Summer is a time to slow down and savor the simple pleasures of life – one of which is getting lost in the pages of a great novel.
If you’re looking for total immersion in a well told story – for the beach, patio or your favorite indoor reading corner – the following notable novels will take you into another world in a way that only the best novels can.
Please enjoy this latest edition of The Reading Corner, by Trilogy at Monarch Dunes member Pam Stolpman.
All the Light We Cannot See
A novel by Anthony Doerr
Multiple award-winning author Anthony Doerr brings us this profoundly powerful novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose lives intersect as both try to survive the horrors of World War II.
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris, where he works as the master of locks at the Museum of Natural History. When she loses her sight at age six, Marie-Laure’s father does all that he can to instill confidence and independence in his child. He teaches her to navigate the streets of her neighborhood with the help of a highly detailed wooden scale-model that he carves by hand. He sharpens her mind with intricate puzzles and broadens her imagination with a Braille edition of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. When the Nazis invade France in 1940, their quiet world is turned upside down. They flee to the home of Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle, who lives in the coastal town of Saint-Malo, and with them they carry one of the museum’s most precious treasures – a jewel that is as valuable as it is dangerous.
Meanwhile, in a mining town in Germany, orphan Werner Pfennig grows up with his younger sister, Jutta, in a children’s home. Werner has an innate curiosity about all things mechanical, and his gift for radio mechanics, in particular, earns him a spot at a training school for the Nazi military. His time at the school is filled with nightmarish scenarios and countless chilling examples of how the Nazis perverted the innocence of young boys in these elite academies. Most readers are familiar with “Hitler Youth,” bands of essentially brainwashed young thugs, but most will have had no previous knowledge of these special academies, where boys were chosen not only for physical and mental extraordinary abilities, but also for the blueness of their eyes and the blondness of their hair. Werner has many doubts during his training, but also a certain pride and enjoyment at doing what he does so well. When he graduates and puts his mechanical skills to use by tracking illegal radio signals on the actual battlefield, however, that doubt leaves little room for pride as he discovers the use of his skills leads directly to taking human lives.
Marie-Laure and Warren’s paths meet when Werner’s unit is dispatched to Saint-Malo to trace the sender of mysterious radio broadcasts. Doerr achieves this convergence in a way that is truly masterful. Moving back and forth in time throughout the novel, he adds layer upon layer of intricate detail and creates a level of suspense that makes this deeply moving novel nearly impossible to put down.
Me Before You
A novel by JoJo Moyes
Will had always lived large – closing multi-million dollar deals, scaling mountains, jumping from planes, traveling the world in the company of exquisite women – until an accident leaves him paralyzed, deeply depressed, and bitter. Louisa is an ordinary girl living an ordinary life, with plans that don’t reach far beyond her small English hometown. The reader will slowly learn that Lou has constructed her very simple constrained life, consciously or unconsciously, to repress a significant trauma in her early adolescence. Lou is hired as a companion for Will, purportedly to lift his spirits. Will’s initial reaction is to put up walls and push her away. But she is persistent and awkwardly endearing, and in time their initial clash of wills turns into a mutually genuine interest into what it would be like to live the other’s life. When Lou realizes that Will has plans to end his life through assisted suicide, she feels an urgency to change his mind by convincing him of the value of his life. More than anything, she wants to give him a reason to live. At the same time, Will wants to teach Lou how to be independent and adventurous – to experience the world in a way that he no longer can. This has been called a “love story,” and as often as not is listed as a “romance.” These easy categorizations diminish what is not so much a love story as a story about love and what it means to let go. Significantly more than a love story, Me Before You is a story of vulnerability and humanity, with characters that come to grips with the fact that in life we can only control our own wishes for ourselves, not our wishes for others. Moyes has given us a novel of thoughtful insights and an unsentimental yet almost unbearably moving account of how happiness and heartbreak too often go hand in hand.
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish
A novel by David Rakoff
The final published work of the late David Rakoff, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, is an epic American novel told entirely in verse. It charts the twentieth century, leaping across cities and decades, through the lives of characters that are linked to each other by acts of kindness or cruelty. We experience poignant, beautiful, funny, and harsh moments in time through the eyes of these characters. By the end of the novel – and the close of the century – they experience all of the verbs noted in the title.
