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15 Summer Reads Handpicked By Indie Booksellers

Harriet Russell

Booksellers know how important a good story is — one that reaches out, pulls you in and keeps you reading late into the warm summer night. As readers seek out recommendations for their summer travels, booksellers are scouring their shelves for the stories that shine.

For some suggestions, we turn again to our go-to independent booksellers: Lucia Silva, the book buyer at Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, Calif; Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee; and Rona Brinlee of The BookMark in Neptune Beach, Fla. They've selected stories about con artists, grade-school spies, refugees and ranchers. Also: an inquiry into what makes a book a best-seller, and an exploration of why stories make us human.

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Lucia Silva, Portrait Of A Bookstore

I Saw A Peacock With A Fiery Tail

by Jonathan Yamakami and Ramsingh Urveti

This very visual incarnation of a well-known folk poem from 17th century England is a stunning reminder of why people keep making real-live books. In its unpunctuated form, the poem is a series of nonsensical images. But with a little mental cunning and reading-aloud, the reader can add the punctuation and phrasing that will reveal its meaning. Jonathan Yamakami's die-cut pages and Ramsingh Urveti's shape-shifting illustrations reveal the key to decode this "trick verse" by encouraging the alternate readings. Adults and children will delight in turning the pages back and forth as they discover the "trick." Visually delicious and beautifully made, I Saw a Peacock With a Fiery Tail is a testament to the vitality of two art forms that just won't answer to their death knells: poetry and the book.

The Mark Inside

by Amy Reading

Anyone who loved Devil in the White City for its rigorous scholarship and social history disguised as an irresistible page-turner will thrill at The Mark Inside. This is the true story of Texas rancher J. Frank Norfleet, who in 1919 lost his fortune (twice!) in an elaborate con. He spent the next four years of his life on a wild caper to find the con men who swindled him, donning disguises and posing as a mark in cities and towns across the country in an attempt to con the con men and bring them to justice. Along the way Amy Reading illuminates the speculative impulse at the heart of America's nascent financial system and shows how con artistry has always been right at home in American culture, from the ingratiating thief who purloined Benjamin Franklin's candlesticks right down to Bernie Madoff.

The Storytelling Animal

by Jonathan Gottschall

Most of us think of books as places we go to get away from our real lives. But think about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Hunger Games or The Kite Runner — these best-sellers hardly portray worlds anyone would want to escape to. In fact, they represent the darkest extremes of emotional and physical experience. Jonathan Gottschall argues that this is precisely why we love stories, and why our storytelling impulse is key to our evolution and survival. He uses the latest research from evolutionary biologists, psychologists and neuroscientists to show how stories allow human beings to experiment with emotions and strategies for survival. These experiments we conduct in the world of fiction are risk-free, and they help us with the challenges we face in our actual lives, whether we're escaping from lions, forging partnerships, raising children or surviving tragedy. But the storytelling impulse has a dark side. The part of the mind that blossoms in childhood play and daydreams is also the part that makes propaganda and conspiracy theories — and the nightmares we continue to write while we sleep.

Hole In My Life

by Jack Gantos

Some of you may know Jack Gantos as the winner of the 2012 Newbery Medal or as the author of the beloved children's picture book Rotten Ralph and the Joey Pigza series. So you might not know that when Gantos was 19, he went to federal prison for smuggling 2,000 pounds of hashish on a sailboat from the Virgin Islands to New York City. This is Gantos' memoir of those years, the story of a smart, passionate kid who makes the ultimate mistake and then makes his way out. The book is a page-turner even though we know what happens in the end (Gantos gets caught, serves his prison sentence and goes on to become a wildly successful writer of award-winning books for children), and Gantos tells it straight, refusing to glamorize or wax preachy. His recreation of his youthful self is an impressive feat of narration that will feel authentic to even the most cynical teens and endear any adult who remembers being invincible.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

by Jeanette Winterson

What happens when one of the finest novelists of our time doesn't know the beginning of her own life story? Adopted six weeks after she was born, Jeanette Winterson was raised by a woman who claimed "[t]he devil led [her] to the wrong crib," kept a revolver next to the Pledge, and unwittingly gave her daughter the title of this memoir. In her journey through madness and finding her beginnings, Winterson offers readers much more than the satisfaction of voyeuristic curiosity that marks so many train-wreck memoirs. Instead, Why Be Happy becomes an unexpected road map through some of our largest life questions — What is the meaning of happiness? How do we learn about love? What is the purpose of poetry? Why keep living? — all the while redefining the very ideas of memory and autobiography. Through it all, Winterson remains the impeccable wordsmith and irresistible storyteller that make her one of the most admired novelists writing today, and one of my favorites.

