The Best Books for July 2023

THE SEASIDE: England’s Love Affair by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, £20)
Rather like the tides themselves, the fortunes of English seaside resorts have ebbed and flowed. Our love affair with the seaside began in the 18th century, when sea air and bathing were first considered beneficial. Royalty and the aristocracy flocked to newly established resorts such as Scarborough – which claims to have invented the idea of the seaside resort – for the supposed therapeutic benefits, and also the south coast towns of Brighton and Worthing. As a result, grand hotels and gracious second homes grew up for the rich and leisured. The development of the railways gave resorts another enormous boost, and they expanded once again after 1936, when paid holidays for employees became the norm. Working-class people could now afford beach holidays, and so began the golden years of seaside towns. They became places of pleasure, indulgence and saucy amusement. Some resorts were further enhanced by the building of holiday camps such as Butlin’s and Pontins, which offered cheap breaks for entire families.
The 1960s saw the end of this golden age. Package holidays to Spain and Greece offered guaranteed sun for the same price as a week in ‘bracing’ Skegness, and English seaside resorts lost their appeal. Their decline was swift and brutal: they became sad, derelict ghost towns retaining hardly a hint of their former glory and glamour.
Madeleine Bunting has travelled around our coastline in all weathers, staying in faded hotels, caravans and chalets, swimming in the cold sea, trying her luck in amusement arcades and interviewing residents. She outlines each resort’s splendid history, but discovers that pockets of deprivation remain in most of these once-thriving towns in spite of recent regeneration. Holidaymakers, she fears, will never return, and yet by the end of her travels she has fallen in love with the English seaside.
Liz Hodgkinson

The Air Raid Book Club by Annie Lyons (Headline, £8.99) This powerful
historical novel, in turns heart-breaking and heart-warming, is an affecting reminder of the essence of community and comradeship.
During the Second World War, Gertrude Bingham, the widowed owner of a bookshop, is about to have her life transformed following the arrival of Hedy Fischer, a Jewish refugee from Germany.
The character of Gertrude is truly delightful. She is brave and kind but, as so often happens when writers romanticise the past, the sort of bravery and kindness she displays does not quite ring true.
That goes for the wider London community around her. Everyone is effusive and warm, which is much more a reflection of today’s more easy-going and diverse capital than the understated, reserved stoicism that drove London’s formidable folk during wartime. Still, the Blitz spirit is strongly evoked, and overall the book is a pleasure to read.
Hedy is the really shining presence throughout. Her forbearance as she settles into a new life in England, and the strong bond she forges with Gertrude, while the horrors in Europe engulf her family, is what endures after finishing the last page. A sensitive and heartfelt story. PW

The Librarianist by Patrick deWitt (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
We meet Bob apparently in the twilight of his life, living uneventfully through his retirement after a career as a librarian. One day, a casual good deed leads to a reawakening of sharply emotional memories from his mild-mannered past.
The non-linear format is well-suited to Bob’s personality. There is the eventual realisation that quite a few Bobs exist out there – superficially unexceptional and yet multifaceted, internally complex as the cumulative result of many minor events. Every reader will recognise at least a part of Bob in someone they know.
Outwardly, he is astonishingly impassive and sparing with words. He is an observer but not a follower. This has been his way since childhood, as we see when he makes the decision to leave both an acquaintance’s home and, soon after, his own. He boards one of the trains he has watched with great interest every weekend, and meets some artistic characters aboard as he travels. It is very cleverly told, with a hint of Anne Tyler in the simplicity of the plot and the poetic psychology of individual everyday happenings.
That Patrick deWitt has pulled off this deceptively risky style of narrative is proof of his considerable skills as an author. Philippa Williams

Writing Black Beauty: Anna Sewell and the Story of Animal Rights by Celia Brayfield (The History Press, £20)
Black Beauty is a classic novel but was also an important contribution to the struggle to outlaw cruelty to animals. Celia Brayfield has combed through unseen archives to bring its author, Anna Sewell, to life, and to locate her in the landscape of 19th-century social reform.
Born to impoverished Quakers, Sewell’s mother, Mary, was an author whose views were shaped by the social reformer Sarah Ellis. Her father, Isaac, was a junior banker and spendthrift who supported abolitionism. With no money to light the house, the children were encouraged by Mary to invent games in the dark, and Anna and her brother became imaginative children.
Aged 14, Anna sprained her ankle and became disabled. Brayfield’s research emphasises that she was not written off, as many disabled people were at the time, but found a new way of being independent: she became the family coach-driver and kept bees, thus reinforcing her admiration for animals.
Anna became chronically ill. She wrote Black Beauty on her sickbed and died, aged 58, five months after its publication in 1877. Brayfield’s book is an important historical biography and an inspiring read.
Lyndsy Spence

AN ASTRONOMER IN LOVE by Antoine Laurain, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie and Megan Jones (Gallic Books, £14.99)
Venus is a hot, rocky world swaddled in clouds of dense carbon dioxide and sulphuric acid. The ancients, who didn’t know this, associated the planet with physical love and passion, and in one way they were right: a Venusian day is longer than its year, so it’s possible to spend most of your life in bed.
Venus can be observed as a small, black dot when it crosses the face of the Sun. This happens on a cycle of eight years, 122 years, eight years and then 105 years. For early scientists, observing this transit was important as it would give them a way of estimating the distance between the Earth and the Sun An 18th-century French astronomer, Guillaume Le Gentil, was commissioned by Louis XV to observe the 1761 transit. He set sail for India but was unable to take observations. He stayed in the East for the 1769 transit, but failed again.
Antoine Laurain’s novel contrasts Le Gentil’s real voyage with the fate of a fictional Parisian estate agent, Xavier Lemercier. It is a brilliant love story of two lives separated by centuries but linked by Venus. The supporting cast, including a not-quite-dead dodo and a zebra, will have readers laughing and crying in equal measure.
Stephen Coulson

DOG HEARTED: Essays on Our Fierce and Familiar Companions edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Jessica J. Lee (Daunt Books, £9.99)
More hours of daylight in summer mean more opportunities to go out with the dogs – and time with one’s dog is never wasted. This thoughtful and varied collection of essays is the perfect prompt to reflect upon the joys (and sorrows) of dog ‘ownership’ (I prefer to call it friendship).
It opens with Cal Flyn’s tale of befriending a working sled dog in Finland, who later came to live with her in retirement. Chris Pearson gives us a potted history of Western pet-keeping, with vivid, affectionate accounts of walks with Cassie, his lurcher.
‘There is a simple test to tell whether your house is truly a home,’ writes Jessica Pan in The Master List: when you walk through the door ‘you must be greeted by a cold nose and a soft nuzzle’. But in her checklist for finding Mr Right she omits one crucial point: he must love dogs. There follows a moving quest to win over her otherwise perfect new husband, with the help of her parents’ rottweiler.
There is companionship and loss, needy dogs and semi-feral ones, puppies and elderly veterans. All of dog life is here, and this charming book shows how much poorer our own lives would be without them.
Juanita Coulson