Thursday, June 2, 2016

Summer Reading List

I asked for summer reading list recommendations last week and was overwhelmed by the response from my friends on Facebook.  I read a lot of epic fantasy—sometimes mindless, sometimes intellectual—a fair bit of science fiction, and an occasional mystery or historical text.  My goal for this list, then, was first to find books worth reading and to then expand my personal reading horizons.  
What I’ve learned is that a lot of my friends have interests that’re broadly similar to mine.  However, a few made decided efforts to push me outside my comfort zone.  Most of the recommendations are listed below, in something like the order I’m hoping to try to get to them.  Some of that will depend on when I find these books at my local library.

Tribe: On Homecoming & Belonging by Sebastian Junger (Me)
“Tribal society has been exerting an almost gravitational pull on Westerners for hundreds of years, and the reason lies deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species. The most recent example of that attraction is combat veterans who come home to find themselves missing the incredibly intimate bonds of platoon life. The loss of closeness that comes at the end of deployment may explain the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today.”
I started Tribe last week and have found it fascinating.  Despite the blurb, it’s less about combat veterans than it is about the importance of community, a thing we’ve been talking about a lot within my family of late.  Our family is doing well—very well, actually—but I don’t want to lose what I think has made us successful in the rush and scramble for further success.  Maintaining ties to our community is perhaps the most important piece of this effort, and as such, it’s an important consideration in a lot of what we do.
The Short Drop by Matthew FitzSimmons (Matt D.)
“A decade ago, fourteen-year-old Suzanne Lombard, the daughter of Benjamin Lombard—then a senator, now a powerful vice president running for the presidency—disappeared in the most sensational missing-person case in the nation’s history. Still unsolved, the mystery remains a national obsession.”
Finding good mysteries is a little like finding good fantasy.  It’s not easy because there’s so much schlock out there, but when you find one, it’s golden.  My friend Matt is a smart guy with similar interests, so I’ll gladly take his recommendation.
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Marisol C.)
“Ruiz Zafón's novel, a bestseller in his native Spain, takes the satanic touches from Angel Heart and stirs them into a bookish intrigue à la Foucault's Pendulum. The time is the 1950s; the place, Barcelona. Daniel Sempere, the son of a widowed bookstore owner, is 10 when he discovers a novel, The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax.”
Fascinating concept by a Spanish author.  Marisol has brilliantly checked all of my summer reading list boxes with this.
Sundiver, the Uplift Saga (Book 1) by David Brin (Chris V.)
“No species has ever reached for the stars without the guidance of a patron--except perhaps mankind. Did some mysterious race begin the uplift of humanity aeons ago? Circling the sun, under the caverns of Mercury, Expedition Sundiver prepares for the most momentous voyage in history--a journey into the boiling inferno of the sun.”
There’s never enough good sci fi, and I’m fan of David Brin, especially Kiln People, which is perhaps the smartest examination I’ve ever read of the current labor economy.
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (Eric M.)
“Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller In the Garden of Beasts—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World's Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death.”
You see copies of Devil in the White City everywhere, but I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never even picked it up.  With that cover, I had it pegged as a political treatise.  However, the cover blurb sound fascinating, and I’ve liked other books I’ve read by Larson.  I’m excited for this one.
The Passage by Justin Cronin (Rachel P.)
The Passage is the story of Amy—abandoned by her mother at the age of six, pursued and then imprisoned by the shadowy figures behind a government experiment of apocalyptic proportions. But Special Agent Brad Wolgast, the lawman sent to track her down, is disarmed by the curiously quiet girl and risks everything to save her.”
Not sure what to make of this.  Urban fantasy?  The government conspiracy stuff is well outside my normal wheelhouse, but that’s a good thing for this particular list.  Plus, the cover copy looks good.  I guess we’ll see.
Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer (Mike J.)
“Navy captains battle through a modern-day Pearl Harbor; fighter pilots duel with stealthy drones; teenage hackers fight in digital playgrounds; Silicon Valley billionaires mobilize for cyber-war; and a serial killer carries out her own vendetta. Ultimately, victory will depend on who can best blend the lessons of the past with the weapons of the future.”

This is what the active duty West Pointers spent last summer reading.  I myself don’t swing this direction much anymore, but there are a handful in this genre that have become essential parts of the socio-political landscape.  Bottom line, this is the kind of book you have to read if you to sound smart at dinner parties.  We just joined a yacht club, so I guess I better get on that.  Bonus points for the naval setting, which is suddenly important in my new social circle.
The World According to Star Wars by Cass Sunstein (Ray K.)
“In this fun, erudite, and often moving book, Cass R. Sunstein explores the lessons of Star Wars as they relate to childhood, fathers, the Dark Side, rebellion, and redemption.”
I would normally steer way clear of a book about the meta-fan experience of Star Wars dads, but my friend Ray is another very smart guy with similar interests, and this book has excellent reviews.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.”

