The Lowdown Hub

75 best books to read on a summer holiday in 2021, from crime to history. Best books of the year so.

Six of the best: this summer's recommended reads CREDIT: Gael Armstrong (IllustrationX)

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead Marian Graves, an early female aviator, dreams of circling the earth; Hadley Baxter, a crazily famous, present-day, scandal-soiled starlet, hopes to resurrect her career by playing Marian in a film about her doomed final flight. A masterclass in historical fiction, wearing its research lightly, Shipstead’s fat, juicy peach of a novel glides through the 20th century. CA (Doubleday, £16.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford This boundlessly rich novel opens in 1944 with a V2 rocket killing scores of people in a London Woolworths, including five three-year-olds who, returned to a literal dust, are instantly deprived of a future. The rest of the book restores it to them by running “some other version of the reel of time”, imagining their lives had they been elsewhere that day. JW (Faber, £16.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood Filthy, irreverent, funny, and poignant, the poet’s debut novel gets inside our fragmented, fake-truth-addled, part IRL/part online existence. Barreling through the predictable fears about how internet scrolling leaves us ill-prepared for the real world, Lockwood draws our attention instead to the visceralities of our digital experiences: “the spiderweb of human connection grown so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk”. LS (Bloomsbury, £14.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro Like many of Ishiguro’s narrators, Klara is wondering whether she should face up to the truth about life, however painful, or cling to an old, consoling personal myth. The difference is that Klara is a robot – in the Nobel Laureate’s first sci-fi novel since Never Let Me Go – observing human life as an “Artificial Friend”. JW (Faber, £20) Read the full review. Buy the book

