so sharp, her hearing so acute, her imagination so lively, that they illuminate these moments, and characters flicker into life. AM

Companion Piece, by Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, £16.99

Like the books in Ali Smith’s recently completed “Seasons” quartet, Companion Piece is a novel set on the edge of the moment. The narrator Sandy Gray, a contemporary artist, opens the book in lockdown and despair, yet some of the narrative, a tale within a tale, is set in the Early Modern period and features a female blacksmith. There is an explicit engagement with themes of gender identity and fluidity, along with linguistic fireworks and a strong sense of moral indignation. Companion Piece is, to use the Smith cliché lexicon, “characteristically unclassifiable”, “predictably unpredictable” and “as freewheeling as a rollercoaster”. She is in grave peril of becoming a national treasure. SK

Louise Welsh PIC: Steve Lindbridge

INTERNATIONAL FICTION

Glory, by NoViolet Bulawayo, Chatto & Windus, £18.99

This second novel from NoViolet Bulawayo isn’t just better than her impressive, Booker-shortlisted debut, it’s also radically different. Set in a fictitious African country, it opens with the celebrations for the anniversary of Independence Day. Jidada has been governed for 40 years by the “Father of the Nation”, “the Old Horse”, a former freedom fighter. Importantly, he is also a horse. During the celebrations Bulawayo also introduces the Prophet Dr OG Moses, a pig, and the ferocious Commander Jambanja, a dog in charge of “the Defenders”. It is too neat to refer to this as a kind of Zimbabwean Animal Farm, but it is an acerbic, precise, heart-rending and hilarious analysis of tyranny. SK

Portrait of an Unknown Lady, by Maria Gainza, Harvill Secker, £14.99

Set in the fine art world of South America, María Gainza’s new novel is a delight. It opens with a woman signing in to a hotel in Buenos Aires under a false name, intending to write a work which is partly an investigation and partly a confession. Having been given a job by her uncle in the valuations department of a bank, she was taken under the wing of the cryptic and aloof Enriqueta Macedo, a specialist in the authentication of art works. As well as giving guarantees on the artworks, Enriqueta has a sideline in giving fake authentications, and eventually our unnamed narrator is made a confidante. SK

The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier, Michael Joseph, £14.99

In Hervé Le Tellier’s puzzle-box of a novel, over 200 plane passengers flying from Paris to New York discover upon landing that they all have doppelgängers, all of whom arrived in New York on a flight from Paris three months earlier. It’s a riddlesome but aesthetically beautiful way of tackling some of life’s big questions: if you could make different choices, would you? If you were confronted with the might-have-beens of life, how would you cope? How unique are you? If I read something as astonishing as The Anomaly this year I will be surprised, albeit delighted at the same time. SK

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St John Mandell, Picador, £14.99

This is a nested novel, consisting of three interlinking narratives. It begins in 1912, with the feckless Edwin St John St Andrew being effectively exiled to Canada for his radical opinions by his aristocratic family. There, he hears a violin playing and feels a sense of dislocation. Next, the narrative moves forward to 2020. Mirella attends a concert performance of avant-garde violin music, which incorporates video. One of the videos has an inexplicable glitch in it. The third section, set in the future, concerns a novelist, Olive Llewellyn, who is on a promotional tour for a book about a pandemic. St John Mandel is an acute and sympathetic writer, and Sea of Tranquility is both intriguing and moving. SK

French Braid, by Anne Tyler, Chatto & Windus, £16.99

Set in Baltimore and spanning the period from the 1950s to the pandemic, Anne Tyler’s tale of the troubled Garrett family, Robin and Mercy and their children Alice, Lily and David, manages to bring the ordinary lives of ordinary people to life and make them matter. Following a family holiday to a drab lakeside cabin in 1959, Mercy will move out of the house, and the new separate design for living is never openly acknowledged, even as the years pass and the children become middle-aged. Tyler pulls off the rare feat of presenting her characters both as they see themselves and as others see them. AM

UK FICTION

Love Marriage, by Monica Ali, Virago, £18.99

This exploration of the shifting dynamics within a British Bangladeshi family is done with great intelligence, humour and sympathy. Yasmin is a young doctor. Her parents, long established in London, are Shaokat, himself a doctor, happily anglicised, and Anisah, who at first seems comfortably confined to the roles of wife, mother and home-maker. Yasmin is engaged to a fellow doctor, Joe, apparently an ideal husband-to-be, but Joe has problems, revealed in long sessions with his psychiatrist, and then there is the question of his mother, Harriet, a feminist author and activist, given to speaking provocatively on radio and television. Yasmin, understandably, views a getting to know each other dinner at Harriet’s with some anxiety. AM

The Young Pretender, by Michael Arditti, Arcadia, £14.99

Based on the true story of 19th century child actor William Betty, Michael Arditti’s new novel poses some fascinating questions about the nature of fame and success. As a 12 year-old boy actor, Betty took first the provinces and then London by storm in the first years of the 19th century. These triumphs are in the past when the novel begins, however, with Betty embarking on a comeback six years older, ten inches taller and considerably stouter than when he retired and went to Cambridge University. His name and reputation will secure him engagements, but where people once flocked to the theatre in wonder, now they come only from curiosity, and where once he delighted, he is now soon met with disappointment or indifference. AM

