It’s Memorial Day weekend in the States, which means that summer has officially begun. It’s not Memorial Day here, but it is 106 degrees in the shade, which I think has to count as “summer,” don’t you? And while it’s too hot for most people to read on the beach here, it’s the perfect weather to pull up your favorite bench in the mall and relax with a good book.  The rest of you, tuck a book in your bag, or in your ipad or your kindle or your phone or just download the damn thing directly into your brain, and enjoy.

Bring Up The Bodies – Hilary Mantel.  When my friend Karen told me that there was a sequel to Wolf Hall, I did the Elizabethan version of the happy dance (sort of a stately quadrille). Wolf Hall may be one of the best novels I’ve ever read: I mean, Mantel was able to take a story we all know really well – Henry VIII’s desire to divest himself of wife number one in order to marry wife number two. We all know the story and yet as I read, I found myself wondering what’s going to happen?

In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry has tired of Anne and her scheming (not to mention her lack of a male heir) and it falls to Cromwell, again, to fulfill his master’s wishes: Henry wants his marriage to Anne annulled so he can marry the demure Jane Seymour.  Cromwell is acutely aware of his position at court: as a commoner whose power far outstrips those who by birth far outrank him, he is surrounded by people whose smiles mask a desire to see him fall from grace.  The scheming and conniving in Henry’s court make modern-day politics look ham-fisted and lumpen by comparison, but the chilling ease with which Cromwell engineers the downfall not only of Queen Anne but also the courtiers who have insulted him would teach Machiavelli (whose book Cromwell mentions, early in the novel) a thing or two.

Some people are put off by “historical fiction,” but these novels remind us that history is made of people’s lives, of their desires and thwarted hopes. The best historical fiction breathes life into the present – and Mantel’s books are absolutely the best of the best.

The Art of Fielding.  A friend of ours wrote a great review of this novel when it came out last year but I resisted reading the book until now because – well, because I hate books about baseball. All that lyrical language about the national game, and bucolic green fields, and national pastime and blah blah blah. Phtooey. It’s just a game, dammit. No metaphor, no symbolism, just a game played by men who are (mostly) overpaid in stadiums that give little or nothing back to their communities.

But. Art of Fielding is not about baseball. Or rather, some of the characters in this novel play baseball. Others are academics, others are fleeing failed marriages, others are falling in love, and others are reading Moby Dick. This book captures the landscape of the Midwest, the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small college with “aspirations,” our human need for connection, understanding, forgiveness. It’s really quite brilliant – and truth be told, even the baseball bits weren’t that bad.

What was bad is The Expats, a thriller with a great title.  I love thrillers and I’m currently an expat, so this book should be right up my alley but instead it’s wasted bandwidth on my ipad.  I’m not the world’s most logical thinker, but even I was able to poke a finger in the gaping holes in this novel’s plot – holes that are matched by the curious blind-spots in each of the central characters. A veteran spy says “sure use my computer” to a total stranger?  Another veteran spy manages to overlook a clue so big it practically screamed CLUE?  hmm… There are great snippets here and there about the oddities of expat life, but heck, for that you could just read my blog and save yourself the price of downloading the novel.  If you want a good thriller, find yourself some Lee Childs, or Jo Nesbo, or even early Daniel Silva.

To make things easier for you, you can click right over there in the Amazon box to order your copies of these books. Next in the queue? I Am Forbidden, a novel set in a little-known sect of Hasidim; Nick Kristof’s book Half the Sky; another novel set in Cromwell’s time – this one a thriller, which I think is going to pale in comparison to the real thrills happening during this era; and Discovery of Witches, which a friend told me is sort of like Shades of Gray, “but smart and well-written.” In which case it’s got almost nothing to do with Shades of Gray other than sex, I guess.

What’s in your book bag this summer?