My Summer Reading List

Summer in Austin. For most people, that means swimming at Barton Springs pool, drinking beer on a boat, or visiting one of the many legendary swimming holes scattered around central Texas. For me, it means hitting the bookstore, then cranking the A/C, and losing myself in a story set someone dark, cool, and preferably, mysterious.

Today, Dave and I spent a few hours browsing Half-Price Books, and I came home with a stack of new stories to help me daydream away the days. (While clutching my stack of books to my chest with delight, I wondered which I love more, food or books. Honestly, it’s a tough call. Happily, I can enjoy both every day.)

Just as I like to combine recipes to make meals into mini-feasts with a theme — hence all the recipe variations I include in this blog and in Well Fed — I like to group books together to read them: similar settings or time frames, same author, thematic parallels. The only thing better than a really good book is two or more really good books that go together.



Dracula, Bram Stoker
Yes, I’ve read this before… but I’m planning to read The Historian again (read why I love it right here), and The Historian + Dracula is the perfect, dark reading combo.

Second Wind, Dick Francis
I cannot get enough of the Dick Francis protagonists: stand-up guys who love women, horses, doing the right thing, and Scotch or tea, depending on the circumstances. (Read about my affection for Dick Francis novels here.)

The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson
I have to admit, after I took this photo, I returned The Gargoyle to the shelf in exchange for Labyrinth, the prequel to The Sepulchre by Kate Moss (see below). If you’ve read The Gargoyle, hit me up in comments and tell me what you thought of it.

Mendel’s Dwarf, Simon Mawer
This is the book I decided to start reading when I got home, and it is so so so good. The narrator is a very intelligent dwarf, interested in genetic research, who is the great-great-great-nephew of Gregor Mendel. I know; it sounds like a weird premise, but the writing is beautiful and funny, the story is gripping. It’s completely modern and engrossing — not a fantasy, Game of Thrones kind of dwarf story.

Unbeknownst to me when I picked it up, the story opens in the Czech Republic and so far, has been a stroll through the Moravian countryside with sly asides about the conflict in the Sudetenland. Ben, the narrator, has a wry sense of humor about his genetic condition, and there have been hints of romance that I expect to surface later in the book. I’m enjoying it so much, I was inspired to get my laptop and write this post to tell you about it right now. Here’s the author’s official web site, in case you want to learn more. (While I was browsing around, I learned about his book Trapeze — the story of a young French woman who becomes a spy in WWII Paris — and immediately bought it online. AFTER BUYING EIGHT NEW BOOKS THIS AFTERNOON. You see? I have a problem. But at least books are good for me, unlike the old days when I’d binge on, say, a bag of Baked Lays.

Anyway, Mendel’s Dwarf. Awesome so far. You might like it, too.

UPDATE 07/16/12: I finished reading this book within 24 hours of buying it. I couldn’t put it down because I was so curious to see what was going to happen to these characters. A few words of warning: (1) There are lots of passages that describe the minutia of Mendel’s scientific experiments. I liked them, but I’m nerdy like that. (2) There are many references to, um… self pleasure. They didn’t bother me, but if you have delicate sensibilities, consider yourself alerted. (3) The ending is devastating.  It’s very emotionally satisfying and true to the characters, but it’s rough. With these caveats in mind, I recommend this book. It won’t be added to my short list of favorites (Jane Eyre, The Historian, The Book Thief, The Shadow of the Wind, The Night Circus, A Room with a View), but it was a very engrossing, satisfying read.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
Again, WWII tempts me. But this book also hits another two of my favorite characteristics: It’s about a writer, and it’s an epistolary novel, i.e., told through a series of letters (as are Dracula and The Historian — oh! and The Woman in White, considered one of the first mystery novels, It’s pretty brilliant; you should read it).

A Dead Man in Istanbul, Michael Pearce
Honestly, it kinda had me at “Istanbul.” But beyond the catchy title, the premise sounds promising and Amazon reviews are good: “A murder in Istanbul is entangled with international politics and deadly secrets when an embassy official is shot trying to swim the Dardanelles Straits. Special Branch officer Seymour’s investigation ranges through Istanbul’s graveyards, box shops, and crowded coffee houses, leading to the heart of Topkapi Palace.” I mean, how could I not?

