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Dark Beach Reads

Oh sure, you could read about beach houses, dog detectives, and middle aged women getting a new lease on life while you’re enjoying the hot August sun.  But what’s the fun in that?  You already know how those books end-- the dog solves the crime, the middle age woman finds a new love at the beach house (the hunky repairman, let’s say).  Instead, take a trip to the dark side this summer and check out one of these recommended reads below.  They are still fun and fast reads, but just a touch more sinister!    

Photo by kuhnml, flickr user.


Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed.

Looking for a little summer dystopia?  Check out this debut novel, which follows four girls living on a remote island.  The society there is deeply patriarchal; men are the only ones allowed to leave the island, traveling the “wastelands” to gather supplies.  Girls are allowed some freedom until they reach their “summer of fruition” (aka. puberty).  Then they are married off and expected to start breeding.  Since dying in childbirth is not uncommon the island, many girls look to this event with fear.  17-year-old Janey even starves herself to avoid reaching puberty.   A creepy yet timely read, recommended for fans of A Handmaid’s Tale




The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder.

Paul and Alice begrudgingly go to their half-sister Eloise’s wedding in England, carrying lots of family drama with them across the pond.  Eloise, Paul and Alice all share a mother (Donna), but Eloise was a product of Donna’s first marriage to a wealthy and elegant Frenchman.  Paul and Alice’s father, Bill, was a conventional Midwesterner (the family hails from St. Charles, IL).  Though Bill was a steadier dad, Paul and Alice always resented the opportunities that Eloise’s wealthy father awarded her.   Add to the mix, that Bill passed away recently, which has caused a rift between Paul and his mom.  None of the characters in this book are very sympathetic.  They are all terrible, but relatable in their own ways.  This is a funny and enjoyable fast read for fans of dysfunctional family fiction, like Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You


The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch.

I was a history major in college, focusing on the Middle Ages in Germany (technically, the Early Modern period, for all you history nerds out there).  This period included the height of witch trials, the Reformation, the Great Peasants’ War, and the invention of the printing press.  So I was super psyched to find Pötzsch’s Hangman’s Daughter series which is set during this period of history.  True to the era, these mysteries are filled with many of the grim realities, including political and religious corruption, frequent accusations of witchcraft (often used for political gain), stark class hierarchies, corporal punishment, and rampant disease. That being said, Pötzsch keeps the tone of the novel pretty light.  This book is almost like a cozy, if, you know, it wasn’t for all the torture and brutal murders.  The hangman, Jakob Kuisl, and his family are all anachronistically enlightened.  His daughter, Magdalena, and her husband, Simon, run a bathhouse that is the only source of decent medical advice in their small town.  The Kuisls are easy to root for over some of the corrupt and superstitious rubes they encounter.   This is a fun read for fans of pre-Enlightenment German history, a period that usually gets ignored, despite playing a pivotal role in European religious history, as well as the development of mass communications (via printing press and pamphlets) and a more modern class system.    

The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer.

Do you know what’s worse than living in Germany during the Middle Ages? Try Siena during the Black Death.  Siena was a major port city and one of the places in Europe hit hardest by the plague.  This book follows neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato, who travels to modern day Siena to settle her late brother’s estate.  Her brother was a historian trying to figure out why Siena was more ravaged by the plague than other similar Italian port cities (like Florence).  While there, she becomes fascinated with a 14th century fresco artist, Gabriele Accorsi, when she sees her face in one of his paintings.  How can this be?! Time travel, obviously! Unfortunately for Beatrice she winds up in Siena right before the dawn of the bubonic plague. Not the ideal spot for a vacation.  However, she begins falling for dreamy painter, Gabriele.  Also, Beatrice and Gabriele begin to uncover some of the mysteries behind her brother’s research.  While the time travel theme might seem a little hokey, the book is rich in historical details for this little studied period of Italian history.  Siena today is one of the prettiest spots in Italy, with many buildings dating back to pre-Black Death days.  Recommended for history buffs and Italophiles (I’m admittedly both!). 



The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen by Hendrik Groen. 

Hendrik Groen is an 83-year-old who doesn’t like old people.  Unfortunately for him, he’s surrounded by them at the care facility he stays at in Amsterdam.  To cope with the monotony and boredom of his days at the facility, Groen starts a journal.  During the year covered by this book, Groen becomes smitten with a newly arrived patient, Eefje, and starts an “Old But Not Dead” club where members go on regular adventures.  This is an uplifting and funny read.  Fans of Frederick Backmann’s A Man Called Ove should definitely check it out. 



The Witches of New York by Ami McKay.

This book is a blend of fantasy and history including two of my favorite things- New York City and witches.  Set in 1880s New York, Adelaide Thom and Eleanor St. Clair run a tea shop that fronts for their actual business of magic.  The women provide tarot readings and medicinal cures for everything from heartbreak to birth control.  Though the shop is run by two independent women and largely caters to a female crowd, putting it at odds with society at the time, the shop mostly flies under the radar.  That is until they take on a new hire, 17-year-old Beatrice Dunn, who has the powers of a medium.  Under Adelaide and Eleanor’s tutelage, the girl’s powers grow.  Soon the women are attracting the notice of scientist Dr. Quinn Brody, as well as the fiery Reverend Francis Townsend (who is vehemently against witchcraft).  This unwanted attention could threaten not only the women’s business but their lives!