by Josie Kafka
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.
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.)
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.
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.