Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Summer Reading Review

Well, we're already a whole week into August now – time to take stock of the summer reading situation. For some reason I always seem to do more reading in July and August than during the other months of the year. Curling up with a good book (or stack of books) by the pool, or at the beach, or just on the sofa with the air conditioning humming in the background – that's my idea of a perfect way to spend a warm summer day.

As I look at the list of titles I'm reading, or have read, or fully intend to read this summer, I realize these are mostly books I've had on my "current reading" shelf for quite a while. (Actually, they've been piled up on the coffee table, but that sounds so disorganized.) At the beginning of June, my summer "to-read" list included:

The End of Mr. Y, by Scarlett Thomas
The Ladies' Man, by Elinor Lipman
The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard
The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards
Message in a Bottle, by Nicholas Sparks (well, I had never read anything by him and everybody else in the world has)
The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield
Three Junes, by Julia Glass

And a clutch of mystery novels:

The Body in the Transept, by Jeanne M. Dams
Booked to Die, and The Bookman's Promise, by John Dunning
The Celtic Riddle, by Lyn Hamilton
A Murderous Yarn, by Monica Ferris

Quite an ambitious list for just a few months of reading, at least by my standards. Will I make it? And which books will get tossed off the list, or added on? Well, there've already been a couple of replacements and changes. Susan Minot's Evening got dumped early on because it seemed just too depressing for a summer read. (I'm beginning to have doubts about the Kim Edwards book, too – that one may have to wait for cooler weather.) And I've added The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, by George Howe Colt, because it sounds like such a perfect summer book and because it's set on Cape Cod which is one of my favorite places.

Naturally, I started off with the mysteries. Haven't gotten through The Celtic Riddle yet, but I finished off the other four pretty quickly.

A Murderous Yarn was something of a disappointment. Well, not a disappointment, really – just not what I was expecting. I'm not a passionate needle worker or quilter, but I have enjoyed doing a bit of cross stitch in the past. So Ferris's "Needlecraft Mysteries" sounded interesting. But there was very little needlecraft in this particular book, and I got bored very quickly with the antique car race plot, and learned much more about Stanley Steamers than I needed to. I'll probably give the series another chance, though – if I can find a book that centers more around needlework.

Jeanne M. Dams' The Body in the Transept was recommended to me by another Hazel Holt admirer. With its English village setting and its spunky middle-aged amateur sleuth, it sounds like it should be right down my street. It won the Agatha Award for Best First Mystery Novel in 1995 and was a nominee for the Macavity Award, so it might just be that my expectations were a bit too high. I enjoyed it, but thought it was a little predictable – not the page-turner I was hoping for. But I did like Dorothy Martin, the main character, very much; and her situation as a transplanted American living in a small college town in England appeals to the Anglophile in me. So maybe I'll give this series a second try, as well.

I'm a sucker for a book about a book. So when I discovered John Dunning's Cliff Janeway mystery novels, I knew I'd found something of interest. Janeway is a Denver homicide detective turned rare book dealer who still gets involved in solving crimes. And after reading the first two novels in the series, Booked To Die and The Bookman's Promise, I think I'm hooked. They're a little more "hard-boiled" and Chandler-esque than I usually like. For instance, in the "cozies" I usually read, I'm very unlikely to run into lines like this one where Janeway is describing the soothing effect of his apartment with its wall-to-wall books:

"I've been collecting books for a long time. Once I killed two men in the same day, and this room had an almost immediate healing effect."
[Booked To Die, Chapter 1]

One of the nicest things about the novels is the added literary chat and book lore you're treated to, along with the mysteries themselves. Take, for instance, a passage early in the first novel:

It was a quiet day on Book Row. At Seals & Neff a few customers had come and gone and the day was quickly settling into its inevitable, uneventful course. There was a young woman in the store, who had brought in a bag of books. Bookscouts, like dealers, come in all sizes, colors, and sexes. This one was a cut above the others I had seen, at least in the category of looks, but it was clear from what was being said that she had more than a smattering of ignorance when it came to books.

Neff was explaining to her why her as-new copy of Faulkner's The Reivers wasn't a first edition. "But it says first edition," she protested. "Right here on the copyright page . . . look. First edition. How much clearer can it be than that? Random House always states first edition, right? You told me that yourself the last time I was in here. Now I've got a first edition and you're telling me it isn't a first edition. I don't know what to believe."

"Believe this, honey," Neff said. "I don't need the grief. If you think I'm trying to steal your book. . . "

"I didn't say that. I'm not accusing you, I just want to know."

"It's a Book-of-the-Month Club first," Neff said, enunciating each word with chilly distinction. "It's printed from the same plates as the first, or maybe the same sheets are even used; that's why it says first edition. But the binding is different, there's no price on the jacket, and the book has a blind stamp on the back board."

"What's a blind stamp?"

"A little dent, pressed right into the cloth. Look, I'll show you. You see that little stamp? That means it's a book club book. Whenever you see that, it came from a book club, even if it's written 'I'm a first edition' in Christ's own blood inside. Okay?"

She sighed. "I'll never learn this stuff. How much is it worth?"

"This book? Five bucks tops. There are eight million copies of this in the naked city."

[Booked To Die, Chapter 6]

So that just about takes care of the mysteries. I've started The Celtic Riddle, but got side-tracked by The End of Mr. Y, and The Ladies' Man (more about those two shortly), and The Shadow of the Wind. Oh, and Message in a Bottle, too. That one didn't take long to get through – entertaining, if you like romantic tear-jerkers (which I don't usually). But not something I'd recommend to anyone.

OK, back to my reading. I know it would be much more efficient to finish one book before starting a new one. But life is just too short to read books one at a time.

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