Summer reads

Thrills and chills: These mysteries and science fiction novels will transport you to a higher plane.

By Salon Staff

Published June 25, 2007 11:06AM (EDT)

All month, Salon's staff has been recommending summer books that won't make you feel cheap and empty. (Or maybe they will, in the best possible way.)

In previous weeks, we featured thrillers, chic lit and memoirs. In this final installment, we bring you an assortment of mysteries and science fiction. They include a furry detective tale with a flock of sheep as the primary sleuths; a lighthearted mystery about a grumpy mobile librarian who finds himself at the center of a kidnapping; a sexy spy zinger courtesy of Elmore Leonard; a political thriller teeming with black ops and terrorist intrigue; a virtuoso mashup of SF alternative universes and Brazilian culture; and the fantastical journey of a gang of alter-ego heroines.

Do you have summer reading recommendations? Use the letters section to share your own picks.

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"Three Bags Full"
By Leonie Swann, Anthea Bell, trans.
Flying Dolphin Press, $22.95

Mystery fiction is a crowded genre, and the frantic search for fresh ideas has led authors to concoct ever more unusual detectives -- obsessive-compulsives and psychics; the blind and brain damaged; historical figures and fictional characters from classic novels. But surely none of these notions is as unlikely as the premise novelist Leonie Swann takes for "Three Bags Full." First, she has a total of 19 sleuths, and second, they're all sheep. A small flock from an old, wool-bearing Irish breed, they live an idyllic existence grazing in a seaside field under the care of their beloved shepherd, George. Then one morning George turns up dead in the field with a gardening spade embedded in his chest. The flock, in a muddled sort of way, decides to find out who's responsible.

These sheep have the advantage of an exceptionally cultured background; George used to read aloud to them every evening, mostly from trashy historical romances. They understand human speech, albeit in a comically literal fashion. Nevertheless, as sheep, they face some pretty harsh limitations when it comes to conducting a murder investigation: They can't talk, they have no hands to pick up clues or take notes, they don't get out much, they're easily frightened and, last but not least, they are not renowned for their deductive powers. Even Miss Maple, the too cutely named "cleverest sheep in Glenkill and quite possibly the cleverest sheep in the whole world," has trouble remembering all the information the flock manages to gather. Fortunately, she can rely on Mopple the Whale, a portly gourmand of a ram who serves as the flock's "memory sheep" because he never forgets anything. And then there's the keen eyesight of Sir Ritchfield, and the excellent nose of Maude, and the speedy hooves of Lane.

Teamwork winds up being the flock's secret weapon, but it would be dishonest to say that learning the truth about George's death is what kept me reading "Three Bags Full." Of course, I wanted to see if Swann could pull off such a difficult experiment (she does). But it was really the farcical aspects of the novel's culture clash that won my heart -- for a culture clash is just what the book describes. For the sheep, human behavior is the real mystery. Believing that any creature's soul is proportional to its sense of smell, they regard people as pitifully underendowed in that department, and the confusing way the villagers talk about spiritual matters leads them to the hilarious conclusion that the local priest is God (and they don't think much of him). They have their own ideas about such matters; like the rabbits of "Watership Down," Swann's sheep have their own ovine mythology.

This sheepy society -- sometimes touchingly naive, sometimes surprisingly astute -- has an inexhaustible, quirky charm. Swann has imagined what it must be like to know truth through one's nose (the sheep can smell lies, fear and hatred) and to regard solitude as a kind of blasphemy. Eventually, the intrepid flock's investigation even begins to affect the human beings around them, culminating in the most remarkable entry ever in the local pub's Smartest Sheep in Glenkill contest. By that point I was inclined to award a prize to Swann, but for what -- the most ingenious and winning implementation of a fictional four-footed detective? There can't be much competition on that front, but Swann would win, all right, and by more than a nose.

-- Laura Miller

"Mr. Dixon Disappears"
By Ian Sansom
Harper Paperbacks, $12.95

Israel Armstrong, the protagonist in "Mr. Dixon Disappears," the second outing in Ian Sansom's Mobile Library Mystery series, is an endearing sort of grump. An English librarian stranded in the boondocks of Northern Ireland -- a vegetarian with "ill-disguised north London university-educated liberal scorn" -- he has a lot to complain about. His mobile library is decrepit, he's living in a farmer's chicken coop, and worst of all, the locals never seem to return their books on time.

But things only manage to get worse. During the centenary celebration of Dixon and Pickering's, the area's most venerable family-owned department store and local purveyor of Royal Doulton figurines, he finds himself suddenly accused of kidnapping the store's elderly owner. Emotionally brutalized by the police, and out on bail, Israel embarks on a frantic effort to clear his name.

Sansom, a regular contributor to the Guardian and the London Review of Books, has crafted a light and witty crime comedy. In the first installment of the series, "The Case of the Missing Books," Israel arrived in Northern Ireland to find himself embroiled in a hunt for stolen library books. Here, the plot is equally flimsy and equally beside the point; the book's selling point isn't suspense, it's Sansom's clever language and droll humor.

