The Books of Summer

Racy Rushdie

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

The Books of Summer