The Five Most Kick-Ass Books Of Summer*
I won the dork lottery this year: my beloved local library system asked me to accompany them to this May’s BEA conference, held in Chicago. In case you aren't familiar with it, BEA stands for BookExpo America, and it defines itself as the leading book and author event for the North American publishing industry. This is where you go to mingle with rock star authors, listen to the country’s best editors rhapsodize about their selections for upcoming bestsellers, and load up your suitcase with as many free ARCs (advance reader copies) of pre-release books as you can tote. (In my case, I overestimated my ability to tote them and had to borrow a warehouse cart to wheel down the street to a FedEx.) The conference takes place in a giant convention center festooned with two-story mock-ups of book covers dangling from the ceiling. Heaven.
As a reader, I loved it. As a writer, I developed a giant inferiority complex, because most of the authors who spoke were mesmerizing and self-assured to the point of seeming superhuman. I mean, didn't we become writers in order to AVOID people? Where were the elbow-patched blazers, the spectacles, the shy, stammering nerds? These people all sounded like a cross between Stephen Colbert and Stephen Hawking. Also, many of them were quite beautiful. I think I found my tribe.
Anyway, I loaded up with dozens of ARCs, and while I haven't read them all yet, I started with the ones I think will be the hottest books of the year. Stay tuned next month for another list of great summer reads, and an interview with Kim Wright, author of acclaimed new release Last Ride to Graceland.
1. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. Contemporary Fiction/Thriller. Pub date: May 31st, 2016
I’m starting with this one, because it’s the best book I’ve read in at least a year. It has everything: riveting, unique writing; I-can’t-stop-reading suspense; and a timely and relevant societal message. Before the Fall tells the story of a roguish Martha’s Vineyard painter who is offered a ride to Manhattan on a media mogul’s chartered jet. Sixteen minutes after takeoff, the plane crashes into the Atlantic. Of the eleven people onboard—the media titan, his wife, an unscrupulous Wall Street financier and his wife, an Israeli security officer, the cerebral pilot, a cocaine-fueled co-pilot, a beautiful, troubled flight attendant, and two children—only two of them survive the initial crash. Against unfathomable odds, the painter, Scott Burroughs, rescues another passenger and survives an epic swim to shore, only to find himself caught in a firestorm of media speculation and investigative suspicion. The author, screenwriter/producer Noah Hawley, pulls off the supremely difficult technical feat of writing in nearly a dozen third-person POVs—alternating between backstories and the present day—without even once breaking the tension. If you only buy one book this summer, buy this one.
2. Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple. Contemporary Fiction. Pub date: October 4th, 2016.
Did anyone NOT love Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Okay, I guess a few people didn’t, but most readers I know appreciated Maria Semple’s quirky, clever, highly unusual novel. She’s back, with another tale from the unhinged side of Seattle. Like Bernadette, this novel contains a delicious story-within-a-story; in this case, illustrated by colored-pencil drawings from a graphic novel written by the protagonist. The books opens from the vantage point of artist Eleanor Flood, who catches her husband—the team surgeon of the Seahawks—in a mysterious lie. At the same time, a former colleague resurfaces in Eleanor’s life, exposing the edge of a long-hidden family secret. On the fateful day in question, Eleanor bumbles through Seattle accompanied by her former co-worker, her poetry tutor, and her adorable son, spiraling through one dysfunctional situation after another until she unearths a surprising truth about both her husband and herself. Semple is another of those writers who make me writhe with envy. Her prose is so wry and witty and inventive. The scene with the Russian oligarch and the hookers and the sea urchin and the disco ball…I can’t even. (I know what you’re thinking, but pull yourself out of the gutter. It’s not a sex scene.) The imagination necessary to have written this book boggles the mind. I’m…so…jealous. (Note: technically, this is a fall release, but I couldn't resist reviewing it now.)
