The Father’s Day book gift guide (According to a dad)

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Father’s Day is coming up and we all know the fear of it being less than a week away and coming up blank with present options. They always either want something that’s too practical to be a gift (my father once asked for protective mats for the floor of his car) or they say they don’t want anything at all. Which is a lovely sentiment, but not particularly useful.

The point is that dads can be a bit of an enigma sometimes. But fear not. I am here with the ultimate Dad-approved booklist to give your inspiration for your ‘hard-to-buy-for’ dad. The following are books my own father read and enjoyed this year so you can browse for similar titles and authors, knowing they have the Dad seal of approval.

‘A Woman of No Importance’ by Sonia Purnell (Viking)

In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: "She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her."

This spy was Virginia Hall, a young American woman – rejected from the foreign service because of her gender and her prosthetic leg – who talked her way into the spy organisation deemed Churchill's "ministry of ungentlemanly warfare," and, before the United States had even entered the war, became the first woman to deploy to occupied France.

Virginia Hall was one of the greatest spies in American history, yet her story remains untold. Sonia Purnell uncovers the captivating story of a powerful, influential, yet shockingly overlooked heroine of the Second World War. At a time when sending female secret agents into enemy territory was still strictly forbidden, Virginia Hall came to be known as the "Madonna of the Resistance," coordinating a network of spies to blow up bridges, report on German troop movements, arrange equipment drops for Resistance agents, and recruit and train guerilla fighters. Even as her face covered WANTED posters throughout Europe, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate.

Told with Purnell's signature insight and novelistic flare, A Woman of No Importance is the breathtaking story of how one woman's fierce persistence helped win the war. My Dad loved this book, and it was definitely one of his favourites that he’s read recently. Unbeliveably tense and gripping, there’s also a film version of the story on Netflix, ‘A Call to Spy’.

‘The Evening and the Morning’ by Ken Follett (Macmillan)

It is 997 CE, the end of the Dark Ages. England is facing attacks from the Welsh in the west and the Vikings in the east. Those in power bend justice according to their will, regardless of ordinary people and often in conflict with the king. Without a clear rule of law, chaos reigns.

In these turbulent times, three characters find their lives intertwined. A young boatbuilder's life is turned upside down when the only home he's ever known is raided by Vikings, forcing him and his family to move and start their lives anew in a small hamlet where he does not fit in…A Norman noblewoman marries for love, following her husband across the sea to a new land, but the customs of her husband's homeland are shockingly different, and as she begins to realise that everyone around her is engaged in a constant, brutal battle for power, it becomes clear that a single misstep could be catastrophic…A monk dreams of transforming his humble abbey into a centre of learning that will be admired throughout Europe. And each in turn comes into dangerous conflict with a clever and ruthless bishop who will do anything to increase his wealth and power.

‘Ordinary Joe’ by Joe Schmidt (Penguin Ireland)

In the autumn of 2010, a little-known New Zealander called Joe Schmidt took over as head coach at Leinster. He had never been in charge of a professional team. After Leinster lost three of their first four games, a prominent Irish rugby pundit speculated that Schmidt had 'lost the dressing room'.

Nine years on, Joe Schmidt has stepped down as Ireland coach having achieved success on a scale never before seen in Irish rugby. Two Heineken Cups in three seasons with Leinster. Three Six Nations championships in six seasons with Ireland, including the Grand Slam in 2018. And a host of firsts: the first Irish victory in South Africa; the first Irish defeat of the All Blacks, and then a second; and Ireland's first number 1 world ranking.

In Ordinary Joe, Schmidt tells the story of his life and influences: the experiences and management ideas that made him the coach, and the man, that he is today. And his diaries of the 2018 Grand Slam and the 2019 Rugby World Cup provide a brilliantly intimate insight into the stresses and joys of coaching a national team in victory and defeat.

