Saturday, June 14, 2014

Summer reads, from Anne Leary and Hank Phillippi Ryan to Henning Mankell

Some people like to lie under a beach umbrella and read the latest best-selling thriller, chiller or tear-spiller. Sounds like a nice plan; summer should be a time to relax, and that includes letting down our hair a little and enjoying lighter fare.
For some, summer is a time to play catch-up, not catch. They'll grab that pile of a dozen books, more or less, they've set aside for less-active times and go to town on them. Go for it, I say.
I can't easily digest the light stuff anymore, though I enjoy wit mixed with well-developed characters and themes—in other words, "light" literature. Sappy, insipid, action-packed or trashy ("savagely, he tore at her garments") themes are too predictable for me, but hey: there are book clubs for those as well! It's all about what you find fun.
Here are a few excellent summertime reads that I've already enjoyed:
"A Walk in the Woods," Bill Bryson, non-fiction. Brilliantly funny and human, Bryson's hike along the Apalachian Trail is a vicarious challenge, in which an arduous hike is punctuated by witty insights.
"The Good House," Ann Leary, fiction. A sharp-eyed portrait of alcoholism, wrapped in the memorable character of Hildy Good. She's a real estate agent, mother and friend. This book is full of insights and witty snarks—it resonates.
"The Wrong Girl," Hank Phillippi Ryan, mystery. Hank hit it out of the ball park with this one, winning the Edgar Award for her story of an adoption agency that pays far too little attention to details when it reunites birth parents with their children.
"Rainwater," Sandra Brown, fiction. This was my first Sandra Brown novel, and I was hesitant. But she makes the cut with this one, exploring pride, love and kindness in the story of a mother trying to survive desperate economic times and unwilling to trust others. As she builds a life for herself and her son, a man comes along, whose softness and strong convictions unpeel that wall. It's not a romance; there's a lot happening here, all of it interesting.
I'm also going to list several I think will be on my summer reading list, hoping you may enjoy them as well:
"Canada," Richard Ford, fiction. After his parents rob a bank—and are caught—a teenager has to find a new life in Montana, where he'll struggle to find happiness and goodness despite a violent man he encounters.
"Work Song," Ivan Doig, fiction. Doig portrays the West with such grace and deft ability that his books stand out from the pack through their language and humanity. Simply, I trust this writer.
"Still Life with Bread Crumbs," Anna Quindlen, fiction. I've always loved her writing style, and Quindlen creates characters who are moving. This is her latest, the story of a photographer past her prime who discovers there's more to life than a camera lens.
 "Oh My Stars," Lorna Landvik, fiction. Hey—maybe I won't like it, but Landvik's "Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons" was such a trip that I'm willing to risk another. She has a lively, original voice and can absorb the reader in her settings. Witness Violet Mathers, her protagonist: "I am convinced that at birth the cake is already baked. Nurture is the nuts or frosting, but if you're a spice cake, you're a spice cake, and nothing is going to change you into an angel food."
"The Orchardist," Amanda Coplin, fiction. I bought this last year and still haven't read it. Come Hell or grandkids, I'll get to it this summer! Set in the rural Pacific Northwest, it's the story of a reclusive orchard grower who befriends two risky teenagers, pregnant, scared, and set for tragedy. The praise for Coplin's writing has been profuse; I'll see for myself.
"The Pyramid: The First Wallander Cases," Henning Mankell. Because the character of Kurt Wallander is flawed, dark and absorbing. I must know his beginnings!

Ann Connery Frantz is a cofounder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative in Lancaster. Her reading blog is at (two e's is correct). Send club info or comments to