For this summer, I've chosen six books that represent a pretty wide array of fiction. Like a lot of readers, I tend to tackle heavier subject matter in the colder months although there is definitely some serious material in this group. Since we're well into June, this list is a little late but it also means I've already finished a couple of the books.
It's not too fashionable these days to put out a recommended book list that doesn't include a single dystopian fantasy. But if you're looking for something beyond teenage escapism, here is a brief overview of a few good books.
"Orphan Train" by Christina Baker Kline, William Morrow, 2013, 278 p.
I bought this book as a gift for my sister after seeing rave reviews on several websites. Of course, I greedily bought one for myself as well. It's a fictional account of several children who were sent west on "orphan trains" between 1854 and 1929. During those years, there were no social safety nets for the needy and/or displaced. Children who had suffered unimaginable family losses were herded onto these trains and shipped off to the Midwest, where they were distributed to families who often viewed them as indentured servants. This is a fictionalized account of historical events which are largely unknown to most people today. To me, the spare writing style was reminiscent of John Steinbeck with the story being a geographic parallel to "The Grapes of Wrath". It was an absolutely engrossing read and one I highly recommend to anyone who appreciates strong narrative with roots in historical fact.
"Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang" by Joyce Carol Oates, Dutton, 1993, 328 p.
I'm the type who reads the book first, then MAYBE sees the movie. Since the cinematic time limitation usually eviscerates the substance of the plot, the screen rendition almost always leaves me bored or disappointed. In this case, I actually saw the movie first and was inspired to get the book. This is the story of a girl gang dedicated to pride, power and vengeance in upstate New York in the 1950's. The heart of the group is "Legs Sadovsky" who provides the outlaw heart and soul that drives the group. I am not too familiar with Ms. Oates' work so am looking forward to catching up with this classic.
"You Only Get Letters From Jail" by Jodi Angel, Tin House Books, 2013, 286 p.
This is a collection of short stories about boys turned into young men, the type who wouldn't normally inspire much empathy from anyone. The characters come from small towns and harsh circumstances where they struggle to escape, heal and survive. Their stories are told in a gritty way that somehow simultaneously evokes compassion. I picked up this book based on stellar reviews, particularly with respect to the author's ruthless and poignant prose.
"Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes, Viking, 2012, 369 p.
This is the other book that I've already finished. It is a story about two people who would never have met under normal circumstances. The young woman leads a very ordinary and boringly predictable life. The man was a captain of industry, a child of wealth and privilege, an adventurer and a world traveler. Due to an accident, he becomes a quadriplegic and she becomes his hired caregiver. Their relationship evolves from strained and semi-hostile to a deep compassion and understanding that transcends the physical. Right from the start, you sense that this is a love story but you also have to wonder how the author is going to bring it to a conclusion given the immutable circumstances. THAT is the reason for reading this book. The story is set in the U.K. so there are lots of colorful local and cultural references. For me, this was an interesting and thought-provoking read.
"The Family Man" by Elinor Lipman, Mariner Books, 2009, 305 p.
Judging from the reviews, this is another story of two lives on divergent tracks which suddenly collide. Henry is an old fashioned successful lawyer who is also gay and lonely. He is thrown back into a relationship with step-daughter Thalia who is newly estranged from her mother, Henry's marriage mistake from long ago. She and her complicated social life move into Henry's basement. The ensuing chaos brings new awareness and benefits for both of them. I love a good relationship drama, which is the reason I picked this one up!
"And the Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini, Riverhead Books, 2013, 402 p.
Khaled Hosseini is one of those authors whose books I pick up automatically. I have been an avid fan since reading both "A Thousand Splendid Suns" and "Kite Runner". As someone who was born in Kabul, Afghanistan then moved away with his diplomat family at the age of 11, he has a unique perspective on everyday Afghan life. Combined with his superb storytelling skills, he gives the reader a window into a culture that has largely been viewed with fear and hostility by much of the world. He tells about regular village people and how their lives are impacted by the often brutal political conditions under which they live. He shows us that the same human emotions and moral concerns affect Afghan families just as they do our own despite the often harsh and brutal realities of their existence.
Because Hosseini's fiction so effectively relates the struggles of modern Afghani life, it can be quite grim reading. For that reason, I'll probably save this one for the end of summer when I'm likely to be in the mood for darker and heavier subjects. I know this will be a fascinating page turner, wherever we are taken!
While I'm on the subject of books, don't forget that you can get a 4% cash back rebate if you sign on to BooksAMillion or Half.com through eBates. Sign up for the Barnes & Noble mailing list and get frequent e-mail discounts. Also keep in mind that retail book prices drop dramatically after the first year of publication. I've gotten in the habit of clipping reviews of new books I want to read and keeping them in a file until the price drops. I make rare exceptions when the subject matter is very timely. I purchase a lot of my books on Amazon for less than a dollar plus their standard $3.99 shipping, then re-sell them (usually for more) once I've finished them. Of course, I frequent my local library and pick up many titles there as well.
This is my first attempt at a seasonal reading list so I hope it provides some inspiration for those looking for worthwhile and engaging books. If you have read any of these (or plan to), I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Thank you so much for indulging me with this one,