Summer reading means many things -- the thrilling page-turner of the moment filled with suspense or horror, action or romance; the absorbing, thoughtful, beautifully written novel that you have the time and the long days to read; or the always-meant-to-read classic you are finally getting around to. And that's just for fiction! Many people catch up on the great narrative nonfiction books of the year that all the reviewers have been praising; the latest research in their professional field; or those wonderful travelogues of the places you're going, or wish you were going, this summer. Books for summer reading -- an exciting time to go to your bookstore and quiz your local booksellers on the best reads to fit your, and your family's, tastes. We're ready when you are!
John and all Dieselfolk
Brabazon is a young, accomplished conflict journalist and this is his absolutely irrepressible account of a career covering West Africa's civil wars. The book is suffused with the near-supernatural coincidences and ironies expected of life closely observed, and it is strange that Brabazon's etymological heritage (his name literally means "mercenary") acutely describes the book's peripheral (anti)hero and Brabazon's African chaperon, Nick du Toit. Du Toit is a former member of the South African Recces, a notorious special forces group established under apartheid, and later a commander of Executive Outcomes, the largest mercenary organization in modern history. Brabazon and du Toit travel into Liberia to document an officially denied civil war, where Brabazon shares cigarettes with war criminals, marches over 200 miles, and is saved countless times by his mercenary companion. This book contains astounding insight into the conflicts of West Africa and their global sponsors, the callous commercial interests of private and state-sponsored media, and the difficulty of finding human connection in the most inhospitable of circumstances. -- Cameron Carlson
Not since reading Robinson Crusoe in front of my grandparents' fireplace as a child have I so thoroughly enjoyed a book of this genre. Jamrach's Menagerie is a high-adventure coming-of-age tale so beautifully written, it left me literally gasping and almost moved me to tears. The story begins in a working class, English coastal town at the turn of the last century -- not the most likely of places for a young boy to encounter a tiger loose on the street, let alone find himself being carried around in its mouth. This potentially tragic situation catapults the boy into a world of exotic wonders he had only dreamed about. Birch employs brutal, vivid imagery, yet balances it with insightful, emotional counterpoints. Battling demons, both real and imaginary, forever changes the characters and ultimately impacts their survival. The result is a riveting read from start to finish -- and one that lingers with you long after you have turned the last page. -- Cheryl Ryan
I love it when a first-time novelist can knock me, a seasoned reader, completely out of the water with a gorgeously written and immensely satisfying gem of a story. That is exactly what singer/songwriter Josh Ritter has done with his novel Bright's Passage. I just love this book! Ritter is a first-rate lyricist and an incredible storyteller. I was enthralled by his tale of a young soldier, Henry Bright, returning from World War I, determined to leave behind all the tragedies he experienced there. But shortly after making it back to his home in the Appalachian mountains and to his young wife, he loses her in childbirth, leaving him with an infant son to care for. Henry then discovers that when he returned from the war front, he wasn't entirely alone. A guardian angel, who speaks to him through his horse, is now very much a part of his life. It is this "guardian horse" that leads the way as Henry and his baby boy flee their home -- with Henry's villainous father-in-law, who believes Henry to be at fault for his daughter's death, in pursuit.
Though short in length, this novel is not at all short in creativity or vision. As Henry's story unfolds, Ritter knows exactly how to draw out the reader's own imagination, alternating between Henry's journey with his son through the foothills of Appalachia, his recollection of being in the trenches during the war, and his own scattered childhood memories. What is the meaning behind Henry's myth-like quest for survival? Perhaps it's just a beautifully written story, a ballad of sorts, leaving each reader to make of it whatever they wish. Regardless, this is truly an enchanting, thoroughly entertaining novel that should appeal to those young or old, male or female -- anyone who likes to read for the sheer pleasure of it. -- Linda Grana
I was under the flat impression that Charles Portis was primarily a writer of westerns, most famously True Grit. As it so often happens, I was grossly mistaken. Masters of Atlantis, one of several Portis-penned novels reissued recently by Overlook Press, tells the story of the Gnomon Society, a fictional secret society based on the esoteric teachings of the sunken city Atlantis along with the higher truths of the universe told through complex triangles and Pythagorean exegeses. But this is not a novel about mathematics -- rather, Masters of Atlantis is about the oddball origins of the brotherhood, its wacky founders and brethren, and the things they get themselves into, all in the name of Gnomonism. It isn't, however, heavy-handed, highfalutin', or overly thoughtout. Written in superb deadpan with absurdist, black humor, Masters of Atlantis is simply one big comic invention and a true pleasure to read. It can go everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It can have a character whose name changes three, perhaps four, times in the first page and a half. And it doesn't have to make any large statement other than this: "I'm fun and you'll like me." -- Geo Ong
There are many reasons I could give for why you should read a book about the death penalty: cold, hard, fact-based reasons, like the chilling statistic that to date 17 people who have been executed in this country have since been exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project (and that even one is too many). But really, my own opinions on the issue are irrelevant, and Dow's searing memoir can be approached equally well as a death penalty proponent, opponent, or as someone who has no real feelings on the issue at all. Dow, who defends death row inmates in Texas, occupied the first position before coming firmly around to the second, and his reasoning is much more ethically than morally based. Dow doesn't like most of his clients; he thinks even fewer of them are innocent. But the system he sees is a broken one, corrupted and corrosive -- death by a drunk executioner swinging a rusty blade. The stories that make up Autobiography of an Execution are exercises in frustration, Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, and heartbreak. And yet: Dow tempers all this with prose that is more Hemingwayesque in its simple, stark power. And yet: the overall effect is as pulse-poundingly intense as the best John Grisham thriller -- and a thousand times more emotionally resonant, as it's all true, each life and death that of a real person. Forget politics: this is a book about people, and it should be read. -- Anna Kaufman
Adults have always loved children's books -- the books they grew up with along with new ones with well-imagined storytelling and stunning illustrations. But there is a third type of children's book that adults turn to: books written for adults in picture book format. The latest in this less-publicized genre is Go the F**k to Sleep. Artfully written poems and beautiful illustrations combine to graphically articulate the frustrations of trying to get a child to go to sleep. The imaginative range and verbal cleverness equal the perennial favorites among children's books: just what our childish adult hearts desire. -- John Evans
Jacob is a 16-year-old suburban kid who hates his job, is indifferent about his parents, but loves his grandfather. The old man used to tell Jacob fantastic stories of his peculiar childhood, stories that Jacob loved but always suspected were fabricated. But after a family tragedy sends Jacob to a small island off the coast of Wales, he begins to realize that, incredibly, his grandfather's stories are quite literally true. More importantly, Jacob discovers that his previous, all-too-ordinary existence was, all along, anything but, and that he may be the most peculiar one of all. A quirky fantasy, lovingly told and very well constructed. Ages 12 and up. -- Grant Outerbridge