The book that changed my summer

From otter-spotting in Scotland to monsoons in Kolkata, here Ali Smith, William Boyd and nine other Penguin authors share their favourite holiday reading memories.


'There is a lot of sex in Couples but the book’s effect on me was more profound'

William Boyd

William Boyd chooses Couples by John Updike

In the summer of 1969, aged 17, I decided to hitchhike from Scotland to the Cote d’Azur 'looking for love'. I had two books in my rucksack. One was Europe on $5 a Day (yes, you could live well on five dollars a day back then) and the other was Couples by John Updike. It was a precocious choice, I now realise, but I’d been drawn to the book by the racy promise of its blurb. I had no idea who Updike was. There is a lot of sex in Couples but the book’s effect on me was more profound, as I read my way slowly through its near 500 pages on a beach at Juan Les Pins. I think the precision and poetic resonance of Updike’s prose was working on me subliminally and that had the effect of making the story he told strike with extra force. This novel of couples coupling and uncoupling painted an astonishing portrait of the adult world – a world I was about to enter. It was a revelation.

'Not long after that holiday, I left my job, bleached my hair'

C. J. Tudor
Photo: Bill Waters

C. J. Tudor chooses Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

1994. TrainspottingTurkey. I was 22 and on holiday with my girlfriends. The resort was cheap and uncommercialised and we hung out with a group of backpackers. We paraglided, explored underground tunnels, drove a jeep around the mountains, camped on a remote beach, washed under a waterfall and danced around a fire drinking vodka. And in the background was this book. A book that was both grim and inspiring. A book about youth. About rejecting the norm. About not turning out like your parents with their drab lives and careers. It felt so fresh, so revolutionary. Welsh’s use of language and fearless depiction of addiction was unlike anything I had ever read before. Not long after that holiday, I left my job, bleached my hair, got tattooed and went freelance. I have never had a 9-5 job since. 

Fatima Bhutto
Photo: Caroline Issa

Fatima Bhutto chooses Here Comes the Dogs by Omar Bin Musa

I was in Italy when I read Omar Bin Musa’s debut novel Here Come the Dogs, and found myself floored by what he does to the novel: treating it like a psalm; gently, like poetry, while touching pain on every page. I remember sitting down at night – on a trip that was near perfect anyway and didn’t need improving – reading the novel from a PDF on my kindle, glowing in the dark and being mesmerised. You always remember where you were when you read books that hit you and that’s one of the great memories I have of that trip.

Ali Smith
Photo: Nick Tucker

Abir Mukherjee chooses The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

I once found myself in Kolkata at the wrong time of year, and while Kolkata has many wrong times of the year, monsoon season is the worst. There’s the rain of course: the fractious torrential deluges that start, soak you in seconds, then cease as suddenly as a thunderclap; but there’s also the heat, the humidity, the steam and the sweat that never quite end.

I spent a lot of time indoors that holiday, within range of air conditioning or the orbit of a fan, and fortunately I had a phenomenal book to help me through. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee is the tale of three generations of a prosperous extended family in the Calcutta of the 1960s: the love and the tensions engendered by their cheek-by-jowl existence in the same house; and the traumas faced by them, from famine and partition in the forties, to the Maoist insurrection of the sixties. Breath-taking in its scope and beautiful, the story evoked the familial sagas told to me by my own parents – the characters could have been my own uncles, aunts or nephews. It was a tender evocation of lives alien to my own, yet hauntingly familiar.

'I read the book over three days in an armchair … so very far from my ill-advised marriage'

Lisa Jewell
Photo: Andrew Whitton

Lisa Jewell chooses The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards

In the autumn of 1991, when I was 23, my ex-husband and I booked a holiday in a tower on the island of Jersey. It had been used as a lookout by Nazis during the German occupation and there were still German pencil scrawls on the walls by the slit eye windows. On day two of our trip we fell out. He was prone to sulking and jealousy; long, agonising silences punctuated our brief marriage and during these episodes I had to find ways to occupy myself. It was raining and we had made no plans to go anywhere because we weren’t talking. On a shelf I found The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards, the fictional memoir of a 75-year-old man born in Guernsey in 1900, who remained single and childless and never set foot off the island. In it he recalls every moment of gossip, tragedy, sadness and intrigue that he had experienced or encountered.

I read the book over three days in an armchair, transported less than a mile across the channel, but so very far from my ill-advised marriage and so deeply into these other lives that I forgot where I was. I finished the book, my husband began talking to me again, the sun came out and we went to the beach. But my three days with Ebenezer were still the highlight of the week.     

Ali Smith
Photo: Sarah Wood

Ali Smith chooses Red Thread by Charlotte Higgins

Charlotte Higgins's Red Thread is a masterwork, an open-eyed analysis of the everyday mazery we face without even realising it, and an understanding of psychic and narrative architecture that's a pretty crucial piece of equipment for wherever and whenever we find ourselves lost. I read it on the balcony of a hotel in Rome overlooking two ancient temples and the church that features the old open Mouth of Truth in its entrance, and it was as if the city itself opened playfully and thoughtfully around the reading experience in its amalgam of pasts and presents, histories and mysteries.

