With the February 2010 launch of our NPR Bestseller Lists, it's become infinitely easier to track the books NPR loyalists are most likely to crave when they pack their totes for the summer-reading season. (The NPR list is compiled from surveys of nearly 500 independent booksellers nationwide. Unlike many lists, it excludes mass-market titles and sales by supermarkets, online retailers, big-box stores and the like.)
Still, pulling together a list of only five books from the extraordinary number of worthy fiction and nonfiction titles of the past six months is like trying to wade through a riptide — a rush is guaranteed. I finally settled on the notables that seemed most deserving of a second splash of attention: an acutely observed first novel with satiric punch, three works of fiction from established authors at the top of their game, and a startlingly powerful science thriller from a nonfiction newcomer. In the case of all of them, count on some brilliant sun, mixed with ominous clouds.
Island Beneath the Sea
By Isabel Allende (translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, hardcover, 464 pages, Harper, list price: $26.99
In the continuing aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, it's fitting to be reminded of the early years of this first black independent state in the Caribbean. Allende's new historic novel, set in the sugar plantations of 18th-century Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and New Orleans, is enriched by the writer's trademark sensuality and narrative brio.
It tells the story of Tete, the child of a slave mother from Guinea and a white sailor, and her search for love and happiness despite the brutal circumstances of her birth. Allende is superb at sketching the complex power of the relationships between Tete, her French-born master Toulouse Valmorain (who forces her into sex from age 11) and the pitiable woman she serves, Valmorain's unstable wife Eugenia.
As the violent uprising that led to Haiti's independence unfolds, Tete realizes that the children from this household hold her highest allegiance. Later, as a free woman in New Orleans, she dances to the voodoo drums she first heard as a baby. Dancing "takes possession of me, drives away distress and sweetens my memory. The world trembles. Rhythm is born on the island beneath the sea." (In chapter 1, Allende introduces us to Valmorain, whose arrival on the island of Saint-Domingue brings many unpleasant surprises.
The Lake Shore Limited
By Sue Miller, hardcover, 298 pages, Knopf, list price: $25.95
In this elegiac and emotionally sophisticated novel, a quartet of vividly realized characters sort out the aftermath of one man's death on Sept. 11. Leslie's beloved younger brother Gus was in one of the planes that hit the towers on that day. Some years after the tragedy, Gus' girlfriend Billy writes a play about a terrorist attack on a train (the Lake Shore Limited) running through Chicago. The play, being staged in Boston, stars Rafe, whose beloved wife is dying from ALS. Leslie has had a fling with an architect named Sam, whose first wife died of breast cancer, leaving him with three young sons to raise. The action begins when Leslie invites Sam to see Billy's play.
Moving fluidly back and forth in time, Miller weaves the lives of her four protagonists, and her themes of memory, regrets and the transformative power of art, into her most engrossing and best novel in years. (In this excerpt, Leslie gets flooded first with dreams and then with vivid memories of her brother Gus, six years after his death in the Twin Towers.)
By Jodi Picoult, hardcover, 532 pages, Atria, list price: $28.00
A master of topical fiction, Jodi Picoult focuses her latest novel on Jacob Hunt, an 18-year-old with Asperger's syndrome, who is also a CSI fanatic. (He watches the television series compulsively and, using a police scanner for information, makes appearances at local crime scenes.) When the graduate student who is his social skills tutor goes missing, he sets out, it seems, to solve the crime, but ends up as the chief suspect. To the police he appears guilty because of his remote, Asperger's-related behavior. Jacob's frazzled mother, Emma, does her best to explain, but the outside world judges him in ways she can't control.
House Rules tells its suspenseful story from multiple points of view, and does so with Picoult's usual fluency, exactingly drawn characters and dramatic plot twists. (In this chapter, Picoult takes us inside Jacob's fascination with bloody crime scenes, and Emma's emotional tussle with her son's mental illness.)
By Tom Rachman, hardcover, 288 pages, The Dial Press, list price: $25.00
This tragicomic first novel by a former foreign correspondent for The Associated Press features a raft of idiosyncratic characters working for an unnamed newspaper in Rome in the waning days of print. Rachman brings an insider's savvy and a soupcon of sympathy to his tale. By the time each player has been introduced, and the history of the paper from its origins in the 1950s to 2007 has been rendered in italic sections, Rachman has meticulously essayed the past half-century of print journalism.
Among the vivid characters are Lloyd Burko, now 70, a Paris-based rapscallion who missed covering the first of the Paris student riots in 1968 because he had been drunk in the bathtub with a lady friend; and hapless, wannabe Cairo stringer Winston Cheung, a grad school dropout with fractured Arabic. The Imperfectionists is topical and masterful, and filled with such delicious human moments, it deserves a leisurely summer weekend all its own. (Read as Lloyd Burko's comically sexless marriage and workless writing career continue their downward spiral.)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot, hardcover, 384 pages, Crown, list price: $26.00
The explosive ingredients in this nonfiction book — a scientific thriller, an untold family story, an exploration of race and class — add up to riveting social commentary. Released in February, the book (which is slated to be an Oprah-produced HBO film) remains one of 2010's most-talked-about titles. Skloot's dramatic narrative follows three tracks. The first traces the life of Henrietta Lacks, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, who died in 1951 from aggressive cervical cancer, leaving behind a husband and five children. Skloot parallels that with the story of the cells (codename: HeLa) drawn from Lacks' tumor, which became the world's first "immortal" human cells cultivated in a laboratory. The writer's third narrative thread weaves in her own relationship with Lacks' children in the years after they find out about the highly lucrative medical uses of their mother's cells (which were taken without her permission). In a final act of authorial grace, Skloot is donating a portion of the book's proceeds to the nonprofit foundation she set up to provide scholarships and medical coverage to Lacks' descendants. (Read Skloot's stirring prologue about her teenage introduction to the story of Henrietta Lacks.)