Summer Books! Spies and Monsters and Teenagers, oh my

There are intelligent books, and there are summer reads. In the summer I’m not looking for challenging literature, because I keep getting interrupted by kids, house guests and meal times. However, this year I’ve had the good fortune to read intelligent books that were also loads of fun, and it’s been wonderful.

Last summer I read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy. I’d been impressed by this youth lit fantasy so I thought I’d try a few more I’d had recommended to me. Veronica Roth’s Divergent was one such. Once again, dystopian future, disaffected rebellious youth. I liked it enough to download Insurgent, the second book in the series. Book Three is due out some time this fall, so I’ll watch for that.

Cassandra Clare’s ‘City of -‘ books have been made into a movie so I figure they’re really hitting the mainstream and I’d better catch up. I read the first three about a year ago, downloaded the rest, then forgot about it and got her mixed up with Cassandra Clark (more on her work later). I have to keep a list of the books in order so that I don’t get lost. This is important with e-books because you don’t have the benefit of a quick glance at an endplate to see what this one’s all about and where it fits in the series. In this story, there are special descendants of angels called the Nephilim. They are sort of UN peacekeepers of the supernatural world; when vampires, werewolves, or similar get out of line, the Nephilim sort everyone out. Plus they’re gorgeous and really well dressed. The main character finds out late that she is a Nephilim, she falls in love with a Nephilim, there’s a confused bit where they think they’re brother and sister for a while, but then it’s all good, except that her personal style never catches up and she feels really insecure. Her best friend becomes a vampire, her mother’s boyfriend turns out to be a werewolf leader, but they all get along. It’s fun, there’s lots of drama, a certain amount of silliness, but it’s a good read nevertheless. How good? I’ve downloaded her next series, Clockwork this and that. Angel, Prince, Princess, I believe.

I had Cassandra Clark’s books downloaded because initially I mixed her up with Cassandra Clare. I identified my mistake but then looked into the matter and found that Cassandra Clark writes intelligent medieval murder mysteries! Jackpot! I think I actually cheered when I discovered this. Her protagonist is a nun named Hildegard and the stories are set during the reign of Richard II, the boy king, son of the Black Prince, nephew of John of Gaunt. This is a period I’m not very familiar with so I’m happy to have some fun fiction to bring this era to life. Prepare for nerdiness: I find it’s easy to follow the monarchy from William the Conqueror through to Edward I (Longshanks) but then it gets a bit confused (because Sharon Kay Penman’s books stop around there and I have to depend on non-fiction to fill in gaps). Edward II’s wife essentially pulled off a coup with Roger Mortimer and they did away with Edward II, but her son, Edward III (not the offspring of William Wallace, I’m sad to say because that would be awesome) took the throne when he achieved his majority (and executed Mortimer). His son Edward was the Black Prince who died before his father. Richard II was overthrown by his cousin and son of John of Gaunt, Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV. Then Henry V (Agincourt). His son, Henry VI, was a weak king. Because of this and because he had such a strong French wife whom everybody hated (Margaret of Anjou), his cousin Richard of York started going after the throne, thus beginning the Wars of the Roses (Philippa Gregory’s books start here and go right through the Tudors; Sharon Kay Penman has a book about the Wars of the Roses also). That little exposition is not necessary in a quick review of Clark’s books but I just wanted to see if I could do it. One of those bursts of nerdiness that are hard to control. I’m interested in seeing how Clark deals with the downfall of Richard II, so I’m hoping for more Hildegard stories. I’ve read Hangman Blind, The Red Velvet Turnshoe, The Law of Angels, and Parliament of Spies. Enjoyed them all, especially Parliament of Spies and if you read it you’ll know why. Yow! But read them in order first!