Dr. Richard Shepherd

Dr. Richard Shepherd chooses Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson

A fascination for the lithe little otter had drawn us to a loch-side cottage in Scotland – and with me went my loved copy of Tarka the Otter. Henry Williamson’s book has been a companion over the years, providing a footing and a foothold of rural freedom and peace in otherwise frantic urban agoraphobic times. The tale of the bond between man and animal is suffused by so much joy, peace and revivification that it can, and does, bring only serenity and happiness.

That evening, whiskey and soda in hand, we sat at the loch edge watching the mirrored mountains on the surface when a face broke the water’s edge, fish in mouth, not five yards from us. A gentle swish of a tail and a scrabble onto a seaweed-covered rock. The pointed spurs of fur, sparkling drips of water on their tips, shimmered as the otter contentedly enjoyed the air, the view and his catch. And then a wipe of a whisker with a webbed foot and without a ripple he slid back into the evening water. We watched in silence as the mackerel sky faded to a gibbous moon, content and at peace to be at just the edge of the otter’s world.

Fiona Neill

Fiona Neill chooses The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

In the early 1990s I was living and working in Central America and found myself bedridden for three months after a surfing accident. Our neighbour was a Canadian feminist who only read female authors and she gave me a pile of books by Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields chronicles the life of Daisy Goodwill from 1905 to the early 1990s. Daisy’s account of her very ordinary life is contrasted with interpretations from her family and friends, so that at times she seems like a bystander to her own existence.

In the last chapter there is a poignant list of all the things Daisy has missed out on in life 'due to carelessness, due to ignorance, due to lack of opportunity and courage,' including nude bathing, oral sex, truffles, Peking duck, yoga and being told 'I love you'. The fact I couldn’t move and the overwhelming sense of Daisy’s dissatisfaction at the end of her life reiterated the importance of living life to the full. One of the themes of Shields's work was the lack of communication within families and perhaps this is something I have carried into my own writing. 

'When we travel, I think we’re secretly searching for home'

Ali Smith
Photo: Jamie Stoker

Johny Pitts chooses Banjo by Claude McKay

When we travel, I think we’re secretly searching for home. Towards the end of a long trip around Europe I found such a place in Marseille. Here was a city as African as it was French, bound by the Mediterranean and a proud mongrel just like me. I spent blissful and balmy evenings down by the old port, reading Claude McKay’s Banjo in a half empty bar, always with rum and coke on ice in hand and the lilt of a wonderfully mediocre live reggae band jamming in the background. Set in Marseille, McKay’s 1929 novel only made me fall in love with the city even more.

It’s the tale of an African American sailor who lands at the port and falls in with a bunch of ‘beach boys’ from all over the African diaspora, and an opportunity to espouse the virtues of Socialism and Pan-Africanism. This isn’t a political protest novel though, it’s an evocative portrait of black travellers and vagabonds and Marseille’s old soul. I finished it hoping I’d end up like one of McKay’s characters who, after losing all his money, settled in Marseille and 'remained on the beach to become a beach bum and a philosopher'.

Ali Smith
Photo: James Penlidis

Graeme Simsion chooses Funny, You Don't Look Autistic by Michael McCreary

When you’re a writer, doing the world’s most coveted job, every day’s a holiday. This summer I’ve been touring with The Rosie Result – a novel featuring 11-year-old Hudson who’s on the autism spectrum. In the spirit of ‘nothing about us without us’, we’ve sought autistic people as interviewers, moderators and opening acts. During the trip I found myself in Toronto, due to share the stage with 22-year-old autistic stand-up comedian Michael McCreary. In the interests of knowing what I was up against, I bought his book, Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic. It’s his memoir of growing up with autism – and it’s a funny, frank and fast read. I just wish I’d read it while I was writing my own novel; I wouldn’t have changed much, but I’d have been more confident I was on the mark. A few people have said that they’d like to see a book written in Hudson’s voice. This is as close as you’ll get. And I had a ball doing the event with its author.

'To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a connection with a landscape'

Ali Smith
Photo: Bill Waters

Gytha Lodge chooses My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart

Geography is in the eye of the beholder, a truth that I learned in Athens. Imagine a teenage girl. Give her glasses, a terrible haircut and a very active imagination. And then, having let her read Mary Renault and form a vague interest in the idea of Greece, give her a copy of Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael. It was one of those romantic mysteries that was destined to appeal: a smart, slightly lonely young woman goes to Athens and, after a case of mistaken identity, ends up drawn into dramatic events with a handsome young man. I’m sure it’s pretty shameful to admit it, but by the time I actually went to Athens I was no longer seeing its history. As I walked through the paved streets of the Plaka District, I was waiting for someone to come and whisk me away into a mystery. As I climbed the Acropolis, I looked at the view – and then for brooding young men caught up in strange events.

It was an unusual, off-kilter way of viewing the place, and yet, to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a connection with a landscape. By the end of the holiday, when no enigmatic men had appeared, I wasn’t even disappointed. The place still had a magic to me, and had drawn me out of myself. Which is, I think, what the very best books do, too.

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