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Four beach books: One keeper, one weeper, two sleepers

Two young women in Kelowna, B.C.'s Waterfront Park are too absorbed in their reading to notice as a gaggle of geese saunters by.

Gary Nylander/CP

Reviewed here:

  • Tigers in Red Weather, by Liza Klaussmann (Doubleday Canada, 353 pages, $29.95)
  • Summerland, by Elin Hilderbrand (Little, Brown, 388 pages, $29.99)
  • Where We Belong, by Emily Giffin, St. Martin’s, 372 pages, $31.99
  • The Next Best Thing, by Jennifer Weiner, Simon & Shuster, 386 pages, $29.99

Herman Melville would be awfully proud of his great-great-great granddaughter, Liza Klaussmann. Tigers in Red Weather, Klaussmann's brilliant first novel, is a Gatsby-esque portrait of a dysfunctional family from the time they come together on their estate in Martha's Vineyard at the end of the Second World War up to the 1970s. This book is essentially a close look at what the war did to people – to the men who fought in it, to the women who stayed home and worried. It is about how the effects of war stayed with these people for the rest of their lives. Effects such as the inability to portray emotion, or, conversely, to give in to one's feelings (affairs abound). There is a heavy reliance on alcohol – to cloak what the men have seen and what the women want to forget. All of these things are in Klaussmann's gem.

Beautifully written, this novel consists of sharp, lean dialogue, fast-paced narrative and compelling descriptions of the entitled people who populate Martha's Vineyard. There are summer parties, tennis matches and martinis and cigarettes. There are sailboats and steamy, hot affairs and there is a creepy nephew skulking around keeping the plot careening forward so quickly that you can't put the book down. There is the murder of a maid, mysterious but quickly overlooked by most everyone in Martha's Vineyard (she was, after all, the maid).

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Klaussmann focuses her attention on the matriarch of the family, Nick, as she both pulls everyone together and pushes them apart. Her daughter, Daisy (echoes of Gatsby again), completes the second half of the book and her coming-of-age tale rapidly builds to the climax. This novel moves toward a well-defined and pleasing conclusion. It is a fantastic literary read – summer or winter or anytime.

Summerland, by Elin Hilderbrand, is a powerful look at the three months of summer vacation when a car driven by teenager, Penny Alistair, goes wildly out of control resulting in her death. The three other passengers, Penny's brother, her boyfriend and her friend, all manage to survive. The question for the reader is: Was this a suicide or an accident? This novel looks at the after-effects of the crash on the small community of people who live year-round on the insular island of Nantucket. Told from many different points of view, this novel revolves around the people affected by Penny's death and the secrets and lies that come to light by the end of the summer. It is written strongly and unendingly sad. This novel puts pressure on your heart from page one until the end.

Jennifer Weiner's The Next Best Thing, and Emily Giffin's newest novel, Where We Belong, fit nicely together. They are similar to Hilderbrand's Summerland in some ways. However, where Hilderbrand's book delves deep into the human psyche, Giffin's and Weiner's books are told from the first-person point of view of the main characters only, making these books not as complex emotionally or structurally as Hilderbrand's (although Giffin's book has two main characters and switches back and forth between them, writing in the first person can be limiting).

Both The Next Best Thing and Where We Belong are about aspiring (and eventually successful) young women screenwriters working in the film/TV industry. Both of these women are witty and quick, the authors pepper their dialogue with rapid-fire comebacks and humour. Both women have men problems, which compound with all their other problems.

In The Next Best Thing, the main character is scarred from a car accident that killed her parents when she was young. She deals with her physical differences in the plastic-surgery world of L.A. with grace and inner strength (and quite a bit of humour). She lives with her grandmother, a relationship that is the basis of the sitcom she develops for TV, but which the reader unfortunately doesn't get to see much of. A poignant scene in the hospital, when the main character is going through numerous surgeries to restore her face, is about all we see of this grandmother/granddaughter relationship.

In Giffin's book, Where We Belong, we see a successful woman being confronted by the secret child she gave up for adoption when she was 18. Interestingly, we get the adopted daughter's point of view too (in rotating chapters). Nothing surprising happens, secrets are revealed, there are a climax and a denouement, but the story is sweet and satisfying with a feel-good ending and hope for the future.

Both of these novels are emotional and the writers are obviously knowledgeable. New York (Giffin) and L.A. (Weiner) figure prominently, and you feel as if you've travelled to both places when you finish reading. There are moments – about the TV industry and about the relationships these women are having with the men they love (and, in the case of Giffin's book, with an adopted daughter) – which feel truthful and correct. In the end, although solid, these books hold few surprises.

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Tigers in Red Weather is a keeper. Drink your "gin neat out of old jelly jars" and settle in to this stunning literary first novel. Summerland is beautiful, but grab your box of Kleenex. The Next Best Thing and Where We Belong demand lounge chairs by the water. They are beach reads. Quick and fun, but ultimately forgettable.

Michelle Berry's backlist – three novels and one short-story collection – are coming out in ebook and in print in the fall. She is working on her fifth novel.

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