Reading List - Summer 2021
Summer seems to have become synonymous with pleasure reading. Perhaps it’s always been that way. Vacations, lazy days at the beach or lounging poolside all beg for a good book that’s impossible to put down. I grew up devouring Harry Potter and spy novels on our family’s yearly pilgrimage to Myrtle Beach. Today my reading material is a little more varied, but the cliché of warm, sunny weather and a book under my nose rings no less true.
I’ve put together a list of great summer reads that I found rewarding, entertaining, and hard to put down. Not all of them are particularly recent publications and not all of them focus on summery topics or locations. The genres vary, but they’re all fiction and (in my opinion, at least) good books. If you’re interested in last summer’s reading list click here.
Plenty of people out there might not know Jaws was a novel before it became one of the most revered films of all time. I wondered if reading the book version of a movie I had been watching all my life would be worth it. Well, it was.
Jaws is the perfect summer suspense read. A ruthless great white shark terrorizing a resort town on the eastern end of Long Island. Just like the movie, nobody who gets in the water is safe. I counted six victims in total, and unlike the movie you don’t really know if the shark is dead or not at the end. Also unlike its cinematic version, the book has more nuance and a few subplots (the mafia is involved) that add to the remarkable sense of place and immersive feeling you get while reading. It’s easy to lose yourself in the characters and their conversations, caught between public safety and the economic survival of their tiny coastal town. It paints all this better than a film ever could, and that’s what makes this novel special.
Black Order – James Rollins (2006)
I’m a big fan of James Rollins’s Sigma Force series, the perfect combination of history, mythology, and science. There’s plenty of action and adventure (these are thrillers, after all), and perhaps a touch too much military-esque posturing for my taste, but an ingenious premise always drives the plot.
At the end of WWII, Nazis were using a device called “The Bell” to attempt creation of superhumans that could win the war. Though they didn’t succeed, the device went missing before the Allies could recover it.
Fast forward to the present and the device has fallen into the hands of a powerful family in South Africa who use it to experiment on animals and their own children, dreaming of formulating the perfect human that will disrupt the world order. Split between Germany, Nepal, and South Africa, the story follows Sigma Force’s operatives on a mad dash to discover the family’s existence and whereabouts and stop them before they can put their plan into motion.
Rollins separates from other thrillers by really knowing how to up the stakes and put his characters in jeopardy. Not content to let the plot provide all the danger characters face, he usually adds another layer by incorporating a rare illness or injury that must be solved by the end of the story. Even when it seems impossible, they somehow always find a way.
A great summer read. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova (2005)
I find supernatural stuff fascinating, so I’m a little disappointed that it took me so long to find out about this book. It probably doesn’t help that I was in middle school when it came out. Regardless, for anyone who hasn’t read The Historian I can honestly say that I found it fantastic.
A teenage girl living with her father in Amsterdam in the 1970’s convinces him to tell her a story about his past. What blossoms from her request is an eerie tale packed with mystery, Eastern European folklore, and suspense revolving around an unanswered question: What if Vlad Tepes—the ruthless Wallachian ruler and inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula—never died? Furthermore, what if he roamed the modern world, stalking the father and daughter as they traveled Europe.
The tale starts with a book the girl’s father finds while he’s a graduate student in the 1950’s. It’s empty except for a woodcut of a dragon at its center. Then his mentor, who had found a similar book many years before, goes missing. What follows is a chase across Eastern Europe to find the professor and rescue him from Dracula’s clutches.
I’m really not doing The Historian justice. It’s obvious that an immense amount of research and thought when into its writing. While Bram Stoker’s Dracula is considered horror or suspense, Kostova’s novel hangs more on the eerie side. It’s a tale about family and growing up and discovering one’s roots, and while there is plenty of danger involved it doesn’t overwhelm. I was engrossed by the premise right away, and the book itself didn’t disappoint.
The Labyrinth of the Spirits – Carlos Ruiz Zafon (2016)
This is Zafón’s final installment in his four-part Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. I slowly worked my way through the series over the years, stumbling across The Angel’s Game when I was a teenager and immediately falling in love. Set in Barcelona from the 1920’s through the 1960’s, the series follows the Sempere family and a handful of orbiting characters through multiple generations.
