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What I (really) read on my holidays (contains no historical biographies)

I know I’m not the only person bored to tears by the tired old summer fiction pages of the broadsheets, featuring the same writers, the same writerly pretensions, and not one single person ever owning up to a Lee Child or a Jilly Cooper. (There is evidently some corner of Tuscany where people are only allowed in if they read Proust, or dense biographies of minor politicians).
But when it comes to book recommendations, Twitter never lets me down. Perhaps it’s because of the self-selecting nature of the people one follows, but I can count on one hand the number of times in four years I have not loved a novel which others have assured me they have.
For that reason I thought I’d list a few that I loved on my all-too-brief European trip this year. The brevity of the trip was compensated by the utter brilliance of most of the books I read, most of which I devoured in one day, in sittings by the pool (by far the best way to read; sun-warmed, breaking off occasionally for food or drink, and only occasionally interrupted by wet children insisting I fish their goggles off the bottom of the pool).

APPLE TREE YARD by LOUISE DOUGHTY
My friend Polly told me about this book, and in the way that you often see an unfamiliar word straight after you’ve heard it, I immediately saw writers I liked mentioning it in my timeline. What I particularly loved, apart from the utter pageturniness of it (yes, it is a word), was the heroine – a middle aged, not particularly glamorous (I kept picturing Mary Archer, although I know I shouldn’t), rational-minded scientist pitches herself into an unwise affair, with all sorts of unexpected consequences.
Masterfully structured, and with the kind of deceptively simple writing that makes you want to kick more supposedly ‘literary’ offerings in the shins and run away laughing, I had been afraid that the ending would be a gentle let down, after the gripping nature of the main story. I was wrong. It packs a pleasing, oof-inducing, punch. (My husband, who rarely reads fiction, was also gripped. Annoyingly, as I sort of wanted him to talk to me.)

WONDER by RJ PALACIO
One of the unexpected benefits of owning a kindle (other e-readers are available) is the way you are able to start a book without a single preconception about what it might contain. No cover to distract you, no blurb, and in this case, just an opaque, one-word title. Hence I had been reading this for several pages before I discovered it is actually a YA book, but as with The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, one which will touch adults – especially parents – on a whole other plane. The story of a boy with a severe facial disfigurement, I knew nothing when I bought it other than it had made my (distinctly unweepy) friend Matt cry. Well it made me cry too; big, snotty, vaguely uplifted tears by the pool. Thank goodness for sunglasses.

 

THE PIANO TEACHER by JANICE YK LEE
An elegant coming of age novel about a young wife in Hong Kong at the time of the Japanese invasion. Janice Lee manages to neatly balance the beauty of her imagery with the savagery of what took place within the colony, and weave within it the story of a forbidden relationship between Claire Pendleton, the young wife, and Will Truesdale, a chauffeur with a dark past. The imagery of Hong Kong, a place I once lived, and its characters, were the standout element of this book for me. Ultimately I found the end a little unsatisfying. But it is possible I have been so overwhelmed with standout books that it had too many tough acts to follow… a beautiful debut.

 

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by JESS WALTER
Even though they are different in all sorts of ways, I loved this much-lauded book in the same way that I loved May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes; it is sprawling, unexpected, audacious, populated by original characters, funny, sexy, and humane, and if it isn’t perfect, then it has enough absolutely fantastic moments that it’s worth a read. And a re-read. Young Pasquale is trying to bring to life his family hotel – The Hotel Adequate View – in a remote coastal village, when it is visited by a beautiful young actress who is apparently dying. Their lives, and the lives of those around them, are spun out and refracted through each other over a period of decades. I even forgave it an imagined Richard Burton that veered just about on the right side of parody. One to keep.

 

THE SILENT WIFE by ASA Harrison
Again, one of those books whose titles I’d heard murmured online, but had no idea what it was actually about. In the same vein as Gone Girl, it takes at its heart a marriage gone toxically wrong, and details a battle of wills that can only end in one party’s ultimate downfall. What lifts it above many of the Gone Girl imitators is the brutal honesty of her writing about relationships – the compromises, the pretences, the porn, the importance of soft furnishings – and the two lead characters, who are utterly believable, complex, and compelling (the husband’s young mistress is also wonderfully three dimensional). The ending is neat, and not entirely unexpected, but it is definitely worth the ride. The discovery that this was both Harrison’s debut and her final publication – she died of cancer earlier this year – is immensely sad.

What did you all read?

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