June books you absolutely have to read

James Walton

Two page-turning, unputdownable novels and one account of isolated living take centre stage in our June reading picks

All Fall Down by M J Arlidge

(Orion, £12.99)

Readers of M J Arlidge’s previous books won’t be surprised to hear that there’s another serial killer on the loose in Southampton. Or that DI Helen Grace must crack the case while also juggling her complicated love life and driving very fast on her Kawasaki motorbike. Or that the action moves almost as quickly as the Kawasaki itself, with anybody planning to read “just one more chapter” likely to be foiled by the fact that most of the chapters are short and end on a crunching single-sentence cliffhanger.

But, of course, this is precisely Arlidge’s appeal—and the reason why the Helen Grace novels sell in such large numbers. Like many a fine thriller writer, he’s perfected the neat trick of being both formulaic and fresh at the same time: we know what to expect, but we didn’t expect it quite like that. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine even the most grizzled Arlidge veteran working out what’s going on in All Fall Down—a book once again filled to the brim with great twisty plotting, before reaching a climax in which Grace and the killer meet one-on-one…

 

The Sight of You by Holly Miller

(Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99)

Callie is 34, working in a café and a bit lonely when she meets Joel, who seems pretty much a dream man. Not only is he funny, kind and handsome, but he’s clearly smitten with her too. So what could possibly go wrong? The answer, rather unexpectedly, is that Joel has dreams which accurately predict the future—and the one about Callie is an out-and-out nightmare.

In theory, this premise should be distractingly hard to swallow. Yet by presenting it so matter-of-factly, and thinking through its implications so poignantly, Holly Miller creates a proper romantic novel (complete with two central characters you can’t stop rooting for) that also raises some big questions about mortality. If you could, would you like to know the date of your death or that of those close to you? And if you did, would that change the way you live?

With endorsements from the likes of Jodi Picoult, publication across the world, and a Hollywood deal already in the bag, Miller’s debut looks primed to be a big summer hit. If you read it, my guess is that it won’t take you long to see why.

 

RD's recommended read

I Am An Island 

(Doubleday) 

The trials and triumphs of isolated living are laid bare in this often shatteringly honest read

In 2004, Tamsin Calidas and husband Rab left London to live more simply on a croft in the Hebrides. Or at least that was the plan. In fact, living more simply turned out to be very difficult—which is why I Am an Island is by no means the usual self-deprecating, comic tale of townies roughing it among loveably eccentric locals before triumphing over the odds. Instead, it’s a lot wilder, stranger and more interesting than that.

Calidas writes beautifully about the weather and landscape of the unnamed island (population: 140). Yet, this only emphasises how bleak they both can be.

Nor does she sugar over the hostility of many islanders to their two English invaders. And that’s before things really start to go wrong. Having hoped to raise a family on the croft, she discovers she can’t conceive (even by the standards of this often painfully honest book, she’s utterly unsparing about how shattering that is). She and Rab then split up, and he goes back to London, leaving Calidas to fend for herself—and the sheep—alone.

For a lesser woman, that might well have been that. Rather to her surprise, though, Calidas realises she’s in it for the long haul, learning not merely to put up with loneliness and hardship but to embrace them. Now, 15 years after arriving, she’s in no doubt that the island is her true home and the natural world her teacher and friend. Honest to the end, she doesn’t pretend she’s happy exactly. But she does have a powerful, even mystical sense of being where she belongs.

We join her here when Rob has recently left and, just to add to her problems, she’s running out of money and food…

 

"In the end it is simple. Everyone needs to eat. I am hungry and I do not have enough food. When there is nothing indoors but stone walls and floors, the only place to go is outside. One day, in the garden, I hear my stomach churning with hunger. I reach out and snap off a handful of greenery. I examine it, and then peer closer. I find myself wondering how it would taste. I am shy of eating leaves at first. It feels too feral, desperate. But the advantage is that there are plenty of them. It is a reassurance to know that as long as the sun keeps shining and the rain keeps falling, this is one source of food that will not run out.

I turn the leaves over, holding them up to my nose. I strive for words that will help me identify the plant. Fresh, green, herbaceous, a hint of citrus, I think as I rub a leaflet between my fingers. But these descriptions are too general. They could be applied to most plants. This makes me cautious. The leaf leaves a green stain on my fingertips, which I hesitantly lick. I want to be sure it is not poisonous. Plant identification is critical. Many years before, I studied herbal medicine in London. I kept my notes and over the last months have made my own checklist. I can tell this plant is rowan. The leaves are long and oval, with a tooth-like rasped edge. I know it is safe. So I take a tentative bite, gnawing at its edges, and then folding it over and crushing it in my mouth. It feels abrasive, like biting into rough paper, but I persevere. After a minute of running it over my tongue, I chew slowly so that its flavour comes through. It tastes bitter, acrid, sour in that first rush of sensation.

‘Here,’ I offer one to my dog, who is watching me closely. She sniffs it, licks it inquisitively and turns away as if affronted, the look in her eye one of disgust.

‘Oh, come on,’ I tell her, ‘it’s not that bad.’ And then I look over my shoulder, quickly. Because it feels somehow savage, standing in my garden, cramming raw leaves into my mouth.

It takes a surprisingly long time to eat a leaf fresh off a tree. The thick sycamore leaf is the toughest. The beech is soft, ruckled, with tiny hairs like a downy skin. Blackthorn pricks your fingers if you are not careful, whilst the hawthorn is as coarse-textured and dense as the silver birch is thin and slippery-cool. Tasting those first few mouthfuls feels strange, like an illicit secret in my mouth. But it is more than that. It is a relief. I am ravenous, desperate for food. So the next morning, I get up early and go out furtively, this time with a deep basket. I make a promise to take only what I need."

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