In no particular order (they're all excellent), here are my Top Ten Summer Reads:
S.J. Watson, Before I Go To Sleep (Harper, 368 pages)
Novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River and Shutter Island) describes Watson’s debut novel as “Memento on crystal meth.” Featuring a first-person narrator who can’t make new memories, Before I Go To Sleep is a genuine page turner, the kind of novel that will have you saying, “I’ll go to sleep after one more chapter” over and over again.
Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Harvest Books, 191 pages)
Hamid’s 2008 novel could be described as a number of things: an allegory, a cautionary tale, or a love story to a bygone era. Whatever you call it, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is both accessible and challenging. Ostensibly the story of a young immigrant’s education in America, the novel explores the devastating global and personal after-effects of 9/11. The book is worth reading, given that we are approaching the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 this September.
D.B. Grady, Red Planet Noir (Brown Street Press, 216 pages)
Grady’s debut novel is simultaneously a homage to hard boiled writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as well as science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick. The story of a private eye investigating the death of a prominent military official on Mars, Red Planet Noir is a page-turner that asks some very tough questions about the government, the military, the police, unions, and the sometimes uncomfortable alliances among these strange bedfellows.
Lisa Turner, A Little Death in Dixie (Bell Bridge Books, 298 pages)
In Turner’s debut novel, the city of Memphis, Tennessee, is as much a character as Billy Able, a detective with the city’s police department. Able’s investigation into the disappearance of a young debutante uncovers all sorts of nastiness that the upper crust of southern society would like brushed back under the rug. Turner’s prose is crisp and kinetic. A character-driven story that also has a plot, A Little Death in Dixie is a book for fans of thrillers as well as southern literature.
James Lee Burke, Black Cherry Blues (Avon Books, 384 pages)
The third in Burke’s hugely-successful sequence of novels featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, Black Cherry Blues shows what Burke does best. As a writer, he rests one foot firmly in genre fiction, the other firmly in character-driven literary fiction. The first-person narrative allows Burke to explore Robicheaux’s flawed psyche, yet it doesn’t distract from the novel’s tightly-woven plot. Readers who’ve not read the first two books in the series shouldn’t worry. Burke’s prose allows you to jump right in—no previous reading experience required.
Victor Gischler, The Deputy (Tyrus Books, 256 pages)
Gischler’s fifth novel, The Deputy explores some familiar terrain for the Edgar Award nominee, whose previous works include Gun Monkeys, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse and The Pistol Poets. What starts as a simple assignment for small-town Oklahoma deputy Toby Keith (keep an eye on a dead body until the county medical examiner arrives) turns into an action-packed thrill-fest that delivers, page after page. As always, Gischler’s prose is tight and economical, a trait that keeps the book moving a mile a minute.
Anthony Neil Smith, Yellow Medicine (Bleak House Books, 256 pages)
Founding editor of the online noir literary magazine Plots with Guns (http://www.plotswithguns.com), Smith knows the terrain of crime fiction very well and Yellow Medicine demonstrates his mastery of the form. The story of anti-hero Billy Lafitte, an exiled deputy from the Mississippi Gulf Coast who’s now a deputy in Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, Yellow Medicine begins innocently enough. The bassist of a local pscho-billy band called Elvis Antichrist asks Billy to look into the disappearance of her boyfriend. The novel quickly becomes an action-packed romp featuring corrupt cops, backwoods meth dealers, and Malaysian terrorists. A page-turner that has all the action of a big-budget Hollywood production, Yellow Medicine kicks the tires and lights the fires on the very first page and hurtles toward its conclusion with gasoline-soaked abandon.
Michael Lister, Double Exposure (Tyrus Books, 240 pages)
Florida panhandle native Lister explores his home terrain in Double Exposure, the story of photographer Remington James, who returns to the small north Florida town of Apalachicola following the death of his father. James is not only mourning the death of his father, but he’s also stinging from a recent break-up with his girlfriend. On an afternoon trip into the thick woods surrounding Franklin County, James stumbles into a murder plot. This set up coupled with the novel’s use of present tense allows Lister to build tension and urgency as the night deepens around James. Lister’s a fine writer with a Faulkner-esque interest in landscape and characters. Double Exposure delivers, page after tense page.
Mary Jane Ryals, Cookie and Me (Kitsune Books, 330 pages)
Poet Laureate of the Florida Big Bend and first-time novelist Ryals explores an interracial friendship in the turbulent late 1960s in Cookie and Me. A coming of age story about the friendship between the white and somewhat privileged Rayanne and the African-American and decidedly underprivileged Cookie, the novel demonstrates Ryals’ ear for regional speech. Her first-person voice is believable and endearing. Recalling such southern classics as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Cookie and Me explores the Civil Rights movement as it reaches Tallahassee, Florida. A beautifully-written novel, the book has the quiet power of classic. It’s not to be missed.