Sometimes you stumble across an author who has a way of turning prose into something beautiful and poetic. Zafón possesses this gift more than any author I’ve ever read. Fiction relies on a good story, but great writing is all about the emotions it elicits. Zafón has a gift for teasing out all kinds of emotions, and sadness is one of the most predominant. Fitting for a Barcelona that suffered mightily during Spain’s civil war and saw many of its residents end up imprisoned in Montjuic castle or dead.
The Labyrinth of the Spirits differs from the rest of the series and follows a master female detective, orphaned and crippled during the civil war, who is given a final assignment: find the missing Minister of Culture. She returns to Barcelona, her childhood home, and carefully works out a decades-old plot that could be connected to the minister’s disappearance. Her presence in Barcelona brings her in contact with the Sempere family and all the series’ familiar characters, who are tied to the case more closely than she could have imagined. When the plot reaches to the highest echelons of Franco’s regime, she must decide whether to let the matter go or betray her employers.
Every book in this series is full of the gothic, macabre, and mysteries that seem to stack on top of one another with no end. The Labyrinth of the Spirits is a long book (800 pages) but also one of the best I’ve ever read.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – Stieg Larsson (2007)
Many people are familiar with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (film or book). Lisbeth Salander is a misunderstood badass in a world that’s constantly trying to ostracize her. What many don’t know is that she’s had a whole lifetime of trauma that has shaped her into a person that might be destined to never fit in, but is undeniably genius in certain ways. Two novels followed the original work. This is the final installation of the Millennium series.
A myriad of alleged violent crimes has finally caught up with Salander. Stuck in a hospital and fighting for her life, she is unable to escape or commune with the outside world when the mountain of blame tumbles around her.
A secret division of Sweden’s Security Service has been covering up the misdeeds of Salander’s father—a Russian defector during the Cold War—and systematically hiding everything to do with Salander’s traumatic childhood. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist, the Millennium staff, and Dragan Armansky (Salander’s former employer) work together to uncover the truth and clear Salander’s name.
This is another long novel, but it’s a masterpiece in crime fiction. The plot is so nuanced and complex that as a reader you’re constantly uncovering new information and finding a new reason to stay on the edge of your seat. The characters are developed and interesting and their conflicting motives make for a riveting story. Salander isn’t exactly a likeable character at first, but by the end it’s impossible not to root for her. If you like crime fiction and mysteries and have any desire to learn about Swedish geopolitics and culture this book will feel like home.
The Devil and the Dark Water – Stuart Turton (2020)
Stuart Turton has burst onto the literary scene with his “upmarket” novels that defy genre. I love a good historical novel that pairs with the pacing and commercial feel of something a little more modern, and that’s exactly what The Devil and the Dark Water is.
Set on an East India Company “Indiamen” merchant ship returning to Amsterdam from Batavia (Jakarta) in 1634, the voyage seems cursed before it ever leaves port when a strange symbol appears on one of the sails. Livestock are slaughtered, a leper appears on the upper decks, and a strange light materializes in the open water each night. All of the hauntings seem to be tied to a top-secret cargo the Batavian governor is intent upon transporting to Amsterdam. The consensus onboard is that a demon is responsible, and won’t stop until the Saardam rests on the bottom of the ocean.
There is a Sherlock Holmes and Watson feel to the mystery solving duo in this novel. Logic and knowledge are tasked to prevail against superstition and religious nuttery in a time period when the former were most definitely in the minority. The Devil and the Dark Water keeps things fast-paced and exciting, with lots of action and a twist-laden conclusion that has much more to do with the people aboard the Saardam than anything supernatural.
Maybe don’t read it while you’re taking a cruise. Otherwise enjoy Turton’s story and be grateful we don’t live in the 1600’s. Seriously.
There’s the list. I hope you enjoyed it and got a few good ideas. Let me know if you’ve read any of these books and what you think of them. These are some of my recommendations, but I’m always on the lookout for recommendations from others as well. That’s how I found out about a few of these. If you’re reading a novel that you can’t put down let me know about it in the comments or get in touch at email@example.com. Thanks for reading and subscribing and be ready for some more author-related content coming soon.
- Charles Harned