Summer reading: More picks from book critics

June 14, 2014 

Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Our Troubled Times,” by Andrew D. Kaufman (Simon & Schuster)

What happens when one of the world’s foremost Russian literature experts applies the wisdom cribbed from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece “War and Peace” to our 21st-century sociopolitical blues? You’ve put off reading what many consider the world’s greatest novel because it is so massive, but fear not. You don’t need to fully grasp the nuances of the Napoleonic wars to understand what this novel is about.

If you come from a family, then you’ll understand the book’s deepest meaning, thanks to Kaufman’s erudition and scholarship. Turns out Tolstoy wrote “War and Peace” with our generation in mind, too.

*

“Prayer,” by Philip Kerr (Putnam)

Someone is killing the nation’s most prominent atheists in ways only the Lord himself could differentiate from legitimate acts of God. FBI agent Gil Martins is a lapsed Catholic based in Texas trying to make sense of these unfathomable acts. Oh, there’s also a serial killer nicknamed St. Peter on the loose killing only good people. This is not your run-of-the-mill thriller.

*

“California,” by Edan Lepucki (Little, Brown, July 8)

When the American economy collapses and anarchy reigns in the land, a couple from Los Angeles head for the hills where they have to forage for food and improvise shelter. They are quickly confronted by stark choices and must figure out whether reconnecting with other survivors would be worth the aggravation that comes with being a part of civilization. Be warned: There are no zombies or mutants in this apocalyptic drama.

*

“The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food,” by Dan Barber (Penguin)

Dan Barber, co-owner and executive chef of New York’s Blue Hill – a pioneer in serving food close to the source – wants you to think about where your food comes from while disabusing you of any quaint notions you continue to harbor that there was a time when American commercial farming wasn’t an exploitative racket. Barber may be our foremost muckraker about cooking and food.

*

“The Rise & Fall of Great Powers,” by Tom Rachman (Doubleday Canada)

Every journalist you know has either read or intends to read Tom Rachman’s 2010 literary debut, “The Imperfectionists,” about the staff at an English-language newspaper in Rome. As a result, his sophomore effort is highly anticipated among writers. “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers” is not about newspapers, but it is about book lovers and book culture.

*

“I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You,” by Courtney Maum (Touchstone)

After cheating on his fabulous French wife, a British painter tries to win her love back by doing the sort of art he did when they were in love. Meanwhile, the extent of his cheating sabotages his plans. A very funny comedy of modern manners.

Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times

“The Pink Suit,” by Nicole Mary Kelby (Little, Brown)

The suit of the title is the iconic rose-hued, Chanel-style ensemble that Jacqueline Kennedy wore on the day in 1963 that her husband died in Dallas, but this is not yet another fictional version of that assassination. Instead it focuses on Kate, a young Irish immigrant working as a seamstress at a chic New York boutique, where she helps to craft the suit. She never meets its owner, but their lives intertwine. Kelby’s sharp eye for the details and implications of fashion and her sensuous prose complement the story.

*

“The Son,” by Jo Nesbo (Knopf)

This is a standalone crime novel from Jo Nesbo, whose 10 thrillers about self-destructive Oslo police inspector Harry Hole have been international best-sellers. A strange young man named Sonny Lofthus seems happy in a Norwegian prison, where he’s known for his mysterious gift of healing touch, his heroin addiction and his father, a corrupt police officer who killed himself. Then one day Sonny hears a confession that changes everything, and his escape from the prison puts both an Oslo crime boss and sleazy officials on his trail. Nesbo’s style is gritty and violent, but his storytelling is always propulsive, his characters intriguing.

*

“Song of the Shank,” by Jeffery Renard Allen (Graywolf Press)

Thomas Wiggins, called Blind Tom, was a 19th century musical prodigy, born a slave and probably an autistic savant, who performed for such luminaries as President James Buchanan and Mark Twain but who has largely vanished from history.

Allen resurrects him vividly in this novel, in a rich style that recalls Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner. Around the mysterious Tom revolves a complex cast of characters, black and white, healers and exploiters, all struggling to navigate a culture roiling with change in the years before and after the Civil War. (Due out Tuesday)

*

“Authority,” by Jeff Vandermeer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

This is the second gripping novel in the Southern Reach trilogy. The first, “Annihilation,” followed a trio of scientists on the 12th expedition (as disastrous as the first 11) into the mysterious Area X, a remote region closed to human entry for 30 years. Authority expands the story into the world of Control, code name for the director of the secret agency that has been trying to discover information about Area X. The agency is in disarray after the events in “Annihilation,” but hidden notes, disturbing videos and frustrating interrogations may reveal to Control what really happened. The question is whether he really wants to know.

*

“Face Off,” edited by David Baldacci (Simon & Schuster)

This 11-story anthology was written by 23 mystery authors and curated by International Thriller Writers. Each story brings together two series characters working together (or maybe butting heads) to solve a crime.

The book kicks off in fine fashion with “Red Eye,” written by best-selling authors Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane. Connelly’s Los Angeles police Detective Harry Bosch is working a cold case that takes him to Boston. While sitting in his rental car conducting surveillance, Bosch notices another guy sitting in a car across the street, watching the same house. It’s Lehane’s private investigator Patrick Kenzie, of course, working a different case that leads to the same man. It’s a witty but tense story that’s true to both characters.

Other pairings include Lee Child and Joseph Finder, Ian Rankin and Peter James, M.J. Rose and Lisa Gardner.

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