Arts & Culture

Downtown View: Summer Reading

Downtown View Logo 2It’s not news that the book publishing world has changed. Authors say their books attract no interest from the big publishers unless their name is Stephen King. A look at the web pages of the major publishing houses confirms this. Actress Cameron Diaz’s beauty book is the top feature at HarperCollins. Not exactly literature.

Surprisingly though, readers are benefiting from the timidity of the big publishers. A slew of alternatives to the big houses are springing up. Some authors are self-publishing their own books. Small publishing houses are being created, often run by frustrated authors themselves, in which authors and publishers cooperatively fund the design, printing and marketing of the book. Other independent book publishers have found ways to package their output in ways that appeal to readers.

There are still some books that are unreadable—like the ones that came off the “vanity” presses of old. But, if you’re a reader, you’ve put down plenty of books from Random House or Knopf because some of them were badly written. With so many authors turning now to small or independent presses, the percentage of readable ones have increased exponentially. Here are five books, all by local authors or about Boston, that you might want to poke your nose into this summer

Linda Cox of Beacon Hill went the self-publishing route in 2010. Her “Lone Holdout,” tells the true story of her experience on a jury in the drug trial of a young Hispanic man in Boston and her subsequent struggle to help him win justice. Cox’s book has been chosen for reads by book clubs and received good reviews—the Boston Globe called it gripping.

Ari Magnusson of Charlestown went the self-published route too. His story, “Bitopia,” is about a sixth grade boy with a backpack who fears bullies, a timely anxiety about which much has been written. The book also contains an imaginary world, another trendy trope. Magnusson’s book too has received good reviews, plus it was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ best books of 2012.

The next three books take place in Boston. Books with a strong sense of place often collide with readers’ own strong sense of place. For example, Cedar Street doesn’t exist; it is always West Cedar Street. And why does that college girl drive all the time around Boston rather than taking the T or a cab? In real life she’d be towed or ticketed.

But never mind. A strong sense of place is fun, especially if you know the place. “That Year in Boston” is a novel by West End resident Gail Spilsbury. Two people fall in love, things go well at first, and then they don’t. The 2013 Boston Marathon plays a role in the story, but it is not heavy-handed. Spilsbury’s pacing is good in the book, and she writes authoritatively about the inner workings of a book publishing house.

Douglas Trevor, who no longer lives in Boston, has written a book about a sort-of love affair with a great title: “Girls I Know.” A man about to turn 30 is having trouble finding his way in life. He endures a troubling event, meets a troublesome woman, and finally, in helping a troubled girl, sets his life on its presumably successful course.

Both of these books were published by small presses—very small presses, Green Writers Press in Spilsbury’s case, and 617 Books in Trevor’s.

Finally, in the genre of books worth reading are the publishers who’ve found a sure thing and keep repeating it. “Boston Noir” and “Boston Noir 2,” put out by Akashic Books, are short stories filled with characters you wouldn’t want to meet at noon on a sunny, busy street, much less in a dark alley. They are creepy. But a good writer can weave a terrific story around such folks. Dennis Lehane is listed as the editor of the Boston books. The series includes dozens of cities and places—“Tel Aviv Noir” and “Wall Street Noir” are two such titles. These stories take place in neighborhoods you know well, and that can drive a reader crazy as well as entice him or her, but the read is worth it.

Readers won’t desert Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) but they’ll have a lot more enjoyment with these small, unique presses that are willing to branch out from Cameron Diaz to someone who can really write.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at