The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison (Chatto & Windus, £12.99)
Ollie and Daisy, who appear to have a golden life in London, invite their old friends Ian, a chippy primary school teacher in Derbyshire and his wife Em, a social worker, to spend the bank holiday weekend in a cottage in Suffolk.
It sounds idyllic – and just like the start of any other novel – but Ian is suspicious: the gap between their lifestyles has magnified hugely since he, Ollie and Daisy were at university together, so what on earth is this invitation about?
Soon, underlying tensions seep out, a steady drip-feed of revelation like a slowly leaking bucket: a looming work tribunal, a terminal illness, addiction and sexual obsession. Fatally, against the backdrop of a stiflingly hot weekend in what turns out to be a disappointing location, Ollie and Ian renew an insane physical challenge, in which the stakes get higher and higher.
What begins as a deceptively normal story narrated by Ian, the underdog, and told in understated prose escalates satisfyingly – one of the most effective passages is the seemingly simple story of a cycle race which gives clues to the complex characters of both men.
Blake Morrison, author of And When Did You Last See Your Father?, the memoir and film starring Colin Firth, and a study of the Jamie Bulger case, teaches creative writing; his pupils can learn a lot from this enthralling book.
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Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers (Fourth Estate, £7.99)
Salley Vickers is one of the more unusual writers, and she has come up with another quirky tale which makes a charming and absorbing read.
Violet Hetherington, a widow, sets sail across the Atlantic to visit Edwin, an old friend in New York from whom she became estranged after marrying one of his friends, the three of them having existed in a competitive but close triangle of aspiring poets during their Cambridge days.
Trapped in the sort of claustrophobia uniquely associated with being stuck on an ocean liner yet surrounded by endless churning sea, she is bound together with an eclectic group: the waiter who has reinvented himself as an Italian and teaches her to ballroom dance, a temptingly attractive anthropologist, an earnest spinster obsessed with Rudolph Steiner, an unhappy young family and an acerbic theatre critic.
In between on-board entertainment, however, Violet, who has no idea what reception she will receive from Edwin, spends much time re-living the past and examining the extent to which she betrayed him, unaware that perhaps it was she who was let down. An original, funny and sad tale, and an utterly compelling read. Highly recommended.
Solar by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)
A novel about climate change may not sound an enticing summer holiday read, but do not be put off. Solar is topical and thought-provoking, but does not seek to lecture and is not over-burdened, as many writers would be tempted to do after putting in the work, with deadening chunks of proud authorial research; it is a great read.
McEwan’s genius invention this time is Michael Beard – the name is innocent but brilliantly conjures up a seedy scientist – who was in the right place at the right time to win a Nobel Peace Prize, a slice of good fortune which has enabled him to coast along as a physicist of repute and, bizarrely, attract legions of adoring women.
Now in the twilight of his career and on his fifth marriage, he finds himself cuckolded and, worse, being upstaged by an annoying younger scientist. Despite innate idleness, failing health and a physique which is long past its sell-by date, he capitalises on a freak incident and blunders forth, duping another good woman into loving him and portraying himself as the author of a brilliant scheme that will save the earth.
But Beard has a major handicap: he simply cannot feel love for a person. Lust is no problem, but he really doesn’t care about people; for him, true beauty and passion lie in mathematical neatness, in the strings that may or may not hold together scientific theories, in the same way that other people are passionate about art or walking in the Lake District.
McEwan is said to be annoyed that this beautifully written work, which is being touted as a Booker Prize winner, has been described as a comic novel, but if he didn’t want it to be such, he shouldn’t have created a scene in which Beard tries to have a pee in the Arctic wastes, just one of many hilariously hapless scenes.
The book’s tension is developed through the race to see which will happen first: Beard finding genuine love or his crimes catching up with him. Considering the repellent nature of its anti-hero, it’s surprising how much you find yourself caring.