July Books: Highlights and Lowlights

All of a sudden, it’s August. In my news feed on Facebook, teachers are posting about organizing their classrooms, and parents are talking about their kids going back to school. Here at 60second Recap HQ, we’re working frantically on the new website, which we’ll be launching right after Labor Day. I can’t wait for you to see it.

In the meantime, though, I’m not ready for summer to end. July was a grueling month–relentless, oppressive heat, and the sounds and smells of construction in every possible direction. But August has been lovely so far, and I find myself in a sudden frenzy to make the most of this last month before the inevitable march toward winter begins. I want to pack in as many visits to the farmer’s market, and tromps along the coast, and piles of fresh tomatoes and corn and summer berries as possible. I want to go out for walks late, when the sun is still visible in the almost-night sky, and relish the silky feel of summer evening air.

And I want to read some good books.

As I mentioned in Friday’s post, July was pretty uninspiring, book-wise. I read some books that I enjoyed, and some books that I did not enjoy. But I didn’t read anything earth-shattering, or life-changing. Hopefully, that will change in August.

In the meantime, here are July’s highlights, and a few lowlights. There are definitely some books worth reading on this list. No, maybe not favorites. But books I still hope might make it onto your end-of-summer pile, or onto your Kindle for that last, glorious trip to the beach.

fallout Fallout by Todd Strasser. This was, by far, July’s most compelling book. It was also, by far, the most disturbing book I’ve read, perhaps in the last year. In this coming of age story, Scott, the main character, finds himself in a hauntingly plausible dystopia when threats of nuclear war become a reality and his family–along with several interlopers–is trapped in an increasingly dismal situation in their underground bomb shelter. The author, who came of age in the early 1960s, when this story is set, lived through the tensions of this era, and his memories of collective paranoia and fear are palpable in this book. Definitely a page-turner, but not for the faint of heart. I found myself disturbed for days afterward–so I imagine many younger readers would be, too.

nobodys secretNobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl. The best word for this book? Charming. What if 15-year-old Emily Dickinson met a handsome stranger…then found herself embroiled in the mystery of his murder? That’s the premise for this novel, which I found enjoyable enough, albeit not quite as compelling as I’d hoped. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve watched one too many cop dramas, but I think what landed this book in the “like” instead of “love” category was that the mystery lacked the kind of suspense and oomph to really keep me turning the pages. I loved the premise, and I loved Emily, and I certainly enjoyed Emily’s sleuthing–it just never quite grabbed me the way I’d hoped it would.

roseRose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. Let me tell you, after Code Name Verity, I was predisposed to love this book. I was predisposed to fall for it–hard. And I did enjoy Rose Under Fire–aspects of it, at least. But Code Name Verity it was not. Rose features another spitfire protagonist: pilot Rose Justice, a US teenager whose family connections get her a gig flying Allied planes in Europe during WWII. It’s all pretty uneventful, until Rose is captured by the Nazis and ends up in a concentration camp. Here, she fights for her survival, and that of the remarkable women she meets. The book explores some marvelous friendships, and there’s an unexpected twist toward the end that set my heart soaring. But my biggest issue with this novel was that it felt absolutely relentless. Without the surprises and revelations of Code Name Verity, it became “just another Holocaust novel.” I have a hard time typing that, because it’s a very, very well done Holocaust novel, and certainly memorable in its own way. But the brilliance of Verity was its structure. The more straightforward approach of Rose made it much more devastating–and much more difficult to get through. (p.s. This story also features characters who are the victims of stomach-turning medical experimentation…so be forewarned.)

the extraThe Extra by Kathryn Lasky. Speaking of Holocaust novels, this is a book offering a new take on that horrible period–the Nazis’ persecution of Sinti and Roma Gypsies–that completely intrigued me. What a disappointment. Although I liked the premise–after she’s sent to a concentration camp, main character Lilo is chosen to be an extra in a movie directed by Leni Riefenstahl–the book’s execution really left something to be desired. The story felt overly long to me, but as long as it was, I still never really managed to connect with Lilo. Additionally, Lasky, a veteran writer, surprised me by falling prey to cliches, as well as to an enormous amount of telling instead of showing. I could barely get to the end of this one and definitely found myself skimming during the last third. Overall, a book with a lot of potential that never lived up to its promise.

sundayA Summer of Sundays by Lindsay Eland. Ugh. This book bugged me so much! Sunday Annika Fowler is the middle child of six, and this summer, she’s determined to do something to set herself apart. That something ends up involving things near and dear to every agent, editor, and publisher’s heart: a library, and an author, and a mystery box–the contents of which may lead to fame and fortune, or which may end up causing complications (of course). In other words, I can see how this book got published, but honestly, I just couldn’t stand it. For one thing, Sunday is the only kid in her family with a totally bizarre, stand-out name…yet she doesn’t stand out at all. OK, that makes no sense. For another, the author goes to absolutely ridiculous lengths to have Sunday be the forgotten child, the glossed-over child, the child who is constantly left behind and left out and out of place. Her dad won’t thank her for helping because she’s too old (what?), and he also can’t ever remember her name (PLEASE). Not only was the extremity of Sunday’s situation completely unbelievable, but then her obsession with doing something to get herself noticed turned her into a whiner and a character I couldn’t relate to at all. Did I mention that this book bugged me?

nowhereNorth of Nowhere by Liz Kessler. I guess I just didn’t get the magic of this book, which has gotten rave reviews from many others. When Mia and her mother land in the sleepy town of Porthaven, it seems there’s a mystery afoot. Mia’s grandad has vanished, and her new friend and pen pal–the only friend she makes in Porthaven–seems more than a bit elusive. Are the two mysteries related? And if so, how will Mia connect with the two people she’s come to care about so much? I don’t want to give away the reveal in this story, but let’s just say that I think one of the reasons this book was kind of a “meh” for me was that it felt awfully similar to other children’s books I’ve read, and used a conceit that I’ve never really loved all that much. Definitely a book that will probably hold much more appeal for its intended audience than for adult readers who will easily figure out the mystery.

wigThe Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher. As you may remember from this post, The Wig in the Window was a book I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this summer. But instead of being delighted by this middle grade mystery, featuring two best friends whose relationship is changing, I found myself disturbed, confused, and ultimately disappointed. My biggest problem: a deluge of appearance slurs, which left me more than a little uncomfortable. (I mean, I know that teen girls are image-conscious and judgmental, but shouldn’t a book for this age group do more to lift them out of this kind of thinking and behavior than this one did?) Additionally, I felt like this book wasn’t sure what it wanted to be: realistic fiction, dealing with tween relationships, or outlandish farce. Sadly, The Wig in the Window was not the delight that I’d so hoped it would be. (Though yes, I still love the cover.)

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