Umberto’s Circus, Eduard Bass
Reasons I was required to buy this book:
(1) the cover
(2) it’s by a Czech author who was also the editor of the Czech Republic’s largest liberal newspaper
(3) it’s about a European circus
(4) it’s set in the late 19th century

As I’m planning to re-read The Night Circus — which I loved so ridiculously much I can’t really make coherent sentences about it — I thought Umberto’s Circus would make a good two-fer.

The Labyrinth and Sepulchre, Kate Mosse
Today when I searched Google for “books like The Historian,” both of these were suggested. I found the plot outline of Sepulchre more interesting, so that was my first choice. But then a helpful Twitter follower (Thanks, Tony!) suggested that I read both, in order… and that’s how I ended up with both on my bookshelf.

And now I have to tell you about the book I just finished…

The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust’s Shadow, Krystyna Chiger & Daniel Paisner
This book was thrust into my hands by Stef, my artist-friend who lives across the street. (That’s her beautiful pottery in many of the photos in Well Fed.) She had a stack of books she was trying to get out of her house, and she shoved them at me. “These are about World War II. Take ’em.” I never, ever turn down books, so I took them. A few days ago, I finished Dark Star by Alan Furst, the story of a Russian journalist forced into being a spy in WWII. Much of the action was set in Poland, and I learned a lot I hadn’t previously known about the squeeze put on that country by Hitler from the west and Stalin from the east. Fascinating, sobering stuff. Then I picked up The Girl in the Green Sweater and was drawn into the very human experience of what it was like for Chiger’s family to be stuck between those two deadly, opposing forces.

Since I was a little girl myself, I’ve been fascinated by the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. This book is a moving companion piece to Frank’s diary — and the story is shockingly beautiful in its sorrow and horror. It’s a credit to the authors that, in sharing the horrors the family endured first in their home and then in the sewers under the city of Lvov, the writing is never maudlin or too depressing to read. It’s clear-eyed, honest, and moving. Ultimately, it says far more about the goodness and love in peoples’ hearts than the evil can also lurk there.

If you’re interested, you can learn more about Krystyna Chiger and the Chiger family here and in this interview. Next week, Dave and I are watching the movie based on the Chiger family story, called In Darkness.

I should also mention that I have been fighting the urge to re-read Jane Eyre again, so that will probably get added to the list — and I will definitely be re-reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon in anticipation of reading his new sequel The Prisoner of Heaven. And… I just realized I have three un-read issues of the food magazine Lucky Peach sitting on my reading stack; I need to get on that!

Are you reading anything good right now?

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  • Elise says:

    Guernsey is one of my favorites!! Considering it’s a WWII themed book, it’s a surprisingly pleasant read! So much love for this book.

    I have one chapter left in Dracula. I lost my copy when I moved and the audiobook I downloaded didn’t have the last frickin’ chapter!! 🙁

    • Ms Jane says:

      Yeah I loved Guernsey too. I think I even shed a tear or two and it made me want to go there. And that’s funny about Dracula cos when i was reading Interview with a Vampire it was missing the last two pages where you finally find out if he bites the interviewer!!! I had to jump in my car and speed to the bookstore to find out! X

    • Becky says:

      I <3 Guernsey! So good.

  • KellyBrown says:

    Read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Best read of the summer thus far, and it’s my staff rec at the bookstore I work at. LOVED it. Total page turner and couldn’t put it down!

    • noblepower says:

      I second KellyBrown’s suggestion of Gone Girl – I’m only halfway through, but I am having to work very hard not to read it all in one gulp. I too, suffer from an addiction to books and dream about being “forced” to live in a library. Name of the Rose, anyone?

  • Nancy says:

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a great book – I enjoyed it. Love your list – here’s mine: Withering Heights, Diary of Ann Frank and The Pixar Touch (making of Pixar).
    Love to read!