From the small towns in New Zealand's North Island where he played barefoot rugby and jostled around the dinner table with seven siblings, to the training grounds and video rooms where he consistently kept his teams a step ahead of the opposition, Ordinary Joe reveals an ordinary man who has helped his teams to achieve extraordinary things.

‘Walking the Nile’ by Levison Wood (Simon & Schuster)

His journey is 4,250 miles long.

He is walking every step of the way, camping in the wild, foraging for food, fending for himself against multiple dangers.

He is passing through rainforest, savannah, swamp, desert and lush delta oasis.

He will cross seven, very different countries.

No one has ever made this journey on foot.

In this detailed, thoughtful, inspiring and dramatic book, recounting Levison Wood's walk the length of the Nile, he will uncover the history of the Nile, yet through the people he meets and who will help him with his journey, he will come face to face with the great story of a modern Africa emerging out of the past. Exploration and Africa are two of his great passions – they drive him on and motivate his inquisitiveness and resolution not to fail, yet the challenges of the terrain, the climate, the animals, the people and his own psychological resolution will throw at him are immense.

The dangers are very real, but so is the motivation for this ex-army officer. If he can overcome the mental and physical challenges, he will be walking into history…

‘All We Shall Know’ by Donal Ryan (Doubleday Ireland)

‘Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I'm thirty-three. I was his teacher. I’d have killed myself by now if I was brave enough. I don’t think it would hurt the baby. His little heart would stop with mine. He wouldn't feel himself leaving one world of darkness for another, his spirit untangling itself from me.’

Melody Shee is alone and in trouble. Her husband doesn't take her news too well. She doesn't want to tell her father yet because he’s a good man and this could break him. She’s trying to stay in the moment, but the future is looming – larger by the day – while the past won’t let her go. What she did to Breedie Flynn all those years ago still haunts her.

It’s a good thing that she meets Mary Crothery when she does. Mary is a young Traveller woman, and she knows more about Melody than she lets on. She might just save Melody’s life.

Donal Ryan’s new novel is breathtaking, vivid, moving and redemptive. Definitely a sadder and more anxious read, this is nonetheless a gripping novel from Donal Ryan who never fails to disappoint. I liked his 2020 release, Strange Flowers as well, if you’re looking for alternative titles.

‘The Mirror and the Light’ by Hilary Mantel (Harper Collins)

In The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage.

Cromwell, a man with only his wits to rely on, has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. All of England lies at his feet, ripe for innovation and religious reform. But as fortune’s wheel turns, Cromwell’s enemies are gathering in the shadows. The inevitable question remains: how long can anyone survive under Henry’s cruel and capricious gaze?

Eagerly awaited and eight years in the making, The Mirror & the Light completes Cromwell’s journey from self-made man to one of the most feared, influential figures of his time. Portrayed by Mantel with pathos and terrific energy, Cromwell is as complex as he is unforgettable: a politician and a fixer, a husband and a father, a man who both defied and defined his age. The final book in a gripping trilogy, my dad has followed this series for several years, starting with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, so it’s probably best to start with those two.

‘The Guardians’ by John Grisham (Hodder & Stoughton)

In the small north Florida town of Seabrook, a young lawyer named Keith Russo was shot dead at his desk as he worked late one night. The killer left no clues behind. There were no witnesses, no real suspects, no one with a motive. The police soon settled on Quincy Miller, a young black man who was once a client of Russo’s.

Quincy was framed, convicted, and sent to prison for life. For twenty-two years he languished in prison with no lawyer, no advocate on the outside. Then he wrote a letter to Guardian Ministries, a small innocence group founded by a lawyer/minister named Cullen Post.

Guardian handles only a few innocence cases at a time, and Post is its only investigator. He travels the South fighting wrongful convictions and taking cases no one else will touch. With Quincy Miller, though, he gets far more than he bargained for. Powerful, ruthless people murdered Keith Russo, and they do not want Quincy exonerated.