The Perfect Golden Circle, by Benjamin Myers, Bloomsbury, £16.99

Following an unlikely pair of crop circle enthusiasts as they create mysterious works of land art all over the English countryside in the scorching summer of 1989, Benjamin Myers’ novel is clever, angry, poignant and beautifully constructed. Calvert is an SAS veteran who has seen action across the globe, and significantly has had numerous parachute jumps – so he sees the world from above. Alongside him is Redbone, a rather frazzled hippy with a nebulous sense of there being something else and who did not notice a bird’s nest in his camper van. Together, where “no signs of modern civilisation are to be seen”, they find “new mythologies waiting to be spun”. SK

Winchelsea, by Alex Preston, Canongate, £14.99

This gripping revenge story brings the smuggling gangs and Jacobite agents of the 18th century vividly to life.The main character, first-person narrator of most of the novel, Goody Brown, adopted daughter of a Sussex merchant, is both heroine and hero, given to cross-dressing and as quick with the sword as any villain. Her brother, Francis, also adopted, is a young black man who escaped from a slave ship. When their adoptive father Ezekiel is murdered by a smuggling gang and his wife is mutilated, Francis and Goody seek revenge. AM

The Great Passion, by James Runcie, Bloomsbury, £16.99

Written with great love and understanding, this novel about Johann Sebastian Bach’s creation of the St Matthew Passion is a delight. The narrator, Stefan Silbermann, the son of an organ-maker, is sent, aged 11, after his mother’s death to the choir school of St Thomas’s church in Leipzig. Bullied and unhappy, he runs away, however the quality of his treble voice and his knowledge of organ construction have attracted the notice of the Cantor, JS Bach himself, who takes him into his house as an apprentice. There he finds a warm welcome and, when domestic tragedy strikes, Runcie has us follow the course of the extraordinary creation of Bach’s masterpiece. AM

TARTAN NOIR

Matter of Time, by Claire Askew, Hodder, £16.99

Claire Askew’s latest novel finds DI Birch struggling to manage a tense hostage situation in the Borders. The fast-paced story begins when Birch hears reports on her car radio of a mass shooting at a rural agricultural show, after which a gunman is holed up in a ruined cottage with a three-year-old hostage. To begin with, members of Edinburgh’s police force are only required to lend background support, but by nightfall Birch is being sent in alone to conduct face-to-face negotiations. The perpetrator has requested her specifically, but no one knows why. What follows is a hugely gripping unfolding of motivations and action, as Birch tries to understand the psychology of a damaged man. KM

No Less the Devil, by Stuart MacBride:Bantam, £20

The structure of this darkly humorous standalone novel from Stuart MacBride allows it to hit the ground running. The narrative opens 17 months into an investigation into a spate of serial killings in a fictitious town, Oldcastle, in the North-East of Scotland. Detective Sergeant Lucy McVeigh is revisiting five crime scenes where victims’ bodies were discovered in appallingly grisly scenes in the hope of making a breakthrough. Intercut with her progress is the decades-old case of an 11-year-old boy who has confessed to killing a homeless man. MacBride is a master at capturing stomach-turning crime scenes and fast paced action. KM

The Heretic, by Liam McIlvanney, HarperCollins, £14.99

Set in the rapidly changing Glasgow of the 1970s, The Heretic is a well-plotted and very enjoyable novel, an outstanding example of Tartan Noir, and the hero, DI Duncan McCormack, is one of the more interesting and convincing Tartan Noir policemen. As a Catholic – albeit a Gaelic-speaking Highlander rather than of Glasgow Irish stock – he is viewed with some suspicion by his superiors, and has something of the “soiled Galahad” which Raymond Chandler thought desirable for the hero of a crime novel. The city of Glasgow is also a principal character, and I would guess that if you followed the narrative with a street guide to hand you would find no mistakes. AM

The Goldenacre, by Philip Miller, Polygon, £9.99

At the centre of The Goldenacre is Shona Sandison, a disgruntled senior reporter on an Edinburgh newspaper who is investigating the brutal murder of a much-liked artist found with his head staved in. Burglary seems unlikely, since nothing has been stolen, and his death is almost immediately followed by the murder of an Edinburgh councillor who has recently been responsible for the refusal of planning permission to an ambitious but dubious development. He has been killed in the same way as the artist. This third book from Philip Miller is both unusual and elegant. AM

The Second Cut, by Louise Welsh, Canongate, £14.99

Twenty years after he made his debut in The Cutting Room, Louise Welsh’s enigmatic sleuth Rilke returns in The Second Cut, and it’s been worth the wait. At a wedding, Rilke runs into an acquaintance, Jojo, a fan of drink and drugs and hook-up parties, who passes him a tip about a semi-aristocratic house clearance. The next day Jojo is found dead in an alley, and the police seem unconcerned. The clearance commences, and a macabre thing is found: a dead dog locked in a box. Revisiting past glories can be problematic, but this is a good and gripping novel, which does new things with the material and sets several narrative hares running at once. SK

Reviewers: Allan Massie, Kirsty McLuckie and Stuart Kelly