All Over Creation (Viking) by Ruth Ozeki
Ruth Ozeki (My Year of Meats) goes from meat to potatoes with All Over Creation, a story that is as warm and engaging as it is fascinating and -- ultimately -- frightening. When she was just 15, Yumi Fuller ran away from her potato farmer father and her Japanese war bride mother: she hasn't been back in 25 years. Now her father is dying and her mother can barely tell the fridge from the alarm clock. Yumi has to come back and help them sort things out. While she was gone, her mother and father started a small business, growing, harvesting and selling heirloom seeds. Just as Yumi turns up at her childhood home in Power County, Idaho, a group of militant environmentalists called the Seeds of Resistance get wind of what Yumi's father has been trying to do, hail him as a prophet, and determine to spend some time in the great man's shadow. All Over Creation is a delicate patchwork of thoughts and ideas that Ozeki blends together to create a novel that's smart and touching, as well as terribly informative in terms of agribusiness and genetic manipulation. Read this just before tackling Margaret Atwood's latest, Oryx and Crake, and you'll never look at food in the same way again.
Candy (Back Bay Books) by Mian Mian
With her first novel newly translated into English, Mian Mian does for China what Irvine Welsh did for Scotland: it ain't pretty, but it's hard to look away. Like Trainspotting, Candy is a look at parts of a country that the travel brochures go to great lengths to cover up. Here are sex, drugs and general vice talked about with a youthful exuberance that is often raw and mostly compelling. Candy is narrated by Hong, a teenage runaway who falls in love with a musician and becomes enmeshed in a world of physical and spiritual excess. Mian, a writer as well as the only female dance party promoter in China, lives in Shanghai where, according to her Web site, "She has become a cultural icon to a generation of Chinese youth who value her authenticity and honesty in portraying the new face of Shanghai."
The Corner Garden (Penguin Canada) by Lesley Kruger
What happens when exuberant though slightly confused youth meets ancient and well-tended evil? In The Corner Garden, Lesley Kruger's third novel, youth takes the form of Jessie Barfoot, a likable 15-year-old whose single mom marries, causing Jessie confusion and upset at a crucial point in her young life. It is just at this juncture that Jessie and her mother and stepfather move into a house in a new neighborhood. There, Jessie meets Martha van Tellingen, the "witch" next door: an old Dutch woman who has been harboring a secret ever since she came to Canada six decades before. Jessie's dismayed mother can do little besides watch as her daughter slides from being a fairly directed and functional young woman to becoming a "troubled teen" -- a statistic. What Jessie's mom has no way of knowing is that her unwitting daughter is being schooled by van Tellingen in ways familiar to her from her own Nazi youth. The Corner Garden is told in three voices: through diary entries written in Jessie's energetic lilt, letters composed by the crusty van Tellingen to her late father, and diary entries from Martha's own Nazi-influenced youth. Kruger takes some interesting ideas, builds some believable characters, then has them interact in unexpected ways.
The Darkness That Comes Before (Penguin Canada) by R. Scott Bakker
Fans of the fantasy genre will want to take note of R. Scott Bakker. Though currently difficult to find outside of Bakker's native Canada, his debut novel, The Darkness That Comes Before, has all the earmarks of a classic, including a well-executed world, clearly defined characters and an obvious desire to push boundaries established by the genre's best-loved authors. The Darkness That Comes Before is the first installment in Bakker's The Prince of Nothing series and is entirely too involved to even begin to synopsize it here. Suffice it to say that this student of literature, history, philosophy and ancient languages -- currently completing a Ph.D. in philosophy at Vanderbilt University -- has spared none of his considerable talent in executing the first novel in what we predict will ultimately become a series important to the genre.
The Dirty Girls Social Club (St. Martin's Press) by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
It's been called the "Latina Wating to Exhale," and not without some justification. But if we're looking for comparisons to Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez's debut novel, some others hold water, as well. The Dirty Girls Social Club belongs in the ranks with the very best of contemporary chick lit. It possesses some of the cheerful lunacy of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones books as well as the stark emotional honesty found in Rebecca Wells' Ya-Ya Sisterhood series. Six young Latina women make up the Buena Sucia Social Club. They met while attending Boston University and pledged to meet "twice a year, every year, for the rest of our lives." Told in the voices of each of the women, The Dirty Girls Social Club invites comparison. And defies it. Unsurprisingly (considering the comparison company it's in) a film version is already in the works.
