A Bouquet of Beach Books
By Miriam R. Kramer
What constitutes a beach book? It is different for all of us. This month many of us will be at the beach or the pool, traveling to see friends and family, or just hitting the deck or porch to snack on biographies, fiction, or history. Luckily I have been hitting some lighter books hard this past month to collect reading ideas for your own dog days of August, hopefully to be spent with a dog or two flopped at your feet and a glass of iced tea at hand.
First up are two suspense thrillers with unpredictable story-telling. Verity, by Colleen Hoover, works not just as a thriller but also as a sly commentary on writing with a classic example of an unreliable narrator. A New York writer, Lowen Ashleigh, who has had moderate success with her books, meets a man after she sees an accidental death on a street. After he cleans the blood off her, they both head off in separate directions, only to end up in the same literary meeting.
Jeremy Crawford’s wife, Verity, is the author of a highly successful series of books. After an unusual car crash, she is left almost comatose with constant nurse supervision at home. Jeremy seeks a writer to continue his wife’s series of novels. Verity had thought very highly of Lowen’s work. Therefore Jeremy wants her to author the novels, first doing research to pick up narrative threads and organize Verity’s outlines. Against her better instincts, Lowen moves into their Vermont home to put together Verity’s writings. When she finds Verity’s diaries, she is swallowed up in Verity’s version of the truth, which paints herself and her husband in a certain light. She also finds herself obsessed with Jeremy and haunted by Verity. I heard an echo of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier throughout the novel.
Until the book ends, the question remains: who is Lowen to believe? The name Verity means the truth, but is she truthful? To the story or to herself? Are they the same thing? What do the answers to these questions mean in respect to Lowen’s own life and writing? I found the resulting questions the most meaningful aspect of the book.
The House on the Lake by Riley Sager is similarly creepy. Casey Fletcher, an actress and another New Yorker, has suffered the drowning of her beloved husband. After hitting the bottle hard to numb herself, she at least temporarily ruins her Broadway career. Her mother makes her retreat to their summer house on a small lake in Vermont to dry out. Casey whiles away every day until she deems it appropriate to start drinking again, while sitting on the porch and looking at the few houses scattered on the shores. A famous model-philanthropist, Katherine Royce, and her businessman husband, Tom, have moved into an expensive modern house there. One day, when Casey is paddling in a boat on the water, she rescues Katherine from drowning, even though Katherine was already blue from the cold and seemingly lifeless. They strike up a friendship, although Casey starts to notice Katherine’s erratic behavior. She sees it through her own drunken lens, which causes her to doubt herself.
In a nod to the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window, Casey picks up binoculars and watches the couple across the lake through their huge plate glass windows, becoming suspicious that Tom may want to kill his wife for the insurance money. When Katherine goes missing, her doubts grow into beliefs. Casey takes action in unexpected ways, with the help of a hunky next-door neighbor. As the plot proceeds, we start to learn Casey’s unreliability, since she herself has not fully told us her own circumstances. With an unexpected touch of the paranormal, this thriller is certainly unpredictable.
I did not love it or the previous novel, although I thought they were better than most of their kind. They both featured some two-dimensional characters and soppy romance-novel scenes, but they are good candidates for twisty beach books you can stain with suntan lotion and donate to someone else after you have skimmed them. The best example I have read of this creepy, suspenseful type of book with unattractive but compelling characters is still Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. If you have not perused it, you might start there. The movie version of Gone Girl is, unusually, even better than the book.
If you are interested in old Hollywood, a decent biography I recently perused was Truly, Madly by Stephen Galloway. Galloway does an excellent job at charting the rising British stars of the cinema and theater, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and their passionate but doomed marriage.
Galloway’s biography covers their early theatrical adventures, along with Vivien’s explosion into super-stardom after she portrayed Scarlett O’Hara brilliantly in the face of doubters who did not think an English actress could inhabit the skin of a quintessential Southern belle sacred to the American public. He scrupulously describes the overwhelming passion of their marriage, which began to deteriorate as a result of Vivien’s terrible and undiagnosed mood swings. Even as Laurence Olivier devoted himself to becoming a leading light of Shakespearean theater in particular while starring in multiple celebrated films, Vivien showed increasing signs of instability.
Sometimes she might strip naked and show herself in a public setting, for example, only to come to her senses later. As Galloway notes, in today’s world she would possibly have been diagnosed as Bipolar I with other comorbidities. At that point, all Laurence could do was bear her vagaries and try to contain them. They both ended up cheating in their marriage, despite their love for one another. Galloway writes of their divorce as a matter of necessity for Olivier to function, but notes that both felt remnants of their love throughout their lives.
For the Michael Connelly fans, I would recommend the newer Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch series. Harry now volunteers as a retired police officer working cold cases at the small police station covering the tiny city of San Fernando. When he and Renee meet, he endeavors to solve cases on the down low with Renee Ballard, an active detective who enjoys the independence of working night shifts on “The Late Show.” As two loners with exacting standards for fighting crime, their symbiosis energizes the series, in particular because they normally work on and solve more than one case per book. The switch back and forth between a cold and a current case kept me more interested than Connelly’s work focusing just on Harry Bosch. If you like gritty L.A. noir and a decently written, taut mystery, you will find yourself absorbed in The Late Show, Dark Sacred Night, and The Night Fire.
Enjoy your summer reading and stay cool out there. These dog days can be brutally hot, so make sure your dogs are not! Keep their paws on the grass and off the hot asphalt to make your vacation a happy and healthy one for all concerned.