Historical fiction, engrossing essays among summer reads

A poignant memoir of a girl growing up in a run-down Scottish mansion. A riveting saga of two men wh
Amy Lane, a book buyer for the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady, stands by the staff favorites.
Amy Lane, a book buyer for the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady, stands by the staff favorites.

A poignant memoir of a girl growing up in a run-down Scottish mansion. A riveting saga of two men who become crazed doctors. A touching tale about a dog who spends his days preparing to be reincarnated as an “honorable” man. A scary thriller about a suspected serial killer in an imaginary upstate New York town.

Those are a few of the books we heard about when surveying employees of local bookstores about what reads they’d take to the beach with them this summer.

What follows is a sampling of recommendations from people who know plenty about books, including some lesser-known and quirky choices. The picks come from three popular independent bookstores in the region — the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady, The Book House in Guilderland and Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt.

Book House

“The Art of Racing in The Rain,” by Garth Stein (HarperCollins, 2008) — This book comes as a big literary surprise to Susan Taylor, a book seller at The Book House in Guilderland’s Stuyvesant Plaza.

This heart-wrenching story is narrated by an extraordinary mutt, Enzo.

Though he has learned so much by watching television and listening closely to his owner’s musings about life and auto racing, Enzo is frustrated by his inability to communicate with anything other than gestures — a bark here, a tail wag there.

A firm believer in reincarnation, as he has seen a National Geographic Channel documentary on the subject, he prepares diligently for the moment his soul is ready to return to Earth and inhabit a human form. Then he will become a gifted race car driver and an honorable man, just like his owner.

“The narration in this book is so human, you forget he’s a dog. I’m not a dog person at all, but once I picked this book up, I was in awe of how great it was,” said Taylor.

“TKO: Round Two — A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery” (Midnight Ink, 2008) — This is a fictional novel penned by Albany-based author Tom Schreck.

“It’s great, and it is set in a town much like Albany,” Taylor said.

After 25 years in prison for the murder of a couple of cheerleaders, a quarterback and the class president, Howard “Hacker” Reinhart is released.

His case is assigned to social worker and amateur boxer Duffy Dombrowski. Soon, local high school VIPs start showing up dead, and Howard is nowhere to be found.

Although Duffy has a few other things on his mind — like a huge upcoming boxing match, a new hormonal girlfriend and the ongoing misadventures of Allah-King, his Muslim basset hound — Duffy throws himself into Howard’s defense.

“When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” by David Sedaris (Little Brown, 2008) — Sedaris uses life’s most bizarre moments to reach new heights in understanding love and fear, family and strangers. It culminates in a brilliantly funny account of his venture to Tokyo to quit smoking.

Taylor said she is particularly fond of essay collections such as these during the summer months because they are segmented and therefore “easy to pick up and put down” while alternating between reading and taking dips in the pool.

Northshire Bookstore

Karen Frank, a bookseller at the Manchester, Vt.-based Northshire Bookstore, loves good, rich historical fiction that is both intelligent and emotional and “feeds the soul.” Here are her picks.

“Ireland: A Novel,” by Frank Delaney (HarperCollins, 2008) — The tales in this book are told by the last professional storyteller in Ireland, while integrating the story of a young man’s life in the 1950s. For a country with a rich oral history and magic, this is no small feat.

“This is the most magical book I’ve read in a very long time,” said Frank. “If you have any interest in Irish history, both ancient and modern, you will devour this. The author weaves legend and fact in an enthralling voice.”

“The Observations,” by Jane Harris (Penguin Putnam, 2007) — This is fun and fabulous 19th-century historical fiction. A young Irish girl ends up as a housekeeper in a rundown Scottish mansion.

“We discover lots of interesting things about her and her mistress. The author develops an intricate plot dotted with great ‘bit part’ characters and weaves amusing and evocative language throughout. The writing has a Dickensian feel with a good measure of Jane Austen thrown in. Extremely enjoyable,” says Frank.

“Human Traces,” by Sebastian Faulks (Random House, 2008) — “What a grand and satisfying novel of ideas. I don’t know how to begin to sing its praises,” Frank praises.

In a nutshell, two young men become “mad-doctors” at the end of the 19th century, and during the course of their lives and careers begin to unravel and practice the various theories of brain function as related to insanity.

“The Birth House,” by Ami McKay (HarperCollins, 2007) — This is a story about midwifery and women’s ancestral knowledge pitted against the dawn of male-dominated modern medicine in early 20th-century Nova Scotia. The characters, both male and female, are so finely drawn that they lodge in your heart and the feeling that some of the “lost knowledge” passed down from the older generation of women isn’t really completely lost at all gives one some hope for the future.

“The Highest Tide,” by Jim Lynch (St. Martin’s Press, 2006) — A 13-year-old boy, who is small for his age, lives on the tidal flats of Puget Sound. The dysfunctional marriage of his parents has made him a loner and a seeker and he is obsessed with the rich marine life of this backyard science laboratory. In the time frame of the story, he discovers marvels about the sea, the planet, humankind and himself.

“This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking tale about our relationship with the natural world and how to find a place in it, as well as connect with our fellow humans. I found this book to be a comforting and insightful read,” says Frank.

Open Door

“I Shall Not Want,” by Plattsburgh-born Julia Spencer Fleming (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2008) — “This is part of the best mystery series you’ve never heard of,” said Amy Lane, a book buyer with Schenectady’s Open Door Bookstore.

Set in a fictitious town in the Adirondacks, this series is infused with local-interest topics such as land development, deforestation and the polluting of the Hudson River, and it explores how our lives are affected by these events.

The books begin with “In the Bleak Midwinter” and continue on to the just-released “I Shall Not Want.”

“I recommend [that they] be read sequentially because the development of Claire and Russ’s relationship is the most engaging aspect of these stories. The characters are likable and honestly presented — Spencer-Fleming has a clear, sharp writing style,” said Lane.

“The Monsters of Templeton,” by Lauren Groff (HarperCollins, 2008) — Part contemporary story of a girl’s search for her father, part historical novel and part ghost story spanning two centuries, this novel is at its core a tale of how one town holds the secrets of a family.

Lane said the book, which is actually set in Cooperstown — Groff’s hometown — has become a “resounding favorite among staff and customers alike. The quirky, brilliantly written family saga is the perfect summer read. This is a laugh-out-loud, wise and endearing story,” said Lane.

“The Third Angel,” by Alice Hoffman (Random House, 2008) — This book has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist.

Lane says: “Hoffman is in a class by herself — her evocative language and complex, compelling characters draw readers into her novels where they are carried along on a transcendent journey.”

The book weaves together the lives of three women who are each at a crossroads. Though each story is set in a different time period, they are interconnected tales of heartbreak and hope. Madeline is attracted to her sister’s fiancé; Frieda is a runaway who latches onto a wannabe rock star; and Lucy is searching for the Third Angel — a mysterious entity she believes will redeem her for past transgressions.

Frank says: “This moving, redemptive, and affecting novel is not burdensome. Rather, it lifts one up and gently soars through imagination and lands with nary a bump.”

Categories: Life and Arts

Leave a Reply