Summer 2013: Beach Reads

In cheeky honor of Bloomsday, the annual June 16th celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, this week’s Doux News has been overtaken by mini book reviews by the Doux Reviews writers. I requested that the writers recommend big, fun, summery books: the type Molly Bloom might love, and Joyce—who allegedly once told a reader she ought to spend nearly a decade reading Ulysses, as he had spent that long writing it—might hate. To which they responded: yes, yes, yes.*

The following summer “beach read” recommendations aren’t necessarily new. Instead, they’re the books our writers thought most suited to a leisurely sunburned summer vacation. Add your own in the comments!

[*I should mention that I didn’t bring up Bloomsday when soliciting these mini book reviews, because I’d completely forgotten it existed. Any attempts to subvert literary street cred are mine and mine alone.]


The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. First in a series of absolutely adorable crime novels, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency tells the story of Mma Ramotswe, a woman determined to be the first female proprietor of a detective agency in Botswana. The novels are sweet, funny, and often surprisingly suspenseful (but thankfully, not in a stressful, George R. R. Martin way). They’re completely addicting and yet, somehow, totally guilt free. Plus, their citrus-colored covers just scream summer.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells.The second of three books in the Ya-Ya universe (preceding by the short story collection Little Altars Everywhere and succeeded by the inferior Ya-Yas in Bloom), Divine Secrets is about as guilty pleasure as I get in my reading. Siddalee Walker is given her mother’s scrapbook so that she might better understand her...unique mother, Vivi. Through the framework of Sidda leafing through the scrapbook, we glimpse stories from both Sidda’s and Vivi’s childhood and young adulthood. It’s interesting to see the characters develop over decades and Wells’s already evocative writing is peppered with pop culture references that make the various time periods (particularly the 1960s) come alive.


If you want a really long, complex read, this is a good time to catch up on A Song of Ice and Fire! I tend to like shorter reads. If you're going to the Mediterranean, Lindsey Davis' Falco books or Steven Saylor's Gordianus books are both good sets. Michael Palin's travel books are also very good, and cover a lot of the planet!


For me, a beach read has to be fun. I don’t want a book that is going to make me question my reality or make me want to drop everything so that I can research a new concept. I want a good story, filled with good characters, preferably who make me laugh out loud.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series does just this. Stephanie is a former lingerie buyer who loses her job and becomes a bounty hunter to pay the bills. The books are simply wonderful stories, but the highlights are the characters. Each of them is wonderfully drawn and they all make me laugh.

Start at the beginning (One for the Money) and work your way through them. Evanovich is up to number nineteen. Amazingly, the later books are just as good as the early ones. If you saw the horror that was the movie, put it out of your mind and read the book. I promise that it’s much, much better.

Mark Greig

Shada by Garth Roberts and Douglas Adams. Seeing as this is the show's 50th Anniversary I decided to recommend some titles from the BBC's vast range of classic Doctor Who novels. Of course, it would've helped if most of them were still in print so I could actually read them. So until BBC Books sorts out what to do with its back catalogue, I'll blabber on about Garth Roberts adaptation of Douglas Adams infamous lost story, Shada.

No Doctor Who story has a more convoluted history than this one. Originally intended to be the final story of season 17, it was abandoned halfway through production due to strike action and never completed. Since then it has gone through many different forms, including an audio drama. Roberts' novel is by far the definite version, fixing the various plot holes, giving the villain a backstory and motivation, fleshing out the supporting characters and even throwing in some elements Nu Who fans will get a kick out of. It's a fun, breezy read that perfectly captures Adams style without coming across like an inferior copy. (It also features a scene where everyone sits on the beach eating ice cream.)

