Monday, July 25, 2011

Books I've Read on My Summer Vacation

Summer is a terrific time for me to dig in to the towering pile of books that has long outgrown the basket I keep in a corner of the bedroom and read, read, read. Might as well. I can't start writing a new book of my own until school starts after Labor Day and I have time to work. So summer is the perfect excuse to read thrill fiction (which I write), and I can justify it as honing my craft. Sounds too good to be true? I agree! Being a writer is the best thing I can think of, next to reading books.

I began my summer splurge with Nora Roberts' audiobook, Dark Hills, on the long ride from the midwest to the Hamptons. I began it last summer, and finished it on the ride out. Loved it. Picking it up a year later was no problem. Her characters have staying power! And the crimes were grisly, the setting unforgettable, and the ending was gripping. What a happy way to while away the miles.

I stayed up turning pages in the motel with Hold Tight by Harlan Coben. Ripping good fun. The perfect summer read, even though I find his books to be perfect pageturners at any time of year. As a writer, I continue to be amazed (and jealous) at his intricate plots featuring characters that live in suburbia and raise kids. My biggest challenge is to feel close to my characters (tough when you write about people who steal, lie, cheat and even kill each other if the closest you ever get to living on the edge is forgetting to put the recycling bin out the night before). Harlan Coben does this with ease, humor and grace, inventing elaborate backstories for his people and making them likable all the while.

Next was one a book I stumbled across in the first round of Borders liquidations. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. The cover blurb was from Stanley Kubric, and you don't see that very often. It's a short, quick read by the man who also wrote The Grifters, and is widely considered a classic in crime fiction. It's written in the first person singular about a serial killer. The story is set in the 1950s in Texas Hill Country. I began reading with a heavy dose of skepticism ('He had it easy. My agent would never let this pass. Any editor I've worked with would mark with so many Track Changes I couldn't read it,' etc.). But I was hooked. That book gave me chills. I know I'll remember it always. And the best, creepiest scene was one of the most subtle (a sign of true brilliance), when the main character comes across an old photograph hidden inside one of his father's books, and it brings back memories he'd buried long ago. Chilling! Anyone who is serious about crime fiction needs to read this book. I wouldn't recommend it to casual readers.

After that, I finally got to crack open The Cypress House by Michael Koryta, which got such a great writeup in The New York Times last spring that I rushed to buy it in hard cover. Of course by now it's out in soft cover, and if you're looking for a good thrill read I'd say run out and buy it. The writing is lyrical and the story is a good, old-fashioned take-your-time-and-savor-every-bit scary plot. Again, the cover blurb got me. Dean Koontz vouched for it, so I knew I'd get a terrific read. And it certainly is. Michael Koryta weaves a complicated tale involving events of history (the Great Hurricane of 1936, that formed Tiana Bay on Eastern Long Island where my grandparents' summer house was, and decimated the Florida Keys) and characters who are truly larger than life. I got to the last 200 pages at 10 p.m., just as a series of violent thunderstorms rolled in over the beach house I was staying in. I knew I couldn't stop reading. By the time I finished the book late that night, thunder booming and rain lashing at the windows, I was ready to go down the hall and sleep on the floor in the room with my kid and the dog. Honestly it took me a while to turn out the light. Great great read! I'm going to put his others at the top of my TBR pile.

I'm currently halfway through a classic by John Grisham. A Time to Kill. I found a used copy for 25 cents at the Big Yellow Barn in Riverhead, NY, the weekly used book sale for the Riverhead Library (if you're in the Hamptons on a rainy day you have to go). The book is gorgeous, with a Dickensian cast of characters and plot. I can't put it down. There are some parts that were almost too painful to read. I remember what a sensation it was when this book was released in the 1980s. Grisham invented the genre of legal thrillers, and even though other writers have followed in his footsteps, the premise is shocking and grabs you from the first paragraph. He's brilliant. We share a literary agency (I keep hoping some of his talent will rub off through some distant third-generation osmosis, like when I step onto the elevator for the ride up to the agency's midtown Manhattan offices once a year, thinking about whether Grisham still makes the trek sometimes, too.). Now I know watching reruns of The Firm (love that movie!) is not enough. I need to read more of his books. He's a genius.

Next up, in my immediate future. A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah. I love her work so much I usually don't wait for the U.S. release, I order direct from AbeBooks in the U.K. And at my visit late last week to yet another Borders liquidation sale (this time it's the end, alas), Donna Leon's Death at La Fenice, the first in her Venice series, a place we visited and adored B.K. (Before Kids), and a CD of Harlan Coben's Play Dead for the long drive back to the midwest now that my summer vacation is winding down, and which I'm sure will give new meaning to the term 'thrill ride.'

Watch this space . . .

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