Summer Reads

I went to South Carolina recently (oh, did I mention that already?) and I spent some much-needed time lying on the beach. Naturally a lot of this beach time was spent curled up with a novel or six.

Here are a few of the ones I read while I was there. 

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

From the outside, Jack and Grace seem to have it all. Hot, successful, happily married, with a beautiful house and great friends. Well, kind of great friends. It’s hard to see Grace on her own, though. Is she really as happy as she seems at first glance? Or could something sinister be going on when no one’s around?

This was a strange book, because Jack being a psychopath was unearthed within the first couple of chapters – so early on that it’s not really a spoiler to tell you. Yes, something weird’s going on behind this couple’s closed doors, and the weird thing is that Jack’s a monster who is essentially holding his wife prisoner.

The story unfurls with a strange pace: on the one hand, there’s not much going on, except that Jack’s being a truly vile individual. On the other hand, Grace’s desperation is growing by the page: she needs to get free of him, but he’s threatening those she loves so she can’t.

The ending hit me with a nice spooky tingly feeling: the last few lines, spoken between Grace and her friend, made my spine shudder. And I did enjoy the book. But most of the way through I was also a bit creeped out by it. Not just by the storyline, but by how much the author seemed to be enjoying writing about something so horrible. I get that we need fiction about horrible stuff too – god knows I read enough of it – but there was something almost gleeful in the description of Jack’s abuse that at times made me squirm.

On the whole, however, I did enjoy it, so I’d recommend it if you also enjoy being thoroughly creeped out.

The Other Half Lives by Sophie Hannah

Everybody enjoyed a good scary story, thinks one of the characters in this book, hardly anyone knew how to bring one to life.

Well, Sophie Hannah knows.

I came to Hannah’s books fairly late, which surprises me: somehow I spent years missing out on this master of psychological thrillers. On the plus side, that means I have a load of catching up to do. The Other Half Lives was on my list when I was abroad, and it was very good.

When her boyfriend confesses to the murder of a woman who’s still very much alive, Ruth isn’t sure what’s going on. Mary Trelease is an artist who lives nearby; Ruth has seen her paintings, but more to the point, she’s seen the woman herself. She definitely isn’t dead. So what’s going on?

As the mystery continues on, local police are as clueless as Ruth: should they charge Aidan with wasting police time? Or could something more sinister be happening?

I didn’t guess the ending: it’s typically twisty in the style of Sophie Hannah, aka the sorts of twists even seasoned crime fiction readers might find surprising. I didn’t love it as much as some of her others, but it remains a solidly good twisty thriller.

The Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green

Ronni Sunshine, star of stage and screen, is dying. She has three daughters, from whom she’s largely estranged: although her oldest lives nearby, their relationship can hardly be described as close.

When she discovers she has a degenerative disease, Ronni decides to take matters into her own hands rather than watch herself getting weaker. She gathers her three adult children, and her one teenage grandchild, to her bedside to enlist their help. And of course, being Ronni Sunshine, she wants to film it.

The sisters are thrown into a maelstrom of emotion, each of them battling their own feelings and trying to work out whether they will agree to their mother’s final wish. The relationship between the three of them hasn’t exactly been plain sailing either, though, which adds an extra level of conflict to this already difficult time. But can the last act of their larger-than-life mother be the thing that finally binds them all together?

This is a classic beach read: intellectually not at all taxing, and not something you really need to concentrate on, but a lot of fun and with occasional moments that capture the difficult emotions surrounding family drama.

Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves

Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope is going to the gym in an attempt to get in shape. One day she steps into the sauna after a swim and discovers a dead woman. Initially she assumes the death happened due to a heart attack, but soon she notices the ligature marks around the woman’s neck, indicating that she was strangled.

As Vera and her team work to solve the case, they discover that the woman was once at the centre of a lot of press attention following the death of a child who’d been assigned to her when she was a social worker. But that can’t have anything to do with her murder… can it?

The storyline itself was vaguely interesting, but I was put off by how self-hating (and, by extension, hatey about others) Vera is. The lead character spends much of the book talking about her eczema, her overweight body, the fact that she’s not beautiful and young and thin. Which, fine. It’s nice to have heroes in fiction who aren’t size zero model types. But the point of that is to represent that it’s OK to be someone whose skin doesn’t play ball; someone who’s carrying a few extra pounds. It’s not to make the protagonist hate themselves so much, without once being challenged about it, that it ultimately sends the message that you maybe should hate yourself if you don’t live up to Cosmo magazine’s standards of perfection.

Mainly for that reason, but also because it wasn’t very well written, I wouldn’t recommend this one.

What have you read recently? What light beach reads would you recommend?


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