  • Oh man, I loved this post!! I’ve heard nothing but good things about Guernsey & it’s definitely on my list.

    I recently just read The Night Circus too & enjoyed it!!! Most of the gals in my book club really hated it though. They’re weird!

    I already own The Girl in the Green Sweater but haven’t read it yet, so will have to bump that up on my list. (I went BANANAS buying a ton of cheap books when Borders was going out of business.)

    Also, i ditto what Kelly said above about Gone Girl….just finished it yesterday & loved it!

    Trapeze sounds great too, adding that to my list!!!

  • Carol says:

    Reading the 2nd book in Steig Larsson’s Millenium series (The Girl Who Played With Fire)…reading on my Kobo:”Use Your Brain to Change Your Age” by Daniel G. Amen also “Buddha’s Brain” by Rick Hanson…”Hypnotizing Maria” by Richard Bach…Love love love reading….Thanks for this post!:)

  • Insomniac Mom says:

    Mel – I too face to ‘what do I love more, food or books?’ dilemma! I too am a huge Historian & Dracula fan, I reread them about once a year. Do you ever do online book discussions? I have been trying to find a good one and have not have good luck. Do you recommend one?

  • Kathleen says:

    I absolutely loved The Gargoyle! The writing is beautiful and Davidson includes history, art, and other works of literature. If you take the time to read it you won’t be sorry.

  • Melissa M says:

    I love your enthusiasm for reading! Your tastes in books is a bit different from mine but you’re making me want to branch out a little. 🙂

    I’m now obsessed with checking out audiobooks on CD from my public library, so in my car I’m listening to Spider Bones (from the Temperance Brennan series) by Kathy Reichs. In print form, I just finished Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, by Florence Williams. It was absolutely fascinating and more than a little disturbing. You would really enjoy the history and science behind one of our favorite (and most amazing!) organs. When you want a little nonfiction break from these delicious sounding novels, consider checking it out.

    • Insomniac Mom says:

      Ahh! I just finished Spider Bones – Kathy Reichs is one of my favorite authors!

      • Melissa M says:

        Mine too! If you have never listened to her stuff on audiobooks, check it out – Barbara Rosenblatt is a great audiobook narrator and now, to me, her voice is the voice of Tempe! 🙂

  • Kim Kelly says:

    Guernsey was a good read. Enjoyed it. If you like books around the time frame of WWII may I also suggest Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Right now I am waiting on Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.

    OK, Now I must weigh in on The Gargolye. Loved, loved, loved, this book. Couldn’t put it down. I read this several years ago and it’s still one of my favourites. At the time I was recommending it to anyone who would listen. Now you remind me that I need to start recommending it again. Give it a go. Would love to hear what you think. 🙂 Happy Reading!

    PS. I LOVE your blog. Thanks for all you do, and all you share!

  • Andrea says:

    I’m with Kathleen, The Gargoyle was a really spectacular book. Intense with a lot of twists to the story. I couldn’t put it down and made my husband read it when I was done. He loved it as well.

  • April says:

    The Guernsey book is so good! It’s warm, and funny, and romantic, and just a little bit dark, of course.

    Have you read Vilette? If not you may want to instead of re-reading Jane Eyre. It’s like Jane Eyre turned up to 11. I love it.

  • Maureen says:

    I’m with you on whether I love food or books more – I will throw travel in there as well for a trifecta! Loved Guernsey book and you might want to try The Invisible Bridge for a WWII book – it gets very good reviews. The Gargoyle is on my ever growing TBR list and now I am going to add The Labyrinth. I too loved The Historian and The Night Circus.

    So far this year my favorite books have been 11/22/63 by Stephen King and Defending Jacob by William Landay. I HIGHLY recommend Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – my favorite book from last year – can’t stop thinking about it.

    I’m excited about Gone Girl too – unfortunately someone told me the ending but I’m going to read it anyway. I’m on the waiting list for the digital copy from the library.

    You might want to check out for reviews – they have a lot more than amazon. I warn you that site is very addictive!
    Happy reading!

