Summer Reads

June 21, 2023 was the official first day of summer in the United States, and summer’s return marks a perfect opportunity to share previous book reviews from Purdue Global Academic Success Center staff and English and Rhetoric Department faculty. Read on for some classic reading suggestions and books reviews previously featured on this blog. Let us know what you are reading this summer in the comments too!

House Rule by Jodi Picoult (560 pages)

Reviewed by Melody Pickle, Academic Success Center

Who should read this book: Readers who enjoy a good read, are interested in Asperger’s Syndrome, or who like a twist on a personalized crime/mystery novel should read the book.

Summary: Jacob Hunt is a teen with Asperger’s syndrome and a deep interest in solving crimes.  One day a murder takes place in Jacob’s small town, and Jacob looks guilty.  Jacob’s interest in solving crimes and his Asperger’s traits (like remembering every detail of a crime) combine to make Jacob appear guilty.  Both the police and Jacob’s family try to figure out if Jacob is capable of this crime.  This book chronicles the daily struggles and rituals of a family who lives with someone with Asperger’s syndrome.

Why I picked this book:  I have read a few other books by Picoult and have enjoyed them as thoughtful and interesting  (but quick) reading. She researches her subject well and writes an entertaining story that has some depth.  I also became interested in Asperger’s syndrome after hearing a presentation at the SCWCA conference a few years ago.  In this presentation, a student writing tutor explained his experience with the syndrome and how he was able to become a writing tutor with the encouragement of his writing center director.

Favorite quotes from the book:

“The fact that you worry about being a good mom means that you already are one.”

“But for the record, I personally subscribe to the belief that normal is just a setting on the dryer.”

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Matilda by Roald Dahl  (240 pages)

Reviewed by Stephanie Thompson, English and Rhetoric Department, School of Multidisciplinary and Professional Studies

Who should read this book? Anyone who loves to read and is still a kid at heart. Dahl’s sense of humor appeals to all ages, and this is a wonderful book to read along with your children so that they know that kids, girls in particular, should never be ashamed of being smart.

Summary: Matilda’s genius begins to manifest itself at an early age. Left at home by her bingo-playing mother, the bored four-year-old treks to the library and delves into Dickens, Hemingway, and Austen. While her vulgar and neglectful parents fail to recognize her mathematical and literary talents, a kind teacher, Miss Honey, nurtures Matilda’s intellect and shows her compassion. No matter the obstacles posed by her parents and her school’s evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, Matilda manages to outsmart her tormentors and create a happy ending for herself.

Why I picked this book? I am in the midst of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a wonderful, prize-winning historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, but I am struggling to get through it thanks to my own hectic schedule and the start of my son’s summer vacation. Thankfully, Cooper enjoys having me read to him every night, and once we finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I decided to read one of Dahl’s books that I had somehow missed as a child. This book may have a fairy-tale like plot, but his smart, strong protagonist is a delight.

Favorite quote from the book: “All the reading she had done had given her a view of life that they had never seen. If only they would read a little Dickens or Kipling they would soon discover there was more to life than cheating people and watching television.”

River of Earth by James Still (245 pages)

Reviewed by Amy Sexton, Academic Success Center

Who should read this book?  Anyone who appreciates a solid, strong sense of place in fiction will enjoy the imagery of the Appalachian mountains and their creatures and people. Anyone who enjoys regional literature should appreciate Still’s use of dialect, descriptive language, and sensory details.  Readers who are attracted to strong female characters should delight in the characters of Alpha Baldridge and her mother, known as Ma and Grandma.

Summary: Set in Appalachian Kentucky, River of Earth chronicles the hard lives of members of the Baldridge and Middleton families around the time of the Great Depression as they struggle internally and externally with the changes of industrialism, which in the Appalachian region meant that many farmers went from needing only the land to feed their families to relying on a violate coal-mining industry.

Why I picked this book? River of Earth is one of those books that sticks with you. I read it for the first time over 15 years ago, and its words and characters have lingered with me since.   It is considered an Appalachian classic, and I can relate to the struggles the family experiences as I come from a family supported by coal mining and understand the trials of hard-working coal miners in a boom or bust economy, then and now.

