Summer Reads: Hot Picks for Hot Days in the Sun

By Becky Benoit 

Under the Dome by Stephen Kingunder_the_dome

On a lovely fall day in October, something inexplicable happens in the small town of Chester’s Mill, nestled amongst the brilliant foliage of rural Maine. A mysterious force field materializes around the town’s boundaries, effectively closing off Chester’s Mill from the rest of the world.  The US Army’s attempts to breach the barrier are utter failures. Cruise missiles, super-corrosive acid…nothing seems able to penetrate the mysterious Dome, as it comes to be called.

Under the Dome itself, the placid pace of life in Chester’s Mill quickly begins to change. Small-town bully Big Jim Rennie, who has been using his position as town selectman to run an undercover meth lab, quickly seizes upon the opportunity to turn the isolated town into his own personal fiefdom. Set squarely in his sights are the townsfolk he has deemed “troublemakers”, including former Iraqi war veteran Dale “Barbie” Barbara, local newspaper owner Julia Shumway, and the town’s only medico, physician’s assistant Rusty Everett.

But bigger troubles are in store for the residents of Chester’s Mill. With a limited supply of breathable air inside the Dome, and violence and madness breaking out at every turn, conditions are perfect for a catastrophe which could completely decimate the entire town and every living soul in it.

It’s not surprising that the roots of this tale go all the way back to 1976, when King first conceived the story, along with such horror classics as The Stand, The Tommyknockers and The Shining. Under the Dome boasts a broad cast of characters, a lightning-fast pace (definitely a necessity when a book edges close to the 1000-page mark) and a far-reaching storyline that includes everything from alien experiments to romance to plain old human greed.

For fans of vintage King, this is a must-read this summer – provided you have a strong stomach!


Laughing All the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa NawazLaughing-All-the-Way-to-the-Mosque-Zarqa-Nawaz-book-cover11

Even though Muslims make up nearly a quarter of the world’s population, life under Islam has long been a mystery to non-Muslim Canadians, something many of us wonder about but are too polite to ask. Author Zarqa Nawaz, creator of the popular CBC series Little Mosque on the Prairie, throws back the curtain to reveal the reality of being Muslim in Canada with her trademark sarcastic humour.

Nawaz’s glimpse into life as a Muslim growing up in Toronto are by turns fascinating, deeply spiritual and hilarious. Nawaz tackles the challenges of growing up as a minority in Canada, recalling how she tried to gain popularity amongst her all-white classmates by switching from curry-scented chicken drumsticks to PB&J in her lunchbox. She also tackles the more intimate details of Muslim life including the challenge of preparing Eid dinner for 100 people when you’ve forgotten to buy the meat, with self-deprecating humour and vivid detail.

What I enjoyed most about this book was Nawaz’s honest examination of her own spirituality, which reveals the beauty of Muslim traditions such as visiting Mecca for hajj, one of the pivotal moments in the life of any Muslim person, or the ritual washing and funeral rites of the dead.

Nawaz approaches everything with her characteristic sense of humour, which pokes fun at herself along with the more quirky aspects of her faith in a way that is sidesplittingly comedic while still managing to be respectful.

Definitely an interesting read!


Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, A Life Reclaimed by Michelle Knightfinding-me

In May of 2013, three ragged and terrified women staggered out of a run-down house in Cleveland, Ohio. As the world soon discovered, the trio had a shocking story to tell: each of the women had been kidnapped between 2002 and 2004 by an acquaintance, Ariel Castro, and held as sex slaves for a decade in the filthy confines of Castro’s house, subjected to regular rapes, violent beatings and near-constant emotional degradation and abuse.

Survivor Michelle Knight tells her story in her searing memoir, which spent five weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Beginning with her painful childhood, which saw Knight molested at a young age, homeless by age 13 and losing her young son to foster care before she turned 20, Knight goes on to detail the terrible abuse she suffered at the hands of Castro in painfully graphic detail. For more than ten years, she was regularly bound and sexually assaulted, confined to a tiny, filthy room with only a bucket for a bathroom, and suffered daily beatings, becoming pregnant a number of times only to miscarry as a result of brutal beatings and mistreatment. Finally, she and her fellow captives found the courage to escape the confines of their house of horrors, to find a world that had changed dramatically in the ten years they’d been separated from it.

