Before the fall: 10 books to read right now

The seasonal tsunami of summer-book releases is calming to a light chop as publishers prepare to promote and release their most prestigious titles by their biggest names for the fall season. That’s when half the year’s book sales occur. Which is no surprise, as the coming weeks are the walk-up to the holiday gift-giving season.

At the moment, though, readers are suspended in the “in between” time. The guilty pleasures of summer – the heated beachfront romances, the international thrillers – are dog-eared memories already donated to libraries or deleted from electronic readers. The fall landslide is yet to come.

In the meantime, this list of recommended read-’em-right-now titles will fill in nicely.


• British writer Lauren Owen’s debut novel, “The Quick,” begins with an intriguing premise that evolves into a tale of terror. It’s 1890s London, and the naive James Norbury, a recent Oxford graduate and would-be poet, shares rooms with an acquaintance who introduces him to high society. Things go swimmingly until James’ letters to his sister, Charlotte, abruptly stop coming. Concerned, she leaves her country home and travels to London determined to find him. Instead, her search leads to the mysterious Aegolius Club, whose membership is, well, not so nice (Random House, $27, 544 pages).

Bay Area-based Amy Tan continues the mother-daughter theme she demonstrated so well in “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” this time on a grander scale. The first half of “The Valley of Amazement” is narrated by Violet, who details her life as a courtesan in a Shanghai brothel, run by her mother, Lulu, an American who abandons her daughter with the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. The second half is told by Lulu, who believes Violet (now a mother herself) is dead. Decades pass, but love conquers time in the end (Ecco, $17, 608 pages). Tan has appeared for The Bee Book Club.

Few novelists can match the storytelling art of James Lee Burke of Louisiana and Montana, whose novels have transcended the mystery-thriller genre to become literature. He takes readers prisoner in his 34th novel, “Wayfaring Stranger,” as we follow Weldon Holland. First, as a teenager he encounters outlaws Bonnie and Clyde in 1934. As an Army lieutenant, he survives the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. As a civilian, he marries and hits it big in the oil business and moves to Southern California. That’s when evil people set out to destroy him and his family (Simon & Schuster, $28, 448 pages). The audiobook is expertly read by actor Will Patton (Simon & Schuster Audio, $40).

Chelsea Cain of Portland began her best-selling “Archie and Gretchen” thriller series “to kill time” during pregnancy. She moves on with the first title in a new series, “One Kick.” When Kick Lannigan was 6, she was kidnapped and held for five years, during which her kidnapper schooled her in lock-picking and bomb-making. Years later, under the guidance of a police detective, she learns marksmanship, martial arts and related skills. Now 21 and deadly, she is persuaded to investigate the disappearance of two children (Simon & Schuster, $26, 320 pages).

Raymond Chandler was among the founders of hard-boiled detective fiction, debuting P.I. Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep” in 1939. The Chandler estate contracted with Irish novelist-screenwriter John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, to continue the Marlowe series. His “The Black-Eyed Blonde” is appropriately set in 1950s L.A. There’s plenty of action, drama, twists and turns, starting with a “seductive young heiress” who hires Marlowe to locate her missing boyfriend. She’s not telling the whole truth, of course, setting Marlowe off on a winding road (Henry Holt, $27, 304 pages).


When American journalist-editor Maximillian Potter published an investigative piece titled “The Assassin in the Vineyard” for Vanity Fair magazine in 2011, he knew he had something bigger. His new book “Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine,” tells the remarkable story of how a bottom-feeding French criminal made a ransom offer he thought a French winemaker couldn’t refuse: “Pay me 1 million Euros or I will destroy your grapevines.” As the winery is beyond value, the winemaker plotted a scheme of his own to thwart the threat (Twelve, $27, 304 pages).

Harvard University grad Judy Melinek is a forensic pathologist in San Francisco, but in 2001 she was a trainee at the office of the chief medial examiner in New York City. Her harrowing experiences – including her involvement in the aftermath of the 911 terrorist attacks – form the basis of her memoir, “Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies and the Making of a Medical Examiner” (Scribner, $25, 272 pages). The topic is gruesome (death-scene investigations, autopsies), but the detective work ( “death investigation”) from an insider’s view is absorbing.

The impacts of climate change and global warming on humankind and the planet’s flora and fauna is a boundless and controversial topic, immersed in misunderstanding and heated debate. Seth B. Darling and Doug L. Sisterson, who work in the Department of Energy’s research laboratory, want to get a few things straight, but in an easygoing way. “How to Change Minds About Our Changing Climate” takes on 15 arguments commonly offered by “nonbelievers” and explains the related data and science. At the least, it’s a mini-education (The Experiment, $15, 224 pages).

Though Leonardo da Vinci’s centuries-old “Mona Lisa” measures only 30 inches by 21 inches, some 9 million art lovers view the world’s most famous painting each year in the Louvre in Paris. The question has always been: Who was the model? Globe-trotting writer Dianne Hales proposes an answer in “Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered,” but even she is not certain of the model’s identity, despite her exhaustive digging. That’s because there’s not much known about Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, though she’s described as “a quintessential woman of her times, caught in a whirl of political upheavals, family dramas and public scandals.” Perhaps the real point is the journey and not the destination, as Hales tours us through Renaissance Florence, introducing a fascinating cast of characters and giving a detailed history of the portrait. Meanwhile, the “Mona Lisa” continues to smile – or smirk (Simon & Schuster, $28, 336 pages).

Sophia Amoruso grew up in Gold River and Folsom and hung out in downtown Sacramento. At age 17, she skipped college, hitchhiked to Olympia, Wash., and then to San Francisco, ending up across the bridge in the East Bay. Along the way, she shop-lifted, dumpster-dived and was generally on a losing streak. Things turned around when, at age 22, she started selling vintage clothing online out of her apartment. Now, eight years later, she’s the founder and CEO of Nasty Gal, an online fashion retailer worth, oh, about $100 million. Amoruso tells all in the edgy memoir “#GIRLBOSS,” including some hard-earned practical advice for her peers (Portfolio, $27, 256 pages).