Favorite quotes from the book: Brack Baldridge, Alpha’s husband, expressing his desire to return to coal mining: “I’m longing to git me a pick and stick it in a coal vein. I can’t draw a clean breath of air outside a mine this time o’ year. It’s like a horse trying to breathe with his nose in a meal poke.”  

Alpha, on Brack’s intention to uproot the family and leave their home and small piece of land behind to live in a coal camp: “Forever moving yon and back, setting down nowhere for good and all, searching for God knows what,….Where air we expecting to draw up to?”

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This is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike by Augusten Burroughs (230 pages)

Reviewed by Chrissine Rios, Academic Success Center

Who should read this book: This book could be enjoyed by anyone who wouldn’t read a self-help book but appreciates a good reality check or who would read a self-help book and therefore really needs a reality check. It would also be good for anyone who has ever needed a designated driver and for everyone who just wants to be happy.

Summary: This book playfully but earnestly exposes the lies people tell themselves during the experiences that most sorely require the truth. Positive thinking and affirmations, according to Burroughs, are not how to heal from being raped or abused, for instance.  Anger is, and channeling that authentic emotion into creative action. Burroughs’ anecdotes throughout the book suggest he writes from a place of having been there and done that, but only someone who has also listened, deeply, and cared, could form insights that resonate so resoundingly. At various points while reading, I had to wonder how he knew that about me. His signature, plain writing style that I first came to admire in his best-selling memoir, Running with Scissors, could be described as ketchup on quiche: a refreshingly vulgar yet finely cultivated dish. With it, he turns typically tragic and uncomfortable topics like suicide and death into savory goodness; you want to take big bites and chew thoroughly, and not because it’s that good but because it’s just what you needed: it’s fulfilling and gritty, and as eye opening as a shot of freshly juiced, organic wheatgrass.

Why I picked this book: I received this book as a gift from my husband who knew Burroughs was my favorite contemporary author and that I had all his books on my shelf but this one. I’m so glad Burroughs wrote this book because if anyone else had written it, I wouldn’t have read it. The self-help genre seems too 90s. But Burroughs affirmed my thoughts about that too and then told me what I really needed to hear.

Favorite quote from the book:   “The past does not haunt us. We haunt the past.” (p. 122)

Related link: Augusten Burroughs’ website:

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St. Dale by Sharyn McCrumb (416 pages)

Reviewed by Teresa Marie Kelly, Department of English and Rhetoric, School of Multidisciplinary and Professional Studies

Who should read this book? St. Dale is written for NASCAR fans who still remember February 17, 2001, in vivid detail and still expect to see the black #3 on the backstretch on a Sunday afternoon. It is also written for readers who love the story about a journey, in this case a version of the Canterbury Tales set in the heart of America and the tracks of the Deep South that bred stock car racing.   For anyone who wants to understand why the love of NASCAR and of Dale Earnhardt transcends the stereotypical racing fan, McCrumb provides an in-depth look at the culture of NASCAR and its fans’ devotion to the greatest driver the sport has ever seen.

Summary:  Fictional NASCAR driver Harley Claymore sees the chance to lead a group of fans that span the sport’s broad demographics as a chance to get another ride in ‘the show,’ a term for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, it’s elite 36 race season that tackles superspeedways like Talladega and Daytona, smaller but faster tracks like Atlanta and Charlotte, short tracks like Bristol, and even road courses like Sonoma and Watkins Glen.  When Harley learns the tour is actually a pilgrimage in honor of the late Dale Earnhardt, he’s horrified but refuses to surrender his last chance to become a successful driver.  The thirteen fans, or ‘pilgrims’ in Harley’s care are busy working through their own issues.  They represent a cross section of society bound only by two things – their love of NASCAR and adoration of Dale Earnhardt.  Throughout the novel, a mysterious Earnhardt doppelganger – an allusion to his continued influence in the sport despite his death – drifts in and out of the story, further rattling Harley’s nerves.

