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10 Books to Read Before Hay Festival

Richard Hopton reviews books by authors appearing at the Hay Festival

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Hay Festival is back this year from 23 May – 2 June. As the world’s most varied literature festival and one of the greatest meeting of minds in the country, make sure you’ve done your homework beforehand… 

We loved collaborating with Hay Festival on our talk ‘What Makes a Good Brand’ which saw 343 attendees turn up and enjoy the discussion hosted by Ed Vaizey and with Jean-Christophe, Annoushka Ducas, Edeline Lee and Geordie Willis. If you missed it, don’t worry, you can listen to it via!

Hay Festival


The Wall – John Lanchester

How grim can things get? The answer suggested by John Lanchester’s new novel, is very grim indeed. The Wall presents a view of Britain after the ‘Change’ – when the older generation ‘irretrievably fucked up the world’ – as a bleakly monochrome, authoritarian, autarky North Korea in the North Sea. Lanchester’s Britain is surrounded by an immense sea wall, guarded by a conscripted garrison, to keep the world out and the natives in. For all its pessimism, it’s a powerful story, almost an allegory, a warning against the perils of isolationism and xenophobia. Faber & Faber, £14.99

Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan

This unsettling novel tells the story of the three-cornered relationship between Charlie, his girlfriend, Miranda, and Adam, an android. Set in London in 1982, it poses questions about artificial intelligence and how humans should interact with it, as well as about honesty, revenge and forgiveness. This is a world in which all is not as it should be, a sense of dislocation fostered by McEwan’s scrambling of the historical record. It’s an important literary contribution to the AI debate, one of the great questions of our time. Waterstones, £15.99


Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic – Simon Armitage

‘Poetry need not be an autonomous or hermetically sealed activity,’ writes Simon Armitage, a proposition which his latest collection, written for patrons as diverse as the Bronte Parsonage Museum and Sky Arts, well illustrates. He tackles the plight of war veterans and muses on the British countryside. There are some witty, short prose pieces, too; in one he describes David Bowie’s voice as being like ‘cigarette smoke blowing through a pre-loved clarinet’. Armitage writes with precision, humanity and whimsy. Faber & Faber, £16.99

Hay Festival


Under The Camelthorn Tree – Kate Nicholls

This episodic memoir skips between southern Africa and London over a period of more than 20 years from 1994. It tells of the author’s life bringing up her children in the Botswana bush, surrounded by lions. It’s both charming (the bush life, wild animals and home-schooled children) and traumatic (rape, alcoholism and penury), a tale told with humour and unflinching honesty. One has to admire the author’s guts and tenacity as well as the courage and resourcefulness of her children, testament to the strength of the human spirit. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99


Around The World In 80 Trains – Monisha Rajesh

Trains are, Monisha Rajesh writes, ‘an open window into the soul of a country’. This account of her 45,000-mile, seven-month journey is packed with anecdotes of the random meetings and conversations that fill the long hours of transcontinental train journeys, learning much of the railways’ histories and folklore. Modern long-distance train travel may not be glamorous but it does lay on a constantly-changing human drama for the traveller’s delight – and occasional disgust. Bloomsbury, £20

What’s On: The Best Literary Festivals 2019

Hay Festival

Young Adult Fiction

Toffee – Sarah Crossan

Toffee tells the story of 16-year-old Allison, who runs away from her abusive father to Bude in Cornwall. There she takes refuge with an elderly woman, Marla, who suffers from dementia. The novel’s subject matter – child abuse, running away from home, dementia – is not comfortable but Crossan handles it with a deft touch, never labouring the point but never ducking it. The story is told through a series of blank-verse poems, which are effectively short chapters, a medium that succeeds triumphantly. Toffee is a beautifully-wrought, surprising, gripping book. Bloomsbury, £12.99


Beyond Brexit – Vernon Bogdanor

If you need a succinct, sober guide to the questions that lie behind the Brexit fiasco, something to cut through the sound and fury, Professor Bogdanor’s new book should be your first port of call. He was David Cameron’s tutor at Oxford. Bloomsbury, £18

The C&TH Guide to Hay Festival