What do I like in a book? I have to care about the protagonist, and prefer someone I like and can root for. Funny is good, though not necessary. A juicy problem helps, especially if I can relate to it. Bonus points for taking me to a time or place I’ve never been, or letting me return to a place I love. Good writing—do I need to say that? Oh, and I’m a sucker for a love story.
Here’s a short list of books I would recommend for summer reading.
If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous. Highly recommended reading
This book jumped off the shelf at Borders at me, with its intriguing title and its sea green cover, showing a Japanese drawing of a woman. The back copy begins with “Hoping to outpace her grief in the wake of her father’s suicide, Marina has come to the small, rural Japanese town of Shika to teach English for a year.” My novel is about a girl trying to outrun grief by going to Mexico, so I had to read this one.
Watrous transported me to rural Japan, a place I knew nothing about previously, and made me feel like I was there. She took me on Marina’s journey as she adjusted to a foreign culture, tried to face her grief, and figure out her romantic relationships—one with a woman, one with a man. It’s funny and tender and unlike most books I read.
The Secret Year by Jennifer Hubbard. Highly recommended reading
This is a young adult novel, but don’t let that put you off—it’s mature, well-written, and compelling. It also deals with grief. (Are we sensing a theme to my reading list yet?) The story begins right after sixteen-year-old Colt finds out that the girl he was secretly seeing for a year has died in a car accident. It explores class issues in contemporary America—Colt was from the wrong side of the tracks—also self-esteem, love, and sex. All from a male teenage perspective. I enjoyed living in Colt’s brain for awhile, and finding out why he had put up with Julia’s conditions of secrecy. I was compelled to know how Colt would handle this grief that he wouldn’t even talk about. How would move on, make peace with the past?
I was a bit surprised by the amount of sex in the book, and how casually the teenage characters seemed to treat it. I could buy that from the boy's perspective, but I found it a little hard to believe that none of the teenage girls in the book seemed to place much emotional import on sleeping with someone. Despite that minor quibble, I really enjoyed reading this book and definitely recommend it.
After You by Julie Buxbaum. Very highly recommended reading
I really enjoyed Buxbaum's first novel, The Opposite of Love, and liked After You even more. This book also focuses on grief, ostensibly over the death of the protagonist’s best friend, but also hidden grief over another loss. The story took me to contemporary London, and introduced me to a lovable, precocious eight-year-old girl. It explored themes of friendship, secrecy, loyalty, and loss, all with Ms. Buxbaum’s irrepressible sense-of-humor. I cried at least once reading this book, and also laughed out loud. Pretty good for the same book.
Nice Girls Do by Sarah Duncan. Recommended reading
I’d never heard of this author or this book, but I saw it by the checkout at the library. It looked like a light read with some sex and romance, which it was.
The protagonist, Anna Carmichael, is a mousy academic type in contemporary England. When we meet her, she is recently divorced, in a bit of a rut, with no love interests in sight. Two interesting men appear rather quickly, and Anna goes though a journey of self-discovery that involves high living, cocaine, sex and a historic garden. This book isn’t a life-changer, but it was highly readable, with a character I cared enough about to hate sometimes, and root for all the time. Plus, it took me to a world of historic English gardens, and taught me some things I’d known nothing about previously.
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Loved it loved it loved it!!!
Chances are, you know who Barbara Kingsolver is. I’ve been reading her books for years, though I must admit, I wasn’t a fan of The Poisonwood Bible, the one all the critics loved. The Lacuna, though, is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. Kingsolver has an enviable mastery of language and imagery. I annoyed whoever happened to be sitting near me by reading aloud particularly beautiful sentences—her writing is that good. Combine her talent with a Mexico City setting, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as major characters, and a novelist protagonist, and you can’t be much more up my alley. I loved this book!!!!
Open by Andre Agassi. Highly recommended reading
I include this so you know I do read non-fiction occasionally, and because I loved this book too. I am an ardent tennis fan and a lifelong Agassi fan, so I was predisposed to like this book. The story is compelling, but what surprised me most was that it is beautifully written and searingly honest. This book also made me cry. It’s a damn good story about a little orphan who finds love and redemption. It’s funny, inspiring and fascinating to see what life is like behind the curtain of fame, success and money. Though Andre and I may not have much in common on the surface, we both suffer from perfectionism, and I really enjoyed following his journey as he identified about his demons and eventually learned to get out of his own way.
Happy reading! And please pass along any book recommendations you have. I'm always looking for a great read.