Thrills and frills for summer readers

DARLENE JAMES June 27 1988

Thrills and frills for summer readers

DARLENE JAMES June 27 1988

Thrills and frills for summer readers


Deciding where to go for a family vacation can pose a dilemma: finding a spot that will please everyone without demolishing the budget. This year’s slate of summer reading offers an alternative: fast, cheap transportation to a range of destinations as exotic as any offered in a travel-agency brochure. Ports of call currently available between hard-covers include Canada’s northern wilderness, the lush fecundity of Hawaii and the beckoning Italian hills of Tuscany. Those with a taste for urban settings can experience Manhattan’s glitter, traverse Toronto’s mean streets, or sweat it out in a Texas courtroom.

In The Victory of Geraldine Gull (Macmillan,

$19.95), Newfoundlandbased Joan Clark blends myth, metaphor and reality in an entertaining and instructive tale of an Ojibwa woman. Geraldine Gull lives among a band of Swampy Cree in the settlement of Niska (population 103 people, 107 dogs) on the shore of Hudson Bay. Her problems are a catalogue of the social ills that plague many of Canada’s native people: chronic poverty, alcohol abuse, poor health, prostitution and the loss of a son to suicide. But Geraldine refuses to be cast as a victim. Instead, she is a knife-toting, thieving arsonist, a thorn in the side of the band police, the Roman Catholic Church and the Hudson’s Bay store. She also smells bad much of the time. Yet Clark’s crisp and insightful narrative makes her character admirable, as both survivor and savior of her people.

Much of the story is seen through the eyes of Willa Coyle, a white art teacher on brief assignment in Niska. After a flood destroys the village, she is the one who, in the end, spots Geraldine’s beloved red beret among the debris. Her perception of it as “a bright red banner, a brave and tattered flag” will be shared by readers who come to understand how even Geraldine’s drowning cannot extinguish the flame of that disturbed but blazing spirit.

Linda Spalding’s first novel, Daughters of Captain Cook (Lester & Orpen Dennys, $13.95), offers both promise and disappointment. Daughters charts the troubled voyage of a Kansas-born wife and mother from passive contentment in what seems to be a tropical paradise to a hell of uncertainty and illicit passions. After a decade of roaming, Jesse Quill, her photogra-

pher-husband, Paul, and their young daughter have recently settled in Hawaii. They exist mostly on Paul’s trust-fund income from his missionary-father. But Jesse soon realizes how deeply Paul covets Revere, the estate on the island of Oahu that his father left to Paul’s Hawaiian foster-sister, Mihana. Still deeply tied to her native customs, Mihana lives in the big house with her daughter Maya, an innocently exotic child-woman of 14.

Jesse’s placid world turns inside out when her husband becomes sexually involved with Maya, and her discovery of an even more disturbing link between them plunges her into horrified

realization of precisely what he has inherited.

Spalding has lived in Hawaii, and her writing powerfully evokes sensual settings on the island. But she is less adept at creating three-dimensional human beings. Her sketches of peripheral figures—Jesse’s deceased father who vanished when she was a child, her incestuous father-in-law and her aunts back in Kansas—are, sadly, more richly drawn than the book’s main characters. Still, it is a complex, ambitious work, exploring themes of identity, family relationships and the shadow of the past on the present.

A wonderfully diverse collection of characters populates a small Italian resort town in John Mortimer’s latest novel, Summer's Lease (Penguin, $24.95). Mortimer, an English barrister, is best known as the creator of the main character in the Rumpole of the Bailey TV series and for his TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. In Summer's Lease, Mortimer sends Londoner Molly Pargeter on the summer vacation of her dreams. Molly has two secret passions— Italian art and detective stories, and her sojourn in a villa called La Felicità allows her to indulge both. While the village offers I much diversion for Molly 1 and her family—including such local characters as a Stalinist priest and a doddering, homophobic prince—the villa has an air of mystery. Molly is intrigued by the landlord’s statement that he prefers tenants with three female children. He also instructs the family to dine by candlelight on the terrace. Mortimer deftly weaves together domestic comedy, delicious character portraits and elements of lurking evil into a charming summer read. Like many vacations, the novel is all too short. And although its ending never quite lives up to expectations, Summer's Lease makes for an exciting trip while it lasts.

