Sun, sea, sand, sensation: Page-turners to transport you away from it all this summer
Sunday 25 July 2010
As the glut of politics, sport and reality TV filters away from the news to make way for silly season, it's novels that will provide the thrills for the next month or so. And this year there is no shortage of gutsy, gripping page-turners.
Jeffery Deaver is something of a summer tradition for thriller fans, and a Lincoln Rhyme novel makes for a bumper year. The iconic detective is back for a ninth time in The Burning Wire (Hodder, £18.99), and everything else we love is there too: New York setting, accurate to the very street – check! Pages of (literally) forensic detail – check! And a killer more devious and gruesome than even last year's – check! Deaver's pacy prose is addictive enough to result in dreadful sunburn if read on the beach, so approach with caution.
Nicci French are a devious, manipulative pair (Nicci Gerrard and Sean French), and that is meant as an enormous compliment. The husband-and-wife duo's latest thriller, Complicit (Michael Joseph, £16.99), hurls the reader into a plot that begins with our "heroine" standing over her ex's dead body. Things become no clearer when she proceeds to try to hide the body. This is a near-perfect example of their trademark "how did a nice middle-class girl like you end up in a situation like this" formula. They remain among the few who can make your heart hammer while you're lying entirely still, and are all the better for it.
Slightly more sedate but no less engaging is Heresy (HarperCollins, £12.99), Stephanie Merritt's debut crime novel written under the pseudonym of SJ Parris. Aiming squarely at CJ Sansom's Shardlake territory, it's the first in a series set in Elizabethan England featuring the feisty monk Giordarno Bruno. An atmospheric romp, made all the more fun by a likeable hero.
For some, only a summer romance will do, and there are plenty to cater for them too. Jojo Moyes's break- out novel, The Last Letter From My Lover (Hodder, £12.99), manages to be a both gorgeously romantic and partner-ignoringly compulsive read. It sees Ellie, a modern-day journalist embroiled in an ill-advised affair with a married man, unearth a stash of love letters. Fifty years earlier, Jennifer, a 1960s society princess, wakes up in hospital after a traffic accident and realises that she remembers nothing of her life... until she finds those same love letters, once written to her. Immaculately paced, genuinely touching and stuffed with Mad Men-esque period details, it's a page-turner that loves words themselves.
Anyone suffering from Twilight fatigue who still hankers after a little teen drama from time to time could do a lot worse than Rebecca James's exquisitely creepy debut Beautiful Malice (Faber, £7.99). The classic new-girl-in-town-makes-suspiciously- charismatic-new-best-friend is a well-worn story. But Alice, the pal who seems so charming and glamorous, turns into a menace with such a lightness of touch that it chills the blood in an instant. James captures the bitchy dialogue and obsessive nature of teen friendships in an uncomfortably real and utterly gripping manner. You'll shiver on the warmest of beaches.
Adele Parks' 10th novel, Men I've Loved Before (Headline, £12.99), is her first not to feature a woman's legs on the jacket. Nevertheless it remains preoccupied with relationships and dating, albeit with slightly older characters. Nat and Neil are an ostensibly perfect couple who find themselves hitting rocky terrain when Neil gets baby hunger before Nat. It's undeniably formulaic, but it's inescapable that Parks is one of the novelists who make this genre work the best. Crisp dialogue and canny details make this a novel you might actually relax with: no need to call it a guilty pleasure with someone this experienced at the helm.
The summer's fizziest books aren't all novels – the music industry has thrown us a couple of surprisingly absorbing autobiographies which are short on rock'n'roll tedium and long on ghoulish detail. Both feature a quest to reach the heart of the industry, followed by no small dose of horror at seeing it up close.
Louise Wener, the former lead singer of Britpop band Sleeper, has become a bestselling novelist over the past couple of years, but Different for Girls: My True-Life Adventures in Pop (Ebury Press, £11.99) is her autobiography. Beginning with her childhood in Gants Hill, north-east London, and galloping through New Labour and Britpop's finest moments, it is funny, readable and filled with proper gossip. Most importantly, it's a perceptive and tenacious look at what it was really like to be a girl among the blokes in that era. The queen of Britpop's crown looks a little less sparkly when described in this much detail, but Wener tells her tale with good grace and at a rollicking pace.