Why I picked this book? I am one of those people Brian Williams of NBC News, a long-time NASCAR fan and the host of the 2001 NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York City, meant when he talked about fans who, if they look hard enough, still see the spirit of the Intimidator weaving through traffic on race days. A driver who could ‘see the air’ around the cars, Earnhardt made NASCAR. Even today, more than twelve years after his death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s Superbowl – every race track is festooned with flags and images as if they are frozen in time. NASCAR has progressed and grown incredibly in the decade plus since Black Sunday, but it has never forgotten the footprints and shoulders on which it was built, especially Earnhardt’s. McCrumb’s novel is more about the mythos of Earnhardt than the facts of his life, but those legends are what keep his memory alive for millions of fans worldwide.  St. Dale, a 2006 feature title at the National Book Festival, is used by classes and book groups around the country.

Favorite quote from the book: “She ought to turn off the radio to save the battery, but Garth Brooks was singing “The Dance,” and she couldn’t bear to cut it short. Another two minutes wouldn’t matter. Later Justine would tell her the significance of the song, marveling that she didn’t know it already, but she didn’t. The intersection of those two roads of pop culture was simply not on her radar screen.  She had not been thinking about him. She was sure of that.

Note:  Garth Brooks performed his iconic ballad, “The Dance,” in memory of Dale Earnhardt at the 2001 NASCAR Banquet and presented the year’s most popular driver award to Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa.

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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah   (226 pages)

Reviewed by Sheryl Bone, English and Rhetoric Department, School of Multidisciplinary and Professional Studies

Who should read this book?   Anyone with an interest in the world and the human spirit

Summary:  A Long Way Gone is the story of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone.  Ishmael Baeh is a twelve year old child when his village is taken over by rebel soldiers.  Separated from his family, he wanders with his friend for almost a year before being picked up by the government army.  Ishmael experiences unspeakable violence and torture. The boy lives in the army, murdering and torturing innocent civilians, longing for acceptance from the rebels.  Three years later, when Ishmael is 16, he is rescued by UNICEF. The story is at once griping and horrifying, but ends on a positive note.  Unable to heal from his experiences in the rebel army, Ishmael finds his way to Guinea. Removed from the land where he witnessed the murder of his family, Ishmael begins to find peace.  The book closes with Ishmael living in New York.  A college graduate, he now advocates for human and child rights and does advocacy work with the United Nations.

Why I picked this book?  I didn’t pick the book; the book picked me.  My seventh grader was reading it for religion class.  She needed help making some connections for a reflection paper she had to write. I didn’t understand the assignment, so I started reading the book. I couldn’t put it down. It isn’t the writing that is so appealing; it is the griping story.

Moving quote from the book: “We took the guns and ammunition off the bodies of my friends and left them there in the forest, which had taken on a life of its own, as if it had trapped the souls that had departed from the dead.  The branches of the trees looked as if they were holding hands and bowing their heads in prayer.”

Related links:

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Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson (363 pages)

Reviewed by Lisa Gerardy, Academic Success Center

Who should read this book:  Anyone who enjoys humorous memoirs should read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.  The book is funny, though serious and even sad at times.  Anyone who is offended by adult language may want to not read this book.

Summary:  Jenny Lawson, AKA The Bloggess, shares her painfully awkward and odd upbringing in the Texas Hill Country.  Jenny did not fit in with her peer group due to her lack of interest in farming and animal husbandry.

Why I picked this book:  I prefer non-fiction, and I will read any biographical story.  Also, I would like to write a memoir, and I would prefer it to be humorous and interesting, like Jenny’s book.

Favorite Quote from the book:  

“P.P.P.P.S. Also, if you try to make a shrimp boil, but the bag of spices bursts, and so you just toss it in along with whatever spices you can find in the pantry–you can make homemade pepper spray. Unintentionally.
And everyone at your dinner party will run outside for the next hour, coughing and tearing up as if they’ve been maced, because technically they kind of have been, because mace was one of the spices I found in the panty. I blame whoever makes spice out of mace, and I remind my gasping dinner guests that even if I did mace them, I did it in an old fashioned, homemade, Martha Stewart sort of way. With love.”

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2 Responses

  1. Teresa Marie Kelly (TK) says:

    Since I wrote about St. Dale, McCrumb has written two more racing novels and expanded her Ballard’s series. Learn more at

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