I’m in as much of a hurry to get out and enjoy the summer weather as you probably are. But I wanted to tell you, at least briefly, about some of the summer books I’ve found of particular interest this year. Some of them are what’s traditionally called “beach books,” others, more thoughtful, will make for good company on a shady lawn or, when you come home tired and sweaty, to devour in the air conditioned bliss of your bedroom.
by E.L. James
In Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James’s Jane Eyre for the 21st Century, the author introduced us (and apparently the entire rest of the world) to Anastasia Steele, a blushing heroine as innocent as Bronte’s Jane, albeit rather more steely, as per her name, and to millionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey, James’s take on Bronte’s brooding, dangerous-seeming romantic hero, Mr. Rochester. But this sullen hero likes to beat the women he loves with a riding crop after screwing them. Hard. Or gag them or put them in handcuffs. Anastasia told her side of the story in the three books that comprised Fifty Shades. In Grey, Christian gets to tell his – in what one can only hope will be just this one book.
Poor Christian, it develops, is always berating himself for his naughty sexual habits and talking to his unnerving prick for standing up when he thinks about Ana, especially Ana on her knees. No matter how hard he tries, his prick won’t let him stop thinking about her. Of course, as who doesn’t know by now, Ana will eventually bring her emotionally stunted and, let’s face it, weird beau to his knees, making him realize he can’t possibly live without her, and therefor is willing to reform his wicked ways. He may even have to allow her to touch him when having sex!
We know the story already. There’s nothing new here. The book is not nearly as erotic as Fifty Shades, and given a hero who is forever talking to that ill-behaved thing in those tight-fitting trousers that Ana quite admires, it’s silly as all get out.
by Naomi J. Williams
This thoroughly engrossing novel, which will be coming out at the beginning of August, is by a debut author who, after years of work finally finished, and is now publishing her very first book — at the age of fifty. If anyone can be called fifty and truly fabulous, it’s Williams. Her Landfalls is a historical novel that’s almost as original in its execution as the Cromwell novels of Hillary Mantel, and indeed, like Mantel’s books, can rightly be celebrated as a successful attempt at redefining the historical novel.
Landfalls tells a story the French know well, but one which is largely unfamiliar to most of us in America. It’s the story of Lapérouse, the navigator sent in the late 18th century on a voyage round the world to explore and map the same Northwest and South Seas regions that the ill-fated British Captain Cook had visited. The expedition was funded by the French partly in the hopes it would open up new trade routes, but also to add to the glory of France, for it was to be a unique scientific expedition. (Think NASA and the race to the moon.) Lapérouse, the captain and an admiral in the French navy, took along with his crew, an astronomer, a geologist, a botanist, three naturalists, three illustrators, two medical men, and two scientifically trained chaplains.
What makes the book so original is that Williams’ has framed her story as a series of memoirs told in the voices of not just the famed captain, but of many of those scientists, and even some of the natives the expedition encountered. Each chapter takes place at a different stop the ship made as it progressed, and what happens is chronological, though each narrator takes up the next event on the long and troubled voyage.
The tale is filled with adventure, suspense and heartbreaking tragedy. The writing is superb, the characters unforgettable. Indeed, the book is so brilliant it’s my choice for the Best Novel of 2015. At least so far.
THE RIVAL QUEEN
by Nancy Goldstone
For those of you who like their history unadulterated by the novelist’s penchant for inventing dialogue but enjoy a nonfiction book that’s as engrossing as fiction, The Rival Queens will be a real treat. Nancy Goldstone, who with her husband, Lawrence, wrote Out of the Flames, one of my favorite books and one which I repeatedly purchase as a gift for friends, has now written an equally mesmerizing tale – that of the 16th century French queens, Catherine de Medici and her daughter, Marguerite of Navarre.
What with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, not to mention four seasons of the TV drama The Tudors, most of us are pretty much up on the history of Henry’s VIII’s antagonistic, regal daughters, Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and her Catholic sister, Queen Mary, who became known as Bloody Mary. The story of the tortured mother-daughter relationship of Catherine and Marguerite is another French story not much known to Americans, but one that is every bit as fascinating as that of Mary and Elizabeth.
Catherine was a Mommie Dearest to beat all hateful mothers, and Marguerite, known as Margot, was a dutiful daughter who suffered terribly at her hands. When she was fourteen years old, her mother forced her, though she was a devout Catholic and in love with another prince, to marry her much older cousin, the Protestant Henri of Navarre. Margot spent the night before her wedding on her knees, tearfully begging her mother to change her mind. But the wily Catherine insisted on the marriage and then, five days after the Paris wedding, to which Henri had brought a large number of his Huguenot nobles and friends, arranged to have the entire wedding party and some five thousand French Protestants, massacred.
