Reading always turns any season into summer. Maybe it's because I associate my first bouts of time with books with time out of school, with summer afternoons on the back porch when the weather made it too hot to play, and the air seemed just quiet enough that you could focus your early reading skills on the page before you and make a story emerge from the shapes and squiggles printed there. Even for someone as fortunate as I am, someone who reads for a living, summer always feels like a special time.
For my recommendations for this particular hot summer now upon us I've got five works of fiction that I've been gathering together for the season, beginning with a just republished, long-out-of-print collection of stories by the Irish master John Banville. Four of these five books involve some sort of criminal mayhem, physical and psychological, and the last one has to do with the origins of life itself.
Let's begin in Dublin, John Banville's home, always a good place to think of in relation to the contemporary art of fiction, with its Joycean roots and its earthy characters. Joyce's ghost certainly puts its hand on most of the nine stories in Long Lankin, published originally in England in 1970 and now appearing in the U.S. for the first time. And something resembling ghosts — or at least menacing presences in the woods and countryside — haunt the tormented young characters within these pages. In "Wild Wood," the opening story, Banville sets the tone for the rest of the book, as he depicts a troubled teenager, known to his pals as "Horse," hiding out in the woods outside town with these friends in the wake of a brutal murder. Horse is cutting branches with an ax, an instrument that may be the murder weapon, and before the story's over he has disappeared, apparently on the lam from the law: "Horse's axe lay at their [the other boys'] feet, a wicked weapon among the leaves. ... They searched the shadows, and even stepped among the trees. ... They called to him, and called, and nothing answered but the wild wood's echo. ... " Horse himself is hardly an aesthete, but in the language and the tension of his situation you can feel a tie to the younger characters in Dubliners.
There's murder and menace on our own turf too, as revealed to us in an intense and disturbing novel by Pam Durban. The book — The Tree of Forgetfulness — may be as dark and disturbing a book as you'll want to read in summer light. It takes place in Aiken, S.C., beginning in the autumn of 1926, with a New York City newspaper reporter who arrives in Aiken to cover the story of a lynching. The newsman digs deep into the events surrounding the killing, even as an investigation by the governor of South Carolina seems destined to become a whitewash. In June 1943, nearly two decades later, one of the mute witnesses to the lynching, a failed businessman named Howard Aimar, lies dying in a hospital bed. He's still haunted by his craven presence at those murders and the memory of the victim's blood on his shoes. Durban's powerful, time-shifting narrative pulls us into all this darkness without ever turning maudlin or preachy and eventually turns up the light and turns this extremely ugly chapter out of our tumultuous near past into something miraculously redemptive.
Looking farther west I highly recommend for the fun of it all — well, a certain menacing sort of fun — The Wonder Bread Summer by Jessica Anya Blau. It's a neat little caper of a novel, and after all this darkness, a book that gives off a noticeable comedic glow. Meet Allie Dodgson, a 22-year-old, mixed-race girl, an independent and relatively inexperienced college student in 1983 Berkeley who owes tuition and back rent. When her boss puts off her request for her back pay and then sexually harasses her, Allie snatches the man's Wonder Bread bag full of cocaine — seems as though he's using his dress shop as a front for his drug sales — borrows a friend's car, and heads for L.A. And so begins the most charming, neatly made and entertaining (and X-rated) chase novel of the season. A whole lot of things come down on Allie, including, literally, a buzzard that boinks her on the head as she's speeding along the freeway in that borrowed car — plus encounters with her estranged father, her stoner mother, and a fling with rocker Billy Idol. In its own playfully serious, or maybe I should say seriously playful way, I don't know another novel that's going to make you feel more like summer than this one.
Except maybe an all-out piece of adventurous and enormously engrossing claptrap, one of those books you hold in your hands but really unfold like B-movies in your mind. That's James Rollins' latest, The Eye of God. A comet threatening to destroy our planet with lethal debris, dark matter, a prophecy of the destruction of the world as we know it going back to the time of Genghis Khan, plus — what else? — theories of time spun wildly out of the latest astrophysical research, a raid by U.S. special forces (Rollins calls this unit he's invented the "Sigma Force") on a North Korean prison, a quest for interplanetary debris in the Mongolian desert, and a final battle on (and in) the ice of Russia's Lake Baikal. (Always cool to have some ice in the pages of a hotly unfolding book in the summertime!) Somehow Rollins knits all this together so tightly that you keep going in spite of yourself — no, you hear yourself saying, how could they? What? Can that really happen? — right down to the last few minutes of the battle to keep Earth from destruction by that comet.
There's ice aplenty in the final book I want to recommend, a first novel called The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan, which for me is one of the year's great delights. Imagine a multi-multimillion-dollar expedition to the far Arctic to search for frozen creatures, anything from krill to shrimp to seals, and bring them back to life. Then, imagine the crew of the expedition ship finding an iceberg larger than any ever before discovered and flash-frozen inside it a fully dressed human male, the victim, as it turns out, of a 1906 drowning. Once thawed, 140-year-old former judge Jeremiah Rice becomes the center of a huge controversy that pits science against religion — and the object of affection of Kate Philo, the brilliant young biologist who served on the team that found him in the ice. I developed some real affection for Judge Rice myself. He is a wonderfully appealing character, whom we watch come back to life almost moment to moment, and whose curiosity about the world in which he finds himself, and sorrow about the world he has lost, turns this beautifully made first work of fiction into something more than just a hot summer fling.