In this relentlessly quaint vision of Northern Ireland, lesbians are referred to as "Libyans," for the sake of propriety, and members of the North Antrim Society of Magic scorn the Fellowship of Christian Magicians. Israel is perpetually at odds with his surroundings. His accusations of Irish humorlessness, for instance, are curtly admonished: "Less of your racial stereotyping would be appreciated."

In most hands, such high levels of quirkiness would become precious or condescending. But Sansom, who lives in Northern Ireland, strikes the right balance between bemused detachment and honest compassion. Despite the book's jumpy plotting and occasionally overwrought descriptions, Sansom has crafted an immensely pleasurable, and frequently hilarious, entry into a promising series.

-- Thomas Rogers

"Up in Honey's Room"
By Elmore Leonard
Morrow, $25.95

The plot of Elmore Leonard's "Up in Honey's Room" is at least slightly whacked out: It's the tail end of World War II, and U.S. marshal Carl Webster -- introduced in Leonard's 2005 novel "The Hot Kid" -- shows up in Detroit, on the hunt for Jurgen Schrenk, a Nazi POW who has managed to wriggle out of a camp in Oklahoma. Carl suspects that Walter Schoen, a Detroit meatcutter and heel-clicking wannabe Nazi, knows where Jurgen is hiding. To get to Walter, Carl enlists the help of Walter's ex-wife, Honey Deal, an American bottle-blond firebrand with a spectacular grasp of current events and an even more spectacular rack. Honey gets the hots for the happily married Carl. But will she ever be able to get him in the sack?

Did I mention the Ukrainian temptress who regularly hosts martini-fueled spy-ring meetings in her home? Or the cross-dressing murderer with the Buster Brown haircut? The plot of "Up in Honey's Room" may threaten to veer and sputter out of control, although Leonard, as always, lands it like an ace. But the real pleasure here is his screwball-comedy prose, the way his characters joust and parry either ruthlessly or casually, depending on the occasion. When the Ukrainian hottie explains why she decided to work for the Nazi cause, she makes it clear her hatred of Russians was only part of her motivation. The rest, of course, had to do with sex: "I'll tell you something. In 1940, '41, all the young grenadiers in newsreels looked sexy to me. You were attractive, proud of yourselves, you had ideals you believed in. You sang, you marched, you sang while you marched. I remember thinking this was very bad light opera. But the upbeat mood of it was catching. I liked the purity of it, a new Germany full of healthy young men and women with Nordic features and platinum hair. In that crowd I knew I'd stand out like a film star."

That's typical of Leonard's prose, and part of the reason his novels effortlessly sell in the kajillions. The guy never wastes a word: Every sentence is like a well-packed suitcase, and that kind of economy is worth a million bucks.

-- Stephanie Zacharek

"Body of Lies"
By David Ignatius
Norton, $24.95

Car bombs are going off in Rotterdam and Milan, a new offshoot of al-Qaida is on the rise, and a CIA officer is about to turn up dead in a remote Afghan province. But not all is as it seems: The dead CIA officer will be delivered there by the agency itself, the handiwork of a double-super-secret shop deep inside Langley, Va.

In David Ignatius' latest spy novel, "Body of Lies," the worldwide terror war is getting scarier by the day, a chaotic Iraq its flourishing crossroads. U.S. intelligence has failed to penetrate al-Qaida with an agent, so why not create a virtual one? The "black op" hatched by our hero, earnest CIA station chief Roger Ferris, aims to fool the terrorists into believing that their newest ringleader, a shadowy figure known as "Suleiman," is a double agent working for U.S. intelligence. If the CIA can get the terrorists to swallow the illusion -- offering the meticulously prepared body as a Rosetta stone to betrayal -- the terror network might just implode as a result.

A plan daring and brilliant, or arrogant and desperate? Ignatius toys with that question as Ferris toys with shady Iraqi operatives, a cunning Jordanian intelligence chief and a clumsy bureaucracy back in Washington, and gets in way over his head. The backdrop for this hall-of-mirrors tale is, of course, all too real, and news junkies and conspiracy theorists alike will find the political undercurrents rather familiar. But Ignatius, also a respected columnist for the Washington Post, keeps the pages turning with punchy prose and wry distillations of the global conflict at hand. The Milan bombing has everyone on edge from the outset, as evidenced by two "well-dressed Arabs" Ferris overhears while rushing back to Amman, Jordan, on a flight from Berlin: "It was the work of Al Qaeda; no, it was the Shiites, pretending to be Al Qaeda; no, it was a new group, more terrifying than any of the others. They had no certainty about anything, except that it was America's fault."

The novel's requisite love story is less convincing, if not tedious at turns (though perhaps true enough to the life of a covert CIA officer). But Ferris' pursuit of a nubile American aid worker he meets overseas is serviceable enough for an otherwise artfully layered, gripping story line. And Ignatius maintains a sense of humor when it comes to Ferris' lusty, Machiavellian wife back home, a right-wing lawyer on her way up at the Justice Department who isn't afraid to use Ferris' dark past, or a blow job or two, to keep him in line.