Perhaps what is most impressive about this novel is that Rakoff, who died just after finishing this book, was able to create whole characters, with depth and dimension, in rhyming verse. His words are chosen so carefully, so perfectly, that the story is never sacrificed to meet the needs of the rhyme. Instead, the verse flows so smoothly that even those who profess to be “committed poetryphobes” have found it easy to read, and impossible to put down. This novel is nothing short of magnificent.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
A novel by Karen Joy Fowler
We are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the story of the Midwestern Cooke family: the father, a research scientist, and the mother a non-working scientist who is both a devoted supporter of her husband’s research and the major nurturing source of attention and affection for her children. There are three children: Lowell, the loving, playful and protective older brother; Rosemary, the middle or youngest sister, whose family position is muddled when she is just one month old by the adoption of a second infant daughter, Fern, who is three months old. Rosemary grows up with all the emotional feelings of a twin, but one who is enmeshed in a grand experiment on twins. A group of graduate students, who live with the Cookes, work with the father in teaching both Fern and Rosemary, side by side, as they measure the differences in the rate at which they acquire language. The young girls also share their mother’s attention, equally, having all milestones – first word, first smile, first time sitting alone, crawling, managing stairs – dutifully recorded in their baby books. Fern far outpaces Rosemary at all physical skills, Rosemary far outpaces Fern in language. None of this is terribly surprising once the reader knows that Fern is a chimpanzee, a fact the narrator doesn’t reveal immediately because she feels it would bias us against understanding that these two human children and one chimpanzee really do love each other and accept each other as true siblings. The plot line of this novel turns on the sudden “disappearance” of Fern from the Cooke family during a time that Rosemary, only five at the time, is at her grandparents’ house, and Lowell is also away from home. They return to find Fern gone. They are told that she needed to leave to be happy living with other chimps rather than the Cooke family, that she is at a wonderful place with other chimps, but Lowell and Rosemary can never see her again because this could upset Fern’s newfound happiness. As Rosemary narrates the story she is trying to put together some kind of memory of how Fern’s disappearance could have happened and if she, herself, somehow caused it to occur. The great lie the parents have told tears the family apart. Such is the quality of the writing that as the truth is revealed the reader palpably feels the excruciating emotional pain Rosemary continues to feel over the loss of her twin. In a book that is irresistibly engaging, the reader is forced to consider what it means to be human, where the line is drawn between humans and other animals, and how both species cope with the grief that comes with a loss of their long held sense of both their own identities and their relationship to each other.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
A novel by Anthony Marra
The timeline of this stunning novel is 1994-2004, and in the background are the Chechen wars, a devastatingly destructive pair of conflicts between the army of post-Soviet Russia and the Chechen guerrillas. In a rural, snow-covered village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night, accusing him of aiding Chechen rebels, and then set fire to her home. Her lifelong neighbor, Akhmed, has also been watching, and when he finds Havaa hiding in the forest, he makes a decision that will forever change the course of both of their lives. He decides to seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the only remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded of the war.
Weary, overburdened, and cautious for her own personal reasons, Sonja has no desire to take on the additional risk of harboring refugees. Yet in the span of just five days, Sonja discovers the interweaving of the pasts of these two strangers with her own. The three soon form an unlikely family amid the daily violence and despair that surrounds them. Astonishingly, this debut author even manages to inject humor into a story where most authors would see none.
In a story that reminds us of the horrors of the war-torn world, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena offers a message of compassion and hope in the ability of survivors to grow and adapt in even the darkest of circumstances.
The Invisible Bridge
A novel by Julie Orringer
Author Julie Orringer’s powerful debut novel tells the epic tale of three brothers whose lives are torn apart by war, and of the struggles they face as they attempt to rebuild their shattered family during history’s darkest hour. As The Invisible Bridge opens in 1937, Andras Lévi, a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student, arrives in Paris with a scholarship, a suitcase, and a mysterious letter he promised to deliver. As he falls into a complicated relationship with the letter’s recipient, he discovers a secret that will alter the course of his – and his family’s – history. Meanwhile, as his older brother pursues his medical studies and his younger brother leaves school for a career on the stage, the tragic events unfolding throughout Europe send each of their lives into turmoil. As the years pass, the trials Andras and his family face grow unimaginably worse, and Orringer charts their struggles stunningly in this moving novel. This novel is magnificent and haunting. It is difficult to put down when you’re reading it, and impossible to forget after you’ve turned the last page.
What is the best book you’ve read so far this summer? Let us know what’s in your beach bag or on your nightstand by adding a comment below.