Maybe it’s the heavy quality that heat and humidity impart to the air, or the ceaseless drone of the cicadas, or more likely it is the constant, pervasive dread that seems to overwhelm my current reality, whatever the cause, I have desperately needed an escape. Since I won’t be physically capable of going anywhere anytime soon, I have turned to books. Perhaps you’ve been feeling like me, this summer seems to have lasted for years, but somehow it is coming to a close far sooner than I expected. I’ve occasionally longed for the frightful fun of a well-written thriller to distract me. This means I have some great suggestions that will hopefully give you the perfect end of summer break.
I started off my summer in an adventure in apocalyptic America- in the literal (as in book)- sense. Charlaine Harris has a new series that takes place in an alternate history where America collapsed after the assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt and magic exists in a grounded and fascinating way. The remnants of the Russian Empire- an alive Tsar Nicolas and his family, with the magic wielding Rasputin in tow, escaped the revolution and settled in California where they have started a new Kingdom after the fall of the United States. In this chaotic world, sometimes the only thing keeping the hard-scrabble way of life from going down dark paths is the existence of “Gunnies”- guns for hire that protect travelers, keep order in small towns and settlements, and guard precious cargo. The best of these is Gunnie Lizbeth Rose, the no-nonsense, fast shooting, laconic gunslinger who would put Doc Holliday shame. After her crew is ambushed and she is left the lone survivor, she is hired by Russian Grigori (aka wizards) to help them on a secret mission. This puts her in the sights of a dangerous conspiracy that threatens to expose her darkest secret and destroy everything she loves. It’s a wild ride and we have the first three books in the series: 1) An Easy Death, 2) A Longer Fall, and 3) The Russia Cage.
Sometimes real vacations can be such a nightmare that it can be comforting to read about people who are also experiencing the unexpected on their dream getaways, which leads me to recommend Lucy Foley’s The Guest List and The Hunting Party, as well as The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse. All the books follow the rules established by that great Dame, Agatha Christie: send your protagonists, victims, and suspects to an exotic or lavish location, trap them with a murderer or murderers, and give them a limited time to stop the villain. The Sanatorium takes place in a former tuberculosis clinic that has been renovated into a luxury resort in the Swiss Alps. A traumatized British cop on leave and her boyfriend get trapped during a blizzard where grisly murders begin to reveal the horrific history of the hospital. In Lucy Foley’s The Guest List, a wedding party on a remote island off the coast of Ireland has a roster of guests with some ugly secrets. No one can be trusted as old resentments and dark obsessions overshadow a bridezilla’s big event. The Hunting Party follows a group of friends from Oxford meeting for their annual Christmas Break trip in the Scottish Highlands that culminates in their epic New Year’s Party- only this year, one of the group is murdered, causing old rivalries, suspicions, and fear to tear apart the blizzard trapped friends.
If you’d like a supernatural twist to your summer thrills, then you’ll love what was probably my favorite book this summer: The Southern Bookclub’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix. It’s as if Hendrix called upon Steel Magnolias, Stranger Things, and Stephen King in a dark ritual in order to create this devilish treat. There’s humor, horror, and an incredibly insightful depiction of the struggles and fears of women trying to be perfect housewives in the South of the 1980’s. Throw a ghoulish creature of the night at these formidable southern ladies and they make sure to say “Bless your heart” before staking it. It’s a wonderful book that I found both scary and touching.
I also took a trip back in time with the help of Elizabeth Hand’s Curious Toys, which depicts a depraved, single-minded predator stalking young girls at a Chicago amusement park in the summer of 1915. The only person who may be able to stop this monster is the courageous and plucky(there’s just no other word for her) Pin, a fourteen year old who disguises herself as a boy who is trying to find answers after her sister’s disappearance. The tortured Henry Darger, a real life artist and writer with a disturbing background, may be Pin’s greatest ally or her deadliest foe as their investigation takes them through twists and turns deadlier than an old timey rollercoaster.
Speaking of scary-fun rides, I recently picked up an old favorite- Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. If it has been a while since you read it, or you’ve only ever seen the movie, I highly encourage you to read the book; there are enough differences and surprises that you’ll most likely read it in one sitting. The dangers of human hubris and our constant tampering with Mother Nature is depicted through the what-if scenario of humans using genetics to bring back dinosaurs, only to find that in this new food chain, humans are the endangered species.
Hopefully these humble suggestions will help you enjoy some thrills and chills as we reach the end of our summer. Stay safe and well-read!