Sometimes books just don’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. Maybe I’m having a bad day, or not in the mood for a particular genre, or whatever the reason may be, I end up not enjoying a perfectly decent book. That is the case with the following…*
The Last Book Party // Karen Dukess. New York + Cape Cod + The ’80s + Writers should = brilliance. It does not.
This one may be a good option for a beach read for some folks, but it didn’t work for me.
The Orphan of Salt Winds // Elizabeth Brooks. The cover has a blurb from Eowyn Ivey! That was why I picked it up, and while it’s a chilly, atmospheric novel, it didn’t hold my attention. Released as Call of the Curlew in England, Brooks’ work of historical fiction tries to balance mystery with coming of age, but in the end, it just didn’t work for me. Fans of historical fiction may want to give this a try.
Mary B. // Katherine J. Chen. When it says a “new perspective on the classic”, I just need to walk away. I love Jane Austen, I want more Jane Austen, but I just have to admit it’s not possible, no matter how many takes on Pride and Prejudice I try to read. The charm and candor of the original was missing in this one.
All the Little Lights // Jamie McGuire. This one is a good book for the right reader. That read, obviously, is not me. I’ve read a couple of Jamie McGuire books and could read another, so I picked up All the Little Lights. Catherine and Elliot meet and form a life-changing friendship, but as life changes, that bond is tested. The premise is interesting – I don’t want to give anything away – but it’s a young adult novel and I did not realize it (it was definitely marketed as adult fiction).
We Went to the Woods // Caite Dolan-Leach. This is a premise I can totally relate to, at least my younger self. Disillusioned (and burned by a reality tv show mishap), Mack throws caution to the wind and joins four friends to live of the grid in the Finger Lakes region. Given the region’s backstory in the novel, there was quite a bit to explore, but perhaps too much? The novel got bogged down and moved slowly for me. I also read this one on the heels of The Ash Family, so perhaps it was just too much of a particular plot line. If eschewing modern life is your jam, check this one out, as the writing itself is good.
*It’s RARE that I cover books that I don’t enjoy. This may be the first time! I also received all of these books courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley.
Perennials // Mandy Berman. Is there a better way to welcome summer than with a debut novel about summer camp? I don’t think so.
I never went to summer camp, but I always, always wanted to, so perhaps a bit of my appreciation of Mandy Berman’s Perennials is rooted in envy. Regardless, it’s good.
Rachel and Fiona are campers—and later camp counselors—at Camp Marigold. They come from vastly different backgrounds but are best camp friends.
Told from multiple perspectives over the course of multiple summers, resembling linked short stories more than a novel, Fiona’s and especially Rachel’s stories are fleshed out in this coming-of-age novel. It’s heartfelt and melancholy, awkward and bittersweet. It’s not about action-packed summer hijinks, but rather a meditation on the benefits and burdens of friendship.
Berman is a talented writer, and I look forward to seeing what she writes next. In the meantime, Perennials is the perfect literary kickoff to summer.
As I mentioned, I’ve always wanted to go to summer camp, but – and call me picky if you will – I want to go to a happy summer camp. That’s all eleven year old Martin wants too. He’s going to learn archery, go swimming, and make new friends. Maybe he’ll even meet a girl – nothing too serious, it is bible camp after all. He never really intended to go to camp, but when his mother needs to go out town for several weeks for a job – she’s a horror movie make-up artist – he’s willing to take one for the team. It may even be…fun.
But that’s because no one showed him the cover of this book.
That’s right. Martin’s bible camp is a horror movie. He just doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll find out soon enough. The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved by Joey Comeau is a solid, charming take on the camp slasher film subgenre, in book form. This novel is the reworking of Comeau’s novella Bible Camp Bloodbath. It’s still a rather slim novel, but it’s fitting. Having never done it myself, it seems like it would be tough to write a horror novel. After all, it’s not an easy task to make (most) people want to read about decapitation, scalping, and blood spatter. It’s even harder to imbue such a novel with a sense of family, nostalgia, and humor.
The characters are exactly who they are supposed to be. There’s naïve Martin who understands how horror movies are supposed to work, the unstable, but loving mother, clueless (but horny) camp counselors, a sadistic, yet seemingly affable head priest, and hordes of know it all campers. The killer is exactly who you think it is, the over the top killings happen as you might imagine, and there’s blood – lots of it. Yet it works. Comeau has created a novel that’s thematically equal parts coming of age story and campy ‘80s slasher movie. If you know this going in, and the idea sounds appealing, you’ll like this odd little novel. If not, skip this one, the sort of gleeful mayhem found in this book is not for everyone.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls // Anton DiSclafani. If the genre ‘provocative summer camp literature’ existed, Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel ‘The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls’* would be the poster child for it.
