Want to feel uncomfortable? The Enchantress of Florence (Random House, $26, in stores) inspired the L.A. Times to “wonder how Salman Rushdie’s literary fortunes would have fared without the infamous fatwa.” Ouch! We can’t decide if that’s better or worse than the New York Post’s more subtly erudite observation that “TV mannequin Padma Lakshmi really did a number on Salman Rushdie, who takes their separation out on the women of his new novel.” Does Mr. Rushdie deserve such undignified treatment? Probably. (And does the Post review books? Of course it does, you snob.) Don’t blame the book for any of this: Enchantress is everything a beach read should be—a harlequin romp across the continents and cultures of Renaissance Europe and Asia, with a hot orange book jacket, lots of sex and a five-page bibliography of scholarly sources to make it all seem legitimate.—Damian Da Costa
Fly me to … Chicago?
If you were stranded in an airport for the better part of a day and night, would you use the time to scribble your life story down while crammed into uncomfortable plastic chairs and overcrowded airport bars? That’s precisely what occupies Bennie Ford, the antihero of Jonathan Miles’ Dear American Airlines (Houghton Mifflin, $22, in stores), while stuck at O’Hare on his way to his estranged daughter’s wedding. Well, actually, Bennie decides to write a letter of complaint to American Airlines, and that letter morphs from simple refund request to a chronicle of his life’s wrongs, from drinking to having a kid to getting married to a woman he’d slept with one time to getting in bar fight after bar fight—to being born. Bennie’s a literary loser with a twisted, Southern family history; he’s also an introspective storyteller with a flair for goofy asides that leaven an otherwise sad story. For a book that rests on a gimmick, Dear American Airlines has a surprising amount of charm. It’s a quick read, and a serious one, too. —Hillary Frey
Bite Me, Hamlet!
Who says Hamlet and canines don’t mix? Get thee to a kennel! It’s the Prince of Denmark himself who bequeathed to us the phrase “every dog will have its day.” And yet David Wroblewski is surely the first novelist to locate a reworking of Shakespeare’s tragedy in a family of dog breeders in rural Wisconsin—with a mute boy, Edgar, as his hero. (The soliloquies are silent.) A long, powerfully felt novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco, $25.95, in stores) is far better than it has any right to be, especially given the rapturous Stephen King blurb on the back and the banner praise bestowed by The New York Times, which declared it “the most enchanting debut novel of the summer”—harbingers, I assumed, of disappointment. But Mr. Wroblewski knows how to make use of a good story (thanks, Will!), and his characters (on two legs and four) grab the reader and won’t let go. —Adam Begley
Girl Gone Wild
The clumsiest part of Rites of Spring (Break): An Ivy League Novel (Delta, $10, in stores) is the terrible, totally tone-deaf title. The book itself is terrific, though, wound tightly around an expert conspiracy plot and a bumpy, convincing love story. Diana Peterfreund’s protagonist, a senior at “Eli University” named Amy, is a member of Rose & Grave, the most elite secret society on campus. This is Ms. Peterfreund’s third book about Amy and her club, and like the first two installments, Rites finds her struggling not only with boys but also with the bonds of tradition and authority. This time she squares off against the members of a rival secret society, who wage a brutal campaign of humiliating pranks against her on campus and then on an island off the coast of Florida, where past and present Rose & Gravers all go for spring break. Though Rites is not an overtly political novel, it would be insensitive to ignore the parallels between Amy’s travails and the quagmire in Iraq: This is a story about how to deal with perpetual war carried out unpredictably and unconventionally—how to survive, while keeping your sense of humor, when you’ve been targeted by an invisible enemy whose demands your pride will not permit you to meet. It’s very funny, also: After Amy almost drowns as a result of someone tampering with her life jacket, her head is “whirring” so hard that you could “pour some rum in [her] skull” and make daiquiris. —Leon Neyfakh
Who’s Her Daddy?
