Sunday 25 March 2018

Perfect summer reads for airport or deckchair

Anne Marie Scanlon

The Summer


Fiona Walker



The Hive

Gill Hornby

Little Brown,


The Desperate

Wife's Survival


Alison Sherlock



The Shambling

Guide to

New York City

Mur Lafferty

Orbit Paperback,


And When

She Was Good

Laura Lippman



While we might have to change our ideas of what comprises a summer, we can still count on a proper summer read to deliver a much-needed escape. For a good old-fashioned 'beach book' look no further than The Summer Wedding, by Fiona Walker. For starters, it looks like an old-school beach book – big and bulky, a proper blockbuster that will withstand suntan lotion, sand and being dropped in the pool. At nearly 600 pages long you could pretty much stretch it out for a full fortnight, but I enjoyed it so much I read it in under a week.

If you don't like posh English people and/or horses, then this might not be the book for you. I don't hold strong views on either species and I loved it. The plot, which centres around two couples who attended drama school together in the early Nineties and have now gone on to various degrees of public success and celebrity, is utterly improbable, and some of the characters are too luvvy-darling to be true (which means they probably are). However, Walker is wonderful at creating whole self-contained worlds where the improbable and unlikely appear reasonably normal – for example, an errant hot-air balloon disrupts the summer wedding of the title.

Mind you, having said that, although the book carries the usual 'all of these people are fictional' disclaimer there are a couple of characters that reminded me of some real-life celebs. Purely coincidental, I have no doubt.

Writing romantic fiction is no easy matter. It's all too easy to pander to the lowest common denominator and give your readers a by-the-numbers story with a traditional happy ending. Walker is so funny, that although you can see the 'happily ever after' coming a long way off, the journey there is engrossing and often hilarious. Also, if austerity is biting and you can't afford to get away this year then this is the perfect book, as the plot takes us through Oxfordshire, Andalucia, LA and Africa.

Every couple of years, a writer comes along that we are told is revolutionising popular women's fiction. This year that writer is Gill Hornby and the book is The Hive, which was the subject of a bidding war between publishing houses (practically unheard of these days). The title of the book refers to the small coterie of women who run the PTA at St Ambrose primary school, in a small idyllic English village. The aptly named Bea is at the very centre of everything – she dictates fundraising, fashion, hairstyle, who's in, who's out and all the mothers live in fear of offending her. Newly single Rachel, whose husband has found himself a younger model, finds herself frozen out of the inner circle while Bubba, new to village life, tries her hardest to out-Bea Bea.

I was so looking forward to reading The Hive but, after all the hype, I was disappointed. Don't get me wrong, the book isn't awful, the Mum-Mafia is a rich area for any writer to explore and Hornby does a great job being both entertaining and insightful. She also has a great way with words and phrases, (I have shamelessly nicked her expression 'lesbian tea' for herbal infusions and now use it as often as possible) and her observations of village life and playground politics are spot on. Unfortunately, her characters are a bit two dimensional. Most frustratingly, while Bea is the central character, we are never privy to her perspective or given any sort of clue as to what motivates her, so she is little more than a boo and a hiss away from a standard issue Pantomime villain. Given Hornby's obvious talents, it's a shame this isn't a better read.

The Desperate Wife's Survival Plan, by Alison Sherlock, deals with a similar array of middle-class women dealing with money and man problems. In many ways, this book is the perfect holiday read, because if you leave it behind on the beach, you won't lose any sleep wondering what would have happened. This is pretty much standard (and tame) Mills & Boon-style romance. It's grand; it will pass the time while you wait for the plane to take off.

For something a little bit different, check out The Shambling Guide to New York City, by Mur Lafferty, which is best described as Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Sex and the City. Travel writer Zoe Norris has returned to New York in disgrace after having an affair with her old boss. She thinks she's found the perfect job, writing a guide to New York City, but most of her colleagues are zombies, her boss is a vampire and her new best friend a water sprite. If things weren't odd enough for poor Zoe, her past comes back to haunt her in the shape of her old boss and his vengeful wife. This isn't one for people with no patience for the supernatural and while the writing can be a bit cliched at times, overall it's a lot of fun.

I wouldn't call Laura Lippman's latest And When She Was Good fun, but I would call it gripping. Heloise is a classy lady, a single suburban mother whose understated style and life would lead no one into suspecting she's a call girl and a madam.

The story unfolds via two interchanging timelines – one outlining how Heloise got into 'the life' and the second showing the rapidly unfolding events of the present day which lead Heloise to think her carefully constructed life is about to crumble.

Lippman is a former journalist and you can see the reporter at work in the tightly constructed prose that carries the reader easily along from chapter to chapter all the while building tension.

There's a twist in the tale, too, which I always like.

Seeing the sun occasionally is also something I like, but at least if it fails to make a guest appearance this summer there are plenty of good books to get lost in.

Irish Independent

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