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen Nguyen’s 2015 The Sympathizer – narrated by a communist spy embedded among the Vietnamese exiles in California just after the Vietnam War – is a modern classic. This blistering sequel, set in 1980s Paris, about a turf war between Vietnamese and Algerian outfits, is an audacious marriage of gangland thriller and novel of ideas. DW (Corsair, £18.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler The 30-year-old literary critic’s debut novel is a portrait of a generation that reads partly as wry satire, partly as an intervention attempt. Our narrator, a millennial in New York, self-exiles herself to Berlin then starts dating under false identities, treating love as an anthropological game. CRC (Fourth Estate, £12.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Memorial by Bryan Washington With sensitivity, Washington excavates the burdened interior lives of Mike and Ben, a gay couple in Texas who have hit a difficult patch, peeling back the history of their relationship, and that of their lives before they met, slowly and elegantly, layer by layer. LS (Atlantic, £14.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Second Place by Rachel Cusk In this unexpectedly playful novel, Cusk embraces everything she eschewed in her landmark Outline trilogy – a chatty narrator, colourful characters, comic dialogue, a plot, some gorgeous descriptions of landscape – as a writer called M describes the pyschosexual drama that unfolds between herself, her husband and a dastardly artist called L. CA (Faber, £14.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota Poised and poignant, China Room is a rare novel that makes you pause in its beauty, as the narrator recalls the summer of 1999, when, as an 18-year-old heroin addict, he is sent by his parents from the North of England to detox on his great-grandmother’s farm in the Punjab – and discovers her strange story, too. FC (Harvill Secker, £16.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor From an extraordinarily tense and atmospheric opening – a whiteout in Antarctica, three scientists in panic, one suffering a debilitating stroke – this novel evolves into something more meditative, about slowly recovering the power of speech back in “normal life”. SL (Fourth Estate, £14.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Bear by Marian Engel Written in 1976 and finally back in print, this slim, sexy masterpiece follows a lonely librarian, sent into the Canadian wilderness, who reacquaints herself with the pleasures of the flesh by means of an erotic fling – with a grizzly bear. Imbued with the politics of 1970s feminism, this enchanting tale still feels fresh. LS (Daunt, £9.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan Francie is in a Tasmanian hospital, her body and mind rattling to a close; the world outside is dying, too – wildfires, extinctions. Part closely observed family drama, part magical realism (with frequently punctuation-less prose), this is a threnody to a world in which our connection to nature is steadily being chewed up by the march of monetized technology. SL (Chatto & Windus, £16.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore The 17th-century witch hunts are familiar feminist territory, but Blakemore has alchemy in her fingertips, lingering with almost wanton sensuality on the taste, touch, colour, and smell of life in a terrorized Essex village in 1643. CA (Granta, £12.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall This Thomas Pynchon-esque, footnote- and theory-heavy mystery about a frustrated writer is as postmodern as they come – beach readers, beware. But although we get deep into entropy, angelology, and the relation between language and reality, it is leavened by Hall’s unsmug funniness and insistence on human feeling. FC (Canongate, £16.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid A follow-up to her hit 1970s band story, Daisy Jones & The Six, Reid’s superfun 1980s family saga is an ecstatic mélange of celebrities, jilted lovers, fights, threesomes, long-lost siblings, drugs and arrests – plus big hair, bowler hats, and chats about Dynasty. FC (Hutchinson, £14.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Civilisations by Laurent Binet This glorious counterfactual novel turns the tables on the conquistadors – wiping out South America with guns, germs, and steel – and asks: what if, instead, an exploratory party of Incas had landed on some European shore to discover its superstitious, savage natives? Funny and profound, this is Binet’s best novel yet. TSL (Harvill Secker, £16.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon The mathematician-turned-novelist Menon’s charged debut, set over 60 years in Malaysia, wears its slipperiness on its sleeve: stories, fairy tales, and lies collide as Durga, a Canadian robotics lecturer back in Malaysia for Diwali with her prickly, secretive grandmother, tries to pick apart where she is from. FC (Viking, £14.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga Black Narcissus echoes abound in this haunting coming-of-age story, set in 1970s Rwanda, at an elite, mountaintop convent school. But this supposed refuge turns into a hotbed of bigotry and tyranny, a microcosm of the racial hatred that, two decades later, would erupt into genocide. LS (Daunt, £9.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders Not a novel but rather a masterclass in short fiction by one of the finest teachers alive. Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, brings seven Russian short stories thrillingly to life with his intelligent, chatty dismantling of how they work. It is a joyously civilised primer on how to write – and live – better. JW (Bloomsbury, £16.99) Read the full review. Buy the book

Best crime books

LA Confidential author James Ellroy returns with a new novel, Widespread Panic CREDIT: Rii Schroer

Blood in the Water by Silver Donald Cameron The late Canadian journalist’s last book is a true-crime account of a lobster poachers murder – and a compelling study of how the justice system fails to deal with human complexity. JK (Swift, £14.99) Buy the book

People Like Them by Samira Sedira Based on a horrifying true story, this taut, tense novel depicts the fatal consequences of a mixed-race family coming to live in a remote French village. As we discover what led to the tragedy, it cunningly keeps our sympathies shifting. JK (Raven, £12.99) Buy the book

Ascension by Oliver Harris One of the best new spy series continues with ex-spook Elliot Kane reluctantly back in harness to investigate the suspicious death of a former colleague on Ascension Island. First-class cloak-and-dagger stuff against an unusual backdrop. JK (Little, Brown, £18.99) Buy the book

Widespread Panic by James Ellroy The self-styled “demon dog” of crime fiction returns to his old obsessions in this tale of real-life PI Freddy Otash’s dodgy exploits in 1950s Hollywood. Over the top and close to self-parody, but it bursts with energy. JK (William Heinemann, £20) Read the full review. Buy the book Best history books

19th-century author Caroline Norton (center) is at the center of Antonia Fraser's The Case of the Married Woman CREDIT: Bridgeman

The Case of the Married Woman by Antonia Fraser

Combining high-society campery, immaculate scholarship, and a frisson of rage, this is vintage Antonia Fraser. Her subject is 19th-century author Caroline Norton, who found herself with no rights over her children when her abusive husband stole them – and endured scandalous adultery proceedings to fight for a change in the law. RL (W&N, £25)

