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Tuesday, Mar 31, 2015
Arts & Music

Summer weeding: Picking out the best books

Tribune correspondent


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At a recent party frequented by literary types (ascot optional), I met a woman who claimed to read only R-rated fan fiction based on a cult Canadian TV series that had been off the air for decades. Among the many (and occasionally dubious) benefits of our Internet age is the ability to scratch one's fictional itches with such exactitude. For these readers, finding the next book isn't a question of casually browsing library or bookstore shelves, any more than the savvy single would post a personal ad seeking "Someone Kind of Nice, or Whatever."

On the other hand, if you are the type who knows exactly what you want in a book, here is a list of summer-friendly titles and the boxes they tick, from camp to road trips to exotic vacations among the filthy rich - and other only-in-a-book fantasies.

"The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer

Tags: Summer camp, group of friends, youths to middle age, cartoons, recent history, stories about New York, artistic aspirations

A group of teens meet at a summer camp for the artistically inclined and manage (with notable exceptions) to maintain the resulting friendships into adulthood and middle age, in spite of brushes with fame, crime, jealousy, disillusionment and death. It's "Glee" meets "The Big Chill," without the musical numbers.

"The Lost Sun" by Tessa Gratton

Tags: Road trips, Norse mythology, alternate history, teen angst, gods fraternizing with mortals, kissing

In this Norse-inflected fantasy set in a clever alternate version of our world, two teens from troubled families (his dad was a berserker; her mom a famous prophetess who may or may not be dead) set out across the United States of Asgard in search of a missing god. (Spoiler alert: Nebrasge is still flat.)

"Firecracker" by David Iserson

Tags: One-liners, prep school, snark, unrepentant bad girl, space cadet grownups, hilarious curmudgeon

For those suffering sitcom withdrawal, former "Saturday Night Live" and current "New Girl" writer Iserson makes a sparkling debut with this "tragicomedy" about Astrid Krieger, whose privileged life goes off the rails when she's forced to attend public school. Will Astrid learn Valuable Life Lessons about tolerance and fitting in - or teach the plebes to march to her tune?

"The Apprentices," by Maile Meloy

Tags: Magic, mid-century history, chaste romance, literary pedigree, indie street cred, cool illustrations

In this sequel to "The Apothecary," literary darling Meloy (whose brother Colin fronts the band The Decemberists), offers some of the most appealing spell work since J.K. Rowling graduated from Hogwarts. The first book took place at the height of the Cold War, with heroine Janie's screenwriter parents exiled from Hollywood to London during the Red Scare. This time around the settings are even more exotic, as enemies old and new race to acquire ever deadlier weapons, unless Janie and her friends - with the help of an ancient book of potions - can get there first.

"Quintana of Charyn" by Melina Marchetta

Tags: Fantasy, geopolitical conflict, complex characters, war crimes, refugees

If you like your fantasy epic and labyrinthine, with vast casts of memorable characters and intrigue of both the political and personal variety, check out this sweeping trilogy by Australian writer Marchetta. The content can be grim, but there are glimmers of hope - and even humor - sprinkled throughout. As an added attraction, some characters are actually noble and likable, and they don't all die horribly! Nor will you have to wait years to find out what happens next. "Quintana" is the third and final volume in the series.

"Shining Girls" by Lauren Beukes

Tags: Serial killers, paranormal elements, title contains the word "girl" or "girls," plucky young reporter, no subtle glamorization of violence against women

What makes this murderer - who targets young women of particular vitality and promise - so hard to catch is not his diabolical cleverness but the fact that he can travel through time, thanks to a sinister house in Depression-era Chicago. As the only victim to have escaped death, Kirby Mazrachi also may be the only one who can stop him. (Runner-up, for those who prefer true crime: "Lost Girls" by Robert Kolker.)

"Crazy Rich Asians" by Kevin Kwan

Tags: Comedy of manners, lifestyles of the rich and famous, conspicuous consumption, cultural novelty

The title doesn't pull any punches in Kwan's debut novel, in which a young woman named Rachel Chu is unexpectedly plunged into the world of her boyfriend's super-rich Singapore family, complete with palatial homes, private planes and complicated social games. More than one review has called Kwan the Jane Austen of the ultra-moneyed Asian jet set.

"Letters from Skye: A Novel" by Jessica Brockmole

Tags: epistolary fiction, history, star-crossed romance, poetry, remote island setting, mystery

Fans of "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" may want to check out this novel in letters, spanning two wars and multiple love stories. In the early part of the last century, isolated Scottish poet Elspeth Dunn receives a fan letter from American college student David Graham. Letters lead to love - and later provide clues for Elspeth's daughter as she attempts to unravel the mystery of her missing mother's life.

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman

Tags: Neil Gaiman, magic, demonic domestics, regret, childhood secrets, English countryside

An unnamed narrator returns to his childhood home, where he recalls a dark and mysterious chapter from his early life involving eccentric neighbors (the three magical Hempstock women), a pond that may be an ocean, and a brush with real evil. Small but not slight, this is Gaiman's first fantasy for adults since "Anansi Boys."

"The Firebird," by Susanna Kearsley

Tags: romance, history, extrasensory abilities, Russia, I-just-want-to-read-a-love-story-that-won't-insult-my-intelligence-is-that-so-wrong?

Kearsley is known for her well-crafted and mildly suspenseful romances, in which the love story takes place against a backdrop rich in history, often with a paranormal twist. In "The Firebird," she reintroduces the character of Robbie from "The Shadowy Horses," pairing him with an art gallery employee named Nicola as they use both psychic abilities and more traditional methods to trace the provenance of an artifact to Imperial Russia.

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