The Dogs of Babel (Little, Brown) by Carolyn Parkhurst
Linguist Paul Iverson is devastated when his wife, Lexy, dies in a mysterious fall, the only witness being the couple's dog, Lorelei. As time passes, the mystery surrounding Lexy's death deepens. Determined to discover what really happened that fateful day, Paul begins a series of experiments aimed at teaching his faithful canine how to communicate what she knows. The Dogs of Babel isn't really, however, an animal story. Nor are Paul's experiments aimed at inviting laughter. In many ways, The Dogs of Babel is an examination of the psychology of relationships: how we come to understand -- and misunderstand -- each other and how grief can alter everything. Parkhurst's debut novel is a winner.
Fidelity (Anchor Canada) by Michael Redhill
Michael Redhill's debut novel, Martin Sloane, caused enough of a sensation in his native Canada -- not to mention winning a very nice nod from The New York Times Book Review -- that this writer's trajectory bears a close watch. Martin Sloane won a wheelbarrow full of prizes for the poet-turned-playwright-turned-novelist in 2001. If anything, Redhill's short stories are better. Stronger. And certainly more finely honed. The 10 stories in Fidelity are startlingly spare and strikingly beautiful, with the emphasis -- as it was in Martin Sloane -- on the internal life of his characters.
Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings (William Morrow) by Christopher Moore
Nathan Quinn's work as a marine biologist has produced spectacularly lackluster results over the years. Each winter Nathan and his team cruise Hawaiian waters recording the songs of the humpback whales and then attempt to translate them electronically. But all of his years of research have produced nothing much. Then, one day, Nathan sees -- and documents -- a whale with "Bite Me" written across his tail. Nathan's peaceful life promptly turns into an episode of The X Files complete with high-level conspiracies, military intrusion and a megalomaniacal underseas ruler. Christopher Moore is a crazy person. His books -- including Lamb and Practical Demonkeeping -- are well-executed works of delicious lunacy. He's not Douglas Adams but, in his more lucid moments, he's close.
The Grasshopper King (Coffee House Press) by Jordan Ellenberg
The Grasshopper King is an exceptionally silly book. It's also quite brilliant. Those two things might sound mutually exclusive but, in mathematics professor and genius Jordan Ellenberg's hands, they're simply delightful. A professor at a middling university gains international prominence, marries the dean's daughter and stops talking. To anyone. With the idea that the professor is silently contemplating some earth-shattering ideas, a language student is hired to dog his steps and become the professor's shadow -- just in case he starts talking again. The two develop a silent bond and deeper truths emerge ... eventually and quietly.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Raincoast Canada) by J.K. Rowling
In a way, it seems silly to mention this book here, because the only way you won't have heard that the latest installment in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter saga was launched on the first day of summer is if you've been hiding under a rock, or tuning out all the brouhaha because you really don't care. But since Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has been a bestseller ever since the book's publication was announced back in January, it seems likely that the novel will be filling out a lot of beach bags this summer. And filling out just about covers it: at well over 700 pages (the UK and Canadian editions are 766 pages, the U.S. edition is 896) Order of the Phoenix is breaking the records set by its predecessors. With all eyes watching, author Rowling doesn't disappoint. Book five in the series has all of the twists, turns and magic that Potter fans have come to expect.
King Bongo (Alfred A. Knopf) by Thomas Sanchez
Sanchez, best known for Rabbit Boss (1972) and Mile Zero (1989), draws on the decadent milieu of 1950s Havana for his latest novel, King Bongo. The title character is a legendary Cuban-American drummer who also works as a private investigator and insurance salesman. On New Year's Eve, 1957, King Bongo is in the famous Tropicana nightclub when a bomb goes off in front of the stage where his sister, an exotic showgirl known as the Panther, is performing. Amid the havoc, Panther disappears. Determined to find her again and bring to justice the bombers, the conflicted King Bongo begins an extraordinary journey through his city's rarified reaches and seedy underbelly. Along the way, he contends with a secret police rival, encounters American hit men with assassination on their minds, and revolutionaries. Rarely has the Cuban capital been brought to such life by an American author. The wonderfully stylized and sensual King Bongo should provoke readers to try Sanchez' earlier works.
The Kite Runner (Doubleday) by Khaled Hosseini
In Afghanistan in 1975, Amir watches helplessly while his friend, Hassan, is brutalized, an act that will reverberate across both of their lives for decades. In 2001, with the Taliban in full power, Amir -- now an American -- revisits his birthplace and his personal ghosts and ends up trying to rescue a boy who has been orphaned by violence. The Kite Runner is an almost impossibly beautiful book -- a compelling story, well told. It also brings us modern Afghanistan in a way we've seldom seen. Hosseini knows this turf: born in Kabul, he came to the United States with his family in 1980. A brilliant debut.