What happens when you know some of the clues but not the whole story? Every detail is imbued with meaning and complex motivation. Elizabeth Brundage’s Somebody Else’s Daughter (Viking, $24.95, in stores) is a drama that plays on our tendency toward suspicion and plot-making. Interwoven narrative threads that keep us guessing tell the stories of Willa, an adopted daughter; her biological and adoptive fathers; and the dark forces unleashed when parent and child engage in mutual deception. Set in the Berkshires, in a prep-school community, Somebody Else’s Daughter somehow maps the mind’s work in the weaving of intricate plots and also tells the story of an American social landscape fraught with self-delusion and cruelty to others. This novel offers no escape—it makes the transition from your world to that of its characters seamlessly. With drugs and illicit sex mixed into the brew, it’s a taut tale of suspense rounded out with sharp observations on parenting, adoption and the fraught business of keeping up appearances. —Lily Swistel
Think of the delicate balancing act involved in creating a child narrator—a 9-year-old, say, with a single mother and a baby sister. The boy has to be cute, of course, and also wise in unexpected ways, fragile, protective, funny, solemn and, well, childlike. Matthew Kneale achieves all that brilliantly in When We Were Romans (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $23.95, Jul. 22), then gives it another turn of the screw: We begin to realize that young Lawrence’s mother is going off the rails, convinced that she’s being stalked by her ex-husband. Lawrence gamely tells the story of her desperate flight from London to Rome, children in tow. He bravely watches over his mother and sister (“I can’t get upset too actually or there will be nobody left”), but the scary truth—which dawns on us even as we delight in the Eternal City as seen through 9-year-old eyes—is that it’s our valiant young narrator who needs protecting.—Adam Begley
Prep Me, Baby!
If you count yourself among those who eagerly await the second season of Gossip Girl, Anisha Lakhani’s debut novel Schooled (Hyperion, $23.95, Aug. 5) might be just the thing to tide you ove
r, as it takes yet another peek into the gilded lives of Manhattan’s über-rich. Coming from the same family tree as The Devil Wears Prada and The Nanny Diaries, Schooled is about recent Ivy League graduate Anna Taggard, who lands her dream job teaching at Langdon Hall School, an oh-so-exclusive Upper East Side private school (Ms. Lakhani taught English at Dalton). Anna is disturbed to find out that the majority of her students get by through the use of expensive private tutors—who basically do the work for them—until she’s lured into taking advantage of the lucrative benefits herself. The plot will be familiar to anyone who has sampled the assistant-to-the-wealthy oeuvre; and much like its predecessors, Schooled’s writing is breezy and fun, with winking references to fashion labels and N.Y.C. hot spots sprinkled generously throughout.—Sara Vilkomerson
Running to Write
Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Knopf, $20, Jul. 29) will appeal to two groups of people: long-distance runners and fans of his fiction. If you are both a runner and a Murakami fan, you’ll have truly hit the jackpot. “Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day,” he writes, and in a series of linked essays, the Japanese author (and Raymond Carver translator) meditates at length on that thought. As he chronicles his training patterns and locales, as well as the changes in his body that come from running every day (approaching 60, the author is in training for the New York City marathon), Mr. Murakami also explains how for him, the discipline of being a long-distance runner mirrors that of being a novelist. Both require discipline, hard work, focus and a certain amount of natural talent—and neither is right for just anyone. “If they’re not interested in it, no amount of persuasion will make any difference,” Mr. Murakami writes of running. For better or worse, the same could be said of this book. —Hillary Frey
Dirk Wittenborn’s Pharmakon (Viking, $25.95, Jul. 31) is an epic novel in the sense that it’s long (446 pages) and covers many years. But epic … it just sounds so heavy. In fact Pharmakon is pretty breezy—just plot-driven enough that you’ll stay hooked, but also literary, so that if you take it at a leisurely pace, you’ll notice some very nice turns of phrase. The novel, which begins in the ’50s, tells the story of the Friedrich clan: Will and Nora and their four kids. As the title implies, pharmaceuticals are in the mix. Will is a Yale psychologist and researcher who discovers a primitive kind of antidepressant. But one of his test subjects goes nuts when the requisite drug trial is done, and commits crimes that destroy the family order. Picking up the pieces takes decades. Pharmakon isn’t scary, but it is spooky. The Friedrichs are all haunted—not just by the crazy guy, but by their own desire to be O.K., to be happy, in a way that no pill can make them. —Hillary Frey
What’s the Matter With Washington?
Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas, leads into this election with a colorful history of conservatism called The Wrecking Crew (Metropolitan, $25, Aug. 5). He defines the term relatively loosely, though it certainly includes the present administration, for which he reserves his most enthusiastic scorn. Business serves government, and government serves business when conservatives are in charge, Mr. Frank explains—and this sinister symbiosis is against the interests and the will of the people, who don’t totally understand what it is the conservatives are up to. Winning elections was the means by which conservatives thought they could get power, he argues, adding, “the end, as we have seen, was capturing the state, and using it to destroy liberalism as a practical alternative.” Indeed. —Katharine Jose