Summer reading: fiction

July 28th, 2009

The first half of July was so action-packed I’m going to be spooling out the adventures until mid-August, I’m afraid. One thing I did was pick myself up a couple of quality-paperback treats at the Logan bookstore before I left: Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and Tana French’s The Likeness.

American Wife was quite good–if you somehow don’t know, it’s a novel based on the life of Laura Bush. Political novels are always so risky; will anyone still give a damn once the characters they’re based on are out of history’s spotlight? I won’t speculate as to whether Ms. Sittenfeld has written a book that will last or not. But at this moment in history, it’s an entertaining, thought-provoking, page-turning read. I suspect if you don’t like Laura Bush, reading about “Alice Blackwell” may make you more sympathetic, and that if you are a fan of the former First Lady, it will make you a little less so.

But The Likeness is the one that really had me going. It starts off a bit slow, so be patient–it takes a while for the characters to get established. But the opening situation is such a grabber that I was willing to plod for a bit, and once the plot really took off, well, that was that.

We start off meeting Cassie Maddox, an Irish detective in the domestic-violence squad. Cassie’s got a past in undercover that didn’t end too well. One morning, her boyfriend Sam, himself a homicide detective, calls her out to a crime scene. Was it a spousal killing? No. The victim is Cassie’s body double … and the contents of her wallet identify her as “Lexie Madison,” the same name Cassie used as an undercover agent.

Granted, the entire thing is built on a coincidence of Dickensian clunkiness, but once you get through that, it’s a brilliant read, a detective story that is also a deep examination of identity, friendship, family, and loyalty. The plot is nicely twisty and turny and the language literary without causing eye-rolls (and these here eyes do roll at the whiff of anything resembling a precious “prose style”).

What good novels have you read this summer, or hope to read? (We’ll do nonfiction later, so let’s stick to fiction for now.)


17 Responses to “Summer reading: fiction”

  1. katherine on July 28, 2009 2:26 pm

    See, “The Likeness” didn’t do that much for me? I thought both of her books kind of flattened at the end. I did re-read “Christine Falls” (Benjamin Black) and enjoyed that.

  2. booklover on July 28, 2009 3:45 pm

    I just finished “Salem Falls,” one of Jodi Piccoult’s first books. It was fascinating and compelling at the same time. One thing I love about her books is that she takes a controversial topic and shows both sides (sometimes more than two sides depending upon the topic) in such a way as to redefine your prior assumptions or biases on that topic. This one was about a man who is falsely accused of molesting a minor, and the ramifications it has on his life subsequent to a plea deal to make it go away. A terrific read.

  3. Ilyse on July 28, 2009 4:11 pm

    Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth was fantastic! Beautifully written short-stories focusing on assimilation and the shifting of one’s home within mostly first generation Bengali Indian characters.

  4. veronica on July 28, 2009 8:43 pm

    I’ve been rereading books…reread Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows over the course of 5 days. I’m now reading (for the first time) A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire. It’s volume 3 in the Wicked stories.

  5. katherine on July 28, 2009 10:54 pm

    Jhumpa Lahiri’s stuff is really good particularly her first book of stories, Interpreter of Maladies.

  6. Amy R. on July 29, 2009 8:53 am

    I recently finished The Sun Also Rises — I am trying to read one classic for every fluff piece. It was really quite good and surprisingly funny. My sister is urging me to read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, so that’s in the pile, and yesterday I just ordered Perfect Fifths by Megan McCafferty. If you like young adult books (or know people who do), her Jessica Darling series (especially the second book) is really well done.

  7. Mappy on July 29, 2009 9:33 am

    I also re-read Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows and Sorcerer’s Stone (kinda wish I hadn’t re-read HBP before I saw the movie though, ’cause the missing stuff really jumped out at me). Just read my daughter’s book The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, book 1), which was recommended by the staff at B&N. My daughter is 10, hasn’t gotten to it yet, but I enjoyed it! I think she’ll like it. I guess I’m going “light” this summer!

  8. Sarah on July 29, 2009 9:47 am

    I just discovered Anthony Trollope, a Victorian novelist who my English lit professors somehow omitted from my education. His novels come in series, so if you’re the type who choses books based on the length because you hate it when a good book ends, you’ll love these.

  9. Anne on July 29, 2009 2:08 pm

    I was turned on to the Percy Jackson series this summer and, while the books are very light, they’re also highly entertaining for someone who studied the classics. (They’re making The Lightning Thief into a movie for release next year – and hoping it’ll catch on like Harry Potter). The basic premise is that the Greek gods are all alive and well, continuing their philandering and meddling, but in the United States. Percy is a demigod (dad’s a god, mom’s a mortal) and has various adventures. Good fun!