But perhaps the book's most darkly amusing moment comes not between the covers but on its dust jacket, from the man who helped Team Bush take the case for a war on Iraq to the rim. "Fascinating," declares George Tenet, the former CIA director who presided over the vivid, and later vividly bogus, intelligence used to launch the invasion. "Body of Lies is fiction but reads like fact."

-- Mark Follman

By Ian McDonald
Pyr, $25

Science fiction writers, by definition, are supposed to take to us to strange new worlds. Ian McDonald does this while at the same time impersonating a travel writer. In the 1990s he hung out in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2005, he gave India a virtuoso cyberpunk treatment in the remarkable "River of Gods." Next up, Brazil.

This means that along with the many-worlds hypothesis beloved by some quantum physicists, we get capoeira moves. Along with a panopticonic future in which every object is tagged with an identifying chip and every public space is surveilled by millions of cameras, we get futebol, the "beautiful game" of soccer, Brazilian style. Along with a narrative that simultaneously manages to deliver Jesuit priests fighting duels in 1732, reality TV show production in 2006, and designer drugs available in 2032 that make glib flirtatious chitchat as easy as pie, we get tropocalismo-inflected break-beats, favela slums and Amazonian tribes that experience the true nature of reality via the consumption of frog venom. If you liked "River of Gods," which performed a similar mash-up of SF tropes with full cultural immersion in India, you will delight in "Brasyl." And if you're a science fiction fan who has never read any Ian McDonald, well, then, clear your calendar.

The "many worlds" theory holds that the universe contains within it all the possible universes that ever could have happened. This includes such seemingly minor variations as the universe in which you had scrambled eggs for breakfast instead of fried (or any other of an infinite variety of breakfast options) and universes in which life never even evolved. For understandable reasons -- when everything that could have happened has happened, not much is off-limits to the imagination -- science fiction writers have long been fans of the concept as a liberating plot device.

Capoeira and futebol, less so, at least in the English language. Also somewhat unusual for an SF novel are the Portuguese glossary, the bibliography for those interested in learning more about Brazil and a suggested playlist for music fans with a hankering for some auditory stimulation to go along with the literary acrobatics.

It shouldn't be that much of a surprise that in an age of globalization in which countries like Brazil and India are muscling their way onto a world stage long dominated by the West, science fiction writers are investigating these new -- to them -- territories in the here and now. A similar wave swept through SF in the 1980s, when Japan's emergent cultural and economic power suddenly became reflected in scores of science fiction novels. But McDonald has more fun than most of the Japanophiles did. I always wanted to visit the future. But after "Brasyl," I want to book a ticket to São Paulo also.

-- Andrew Leonard

"The Margarets"
By Sheri S. Tepper
Eos, $26.95

What if your mountain lake or ocean beach destination isn't far enough, vast enough? What if you want adventure travel but you have only a weekend to spare? There's nothing quite like struggling with big issues in distant future worlds to banish workplace and everyday concerns from the mind. In "The Margarets," Sheri S. Tepper provides a handy wormhole through space into a deliciously inventive and adventurous quest.

Margaret is the only kid on a research colony orbiting Mars. Smart, bored and profoundly lonely, she begins to create alter egos for fun. A spy, a queen, a tough boy -- her imaginary selves are her only friends. The adults around her are working on a doomed project to transform Mars into a garden planet, and let her be.

As Margaret grows into a smart and lonely teenager her family must return to the grim, environmentally ravished Earth, where the only economically viable product for interplanetary export is human slaves. Facing a series of blind choices that pull her in two directions, she begins to shed the imaginary Margarets.

The Margarets scatter off to other settled worlds, unaware of their other selves. Each Margaret struggles to survive by her (or his) wits, and to understand the growing threats to Earth and humanity. While they are not equally brave or heroic, they are each called upon to take action in dangerous times, as unknown forces pull them toward the other selves they do not know.

You might call this book dystopian speculative fiction with social commentary and strong female characters, fitting squarely in Tepper's body of work. But that misses the pure adventure that provides the summer reading pleasure in this book. "The Margarets" incorporates a grab bag of creatures, cultures, psychological metaphors, characters, commentaries and predicaments. The result is a delightful variation on the kind of novel with disparate characters and plot threads that somehow come together at the end. In this tale, they are together in the mind of a child at the beginning.

What's more, these are not simplistic and flimsy characters. Here M'urgi, Ongamar, Gretamara and the rest of the Margarets each prove more interesting and independent than they have any right to be. But there's no need to pay any attention to the craft of this story. Just slide into it like your most comfortable summer sandals and enjoy.

-- Gail Ann Williams

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What would you recommend for summer reading? Share you suggestion in our letters section.

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Books Fiction Mysteries Science Fiction And Fantasy Summer Reading