This is always a promising season for readers. As leaves fall, good books pile up on your winter reading stack. But is my good your good? Most of the time when I read, I know almost immediately whether a book will represent only a pleasurable few days or something I'll want to return to again someday.
As a child, I knew what I liked to read: adventure, sea stories, space-travel tales, mysteries. And even as my tastes have broadened, my palate seems to have remained true. Although I love the wit and mood of introspective (and lyrically composed) fiction, I'm nearly always drawn to thoughtful, well-plotted books — everything from Ulysses to The Man Without Qualities, Cervantes to Murakami, and Faulkner and Hemingway and Woolf in between. Given all this, 2011's best books made me a happy reader.
Summer reads can be frothy adventures, easy to follow even in the midst of a hectic family vacation; or they can be heftier, hard-to-put-down epics that ask us for hours of silence and solitude. Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell's second novel, easily falls into the latter category. Set in Michigan in the late 20th century on a fictional river aptly named the Stark, the book is a violent but inspiring tale packed with colorful river dwellers, a working-class community of power company and metal workers, farmers, hunters and housewives. At the center of the story is Margo Crane, a teenage girl with an expert aim and an exceedingly messed up family, who finds much more to admire in Annie Oakley than in her own female relatives.
Spending her childhood learning how to hunt from her devoted father, Bernard Crane, and his lascivious half-brother, Cal Murray, Margo shows us what can happen when a gun becomes a person's most trusted companion. Family feuds between the Cranes and the Murrays easily turn gruesome; the men "growl at each other like bears" and women are often what inspire their aggression. Margo herself plays a significant role in the violence that befalls this clan. Having learned the law of the land from her forebears, Margo believes firepower is the only way to defend, avenge and survive. When her parents abandon her in the midst of her adolescence, Margo relies on hunting skills and a host of men, some more dependable than others, and is long unable to extricate herself from a legacy of oppression, rivalry, deception and distrust.
Many of the circumstances that Margo finds herself in are heartbreaking, but Campbell has created a character with an iron gut and a heart to match, recalling powerful heroines like Clara of Joyce Carol Oates' A Garden of Earthly Delights and Ree of Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone. Margo has no qualms about using men, because they use her. She is frustrated by the way men label her and come up with fantastical or idealized ways of describing her. "She wasn't a wolf girl or a murderer or an heiress," she tells herself, "or a dream. She was a girl who needed some matches and boat gas." Being an impressionable young girl, she puts up with men for too long, but her end goal is sound: complete self-sufficiency, the inevitable, prideful product of being ditched by her self-absorbed mother. The past shadows her, driving her to suspicion, detachment and peregrination. But while these may be familiar states for Margo, we're given hope that they're not permanent ones.
Occasionally, the nonstop plot developments in Once Upon a River, many of which are marked by the appearance of some man or another, are hard to believe, hindered by slap-dash dialogue and hastily painted scenes — particularly those involving Michael, whose pretty house on the river conveniently provides Margo a comfortable life for as long as she wants it. But Margo is attractive, gutsy and mysterious; perhaps this is all it takes to get an impetuous but earnest proposal of marriage from a man, in fiction or in reality.
Embedded within the man-driven episodes are plenty of impressive passages, and even some strong, respectable good guys. Campbell is particularly adept at the mundane words exchanged between teenagers, and she uses Margo's above-it-all point of view to capture her mental resilience and to cast a punishing eye on any (usually male) character deserving of it. In one amusing passage, Margo watches a new lover as he falls into a drunken stupor: "She saw his eyes grow red and his lids droop. She watched his shoulders relax until he was slumping. Finally he tipped over into a relaxed fetal position, still clutching the empty pint bottle in his right hand." While this is happening, Margo is cleaning her gun, sober, incapable of getting herself into such an embarrassing state. This provides a swift but complete portrait of Margo, whose wits and determination eventually give her enough strength to outrun her past.
