Summer book round-up

Reviewer Yvonne Zipp tackles the best of the season's fiction.

Ready for the beach? Thanks to the phenomenon known as box-office warming, today marks the official start of summer – at least in Hollywood. Perhaps hoping that familiarity will breed bank accounts, studios have scheduled more sequels and threepeats than ever. So, once you've checked in with Spidey, Shrek, et al. and are in the mood to meet somebody new, may we suggest a different medium?

You'll have to supply the special effects yourself, though you can get real butter on your popcorn and the only ringing cellphone will be your own. (One sequel did sneak past quality control, but I can promise there's not a single ogre, superhero or eyeliner-wearing pirate in the bunch.)

The Folded World, by Amity Gaige (Other Press)

Bookworm Alice grew up with a disappointed single mom in Gloucester, Mass., where the "tall skinny tenement houses stood like starving girls in party dresses." Idealist Charlie was raised in the Midwest with the "immunity to horror that results from a completely happy and cloistered childhood." The two meet in an unnamed city, fall in love, and become the parents of twins in short order. Love and insanity mix courtesy of Charlie's work as a social worker. His zealous desire to be good threatens his home and his job, while Alice, alone with the twins, struggles to emerge from a fog of passivity and fiction in which she's drifted her whole life. Gaige (one of the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35") writes elegantly, and she makes the survival of this young marriage a question of grace. Grade: A–

Coal Black Horse, by Robert Olmstead (Algonquin)

Two months before the battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Hettie Childs has a premonition. "Thomas Jackson has been killed. There's no sense in this continuing," she tells her 14-year-old son. "Go and find your father and bring him back to his home." Robey sets off with a reversible blue and gray jacket, no money, and a worn-out horse. His marching orders are to travel south, then east, and to locate his father before July. A neighbor loans him the coal black horse of the title, but even its preternatural intelligence can't save Robey from the horrors ravaging the country. Robert Olmstead's powerful, spare novel takes a romantic tale of chivalry (a young knight, his horse, and a quest) and distorts it through the nightmare lens of war. Grade: B+

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon)

Poor Precious Ramotswe. The proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency solves her cases so easily, now everyone wants to try. Her husband, J.L.B. Matekoni, thinks he'd like to trade his mechanic's wrench for a telephoto lens, and her assistant, the newly engaged Grace Makutsi, is no longer satisfied with a supporting role. (Grace goes so far as to quit the agency – for a whole morning.) Plus, Precious is dealing with one of the most disturbing cases of her career: Three people have died unexpectedly in the same hospital bed, all on a Friday. McCall Smith maintains his gentle, decorous tone (one chapter is titled "A Short Chapter About Tea"), and the sweetness of his vision and love of Botswana's traditions, for now, override concerns about the slightness of plot. Grade: B

The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Schine (Farrar, Straus, Giroux)

Attention, New York dog lovers (and canine companions countrywide): Here is a novel for you. On one little block in New York, neighbors meet and interact courtesy of their dogs. Jody, a lonely music teacher, adopts a pit-bull mix named Beatrice. Polly, a pushy yet endearing 20-something, rents a suicide's apartment and adopts the tiny puppy he left behind. Her brother, George, a waiter, moves in and helps her raise Howdy. Other denizens include Everett, a divorced chemist; Simon, an asocial social worker; Jamie, a restaurateur with two cairn terriers; and Doris, a guidance counselor who can't stand dogs. Schine ("Rameau's Niece") writes about her characters with affection and humor (well, except for Doris) and has created a love letter to the city that even a rural cat fancier could enjoy. Grade: B

Luncheon of the Boating Party, by Susan Vreeland (Viking)

It's 1880, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir is at a crossroads. The artist, who supports himself painting "overbred society women in their fussy parlors," longs to create a breakout work that will forever silence critics of Impressionism like Emile Zola. The daughter of an innkeeper suggests he do a painting of a group of diners on their terrace overlooking the Seine. Renoir, with difficulty, gathers 13 models, and they spend several Sundays eating, drinking, and flirting, while he wrestles with his canvas to create something that will combine "la vie moderne" with "la vie en rose." While Renoir's search for a new muse can become tiring, Vreeland ("Girl in Hyacinth Blue") jumps skillfully from character to character and paints a vivid portrait of the creation of a masterpiece. Grade: B+

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