  10. Anne with an E on July 29, 2009 3:34 pm

    I just finished Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” last night. I fell in love with the dual narrators, who, despite their vastly different social positions, both consider themselves outsiders in the world of the French elite and end up forging an unlikely bond. A little heavy on the philosophy for a beach read, but worth it!

  11. Lauren M on July 29, 2009 4:01 pm

    I read and loved THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO — I couldn’t put it down. Best thriller I have read in years. And the sequel just came out yesterday and is supposed to be even better!

  12. Joanne D on July 30, 2009 1:46 pm

    I highly recommend C.E.Morgan’s debut novel: All the Living (young woman in the mid 1980′s moves to be with her grieving boyfriend on a tobacco farm in rural Kentucky) and Elinor Lipman’s The Family Man (for a much lighter read–the ex-step-father reunites with his interesting step-daughter- very charming).

    Enjoy!

  13. Madison on July 30, 2009 5:51 pm

    Have you read In The Woods, French’s novel which precedes The Likeness?

    I haven’t read the more recent title, but enjoyed Woods, despite its lower rating on Amazon. It also involves Cassie Maddox.

  14. Colleen on July 30, 2009 6:55 pm

    I read The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, which I really enjoyed for its… well, novelty. It’s about a 12-year-old, socially awkward boy who’s also a genius cartographer. He embarks on a cross-country trip, on his own, to get to the Smithsonian. Although it has elements of a coming-of-age story, I don’t think it is one. It has some typical first-novel problems: overreaching in places, many characters of unrealistic extremes, Massive Drama of the Plot Variety that eclipses the smaller, much more interesting internal drama of the characters. But the main character is endearing in spite of himself, and the story is good, and the book is chock full of marvelous marginalia–notes, queries, illustrations, doodles, diagrams, and, of course, maps. I loved the interplay of text and paratext (or rather, text that is masquerading as paratext), and I thought the author struck a good balance between the two. The book also asks the reader to construct part of the story herself, which I really enjoyed, but it also makes it clear enough that I think it’s accessible even to people who would never use the word “paratext.”

  15. bluemoose on July 31, 2009 9:49 am

    I’m almost done re-reading the entire Otherland series (Tad Williams, who creates brilliant worlds), and recently read the few but fabulous novels of Ruth Ozeki. I just bought Chuck Klosterman’s latest novel, Owl, so that I’m prepared for the end of the massive 4th volume of Otherworld.

    I’ve also been enjoying the non-fiction of Mind over Manners and a fascinating history of New Hampshire’s Taverns and Turnpikes (On the Road North of Boston).

  16. Robin on July 31, 2009 11:23 am

    Good recommendations, folks!

    Colleen–that book sounds like a ripoff of–sorry, *inspired by* “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.” How does it compare?

    Madison–Yes, I did read the first one. I liked it but preferred the second. The presence of pretentious graduate students in a novel is, sadly, a plus for me. These are my people, and of them I read.

    Mappy–I bet. I was totally confused during the movie, really (and I’d only had two butterbeers with dinner, so it wasn’t that!). Loved the big revelation that Snape was the HBP: “Dude, it was my book, I’m the Half-Blood Prince, m’kay?” with NO EXPLANATION whatsoever. By Granthar’s Hammer, Alan Rickman, you can sell any line, but I sure felt sorry for you on that one.

    Sarah–Trollope is WONDERFUL. “How We Live Now” is my favorite, though I haven’t read more than a fraction of his work. Do you know about his fanatically disciplined work habits? Look it up sometime. Makes me feel quite the punter, I must say. Also, “He Knew He Was Right” is one of the best book titles ever.

  17. Colleen on July 31, 2009 3:01 pm

    I haven’t read Curious Incident, so I can’t directly compare, but I think they’re significantly different. The main character in Spivet isn’t autistic, just socially awkward in the normal smart-kid way. The marginalia is really extensive–most pages have multiple notes–and often of the “real story” is in the margins. T.S.’s notes present a contrasting view of the character from the main text. The kid’s 12, so he’s in that stage where he’s trying to shape how he presents himself to other people, and he’s striving to come off as adult so he can fit in somewhere and be taken seriously, but the margin notes are often more revealing than he realizes. And it winds up not being a book about making sense of the world around him, although the map-making does suggest that, but more an anti-coming-of-age story, where T.S. realizes that he’s not an adult yet and accepts with the in-between stage he’s at.

    I won’t say it doesn’t, *ahem*, owe something to Curious Incident, but I think “rip-off” is a little harsh.

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