They killed one lawyer twenty-two years ago, and they will kill another one without a second thought.

‘The Volunteer’ by Jack Fairweather (Penguin)

This is untold story of one of the greatest heroes of the Second World War.

In the Summer of 1940, after the Nazi occupation of Poland, an underground operative called Witold Pilecki accepted a mission to uncover the fate of thousands of people being interred at a new concentration camp on the border of the Reich.

His mission was to report on Nazi crimes and raise a secret army to stage an uprising. The name of the detention centre – Auschwitz.

It was only after arriving at the camp that he started to discover the Nazi’s terrifying designs. Over the next two and half years, Witold forged an underground army that smuggled evidence of Nazi atrocities to the West, culminating in the mass murder of over a million Jews. His reports from the camp were to shape the Allies response to the Holocaust – yet his story was all but forgotten for decades.

This is the first major account of his amazing journey, drawing on exclusive family papers and recently declassified files as well as unpublished accounts from the camp’s fighters to show how he saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

The result is an enthralling story of resistance and heroism against the most horrific circumstances, and one man’s attempt to change the course of history.

‘A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom’ by John Boyne (Doubleday)

It starts with a family, a family which will mutate. For now, it is a father, mother and two sons. One with his father’s violence in his blood. One who lives his mother’s artistry. One leaves. One stays. They will be joined by others whose deeds will change their fate. It is a beginning.

Their stories will intertwine and evolve over the course of two thousand years – they will meet again and again at different times and in different places. From distant Palestine at the dawn of the first millennium to a life amongst the stars in the third. While the world will change around them, their destinies will remain the same. It must play out as foretold. It is written.

A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is the extraordinary new novel from acclaimed writer John Boyne. Ambitious, far-reaching and mythic, it introduces a group of characters whose lives we will come to know and will follow through time and space until they reach their natural conclusion.

My Recommendations

‘The Betrayals’ by Bridget Collins (Harper Collins)

At Montverre, an exclusive academy tucked away in the mountains, the best and brightest are trained for excellence in the grand jeu: an arcane and mysterious contest. Léo Martin was once a student there, but lost his passion for the grand jeu following a violent tragedy. Now he returns in disgrace, exiled to his old place of learning with his political career in tatters.

Montverre has changed since he studied there, even allowing a woman, Claire Dryden, to serve in the grand jeu’s highest office of Magister Ludi. When Léo first sees Claire he senses an odd connection with her, though he’s sure they have never met before.

Both Léo and Claire have built their lives on lies. And as the legendary Midsummer Game, the climax of the year, draws closer, secrets are whispering in the walls…

Creepy and unbelievably tense, this read was one of my favourites this year because it keeps you guessing. With a crazy twist and an atmospheric setting, it’s perfect for dads who like a little escapist fiction.

‘Love Letters of Kings and Queens’ by Daniel Smith (Hachette)

From Henry VIII's lovelorn notes to Anne Boleyn and George IV's impassioned notes to his secret wife, to Queen Victoria's tender letters to Prince Albert and Edward VIII's extraordinary correspondence with Wallis Simpson – these letters depict romantic love from its budding passion to the comfort and understanding of a long union (and occasionally beyond to resentment and recrimination), all set against the background of great affairs of state, wars and the strictures of royal duty.

Here is a chance to glimpse behind the pomp and ceremony, the carefully curated images of royal splendour and decorum, to see the passions, hopes, jealousies and loneliness of kings and queens throughout history. By turns tender, moving, heartfelt and warm (and sporadically scandalous and outrageous too), these are the private messages between people in love. Yet they are also correspondence between the rulers of nations, whose actions (and passions) changed the course of history, for good and bad.

A fab choice for history buffs, these letters and the historical context provided by Smith allows us to see behind the veil of history and time to get up close and personal with these historical figures. Seeing into the intricacies and nuances of their marriages and their political triumphs and failings brings them to life in a way that history books never could.

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