Josie Kafka

I love nothing so much as a book about books. This sub-sub-genre of “literature thrillers” (distinct from “literary thrillers,” which are well written and fast-paced, but don’t feature books or libraries as characters) is about people who love books, hunt books, misunderstand books, jump into books, and attempt to understand books—often while fighting for their lives in labyrinths both literal and metaphorical. I have an entire shelf devoted to novels like this, from the mediocre Rule of Four (Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason) to the delightful inanity of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. These are two of my favorites:

The protagonist of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind begins to come of age in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and his story of an attempt to track down a forgotten author draws him into the deeper mysteries of love and faith against a densely gothic backdrop of 1950s Barcelona. With striking visual imagery and a knack for memorable blazons, Carlos Ruiz Zafón crafts a languid, moody thriller that doubles as a love-letter to the power of a good book.

Although Umberto Eco’s recent books have turned weird (the narrator of The Prague Cemetery was so spiteful I couldn’t get past page 10), his earlier The Name of the Rose is a classic for a reason: it is simultaneously a detective story, a historical thriller, a catalogue of allusions, and a fun caper (with monks!). Eco, a semiotician by day, is well-versed in medieval history and philosophy, and in The Name of the Rose he portrays a fourteenth-century monastery and scriptorium with a Borgesian delight in comic erudition and a Sherlockian love of deduction.


The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. An interesting tale about magic in somewhat modern day life (New York 1899). The book explores immigrant life in New York City at the turn of the last century through the eyes of two supernatural creatures, a golem (part of Jewish mythology) and a jinni (part of Arab mythology). The supernatural creatures give the author an opportunity to look at our human world through somewhat alien eyes. While I enjoyed this, I really liked the exploration of the two mythologies which also gave me insight into Jewish and Arab, particularly Bedouin, culture. [Editor's Note: I, Josie, almost recommended this, too. It's very good.]

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I loved this book which starts with a writer finding a Japanese lunch box washed up on the shore of her island on the West coast of Canada. It may or may not be part of the flotsam from the Tsunami. We then follow two stories in parallel: the story of the young Japanese girl who owned the lunch box and the writer who responds to its contents. We get to meet many characters who are intertwined with these two, many of whom are quirky and troubled. My favourite was the grandmother of the Japanese girl who was an anarchist feminist in her younger days in Japan. This story isn't light and fluffy, but you will have trouble putting it down. Perfect for those lazy days when all you want to do is read.

Billie Doux

I decided that instead of recommending something new, I'd go with a few old favorites. Ken Follett used to be a huge favorite of mine, meaning I always bought his stuff in hardcover the minute it came out, something I rarely do for anyone, and I don't do it for old Ken any more. But I highly recommend two of his novels as excellent “beach reads.”

The Pillars of the Earth is the best historical novel I have ever read, period. It takes place in twelfth-century England and centers on the people involved with the building of a cathedral. That makes it sound dull, but it's not—it's gritty, brutal, realistic, and believable. Follett is a master of historical research and does such an exceptional job making it feel like you're there with these people, subject to the whims of whoever has the strongest sword. Even years after reading it, I remember the story and the characters in vivid detail. (I wasn't as crazy about the miniseries or the sequel, World Without End, for what it's worth.)

Follett is famous for his World War II novels, and they're all excellent; the most famous is probably The Eye of the Needle. Of them all, and I've read them all, Jackdaws is my favorite. It has a well-worn plot: a select group of Dirty Dozen-like spies try to pull off an impossible mission. The twist with Jackdaws is that the select group of spies are women. It's often hard for a male writer to write believable female characters, and Follett hasn't always managed to do that. He did it this time.


M said...

I just finished the last of the "Fever" series by Karen Marie Moning, and it is the best thing I have read in years. I would say it falls into the mystery/romance/humor/supernatural genre. At first, I was dubious about the originality of the series because the heroine was a little too Sookie-like, but the character evolves in a way that Sookie never really does. The plot twists and turns unexpectedly and I could NOT figure out the mystery. Plus, it made me cry more than once. I read the first four books voraciously, but put off reading the last one because I didn't want it to end. Loved it.

But wait, I am torn. It is possible that "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss is the best thing I have read in years! The cover of the book is just downright embarrassing, (at least the latest version) but the story is funny and original. I would say it falls into the epic fantasy genre, but in a refreshing way. A good friend recommended it to me with a warning that if I didn't like it, I couldn't tell her so. Not because my opinion mattered so much, but because she loved the book so much it would have hurt her to hear someone say something bad about it. As if it were her child :)

Josie Kafka said...