My friend Elizabeth Howard (@smallstate) is a professional writer and Poet-on-Demand.  I actually think she might have been trying to punish me with some of her recommendations.  She made at least four, and they were all brilliantly outside any genres I’d normally consider.  I can’t say that I’m particularly interested in Maya Angelou’s memoir, but that probably says more about me than I’d like to admit.  Regardless, the book has incredible reviews, and as I said in the opening, it’s good to get outside one’s comfort zone.

Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol by William C. Davis (Sid L.)
“John C. Breckinridge rose to prominence during one of the most turbulent times in our nation's history. Widely respected, even by his enemies, for his dedication to moderate liberalism, Breckinridge's charisma and integrity led to his election as Vice President at age 35, the youngest ever in America's history.”
Breckinridge is about as far outside my wheelhouse as Angelou.  Honestly, this book is probably the toughest sell on this list, but I like Sid a Hell of a lot, and reading this will make me think of him.  Plus, I have no idea what Breckinridge actually did, so bonus points for forcing me to actually learn something.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (Elizabeth Howard)  
“Hailed by critics and loved by readers of literary and historical fiction, Beautiful Ruins is the story of an almost-love affair that begins on the Italian coast in 1962...and is rekindled in Hollywood fifty years later.”
You see?  She really is trying to punish me.  I honestly cannot imagine that this will hold my interest, but for Elizabeth’s sake, I’ll give it a try.  It’s actual literature!
The White Tree, Cycle of Arawn (Book 1) by Edward W. Robertson (John H.)
“In Mallon, the dark magic of the nether has been banned for centuries. Its users have been driven out or killed. Its secrets lost.

But the holy book of the nethermancers has just been found by a boy named Dante.”
I put this low on the list because it’s very close to my normal haunts.
Ascendant’s Rite, Moontide Quartet (Book 4) by David Hair (Me)
“The last few months of the moontide - when the bridge connecting East and West rises above the sea - has come, and in the West Emperor Constant prepares the final phase of his plan to conquer the East.”
My friend Nak wrote a book a few years ago.  She framed it as a military romance, but it’s really more of a thriller told from the perspective of a battalion surgeon on deployment in Afghanistan.  Worse yet, it’s by a woman about a woman, and it’s a war story.  Half a dozen publishers have expressed an interest, but the story is steadfastly chaste, and the plotline is more Le Carré than Clancy…  
No one knows what to make of it.
I call this G.I. Jane Syndrome.  Everyone in the movie wants to celebrate the fact that Jane made it through SEAL school, but no one wants to talk about how she then had to then stab a guy through the throat at the movie’s climax.  I finally joked that Nak should rewrite her book as a fantasy because at least fire elves and hobbits can die horribly when it serves the plot.  Folks aren’t ready to read the same of American soldiers, especially women.  Use of the fantasy setting, then, gives readers a bit of emotional distance, which can reduce cognitive dissonance and make the difficult easier to absorb.
Mage's Blood is the first book in The Moontide Quartet.
I’m reminded of this conversation every time I pick it up The Moontide Quartet.  It’s a fantasy, yes, but it has quite a lot to say about the modern world and faith and the lies that we tell ourselves in order to keep our societies moving forward.  The series hasn’t—quite—made a dent in the public consciousness yet, but I love it and recommend it in the highest terms.  
The fourth book, Ascendant’s Rite, comes out in September.  Since that’s technically after the summer, I’ve listed it next to last.
The Emperor’s Blade, Unhewn Throne (Book 1) by Brian Staveley (Alan Evans)
“[T]he emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.”
Ah, this looks great.  Alan and I exchange book recommendations at least monthly, so I’m sure I’m going to love it.  Can’t wait!

This post is now the first entry into what I've decided to call The Summer Reading List Project.  For the time being, entries into this series are archived in the Sketch In My Notebook tab of this blog.  


  1. Tribe sounds very interesting. I wish we had more people actively working on problems like this and not just people writing about them. I've read Devil in the White City. A similarly engrossing historical crime story can be found in Little Demon in the City of Light by Steven Levingston, if you find yourself with more time...

    1. Thanks Tony. I finished TRIBE today, and it was indeed very interesting. That said, I would argue that the fixes aren't challenging at all. We as a society need to be better--all of us, together, all the time.

      This is actually not complicated at all. Ask yourself, "What am I doing for my community right now?" and is the answer is "nothing", then take responsibility and fix that. I've said this before: if all else fails, go donate blood.

      At the end of the day, service is its own reward. This is true for combat gets, it's true for vets who didn't see combat (like me), and it's true for regular civilians. As people, we NEED to be of service. This is a challenge in a society that asks so little, but it's still really important--to everyone by design.