Better Late Than Never: Summer Reads

The beginning of the summer brought great intentions. I was going to set up a blog and review every book I read during those hot, hazy months. I was going to be prolific and it was going to be amazing and publishers all over the world would be sending me their books, begging me to attach my golden approval to their author’s words.

So I read lots of books and I set up this Word Press site and then…well, there were a lot of distractions this summer. There was the creative writing course I decided to take in June. That was time consuming. Then there were A LOT of Dateline NBC episodes that I hadn’t seen before. That’s important viewing if you don’t want to be killed by a loved one. And Candy Crush…so much Candy Crush.

And now here I am, second week of September, forced by my own lazy hand to blog my summer reads in the early days of fall. Reads that I barely remember due to an abundance of summer beer. Let’s hope it can only get better from here.

The Quick by Lauren Owen

I’m obsessed with Victorian London, and was super-excited by this book simply because it took place in that time period. The first 100 pages were tremendous, perfect, exactly what my black, wizened heart needed. Then there was a twist and I was like ‘Awwww damn, I didn’t want it to turn into THAT kind of book.’ But, because I’d invested some time in it, I persevered and was glad I did because the rest of the book was just as good, despite the genre switcheroo. And that’s all I’m prepared to tell you about it because I don’t want to ruin the surprise if you don’t know about it already. Rest assured, the characters are likeable, interesting, believable (even in an unbelievable story); the plot is suspenseful; the writing is tight; and if you love Victorian London you won’t be disappointed.

Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

If I were to ask you what the two least funny historical subjects would be, you very well might answer presidential assassinations and the Puritans. And you’d be wrong, my friend. Because Sarah Vowell has taken both of these subjects and turned them into books that are both edumacational and humorous.

I love history, but weep the tears of my dead ancestors when it’s dry and boring. The past is full of stupid, silly, dramatic stuff done by eccentric people dressed in funny clothes. There’s no need to make a book about it sound like a lecture in chartered accounting. Vowell clearly agrees as she visits the sites were such things took place, bringing along her friends and young nephew, and educating us all about presidential murders and the early days of the great United States.

The Wordy Shipmates, the book about the Puritans, was particularly entertaining. Never a dull moment when you’re settling a new continent with that bunch. Vowell takes the reader from 17th century Plymouth to modern day Mohegan Sun casino and, in the process, inspired me to noodle about on ancestry.com only to discover my own Puritan background, thus explaining my deep-seated disapproval of Christmas celebrations and love of buckle hats.

The Salinger Contract by Adam Langer

I can’t remember how I came across this book.  Maybe through a mention on Book Riot? In any case, it was an enjoyable read – quick, moderately suspenseful, with an interesting plot. It’s a literary mystery that name drops a number of famous authors in conjunction with an enigmatic, somewhat threatening, collector. Kind of like a meal at Bertucci’s – satisfying, but not hugely memorable.

The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh

Again, another one I can’t remember how I found, and an older book as well. It’s the true story of two cops, two criminals and a murder in a Los Angeles onion field in the early 1960s. The book starts slowly – Wambaugh spends several chapters illustrating the everyday lives of each of the four men. While this made me nearly give up early on, it pays off later in when those ordinary details contrast with the extraordinary story of the murder and its aftermath. It’s a chilling, tragic story where everyone is a victim in some way.

Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

In addition to Victorian London, I’m also obsessed with North Korea (did you know the North Korea government recently announced to its citizens that it was opening up a human rights investigation into the events in Ferguson, MO?). This is the true story of Shin Dong-hyuk, one of the few people (maybe the only) born in a North Korean labor camp to escape. An engrossing and appalling story of what horror goes on behind the vaguely entertaining facade of a country stunted by its cruel leaders.

Behind The Curtain by Dave Berg

This is the ‘behind the scenes’ story of The Tonight Show: the Leno years. I’d rather eat my own hair than watch ten minutes of Leno doing anything. But I do love a book that spills the details of what it’s like to get a TV show on the air night after night and throws in some juicy stories to boot.  This isn’t that book. Berg really loves Leno and there’s little here apart from stories about how great he was. It does little to shed any light on the inner workings of the show, Leno’s inability to get along with his fellow late night hosts (Letterman, O’Brien), basically anything remotely interesting. It’s like listening to your grampa tell you the story of the time he shook hands with Lindberg. It’s cute to see him still so excited by the memory, but doesn’t leave you with any insight into the man or the context of his work.

Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

I once grew my roots out long enough so I could see how my natural hair color looked. It was interesting to see the results, but ultimately an unsatisfying waste of time that I could have spent with better hair. This is the novel version of that.

Hat tip to Koch for writing a book without one likeable character, full of unpleasant medical and human hygiene details and a scene involving an eye that made me turn to drink for a week, yet still kept me reading till the end just to see how it all turned out. But really, I shouldn’t have bothered.

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Both this and Koch’s book got a fair amount of buzz this summer.  This, by far, is the better of the two books. Written in chapters of present day and flashback narration, it tells the story of Tooly Zylberberg, owner of a bookshop in Wales and possessor of a mysterious childhood peopled with enigmatic characters. Her own understanding of who these people really were and how they came to be involved in her life is muddy, but eventually the pieces come together and there are some genuinely moving moments of realization and humanity. Tooly is also an admirable heroine – smart, independent and complex.

Rustication by Charles Palliser

I confess, I can’t remember if I read this during the summer. It may have been a few months before. But I loved The Quincunx (doesn’t that word sound dirty) and was goggle-eyed with excitement when I heard he had a new book out.  Again, it takes place in Victorian England, so of course I was all over that. Rustication (which also sounds a bit dirty, but isn’t) is creepy, atmospheric, mysterious, strange and engrossing. It would actually be a great read as those dark, cold winter nights close in and you huddle under a blanket in a chair by a fire.

Feel free to leave comments that agree or disagree with the above and let us know what some of your summer reads were.

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