Monday 20 November 2017

Beach books that leave the rest in the shade

Woman reading
Woman reading

Anne Marie Scanlon

Summer has brought a crop of quality reads that will make you sad to leave your sunlounger

The Love Letter

Fiona Walker

Sphere, €5.99.

Would I Lie To You?

Clare Dowling

Headline, €13.99.

Can We Still Be Friends

Alexandra Shulman

Fig Tree, €17.15.

White Wedding

Milly Johnson

Simon & Schuster, €5.99.

The Playdate

Louise Millar

Pan, €8.99.

Tyringham Park

Rosemary McLoughlin

Poolbeg, €15.99.

A Humble Companion

Laurie Graham

Quercus, €22.45.

Whether you are off on a fancy vacation or doing a budget stay-cation, the essential holiday must-have is a good read. When all else fails (weather, airlines, holiday companions, over-active volcanoes spewing ash) a gripping read can make you forget, and indeed forgive, a lot. We all know the old cliche about not judging books by their cover and it's never been more apt than in the case of The Love Letter, by Fiona Walker. Between the wishy-washy cover art and mundane title I thought I was in for a huge helping (it's over 660 pages) of wilting heroines and weak heroes. Instead The Love Letter is a fabulous romp with great characters, lots of twisty-turny plots and plenty of laughs.

Allegra 'Legs' North is a refreshing heroine who has not one, but three, love interests -- her ex-fiance, Francis, her boss, Conrad, and enigmatic Irish man Byrne. Legs works for a literary agency, and her job takes her back to the seaside town of Farcombe, where she spent her childhood holidays, home to her ex, his eccentric family and their exclusive annual literary festival. Walker obviously loves words, and I felt I could feel the sheer fun she had writing this book rising off the page -- which made it an absolute pleasure to read.

The notion of three women whose lives are intertwined is a standard motif in contemporary women's fiction. Clare Dowling's Would I Lie to You? follows the lives of three girls who shared digs as students. Hannah has just been dumped by Ollie, her long- term partner and father of her daughter, Cleo; heartbroken, she heads to France where her friend, Ellen, and her husband, Mark, are living the rural dream. Barbara, who is in the middle of a torturous adoption process, goes along for the holiday. But things in Ellen and Mark's rural idyll are not all they seem and when Hannah uncovers the cracks in their relationship she risks losing one of her oldest friends.

Alexandra Shulman's three heroines in Can We Still Be Friends? are also roomies from college. When we first meet Sal, Annie and Kendra it's 1983 and they've just graduated from university. The novel follows the trio over the next five years as their individual romantic lives and respective careers test their friendship to its limits. Even though the book is set in the Eighties, it could just as easily have been set in the present, so don't be put off if you think you're too young for a retrospective.

Bel, Violet and Max in White Wedding by Milly Johnson are brides-to-be who have only just met. Max is determined, despite the wishes of her long-term boyfriend, to have an over-the-top extravaganza, Violet isn't looking forward to her 'Big Day' just as much as you'd expect, and Bel has discovered something shocking about her fiance. Fans of chick lit should love this, but anyone who likes a bit of revenge-lit will adore it --Bel acts out a delicious comeuppance scene that many of us would love to emulate, but would never dare.

Louise Millar's stunning debut The Playdate also focuses on three women, but, in the case of this impossible-to- put-down psychological thriller, their lives don't simply intertwine, they collide, with disastrous consequences.

Single parent Callie finds herself isolated after the breakdown of her relationship, but unlike the lassies in Would I Lie to You?, Callie doesn't have any friends and appears to have been ostracised by all of her neighbours except for vivacious American Suzy. When teacher Debs moves in next door to Suzy, Callie makes a concerted effort to befriend the woman and, as a result, things begin to rapidly unravel for all three women. I was utterly gripped by this story and would highly recommend it for the holidays because, trust me, once you've started reading it, you won't want to stop. The Playdate is an amazingly accomplished work for a first- time author and I can't wait to read Louise Millar's next book.

The cover of Tyringham Park, by Rosemary McLoughlin, announces: "If you like Downton Abbey, you'll love this", which isn't a statement I'll argue with. The Tyringham Park of the title is the aristocratic Blackshaw family's country house in Ireland.

In 1917, heroine Charlotte is eight years old when her baby sister, Victoria, goes missing in suspicious circumstances. I'm quite fond of Downton myself but would warn fans of 'proper' historical fiction that it's probably best to give this one a miss as it's more Thorn Birds than Wolf Hall.

In spite of the fact that not one of the characters is in any way sympathetic (they are all, with the exception of romantic interest Lochlann, downright nasty) McLoughlin spins a good yarn and the central mystery of what happened to Victoria kept me reading till the end.

I wouldn't call Laurie Graham's A Humble Companion 'proper' historical fiction either, because Graham has created her own genre (part chick lit, part historical fiction and wholly brilliant) retelling famous moments in history from the perspective of (fictional) bit players whose own stories are just as compelling as those of the real historical figures. Previously, Graham has covered Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson in Gone With The Windsors and focused on the early years of the Kennedy family in The Importance of Being Kennedy (both page-turners and excellent holiday reads).

Graham's latest novel follows the fortunes of Nellie Welche, the daughter of a royal steward, who in 1788, at the age of 12, becomes the 'humble companion' of Princess Sofy, one of George III's 15 children. The novel follows Nellie and Sofy for the rest of their long lives -- they live to witness the reign of four sovereigns, the French Revolution and the advent of the steam train.

Graham is fantastic at creating solid believable characters while at the same time conjuring up the historical period and producing a gripping plot -- Nellie and Sofy have a lot more than hat trimmings or good holiday reads to worry about.

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