A Man to Call My Own (Atria) by Johanna Lindsey
Though the title is facile, it does scream, Take me to the beach! As a ranking historical romance maven, many of Johanna Lindsey's novels -- more than 54 million copies in 12 languages -- get read in peaceful places. The titles evoke the mood Lindsey creates: Captive Bride, Tender Rebel, Gentle Rogue and on and on and on. In A Man to Call My Own, twin New England heiresses Amanda and Marian are shipped off to live with their aunt after their father dies. The twins soon meet -- and compete for -- neighboring cowboy Chad Kinkaid of the masculine good looks and teetering testosterone. As always, Lindsey delivers an engaging, human story with her distinctive blend of romance, sensuality and humor.
People of the Owl (Forge) by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear
Four thousand years before there's a Louisiana -- or a United States to put it in -- a boy in that area called Salamander inherits his brother's two wives: women who, it turns out, have been instructed to kill him. People of the Owl is the 11th installment in Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear's First North Americans series, which they began in 1990 with People of the Wolf. Historical fictionists in the tradition of Jean Auel and James Michener, the Gears -- both of whom are archaeologists -- reconstruct their histories with equal parts technical accuracy and talented storytelling.
Safe in Heaven Dead (HarperCollins) by Samuel Ligon
This debut novel opens with what you'd think would be the ultimate spoiler: the untimely and undignified death of the protagonist. Yet Samuel Ligon's storytelling skills provide us with a novel that is both starkly beautiful and frankly suspenseful. Perfectly rendered characters and a relentless series of plot twists make Safe in Heaven Dead an intensely satisfying read. Ligon's career is off to an auspicious start.
A Sharp Tooth in the Fur (Gooselane Editions) by Darryl Whetter
If David Mamet were a Canadian 20-something male, he would have put together a book of short stories that looks a lot like Darryl Whetter's debut collection, A Sharp Tooth in the Fur. The heir-apparent to Alistair MacLeod for two very good reasons -- Whetter took over the position MacLeod left at the University of Windsor when he retired and Whetter has a mean way with a short story -- Sharp Tooth comprises 13 well-honed stories that show men -- mostly young ones -- at their best and worst.
Sheet Music (Ballantine) by M.J. Rose
Cosmopolitan called M.J. Rose's last two books sizzling summer reads. We'll get on the bandwagon with that, for at times Rose's novels seem absolutely meant for the beach -- best read during an undisturbed chunk of time, the better to enjoy the sensual prose and plot lines that are invariably present in this writer's work. In Rose's latest work, Sheet Music, sensuality is everywhere: food-related scenes that read like foreplay, the lush background of an oceanfront estate and a soundtrack of classical music that seems to permeate every corner of the novel. Journalist Justine Pagett travels to the estate of celebrity composer-conductor Sophie DeLyon to do a series of interviews for an article. However, upon her arrival, Justine finds that Sophie has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Meanwhile, Justine herself is receiving threats intended to dissuade her from writing her piece.
Sweet Hush (Little, Brown) by Deborah Smith
An apple orchard in Georgia is the setting for Sweet Hush, the ninth novel from Deborah Smith (A Place to Call Home, On Bear Mountain, The Stone Flower Garden). Hush McGillen brings her family's apple business from the brink of disaster and turns it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. She's successful enough to send her son to Harvard, where that son meets, impregnates and marries the daughter of the president of the United States. When the star-crossed lovers flee to Sweet Hush farms to elude the Secret Service, Hush meets secret assassin Nick Jakobek who turns out to be more sexy than sinister. Sound improbable? Well ... OK. But for summer reading, this plot adds up to four stars and half a brain. What could be sweeter?
Trading Up (Hyperion) by Candace Bushnell
The author of Sex and the City and 4 Blondes seems never to venture far from her home turf: the seamy, sexy underside of some of the better-heeled portions of the Big Apple. And, when speaking of better-heeled and Candace Bushnell in the same sentence, the former is meant quite literally. As the PR material that accompanies Trading Up promises, Bushnell has "changed forever how we view New York City, female friendships, and the love of a good pair of Manolos." In Trading Up we follow the adventures of Janey Wilcox -- first met in 4 Blondes -- a "model/actress/whatever" with better (and still better) things on her mind. Trading Up is Bushnell's first full-length novel and, while entertaining, it's also somewhat empty -- as is Janey. But, never mind: expect it to be filling out more than its share of beach bags this summer.
