A summer holiday should be a good opportunity to step away from the technology which can dominate our attention through the working week. Not every moment needs to be captured and shared, after all. Let the emails marinate in the inbox for a while. Take the time to slow down. My first couple of recommended summer reads are from writers whose work provokes questions about where our reliance on algorithms and connectedness will take us.
There is so much to enjoy in Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan if you are a bookish geek who loves what technology has brought us but will never let go of your adoration for the smell of old books and the discoveries of chance to be made in dusty, neglected bookshops. Clay Jannon is at the bottom end of the San Francisco food chain when he gets a job as the night clerk at the city’s only 24-hour bookshop. Within a matter of days, he realises that his new employer is not only providing a place for night owls to get their reading fixes.
You know, I’m really starting to think the whole world just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.
Perfectly bridging the gap between coveting the authentically retro and the lure of the shiny and new, while skewering adeptly all of Silicon Valley’s current obsessions with immortality and ‘hacking’ longevity, this is the perfect summer read to make you appreciate the smell of a second-hand book.
I found Warren Ellis’ Normal to be a similarly on-the-nose depiction of the near future and what happens to the abyss-gazers when they inevitably realise that they are also being watched. Adam Dearden arrives at a rural facility desperate for some quiet contemplation, but a bizarre murder on his first evening gives the management an excuse to implement total surveillance and a shut-down of the more improved patients’ privileges.
You are all completely mad people who mess around with technology and weird social theory for fun until your brains shit themselves and you fall over.
One slight quibble is that the author interviews at the end were almost as long as the book itself! Its brevity – while admirable in these days of unlimited distractions – meant that the ideas, concepts and mini-rants remained somewhat under-cooked, however that did make it the perfect length to finish in one day. Afterwards, you may wish to turn your phone off and firmly lodge it at the back of a drawer.
Journey to the Frozen North…
If things are heating up where you are holidaying, perhaps there is nothing better than a summer read of unending ice and the kind of cold that can kill in minutes. Into the Thickening Fog by Andrey Gelasimov is a darkly comic tale in which the extreme cold is a protagonist itself. Star theatre director Filippov is drunk seemingly beyond all human capacity for vodka, dressed completely inappropriately for a visit back to his Siberian hometown for a date with destiny in the form of his best friend, past loves, a potential daughter and a stray dog.
Filippov wanted to lift his head, but he didn’t have a head. Or rather, he did but it was someone else’s. Someone had left their head on him… Filippov felt like the Soviet Union in 1991. He was falling apart. It was as if he’d died, only a lot worse.
As the town’s power grid fails and society and Filippov begin to disintegrate, he is forced to confront everything he has been avoiding since achieving success and leaving town. It is an at times chaotic but always entertaining farce with an ending that will have you feeling a shiver on even the warmest day.
…or the far-off South
Barbara Bleiman’s Off the Voortrekker Road is an area of history which deserves more attention than I think it has perhaps received. It is the story of South Africa in the 1950s, on the cusp of becoming an apartheid state. A lawyer with the case of a lifetime – defending a white church minister accused of adultery with a black woman – looks back on events from his childhood to reflect on how the country and its people have got to this point.
The lawyer, Jack Neuberger, is himself Jewish, his grandparents having arrived in South Africa in the ’30s, and the book explores the ways in which the need to belong, divided loyalties and family secrets can follow us from childhood into adulthood. Jack will find himself being given conflicting views on what ‘doing the right thing’ might be and having to find his own resolution. Knowing what is to come for the country makes his choice between making a stand and protecting his family even more poignant.
Wherever you may be pitching a tent, unpacking a bag or enjoying a staycation, may the sun shine and the summer reads all be entertaining. If you are looking for more, John Maguire’s summer reads are here. Let us know your recommendations for the favourite books that made it into your bag in the comments below. Happy holidays!