Summer reading 2011: Five titles to pack for the beach

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan; Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson; Untold Story by Monica Ali; Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver; Bright’s Passage by Josh Ritter


by J. Courtney Sullivan

(Knopf, $26)

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“If the three generations of women in J. Courtney Sullivan’s new novel could just learn to keep their mouths shut, their lives wouldn’t be nearly so tumultuous,” said Howard Frank Mosher in The Washington Post. “Of course, Maine wouldn’t be nearly so hilarious, either.” Bringing their baggage with them for a month at the family’s summer home on the coast of Maine, the women of the Kelleher clan arrive fully primed to tear into each other in an all-out Irish Catholic guilt-fest. “Razor-tongued matriarch” Alice initiates the festivities, projecting her own self-loathing onto her rarely seen West Coast–based daughter and a granddaughter who shows up single and pregnant. Though Maine’s cover art screams “beach book,” Sullivan’s novel is far more ambitious and satisfying than a genre read. It takes some time for the family fireworks to start, but once they do, Maine “does not falter,” said Lily King in The New York Times. “You don’t want the novel to end in July. You want to stay with the Kellehers straight through to the end of August, until the sand cools, the sailboats disappear from their moorings, and every last secret has been pried up.”


by Daniel H. Wilson

(Doubleday, $25)

“Forget about zombies and vampires,” said Doug Childers in the Richmond, Va., Times-Dispatch. “If you really want to worry about horrific attacks against humanity, think robots.” Daniel H. Wilson’s new thriller, which is as campy as its title suggests, centers on a robot rebellion launched in the near future by a super-computer named Archos. Within the first few pages, all manner of mechanized trouble begins to materialize: “In Oklahoma, a domestic robot attacks a clerk in a frozen yogurt shop. In Japan, a ‘love doll’ robot bites off a piece of its owner’s face.” Make no mistake: “Robopocalypse is not a good book,” said Robert J. Wiersema in the Canadian National Post. Burdened by significant structural flaws and by character development as subtle as “a crayon scrawl,” the novel “fails to measure up to even the most forgiving of critical criteria.” That said, the book is also “a freaking fantastic read”—the on-paper equivalent of a summer blockbuster that exists solely to wow you with explosions and special effects. For “big, dumb fun,” Robopocalypse is hard to beat.

Untold Story

by Monica Ali

(Scribner, $25)

The world’s obsession with Princess Diana endures, said Janice Turner in the London Times. Feeding it this summer is Monica Ali’s audacious new novel of alternate history, in which a glamorous British princess doesn’t die in a Paris tunnel, but escapes her media-scrutinized life in 1997 by staging a phony death at sea. “What is daring about Ali’s what-if story” is the “banality of the life” to which this Diana stand-in escapes. After a bit of plastic surgery, the rechristened “Lydia Snaresbrook” settles down in a quiet American town, takes a job in an animal shelter, and surrounds herself with a trio of middle-aged friends who make the suburbs feel like Desperate Housewives—without the sex. The premise, sadly, “is the best part of Untold Story,” said Curtis Sittenfeld in The New York Times. The talented Ali eventually creates some suspense while also offering “glimpses of the better, richer novel” this book might have been. But mostly she’s let us down. Ali has conjured “the delicious fantasy that there could be a princess among us” and then given us a character who has none of the real Diana’s prickly, interesting personality.

Carte Blanche

by Jeffrey Deaver

(Simon & Schuster, $27)

Ian Fleming purists should feel free to “shake a celebratory martini,” said Jeremy Jehu in the London Telegraph. Thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver, the latest author to attempt resurrecting James Bond in a novel sanctioned by Fleming’s estate, has done a fine job for a Yank, and for anyone, really. Deaver follows Fleming’s formula well, pitting Bond against a nutso villain who’s hatching a terrorist plot. Yet this Bond is also thoroughly modern: A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he’s addicted to his tricked-out smartphone and more a “lovelorn metrosexual than opportunistic seducer.” Even so, he’s no emasculated version of the spy hero. As “the action trots the globe with the grubby intimacy of the books, not the films,” Deaver “adds a series of twists that reveal a Bond with more Sherlockian intelligence than Fleming’s.” Having written some 30 suspense novels, Deaver “knows his way around a thriller plot,” said Stephanie Merritt in the London Guardian. Carte Blanche is no mere “exercise in pastiche.” Part “lovingly crafted homage,” it’s also a genuine nail-biter, one that makes the most of “a new generation of global fears.”

Bright’s Passage

by Josh Ritter

(Dial, $22)

Twenty-year-old Henry Bright is so beset by tragedy, “it’s no wonder his world has cracked open to make room for an angel,” said Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times. Raised in rural West Virginia, Bright has endured the horrors of World War I’s trenches and lost a wife in childbirth by the time readers find him engaging in hallucinatory conversations with the angel he believes has instructed him to burn down his cabin and flee into the forest with his newborn child. In an ambitious first foray into prose fiction, the successful singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has created a novel that’s “intensely beautiful, tragic, and also funny.” The story itself can be a bit disorienting, since Bright’s flight from a dark figure called the Colonel is confusingly interwoven with scenes from the protagonist’s past, said Erin Almond in The Boston Globe. Still, Bright’s ongoing conversations and arguments with the angel are a delight to follow, and bring out the complexity of his own character. The pair’s bickering forms the core of a story “rich in metaphor and surprising moments of humor”—“a dark parable in the Southern Gothic tradition of Cormac McCarthy.”

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