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More Reads in the Sun: A Mid-Summer’s Reading List

Now that you’ve already marched through your first round of vacations, visitors, backyard or beach barbecues, and stack of summer reads, it’s time to replenish. Which brings us to the Word Journeys Mid-Summer Reads list. It is the first of a quarterly series where we’ll present recommendations in the middle of each season.

I would like to share some books from my writing friends, all of which are excellent summer reads.  They are available on Amazon.com in print and Kindle, and can be yours in a matter of moments (thank you, Whispernet!). Beware: these particular works feed reading addictions! All are gems in a crowded summer reading field.

As an added favor, in the spirit of summertime, if you buy and like the book, would you be willing to drop a quick review on Amazon.com and/or Goodreads? You only need to write 25 words – and the authors will appreciate you more than you can possibly know.

So stoke up the BBQ, open whatever goodies and libations you have in the cooler, grab your board or fins, set out with your canoe or kayak, or lay down a towel, and take in one of these nine books, recapped below:

Losing My Religion, by Jide Familoni

Intimacy Issues, by Claudia Whitsitt

The Hot Mess, by Gayle Carline

The Fashionista Murders, by William Thompson Ong

Madness and Murder, by Jenny Hilborne

Fobbit, by David Abrams

Wilder’s Woman, by Laura Taylor

The Hummingbird Review, Charles Redner, publisher

Ridin’ Around, Elaine Fields

51OWOAxPA8L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Losing My Religion, by Jide Familoni: Femi Fatoyinbo leaves his native Yoruban culture and tradition in Nigeria to become a doctor in the American South. There, he tries to immerse in a culture radically different than what he knows, dealing with racial issues, relationships, and numerous adventures – some funny, some not at all. This poignant novel captures how a person can change and grow in unexpected ways when presented with an entirely new environment, but also be able to retain his core tradition.  Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5, Goodreads – 4.75

Intimacy Issuesby Claudia Whitsitt: Sometimes, you want to just ask protagonist 51OJ9sPrCdL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Samantha Stitsill, “Do you plunge into sticky situations for the thrill of it?” This inquisitive mother of five with a sharp sense of humor is a hoot – and quite the amateur sleuth. In Intimacy Issues, Samantha releases she can’t move on after her dog, friend, and possibly husband are killed. So she tracks the killer down, going from the Midwest to Japan, and dealing with new questions as she always does:  with a mixture of moxie, reckless abandon, humor, and revelation. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5, Goodreads – 4.5

51HFN4G3ehL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_ The Hot Mess: A Peri Minneopa Mystery by Gayle Carline: The author returns to her feisty favorite private investigator to find the real killer in a fatal house arson fire in which the owner, Benny Needles, is the prime suspect. Benny turns to his old friend, Peri, for help, but probably wishes he didn’t. During her investigation, Peri digs up long-held family secrets that create a dangerous turn – and spike the thrill meter in this thoroughly enjoyable book, the third to feature Peri. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5, Goodreads – 4.55

The Fashionista Murders, by William Thompson Ong: Since we’re on a Mid-Summer 41z1MhGnReL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_heroine/protagonist roll, here’s another: Kate Conway, the journalist-turned-amateur detective who makes her third appearance in The Fashionista Murders. This time, Kate gets caught in a dangerous web after the queen of fashion media, Paisley LaForge, is murdered to set off a serial killing spree. We race from the runways of Paris to New York in a taut, well-detailed thriller as Kate, her photographer friend Cam, and her father, retired detective Paul Conway, work to track down the killer before he takes his next victim – Kate. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5

 51dVdC6FtWL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Madness and Murder, by Jenny Hilborne: What can mystery readers not like about a book that combines murder, mayhem, a madman, a woman trying to start a new life, and enough plot twists to strangle a pretzel? Here we go again. Homicide detective Mac Jackson questions his methods when he uses “bait” to track a sadistic serial killer. The bait, Jessica Croft, moves away from a shameful past to begin a new life — only to find herself the target of both Jackson and the killer. Desperate, she tries to lure the killer, which leads to … you’ll have to get the book to find out. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 4.8, Goodreads – 4.45

Fobbit, by David Abrams: Earlier this summer, we interviewed David Abrams in this blog, 51S4MUUXEQL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_and for good reason: Fobbit has quickly asserted itself as one of the best war novels ever written. It’s hilarious and tragic, cynical and fierce, troubling and redeeming. Starting with an Army public affairs specialist’s tour in Forward Operating Base, Baghdad, Fobbit showcases the stated necessity, and ultimate folly, of war from a half dozen character perspectives. I’m not a war novel reader, but I couldn’t put this book down. It received accolades from more than 300 media reviewers for a reason. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 4.3, Goodreads – 3.5

51QoQvHDExL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Wilder’s Woman, by Laura Taylor: This switch from war novels to romance seems rather abrupt, but Laura Taylor belongs on any list of great storytellers, regardless of genre. She’s been on a bestselling tear with her romance novels the past two years, and Wilder’s Woman again showcases the reason. The way she depicts the betrayal and separation of Tasha and Craig Wilder, and their painful attempts to reconcile, speak deeply to the motives of the human heart, and how interconnected every moment can be. The story is powerful, sensual, written beautifully, and a reminder of the complexity of the heart. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5, Goodreads – 4.57

The Hummingbird Review, published by Charles Redner: Every Mid-Summer reading list 51wibrs-s8L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_deserves an anthology, for those who like books broken into shorter pieces. At the risk of appearing biased (which I am), The Hummingbird Review is well worth checking out. The collection of essays, poems, stories and interviews from writers known and unknown has gained a strong reputation in literary circles. For the Spring-Summer issue, Hollywood was the theme, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins the interview subject, Michael Blake and Martin Espada two of the featured poets, former Rod Stewart lead guitarist Stevie Salas and X vocalist/bass player John Doe the featured lyricists … and there’s even an excerpt of a screenplay by David Milton. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5, Goodreads – 5