M, I love Rothfuss's books, and I can't wait for the next one. Have you read Jo Walton's extended series of posts about both The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear? It might take a few days to go through them, but it's worth it:

sunbunny said...

Chris - I didn't recommend Janet Evanovich because I was sure you would! :)

I always feel so out of my depth when people talk about books written in the last 50-60 years or so. That's just not what I read for the most part. I've heard of precious few of these and read practically none of them!

I always forget about Bloomsday too, Josie. I'm a bad English major!

M said...

Josie- I am so glad other people know about Patrick Rothfuss' books! I haven't known anyone else who loves them as much as I do, but I suspect Jo Walton may just have me beat. That is one in-depth analysis! I think when you find that someone is obsessed enough with a book to have written an entire essay about the deeper meaning of the (seemingly meaningless) stew served on page four of the book, you may have found a book worth reading.

M said...

PS...Jo Walton's essays are really insightful and amusing! I also love the comments, and that people are getting downright Tolkein-fannish about it! Thanks for the link.

M said...

Ahem...Tolkien*-fannish :)

CrazyCris said...

Josie you made my day when you listed The Shadow of the Wind!!! I love it when Spanish authors get read in other languages across the world! :D
That book was fabulous! I think I gave it to easily half a dozen people for their birthday (some in English, some in French, some in Spanish... thank you Amazon!)

Have you read the two follow-ups? The first - The Angel's Game - takes place a generation earlier in Barcelona, and again the Cemetary of Forgotten Books features nicely (so only a couple of the older secondary characters from Shadow make an appearance).

Then there's The Angel's Game which takes place about 5 years after Shadow and brings together several threads from the previous two books while retaining its own independance. If you haven't read them I highly recommend them! :o)

CrazyCris said...

M, Josie I too love the Rothfuss novels!!! Took me a while to really "get into" the first one, but once I did I just zipped through! Couldn't get enough and so went out and bought the second in the larger format (couldn't wait for cheaper paperback). Does anyone have any ideas when the third (final?) will be out???

CrazyCris said...

I prefer "light" reading for the summer, books that don't require my brain to do too much work as the distractions and noises at the beach and pool don't help when it comes to concentration!

Right now I'm re-reading some of Isabel Allende's "lighter" novels, El Zorro is a lot of fun!!! Looks into that legend's youthful years. Her trilogy for "younger" readers La Ciudad de las Bestias - El Bosque de los Pigmeos - El Reino del Dragón de Oro (dunno the titles in English! City of Beasts?) are also magically wonderful! A couple of kids go on adventures with a grandmother, first one's in the Amazon!!!

I might start reading the Star Wars "Legacy of the Force" novels. I got hooked on SW novels with the first Timothy Zahn Thrawn trilogy (a brilliant set of books which really capture the magic of Star Wars!) and I've been reading most of them ever since! I've been waiting on this sub-series for a while, until they were all out in paperback... 9 books should be just about right for the summer! Just need to decide if ebook or paperback... I'd like to complete my collection but my shelves are groaning! ;o)

Josie Kafka said...

CrazyCris, I think I read The Angel's Game. Does the main character work at a newspaper? I didn't love it as much.

Patrick Rothfuss regularly updates his blog with a bunch of information (including stuff about his extensive charity fundraising, which is fairly awesome). He's been quite honest about the third book: it's going to be a while. He is a slow writer. Or, rather, he writes at the speed of an author of "literary fiction" in a genre that expects a quicker publishing schedule.

M said...

I had the same experience, with TNoTW, CrazyCris. I had a hard time getting into it, but my friend wanted me to read it, so I pushed through. So glad I did. I am on my library's waiting list for the Kindle version of the second book. I looked for it in stores many times, but I underestimated how long it would take to be published! That's ok, P.R. can take as long as he wants to write books that good! I am glad to know he is a good guy, Josie. In the photo on his website, he is wearing a "Joss Whedon is My Master Now" shirt, so I figure he must be ok.

