The weather’s been crazy lately, but it’s starting to feel as though summer’s just around the corner.
When I think of summer, I think of vacation; and when I think of vacation, I think of what books I’m going to pack.
You could argue that for avid readers, there’s no such thing as summer vacation reading, that we read what we like to read and the location doesn’t matter. I disagree. A few years ago, I went on a cruise. The sun shone, the ocean sparkled, the food was delicious, and I had a wonderful time—except for those couple of days when I read “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. It’s so depressing, even the punctuation had abandoned it. No matter how beautiful my surroundings, those were a sad couple of days.
The answer to what makes a great summer vacation read varies from person to person. I want something light, yet still substantial. There’s a good chance I’ll take a nap or wander off for a snack midchapter, so a book I can return to easily. Something that makes me think, but doesn’t weigh on my mind.
Below are my top picks for summer vacation reading. There’s a mix, because who packs just one book, right? But they meet my criteria: fun, simple and engaging. You might have a different list, and I want to hear it. The plan is to run a compilation in the newspaper, just when summer really kicks in. So tell me what you think makes a good summer vacation read and recommend some titles.
“The Wee Free Men,” by Terry Pratchett
If you love fantasy and satire but aren’t familiar with Terry Pratchett, let’s change that. Pratchett has been writing the Discworld series for about 30 years, and he gets better and better. Discworld satirizes our own world; Pratchett riffs on diplomacy, sport, Hollywood, religion, just about every institution and facet of society. There are plenty of recurring characters, and the books occasionally refer to past events, but you don’t have to read them sequentially.
“The Wee Free Men” is one of Pratchett’s few novels for children rather than adults. The heroine is 9-year-old Tiffany Aching, and when the queen of the elves steals her little brother, she taps into her latent witch powers and goes to get him back, with the help of little blue (usually drunken) creatures called the Nac Mac Feegle.
I admit that when I first got this book, I wasn’t sold on it. I enjoy plenty of young adult fiction, but 9 is a little young for a heroine, and the little blue creatures seemed obnoxious. But I’m a big Pratchett fan, and his Discworld novels are so funny and smart, so I gave it a whirl. And I loved it. It might be geared toward kids, but it’s something adults can enjoy, like Pixar in a book. Neither the plot nor the writing is as sophisticated as Pratchett’s other novels, but there was enough sass and sparkle to hold my interest all the way through. For lovers of young adult fiction, or fantasy in general, I recommend it.
“The Little Women Letters,” by Gabrielle Donnelly
This is a book I likely never would have read had it not tied in to a book I’ve read many times: “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott.
The story revolves around three sisters. There’s smart, stubborn, unconventional Lulu who is trying to find her direction in life; big sister Emma, responsible and successful; and young, artistic, pretty Sophie. I’ll let you figure out how they correspond to the March sisters—Jo March, by the way, is the women’s great-great-grandmother, and letters she wrote to her own sisters decades ago are woven into the story of these three descendants. Lulu, Sophie and Emma have a wise, compassionate, patient, understanding mother, too. Guess it runs in the family.
It’s fluff, I won’t deny it; however, the “Little Women” angle makes it stand out a little more than other fluff. If you enjoy “Little Women,” you might enjoy comparing the March sisters and this crop, and Jo’s letters correspond to her own adventures decades ago (or at least they do as far as my memory takes me). Lulu’s mother is eye-rollingly saintly at times, but the other characters are likeable enough, and the book as a whole is easy on the brain. It’s not a bad way to while away the hours.
“Raiders From the North,” by Alex Rutherford
Historical fiction holds a special place in my heart, and it’s the bulk of what I review. Most of the stuff I read is very Euro-centric, so it was nice to step away from that into 15th- and 16th-century Asia, with characters I’d never heard of in a setting unfamiliar to me.
The main character in this book is Babur, who becomes ruler of a land near Afghanistan as a young teen. It’s a dangerous age at which to assume power, and soon he is ousted and roams as far as India, maturing and conquering along the way.
This isn’t glitzy, breezy historical fiction, but nor is it ponderous. It’s a nice, middle-of-the-road balance, well written and well paced. There are enough details to keep the book interesting, but not so many it bogs the story down. The characters are strong and consistent, and if Babur’s feats seem a bit extraordinary, well, they aren’t outrageous enough to detract from the story. In all, it’s a good, solid read.
“Ex-Heroes,” by Peter Clines
This book came out as a reprint earlier this year and has received many positive reviews, with some saying it has tones of “The Walking Dead.”
The book is set in Los Angeles after zombies have overrun the United States (possibly the world). A community of humans is holding out in a former movie studio; their guardians are superheroes, who usually have no problem keeping the zombies at bay, or the gangs that roam the city. But a new type of zombie has appeared with powers that will test the will and strength of everyone.
Much as I enjoy a good superhero novel, I’m not fond of zombies. I find them more creepy than fun, but this combination really intrigued me. The novel gets off to a shaky start—there are loads of characters, and it switches from present to past in a way that requires some adjusting—but the book soon finds its feet, and there’s some light humor in the occasional mention of zombie celebrities. The science behind the zombies is fairly interesting, the reveal of the virus’ cause is a nice twist, and the final battle between heroes, zombies and gang members is flat-out awesome. For a novel with a shaky start, it sure accelerates into a smooth ride and spins to an elegant stop. Well done, that writer.
Do you read differently when you’re on vacation? What are your top books for a summer vacation read?