Last week I shared Summer Reading Suggestions for Light Readers and today I want to turn the table. Sometimes in the free days of summer we fancy a quick bit of entertainment — and then there are the days when our mood shifts and we want something a little more consuming. I’m a big fan of books that I can wander in and out of, especially the ones that grab hold and don’t let me leave anytime soon. These are the books that become deep, engaging experiences, the ones that offer sharp intensity – whether through vivid period detail or lush contemporary descriptions, through sharp thrills or quietly affecting prose. These are the books for the escapist in all of us.
10 Summer Reading Suggestions for Escapist Readers
Amid the mayhem of the Civil War, Virginia plantation wife Iris Dunleavy is put on trial and convicted of madness. It is the only reasonable explanation the court can see for her willful behavior, so she is sent away to Sanibel Asylum to be restored to a good, compliant woman. Iris knows, though, that her husband is the true criminal; she is no lunatic, only guilty of disagreeing with him on notions of justice, cruelty, and property. On this remote Florida island, cut off by swamps and seas and military blockades, Iris meets a wonderful collection of residents— some seemingly sane, some wrongly convinced they are crazy, some charmingly odd, some dangerously unstable. Which of these is Ambrose Weller, the war-haunted Confederate soldier whose memories terrorize him into wild fits that can only be calmed by the color blue, but whose gentleness and dark eyes beckon to Iris?
Why? It was a complete surprise to me – I would never have guessed the ending in a million years. It’s one that keeps you wanting to stay consumed in it for hours.
A fire destroys a New York City rare bookstore—and reveals clues to a treasure worth killing for. . . . A disgraced scholar is found tortured to death. . . . And those pursuing the most valuable literary find in history are about to cross from the harmless mundane into inescapable nightmare. From the acclaimed, bestselling author of Tropic of Night comes a breathtaking thriller that twists, shocks, and surprises at every turn as it crisscrosses centuries, from the glaring violence of today into the dark shadows of truth and lies surrounding the greatest writer the world has ever known.
Why? This one is sitting on a shelf waiting for me to get around to it, and I always thought it would make for a nice, hefty summer sojourn. I’ve heard that, contrary to the synopsis, it’s a rather slow-paced read so that might be something to take into consideration if you like a faster page-turner.
The golden skies, the translucent twilight, the white nights, all hold the promise of youth, of love, of eternal renewal. The war has not yet touched this city of fallen grandeur, or the lives of two sisters, Tatiana and Dasha Metanova, who share a single room in a cramped apartment with their brother and parents. Their world is turned upside down when Hitler’s armies attack Russia and begin their unstoppable blitz to Leningrad. Yet there is light in the darkness. Tatiana meets Alexander, a brave young officer in the Red Army. Strong and self-confident, yet guarding a mysterious and troubled past, he is drawn to Tatiana–and she to him. Starvation, desperation, and fear soon grip their city during the terrible winter of the merciless German siege. Tatiana and Alexander’s impossible love threatens to tear the Metanova family apart and expose the dangerous secret Alexander so carefully protects–a secret as devastating as the war itself–as the lovers are swept up in the brutal tides that will change the world and their lives forever.
Why? Another on my to-read list for some future summer, it’s also part of a series (trilogy, if I remember right) so if you find yourself enraptured with it, there’s more to discover!
The Enchantress of Florence is the story of a mysterious woman, a great beauty believed to possess the powers of enchantment and sorcery, attempting to command her own destiny in a man’s world. It is the story of two cities at the height of their powers–the hedonistic Mughal capital, in which the brilliant emperor Akbar the Great wrestles daily with questions of belief, desire, and the treachery of his sons, and the equally sensual city of Florence during the High Renaissance, where Niccolò Machiavelli takes a starring role as he learns, the hard way, about the true brutality of power. Profoundly moving and completely absorbing, The Enchantress of Florence is a dazzling book full of wonders by one of the world’s most important living writers.
Why? One of the most unique books I’ve ever read. The combination of true-life history and magic realism is almost staggering.
For sisters Maggie and Jenny growing up in the Pacific mountains in the early 1970s, life felt nearly perfect. Seasons in their tiny rustic home were peppered with wilderness hikes, building shelters from pine boughs and telling stories by the fire with their doting father and beautiful, adventurous mother. But at night, Maggie—a born worrier—would count the freckles on her father’s weathered arms, listening for the peal of her mother’s laughter in the kitchen, and never stop praying to keep them all safe from harm. Then her worst fears come true: Not long after Maggie’s tenth birthday, their father is killed in a logging accident, and a few months later, their mother abruptly drops the girls at a neighbor’s house, promising to return. She never does. With deep compassion and sparkling prose, Frances Greenslade’s mesmerizing debut takes us inside the devastation and extraordinary strength of these two girls as they are propelled from the quiet, natural freedom in which they were raised to a world they can’t begin to fathom. Even as the sisters struggle to understand how their mother could abandon them, they keep alive the hope that she is fighting her way back to the daughters who adore her and who need her so desperately. Heartbreaking and lushly imagined, Shelter celebrates the love between two sisters and the complicated bonds of family. It is an exquisitely written ode to sisters, mothers, daughters, and to a woman’s responsibility to herself and those she loves.
