New and notable reads

The mystery of Mata Hari a dastardly dandy and rollicking romance

The one upside to the unusually long rainy season was a chance to get a jumpstart on my summer reading list — my suntan’s loss is your literary gain. Here is a stack of books perfect for patio geeking and one best suited for lighting your grill.

• Signed Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy (Little Brown and Company 288 pp.) — A lyrical and haunting fictionalization of the life of Margaretha Zelle an exotic dancer and courtesan who found fame and disgrace under the name Mata Hari. Murphy skillfully captures the excitement and despair of the fin de siècle as she follows young Margaretha from her early days at an upper-class Dutch boarding school to a disastrous marriage with a naval officer to her ultimate resting place in a Parisian prison. In Mata Hari’s unforgettable voice remembrances of Javanese jungles and European stages transport the reader to exotic realms before harshly returning them to the dank cell where she awaits trial for espionage. The story is pensive and relentless and a testament to the enduring legend of the prototypical femme fatale.

• Dandy in the Underworld: An Unauthorized Autobiography by Sebastian Horsley (HarperCollins Canada 368 pp.) — As cultural icons go Sebastian Horsley is no Mata Hari. An artist and writer best known for having himself crucified in the Philippines it is perhaps unsurprising that his memoir reads like literary self-flagellation. Horsley writes of growing up the child of privilege and indifference in an English country manor a social deviant who found a home in the nascent punk movement before losing himself in drugs and degradation. Horsley takes the reader on a tour de force through his depraved existence from whorehouses to crack dens and back again writing with the same half-bored half-amused tone whether discussing heroin or haberdasheries. A book that caused United States Customs authorities to refuse him entry due to “moral turpitude” Dandy in the Underworld is a delightfully dirty read.

• Lady Lazarus by Andrew Foster Altschul (Harcourt 576 pp.) — A bloated corpse of a novel. Based on the premise of a Kurt Cobain-like figure giving birth to a daughter who becomes the world’s greatest poet this book aspires to cultural criticism and settles for mere cleverness. Alternating between chapters written by her biographer and by the poet herself Lady Lazarus tries to trace the complex relationship between art and commerce celebrity and self. Unfortunately it tries too hard to show off the author’s learning — a common enough pitfall for debut novelists. Altschul is a smart man and a capable storyteller but too often the plot is plodding and the characters caricatured. For all of its heft the book is slight.

• Love Falls by Esther Freud (HarperCollins Canada 279 pp.) — More substantial by far is the sixth novel by the author of Hideous Kinky. A closely observed and sharply rendered portrait of youth on the verge Love Falls follows 17-year-old Lara on a journey from London to Tuscany with her distant father. Transplanted into a strange new milieu Lara finds herself drawn into the orbit of the Willoughbys the teenaged brood of a British millionaire whose family secrets are tied up with those of her father. Soon her flirtation with the broodingly handsome Kip Willoughby gives way to something deeper and though the plot sounds like a romance novel Freud succeeds in writing a genuinely romantic novel one that captures brilliantly the exuberance and consequence that lie at the heart of young love.

• The Delivery Man by Joe McGinniss Jr. (Grove Press Black Cat 278 pp.) — Somebody must have forgotten to tell Joe McGinniss Jr. that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Set in the glitzy hotel rooms and gritty suburbs of Sin City The Delivery Man follows a 25-year-old Las Vegas native as he tries to muster courage and cash enough to leave town. A one-time art school prodigy when Chase is fired from his job as a high school teacher he ends up chauffeuring his childhood sweetheart as she goes to work as a call girl. Lost in a fog of ennui and inertia McGinniss’s characters are unable to escape their lives and unwilling to improve them. This lean and muscular literary thriller’s tightly coiled prose ratchets up the tension until exploding unforgettably.