There are many great and good books out this summer and I will be reviewing all summer long, but for the start of the season I have six books to recommend for summer reading. All six books tell great stories about unique characters; evoke vernal landscapes of abundant, lush growth or of hot and dusty cobblestones, or of languid humidity; and end with a bang. In the case of the thrillers, the bang is bone chilling; in the case of the mysteries, the bang is illuminating; in the case of the emotional blockbuster, the bang is life-affirming; and in the case of the provoking novel, the bang is only remembered.
The emotional blockbuster and my absolute must-read for the summer is The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. The book begins in 1975 Saigon, on the eve of its takeover by the North Vietnamese. For photojournalist Helen Adams the fall of Saigon means the end of what has been the most provoking, challenging, and addictive engagement of her life. Her work in Vietnam, taking pictures of the war, seemed like "the most important work in the world. Leaving was like dying." What will she do now? Partnered with Linh, an injured South Vietnamese reporter, she knows she must get him out of the country but she herself is not ready to leave. She came to Vietnam years ago to find out the truth about her brother, a soldier killed in action, and now she can't imagine any other place in time or space worth documenting, living in, or loving. The book proceeds in flashbacks through her years in Vietnam, including a destructive but stimulating relationship with a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist, and her subsequent falling in with Linh. The novel also follows Linh backwards in time and documents the horrors he witnessed as a Vietnamese and the role he played in both the armies of the North and the South. Soli does not flinch from portraying the war as it was: scenes are graphically and carefully and slowly recreated, without melodrama but also without softening of the atrocities inflicted and endured. Inhumanity was in abundance on all sides of the war, loyalties shifted, corruption flourished, promises were broken, and the ones who paid -- the ones who always pay -- were the civilians caught in the middle. And yet Soli captures, in one of the most beautiful and true lines I've read all year, the endurance of the human spirit: "after so much had been taken, so much could still be received."
The provoking novel everyone is talking about -- and if they are not, they should be -- is The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis. In presenting Keith's summer of love in the hills of Italy in 1970, Amis probes the human need for sex and connection, and explores the link between sex and identity. Keith was just a young guy set out to discover the animal and human aspects of lovemaking, amidst a bunch of other youngsters, all set on the same goal, more or less. Early in the book there is an exposition by Keith about the squalor of a toilet in the ground in an Italian bar: "The stench that threaded acid into the tendons of the jaw, and made the gums sting. Don't flatter yourself, the toilet was saying. You are an animal, made of matter." Here then is the question: are we human or are we animal? No matter for how long we look in the mirror, we can never really know. Is proof of our animal selves affirmed in the sexual act? Or does the manner and frequency with which we have sex, along with our tendency to have it more often for non-procreative reasons than for procreative, proof of our humanity? And what of rape? Amis tackles all questions through the medium of his confused and hungry cast of screwed up characters.
Both Awakening by S.J. Bolton and So Cold the River by Michael Kortya are thrillers in every sense of the word, and both will have you on the edge of your beach towel, either clawing through the sand for snakes or reaching very tentatively for the bottle of mineral water. In Awakening, snakes are terrorizing a small village in Dorset but the problem goes much deeper than reptilian rage, and in So Cold the Water, fresh water springs in Southern Indiana are sending up spirits more potent than the usual bottle of Evian. Both novels have fascinating characters, good and evil, along with well-developed and intellectually stimulating plots and nail-biting, spine chilling, exciting endings that will leave you out of breath -- and eager to read the novels all over again, aware now of all the clues that had been hidden in dark corners and deeper waters.
Two of my favorite authors of mystery series have come out with summer-based whodunits and both are wonderful. Barbara Cleverly's Strange Images of Death takes her World War One battle-scarred Scotland Yard detective Joe Sandilands to Provence just in time to solve a medieval murder but too late to prevent a modern one. Donna Leon's A Question of Belief, has her Commissario Brunetti suffering through the oppressive heart of Venice in August. Stuck in town solving the murder of a man described by most everyone as "a good man," Brunetti must find out the truth of who is good, who is a fraud, and who will suffer for the actions of both.