Rona Brinlee, The BookMark


by Patrick Flanery

If you look up "absolution" in the dictionary, you'll find it defined as "a freeing from blame or guilt." In this debut novel, Clare Wald, a celebrated South African writer, holds herself responsible for the deaths of her sister and her daughter, both victims of a repressive government. The question is: Who can grant her the absolution she seeks? Although she agrees to have her story written, Wald admits that since she lies for a living, eliciting the truth from her is not an easy task. In a game of parrying and thrusting, Wald and her appointed biographer dance around the questions that must be asked to understand her life. One is afraid to ask and the other equally afraid to answer. Set in 1990s South Africa, Absolution is defined by the place and time in history and is fraught with complex relationships and the surprises they often engender.

The Book Of Jonas

by Stephen Dau

Stephen Dau's debut novel is the story of Jonas, a 15-year-old Muslim boy from an unnamed war-torn country who comes to the United States after losing everything. As Jonas' story unfolds, his relationship with an American soldier is revealed as pivotal, and the secrets they share increasingly haunt him. In his new home, Jonas encounters well-intended people who want to help him but don't know what that means and meets refugees from other countries. He finds a girlfriend and succeeds academically. Over time, though, his past becomes too big to ignore, and his life starts a downward spiral. This is not so much the story of a refugee trying to fit in, but rather, the story of a boy confronted with the horrors of war and the decisions he makes in order to find peace.

A Good American

by Alex George

The tile of this debut novel says it all. A young couple, Jette and Frederick, leave their homes and families in Germany and come to America in the early 1900s. As the story evolves, the two discover what it takes to be "a good American." The diner Frederick opens becomes the focal point of many lives in their small town in the middle of America, and Frederick is the patriarch not only of this small microcosm of the town, but also of an expanding family. Peripheral inhabitants include a music teacher eager to teach her young male students about more than just how to play the piano, a minister who believes he's witnessed a holy event, and scores of others, some poignantly drawn, others offering comic relief, and all contributing to this saga. Families grow, people make their ways in life, and life offers its challenges. Throughout the progression of these normal lives, members of each generation must confront what it means to be good Americans as they find their way and discover who they are.

The Healing

by Jonathan Odell

Just as The Help took on segregation in the 1960s, The Healing takes on slavery in the 1860s. The healing in this novel comes from Polly Shine, a midwife and healer bought by the master of a Mississippi plantation to cure slaves dying from disease. But Polly brings more than medicinal knowledge to the slaves; she also brings hope, and hope's a dangerous thing on a plantation. She singles out one slave in particular, Granada, as a gifted healer and introduces her to the idea of Freedomland. Freedomland is not a place; it's the ability to say "yes" or "no," and to choose. But to Granada it's a concept that's hard to understand, and the choice between what she knows — and perceives as being "taken care of" — and an unknown way of life is daunting. It's in retelling the story of Polly Shine some 75 years later that Granada finally understands what Polly was trying to tell her.

Hit Lit

by James W. Hall

Award-winning Florida mystery author James W. Hall identifies the 12 traits shared by 12 mega-best-selling novels. When Hall talks about best-sellers, he's talking about best-sellers "on steroids," meaning those books like Gone With the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird that have sold tens of millions of copies each. Some important characteristics may not seem so surprising. For example, the books need to be exciting and "sex sells." Others may seem less apparent. All of the books Hall considered contemplate an American Paradise — whether it's actually America for the Russian submarine defector in Clancy's Hunt for Red October or the idyllic summer beach in Jaws. All have heroes and all offer access to a part of society not readily available to the reader, ranging from the secret societies of the The Da Vinci Code to the mob families of The Godfather. While all of these best-sellers share these traits, including them does not guarantee a hit novel. There's always that missing ingredient, which in this case may just be passion. Then again, paying attention to Hall's list couldn't hurt.