Triscuitcracker said...

The 10 book series Malazan: Book of the Fallen is an epic (and finished!) fantasy series that will last you an entire summer and change the way you look at fantasy novels. It has everything in it but the kitchen sink and more complexity than Song of Ice and Fire. (which is also amazing of course)

CrazyCris said...

Josie yes he does! And he leaves it to write a novel, supposedly inspired by a mysterious (demonic?) person...

It wasn't as good as Shadow, but I still enjoyed it! The Angel's Game is better and I love how it brings the threads together from the other two books (particularly our protagonists dead mother -first book- who is central to the second book!)

M, I learnt long ago to push through the beginnings of slow books... I used to read A LOT of French 19th century literature in high school and most of it begins that way (Zola, Verne, Hugo even Dumas at times), and I discovered that once I got past the first 100 pages (which were still brilliant in setting the scene, even if not much happened) then the story just zipped along, fascinating and I was always glad to have stuck with it!

There's another recommendation for summer reading!!! Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers!!! So much better than any movie version you've ever seen which usually only tells the first half of the book with a bit of the end. And after that you can segue into 20 Years Later (double volume, continues the Musketeers story). The Vicomte de Bragelonne is a harder read, the story is a bit slower (like our musketeers who are a lot older!), it's very long (7 volumes in the edition I read!) and it's a bit sad (Dumas takes us to the end of each of the Musketeers' lives). But still excellent! I've read Vicomte twice, 20 Years Later at least half a dozen times... but lost count by college as to how many times I'd read the Musketeers!!! :p

ChrisB said...

Great piece, Josie. There are some of my favorites listed here as well as some I have never read. Oh, to have the time to just sit and read all day...

The Shadow of the Windis a must read. I loved it.

Josie Kafka said...

It's funny you mention the slow start, CrazyCris. I've tried to start The Three Musketeers four or five times, and always give up on p. 16.

The foolish part is that I loved The Count of Monte Cristo, so I know it'll be worth it. But I still give up.

sunbunny said...

Yay! Books I've read! I'm not a fan of the French romantics. In a way they're just too impressed with their own cleverness. They're also incredibly easily distracted. Tangent much? I gave up on the Count of Monte Cristo about halfway thru. Dumas was describing stuff the count had packed in his trunk or something for like ten pages.

Josie Kafka said...

Sunbunny, have you read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? It's like one long list of random stuff, then some gore (typically in list form).

Mark Greig said...

I gave up on Monte Cristo after losing track of the plot and how all the characters are connected to each other. Even this didn't help:

sunbunny said...

I haven't read Dragon Tattoo. I was intending to but a friend of mine got to it first and said I wouldn't like it. I might've giving it a try anyway but it's just so long. I don't want to give that much time to something I'm pretty sure I'm going to dislike.

CrazyCris said...

Sunbunny that's true (looooong descriptions, tangents...) about most of the 19th century authors I've read (French, Spanish, UK, US...). Those books all take a long time to really get started, and there are frequent "asides" or "tangents". The French Romantics it can often be a commentary on social issues of the time, for historical novelists it can be a history lesson... (Walter Scott has the same problem as Dumas with this!)

I think in part it's because most of these novels were serials, published weekly in the newspaper and so they needed to stretch it out to guarantee a paycheck! They were the equivalent of hot TV series in the 19th century! ;o)

Josie: it took me two tries to read Monte Cristo! I gave up the first time (I think I was 12, to "heavy" for me), but when I got through the second time I was like "why on earth did I stop last time? This is a great story!!!". But The Three Musketeers I have NEVER had a problem with! I love it straight from the beginning with D'Artagnan proudly arriving in town on that yellow nag, being made fun of by the locals, and his confrontation with Rochefort and then in the next chapters his encounters with the Athos, Porthos and Aramis and the subsequent duel chapter. Great fun!!! Push through!!! ;o)

sunbunny said...

