The sun lounger also rises...but not just yet
Don't even try to kid yourself that this holiday will see you wading through literary tomes or worthy political memoirs. We know what you want
Sunday 17 July 2011
You can pretend all you like that this will be the holiday during which you settle down and get to grips with Anne Enright's Man Booker-winning The Gathering. And you know this isn't the year you will finish off the autobiographies of the last Labour government.
It's time we all accepted that what really works on a sun lounger, in a busy airport or curled up in a holiday rental is a bit of rollicking storytelling – suspense, romance, or just a story packed with nicely timed gags. As increasing numbers of us realise that a strategically filled ebook reader allows us to discreetly indulge in beach reads whatever the occasion, please enjoy this guide to holiday novels that work as well on the seafront as they do back at home. Just don't call them guilty pleasures, okay?
Nicci French (also known as the husband-and-wife team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) have cornered the market in unsettling thrillers in which nice middle-class girls see their world turn upside down. Blue Monday (Penguin, £12.99) marks the beginning of their first series, and stars the psychotherapist Frieda Klein. Frieda has all the hallmarks of a classic Nicci French character, but when one of her patients reveals fantasies that tie in with a child abduction case that is dominating the headlines, she ends up coming to the police's aid rather than vice versa. The plot is drum-tight, the premise is chilling and the twist is infuriatingly good. Its only flaw is the wait for the follow up.
Rosamund Lupton's Sister was one of last year's biggest sellers, and was notable for its unusual voice and "Oh God, I have to talk to someone about this now" twist. Her second novel, Afterwards (Piatkus, £7.99), uses a similar device, in that it is told from the point of view of Grace and her daughter Jenny, who are victims of an arson attack on Jenny's school, and both comatose. So far, so Lovely Bones, but Lupton does a good job of having the unconscious pair trying to help solve the mystery of who was responsible, and communicating it to those who might be able to help. The set-up takes a little while to bed in, but Afterwards is ultimately a curiously compulsive story.
Erin Kelly occupies similarly suburban territory with The Sick Rose (Hodder, £14.99), the follow-up to her absorbing debut, The Poison Tree. It elegantly weaves together the stories of Louisa and Paul, each of whom is running from a damaged past: Louisa's hippyish teen rebellion – a swirl of 1990s Kensington Market and angsty gigs with boys who should know better – and Paul's school years of grief and being bullied. A love affair begins between the pair, and as the romance rattles forward, Kelly's particular combination of the romantic and the macabre makes for a tense, unsettling read.
Romance is rarely the focus in Sophie Hannah's world, and Lasting Damage (Hodder, £12.99) is as addictively creepy as her previous thrillers. Connie Bowskill is house-hunting online in the middle of one night when she spots a dead body on one of the virtual tours. When the police look into the situation, it becomes increasingly unclear whether a crime has actually been committed, or whether Connie is slowly becoming unhinged. Taking those 3am horrors and turning them into a story that just won't be scrubbed from your mind is quite a gift, and Hannah has it. Neither house-hunting nor Cambridgeshire has ever seemed so dangerous.
Brighton is the setting for Peter James's mega-selling Roy Grace novels. Dead Man's Grip (Macmillan, £18.99) is the latest, and sees him continuing to make formidable use of what is clearly an extensive body of research with Sussex's police force. As a sort of Ian Rankin of the South, James takes the seaside delights of arguably the UK's most relaxed city and flips them on their head. Here, we see the repercussions of what seems like a simple traffic accident reach as far as the US. The soap-style narrative of the police force runs excellently alongside the crimes that form the grit in Brighton's oyster.
Harlan Coben is a similarly reliable storyteller and his laid-back tone and ever-steady approach to plotting are as evident in Live Wire (Orion, £18.99) as usual. The action kicks off for regular hero Myron Bolitar when social networking sites begin to play host to vicious rumours about an unborn baby's alleged paternity. Coben's dialogue is as punchy and readable as ever, and his tone easily makes the shift to an online environment. This is another novel that will manage both to raise the heart rate and serve as a relaxing treat.
Eleanor Moran's Breakfast in Bed (Sphere, £6.99) takes us toward the female end of the commercial market, but remains defiantly superior women's fiction. The ink is still drying on 31-year-old Amber Price's divorce papers when she finds herself having to smile gamely at the weddings of dearest friends. So much more than chick lit, this is comedic fiction with a gag-rate at which the team behind Bridesmaids would surely doff their caps.
Love Always (Harper, £7.99, £3.99 Kindle ed), is a more romantic read, but it's not all boy-meets-girl in Harriet Evans's latest. With a gorgeous Cornish setting, a ladleful of family secrets and a nice line in unashamedly dreamy dialogue, this feels like Rosamunde Pilcher rebooted – in the best possible way.
Sam Baker tugs just as hard on the heartstrings in To My Best Friends (Harper, £7.99), in which a woman bequeaths the things that mean the most to her to her best pals. This novel is set in "middle youth" territory, and all the better for it, as romances, families and careers are all affected by the death of a loved one. Be warned: you'll need someone to discuss it with as soon as you've turned the final page, and make sure you have tissues to hand.
Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything (Penguin Classics, £8.99, first published in 1958, has been repackaged and reprinted in the wake of Mad Men. Secretaries, cocktails, office gossip – it's always been a heady combination, and it works as well here as it later did in Valley of the Dolls and Sex and the City. Like a giggly night out with the girls when you're all wearing fabulous cocktail dresses and sharing the best stories, it is impossible to finish it feeling down in the mouth.
A final tip of the hat goes to the fifth book in George R R Martin's Game of Thrones series, A Dance With Dragons (Harper Voyager, £25), which sees the exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen at the top of her game. Anyone who found themselves longing for a direwolf this spring will struggle not to finish this before they set off for the airport. But there is no shame in that, because the whole series has had many people cancelling plans so that they can stay in and read.
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