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Aftermath by Harald Jähner

A magnificent overview of the astonishing decade in Germany that followed the defeat of Nazism in 1945 – Stunde Null, or “Zero Hour”. Forgotten figures are picked out, such as Beate Uhse, the Kinsey of her day, a former Luftwaffe pilot who published no-nonsense sex advice; and Heinrich Nordhoff, one of the great heroes of the economy’s reconstruction, who took command of Volkswagen. RC (WH Allen, £20)

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Operation Pedestal by Max Hastings

In the summer of 1942, with the outcome of the Second World War hanging in the balance, the largest Royal Navy fleet in a generation entered the Mediterranean to fight “a four-day battle that became an epic of courage, determination, and sacrifice”. It’s a heart-stopping tale that should be better known, and Hastings, in his first foray into naval history, tells it brilliantly. SD (William Collins, £25)

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The Bookseller of Florence by Ross King

It wasn’t easy being a bibliophile before the era of the printing press, as this witty biography of Vespasiano da Bisticci, “king” of the 15th-century booksellers, proves: after spending 17 years and 30,000 ducats, he had amassed a library for the Duke of Urbino that “no one had achieved for a thousand years or more”. Yet it held just 900 manuscripts. TSL (Chatto & Windus, £25)

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Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows by Ruth Scurr

Some 200 years after his death, the “Little Corporal” is reduced to playing second fiddle to amusing esoterica in Scurr’s chatty biography, which neatly brackets Napoleon’s life between a garden he supposedly laid out at the age of 10, and his little garden on the island of Saint Helena in exile, with all sorts of horticultural digression in between. AZ (Chatto & Windus, £30)

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X Troop by Leah Garrett

This is the thrilling story of an elite commando unit formed, at Mountbatten’s suggestion, of men driven out of their homelands by the Nazis, and hungry for revenge. Most of the eventual 87 in “X Troop” were Jews, who had to pick a British name and cover story. Several went on to fight with Lord Lovat and his piper on a bloody Normandy beach on D-Day. AdC (Chatto & Windus, £20)

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King Richard: Nixon and Watergate by Michael Dobbs

In 2013, after 40 years of legal battles, the US government finally released 3,700 hours of secretly recorded tapes from inside Nixon’s White House, chronicling every word of his attempts to cover up Watergate. Dobbs tells the story as a classical tragedy – the humble grocer’s son, doomed by his own insecurity and at sea in turbulent times. CF (Scribe, £18.99)

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Churchill & Son by Josh Ireland

Churchill proudly forecast that his son Randolph would prove the third Churchill in a row to scale the high reaches of British politics, eclipsing the two Pitts. Yet Randolph’s ambitions died by inches over the next quarter of a century, while his father kept his seat at the political top table. This is an agonizing but excellent study of their volatile relationship. DL (John Murray, £20)

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The Western Front by Nick Lloyd

Of the 764,000 British soldiers who died in the Great War, 85 percent fell on the Western Front. Lloyd’s superlative account of the 51-month hellish carnage takes British readers into unfamiliar territory: the minds of the French and German troops. SH (Viking, £25)

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Alexandria by Edmund Richardson

Charles Masson was one of the most extraordinary of the many extraordinary Europeans roaming between Persia and India in the 19th century, playing the Great Game. A shape-shifting con man and a deserter from the East India Company’s army, he ended up discovering a lost city founded by Alexander in Afghanistan – and decoding a forgotten script. HS (Bloomsbury, £25)

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Blood and Iron by Katja Hoyer

In 1862, Bismarck created a Germany, says Hoyer, “whose only binding experience was a conflict against external enemies”. Fearful that its 39 individual states would drift apart again, Bismarck kept Germany on “a constant diet of conflict” – whipping up hostility to internal enemies, like Catholics, socialists, and ethnic minorities. Hoyer’s nuanced study shows the long run-up to the war in 1914. SD (History Press, £14.99)