41IMAM3yCuL._SY300_Ridin’ Around, by Elaine Fields Smith: No summer reading list is truly complete without a summer cruising tale. Ridin’ Around is the story of four college frat sisters and their summer of cruising the streets in Texas, looking for parties, guys, and the next fun thing to do. It may feel like an updated American Graffiti, or a somewhat more toned down Dazed & Confused, but this story is unique in the way the author presents the characters’ lives and how they find further bonding and purpose through both entertaining and somewhat frightening situations. Average Reviewer Ratings (out of 5 stars): Amazon – 5, Goodreads – 4.71

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Looking at Writing with a Sideways Glance

festival of booksblog 1 (This is the second of two blogs on the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books)

What happens when you put four novelists in a room and ask them for their take on the world? Chances are, you’ll get four very different impressions – eloquently stated, of course. Unless one is Ernest Hemingway. He’ll get it done in eight words or less – noun, verb, predicate. Time to go fishing.

For some reason, this crossed my mind as I entered the “Sideways Glance” panel discussion at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The name caught my eye and lured me in (score a point for good branding and titling); it didn’t sound like the usual conversation about plot points or how good someone’s sales are going.  “You come at the truth from a sideways angle through the words you choose or images you create,” moderator Chris Daley, the fiction reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, said. “There’s a surprising inevitability at the end.”

Given that definition, event organizers picked the right cast. These authors shared very, very different takes on the worlds they create and how they create them.

Other Blogs on LA Times Festival of Books

A Taste of Eternity

Crime Fiction Collective

Independent Writers Network

The panelists included Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins), Diana Wagman (Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets), Fiona Maazel (Woke Up Lonely) and David Abrams (Fobbit). All four books are available on Amazon.com and through bookstores. This quartet could not be more different, in appearance, personal background, hometown, or literary preferences, all of which created what had to be one of the top discussions at the two-day festival.

To state the case, here are one-sentence descriptions of their newest books:

• Beautiful Ruins: A funny, romantic tale of a near-affair in Hollywood that rekindles 50 years later. Says the Washington Post of Walter, “As talented a natural storyteller as is working in American fiction these days.”

• Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets: A woman learns how to deal with the deranged iguana owner who kidnapped her.

• Woke Up Lonely: A wild ride through North Korea and the vice section of Cincinnati with the leader of a cult and a covert agent.

• Fobbit: A stunning behind-the-lines war story that takes place at a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Iraq. Stunning not only for its poignant scenes, but also for its humor.

If you’re a writer trying to sell your novel to an agent or publisher, here is the first thing to take away from this cross-section of books: the storylines are unique, distinctive, and quirky in their own ways. In all four cases, the authors tossed aside others’ notions of what readers would buy, and wrote their stories. Their styles couldn’t be more different: Walter is sweet and funny; Wagman hilarious in a dark, twisted sort of way but also a laser with character development; Maazel a dazzling wordsmith and purveyor of the richly textured multi-plot; and Abrams a former soldier who writes between-combat scenes with the depth of Tim O’Brien, the humor of Elmore Leonard and the emotional richness of Joyce Carol Oates. He kept a daily journal while in Iraq, then grew a book out of it.

As for Wagman, who also won the 2001 PEN Award for new fiction and wrote the screenplay for Delivering Milo, the movie starring Bridget Fonda and Albert Finney? Trust me on this: looks are deceiving. I was all set to listen to a prim, proper, bespectacled, short-haired Midwestern professor expound on fiction. Instead, she sent the capacity crowd into hysterics time and again with her twisted, raw humor, leaving the youngest and wildest looking author – Maazel – in stitches and saying, “I’m a wuss compared to you when it comes to sex scenes and blood and gore.” As it turns out, Maazel is the professor – she teaches at Columbia, Princeton and NYU. And she’s in her 30s. How’s that for a great mind?

How different from “what sells”, as we often read in magazines or are told, are these books? While writing, all four authors admitted to seriously doubting their stories would sell, no matter their publishing pasts, because they were so far removed from typical mainstream fiction. But guess what? They sold – and all four books are being hailed as among the top books of the past year. In Maazel’s case, it earned her a spot in the “Top 5 Under 35” as one of the nation’s best young novelists.

It goes to show you: there’s no cookie cutter formula to writing, selling and buying great novels. All of them hold true and fast to the famous quote by southern novelist Flannery O’Connor: “To the hard of hearing, you shout, and to the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.”

During the panel discussion, each of the four made numerous comments that bear repeating. Rather than take the rest of the morning to build a story around it, one way too long for a single blog, I thought I’d leave you with some highlights:

David Abrams: “There is no real truth. To immortalize your experience you have to manipulate it to some degree. To tell anyone a truth, you have to tell a story, and if you tell a story, you quit telling the actual truth, because you’re always moving facts and memories around.”

Diana Wagman: “I love it when life surprises you, or I hear something that just takes everything I think I know and believe and sends it flying. I’m always looking for what makes people laugh and cry, or what makes them change … and then I add my own little twists and things I would do to people who kidnapped me …”

Jess Walter: “Each of my books tends to drive the thematic interest of whatever I’m carrying around at the time (of writing). That’s what is on top of me, ready to come out, so I find characters and time periods to match.”

Fiona Maazel: “Good writing, really good writing, is a matter of getting at things through the back door. We can all go through the front door, but what happens when you peek in, sneak in, creep in? Like, how would you describe desire in a way no one else has tried, in a way that messes with your comfort zone? I like to write stories that tell the same truths over and over again from new angles that make you see them fresh.”

Ready to take these words into your writing or reading week? I sure am.

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