Summer reading: booksellers recommend…

Staff at four award-winning independent bookshops tell us what they’ll be packing for their holidays

Golden Hare Books, Edinburgh

Independent bookshop of the year 2019. When art historian Mark Jones opened his bookshop in 2012 he planned to call it ‘The Golden Crocodile’. He commissioned his daughter Agnes, an artist-blacksmith, to create a mascot for it and she returned with a golden hare.

Julie Danskin, manager
When shoppers ask me for holiday reads, they often want something engrossing for a plane journey. I highly recommend the immersive Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt (Fitzcarraldo), about the life of photographer Vivian Maier, or merman romantic comedy The Pisces by Melissa Broder (Bloomsbury). For those who prefer nonfiction, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (Allen Lane) is an unflinching look into our climate catastrophe. When you’re by the pool or relaxing on a terrace, I recommend short stories and essays, especially Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time (Bloomsbury) or Emilie Pine’s vivid Notes to Self (Penguin). Anthologies make such great holiday reads, as you can discover new authors to seek out on your return to reality: see especially Being Various: New Irish Short Stories, edited by Lucy Caldwell (Faber & Faber); The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story , edited by Philip Hensher; and either volume of The Bi-ble, edited by Lauren Nickodemus and Ellen Desmond (Monstrous Regiment) – essays about bisexuality. If, however, you prefer a doorstop novel, I absolutely loved The Parisian by Isabella Hammad (Jonathan Cape), a sprawling, Middlemarch-ian historical epic of love and resistance between France and Palestine.

Fabulosa! by Paul Baker.
Fabulosa! by Paul Baker. Photograph: Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language by Paul Baker (Reaktion)

David Bloomfield, bookseller
Getting away from it all doesn’t mean avoiding socially conscious books, especially when they’re addictive page-turners like Booker prize-nominated Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail): imagine Jules Verne’s globetrotting style, but told from the perspective of a black slave, chronicling his story from backbreaking field labour to airship adventurer. For those with a taste for the curiously curated, Edward Carey’s Little (Aardvark Bureau) charts the rise of the small girl who would become the famed Madame Tussaud. Initially penniless, she is taken under the wing of a cripplingly shy doctor who teaches her how to make perfect wax heads for the guillotine-wielding leaders of the French Revolution. It’s a constantly intriguing historical fiction curio, especially with Carey’s hand-drawn illustrations gracing many of the pages. Brilliant, readable nonfiction is out there too: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (Penguin) examines how white people attempt to prevent anti-racism measures, knowingly and unknowingly, and suggests how to challenge such behaviour in ourselves and others. Written in a no-nonsense, concise fashion, this is a must-read if you want to be an ally rather than an enemy. And for those who want to be in the know, Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language by Paul Baker (Reaktion) is a compelling history of the linguistic lengths to which gay people had to go to hide in plain sight within an aggressively homophobic culture.

Newham Books, London

Newham Bookshop

Founded by a group of parents 41 years ago as a community bookshop, Newham continues to promote reading between parents and children. Manager Vivian Archer, a former actor, has worked at the shop for 31 years and last year won Outstanding Contribution to Bookselling at the Books Are My Bag Readers awards, while the shop is London’s best independent bookshop, 2019.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. Photograph: Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton),

Vivian Archer, manager
Three books recently published by great female writers should be on everyone’s holiday list. In Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton), Bernardine Evaristo weaves together the stories of a range of women across continents. It’s a magnificent read from a writer with a gift for humanity. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak (Viking) is a brave, moving book, which captures the diversity of modern Turkey from one of its great writers. The Silence of the Girls (Penguin) is Pat Barker’s brilliant retelling of Homer’s Iliad through the eyes of Briseis, where women have the voice – unputdownable. Poetry books are ideal to pack. My current favourites are: The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (Penned in the Margins) – amazing work from the award-winning, deaf, spoken-word poet; and Fierce Fairytales by Nikita Gill (Orion), feminist fairy stories retold through verse.

Gill Walker, bookseller
My favourite book this year so far is The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (Penguin), an inspirational and lyrically observed memoir on the regenerative power of walking in nature, as well as a reminder that material things are much less important than we sometimes think. If you love the landscape of the British coastline and are drawn to the philosophies of mindfulness and minimalism, this is a moving and reflective book to read during a break from your everyday life. As an unashamed lover and reader of children’s literature, I adored both Katherine Rundell’s Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise (Bloomsbury) and Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading (Vintage). As Rundell said: “Ignore those who would call it mindless escapism: it’s not escapism; it is findism. Children’s books are not a hiding place, they are a seeking place.” The slower pace of a holiday is the ideal time to remind yourself of the reason that you fell in love with books and reading in the first place. A book I recommend perennially is the 1926 modern classic Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Penguin). If flying leaves you jaded, this beautifully lyrical and philosophical story of pioneering adventure will reawaken your sense of wonder at the miracle of flight.