  • Michelle says:

    I’m currently reading Game of Thrones and loving it. I also have The Night Circus and The Labyrinth from the library, so I’m planning on diving into those and putting Game of Thrones aside.

  • Awesome book list! A few on there look interesting and definitely made it onto my (never-ending) book list. Especially ‘A Dead Man in Istanbul’ since I recently vacationed in that incredible city.

    Right now I have too many books in the works, half-way read or next in line:
    Memoirs of the Second World War by Winston Churchill (an abridgment of his 6-volume Nobel Prize winning series written after the war). It is fantastic, both in scope and in writing. If you are a WWII fan, this book is a must-read.
    Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Because who doesn’t need a little philosophy in their life.
    Running and Being, by George Sheehan
    The Fire Starter Sessions by Danielle Laporte
    Next in line (after I finish one or two) is John LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I won’t watch the movie until I read the book, and I really want to watch the movie!
    Oh, and I just ordered Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength from Amazon, because there’s no such thing as too many books. (Thank goodness I just bought another bookcase!)

    How’s that for an all-over-the-place list? Cheers to a summer full of ridiculously good books and the pleasure that comes with reading them!

  • Celia says:

    I love The Historian. I’m planning on rereading it this summer, too, sometime after I finish all the other books on my list.

    I enjoyed Gargoyle. The first part is very graphic, but the story is good and I really liked reading it (after the first 30 pages or so).

  • Sandy says:

    Yes, Guernsey is good. I believe I used the word ‘delicious’ when I reviewed it. Is there anything better than getting lost (and found) in a good book? I don’t think so.

  • Amy says:

    As soon as I power through the last few pages of “Good Calories, Bad Calories” I get to read some fiction! Yay!

    I am a fantasy reader so I just did my annual re-reading of Emma Bull’s “War for the Oaks”. Urban fantasy set in 1980s Minneapolis feathering lots of rock and roll and a war between the seelie and unseelie fairie courts, with a really nice romance built into the whole thing. One of my favs.

    “Woman in White” is on my bookshelf from college, I may need to reread it, as well as some of the other school books I’ve held on to over the years. And I should add “In the Night Circus” as it sounds perfect for me. I’m more of a library user than book buyer, but we have a place in Baltimore called “The Book Thing”. People donate books, they sell the ones that are worth something (to put towards operating expenses) and all the rest are in this big meandering warehouse and they are all FREE. A lot of ho hum stuff but sometimes you unearth a gem, and it’s a great way to get a stack of light reading or try something new.

  • Tara says:

    I think you might really like “Child 44” which is a surprisingly beautifully written story of a Soviet secret service agent hunting a serial killer, losing his faith in the government on the way. Loosely based on a true story. Poetic, gripping, educational. Awesome.

    thanks for the tips!

  • Lady A says:

    I just got caught up in The Game of Thrones hubbabaloo. Quite intense and makes my morning commute on the train whiz by.

  • MelissaG says:

    I am reading Jane Eyre right now! I was supposed to read it in high school (over 25 years ago) and to be honest, never finished it. I’m 90% through according to my Kindle, and I honestly have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s really good, I’m so glad I picked it up again, and I have YOU to thank for that. (I know it’s your favorite.) 😉

  • Rachna says:

    I love the book “The Girl in the Green Sweater.” I just watched the movie “In Darkness” a month ago. Krystyna Chiger is now a retired dentist in New York:)

  • Jade Roberts says:

    Seeing as how you’re a bit of a WWII junkie I recommend Yann Martel’s “Beatrice & Virgil”. It’s not a dive into the history or fictional history of WWII, but it hits home for me in a way very few novels about the subject have ever managed to. It’s beautifully written and Martel is a master of description which, as a fellow logophile, makes this a book that I think you’ll love. I think it’s better than “Life of Pi”. Eek!

  • Heather says:

    Thank you for sharing your book interests! I’m always looking for new ones to read and these look fantastic! I will be looking for some of these titles. 🙂

    Night Circus was one of my favorite reads this summer and I want to find more like it!