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Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

Forget Antarctica the sublime – the southern continent also stinks, thanks to the “mammalian pungency of seal colonies”, the “putrescent breath of whales” and the “rotten seafood reek of penguin rookeries”, as Sancton puts it in his brilliant history of the hapless, ill-equipped 1898 Belgica expedition, the first to endure an Antarctic winter. RL (WH Allen, £20)

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Duchess, Countess by Catherine Ostler

Conjuring up the 18th century “in all its elegance and acidity”, Ostler tells the scandalous life of Elizabeth Chudleigh (the alleged inspiration for Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp), who married the Earl of Bristol’s heir in a mausoleum at midnight, then divorced him for her old flame the Duke of Kingston, but was branded a bigamist – so she ran away to run a vodka distillery in Estonia. RL (Simon & Schuster, £25)

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Partition by Charles Townshend

Unencumbered by partisan emotion, Townshend illuminates the twists that led from the first Home Rule Bill in 1886 to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 – a partition so botched that it was unclear, until the last minute, how many of the nine counties of Ulster would fall into Britain. SH (Allen Lane, £25)

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Best biographies

Newspaper baron Robert Maxwell, “the Bouncing Czech”, is the subject of John Preston's biography Fall CREDIT: Getty Images/Barrette/Daily Express

Fall by John Preston

It’s quite rare for a biography to be genuinely jaw-dropping, but this one is. Preston reveals the disgraced press baron Robert Maxwell – known, in life, as “the Bouncing Czech”, then, in death, as “Crook of the Century” – to be the most compelling, mysterious, monstrous character since Trollope’s Melmotte. LB (Viking, £18.99)

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X Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries Vol I, 1918-38 ed Simon Heffer

An aristocrat manqué and social climber on a massive scale, Channon knew everyone in interwar English high society. His uncensored diaries, dripping with bons mots, anecdote, and scandal, are addictive, even if they elicit repulsion as well as delight. NM (Hutchinson, £35)

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Real Estate by Deborah Levy

The novelist delivers a magical third volume of “living autobiography”, a quest to understand her moods through writing. At 60, she is on the hunt for real estate, or unreal estate – playing with fantasy versions of what she’d like to possess. KW (Hamish Hamilton, £10.99)

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Philip: The Final Portrait by Gyles Brandreth

The juiciest bits of gossip may be familiar – this is a souped-up version of Brandreth’s 2004 biography – but his sparkling, intimate celebration of the late Duke of Edinburgh is definitely worth a fresh read. JK (Coronet, £25)

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Burning Man by Frances Wilson

Wilson admits that DH Lawrence could at times be “an impossibly self-aggrandizing, semi-sane bore”, but he was also a genius. Her thrillingly partisan biography sets out to rescue him from the slough of derision in which he has wallowed since the 1960s. LB (Bloomsbury, £25)

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Life Support by Jim Down

Down is an ICU doctor whose humane, warm, utterly wrenching diary records how it felt when the pandemic engulfed his unit last year. Down feels compelled to keep people alive at any cost: sometimes beyond hope and sometimes beyond dignity. He doesn’t know why, but his honesty about it may make you weep. TG (Viking, £14.99)

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The Beauty of Living Twice by Sharon Stone

Perhaps you only think of Sharon Stone as the dazzling beauty who uncrossed her legs in Basic Instinct? Think again. She is a fighter, a brawler, from “kitchen-sink Irish” hillbilly stock. (Kitchen sink, she writes in her punchy memoir, means “if you have four kids and one bathroom, you piss in the sink”.) LB (Allen & Unwin, £18.99)

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Heavy Light by Horatio Clare

Two years ago, Clare believed he was under orders from MI6 to post banknotes down drains, throw himself out of a moving car and marry Kylie Minogue. He recounts his recovery from that low ebb of mania with acute self-awareness, and in gentle, witty prose. HB (Chatto & Windus, £16.99)