Horizon by Barry Lopez.
Horizon by Barry Lopez. Photograph: AP

John Newman, bookseller
Recent holidays have involved long-haul flights, and a book I can lose myself in is a necessity to get through the process. It has been a long but worthwhile 12-year wait for Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay (Black Swan), a family saga of loss and redemption, which moves from eastern Europe to Australia and reads like a dream. A new novel from Michael Ondaatje is a thing I cherish and Warlight (Vintage) is a gripping account of two children abandoned by parents and cared for by an array of shady characters in second world war London. Barbara Kingsolver never disappoints and Unsheltered (Faber & Faber) looks back into an American past in a contemporary story of a family’s attempts to maintain their dilapidated house. Two big and important books top my current reading pile: Barry Lopez’s stunning autobiographical travelogue Horizon (Bodley Head) will go into my travel bag along with Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (Hamish Hamilton).

Karima Turay-Davis, bookseller
In Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos (Faber & Faber), at times funny and at times utterly tragic, five very different people represent the multifaceted nature of modern Nigeria. If you want a book that has you gasping to the very end, then Steve Cavanagh’s Thirteen (Orion), in which a serial killer is on the jury of the person accused of his crimes, is the one for you. Beyond Reasonable Doubt by Gary Bell (Raven) is another thriller I found hard to put down – a seemingly respected barrister who has it all is, in fact, an utter fraud. After years of getting away with his elaborate lie, the past comes back to haunt him. I can’t resist suggesting Sredni Vashtar by Saki (Dover) – a cautionary story we should all pay heed to. I love Saki: very funny and always a sting in the tale.

Book.ish, Chrickhowell, Wales

Emma Corfield Walters, in her shop, Book-ish,  Crickhowell High Street, Wales
Emma Corfield-Walters, in her shop, Book-ish in Crickhowell. Photograph: John Nguyen/PA

Nine years ago Emma Corfield-Walters was running a building surveying company before an “early mid-life crisis” prompted her to sell up and start a bookshop. She doesn’t have time for a holiday this year: “There’s no rest for the bookseller,” she says, “but reading is a holiday in itself. Books are my escape.” She has just been picked as a “rising star” by the Bookseller. Book.ish is regional independent bookshop of the year 2019 and sits on what is currently the “UK’s best high street” – after Crickhowell won the top prize at last year’s Great British High Street awards.

Emma Corfield-Walters, owner
You couldn’t do better than take along a copy of Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls, an astutely observed, nostalgic look at first love and that long summer on the cusp of adulthood. Victoria Hislop’s Those Who Are Loved ticks all the boxes of brilliantly researched historical fiction bound up in family sagas set in her beloved Greece. Other historical drama can be found in Naomi Wood’s third novel, The Hiding Game, a story of love and obsession set in the Bauhaus in turbulent 1920s Germany. Lastly, just as no bag was complete last year without A Gentleman in Moscow, this year that bag must include Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, a masterly telling of wrongful conviction and simmering racial tensions in the deep south. On the nonfiction front I recommend Mike Parker’s On the Red Hill, part memoir, part meditation on nature and whole of heart. Finally, no one is better at slowing down our thoughts and encouraging us to really look than Robert Macfarlane, and his new masterpiece, Underland, is the perfect antidote to our hectic modern lives.

Five Leaves, Nottingham

five leaves bookshop

Five Leaves is a radical bookshop committed to small presses where the diverse stock includes one of the biggest poetry sections outside London. Originally founded as a publishing press in 1996 by Ross Bradshaw, who took its name from a Nick Drake album, Five Leaves was independent bookshop of the year, 2018.

Robert Macfarlane’s Underland.
Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. Photograph: Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (Hamish Hamilton).

Ross Bradshaw, founder and owner
Underland by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton) is subtitled A Deep Time Journey and it will take you on journeys that you might only want to share on the page, unless you are into extreme caving or enjoy rough camping in extreme weather. I’m happy that Macfarlane does these things so that we don’t have to. Especially the chapter where he gets stuck – literally – in one of the “invisible cities” under Paris. Anyone who has seen the recent film Red Joan might want the real story behind the spy Melita Norwood. David Burke’s The Spy Who Came in From the Co-op (Boydell & Brewer) proves that truth can be more interesting than fiction, Melita being but one of a big network of committed Soviet agents desperate to secure “the bomb”. There were times in the book I wished I’d paid attention in physics class at school, but the remarkable thing is that the spies all wanted nuclear parity with the US to keep the peace by ensuring both sides in what became the cold war would have the capacity for mutually assured destruction.

Jane Anger, bookseller
Having been a fan of Melissa Harrison’s novels since her first, Clay, came out, I’m recommending her new book, All Among the Barley (Bloomsbury). Set in 1930s rural England, it is a warning of how easy the slide to nationalism and fascism can be. Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights (Bloomsbury Circus) is the first book of hers, fiction or poetry, that I’ve read. I’ll be looking for more. Like Harrison, Doshi hinges her story on the everyday decisions people have to make within the context of much larger issues of nation, family, politics and generation when the narrator moves from America back to modern India. I like to take poetry on holiday. Take Three: Soundswrite Press New Poets Vol 1 features the work of three complementary poets. They read at Five Leaves earlier this year and I was bowled over by them all: Tuesday Shannon, Elizabeth Hourston and Pippa Hennessy (who is one of the team at Five Leaves, but that’s not why I’m recommending it – honest).