In the spring I’d picked up a prominently displayed book by Daniel Silva in the library (thank you library people!) and it was GRIPPING. Whenever a good espionage writer comes along he’s compared to John LeCarré; in my opinion Daniel Silva is even better. I’ve downloaded his Gabriel Allon series (The Kill Artist, The English Assassin, The Confessor, A Death in Vienna, and it goes on) and am galloping through it. Gabriel Allon is an Israeli assassin who daylights as an art restorer. He’s also good-looking, speaks a zillion languages, totally cool. Yet he’s not cheesy. He’s an assassin with a conscience; he was part of the team who avenged the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes. (I’m interested in comparing the characters in the movie Munich to Daniel Silva’s books to see if they correspond.) So far, he’s been part of teams that have blown open Swiss banking collaboration during the war and the major art thefts that happened under the Third Reich and also a team that investigated a threat to a Pope who wants to open the Vatican’s Secret Archives to expose the Church’s role in the Holocaust. Whoa. Interesting and well-researched, and intensely gripping. Just enough description so you can get a good picture in your mind, and enough character development that you have emotional connection to the various players. If you like Ken Follett, John LeCarré and similar you’ll love Silva.

Before we went to the Island I was downloading books for my Sony Reader, and I often visit best-seller lists to see what’s new. Here I found Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Joe Hill’s NOS4A2. I downloaded them, took them with me on the ferry and started reading. The Neil Gaiman book was hard to read at first because the download had something wrong with it; every apostrophe was misrepresented by a weird tangle of characters. This went on for chapters but eventually the text improved. Nevertheless, I found I was obsessively reading late into the night to see What Happens. It’s one of those charmingly rooted fantasies in which the world of magic is separated from ours by the thinnest of veils. Someone stumbles through, and chaos ensues. It’s lovely and humorous (reminds me a bit of Christopher Moore) and I immediately went back to the Sony site to find other Gaiman books, and found that he is the writer of Stardust, one of our favourite movies.

I read through Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 thinking to myself, “This guy’s read a lot of Stephen King,” because it’s a very Kinglike novel and I honestly think that any writer of horror nowadays has to be familiar with King’s incredible oeuvre, as King himself references H.P. Lovecraft. Vampire writers hearken to Bram Stoker, ghost story writers to Wilkie Collins, etc. So as I read, I thought, Scary, monsters, children, etc. = King influence! Great fun. So then I read the Acknowledgements at the end and he thanks Tabitha King – his mother, which means he’s the son of Stephen King! It’s genetic, folks. Immediate download of previous works followed.

I am a big fan of Barbara Vine – who is actually Ruth Rendell, famous British mystery novelist. I actually prefer the Vine novels however, as they are dark and psychological. The Child’s Child is her newest and once you start reading you are totally sucked in. Rendell is a genius. I’d started to read the new Dan Brown novel and, sorry Dan, it was hard labor. I was doing that thing where you say to yourself, I’ll read 30 pages and then if I’m still not intrigued then I’ll quit. But then I figured, a Canadian summer’s too short for this, and started the Vine book. And she whisked me away into her world. Effortless. I cannot recommend her books highly enough.

Postscript: Before summer began I read two very good nonfiction books which I’ll just name here: Paleofantasy, by Marlene Zuk. There’s a good review in the Guardian on this book. Basically, when someone tells you you need to eat a lot of meat/don’t eat carbs or dairy/run barefoot, because when we were cavemen that’s what we did, they’re full of nonsense. And anyway, cavemen didn’t live so long so why should we copy their habits? They ate meat, or fish, or whatever, because that’s what was available; they didn’t have a Cupcakes store two blocks from their house the way we do. Anyway, archaeologists have proven that they did eat carbs because they analyzed plaque in Neanderthal teeth, so there. Read the book, and you’ll be armed with knowledge against this kind of bizarre notion. I’ve heard a lot of this twaddle lately so I was glad to read a book by an actual evolutionary biologist who is also rolling her eyes. The other is With Charity for All, by Ken Stern. This is about the charity business in the United States and I figure Canada isn’t much different. Good review in the Wall Street Journal online. It was hard to read.I’ve read other books about charities being big frauds but it’s really depressing to seriously contemplate. Nevertheless, it’s well written, well researched and we need to know this stuff!

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