For readers who like to fire up not just the barbecue but also their brains — and have fun in the bargain — there are some good options this summer. I'm always on the lookout for heirs to Vladimir Nabokov or the literary equivalent of Tom Stoppard's plays or Woody Allen's films — smart, playful, witty narratives with ideas to bounce around the cerebral cortex, as if on mental trampolines. This year, I've taken to three clever novels that offer modern twists on Shakespeare and Aristophanes, plus a wry, gory page-turner narrated by a philosophical werewolf, of all things. For those who like their linguistic hijinks undiluted by fiction, there's a fresh, offbeat glossary here, too. It's all heady but not heavy.
For Jake Marlowe, the last werewolf on Earth in this rollicking novel by Glen Duncan, the difference between werewolves and vampires is simple: "The vampire gets immortality, immense physical strength, hypnotic ability, the power of flight, psychic grandeur and emotional depth. The werewolf gets dyslexia and a permanent erection."
It's true that werewolves often pale in comparison. Vampires are paragons of romance and refinement, werewolves are embodiments of horror (An American Werewolf in London), camp (Teen Wolf) or, most recently, unintentionally hilarious sexual frustration (the Twilight movies). Unlike Twilight's sputtering Jacob, Jake is an unstoppable stud, and there's reason for his myriad conquests — relationships are just too dangerous. Upon turning wolf in 1842, he murdered and ate his beloved wife, Arabella.
Though Jake has spent the past 200 years looking for a book that would explain the origins of wolfdom to him, he has run out of steam and interest. The FBI of paranormal activity, the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP), is on the hunt, determined to put a silver bullet in him and end the threat of werewolves forever. Jake is ready to throw in the towel, but a series of unfortunate events occur in which he is forced to fight his would-be killers. And as if the threat of WOCOP weren't enough, a group of vampires would like to use his blood as sunscreen.
The Last Werewolf is a steamy combination of James Bond and Stephenie Meyer's blockbuster neck-biting sagas. Instead of the unrelieved sexual tension of typical young adult paranormal romance, we get the action and overt sexuality of 007. Like Bond, Jake has sworn off romance because of the demise of his first love, which, of course, makes romance his Achilles' heel. Enter Talulla, a striking brunette he is magnetically drawn to at the airport. Jake describes her in a smirking reference to none other than Lolita: "Talulla, light of my life, fire of my loins." The bad news for Jake but good news for the reader is, she feels the connection, too.
Glen Duncan is the author of several novels, most notably I, Lucifer, in which the Devil is given a chance to live a human life as a struggling writer. Duncan's demons hark back to the classic tortured immortal seeking redemption. Like Dracula, Jake has acquired refined tastes over his very long life. "I was in Europe when Nietzsche and Darwin between them got rid of God, and in the United States when Wall Street reduced the American dream to a broken suitcase and a worn-out shoe." During a stint under house arrest, Jake entertains himself with "a 1607 Dutch-German edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses." And violent scenes are coupled with Jake's ruminations on the poetry of T.S. Eliot. He'd make a fine dinner guest — if you weren't the meal.
The rest of Duncan's supporting cast is also delightful: the hunter Granier and his albino sidekick, Ellis; the cougar Jacqueline Delon; and Cloquet, a fey henchman with a heart of gold. The cinematic sweep of the novel is undeniable — it's easy to picture the scruffy Hugh Jackman or Gerard Butler throwing back Jake's scotch and smoking his Camels. If the summer months have you aching for something addictive and fun, pick up The Last Werewolf. Paranormal romance was never just the domain of chaste teens with Robert Pattinson posters on their walls. We once again have a well-written novel for adults to prove it.
Jake Marlowe is a man you'd want to sit next to at a dinner party. He's cultured and debonair; he savors fine literature, food and female companionship; he quotes Vladimir Nabokav, D.H. Lawrence and Starsky and Hutch.
In his 200 years, Marlowe — the world's last werewolf — has learned a lot about the finer things in life.
Glen Duncan tells Marlowe's story in his new, best-selling novel The Last Werewolf. Duncan is also the author of I, Lucifer, a novel in which the title character isn't just a devil, but the devil. He tells NPR's Scott Simon how, like so many others, he found himself drawn to werewolves.
"Like all the myths that endure, they last because they express something very fundamental in the human psyche — either a desire or a fear," he says. "In this case both; it's the fear of a beast that's in all of us, and the desire to be liberated into it."
Those very contradictions play themselves out in Marlowe, a reflective, intellectual and meditative character who, nonetheless, has to kill to survive.
Werewolf Vs. Vampire
But Marlowe isn't the only one who has to kill. After all, where there are werewolves, there are often also vampires — and Duncan's book is no exception. In the world of The Last Werewolf, as in so many other fantasy worlds, werewolves and vampires are each other's worst enemies.
"It just sort of seemed like the right thing to do," Duncan says. "In my sort of scheme of things they have a visceral antipathy. They actually can't bear the way each other smell. And it comes in very handy when you need to construct a novel with conflict and plot."
Some reviewers have even suggested that with Duncan's book, werewolves are finally getting their due in today's vampire-infested literary landscape.
Duncan doesn't deny his favoritism. He says there are two things he doesn't buy about the whole vampire mythos. The first is that they have to sleep during the day ("All you have to do is sneak up on one of them during the day. How are they managing?") and the second is that vampires never seem to have sex.
"The bite was presented as a sexual surrogate act, and that seems no fun at all," he says. "One of the things that seems absolutely clear to me about werewolves — with their canine makeup — is that they would be dogs, as it were."
The Man Behind The Werewolf
The specifics of that canine makeup were all discovered through a seemingly simple principle of Duncan's: putting himself in his character's shoes. He says he starts every novel that way — even if it means trying to imagine the life of a werewolf.
"It's a creature with a potential 400-year life span who every month, in order to stay alive, has to kill and eat a human being," he says. "Now, of course, that's a larger-than-life moral predicament but once you take seriously the idea that he's not going to kill himself — I mean, those are the options, you either kill yourself or reconcile yourself somehow to what you have to do — once you take that situation seriously, it becomes potentially a novel of real moral inquiry, which was the real appeal."
By the time we meet Marlowe, he's becoming tired of life. He's lived 200 years, read just about everything and is simply exhausted.
"He has forbidden himself to fall in love," Duncan says. "That is the kind of deal that he makes with the universe in recompense for the atrocities he has to commit. And the reason that when the novel opens, he's ready for death, is because that's what he can't take anymore — wandering the world without love."
And then, as if he weren't lonely enough, his life suddenly becomes the last of its kind. To him, it may seem like the end, but for us it's only the beginning.
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.