Whether heading for the beach or the back yard, these books will enhance the sultry summer days. Some are hot off the presses, others newly out in paperback or paperback originals. All are undeniably memorable reads.
What is summer without some sharks? The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall (Canongate / 448 pages / $24) is an elliptical tale of lost memory and concomitant mystery. Eric Sanderson awakes disoriented to find he's lost three years of memory and the love of his life to a scuba diving accident. Suffering from dissociative disorder brought on by the horrific event, Sanderson discovers that there are metaphoric sharks that devour the consciousness and memory in addition to the literal creatures of the deep. Amazingly complex, The Raw Shark Texts is part Mary Shelley, part Sigmund Freud, part thriller, part Hegelian dialectic and totally engaging.
Beaches are forever a locus of romanticism and desire as well as lurking doom. In Ian McEwan's brilliant On Chesil Beach (Doubleday / 203 pages / $22) Florence and Edward spend the first night of their honeymoon on a beach, at the brink of consummation, each feeling acutely alone. They discover, over the long night that is the entirety of the novel, that passion is not inevitable, that it is tantalizingly intangible and often inaccessible. One of the most gifted British writers, McEwan's keen, uncompromising ear for the lamentation of loneliness within everyone rings pitch-perfect in this exceptionally sad novel.
Posthumously, Robert Frost has become one of America's most beloved poets. Few poems have the easy, poignant grace of his Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a poem perfectly evocative of the New England winters that so defined his life. That poem and others form the nexus between Frost's life and art in Brian Hall's deeply moving and exquisitely wrought new novel, Fall of Frost (Viking / 340 pages / $25.95). Frost's life, with its hardscrabble tragedies, has been well-documented by various biographers, but Hall's novel - an episodic, non-linear narrative - brings Frost vividly to life for those who knew him only as the old man who spoke at John F. Kennedy's inauguration.
Khaled Hosseini lived in exile from his native Afghanistan until recently. A Thousand Splendid Suns (Penguin / 384 pages / $25.95) details the lives of two women married to the same man in the ever-war-torn Afghanistan at the precipice of the Taliban's initial rise to power. Mariam is a childless first wife, married for 20 years - since she was 15 - to a man 25 years her senior. Laila, the new second wife and also a teenager when Rasheed marries her, bonds with Mariam over their shared and intolerable plight. Like the biblical Ruth and Naomi, these two are held together by the inescapable misery of their lives as women in a country where women are less than nothing. Horrifying, heroic and almost unbearably sad, A Thousand Splendid Suns depicts the chattel world in which untold numbers of women live with a heartfelt acuity that is as breathtaking as it is painful.
Newly out in paperback, Katherine Weber's brilliant novel Triangle (Picador / 256 pages / $14) will resonate long after the pieces of this intricate puzzle come together in one of fiction's most haunting endings. This fascinating and incomparably moving story weaves the lives of several New Yorkers together with a moment in history that forever altered the lives of women sweatshop workers: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The novel begins with the reminiscences of Esther Gottesfeld. At 106, she is the last remaining survivor of the fire and as such the subject of a feminist scholar's interest. The manner in which Weber intersects personal tragedies with the overarching symbol of the fire is nothing short of genius, with characterizations as deft as her plot.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon's new novel is a gem: potboiler mystery, historical revisionist text, slapstick black comedy, flamboyant tour de force. The Yiddish Policeman's Union (Harper Perennial / 418 pages / $15.95) features Meyer Landsman as a cop on a mission to find a killer in ... Alaska. Alaska being where Franklin D. Roosevelt has decided to ship the Jews post-World War II and establish a Jewish homeland. Only a writer of Chabon's intensity, intellect and wit could envision this plot with its rogues, rabbis and chippies in a happily successful Jewish world that is about to be reclaimed by the American mainland. This is pure pulp fiction of the fast-talking, repartee-snapping Sam Spade variety and as such, pretty near perfect.
Every beach must have the quintessential beach read, and Lauren Weisberger's latest rivals her best-selling The Devil Wears Prada for chick-lit perfection. Strap on the Manolos, sip a mojito and delight in the travails of Leigh and Adriana in Chasing Harry Winston (Simon & Schuster / 288 pages / $25.95) as they romp through the publishing world while seeking out Mr. Right. Leigh snags the perfect editorial gig and its author, while Adriana tries on men the way Carrie tried on shoes. It's fun, frolicsome and just clever enough to keep even the high-minded reader interested. The characters are charming and the book skims along breezily to its not-too-predictable ending. Like the best of chick-lit, Chasing Harry Winston is saved by wittiness.
In the three short years since her Twilight saga hit the bookstores, Stephenie Meyer has become the No. 1 ranked author at Barnes & Noble Online. No small feat for a woman who began writing in her kitchen on a whim. Much like J.K. Rowling, Meyer began writing for young adults, but as with Rowling's Harry Potter books, adults are as keen to read her work as teenagers. Devotees of Meyer can revel in not one but two new books from the doyenne of darkness this summer. First, The Host (Little, Brown / 624 pages / $25.99) debuts for Memorial Day. Meyer's first adult novel is a chilling sci-fi tale in which parasites invade the bodies of ordinary people, taking over their minds but leaving their outer forms intact. Melanie Stryder is determined to retain her mind and soul when Wanderer invades her. What neither expects is the synergy that begins to occur as Melanie refuses to give up the ghost and Wanderer delves deeper into who her new host is. The Host is a complex and surprising story in which Meyer's vivid details of other life forms and her keen sense of the interior landscape are given full advantage.
Breaking Dawn (Little, Brown/498 pages/$22.99) is Meyer's fourth in the Twilight vampire series. Reminiscent of early Anne Rice, Meyer's tales are edgy, interior, scary, sensual, action-packed, well-plotted, but character-driven. Isabella is a lonely young woman in a small town outside Seattle who meets and becomes transfixed by Edward, who she discovers is a vampire. (Later she befriends the werewolf Jake.) Through three previous novels (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse) the trio has explored the realms of the dark and light and Bella has come close to death repeatedly, as any stalwart heroine of gothic fiction must. Read the first three while you await the August debut.
Nam Le's debut collection of short stories The Boat (Knopf / 240 pages / $22.95) is one of the best collections of the year. Pushcart Prize-winner Le focuses on issues of displacement and dislocation, risk and redemption in these seven stories with seven immensely compelling characters - including himself in the quixotic opening tale. The stories take place in the United States, Australia, Colombia, Iran and Vietnam, and each story's central character faces some kind of monumental decision that will be life-altering to her or him or to someone else. Mesmerizingly good and sharply resonant, these stories introduce a major talent.
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is at work on a novel about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.