Summer Reading 2014

“I have always imagined that Paradise would be some type of library.”
—Jorge Luis Borges

Lists of new summer books are easy to find: summer is traditionally a time for novels with lots of plot and (slightly less) naval gazing. These lists are typically described as “beach reads,” or accompanied by pictures of scantily-clad hotties reading the latest blockbuster. But new isn’t always better, and—let’s be honest—cats are sexier than semi-naked ladies. Right?

I like to use summer to discover new-to-me books. Why? Well, they're cheaper. But I also enjoy immersing myself in an extensive backlist. Even if an author isn’t writing an official series or creating a fictional world, she might address similar themes or milieus. That means I can lose myself in the universe of the author’s creation and, I hope, not experience that panicked feeling of incipient booklessness.

This is what I’ve discovered, rediscovered, and enjoyed so far this summer. Add your own recommendations in the comments!

Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes, my one new release this month, is the story of two men: a retired police detective and the psychopathic mass-murderer who taunts him with crimes both past and future. There are fedoras, explosions, hacking, a dog-in-peril, and excellent descriptions of the mind of a psychopath. If you’re a Stephen King fan, you might equate this with books like Cell, Blaze or even the recent Doctor Sleep: a bit on the thin side, a limited number of characters, and a solid genre plot that draws on noir tropes. It’s no Under the Dome or 11/22/63, but it does its job, even though you can read it in an evening.

However, I found it difficult to read. About half of the book is told from the perspective of Brady Hartsfield, mass-murderer. He is sexist, racist, entitled, and cruel. As always, King does an excellent job of explaining the psychopathic mindset: just think of the 10-page description of young psychopath Patrick Hocksetter (the one with the refrigerator) in It. But I read this book just days after the recent mass shooting in Isla Vista, and spending half a book with a sexist, racist, entitled psychopath was extremely upsetting. That speaks to King’s skill, but also to the difficulty of reading reality-based horror. If Mr. Mercedes sounds like it might hit too close to home, I recommend waiting for King’s next novel, Revival, which comes out in November.

Megan Abbott. Slate's Adam Sternbergh ran a paean to Megan Abbott that described her books as unputdownable: “[She] is the kind of author whose books, once you’ve discovered them, present an immediate dilemma: You want to read them all, one right after the other, in hopes of prolonging the spell, yet you also become consumed with the need to hold one or two titles on her backlist in reserve, so you can be assured there will always be one yet to come.”

As far as I can tell, Sternbergh is not wrong. I’m still working my way through her earliest books, so I can’t speak to the success or failure of her recent book, The Fever, which is about high-schoolers. But her backlist features at least four noir detective novels filled with scheming women, putzy men, and all the glamor and depravity of mid-century LA—with enough of a modern sensibility that you don’t feel like you’re reading a treatise on how to be a good misogynist. If you have an aching, empty spot on your bookshelf next to Hammett, Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and James Ellroy, then Megan’s Abbott’s Queenpin, Die a Little, Bury Me Deep and The Song is You are must-reads.

Christopher Priest. I got interested in Priest after rewatching The Prestige, the Nolan film based on his novel of the same name. Priest is sometimes described an SF writer—Gollancz reissued some of his works under the heading of “SF Masterworks”—but as far as I can tell from Inverted World and The Affirmation, he’s more of a philosophical writer who is aware of science and occasionally uses it to explore how our phenomenological and epistemological hang-ups affect our understanding of reality and ourselves.

Priest, in other words, scratches the same itch as Christopher Nolan film, Lost’s wackier interpretations, or even Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Priest’s language is (intentionally, I think) underwhelming: he describes the impossible in straightforward, almost deadened prose. But the postmodern twists of what he describes are fascinating, and I look forward to tracking down more of his books this summer.