As a reader, you’d need a pretty hardened heart to be able to read this book without being deeply disturbed by the painful memories Knight recounts. While the narrative is wandering and poorly expressed at times, the dark heart of Knight’s story is compelling, and the strength of the human spirit to triumph over a lifetime of adversity is truly inspiring.


The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls glass-castle

Journalist, well-known gossip columnist and writer Jeannette Walls tells the story of her poverty-stricken childhood in the page-turning memoir The Glass Castle.

Walls’ latest novel, The Silver Star, was published last year, and as you dig deeper into The Glass Castle, it becomes apparent how Walls is able to connect with her characters in her latest book, two girls who have been effectively abandoned by their nomadic, artistic mother.

Walls’ childhood seems very far-removed from her successful adult life as a honors graduate from Barnard and a successful writer and journalist. Walls, along with her three siblings, lived a rootless existence with her parents, “entrepreneur” and alcoholic Rex Walls and artist Rose Mary Walls. The family wandered from town to town, drifting from Phoenix to desert towns in California and Nevada before settling into a dirt-poor existence in the hard-bitten coal-mining town of Welch, West Virginia.

Walls’ parents were an eclectic pair. Rex, the patriarch of the family, was an unabashed alcoholic who worked sporadically, supplementing his infrequent income by gambling and coming up with unlikely inventions to mine gold. Rose Mary was an artist and sometimes school teacher who, like her husband, rarely worked more than a few weeks or months at a time, preferring to sleep late and spend her time painting while her children fended for themselves.

Abject poverty was a constant theme in Walls’ childhood, with the children forced to salvage half-eaten lunches from the garbage in the school cafeterias just to survive. The family were evicted regularly and moved constantly, sometimes living out of their car, until the children were finally old enough to escape their hardscrabble existence for successful lives in New York.

Even in the midst of a childhood which was a nightmare by most standards, Walls manages to find rare moments of beauty and triumph, such as the time her father gave his children stars for their birthdays, or the time the children overcame their childhood adversaries in the “Battle of Little Hobart Street.”

Her memoir is a gritty story of survival, and at the same time, a touching testament to how deep a child’s love for her parents runs. It’s also an impressive story of someone who truly “rose from her raisings.” A great read, though not for the soft-hearted – you’ll definitely need some Kleenex.


Sharp Objects by Gillian FlynnSharp-Objects

If you loved Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, you’re definitely going to enjoy the spare prose and taut psychological tension of Sharp Objects, her debut novel. This thriller gives a spine-tingling glimpse into the dark secrets that underlie life in a small town, and keep you turning pages long after the sun has down behind your beach umbrella and your margarita has melted into watery slush.

Journalist Camille Preaker’s childhood was difficult. Living in the shadow of her sister, who died of a lingering childhood illness, Camille couldn’t wait to escape the grip of her sometimes smothering, sometimes distant mother and her new husband. Since childhood, Camille has journalized her most painful memories using the most convenient notebook possible – her own skin. A chronic “cutter”, Camille’s body is scarred with words she has carved into her skin and she’s fresh from a recent stay in a psychiatric ward when her newspaper editor and boss presents her with a news story he wants her to cover.

Back in her home town of Wind Gap, a serial killer appears to be on the loose. A year earlier, the mutilated body of a young girl was found in a creek, and most recently, another child has gone missing. Camille is sent back home to cover the story, but as she returns to her childhood home and reacquaints herself with her mother and her youngest sister, a virtual stranger, she discovers there is much more the story than a random drifter killing children.

Camille’s sister, Amma, is a spoiled bully, known for tormenting weaker children and for using her burgeoning sexuality as a weapon. Her mother, seen as a paragon of virtue by the people of the town for how bravely she bore her middle child’s death, has a strange connection to the two dead girls, who Camille discovers were far from perfect innocents. As Camille digs deeper into the mystery surrounding the murders, she discovers long-buried secrets from her own past that threaten her very survival.

A thriller that truly lives up to the name, I found Flynn’s first novel surprisingly difficult to put down. An engaging summer read!