Summer reading, for indoors or out
Whether you're adding a second coat of sunblock while sitting poolside or stuck indoors due to unseasonably high rainfall in the Northeast, a good page turner is an indispensable ingredient for the long days and nights of summer. The Monitor parsed thousands of pages of high-profile new releases so that you'll know exactly which shelf to head for when you next visit a bookstore.
Claudia thought she had found the perfect husband: an intelligent, caring man who regarded babies as home-wrecking scream machines. Then their best friends have a son, and Ben starts campaigning for a child. Feeling betrayed, Claudia dumps him faster than Tammy Wynette can sing "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," and embarks on an affair with a publishing VP. Despite this distraction, she feels like the world is judging her for not wanting a baby. (Nor does it help that she's surrounded by mothers, pregnant friends, and a sister who's grappling with infertility.) Giffin ("Something Borrowed") is clearly trying to change up the chick-lit formula by bringing in a topic that can be profoundly difficult for couples. Sadly, the shopping, fancy restaurants, and chic locales that are apparently required elements of the genre crowd out the emotional resonance. Grade: C+
As fans know, Furst ("Dark Voyage") can wield a cloak and dagger with aplomb. Reuters correspondent Carlo Weisz moonlights as a writer for the Italian resistance paper "Liberazione" in 1938 Paris. When the editor is assassinated, Weisz gets an unwanted promotion – and a vastly more complicated life. The British and French want him to spy for them, the Fascists are hunting him, and he can't even visit an old girlfriend without someone stuffing a list of German agents into his hands. Not Furst's best, but still a fine addition to his growing canon of World War II thrillers. Grade: B
If you've ever dreamed of swimming with dolphins, dancing with wolves, or walking a cheetah on a leash, then this is the book for you. Or maybe not – unless there's a strong aroma of squid accompanying your daydreams and you're prepared to have the big cat take a swipe at you. Sutherland spent a year at the "Harvard for exotic animal trainers" at Moorpark College in California, following the students (almost all young, almost all female) as they learn everything from how to shovel elephant dung for eight hours without complaining to how to evacuate frightened animals when a forest fire sweeps near the zoo. Training is a controversial subject for animal-rights activists, but Sutherland covers the debate while allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. The descriptions of the animals are vivid, but her portraits of the students are less distinct, and she has a frustrating tendency to drop plot threads without letting readers know the outcome. Grade: B
Somebody hand Elinor Lipman an award already. The Massachusetts writer consistently turns out witty, intelligent novels that seem to suffer from Barbara Pym syndrome: They're just so smoothly done, readers tend to undervalue them. Her latest comedy stars Frederica Hatch, the self-described "Eloise of Dewing College," a teenager who has been raised at the former secretarial school where her mother and father teach and serve as houseparents. At the novel's opening, Frederica cringes at her activist, psychology-spouting folks – "two bleeding hearts who beat as one" – and longs for a three-bedroom house, two siblings, and a car. Then the college's new dorm parent moves on campus: the glamorous Laura Lee French, who, it just so happens, used to be married to Frederica's sociologist father. Lipman unleashes the satire without ever losing her generosity toward her characters or her sense of comic timing. Grade: A–
Gruen re-creates the vanished world of Depression-era circuses, complete with casual cruelty to both man and beast, in her story of star-crossed lovers. Jacob Jankowski, now 90 (or 93, he can't remember), recalls the summer he jumped on a train and fell into a job as a vet for a second-rate circus. The story opens with the tragedy Jacob has kept secret for 60-some years, and then goes back in time to introduce all the players: Marlena, the lovely horse trainer; August, her charming but twisted husband; Uncle Al, who buys up pieces of defunct circuses but can't be bothered to pay his staff; and his latest acquisition, Rosie the elephant, who will either be the making or the undoing of the Benzini Brothers Circus. Grade: B+
Old-fashioned, character-driven storytelling finds a defender in National Book Award winner Glass ("Three Junes"), who weaves together the lives of half a dozen New Yorkers in her second novel. Greenie Duquette is happily dividing her time between baking and taking care of her small son George, when the governor of New Mexico tastes her coconut cake and offers to whisk her away to Albuquerque as his chef. Her best friend, Walter, a gay restaurateur, is serving as guardian to his teenage nephew while nursing a broken heart. Greenie's therapist husband runs into a strange woman named Saga, who is trying to carve out a life for herself after an injury destroyed her health and short-term memory. The first half of the novel is wonderful, but the second half slowly collapses under the weight of too many affairs, Greenie's infuriating passivity, and the inevitable Sept. 11 climax. Grade: B
Magazine editor Vicky Townsley longs for a family and a house in the country. Connecticut socialite Amber Winslow can't figure out why her perfect-seeming life feels so hollow (although it may have something to do with the fact that her nanny is raising the kids while she shops and does "charity" work). When Poise magazine sends Vicky on assignment to live as a hausfrau for a month, Amber is the lucky winner. The two swap lives, jobs, friends, fabulous wardrobes – pretty much everything but toothbrushes. What's depressing isn't that Green swiped the premise of a reality TV series for her plot; it's that the TV show offered more genuine insight and surprises. Grade: D+
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich., and regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.