3. The Girls by Emma Cline. Literary Fiction. Pub date: June 14, 2016.
It’s hard to mention this book without mentioning the much-hyped advance received by the author. In case you aren't familiar with the concept of an advance, it’s an upfront payment to the author from a publishing house. I’ve read the average advance to a debut novelist is somewhere in the 5-10K range, if they get one at all; Emma Cline landed well north of seven figures. What would justify such a gargantuan sum, you ask? Well, Cline’s writing is truly gorgeous. Not only are there no cliched phrases, but it’s as if she’s invented a new language altogether with the way she strings words together. The book is loosely based on the Charles Manson story, although in a talk I heard her give, the author emphasized it’s not a Manson retelling. Rather, it’s an attempt to envision the path taken by the acolytes of a monster as they lurch their way toward an abhorrent crime. How could young girls commit such an atrocity? How does one human being hold such sway over another? Cline explores these questions from the perspective of an innocent, dreamy fourteen year-old named Evie Boyd, who becomes entangled in the clutches of a 1960’s Northern California cult.
4. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. Sci-fi thriller. Pub date: August 2016.
Oh, I’m a sucker for a book incorporating elements of quantum physics into a fast-paced thriller. Aren’t we all? This book is pure plot, zipping through alternate realities with page-churning fury. Chicago Physics professor Jason Dessen goes out one winter evening to grab a quick beer with a more-distinguished colleague, leaving behind his wife and teenaged son. He’s headed back to them with a tub of ice cream when he’s abducted by a masked man, who whisks him off to an abandoned warehouse. He’s bashed unconscious, and awakens tied to a gurney. Then things get unimaginably weird. Or unimaginably weird to me; fortunately, Blake Crouch was able to imagine it. That’s about all I can say without meandering off into a bunch of spoilers. Despite the title, there’s actually not much science; Schrodinger’s long-suffering cat gets a mention, as do a few recognizable physics terms, but Crouch doesn't get too far into the weeds in trying to explain how exactly all this bizarre stuff goes down. His writing style is spare—lots of sentences fragments and one-line paragraphs—but it works. It’s a tense, speedy, extremely creative novel.
5. Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs. Nonfiction. Pub date: October 2016.
Fame and accolades are funny things. In modern-day America, we’d like to think we live in a meritocracy, but take a look at the people who dominate our cultural consciousness. Narcissistic reality TV stars? Narcissistic integrity-challenged billionaires? Narcissistic misogynistic rappers? Well, at least we can turn to our wholesome, nerdy Nobel Prize winners for shining examples of human beings who utilized their brains to advance the human race, right? Right. Or, um, sort of. While most of history's famous scientists and innovators are undoubtedly bona fide accomplished eggheads, there’s an asterisk that ought to be attached to many of humanity’s greatest achievements: the people who never got credit. Who knows how many people labored their entire lives in brilliant pursuit of truth, never to be recognized, or even worse, to have had their discoveries mistakenly—or deliberately—attributed to someone else? And all too often, these people were women. Sam Maggs’s amazing book delves into the stories of 25 of these women, and it is such great reading. Who knew the first computer coding program was written by a woman in the 1880s? Or that one of WWII’s most successful Allied spies was a Peruvian bisexual heiress party-girl? Or that nuclear fission was actually discovered by an indefatigable female scientist fleeing the Nazis, who explained it to a German dude who then won the Nobel Prize for ‘discovering’ it? (Magg's paraphrasing of the letter the guy wrote to the female scientist asking for an explanation is one of my favorite of the book: "I smacked uranium with neutrons and barium came out? Don't understand? Halp???") I could go on and on about the remarkable lives the women featured in the book led—scientists, doctors, explorers, secret agents, inventors—often battling phenomenal obstacles and prejudice. I absolutely love this book. It’s written in a fresh, funny, engaging style, incorporating interviews and fascinating factoids galore. If you know a history buff, or a teacher, or any smart person—male or female—buy it for them immediately. As for me, I plan to read one chapter a night to my daughters, to inspire them; and to my son, to remind him it’s not just the ‘little brain’ that counts ;)
* And Fall