Barbara’s Picks, June 2012, Pt. 1: du Plessix Gray, Lanchester, Jon Steele, Vargas Llosa, Maureen McLane

du Plessix Gray, Francine. The Queen’s Lover. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Jun. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9781594203374. $25.95. Downloadable: Penguin Audio. LITERARY
This queen is Marie Antoinette, and her lover is Swedish nobleman Count Axel von Fersen, though they don’t initially become intimate when they meet at a masked ball in 1774 and the 19-year-old Marie Antoinette is but a dauphine, married to the man who would become Louis XVI. Fersen becomes close to the entire royal family, learning their secrets, then, after enlisting in the cause of the American Revolution, returns to France’s own bloody upheaval. The rigorous and penetrating du Plessix Gray should do for Louis XVI’s France would Hillary Mantel did for Henry VIII in Wolf Hall, that is, make real art, distinctively her own, of an already fascinating time, place, and cast of characters.

Lanchester, John. Capital: A Novel. Norton. Jun. 2012. 544p. ISBN 9780393082074. $26.95. LITERARY
It’s 2008, and even as the economy shudders and falls, something sinister is happening on Pepys Road, London. The residents are an interesting mix‚ a banker and his greedy wife, an older woman terminally ill with cancer and her graffiti-artist son, Pakistani shop owners, refugees, a soccer star, and more‚ and they’re all getting postcards reading We Want What You Have. What that is, no one knows, but the ominousness fits perfectly with the anxiety of society at large, even as the novel chronicles the small, personal dramas of each household. Lanchester’s award-winning novels (e.g., The Debt of Pleasure) show him to have a sharp eye for social detail, and this novel should serve well to capture our aching times.

Steele, Jon. The Watchers. Blue Rider: Penguin Group (USA). Jun. 2012. 560p. ISBN 9780399158742. $26.95. THRILLER
Corpses bearing the marks of torture are showing up around Lausanne Cathedral, where an innocent named Marc Rochat serves as le guet‚ the man who rings out the hour from the church’s belfry. Katherine Taylor, a high-priced American call girl, lives just across the square. Soon they encounter a British private eye named Jay Harper who’s been sent to investigate the murders‚ by whom he cannot remember, though he does seem to remember the Latin he never knew that he knew. In this atmospheric but (at first glance) sharply written story‚ called a mystical noir-thriller by the publisher, written in the spirit of recent works by Danielle Trussoni and Anne Rice‚ stone angels adorn the cathedral, but real angels, tumbled from heaven, may be the cause of the trouble. A first novel (and first in a series) from Steele, for years a master cameraman for Independent Television News and author of War Junkie, an underground classic; really smart work for serious thriller readers.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. The Dream of the Celt. Farrar. Jun. 2012. 480p. ISBN 9780374143466. $28. LITERARY FICTION
A book from Nobel prize winner Vargas Llosa is always a treat, and this one is also something of a surprise. His subject is Irish nationalist Robert Casement, who in 1916 was hanged by the British government for treason. Casement had fought to improve the lives of oppressed people worldwide, from the Belgian Congo to the Amazon, but when he began highlighting injustices closer to home his fate was sealed. Casement’s legacy is not well known, and Vargas Llosa resurrects him‚ but in fictional form, allowing for a deeper exploration of motive and emotion. Obviously for all literary readers.

Collins, Gail. As Texas Goes…: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda. Norton. Jun. 2012. 256p. ISBN 9780871404077. $25.95. POLITICS
What happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas anymore. That truth is delivered by the ever-perceptive Collins, New York Times columnist and best-selling author (When Everything Changed), who always thought of the country as two liberal coasts flanking a Republican heartland (she herself is from Ohio). Lately, she has come to understand that the country’s entire political agenda has been set by Texas, where a conservative ideology supporting deregulation, lowered environmental protections, tax cuts, and a states’ rights approach has been championed by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and now Rick Perry. To understand what’s going on with the nation, we need to look at Texas‚ exactly what the acerbically smart Collins does. All set to raise both cheers and hackles; get it.

McLane, Maureen N. My Poets. Farrar. Jun. 2012. 240p. ISBN 9780374217495. $25. MEMOIR/LITERATURE
The author of two collections (2010’s World Enough was an LJ Best Poetry Book), McLane writes musically astute lines that deliver a sharp and gratifying sense of story, character, or place; her poems are wonderful to dwell in. So it’s a delight to learn that she’s offering this book, not a study of poetry but of how certain poets have shaped her writing, her thinking, her very life. She thus presents her own story and literary exegesis as two sides of the same bright coin, and we meet her as we meet Chaucer, Shelley, Louise Glück, and more. I’m expecting a lot of this book.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.