Tropic of Night (William Morrow) by Michael Gruber
Following her sister's murder, Jane Doe, a young anthropologist who has spent years researching African shamanism, fears for her life. So she fakes her own suicide and goes into hiding in Miami. But the ritualistic killings of pregnant women convince Doe that her ex-husband, a poet-turned-sanguinary sorcerer, is following her and becoming more powerful with each murder. At the same time, a Cuban-American police detective named Iago "Jimmy" Paz is investigating the Miami slayings, but finds that eyewitnesses don't remember much -- except that the killer looks a lot like Paz himself. An odd but engrossing first novel.
The True Account: A Novel of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions (Houghton Mifflin) by Howard Frank Mosher
Any American (even those millions who suffered through inferior history courses) knows about Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their 1803-05 explorations through what would become the western United States. But who's ever heard of the competing expedition mounted by True Teague Kinneson? It's taken Howard Frank Mosher (A Stranger in the Kingdom) to finally bring that adventure to the reading public, in a novel that will remind readers of George MacDonald Fraser's "Flashman" stories. Kinneson, we're told, was an inventor, soldier, schoolteacher and daily cannabis user from Vermont who wrote to President Thomas Jefferson, hoping to accompany the famous Corps of Discovery west from St. Louis. Though he was turned down, Kinneson was hardly turned off to the exploring idea, and with his teenage nephew, Ticonderoga, embarked for the Pacific Ocean himself. Along the way, Ti and his uncle (who sports a copper helmet and an Elizabethan codpiece) meet Daniel Boone's arousing daughter, save Lewis and Clark from cannibalistic Indians, and enjoy a wealth of other oddball misadventures. A charming counterpoint to several other novels that have been published to coincide with the Corps of Discovery bicentennial, The True Account plays history for humor.
The Wandering Hill (Simon & Schuster) by Larry McMurtry
Ever since Lonesome Dove (1985), McMurtry's western historical fiction has been wildly uneven -- from the high drama of Comanche Moon to the lesser adventure of Boone's Lick. But the man knows to tell a story, no doubt about that. And he always does it with a combination of humor and human feeling. The Wandering Hill, a follow-up to last year's Sin Killer, finds the eccentric, wealthy, argumentative and very English Berrybender family hold up for the winter of 1833 in a trading post at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. While they wait to return to the business of hunting, the Berrybenders contend with each other under conditions that are nowhere near spacious enough to accommodate their egos. Marital conflict, the loss of sanity and Indian attacks all ensue, with a strangely restless hill adding mystery to the frontier scenes. McMurtry is worth reading if only for the spirited cadence of his prose.
When She Was Electric (Polestar) by Andrea MacPherson
The first two chapters are dense and convoluted enough that you'll want to throw it in the sand, but wait it out. This debut novel by a former January Magazine contributing editor grows more elegant and eloquent with every page that passes, almost as though MacPherson gained confidence as she successfully tucked chapters under her belt. By the time she approaches mid-book, MacPherson has hit her stride and seems not to look back. Set in rural British Columbia in the middle of the last century, When She Was Electric is the story of three generations of woman: a formidable matriarch, her two very different daughters and her granddaughter, Ana, through whose voice much of the story is told. While one could argue that more editing might not have been a bad idea here -- particularly for those early segments -- it's delightful to witness the debut of an important new voice. Delightful and, of course, electric.
Windfallen (William Morrow) by Jojo Moyes
They're calling her the "heir-apparent to Maeve Binchy and Rosamunde Pilcher." Read that: a Brit with a knack for bringing out the warmth in the human condition. And while Moyes' books couldn't properly be called Aga Sagas, there's definitely the scent of dreams fulfilled and wishes realized around Windfallen. Moyes' second novel entwines the lives of two women through Arcadia, a lovely seaside house. Lottie inherits Arcadia in the middle of the 20th century. Almost 50 years later, designer Daisy Parsons arrives to convert the deserted house into a hotel. The friendship between these two women is as unpredictable as it is warming.
Wonder When You'll Miss Me (William Morrow) by Amanda Davis
The title of Amanda Davis' novel turned out to be all too prophetic: just as her debut novel was being launched last spring, Davis and her parents were killed in a small plane crash. Though it's always sad when the world loses a creative force, the timing here touched the book world completely. Davis was just 32 years old, and her debut work, Wonder When You'll Miss Me, was breathtaking, a brutally honest and completely touching look at female adolescence. Outcast Faith strikes back after a physical attack, then runs away to join the circus where she begins to heal.