In 1930, she simply does not fit in, but she soon learns the social hierarchy of the camp. The chapters alternate between Thea’s idyllic life in Florida and her new life in North Carolina. Each chapter reveals a little bit more of the event that changed Thea’s life. It quickly becomes clear that my obvious assumption was right – Thea had been involved with a boy, intimately. In her new life, Thea is just as helpless as she was with her family, simply because she is female. She quickly learns that the only power she holds is her sexuality and this realization will have repercussions for the rest of her life.
While this coming of age tale is not perfect, it’s as lush, evocative, and yes, provocative as the storyline sounds. Thea Atwell is a young girl learning what her body is capable of – love, lust, desire, control – at the same time that women are encouraged to suppress such urges. It is no wonder she feels like a ‘wrong girl’. I think this is a sentiment that most teenage girls can relate to at one time or another. While this novel is not written for or marketed to young adults, I would’ve loved it as a teenager. The sexual undertones and innuendos leap of the page (many having to do with horseback riding). However it’s the mysterious, near-southern-Gothic handling of the revelation that keep the pages turning.
The Interestings // Meg Wolitzer. Full disclosure, I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s the number one recommendation I get when I say summer camp book. So it doesn’t have my official stamp of approval, but it has everyone else’s!
“The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life.
The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.”
Say You Still Love Me // K. A. Turner. Piper Calloway is privileged, and she knows it. So when she has to spend her summer working at a “rustic” summer camp, she’s not exactly excited, but she appreciates what her parents are trying to do. Camp Wawa introduces her to friendship, first love, and tragedy. From her bond with troubled Kyle, to her friendship with Ashley, the summer is one that proves pivotal. Turner uses the duel timeline to her advantage, giving the reader hardworking, single adult Piper, and naive, privileged young Piper, connecting Piper A to Piper B in a nostalgic, coming of age manner. You’ll relive all your firsts and wish you’d been to summer camp yourself. Say You Still Love Me is a cute second chance love story, and if you’re a sucker for summer camps the way I am, I’d recommend it.
The Optimistic Decade // Heather Abel. Heather Abel’s The Optimistic Decade is a memorable coming of age story set just before the Gulf War. David, lonesome and mediocre in his “real life,” comes out of his shell only at summer camp. Rebecca, his childhood friend, struggles with the fact the no one cares, not really, as her parents ship her off to be a counselor at some weird camp. And Caleb, the owner of the isolated summer camp, is both insecure and egocentric. Their lives converge during one hot summer spent in the mountains of Colorado.
I always love a good novel set in my home state and Abel does a fantastic job of describing the hot, dry Colorado summers. She also nails the intricacies of teenagers (at summer camp, and everywhere else), the need to be liked balanced with the desire to not give a fuck. Her prose is compelling, her characters can be both sympathetic and abrasive, and her depiction of the fraught inner monologue of young adults – trying to differentiate the person they are from the person they were raised to be – is awkward perfection. Overall, The Optimistic Decade is a wonderful debut novel. A must read is you love the ‘80s, summer camp, and the doomed confidence of youth.
Fun Camp // Gabe Durham. It’s the odd duck on the list, but it’s pretty fun. I read it because of this review.
The idea behind this exercise is to connect books in any way that’s meaningful to you, from the profound to the inane. Although Kevin Bacon is typically behind the six degrees game, books are just a bit more fun.
This month we’re starting with the children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. So brace yourselves, we’re about to get wild. This particular book was not a classic I read as a child, I’m more familiar with it now as a parent. One I did read when I was younger is – and its yet another classic – The Call of the Wild by Jack London. I always wanted to go on a grand adventure, and still dream of living in Alaska, both of which are likely attributable to that book.
Another adventure gone both right and wrong is Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. While the Pacific Crest Trail wasn’t on my radar, it is now! Though perhaps not the part in the desert. I don’t love the heat, unless there’s a pool. And I’d want two working, well-fitted boots… I’m picky like that.
Perhaps my Alaskan dream would fade if writer’s didn’t make it sound so damn good, but K.A. Turner did just that in The Simple Wild. This sweet, touching story of a father and daughter reuniting, mixed with a hot bush pilot, had me yearning for that kind of…
Wilderness. See what I did there? Wilderness by Lance Weller is an excellent historical fiction novel, set just after the Civil War. It takes places in the largely uninhabited Pacific Northwest, the kind of wilderness that’s now often found preserved in National Parks.