  • Maggie F. says:

    Mel, thank you for this post! I felt like I’d found a kindred reading spirit when you mentioned in a previous post how much you love the Historian, and when I read Night Circus, I knew for sure! I can’t wait to dig into your new recommendations. Definitely let us know how you like them!

    Also, I’m going to jump on the Gillian Flynn bandwagon and recommend her books. I just finished “Dark Places” and “Sharp Object,” and cannot wait to start Gone Girl.

  • Marc says:

    New to Texas, and my wife introduced me to half price books! Awesome.

    although those swimming holes don’t sound too bad either 🙂


  • Sallie says:

    Since you are a lover of “The Night Circus” (me too) Erin Morgenstern will be doing a live chat on Goodreads on 7/30. Check that out!

    A great WWII book that I just recently read is “The Invisible Bridge” by Julia Orringer. Soo good.

  • Janine says:

    My hidden treasues that never fail to please those ho read it:
    The Guaymas Chronicles
    Beyond he Sky and the Earth: A journey into Bhutan

    Guilty pleasure: World War Z

    Scarey Book: The Road

  • Carolyn says:

    So many wonderful books to read! You have inspired me to reread Jane Eyre and I will definitely be reading Girl Gone. I love, love, love Dick Francis and I think I have read every one of them. I tend to read light fiction because I read before bed and I love Michael Connelly mysteries and some James Patterson but not all of them. My list isn’t as intellectual as ya’ll but hey I do LOVE to read! My fave place to get books is the flea market.

  • De23 says:

    Late (as usual) to this discussion, but being a librarian I couldn’t pass it up.

    For WWII: Try Between Shades of Gray. It’s a fictionalized account of a 15-year old Lithuanian girl caught up in the Soviet work camps. I see Amazon says “for readers of The Book Thief,” so I bet you would like it. I saw the author speak at The Southern Festival of Books (in Nashville) and it’s all based on research she did on her family. As in the book, some (her grandfather) got away to America while other family members didn’t.

    Dick Francis: I love his books too! I discovered them during a college summer semester – Class and studying in the morning, and then I would read the whole afternoon waiting for my boyfriend (now husband) to get off work. It was kind of surreal because I was reading them voraciously and yet dreading getting to the end of them. I still read the occasional one by his son, but I haven’t gotten to them all. The Sid Halley novels have to be favorites, I think my other favorite is Flying Finish.

    What I’m reading lately: I just finished Fahrenheit 451 in honor of Ray Bradbury’s passing — I had never read it. I’m also listening to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books. I very much adore all her books, she makes you fall in love with all her characters.

    I like Shelfari better than Goodreads for some reason – I keep my reading record there:

  • Katie says:

    After reading your “Night Circus” recommendation, I was pretty interested to see this post; it is one of my favorite reads ever, and my 18 and 20 year old daughters adored it too. My copy is now with a good friend, who will pass it on to her 18 and 20 year daughters when she is done. I will definitely be picking up a few of these, but I have a great recommendation for you; it’s called “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. It is about a young woman whose life turns upside down after losing her mother in her 20’s, and she heads off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail to try and get her life back on track, without a clue as to what she is doing. It’s a true account, and I am enjoying it immensely. Thanks for the recommendations, I don’t have all that much time to read and I hate it when I waste my leisure time on a book that isn’t worthy.

  • Dana says:

    My grandmother was a huge Dick Francis fan and though I’ve never checked to see if she had them all, there are at least 30 of his paperbacks at our family cabin, moved from her house when her eyes got too bad to read the small print. Love the horses.

    I’m re-reading the Game of Thrones series, and reading Will in the World for my book club.

  • Mel says:

    I’m really enjoying all of the recommendations and book love in these comments. Thank you so much, everyone!

  • Chris B says:

    Interested to know what you think about Umberto’s Circus once you read it. I think it’s going to be different than what you are expecting – I was kinda “eeh” about it myself but that was years ago – maybe I should try it out again …