Getting through the opening chapters of Dominick Dunne’s literary soap

opera, People Like Us (Crown, $26.95), is similar to threading between closely packed tables in a trendy New York City restaurant. But once introduced to his massive cast of interlocking characters, readers can revel in the opulent world he outlined so deftly in his hugely successful The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. Tucked in with the predictable heiresses, the international playboy and the girl with a shady past who marries into new money, is a character whose life parallels that of the writer. Like Dunne, a regular Vanity Fair contributor, Gus Bailey writes “articles about famous people for a fashionable magazine”; he too had a daugh-

ter who was brutally murdered — in Dunne’s case, his actress-daughter was strangled by her former boyfriend in 1982. While most of the subplots of People Like Us deal with the sexual and financial games played out in high society, Gus’s private quest for revenge shows a deadly, dark side of that glittery world.

Terence M. Green’s futuristic Barking Dogs (McClelland and Stewart, $23.95) takes readers to the gritty streets of Toronto in the year 1999. The protagonist of the slim work of fantasy is Mitch Helwig, a policeman bereaved and aggrieved by his partner’s murder at the hands of street thugs.

Spurning both departmental regulations and

the offer of a new partner, Mitch sets about the business of revenge. Essential to his quest is an unobtrusive portable lie detector, the “barking dog,” which can assess people’s physiological characteristics without their knowledge. By using the tool to gauge people’s truthfulness, Helwig dispenses with the notion that a suspect is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Armed with a high-tech arsenal that adds invulnerability to infallibility, Helwig is a mean cop, a Canuck “Rambo” aimed, as Green has stated, at the American market. But while the book’s premise is solid, too many subplots weigh down the tale.

From fictional horrors to real-life nightmares, Daddy’s Girl (General, $28.95) by Clifford Irving packs more courtroom suspense and intrigue than an entire season of TV’s L.A. Law. Irving recounts the grim events surrounding the murder of prominent Houston attorney James Campbell, who was shot to death in the middle of a hot night in 1982. Lying beside him, his wife was also murdered, but the Campbells’ two young grandsons, asleep at the foot of the bed, were spared. Four years later, the boys’ mother was z charged with the mur2 ders. The book chroniI cles the ensuing trial— x described by one lawyer S involved as “the most bizarre and psychologi-

cally complex case” he had seen—in which the author became involved as a witness for the defence as a result of his investigations. Irving, who in 1972 served almost IV2 years in prison for grand larceny after attempting to publish a book that purported to be an autobiography of eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes, describes Daddy’s Girl as “a true tale of vengeance, betrayal, and Texas justice.”

Irving is an obtrusive, manipulative narrator reluctant to let the tale unfold. He confidently details the characters’ inner feelings, motives and conflicts—all, he claims, revealed to him by the subjects themselves. While that technique imparts a novelistic flavor to the tale, a more straightforward approach might have been more useful. Despite the author’s intrusions, Daddy’s Girl is a powerful story, dramatically told, and guaranteed to bring a touch of chill to the hottest summer day.

For a visit to otherworldly diversions, Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation (Doubleday, $26.95) offers a brisk tour. The 68-year-old Asimov, who wrote his first piece of fiction at the age of 11, has 365 titles to his credit. His works encompass a range of subjects from Lecherous Limericks to Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. Prelude continues to mine the same terrain Asimov explored in his Foundation trilogy, which has sold more than two million copies and won a special 1966 Hugo Award as “the best all-time science-fiction series.” It further reflects the master’s facility with time manipulation. His storytelling style remains smooth, his descriptions of the different societies within the domed plant Trantor (one of 25 million inhabited worlds within the Galactic Empire) are detailed and alive, and his characterizations are both inventive and credible.

An obscure mathematician, Hari Seldon, has developed a theory of “psychohistory,” which demonstrates the theoretical possibility of predicting future events through observations of historical patterns of behavior. Although he does not believe that the theory has practical implications, other powerful forces do, and Hari becomes both seeker and sought after. Prelude delivers a little bit of everything: a futuristic knife fight, a romance, an immortal robot with charisma and a wonderfully drawn portrait of a communistic, puritanical cult whose members undergo a total bodyshave at puberty. Like the most adventurous books of the summer, it transports readers to a time and place where imagination is free to roam.