Like Glacier National Park, for example, as depicted in The Wild Insideby Christine Carbo. Here, a Department of the Interior special agent is trying to solve a murder (one that would cause anyone to think twice about the woods), only he finds the locals wary of outsiders and less than forthcoming.
The isolation and lack of information is (vaguely, I’ll admit) similar to Wilder Girls by Rory Power. Described as a feminist Lord of the Flies, the novel is about “three best friends living in quarantine at their island boarding school, and the lengths they go to uncover the truth of their confinement when one disappears.”
The post’s title is incredibly misleading. Sorry. It’s not about West Side Story, which I love as much as anyone else. It’s about Westerns, the oft overlooked genre of fiction. I couldn’t call it “Best Westerns” without it feeling like a road trip hotel chain advertisement. If I called it “Fantastic Westerns You Haven’t Read” you might have been skipped right over the post, because, well, people think they don’t like westerns. So now that you’re here, you might as well give these wonderful novels a chance.
The Winter Family // Clifford Jackman. The Winter Family, a gang of mismatched men headed by the one and only Augustus Winters, spans from the civil war to 1900. It’s only natural that there are a lot of casualties. Kind of. Augustus Winters likes to be cruel. He’s cold (with a rather fitting name), tough, and calculating – and he enjoys that. From Georgia to Chicago to Canada to California, the novel follows this despicable band of mercenaries as they move from one disaster – they’ve caused – to the next. It’s quite possible that the bodies pile up faster than the pages in this one, but don’t let that put you off. It’s also a stellar, well-plotted tale of brutality and lawlessness during a time when the world was incredibly brutal and lawless. There are no heroes here, nor any anti-heroes, it’s just the story of ruthless men justifying their actions however they need to to make it through the day. If a historical western noir with more than a few bodies and bloody good writing sounds appealing, get this one immediately.
The Which Way Tree // Elizabeth Crook. Benjamin Shreve is just a little boy when he sees his sister maimed and his stepmother killed by a very large, very vicious panther.
Set in Texas during the Civil War, The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook is a Texas-sized tall tale of revenge and adventure through the wilderness in pursuit of El Demonio de Dos Dedos. It is at times a tad bit far-fetched, but what great story of vengeance isn’t? Aided by an honorable Mexican horse thief, a reverend, and an elderly panther sniffing dog, Benjamin and Samantha set out to hunt the demonic predator. Hindering their progress is one Clarence Hanlin, a confederate soldier guilty of murder.
Told almost entirely in an epistolary format, specifically Benjamin’s letters-as-testimony to a judge trying to convict Mr. Hanlin of his crimes, this novel is both earnest and deadpan, with a narrator both endearing and frustrating. Truly, The Which Way Tree is a treat, with a subtle hint of True Grit and a subtle-as-a-hammer nod to Moby Dick. This quest for vengeance, interspersed with real, true sibling love, will charm you.
West // Carys Davies. I don’t think I have a sentimental bone in my body (if I do, I think it’s probably my little toe), but this book touched my heart. Something about the story of Bess, who waits for her father to complete his quest, has stayed with me for a long time. It’s a slim little novel, with an impact as big as the mammoth bones Cy seeks. The cover is also flawless, for what it’s worth.
“When widowed mule breeder Cy Bellman reads in the newspaper that colossal ancient bones have been discovered in the salty Kentucky mud, he sets out from his small Pennsylvania farm to see for himself if the rumors are true: that the giant monsters are still alive and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River. Promising to write and to return in two years, he leaves behind his only daughter, Bess, to the tender mercies of his taciturn sister and heads west.
With only a barnyard full of miserable animals and her dead mother’s gold ring to call her own, Bess, unprotected and approaching womanhood, fills lonely days tracing her father’s route on maps at the subscription library and waiting for his letters to arrive. Bellman, meanwhile, wanders farther and farther from home, across harsh and alien landscapes, in reckless pursuit of the unknown.”
Wolves of Eden // Kevin McCarthy. “Dakota Territory, 1866. Following the murders of a frontier fort’s politically connected sutler and his wife in their illicit off-post brothel, Lieutenant Martin Molloy and his long-suffering orderly, Corporal Daniel Kohn, are ordered to track down the killers and return with “boots for the gallows” to appease powerful figures in Washington. The men journey west to the distant outpost in a beautiful valley, where the soldiers inside the fort prove to be violently opposed to their investigations.
