As I pondered what topic to write about this month, I toyed with a few different options. Should I write about my weekly bread project? Try another recipe from The DC Super Heroes Super Healthy Cookbook? Nothing seemed quite right. Well, I thought, it’s the heart of summer…maybe I should make some summer reading recommendations…wait, did I do that last year?
As it turns out, not only did I write a summer reading post last year, I did it exactly this week last year. So it seems like the right way to go. I bring you – The Son of Summer Reading! (But hey, if you want me to write about either of those other things, let me know in the comments. I can’t tell if the bread thing is great or hideously dull.)
Last year I gave you three sci-fi/fantasy recommendations. This year I’m going with all-out, classic beach reads – let’s talk about mysteries! (I hope you didn’t think I was going to say romance. I am not the Lady to go to for those.) I actually don’t read that many detective stories, even though love watching them. In part this is because I burned through pretty much every Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poroit short story in one giant burst in my early teens – after a while the formula that these stories follow can lose its charms and become too predictable. Additionally, many modern mysteries are variations on the tortured detective hunts down brilliant serial killer motif, and for some reason too much psychology and gore makes me snoozy, as evidenced by my managing to fall asleep to nearly every episode of the first season of Hannibal. And yet – I really, really love puzzles, and isn’t that the heart of any good detective yarn? So here are three books that are all about puzzles, but they subvert the traditional detective narratives. One isn’t even, technically, a detective story – but it is all about a puzzle to be solved, and it is very summery, so I included it here.
The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz
Izzy Spellman is kind of a mess – she can’t seem to keep a boyfriend, likes a drink a bit more than she should, and constantly gets into trouble. She’s also a private investigator, as is most of the rest of her family – mom, dad, and baby sister Rae are all in the family business, and while perfect older brother David has left to become a lawyer, he provides the rest of the family with a lot of their work. As you might imagine, growing up in a household of surveillance experts and master lock-pickers shapes your personality – or warps it, in Izzy’s opinion. She worries that a lifetime of eavesdropping and car chases have left her unable to cope in the real world, and decides to get out. Her parents agree, but only if she’ll work one last case…
To be honest, it was really hard to write a quick synopsis of this book, because the plot and the case are really secondary to the story Lutz is telling. The Spellman Files is really about the Spellman family and their extreme quirks. As a narrator Izzy is charmingly flawed – a little bit nuts but well aware of that fact. She’s also tough and capable, nice to see in a heroine; even when she’s trying to win over a guy I never got the sense that relationships defined her.
The mystery itself isn’t too complex – I solved it before Izzy did. That said I appreciated that Lutz actually wrote a mystery that could be solved, providing sufficient clues in the narrative for the reader to guess what happened. Over all this is a light, fun and funny book, perfect for a sunny beach or rainy campsite.
Recommended for: Former Harriet the Spy devotees, Wes Anderson film lovers
Steer clear: If you love a pure mystery. This is way more about a wacky family than anything else.
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
Claire DeWitt is the world’s greatest detective. She’s also got a bit of a drug problem, a lot of trouble with the TSA, and even more trouble holding on to clients. Claire’s method of solving mysteries is a bit unorthodox, you see. She’s a devotee of Jacques Silette, a French detective who wrote a book , Détection, an esoteric manual to solving mysteries, as an explanation of why detectives are drawn to solve them. Détection is Claire’s bible, but it’s obscure more often than it is illuminating. Claire listens to her dreams, consults the I-Ching, and rolls dice in order to get to the bottom of her case – what happened to ADA Vic Willing after Hurricane Katrina hit?
Here is a story that in many ways is a dark mirror to The Spellman Files – one in which the mystery is everything, and yet totally unsolvable by the reader. While the answer to the mystery is actually present from nearly the beginning of the story, Claire’s methods are all about instincts and omens. We can’t be privy to them.
But it’s a great ride to get there. Claire is even more messed up of a heroine than Izzy – the art of detection has totally consumed her. The story takes place in New Orleans 15 months after Katrina, and throughout the book it becomes clear that there is more than one way to drown, even if you survived the actual flood. Gran’s writing is truly lovely, with great twists of phrase, and there’s a strong theme of social justice humming through the story. I liked it so much, I’ve already started the sequel, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway.
Recommended for: Dreamers and obsessives.
Steer clear: If you need happy endings. New Orleans doesn’t have any for you.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Until two summers ago, Cadence Sinclair Easton had a picture perfect life. She spent the school year with her parents in rural Vermont, but her summers were devoted to Beechwood, the private island off the coast of Cape Cod owned by her grandfather. There she had the time of her life with the other “Liars” – her cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and Gat, Johnny’s friend and near-stepbrother. The four Liars are inseparable until that summer two years ago, when Cadence’s parents get divorced, and Cadence has an accident that she can’t remember. Now everything is different between Cadence and the others, and no one will tell her why. It’s up to Cadence to remember what happened the night of her accident and discover the truth.
As I mentioned, this isn’t strictly a “mystery novel.” There’s no detective, other than Cadence who is trying to put her shattered memory back together. There’s no “whodunit” – it’s more like a “what was done?” But it IS a puzzle, and there are layers to how it unfolds. There are other genres this book fits into, but I can’t tell you what they are without revealing the twist to the story. I had it figured out pretty quickly, but as I said above, I love puzzles, and I’m always on the lookout for the twist. (This is a source of slight frustration to Mr. Menace, who simply enjoys stories as they unfold.)
We Were Liars is a young adult book, so it’s not a challenging read, but it deals with some heavy and dark subjects quite well. It also takes place on a private island off of Cape Cod, which is quite literally the most summery thing I can imagine. It’s also my dream life – who’s buying me an island?
Recommended for: Beach bums, drama addicts
Steer clear: If you’re overly sensitive. Cadence’s trauma is pretty grim
So there you have it, three mysterious mysteries to cool down your fevered brain and relax with on the beach this summer! What are you all reading? Let me know in the comments – I always need new books!