Summer is a strange time in the publishing world — most houses are waiting to publish their marquee books in the fall, heading back to school and into the holiday season with their weighty novels and Pulitzer contenders. And yet, summer is the season of pleasure reading, when some of us have the blessed free time to make a dent in reading lists and take a new discovery to the shore, devouring it over boat drinks and freshly shucked oysters (or insert your fantasy heatwave meal here). Publishers know this as well, and so they roll out a handful of their most thrilling titles in the hot months, providing readers with a few gems to fill the long vacation hours. This is the season for action, adventure, romance and fantasy, but it is also a time for some stellar novels and nonfiction, pearls of serious literature to cut through the humidity. Here's a preview of some of the most promising titles coming out in June, July and August.
State Of Wonder
By Ann Patchett, hardcover, 353 pages, Harper, list price: $26.99, pub. date: June 7
Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, a story about terrorism in an unnamed South American country, was a revelation when it was published in 2001, winning the Orange Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Now, Patchett returns again to South America for her sixth novel, set in the Amazon. In a modern take on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Patchett's protagonist, research scientist Marina Singh is sent to Brazil to track down a former mentor, now 70 years old and obsessively studying the native population deep inside the jungle. And much like Conrad's antihero Charles Marlow, Singh struggles with her own demons as she machetes her way through the wilderness. Patchett has crafted a story that is both an adventure tale and a deep psychological study, complete with mosquitoes, poison arrows and, of course, a tribe of cannibals. If you're looking for an escape that doesn't abandon literary elegance, this is it.
Demon Fish: Travels Through The Hidden World Of Sharks
By Juliet Eilperin, hardcover, 320 pages, Pantheon, list price: $26.95, pub. date: June 14
The Discovery Channel's insanely popular "Shark Week" series (kicking off this year on July 31 and hosted by Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg) proves that we can't digest enough information about the carnivorous fish. Every child jumping into the ocean or the deep end of the pool for the first time learns to fear Great Whites, even without seeing Jaws. (Side note: Several Hollywood blogs have been buzzing about a rumored 3-D remake of the film). But it has been years since we've had a serious investigative inquiry into the species, and this summer we get it. Juliet Eilperin, a seasoned journalist who has written previously about national politics, dives — literally — into the world of sharks, examining the ways different cultures have responded to and treated the fish over the centuries. She traveled the globe to report the book, spending plenty of time underwater, in close contact with the most deadly predators. What emerges is a detailed and thorough glimpse into the story behind the feared (and often misunderstood) creatures.
Before I Go To Sleep: A Novel
By S.J. Watson, hardcover, 368 pages, Harper, list price: $25.99, pub. date: June 14
This summer will see many thrillers come and go, but undoubtedly one of the most memorable will be this debut from S.J. Watson, an audiologist who wrote the book while on night shifts at a London hospital. Watson's main character, Christine, struggles with a big problem: Every time she goes to sleep, she forgets her name, her identity, her location, even her husband (due to a rare kind of amnesia). Each day is a new day, but in the most terrifying sense. Christine starts to keep a journal to remind herself of the basic details, and through it she learns that her husband, Ben, is keeping facts from her. Is he trying to protect her from a dark past, or is he concealing something more sinister? The structure of the novel — Watson shows us Christine's world through her diary — is heart-racing. We can never really tell what is real and what is invented, and as any keen reader of thrillers knows, the blurry line between truth and fiction can be scarier than blood and gore.
The Storm At The Door
By Stefan Merrill Block, hardcover, 368 pages, Random House, list price: $25, pub. date: June 21
Summer is the best time to read a great love story, and you'll get it in Block's novel, inspired by his grandparents' own experiences. In the book, Katharine Merrill is a woman torn; she loves her husband, Frederick, but his behavior has become increasingly erratic in the decades following his return from World War II. When he ends up being arrested after a cocktail party, Katharine makes the difficult decision to put her husband in a mental asylum. The novel switches back and forth between points of view — Katharine's ruminations on her marriage, Frederick's meandering and regretful mind inside the asylum — but ultimately the lovers converge again. The Storm at the Door is a beautiful book — the kind that will linger with you long after the leaves start to change.