Romantic writers in general were far more easily distracted (look a tree! I shall describe it using many words!) than those of other eras, but I still say the French were the worst at this (although I've never read any Spanish romanticism, to be fair). Second worst are probably Americans. I really don't find British Romantics have as much of a problem with it for whatever reason. It might be the time gap. Romanticism came to France relatively late. Dumas was writing in what the 1830s, 1840s? Whereas Lyrical Ballads was published in 1798.

CrazyCris said...

Yup, the Americans are definitely worse than the Brits, but there are some British authors who loved to wax lyrical!

Walter Scott can go on and on and on as well!!!
Ditto Dickens, but he's much later.

And I don't think I've ever been able to get through a single Spanish novel from the 19th century! I've tried several classics, but gave up each time!

sunbunny said...

Dickens was literally paid by the word. So, that explains that. :)

Ben P. Duck said...

Two very different (and very late arriving) thoughts, one of which builds on discussion:

First if you haven't read World War Z (and even if you end up hating the movie), this is a perfect beach read. Episodic and exciting, you can put it down feeling a sense of completion after each chapter, that is if you can put it down at all.

Second, Madame Bovary is a good read for the beach if you don't want to be seen reading a contemporary romance novel and you do want to appear attractive to the one French literature professor also lying on that same beach (and presumably pouting about the banality of it all). A longing (yet doomed) glance, the blood races, etc.

Finally, nobody can go on like Melville in Moby Dick, and only recommended if you share a Ahab-like obsession with defeating a great beast(nevertheless a book well worth it)

drnanamom said...

@Ben P. Duck, I loved World War Z. Such a different way to write about a zombie apocalypse (I still don't know how I got on the zombie train...). Thanks everyone for the great suggestions. @ChrisB, I've actually decided not to go anywhere on my vacation this year. I am just going to sit and read, probably some of the suggestions here. And just to prove that I can do fluff - I burn through the Sookie Stackhouse novels as soon as they come out.

Paul Kelly said...

I think the readability of Dumas' books is mostly dependent upon translation. I've two versions of The Count of Monte Cristo -- one which I adore, and one which is merely okay. The Robin Buss translation is simply spectacular. It's unabridged, easy to understand, and evokes both time and place without all that flowery nonsense generally slowing everything down. The other translation -- I can't remember who did it -- is an abridged version, is jarring to read, and makes Dumas' (not to be confused with dumb ass) classic a chore to read. I'm wondering whether the same is true of his other novels and people's alternating hot/cold reactions to it.

CrazyCris said...

Could be Paul. A good translator makes a huge difference!

I usually avoid translations like the plague (when possible, I'm good with anything in French, English or Spanish), but when I have to read a translation I try to find out in advance if it's a good one. For example I've been meaning to read several of the Russian classics for years, but haven't gotten around to them yet because I've been heard the best translations are in French! So one of these years on a random trip to France (or browsing through I'll finally pick up Anna Karennina or War and Peace.

And I abhor abridged versions of books!!! :o( Which might be why I haven't tried tackling the behemoth which is Don Quixote yet... :p

Josie Kafka said...

Cris, I don't read Russian, so I can't speak to their accuracy, but I've found the Russian-to-English translations of Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky to be delightful. I think they were well regarded by people who know more than I do, too.

Avoid Constance Garrett!

In high school, I wanted to read The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I bought it, read it, and was horribly bored. Only a few years later did I realized it was an abridged version. I can't bring myself to try to unabridged version--the first go-round was too dull.

CrazyCris said...

Josie I tried the unabridged and untranslated Hunchback and had to fight real hard to get to the end of it! (I'm real stubborn when it comes to finishing books and movies)

Les Misérables on the other han I loved and have read several times!

Good to know about the Russian to English translations, but since I don't do too much reading in French these days I'm going to stick with that version. :p

celticmarc said...

The original novella Doctor Jeckyll and Mister Hyde. Extraordinarily boring to a 21st century guy reading it. Arrgghh.