Mr G

by Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman, the author of the best-selling book Einstein's Dreams, once again showcases his training as a theoretical physicist as well as his skill as a writer. Mr g is God, the Creator. He lives in the Void with his aunt and uncle and creates universes to fill his eternal time. In creating his latest universe, he begins by introducing basic principles of physics, including causality and relativity. First he invents time because space can't exist without it. Then he introduces atoms that can tick and measure time and thus allow for a past and a future. Then, of course, there's the question of what to put in the space. Should the objects be animate or inanimate? Should they have a soul? And should Mr g interfere if things don't go well? To heat up Mr g's internal debates, there's Belhor, a Satan-like figure of equal intelligence who engages Mr g in serious intellectual conversations, keeping Mr g on his guard. What at first appears to be a whimsical story of the creation of the universe winds its way through thought-provoking questions with humor and sound science principles.

Daniel Goldin, Boswell Book Co.

Coral Glynn

by Peter Cameron

In an English village in the 1950s, a young nurse named Coral Glynn takes as her charge an elderly dying woman with a war-disabled son. The son is drawn to Coral and, not long after his mother dies, proposes to Coral. It is an unlikely union of two complex and damaged characters. One day, Coral spots two children in the woods playing some sort of game that verges on bondage. She tries to warn them against it, but in the end, walks away. The "game" turns horribly wrong and Coral is implicated in the crime.

Peter Cameron pays homage to the wonderful British writers of that period, from Elizabeth Taylor to Barbara Pym, who wrote period drawing-room novels that presaged the upheavals in gender, race and class of the 1960s. This is no sly copy, however. Cameron's simultaneously somber and comic voice shines throughout in this quiet but glorious novel.


by Alyson Hagy

In Boleto, young Will Testerman has had enough of working on his family's cash-strapped Wyoming ranch. He's ready to make his own way in the world — and he's going to do it by raising horses. So Will chances everything on a beautiful filly named Tic. Like many of the great writers of the West, Alyson Hagy's writing is spare and eloquent. Structurally the three parts of this novel are too well integrated to be considered connected stories, but the term novel doesn't accurately describe it. I like to think of Boleto as a triptych, the literary equivalent of three paintings on connected panels. The sweep of the story is reminiscent of artwork, and its solemnity has a nearly religious intensity.


by Alexis M. Smith

A postcard found at a thrift shop, a lunch with a colleague, a party — all moments in the life of Isabel, a young woman who repairs books in a Portland, Ore., library basement. The story itself feels like a series of postcards, jumping back and forth from the small moments of her day to her childhood in Alaska, to the found postcard that hints at an Amsterdam romance. In a sense, Glaciers is a bookend to Paul Harding's Tinkers, another story with a fractured structure, about an old man contemplating the past at the end of his life. Isabel is similarly obsessed with the past, but we know she's at a beginning rather than at an end. And if that isn't enough, one can glory in its Ulyssesian structure, as the whole plot takes place, more or less, in a single day.

The Cheerleaders Of Doom

by Michael Buckley and Ethen Beavers

It isn't easy being a nerdy kid ... if only there were some secret organization that turned nerds' weaknesses into superpowers using nanotechnology. That's the premise of NERDS, a series about grade-school spies who must work together to save the world (at least once per volume). A kid with braces turns his wires into super tools. A kid who has ADHD has the ability to move super fast. In The Cheerleaders of Doom installment, a former student has created a machine that allows people to jump through alternate realities, and Matilda Choi, an asthmatic known as "Wheezer" (her inhaler helps her fly) must infiltrate cheerleading camp to expose the plot. I love this series, a superb blend of silliness and character-building. Like a top-notch kids' cartoon, it has a whole other layer of jokes just for the adults.

The Collective

by Don Lee

In this sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious novel, protagonist Eric Cho contemplates the life of Joshua Yoon, the Korean novelist with whom he, along with provocative visual artist Jessica Tsai, once formed the 3AC or Asian American Artists Collective. What may have led Joshua to commit suicide (or was it?) by running into the path of an oncoming car? Lee explores themes of identity he's contemplated in the past — the allure of the cultural bond, the bristle of the stereotype — but this time through the lens of the college novel. With the pump already primed by recent successes from Jeffrey Eugenides and Chad Harbach, I'm hoping that folks will be ready for this addition to the collegiate canon.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.