Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Summertime and the reading is easy. . .

Ah, it's the half-way point in the summer but hopefully everyone still has some vacation time or a few long weekends to look forward to. Here are some reading suggestions to take along.

A summer spent renting a house in the French countryside sounds idyllic, but not if you're in a novel by Adam Thorpe. He's one of a posse of favourite British writers I regularly enthuse about, and I love his writing because it always disturbs. It makes you uncomfortable. It challenges the smug morals and cozy idealism of normal people. It short, it's nothing less than brilliant. In The Standing Pool, two academics and their three young daughters spend a few months living in a farmhouse in the Languedoc region of France. But their peace of mind (and the reader's) is gradually gnawed away by their sinister surroundings. There are hunters who encroach on the property. Their handyman Jean-Luc is acting strangely, spying on the family. The nearby village is still engrossed in deaths of the past - the more recent fall of a worker from the farmhouse roof, and the older deaths by execution of French Resistance fighters from the last world war. And at the centre of it all, lies the swimming pool in the backyard. Jean-Luc struggles to get the chemical formulations correct so that the family can swim but the water often remains murky. The code for the drowning alarm has gone missing. And then there are wild boars who lap at the water at night but the solution of creating an electric fence to keep them out seems dangerous when there are young children running about. . . If you've been fighting the heat, this is a great novel to send a few shivers down your back. Also give some of his backlist a try; I highly recommend The Rules of Perspective.

You'll need a bit of humour after Thorpe, and David Lodge can always be relied upon to help. His latest novel Deaf Sentence, is a moving, but very funny look at being deaf and approaching death (deaf and death being interchangeable throughout in a series of amusing and ongoing puns). Professor Desmond Bates has taken early retirement but his life is about to get very stressful. He worries about his elderly father who increasingly can't look after himself but refuses to go into a nursing home. A beautiful but unstable graduate student keeps pestering him to give advice on her thesis - a linguistic examination of suicide notes - and then there are his ongoing frustrations (along with his wife's) over the problems caused by his deafness. His daily battles with the negative aspects of his hearing aids are quite poignant and insightful to those of us who take hearing for granted. But Lodge also mines this disability for full comic potential; a scene at a party describing Desmond's attempts to make conversation with his guests without letting them or his wife know that his hearing-aid batteries have run out is simply hilarious. Bates at heart is a lovable bloke and we cheer him on as he gets himself extricated out of some difficult situations. After all, we may laugh, but we all know we're going to have to deal with failing faculties ourselves at some stage in the future.

If you've been following Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler series since the first book, The Various Haunts of Men, you'll probably want to read her latest, The Vows of Silence. While I don't think this is the best book in the series (the body count seems to be a bit out of control), I have to give Hill props for constantly playing with and subverting the reader's normal expectations of what a crime novel should be. If you normally don't have a hanky nearby when you pick up a mystery, you'll have to remedy that for this story. Make it a large one. Oh, and the plot? A number of inhabitants of the small town of Lafferton have been murdered. The only thing connecting the victims is that they all seem to have been recently married. I can assure you the bridesmaids are not the killers.

And finally, though these next two books won't be out until the last week of July and first week of August respectively, get your name on the library holds list now! Trust me on this.
I've been getting tons of great feedback from librarians who have read the advance galleys I thrust into their hands of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This epistolary novel takes place just after WWII as Juliet Ashton, our intrepid and delightful heroine, is looking for a subject for her next book. Out of the blue she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a former pig farmer on the island of Guernsey - which was occupied by the Germans during the war. He informs her that he has a copy of selected essays by Charles Lamb with her name on the flyleaf. Believing her to be a fellow Lamb lover, he asks - since there are no bookshops on Guernsey - if she'd try to track down more of his work for him. He also mentions how a roast pig led to the forming of a unique book club during the war. Juliet's curiosity is piqued and thus begins a fun and fascinating correspondence between Juliet, Dawsey, other lovable members of the bookclub and Sydney, Juliet's long-suffering and cynical publisher. This is a pure, enjoyable, romantic romp of a read and will make you long to visit Guernsey. Think 84 Charing Cross Road meets Cold Comfort Farm and no other book this summer screams book club choice like this one.

The Gargoyle, the debut novel by Winnipeg author Andrew Davidson, has received a lot of pre-pub hype, mostly about the huge advances he has received and the number of countries which have snapped up rights. This usually sends me screaming for the hills, but I can't ignore the number of my colleagues who have been raving about this novel, so I took the galley home with me last weekend. And couldn't put it down. A severely burned man lies recuperating in a hospital room, thinking of nothing but wanting to die. Out of the blue, Marianne Engel, a beautiful woman who sculpts gargoyles for a living appears in his room and starts telling him stories about their ongoing love affair that has lasted for seven centuries. The story contains meticulous historical details, so is she suffering from schiztophrenia or could this somehow be the real deal? What makes this novel work is Davidson's talented and suspenseful pacing throughout the narrative, which is permeated with Dante references but also mythic storytelling of doomed love affairs from Japan to Iceland. It pubs the first week of August, so there's plenty of summer left to surrender to this very absorbing and enjoyable read.

Lahring and I have both posted more of our summer picks - you can click on the links on the right hand side of this blog.

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