The beach book has undergone a makeover for 2011. As the season’s traditional big names and story lines run out of gas, new variations on old formulas have emerged. Want a story of power, greed and conspicuous consumption? Forget Hollywood; think hedge fund. Want a killer mystery? Forget that corpse in the opening chapter; think about the heroine who wakes up with amnesia and can’t trust anyone around her. Want a topical family drama about teenage lovers? Think “Romeo and Juliet” with sexting thrown in.
Even if you wanted retreads of the same old stories, they would be hard to find. Chick lit? SO over. Police procedurals? Done to death. Sweet little cottages on Nantucket? They need renovating. Keith Richards? Steven Tyler. Smash-hit Scandinavians? Henning Mankell has kissed off Kurt Wallander. And Stieg Larsson remains dead.
It’s time to find new favorites. So English readers are being introduced to Scandinavian authors as obscure as Lars Arffssen – and that name should sound funny, since it’s attached to The Girl With the Sturgeon Tattoo, a nifty parody due late this summer. Its Goth heroine, Lizzy Salamander, spends Wednesdays kickboxing, Thursdays doing Krav Maga and Fridays memorizing pi. Its muckraking journalist hero, Blomberg, has been asked to stop investigating “a vast ring of corruption, prostitution and ethnic cleansing involving the prime minister and the CEOs of Volvo, Saab and H&M” and instead write about Abba’s Christmas reunion concert.
For those disinclined to laugh about the Larsson legacy, there is The Tattooed Girl, a paperback devoted to topics like “Lisbeth Salander, the Millennium Trilogy, and My Mother.” This book is also a guide to Scandinavia’s next crime-writing stars, like the author of The Hypnotist, Lars Kepler. “The Hypnotist” is a debut novel. It’s the summer’s likeliest new Nordic hit. And the pseudonym Lars Kepler is a homage to both Larsson and the astronomer Johannes Kepler. Exotic-names footnote: Alexandra Ahndoril, who with her husband, Alexander, has written “The Hypnotist” and a second Kepler book, also wrote a novel about the astronomer Tycho Brahe.
The summer’s single most suspenseful plot belongs to Before I Go to Sleep, by another debut author, S. J. Watson. Its heroine, the middle-aged Christine, is the spookiest amnesiac in a season that’s full of them. As the book begins, she wakes up to meet Ben, the man to whom she has been married for decades, and Dr. Nash, who is treating her but for some reason doesn’t want Ben to know. Goosebumps rise as snippets of Christine’s memory come back (she was once a person called Chrissy who was much more fun), and as details Ben mentions about her past start sounding fishy. Mr. Watson has written this as pure page-turner – though stories as high-concept as this tend to begin more excitingly than they end.
Norb Vonnegut offers a gleeful peek at the world of hedge fund moguls in The Gods of Greenwich, a funny, savvy book that can be as absurd as its title. Its craziest character is a nurse-assassin whose only motive is wanting to go to Paris and shop. Mr. Vonnegut fares better with good-guy Jimmy Cusack, who’s desperate for work after the 2007 market crash, and bad-guy Cy Leeser, the insult-hurling Connecticut hedge fund wizard who hires him.
Best Leeser family secret: Cy pays a colorist to go to his house “under the cover of dark” and make sure his little daughters stay blond. Best revenge against Cy: when his wife is feeling spiteful, she uses his $256-an-ounce Chateau Latour to make Bolognese sauce for the family dogs. Best Cusack family secret: Jimmy’s wife has prosopagnosia, an inability to remember facial features. This is a glamorous form of amnesia. But everything about Greenwich is glamorous, if Mr. Vonnegut is to be believed.
More amnesia: in What Alice Forgot, a pregnant 29-year-old, Alice Mary Love, goes to the gym, passes out and wakes up to find herself 10 years older. “What Alice Forgot” is written by the Australian Liane Moriarty, a relative newbie in the beach book world who makes this the affecting tale of Alice’s chance for a 10-year do-over.
And more spite: In Gone With a Handsomer Man, by Michael Lee West, Teeny Templeton – called Possum Head as a child – catches her fiancé with two other women. Since this is a Southern story in the Steel Magnolia vein, Teeny’s first response is to throw peaches at him. Her second, better idea is to remember that peach seeds contain cyanide. “Quick note to self: mix seeds into peach puree,” Teeny thinks. “Spread icing onto a layer cake and serve it to the skanks who stole your husband-to-be.”
Exposure, by Therese Fowler, is a new entry in the torn-from-today’s-headlines genre. It’s the story of Amelia and Anthony, two super-nice high school kids whose parents want to keep them apart. Their love is perfect, their use of technology less so. One day, while his clothes are off, and she happens to have a cellphone camera in hand, Amelia tells Anthony: “You look like a statue of some Greek god – Apollo, the god of prophecy and truth.” Prophecy: big trouble. Ms. Fowler avoids shrillness as she coaxes drama out of this timely issue. Anthony’s experience is based on something that happened to her own son.
Jennifer Haigh’s expertly wrought Faith is also based on a real scandal. Set in 2002, it follows the family of a Boston-area priest who is accused of pedophilia. But Ms. Haigh, a subtle, serious novelist who happens to have a flair for capturing troubled family dynamics, never allows “Faith” to become predictable. And her book, while gripping, isn’t really summer reading. It’s a substantial novel that happens to arrive in time for summer.
The American Heiress is also far from fluff. Its author, Daisy Goodwin, has written a Gilded Age period piece (published in England as “My Last Duchess”) about an American girl from a Vanderbilt-like family who snags a British title, sort of the way Consuelo Vanderbilt did. According to Ms. Goodwin, about a quarter of the members of the House of Lords in 1910 had American wives. Ms. Goodwin is equally indebted to the great works of Edith Wharton and the high-end soap operas of Penny Vincenzi as she sends Cora Cash from Newport to England.