Why? One of my favorite reads of the year so far! It’s lyrical, compelling and very melancholy in its way. You can find my review of it here.
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice. Built on the groundwork of the Iliad, Madeline Miller’s page-turning, profoundly moving, and blisteringly paced retelling of the epic Trojan War marks the launch of a dazzling career.
Why? Greek mythology is really the ultimate epic escape, isn’t it? Madeline Miller recently won the Orange Prize for this book and it’s been receiving tremendous accolades.
In more than forty essays and articles that range from Paris to Ceylon, Thailand to Kenya, and, of course, Morocco, the great twentieth-century American writer encapsulates his long and full life, and sheds light on his brilliant fiction. Whether he’s recalling the cold-water artists’ flats of Paris’s Left Bank or the sun-worshipping eccentrics of Tangier, Paul Bowles imbues every piece with a deep intelligence and the acute perspective of his rich experience of the world. Woven throughout are photographs from the renowned author’s private archive, which place him, his wife, the writer Jane Bowles, and their many friends and compatriots in the landscapes his essays bring so vividly to life.
Why? This is a fantastic anthology that highlights the beautiful writing talent of the late Paul Bowles. The diversity of locales he writes about make it all the more vivid of an escapist read.
Petty thief Birdie Kaminsky has arrived in Liberty, Ohio to steal a treasure hidden since the Civil War. She’s in possession of a charming clue passed down in her family for generations: Liberty safeguards the cherished heart. The beautiful thief wants to go straight. She secretly admires the clue’s author, freedwoman Justice Postell, who left South Carolina at the dawn of the Civil War and carried untold riches on her journey north. As Birdie searches for the treasure, she begins to believe a questionable part of the story: a tale of love between Justice and Lucas Postell, the French plantation owner who was Birdie’s ancestor. If the stories are true, Justice bore a child with Lucas. Some of those black relatives might still live in town. Birdie can’t help but wonder if she’s found one—Liberty’s feisty matriarch, Theodora Hendricks, who packs a pistol and heartwarming stories about Justice. Birdie doesn’t know that an investigative reporter will trip her up—as will her conscience when she begins to wonder if it’s possible to start a new life with stolen riches. Yet with each new clue she unearths, Birdie discovers a family history more precious than gems, a tradition of love richer than she’d imagined.
Why? Because I love this book more than I can say? Is that recommendation enough? It has a memorable cast of characters and an engaging combination of historical and contemporary drama, mixed with mystery, romance and more. You’ll definitely lose yourself in the charming town of Liberty, Ohio.
England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the Pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk, and later his successor. Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events. Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.
Why? The second in Hilary’s Tudor era series, Bring Up the Bodies, is gaining a lot of attention so if you’ve been in the dark about it (like me) this is the place to start. I’ve read a big mix of reviews on it so it may not be for everyone. I’m intrigued by the concept of approaching the story from Cromwell’s perspective.
Witnessing the injustices against Native Americans by European settlers from childhood, Diego de la Vega, the son of an aristocratic Spanish landowner and a Shoshone mother, returns to California from school in Spain to reclaim the hacienda on which he was raised to seek justice for the weak and helpless. A swashbuckling adventure story that reveals for the first time how Diego de la Vega became the masked man we all know so well Born in southern California late in the eighteenth century, Diego de la Vega is a child of two worlds. His father is an aristocratic Spanish military man turned landowner; his mother, a Shoshone warrior. At the age of sixteen, Diego is sent to Spain, a country chafing under the corruption of Napoleonic rule. He soon joins La Justicia, a secret underground resistance movement devoted to helping the powerless and the poor. Between the New World and the Old, the persona of Zorro is formed, a great hero is born, and the legend begins. After many adventures — duels at dawn, fierce battles with pirates at sea, and impossible rescues — Diego de la Vega, a.k.a. Zorro, returns to America to reclaim the hacienda on which he was raised and to seek justice for all who cannot fight for it themselves.
Why? It’s been years since I read it, but I remember feeling like Allende’s Zorro was a swashbuckler for the literary fiction fans, with plenty of period detail and charming prose guiding the story along.
If you’ve read any on the list I’d love to know your thoughts!
Tagged as: christine nolfi, escapism, frances greenslade, hilary mantel, isabel allende, kathy hepinstall, madeline miller, michael gruber, paul bowles, paullina simons, reading, reading lists, salman rushdie, summer