Bright's Passage: A Novel
By Josh Ritter, hardcover, 208 pages, The Dial Press, list price: $22, pub. date: June 28
Josh Ritter, NPR Music's perennial folk singer, has a debut novel coming out that reads a lot like one of his long, mythical songs: Henry Bright returns to West Virginia after fighting in World War I to find that his wife has died and he must raise an infant son on his own. Fortunately, he has the help of an angel that has followed him from the battlefields of France to Appalachia, an angel who wants to assist Bright and his son on their treacherous travels. Bright's world is one of nightmares and forest fires, haunting war memories and hope for his child's future. The novel is written in Ritter's unique voice — that of a troubadour and soothsaying songwriter, and it is as pleasing to read as his music is to hear.
Once Upon A River
By Bonnie Jo Campbell, hardcover, 348 pages, W.W. Norton, list price: $25.95, pub. date: July 5
Bonnie Jo Campbell's last story collection, American Salvage, won her nominations for the National Book Award and National Book Critic's Circle Award, and now she has emerged with an anticipated new full-length novel, a kind of Huckleberry Finn through female eyes. Sixteen-year-old Margo Crane decides to sail the Stark River by herself after her father's death, armed with scant supplies and a biography of Annie Oakley. As Publisher's Weekly wrote of Campbell's wonderful heroine, she is "never a cry baby, as able as Sacagawea, with a strong and unapologetic sexuality." Margo is the kind of narrator you want to stick with, even throughout difficulty — hers is the kind of voice you miss after the book ends.
By Sapphire, hardcover, 384 pages, Penguin Press, list price: $25.95, pub. date: July 5
With the release of Precious, the film based on Sapphire's first novel, 1996's Push, the author was rocketed back into the public spotlight — and in turn, she decided to write a hotly anticipated sequel 15 years later. The Kid follows Abdul, Precious' son, as he navigates the world of Harlem at age 9 following his mother's death. As he moves into adulthood and blossoms into an artist in New York, Abdul has to confront his past, tracing all the way back to a Mississippi dirt farm, in order to fully embrace his future.
Turn Of Mind
By Alice LaPlante, hardcover, 320 pages, Atlantic Monthly Press, list price: $24, pub. date: July 5
Alice LaPlante's debut has already started to get serious buzz months before its arrival. A literary thriller about a retired surgeon who suffers from dementia, the book has been described by Ann Packer as "funny, tragic ... masterfully done, a tour de force that can't be a first novel — and yet it is." LaPlante introduces us to Dr. Jennifer White, whose best friend has just been murdered and has four fingers missing from her hand. As an orthopedic surgeon, White becomes the prime suspect — and given her fading mind, she cannot even remember whether or not she was responsible. What results is a fascinating look at the unspooling of a mind, and how dementia can lead one into the darkest alleys of consciousness.
The Last Werewolf
By Glen Duncan, hardcover, 304 pages, Knopf, list price: $25.95, pub. date: July 12
Yes, yes, I know — the vampire trend is dying down and the werewolf trend is ramping up. You can expect plenty of books and films about the howling set to appear over the next year, but none are as compelling so far as Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf. Duncan, a British author who consistently churns out compelling prose, writes in this book about Jake, a 21st-century werewolf who is the last of his kind. With no other werewolves to commiserate with, Jake becomes depressed and suicidal, and he would likely kill himself, save for the fact that there are two groups pursuing him whose mission is to keep him alive. By placing the werewolf myth in the modern day, and giving us a narrator who is sensitive, smart, and sexy, Duncan has written a book that is essentially irresistible for the summer reader.
Sex On The Moon: The Amazing Story Behind The Most Audacious Heist In History
By Ben Mezrich, hardcover, 320 pages, Doubleday, list price: $26.95, pub. date: July 12
Ben Mezrich's last book about the infighting among Facebook's founders, The Accidental Billionaires, was the basis for the Oscar-nominated film The Social Network, so his follow-up has a lot to live up to. Fortunately, Mezrich has uncovered another high-stakes, fascinating true story, this time about a heist involving NASA, moon rocks and intense romance. Thad Roberts, a NASA fellow, devised (with a cohort of friends) a plan to break into NASA lab headquarters to steal precious moon rocks for his girlfriend. A grand romantic gesture, the heist took months of planning. When completed, it was almost as intricate and impossible to believe as the plot of Ocean's Eleven. Mezrich digs through FBI records and interviews to discover the truth behind the crime; part love story, part madcap caper, part astro-geekery, the book is one of the summer's most fun reads.
Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, And A Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human
By Grant Morrison, hardcover, 464 pages, Spiegel & Grau, list price: $28, pub. date: July 19
Grant Morrison is one of the world's leading experts on comic books, and he draws on his entire body of work in Supergods, charting the history of superheroes from the very beginning. Morrison places the figures we all know — Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men — in a broad cultural context, invoking art history, science and mythology to explain why we are so fascinated by the superhuman.
Northwest Corner: A Novel
By John Burnham Schwartz, hardcover, 304 pages, Random House, list price: $26, pub. date: July 26
John Burnham Schwartz's 1998 novel, Reservation Road, was a big hit, becoming a feature film starring Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly and Joaquin Phoenix. The novel and movie told the story of Dwight Arno, who, driving home to his wife one night, hit a young boy and kept driving, not aware until later that night that the blow killed the child. The book followed both the Arno family and the family of the dead boy throughout the news cycle, each side trying to piece together a new life after a tragic accident. In Northwest Corner, Schwartz revisits Dwight Arno, now 50 and out of jail after serving time for the hit-and-run. Dwight has a college-age son who needs his support, but he is unable to let go of the grief and shame wrought by the accident, and needs something to pull him out of extreme depression. The book follows the father and son as they try to grapple with ways to move forward. Written in Schwartz's sparse, affecting style, it is a work that will move even those readers who have not read his earlier work.
Skyjack: The Hunt For D.B. Cooper
By Geoffrey Gray, hardcover, 352 pages, Crown, list price: $25, pub. date: Aug. 9
D.B. Cooper is the name the press used to describe the man who, in 1971, hijacked a Boeing 727 en route to Seattle from Portland, Ore., demanding $200,000 midflight and then parachuting out of the aircraft before officials could capture him. Despite an intense manhunt and an extensive FBI case (which continues today), he has never been captured. Investigative journalist Geoffrey Gray decided to track the history of the case, interviewing several of the main players and trying to understand why the case remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the '70s. In the process, the writer becomes personally obsessed with the mystical Cooper, leading to a narrative that is infused with passion and curiosity about a man who managed to fly away from his crime, never to be seen again.
Ghosts In The Wires: My Adventures As The World's Most Wanted Hacker
By Kevin Mitnick, hardcover, 432 pages, Little, Brown and Company, list price: $25.99, pub. date: Aug. 15
In our new Internet-saturated age, hackers are much more prevalent than they once were, but also much less prominent. During the early years of the Web, however, a hacker could attain national fame by breaking into mainframes, which is exactly what Kevin Mitnick did — he hacked his way into Motorola, Sun Microsystems and PacBell, and ended up eluding the FBI for years through stolen identities and other elaborate ruses until a dramatic final showdown. Mitnick was a criminal, to be sure, but he was also a visionary: Due to his hacking exploits, we have dramatically shifted how we protect online information. Ghosts in the Wires is much more exciting to read than it should be — Mitnick manages to make breaking computer code sound as action-packed as robbing a bank.
Anatomy Of A Disappearance
By Hisham Matar, hardcover, 240 pages, The Dial Press, list price: $22, pub. date: Aug. 23
Hisham Matar has enjoyed great success already; his novel In the Country of Men was an international best-seller. But with all of the recent upheaval in the Middle East, and especially in his native country of Libya, Matar is experiencing a newfound cultural significance. His latest novel is already an acclaimed work overseas, and it arrives in the States in August. In it, Matar tells the story of Nuri, a man living in Cairo whose father suddenly and mysteriously disappears. Matar writes from experience; as he discusses in his recent interview with NPR's Renee Montagne, he also dealt with a disappearance in the family, and with the gaping hole that it leaves in one's life and belief system.