Joe Abercrombie's The First Law Trilogy. I like some epic fantasy: George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss—they write long, dense books, and it’s just a good bang-for-the-buck ratio. No one ever finished Sanderson’s recent 1000-page Words of Radiance in one sitting. So when a friend recommended I check out Joe Abercrombie, I got excited: The First Law Trilogy was complete (take that, Martin!) and pleasantly long.

Was it good? I’m still deciding. The first book, The Blade Itself—the only one I’ve read so far—does a nice job of worldbuilding, although there is no map, which broke my heart. (I love maps.) The characters are more or less interesting. The consequences seem to be intense. All to the good, right?

Well, sort of: The Blade Itself is all prologue. No, seriously. It’s 400 pages of character set-up. Well, character set-up and a huge number of fight scenes. (I don’t love fight scenes.) Justin Landon, who wrote up the chapter-by-chapter re-read of the entire series, describes The Blade Itself this way:

It stuns me how little happens. Instead, the narrative subsists on the back of meta commentary and not so much character development as character establishment. The first installment of The First Law is an unadulterated prologue to the trilogy, in no way attempting to be a complete novel that stands on its own. It’s a huge achievement.

I have no idea what “meta commentary” means in that paragraph, since this book isn’t meta at all. But I’m insanely curious about how a book that is all prologue, all set-up, incomplete…is an accomplishment? I’m so interested in how that works, and how the set-up becomes somehow worth it, that I’m going to keep reading. Well, reading and skimming the fight scenes.

Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game. Inspired by Ruth Graham’s article castigating adult readers of YA fiction, and the vituperative backlash (like this one, or this one), I decided to re-read The Westing Game, the Newberry-winning young adult novel that I loved so much when I was 10. Given my youthful affection for the book, I was nervous about re-reading it. But The Westing Game—while not a secret Pale Fire-mystery waiting to be discovered by clue-hunting theorists with too much time on their hands—was surprisingly interesting.

It’s hard to sum up The Westing Game, which explores what happens when a seemingly-arbitrary group of 16 people are forced to figure out who murdered a wealthy philanthropist, who gives them a series of arcane clues to decipher. At heart, it’s a puzzle narrative and a murder mystery (or is it?) that asks questions about language and knowledge in order to emphasize families both traditional and not. But if you’re curious about YA fiction before vampires, an old fan of the work, or just looking for a great gift to give a youngster in your life, it’s hard to go wrong with this novel.

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


mazephoenix said...

Ugh that article by Ruth Graham. I resent shaming people for reading just about anything. So, I shall rebel by reading some YA I think.
Otherwise Lev Grossman's "The magicians", not liking it sad to say. You either love or hate it, it seems.
Read "Divergent" by Veronica Roth,hmm, not bad. Might even see the movie.

ChrisB said...

Great post, Josie. The other day, I picked up The Outlander again to prepare for Ron Moore's version coming out in August. I had forgotten what a good read it is. Perfect summer reading.

Billie Doux said...

I always love it when Josie writes about books. :) Thanks in particular for the bit about King's latest. It doesn't sound like it's for me. I used to love every word King wrote, but that hasn't been the case in quite awhile.

I'm re-reading old stuff this summer -- in particular, one of my favorite mystery writers, Dick Francis. There's something about his work that fascinates me.

My favorite sci-fi author, John Varley, has a new book coming out in August, the fourth in his Heinlein tribute "Thunder and Lightning" series, and I'm very much looking forward to it. And I plan to review it, of course.

Josie Kafka said...

I read a whole heap of Dick Francis novels about five years ago and really enjoyed them. Apparently my now-deceased grandmother was a big fan, too, and I've always liked the idea that, if she were around, we'd have books to talk about.

milostanfield said...

I have a copy of Priest's "Inverted World" I never got around to. Thanks for the reminder.

After mourning Iain M. Banks long enough, I'm gonna get me into some space opera with James S. A. Corey's Expanse series. Read the 1st one "Leviathan Wakes". It was good despite lacking any decent female characters. Just started #2 "Caliban's War", which so far seems to be correcting that oversight. Have a great summer!