Gavin Bain's California Schemin': How Two Lads From Scotland Conned the Music Industry (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) is the jaw-dropping autobiography of two guys you've never heard of. Sick of being told that Scottish rappers just won't cut it, Bain and his pal Billy create false identities for themselves, pose as Californians and score an enormous record contract. Managed by Jonathan Shalit, signed to Sony and set for the big time, they meet Madonna, share a stage with Eminem and appear on MTV. Yet slowly they come to realise the magnitude of the lie they've told, and of course, its consequences. Written with music journalist Nick Duerden, it reads more like a thriller than a showbiz cautionary tale, but works as both.
The best aural pleasures for grown-ups who want to be amused on long journeys
Sue Townsend's finest creation is in his forties. In Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (Whole Story, 9 hours, £12.99), his abode is "The Piggeries" in the village of Mangold Parva; next door, his mother, penning a misery memoir, longs to appear on The Jeremy Kyle Show. Working in a doomed bookshop, he develops a cancer that everyone mispronounces, to his impotent fury, "prostrate". Yet, brilliantly, this is very funny, and even more perceptive than its predecessors: one day, Adrian will be lauded as the supreme commentator on our age. In a truly great reading, Mark Hadfield masters more than 20 voices, from Punjabi to posh to paralytic.
Another comic with a darker edge is Jack Dee. Thanks for Nothing (Random House, 7 hours, £18.99) is the only celebrity autobiography currently worth listening to, streets ahead of the rest. He is the perfect reader of his own self-deprecating, deadpan style but his story, of hard work and soul-searching, is gentler and less cynical than you might guess: you end up seriously liking the man.
Two recent novels begin with a man's sudden death. In Joanna Trollope's, The Other Family (Random House, 6 hours, £16.99) is abandoned in Newcastle, while Richie's "wife" and three tricky daughters live in north London. Trollope is back on form here, writing of domestic muddle, the agony of bereavement and the importance of kindness. Fenella Woolgar reads, as happy with Geordie voices as she is in Highgate.
Rose Tremain's famous novel Music and Silence (Naxos, 8 hours, £19.99) is given a new lease of life in a lovely reading by Michael Praed, with Clare Wille and Alison Dowling. Haunting lute music decorates this story of love and betrayal in 17th-century Denmark, enhancing its fairytale quality.
Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo (Naxos, 5 hours, £19.99) is similarly enriched by perfect music, and a great reading by Gareth Armstrong. It tells of three individuals trying to survive in the hideously dangerous besieged city where every day a cellist performs, amid the ruins, a lament for the lost.
An older war is the setting for The Colonel of Tamarkan: Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai (Chrome Audio, 3 hours, £15.99), Julie Summers' account of the true and tragic history (much altered in the famous film) of Toosey, her grandfather, beautifully read by the great Anton Lesser. I was unashamedly weeping by the end.
Three more fine new novels now. Patrick Gale's subtle and elegiac The Whole Day Through (Whole Story, 5 hours, £17.99) turns on the reignition of an old flame, 20 years on, and is movingly read by Sandra Duncan and Ed Stoppard, while in One Day (Hodder, 2¼ hours, £14.99) David Nicholls' gorgeous lovers meet on the same day every year over the same period. Julian Rhind-Tutt could make a bus timetable sound gripping: given this quality of writing, he is irresistible. As is Samantha Bond, performing Maggie O'Farrell's The Hand That First Held Mine (Hachette, 4 hours, £15.99). Another time-lapse story, covering 50 years, it is her finest novel yet.
Finally, if you like poetry, buy From Shakespeare – With Love (Naxos, 1¼ hours, £8.99), the best of the sonnets read by stars from David Tennant to Juliet Stevenson: perfect summer listening. Sue Gaisford
Vote for your favourite audiobook of 2010 at audiobooks.co.uk/vote2010
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