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison.
All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison. Photograph: PR Company Handout

Carl Davis, bookseller
The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C Mann (Picador) is the story of two men at odds over how Earth can hold the expected 10 billion inhabitants. William Vogt, the prophet, forefather of the green movement and author of Road To Survival in 1948, saw early on that our consumer culture was bringing about our downfall, and called for fundamental reversal. Norman Borlaug, the wizard, whose work on high-yield crops saved millions from starvation, believed science was the answer. It reads like the best thriller novel, taking in biography, environmentalism and social science, and is big history done on a grand scale to equal anything by Yuval Noah Harari or Jared Diamond. Walt Whitman Speaks, edited by Brenda Wineapple (Library of America), collects the final thoughts of America’s greatest poet as told to Horace Traubel somewhere between 1888 and Whitman’s death in 1892. Whittled down from about 5,000 original pages, it is a treasure of Walt unvarnished, reflective and still firing on all cylinders into his 70s. From single sentences to long paragraphs, it is endlessly quotable and perfect for dipping into and savouring through warm summer evenings.

Last year, Penguin published Wendell Berry’s brilliant poems, The Peace of Wild Things, and essays, , so I’m very much looking forward to a collection of his short stories about Kentucky farming communities in Stand By Me (Allen Lane). I’ll find time this summer, after way too long, to reread Jean Giorno’s The Man Who Planted Trees (Peter Owen). I first read it years ago and its simple, yet direct, visionary message has never left me. In our troubled times, with the climate emergency upon us, his fictional story of one man’s practical and patient remedy for our collective illness has become increasingly prescient and required reading for all.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/PR

Leah Wilkins, bookseller
This is probably a slightly unusual choice, but I recently discovered (by way of a gift from my future mother-in-law) Dorothy Whipple, who is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance in Nottingham. Someone at a Distance (Persephone) is about the disastrous ramifications of an affair between a married man and his younger French lover. I finished it in 24 hours. Along with everybody else in the poetry world, I am currently enthralled by Raymond Antrobus’s The Perseverance, a beautiful collection preoccupied by his relationship with his father, deafness and absence, mishearings and misunderstandings – it is a compellingly beautiful set of poems. Working in a bookshop means we’re lucky enough to get hold of books early, so having managed to procure a proof copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Penguin), I added it to my ever growing to-read pile and promptly forgot about it. But if the reviews are anything to go by, it will be the first thing I pack in my holiday bag. As the parent of an 11-year-old daughter, it feels as necessary as ever to ensure that she is aware of the struggles women face. Girls Resist! by KaeLyn Rich (Quirk) is a book that aims to help girls “to use their voices to slash through injustice”. She is already in talks with her headteacher about organising a bake sale to tackle inequality, so it’s having the desired effect.

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Summer reading: dive into the perfect book
As publishers vie to persuade us to pack their titles for the holidays, we chart the evolution of the ’beach read’

Alex Preston

14, Jul, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Best summer books 2018, as picked by writers and cultural figures – part two
From Pulitzer prize-winners to Penguin classics, poetry anthologies to the latest page-turners, here are the books to take to the beach this summer

08, Jul, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
25 spring culture highlights
Bridget Riley in Scotland, the return of Killing Eve, the Spice Girls on tour… our critics preview the new season in the arts

Susannah Clapp, Sarah Crompton, Laura Cumming, Kitty Empire, Michael Hogan, Wendy Ide, Kate Kellaway, Guy Lodge, Fiona Maddocks

07, Apr, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Summer reading: the 30 best holiday reads – chosen by authors and critics
Novelists including Johny Pitts, Monica Ali and Nina Stibbe – plus Observer critics – on their essential holiday books

02, Jul, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Best book to read on the Riviera… or a damp campsite in Scotland?
Whatever your holiday plans, our Book Clinic experts have just the titles to make your summer sparkle

14, Jul, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
‘Every poem is political’: Danez Smith, the YouTube star shaking up poetry
Smith’s dear white america was a viral phenomenon. Launching a new collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, the poet is in polemical mood about the black experience in the US

Kate Kellaway

28, Jan, 2018 @9:30 AM

Article image
Ocean Vuong: ‘As a child I would ask: What’s napalm?’
How did a Vietnamese refugee come to write what many are hailing as the great American novel?

Emma Brockes

09, Jun, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Observer book clinic: send us your summer reading questions
Heading on holiday but no idea what to read? Our special seasonal team of experts can solve your literary dilemmas

The Observer

07, Jun, 2019 @2:26 PM

Article image
Novelist Elif Shafak: ‘I’ve always believed in inherited pain’
The award-winning Turkish-British writer talks about generational trauma, food in exile and how heavy metal helps her write

Rachel Cooke

18, Jul, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
How the ‘brainy’ book became a publishing phenomenon
These uncertain times have seen a renewed interest in serious nonfiction, as people try to make sense of an unstable world

Alex Preston

29, Jul, 2018 @7:00 AM