Meanwhile, Irish immigrant brothers Michael and Thomas O’Driscoll have returned from the brutal front lines of the Civil War. Unable to adapt to life as migrant farm laborers in peacetime Ohio, they reenlist in the army and are shipped to Fort Phil Kearny in the heart of the Powder River Valley. Here they are thrown into merciless combat with Red Cloud’s coalition of Native tribes fighting American expansion into their hunting grounds. Amidst the daily carnage, Thomas finds a love that will lead to a moment of violence as brutal as any they have witnessed in battle―a moment that will change their lives forever.
Once you get into the dialogue of the novel, this engrossing, blood-soaked story sheds light on the Old West, during the era of Red Cloud’s War (this was not a topic covered in my long ago class on the civil war). The ties that bind us together in times of war, and the brutality that men inflict and survive, combined with the mystery of who murdered the sutler and his wife, create a compelling novel.
Black River // S. M. Hulse. A tense, modern Western with a gritty feel, Black River tells the story of a man marked by a prison riot as he returns to the town, and the convict, who shaped him. It’s hard to believe this novel is a debut, the prose and plot is nuanced and evocative. I saw it referred to as a “western of unusual depth” and that’s a good prescription. This is another novel that will stick with you for a long time.
Whiskey When We’re Dry // John Larison. “In the spring of 1885, seventeen-year-old Jessilyn Harney finds herself orphaned and alone on her family’s homestead. Desperate to fend off starvation and predatory neighbors, she cuts off her hair, binds her chest, saddles her beloved mare, and sets off across the mountains to find her outlaw brother Noah and bring him home. A talented sharpshooter herself, Jess’s quest lands her in the employ of the territory’s violent, capricious Governor, whose militia is also hunting Noah–dead or alive. “
This book is riveting and memorable in all the best ways. Jess is a fantastic, multidimensional character, and I’m pleased to see books like this breathing new life into the western genre.
The Ploughmen// Kim Zupan. When I originally read this, I wrote “This is a novel that I can’t help but feel will fly under the radar, but I hope it gets the attention it deserves. It’s not the story of anything in particular, instead it is the story of how life happens and how the lives of individuals intersect in such a way as to bind them together. It’s also the story of place, in this case it’s the desolate, lonely Montana countryside. It has the feel of a modern western with the gloom and grit of Daniel Woodrell and Cormac McCarthy. I’d highly, highly recommend this one for fans of literary fiction.” That still stands.
TL;DR. Whatever you’re reason for reading a western, there is one here for you.
If you’re in it for the blood, read The Winter Family.
If you’re in it for a quest and reckless pursuit of the unknown, read West.
If you’re in it for humor, grit, and a dash of Moby Dick, read The Which Way Tree.
If you’re in it for the history, read Wolves of Eden.
If you’re in it for depth and modern perspective, read Black River.
If you’re in it because you loved True Grit, read Whiskey When We’re Dry.
If you’re in it for beautiful writing, read The Ploughmen.
As an alternative for a review, synopsis, or anything of the like, I decided to create a soundtrack for the book. Please note that quite a bit of this is intended to be playful and irreverent. I’m rarely serious and this post is no exception.
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent is a difficult, stunning novel. It’s a hard read, one I would never be able to review. It was actually one of my favorite books of 2017, and it’s still on my mind. That is how this post came to be. If you think you can handle the content (extensive child abuse), I would wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s part coming of age novel, part survival story, and absolutely oozes tension and dread.
“The truth is that things do not work out, that there are no solutions, and you can go a year, a whole year, and be no better, no more healed, maybe even worse, be so skittish that if you’re walking down the street with Anna, and if someone opens a car door and gets out and slams the door you turn around, honest-to-god ready to kill them, turn around so fast that Anna, who knows what is happening, cannot even open her mouth in time and then you’re standing there, crying, and there’s some guy in a leather jacket and a fedora getting out of his Volkswagen Rabbit staring at you like, is this girl all right? and you want to be like, this girl is not all right, this girl will never be all right.”
“She strips and cleans the SIG Sauer by the light of the oil lamp. She taps the magazine in and racks the slide and puts the gun to her temple, just to remind herself that she is never so trapped that she cannot escape. You have lost your guts. Lost your courage. You are disgraced. But, you are still here.”
“The time will come when your soul must be absolute with your conviction, and whatever your spread, and howsoever fast you are, you will only succeed if you fight like a fucking angel, fallen to fucking earth, with a heart absolute and full of conviction, without hesitation, doubt, or fear, no part of yourself divided against the other.”