“It’s not my fault I’m richer than anyone else,” Cora says in one of her less sympathetic moments.
A real American abroad is Elaine Sciolino, who was The New York Times’s bureau chief in Paris. She has written La Seduction, a nonfiction account of how important the idea of seduction is to all aspects of French life. She begins by describing what went through her head the first time a president of France kissed her hand. She also writes about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose behavior prompted one French comic to suggest that women better wear burqas in his presence. This is much better to read about than why French women don’t get fat.
Beneath a Starlet Sky, an outrageously name-dropping novel set at the Cannes film festival, offers a giddier view of France. But it’s the closest thing to “Bergdorf Blondes” that can be found this summer. And its authors, Amanda Goldberg and Ruthanna Khalighi Hopper, have that rare gift among today’s few viable chick-lit authors: a sense of humor. Their two main characters are bright and confident, full of wisecracks. Still, the fact that one of them jokingly gets down on a red carpet and prays to Robert Pattinson is enough to make bygone Hollywood look awfully good.
So is the cover of Robert Redford, as incisive a Redford biography as there is ever likely to be. Mr. Redford didn’t authorize this book. But he talked openly to Michael Feeney Callan, who has been tracking him since 1995. And he gave Mr. Callan access to letters and papers that are unguardedly introspective. This book presents a more intricate portrait than expected, even if you already think Mr. Redford is a complicated guy.
Good Stuff, Jennifer Grant’s memoir about her father, Cary, is more emotional. Abundantly illustrated, it invokes a man who adored his only child and loved creating memorabilia. Sample artifact: Mr. Grant’s hand-drawn alphabet book for Jennifer, with a picture of him on the F page (for “Father”).
Sample artifact from Steven Tyler’s Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?: photo illustrating why Mr. Tyler is “the dude that looks like a lady.” Graphic groupie stories plus random exclamations like “Hooo-hoooo!” and “Wa-haaaaaa!” fail to explain why Mr. Tyler keeps getting more popular.
Readers of the 763-page Those Guys Have All the Fun, an oral history of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, have their own battle cries. This treat for sports fans has a cast of characters that is huge and varied. How varied? Keith Olbermann, Rush Limbaugh and President Obama have common ground.
A word about heavy hitters: three big ones leap out of this summer’s book lineup. Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse is a Steven Spielberg movie in the larval stage, an ingenious, instantly visual story of war between humans and robots. “Hopefully it’s not prophetic,” one Amazon.com reader has said.
The Cut is George Pelecanos’s chance expertly to introduce Spero Lucas, an irresistible 29-year-old Marine turned private investigator, at the start of a hot new series. It arrives in August.
And John Grisham’s 13-year-old star of a series supposedly aimed at young readers makes his second appearance in Theodore Boone: The Abduction. It’s another swift Grisham thrillerette about this “kid lawyer.” And you don’t have to be a kid anything to enjoy it. Not one person in “The Abduction” winds up (as does a little boy in “The Hypnotist”) punctured by hundreds of knife wounds. Zero mayhem: that’s another new idea this summer.
A Quick Guide:
BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP by S. J. Watson. 360 pages. HarperCollins. $25.99.
THE GODS OF GREENWICH by Norb Vonnegut. 322 pages. Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books. $24.99.
THE HYPNOTIST by Lars Kepler. 503 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
Channeling Stieg Larsson
THE GIRL WITH THE STURGEON TATTOO: A PARODY by Lars Arffssen. 208 pages. St. Martin’s Griffin. $$9.99.
THE TATTOOED GIRL: THE ENIGMA OF STIEG LARSSON AND THE SECRETS BEHIND THE MOST COMPELLING THRILLERS OF OUR TIME by Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer and John-Henri Holmberg. 359 pages. St. Martin’s Griffin. $14.99.
WHAT ALICE FORGOT by Liane Moriarty. 426 pages. Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. $24.95.
EXPOSURE by Therese Fowler. 366 pages. Ballantine Books. $25.
GONE WITH A HANDSOMER MAN by Michael Lee West. 342 pages. Minotaur Books. $24.99.
THE AMERICAN HEIRESS by Daisy Goodwin. 480 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $25.99.
LA SEDUCTION: HOW THE FRENCH PLAY THE GAME OF LIFE by Elaine Sciolino. 338 pages. Times Books/Henry Holt & Company. $27.
BENEATH A STARLET SKY by Amanda Goldberg and Ruthanna Khalighi Hopper. 294 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $24.99.
FAITH by Jennifer Haigh. 318 pages. HarperCollins. $25.99.
ROBERT REDFORD: THE BIOGRAPHY by Michael Feeney Callan. 468 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.
GOOD STUFF: A REMINISCENCE OF MY FATHER, CARY GRANT by Jennifer Grant. 192 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95.
THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN: INSIDE THE WORLD OF ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. 763 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $27.99.
DOES THE NOISE IN MY HEAD BOTHER YOU?: A ROCK ’N’ ROLL MEMOIR by Steven Tyler With David Dalton. 390 pages. Ecco. $27.99.
ROBOPOCALYPSE by Daniel H. Wilson. 347 pages. Doubleday. $25.
THE CUT (SPERO LUCAS) by George Pelecanos. 304 pages. Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown & Company. $25.99.
THEODORE BOONE: THE ABDUCTION by John Grisham. 217 pages. Dutton Children’s Books. $16.99.
Courtesy of the NY Times.
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