Looking for novels to read this summer? Here are 10 that I reviewed favorably over the past year.
Let's start with three that allow you to travel without leaving your easy chair:
Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin has a simple premise: Angel runs a cake business in Rwanda that brings her into contact with all kinds of people. Originally from Tanzania, she wasn't a witness to Rwanda's genocide, which makes her "safe." As people visit her apartment to place orders, they tell over tea about their lives and why they are ordering cakes. Through her gentle probing, she draws from them tales of hardship and rejoicing. If you like Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana novels you'll probably enjoy Parkin's gentle humor.
The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim is a sweeping, beautifully-written look at Korea during the first half of the 20th century, when Japan occupied the country and tried to stamp out Korean culture. Najin is the daughter of an aristocratic calligrapher who grooms her for a world under attack both from brutal Japan and from Christianity, which encourages female education. Against that backdrop, Najin grows up, struggling to find her place in this changing world, to understand her mother's faith, and to reconcile it with all the suffering she and her family endure.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel depicts the intrigue within Henry VIII's court between 1529 and 1535. Mantel casts Thomas Cromwell as the sympathetic protagonist vying for influence against Thomas More, who comes off as a cruel and opportunistic schemer, and against Henry's high-born friends and relations. Cromwell's power grew as he helped the king (portrayed as a mercurial man of tremendous appetites and charisma) win a divorce from his queen in order to marry the willful Anne Boleyn. Mantel deservedly won Britain's prestigious Man Booker prize for this hard-to-put-down read, which ends with Cromwell five years away from his own execution at Henry's hand, a story she'll tell in a much-anticipated sequel.
Next, here are four more novels that would work well for book groups:
The Help by Kathryn Stockett revolves around the daily lives of a handful of women in Jackson, Miss., circa 1964. It's told from three perspectives: Aibileen and Minny are both black maids, while "Miss Skeeter" is a young white writer. Their stories intersect when Skeeter decides to write a book about the lives of maids working for white families. As the three narrators each see a different bit of Jackson and view the project-both its hopes and dangers-differently, we learn how the stories people grow up hearing and learn to tell work to form identity.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows begins in 1946 with an exchange of letters between Juliet Ashton, a young writer with a new book about life in wartime London, and her publisher Sidney (and his sister Sophie). These breezy exchanges offer a sense of postwar life in England, but an unexpected letter from a man in Guernsey opens up a whole different world to Juliet, who learns how the Guernsey islanders survived the German occupation by setting up a literary society. With the novel made up entirely of letters, we-like Juliet-piece together what happened during the occupation and fall in love with the island's colorful and courageous inhabitants.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova tells the story of Alice Howland, a Harvard psychology professor married to another Harvard professor. Their lives have been intellectually rich, but in her early 50s she begins to notice odd things: a forgotten word during a speech, momentary disorientation in Harvard Square, odd moments of forgetfulness. As the incidents accumulate she heads off to a memory clinic and eventually hears a dreaded diagnosis: early onset Alzheimer's. First-time novelist Genova, a brain researcher with a Harvard doctorate, captures the cruel course the disease cuts through lives, and the healing effects of love and understanding among patients, spouses, and children who come to grips with it.
Watch Over Me by Christa Parrish has lots of story threads-an abandoned baby, an eating disorder, a failing marriage, an unloved teen. Parrish redeems those gritty plot elements with a story about grace for troubled people with messy lives: Her believable Christian characters face marital discord and personal demons-and try to fight them with their own strength. The facade they've built keeps others from knowing how deep is their despair-but an infant begins to turn them outward. Throughout the novel the main characters run from God, but Parrish shows (not tells) how God pursues them, even through terrible heartache. She writes with sensitivity and grace.
Finally, for those who like mystery and crime fiction, here are three to die for:
Red Knife by William Kent Krueger is the ninth in a mystery series set in Minnesota's north country on the border of an Ojibwa Indian reservation. In this installment a white teenager dies of a meth overdose and her father believes the Indian who sold it to her is hiding on the reservation, protected by an Indian gang, the Red Boyz. Former sheriff Cork O'Connor's mixed heritage allows him to operate-although sometimes uneasily-on both sides of the racial divide. Krueger's books provide both a sense of place and also a nuanced exploration of sin, family relationships, injustice, alienation, and the positive role the Catholic Church plays in this particular community.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley has delightful 11-year-old Flavia de Luce as a nontraditional heroine. She recounts in the first person how she stumbled upon, in the cucumber patch of her family's English estate, a dying man who breathed his last word, "Vale," into her face. When the police treat her as a child, and after her father is arrested, Flavia sets out to solve the crime. Her amusing narration is filled with thoughts drawn from Gilbert and Sullivan, Shakespeare, Latin, her beloved chemistry, and the Book of Common Prayer. The book's charms include wonderful writing, a cast of great characters, and a well-imagined postwar English setting.
A Plague of Secrets by John Lescroart is the latest in an entertaining series of police/courtroom procedurals set amid San Francisco's weird politics, weather, and food. Lescroart's main characters, defense attorney Dismas Hardy and homicide lieutenant Abe Glitsky, are close friends and frequent opponents who pursue justice from different vantage points. In this novel Hardy defends from a murder charge the wife of a prominent developer who owns a coffee shop from which marijuana is sold. Meanwhile, because Glitsky is distracted by a life-threatening injury suffered by his son, he fails to oversee properly the case put together by his young subordinates.