It was a hell of a way to begin a marriage. And married life went downhill from there, as – natch — did Margot’s relationship with her mother. But amazingly, Margot grew up to become her own woman, an entirely free spirit renowned for her independent thinking, her courage in the face of many terrifying events, and her defiance of the malignant woman who had given birth to her. The Rival Queens is a mother-daughter story like none other, a story filled with ambition, espionage, and treachery, and Goldstone tells it with a verve that keeps the pages flying.
by Nell Zink
The ballsy, original Nell Zink, whose debut novel The Wallcreeper hit it right out of the ballpark at first up, is back with another irreverent, entertaining, although somewhat less successful, novel. Mislaid is the story of Peggy Villaincourt, a naïve, gay undergrad at a women’s college in Virginia, who has an affair with one of her teachers, Lee Fleming, a poet who is also gay. Older and highly narcissistic, Lee somewhat reluctantly marries Peggy after he gets her pregnant. The couple engage in straight sex, which is good for a time but soon becomes unfulfilling. Worse, in the entitled manner of the worst of 1950s husbands, Lee wants Peggy to be a house slave, to do all the childcare and to cook and clean for his coterie of hard-drinking visiting poets. Besides which, he’s screwing some of them.
Peggy eventually flees, managing to take with her Mireille, her three-year-old daughter, but having to leave behind with Lee her first born, five year old Byrdie. Lee wants his daughter back, and in order to hide from him, fair-skinned Peggy figures out a way to make her and blond, blue-eyed Mireille adopt new identities. They will pass as African-American – not so unbelievable as you might think, given that back in Virginia’s history there was the “one drop rule,” the pervasive idea that even one drop of black blood in a person’s ancestry meant they were black, whatever color they looked . Living happily in their new identities, Peggy and Mireille set up home in a place where Lee would never think to took for them, an abandoned shack in a poor, black neighborhood deep in the woods.
Zink milks this odd situation with some clever and wry observances about race in America. But after a while she begins to seem bored with her story, and races through time and adventures until, landing with a thud in the 1980s, she reunites son and daughter in a series of wild druggy encounters during their college days. The idea seems to have been to play on Shakespeare’s comedies about disguised twins who are eventually reunited, but Zink, being no Shakespeare, (who is?), isn’t quite up to the task. You’ll laugh in many places, but you’ll wish the author had taken a bit more time to write descriptively about and make more credible some of her wacky far out scenes.
I SAW A MAN
by Owen Sheers
In I Saw a Man, British poet and winner of many prestigious literary awards Owen Sheers, tells the tale of Michael Turner, a British print journalist whose beloved wife Catherine, a broadcast journalist, has been killed by an American airstrike while covering a story in the Middle East. Michael, who lives in Wales, cannot get over the loss of his wife; his grief is like a shroud, he is wrapped up in it, and Catherine virtually haunts him. Still, he has been trying to come out of months of despair, at least to the extent of starting a new life in London, and making friends with his neighbors.
The book opens with a teaser: in the very first paragraph Sheers tells us that one hot August day Michael goes into the home of the neighbors to retrieve a screwdriver he had lent them, and something happens that changes all of their lives. What it is remains a mystery for a big chunk of the narrative, a device that to my mind reeked of the canned advice given to novice writers in creative writers programs, i.e., hook your reader from the start with something suspenseful. I was hooked, but as the first half of the book dragged on without revealing what happened, I became irritated. Especially when Sheers described the writers Michael admires as, “Salter, Balzac, Fitzgerald, Atwood.” Salter? Salter’s a decent writer but he hardly belongs to the company in which Sheers, rather pretentiously, placed him. My irritation grew when Sheers described Michael as having made a pile of money by writing a book about two brothers raised in New York’s Hispanic ghetto that became an international bestseller, a highly unlikely outcome for a book on that subject, no matter how brilliantly written.
But I stuck with Michael and the book, and I am glad I did. In time, the withholding Sheers comes around to revealing the thing that changed so many lives on that hot August day, and the ways in which those lives have been irrevocably altered. The “something” turns out to have been something Michael did. It is something that has made him feel so deeply ashamed and guilt-ridden that it has put him on a par with a latecomer in the tale, the guilt-ridden American pilot who operated the drone that struck down Catherine. Now, the book moves ahead more swiftly, the characters become ever more fascinating, and Sheers raises profound questions about friendship, grief, and responsibility,
It takes the author a while to stop playing games with his readers, but once he does, he makes I Saw A Man a rewarding work, filled with surprises and fueled by passion.