Ah, summer. Time to flee the office. Time to enjoy the sun. Time to relax. Time to crack open one of those juicily entertaining
books that go SO Well with a cool drink and a comfortable lounge chair. This season offers the usual array of light reads—everything from breezy romances to fast-paced thrillers to loopy celebrity tell-alls. A sampling: In his engaging Last Resort: A Memoir (McClelland & Stewart, 279 pages, $32.99), Linwood Barclay pays tribute to the people employed at camps where holidayers park trailers, pitch tents or rent cabins. In 1966, when he was 11, his parents acquired a place called Green Acres in central Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes district, and the young Barclay spent his summers catering to a low-budget clientele. There were pails of smelly fish innards to haul to the camp dump daily.
And, occasionally, there were angry shrieks of “Linwood!” from the women’s washroom when the toilet paper had run out. A humour columnist with The Toronto Star, Barclay makes light of these indignities, and writes with admirable openness about his dysfunctional family.
Those with a taste for substance and entertainment should consider White Teeth (Penguin, 462 pages, $24.99) by first-time British novelist Zadie Smith, or American writer Chris Bohjalian’s Trans-Sister Radio (Random House, 344 pages, $37). The lengthy White Teeth might consume a week of beach-bound afternoons, but is worth the effort. Smith, a 24-year-old Cambridge University graduate, has created a colourful, comic saga spanning 25 years in the lives of three London families, the Jewish Chalfens, the Bengali Muslim Iqbals and the mixed-race Joneses. The fun begins on New Year’s Day, 1975, with the protagonist, Archie Jones, trying to gas himself while parked in the delivery area behind an East Indian butcher shop, only to be interrupted by the owner, who tells him: “We’re not licensed for suicides around here. This place halal. Kosher, understand? If you’re going to die around here, my friend, I’m afraid you’ve got to be thoroughly bled first.”
The story line in Trans-Sister Radio, Bohjalian’s seventh novel, could have been lifted from The Jerry Springer Show, although the characters are upscale professionals from small-town Vermont, rather than the lowlifes who maul each other daily for the benefit of TV audiences. The central figure, Allison Banks, is a teacher and divorced mother of a college-age daughter who falls for film professor Dana Stevens. But there is a wrinkle: Stevens is a transsexual about to have a sexchange operation. Furthermore, he hopes their love will survive surgery because the woman inside him is actually lesbian. It is a twisted but tantalizing tale, and it unleashes a Springer-style tempest.
Sex takes a back seat to politics in two new releases: the Mary Higgins Clark thriller Before I Say Good-Bye (Random House, 332 pages, $37.50) and Joe Klein’s The Running Mate (Random House, 403 pages, $37.95), the sequel to his anonymously published 1996 mega-seller Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics. Clark is a make-no-bones-aboutit writer of mass-market fiction, and her latest is about a young woman named Nell MacDermott who possesses psychic powers and has been groomed from youth to take over her uncle’s New York City congressional seat. The biggest obstacle is her corrupt architect husband, Adam
Cauliff, who dies early but re-establishes contact with MacDermott through a medium and nearly puts her in the path of a killer.
Klein, Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, has loftier ambitions. He sets out to write a novel about the fate of a good man in the ruthless game of politics. The hero is Charlie Martin, a midwestern Democratic senator who lost his party’s presidential nomination in Primary Colors to the wily southerner and Bill Clinton look-alike Jack Stanton. This time out, Martin is merely seeking re-election, but is in danger of being undone by an unscrupulous Republican, and by his love for the wealthy, attractive New Yorker Nell Palmerston. A midwestern senator is inherendy less interesting than a slick southerner who wins the White House. But Klein’s novel is doomed by other problems: meandering dialogue, cardboard-cutout characters and a corny opening scene in which Charlie proposes to Nell at sunset in a cornfield near his boyhood home.
The Devil’s Cure (HarperCollins, 363 pages, $32) is Kenneth Oppel’s first mystery, but he is no neophyte novelist. At age 32, the Toronto author has already published 16 books, including the award-winning young-adult fiction Silverwing and Sunwing. So it is not surprising that he can create compelling characters and have them deliver believable dialogue. More unusual, and intriguing, is the medical thriller’s plot: Dr. Laura Donaldson thinks she has found a cure for cancer in a blood / sample from a death-row inmate,
David Haines. A psychopath jailed for killing doctors, he escapes just days before his scheduled execution. The hunt is on to recapture him before he can kill more doctors, especially Donaldson. In Oppel’s hands, it all seems entirely plausible.
In his first novel, Washington-based Stephen Horn, 53, relies on some tried-and-true stereotypes. In Her Defense (HarperCollins, 376 pages, $37.95) tells the story of a beautiful, wealthy redhead charged with murder and the downat-his-luck lawyer who redeems himself as he defends her. Like John Grisham and Scott Turow, Horn is himself a lawyer, and the courtroom intrigue has the sort of edge that only an insider can provide. And while Horn may borrow clichés, he never descends into cliché.
In The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit (Pocket Books, 307 pages, $36.95), actress Shirley MacLaine has penned a sort of Pilgrims Progress for New Agers. It is her ninth book, and this time the Oscar-winning star walks the Santiago de Compostela Camino, an 800-km trek that devout Christians have been making across northern Spain since at least AD 970. She starts with a friend, who drops out, then hooks up with some true believers, two Irish girls and a Hispanic couple. But MacLaine isn’t buying into that old-time religion. And why should she? After all, she dwells in a spiritual realm all her own. When she stops to patch up a blistered foot, an angel appears to her. When forced to flee the Spanish media, which has been tipped to her presence, she enters a dreamlike state and receives enlightenment from a mysterious monk named John the Scot. It’s all a little bewildering, and will no doubt have the skeptics asking: does she really believe this stuff?
After MacLaine’s meanderings, the everradiant Cybill Shepherd brings the reader back to earth. Her autobiography, Cybill Disobedience (HarperCollins, 294 pages, $39.50), is chock-full of sex and Hollywood gossip. The Memphis, Tenn.-born beauty and 50-year-old mother of three has had a career spanning modelling, movies, regional theatre, prime-time sitcoms and, next fall, a new talk show. The only thing missing from her book is an index to guide the reader straight to the salacious parts, like the night she slept with Elvis at Graceland, and the famous names—Dustin Hoffman, Marlene Dietrich, Alfred Hitchcock—that tumble from the pages. She portrays them as being egotistical, thin-skinned or, in the case of celebrated director Orson Welles, a little wacky. He once came for dinner and stayed two years with Shepherd and her then-partner, director Peter Bogdanovich. Welles spent much time watching Sesame Street and, when he opened the fridge to find his favourite snack was all gone, would bellow: “WHO ATE THE LAST FUDGSICLE?” Yet another memorable detail in a book offering just about everything a beach reader could want. El
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