14 June 2016

Five Books for Your Summer Reading List

I've enjoyed quite a few books recently that I think would make good holiday reads. There are two thrillers in the mix; two novels about friendship — and particularly the difficulty of sustaining friendships as you grow older and grow apart; and a love story. I sometimes receive pre-release review copies of upcoming novels via NetGalley, but this doesn't affect my decision to review a book or my opinions of it in any reviews I do write. I've added an asterisk to the titles below for which I received a review copy from NetGalley.

Dear Amy by Helen Callaghan*
In Helen Callaghan’s debut novel Dear Amy, Margot Lewis balances her day job teaching classics to the often unwilling teenagers of Cambridge with her role as the titular agony aunt for the local newspaper. She is also going through a divorce and has quite enough on her plate when a letter arrives addressed to Dear Amy, signed by Bethan Avery.  Bethan disappeared from Cambridge as a teenager some 20 years earlier and her disappearance was never solved. 

Meanwhile, another teenage girl, Katie, who is one of Margot’s students, has also gone missing. With the help of a criminologist, Margot tries to find out who is really writing the letters and whether they can help her to find Katie or Bethan. But Margot, solitary and somewhat isolated, has demons of her own and her efforts to unravel the mystery may yield more than she bargained for.

Although an engrossing read with plenty of good, well-executed twists, Dear Amy isn’t a classic thriller. Instead, it’s a well-paced, reflective mystery with a complex and sympathetic heroine. In tone and theme, it reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, which also happens to be set in Cambridge. The Cambridge setting was an added bonus for me: like Margot, I experienced both gown and town in Cambridge, and Callaghan shies away from the university stereotypes to offer a more realistic picture of the city as a whole, beyond the honeyed stone walls of the colleges.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware*
The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware's follow-up to her 2015 debut In a Dark, Dark Wood, is just as addicting and twisty as its predecessor. Although it loses momentum in the final act, it is a fast-paced, entertaining read with a troubled central character whom we aren’t sure we can trust.

A burglary in the house of travel journalist Lo Blacklock leaves her mostly uninjured but severely shaken. A few days later she heads off for a press trip on a luxurious Scandinavian yacht where she mingles with a cast of characters that wouldn’t seem out of place in an Agatha Christie novel: the charismatic and wealthy owner of the boat; the shifty hack; the ruthless magazine editor; and the obsequious crew. Woken one night by a commotion in the titular cabin 10, Lo witnesses a disturbing incident. She starts to investigate but someone doesn’t want her to get to the bottom of what she saw — or what she thinks she saw. Someone who will go to any length to stop her learning the truth.

The novel is told from Lo’s perspective but to add to the suspense, her narrative is interspersed with Facebook messages and news stories. I think these could have been cut, although they do speak to one of the central questions of the novel: should we believe Lo or is she lying or, perhaps, confused? The cruise loses steam towards the end, but the story is such a page-turner that I sailed on regardless.

Invincible Summer by Alice Adams
The title of Alice Adams' new novel is taken from a Camus quotation, but Invincible Summer draws on the worlds of physics and finance as much as the arts. The novel opens in 1995 as four friends graduate from Bristol University. Lucien, charismatic and cool, goes on to be a club promoter; his sister Sylvie, beautiful and bohemian, drifts from job to job, trying to find her place in the world; Benedict stays on to do a particle physics PhD; and Eva launches into a high-flying banking career. They are optimistic about their futures and the tenacity of their friendship.

Each chapter then jumps forward in time — sometimes by a few months, sometimes years. They struggle with their careers and their love lives — Benedict and Eva in particular wrestle with their complex and usually asymmetrical feelings for each other — but they also struggle to keep in touch as their priorities change and their lives carry them further apart.

If you've read David Nicholls' One Day, you may well think this story sounds familiar and it is. The two novels even cover similar chronological periods and the similarities did jar at times, although One Day is more focused on romance than friendship. Nor are the characters in Invincible Summer always particularly likeable, but they are complex and true-to-life and I genuinely cared about what would happen to them. I also thought the novel offered a realistic and convincing portrait of long-term adult friendships. Some of the chapters — particularly those depicting Eva's job on the trading floor — are a little technical but on the whole, Adams' novel is engaging and authentic, never straying into mawkishness. 

Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam
In Rumaan Alam's Rich and Pretty, Sarah is rich and her best friend Lauren is pretty. Sarah isn't ugly and nor is Lauren poor, but somehow, a classmate's careless characterisation of the pair when they were teens ends up defining their friendship, although the descriptions are mostly beside the point. The girls have been friends for two decades but, by their early 30s, they struggle to find time to see each other in their busy Manhattan lives. Sarah works part time for a foundation but expends most of her energy trying to plan her upcoming wedding. Lauren has a burgeoning career in magazine publishing and is uncertain she'll ever meet a man she wants to spend her whole life with.

The themes in Alam's novel are not dissimilar to those explored in Invincible Summer and the novel asks the question of whether you can call someone your best friend if you only see her a few times a year and have little in common with her. But Lauren and Sarah do have a wealth of shared history; indeed, Lauren muses that her "friendship with Sarah has always been about nostalgia." And although the two often fight and disagree, they forgive each other and move on as their lives continue to diverge. I'm the same age as Lauren and Sarah and identified more strongly with Lauren, but I think the novel will speak to a lot of people in the same age bracket.

There are a few instances of clunky writing in Rich and Pretty (the description of cashmere sweaters in — presumably — J. Crew was particularly overwrought: "the bag weighs nothing because the sweaters weigh nothing"), but overall, Alam's novel is smart and funny, and it offers a convincing and intimate account of female friendship. When I reached the end, it left me craving more: I wanted to spend more time in the company of these flawed but genuine characters.

If I Forget You by Thomas Christopher Greene*
Thomas Christopher Greene's second novel, If I Forget You, calls to mind the Pascal quotation Tu ne me chercherais si tu ne m'avais déjà trouvé (you wouldn't seek me if you hadn't already found me). At an expensive New England liberal arts college in the early 1990s, baseball scholarship student and would-be poet Henry falls in love with wealthy, WASPy Margot. They have a passionate romance that is brought to an untimely end. Two decades later and, still unsatisfied with relationships that never lived up to the excitement and intensity of first love, they both still think about the one that got away. "If poetry is the search for significance," Henry muses, "then the stubbornness of love must be its fullest expression."

Flashbacks told from both characters' perspectives fill in the missing pieces of their pasts, while in present-day New York, Margot and Henry seek each other with an increasing desperation. But will they get a second chance or is the die already cast? Greene's prose is elegiac and elegant. Both Margot and Henry are artists — she a painter and he a poet — and Greene captures their diverse modes of thinking and imagining with expert precision as they explore themes of love and loss. If I Forget You isn't the most cheerful of summer reads but it is thoughtful, beautifully written and very different from Greene's debut.

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