Not everyone gets to jet off to the sun during the summer holidays, and if you are stuck at home, or somewhere not particularly warm, then pick up Catherine Alliott's latest, Wish You Were Here (Michael Joseph, €12.65). Restaurant reviewer Flora and her doctor husband James have scored a freebie holiday in the villa of famous opera singer Camille. Unfortunately the couple are joined by their large extended family, Flora's first love and the Diva herself (Camille). Alliott's description of the South of France is wonderful and you can almost feel the heat on your face as you turn the pages.
Alliott's Flora is middle-aged as are many of the heroines of the latest crop of fiction. It's about time as thanks to cosmetic enhancements, Pilates and modern makeup the days are gone when women over 35 gently recede into the background.
In Fiona Walker's The Woman Who Fell in Love for a Week, (Sphere, €10.99) Jenny, a professional house sitter, has been divorced for a few years and despite dating Roger is finding it hard to move on. When Jenny begins house-sitting for well-known author Geraldine Scott, and discovers the follow-up to the best-selling book that she and all her teenage friends devoured, she begins to remember passion. But will she act on it? Is the handsome artist Euan even interested in her, or do his loyalties lie with married Geraldine? This is a departure from Walker's usual jolly nice English folk, with jolly nice dogs and horses. There is a dog, Gunther, who is quite mad - in total contrast to buttoned-up Jenny. As this is new territory for Walker it is not without flaws (for a professional house-sitter Jenny seems clumsy and gauche) but, when it comes to the theme of a middle-aged woman starting out again romantically after a long relationship, Walker is bang on the money. Die-hard Walker fans may be disappointed at the lack of horsiness but they should give it a chance.
Like Walker, Marian Keyes is staking out new territory with The Woman Who Stole My Life (Penguin, €10.99). Stella Sweeny is middle-aged and married with two almost-adult children. She and her sister run a successful beauty business and her husband Ryan, who aspired to being an artist, has fallen into being a sought-after bathroom designer. Then Stella becomes ill with a very rare condition and has to spend months in hospital. Her domestic life is shattered and she becomes emotionally attached to her handsome doctor Mannix. Stella's life changes dramatically and then changes yet again. The story is told in two interweaving timelines - from the humbled Stella's position now and what happened to her when she became ill. The characters are classic Keyes, fully rounded and real. Ryan, Stella's husband, is hilarious albeit in a cringe-worthy way. (Most women readers have at some point in their lives entertained a Ryan.) This is a grown up book, sexy and funny and well worth a read.
Rachel Johnson's Fresh Hell (Penguin, €18.99) is the third of Johnson's books set in and around a fictional community garden, surrounded by outrageously priced houses, in Notting Hill (or Notting Hell as the first book was titled). Journalist Mimi Fleming has returned to Lonsdale Gardens after a sojourn in the country with husband Ralph (pronounced Rafe) and their four children. They are now living in a smaller house as Clare, the woman who had Ralph's fifth child, Joe, by IVF, now lives in their old and much missed house. Mimi is having a mid-life crisis and falls, truly, madly and deeply (but mostly madly) in love with another woman, 'Conceptual Artist' Farouche. "Can't you just leave lesbianism to the real lesbians? Are you sure you haven't just been listening to Woman's Hour too long?"
At first glance Johnson seems light and superficial, her targets, the super-rich -"the haves and have yachts", their 'Iceberg' houses (the top is only the tip, they have tunnelled down to create huge basements) and the fads of this elite group are arguably easy targets. But Johnson does a first class job of evoking the panic and obsession that new love brings - no matter what age it happens at. The reader can see Farouche as the ghastly fraud she is but poor Mimi is blinded. Johnson is hilarious but a shocking death near the end shows that she is a talented writer who can go deep when she wants to.
Death is just the start for Rosie Potter in The Happy Ever Afterlife of Rosie Potter (RIP) by Kate Winter (Sphere, €18.99). This is a whimsical book with a great concept. Rosie is dead but her spirit remains, in her hideous pjs, to witness best friend and flatmate Jenny discover her corpse, the arrival of police at her house, their conclusion that she was probably murdered and their subsequent interrogation of her beloved boyfriend Jack. Rosie cannot make her presence felt initially but eventually she discovers how to move objects and communicate with one individual. Rosie doesn't know how she died but she begins a campaign of revenge on the person she thinks responsible. This is Irish writer Winter's debut novel and she would have been better advised to leave it as a lively (or deadly) romp. Instead she has attempted to deal with some darker issues and unfortunately does not yet possess enough skill to successfully marry 'reality' with the comic form. The 'serious stuff' feels like a contrivance and no doubt many readers will be offended by the perceived superficiality.
The latest fad in publishing is what Marian Keyes has dubbed 'Grip Lit' - books like Gone Girl (which I loved) and The Girl on the Train (which I wasn't so gone on). Now popular author Lisa Jewell has turned her hand to a bit of Grip Lit with The Girls (Century, €16.99) and the results are great. I was utterly gripped from the start when Pip discovers the battered body of her not-much-older sister Grace in the communal garden that their flat backs on to. The novel then travels back a year to when the girls and their mother Clare first arrived in the area. The 'girls' doesn't necessarily refer to Pip and her sister, there are other girls who are part of the community garden and some who haunt it. Basically a great read.
As is The Slaughter Man by Tony Parsons (Century, €16.99). This is the second book featuring Detective Max Wolfe. The first, The Murder Bag, was critically acclaimed and popular with readers and this one is even better.
The Slaughter Man of the title is an ex-con who has served his time and is now old and dying, but is he incapable of the brutal murder of an entire family and the abduction of a small child? Or is there a copy cat on the loose? Parsons had me gripped from the first chapter to the last sentence.
All prices quoted are as at time of press and for paperback copies
Sunday Indo Living