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Originally published Sunday, August 17, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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A guilty-pleasure reading list for the dog days of summer

From the David Ignatius spy novel “The Director” to the latest in Ruth Downie’s “Medicus” series, these absorbing novels will bring adventure and intrigue to your final days of summer.

Seattle Times book editor


Lit Life

I have stacks of books around my house. There’s the work stack. There’s the biography stack — I’m on a committee that awards an annual biography prize. And then there’s the guilty-pleasures stack, the absorbing, diverting books I should never pick up because I should be reading books from the other stacks.

And yet I do, again and again, especially after 9 p.m. Guilty, guilty, guilty!

I am now going to levitate books from the guilty-pleasure stack onto the work stack by writing about them for Seattle Times readers. Shazam! Expecto Patronum! Hope you can find something here to get you through the dog days.

“The Director” by David Ignatius(Norton). Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist, has been writing about the Central Intelligence Agency for 25 years or so. One of his thrillers, “Body of Lies,” was made into a not-bad movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. His latest, “The Director,” is one of his best.

Graham Weber has just sold his Seattle tech company for about 20 gazillion dollars and is looking for a new challenge. The president appoints him the new head of the CIA, with marching orders to clean out the closets and let the light of transparency and reason in. What could possibly go wrong? As Uncle Scar said in “The Lion King” ... you have no idea.

Ignatius has a gift for portraying the soldiers of the CIA bureaucracy in all their ambition, heroism and pettiness, and what he suggests about the nation’s cybersecurity will keep you up at night for more than one reason.

“Some Kind of Fairy Tale” by Graham Joyce (Doubleday). This spellbinding novel opens on Christmas Day in contemporary Britain. An elderly British couple’s doorbell rings, and there stands their daughter, who disappeared 20 years ago at age 16, asking to be invited in.

She hasn’t changed at all. How can that be? Joyce’s unfolding story, by turns creepy, sad and funny, interweaves issues of family life, psychological trauma and fairy-tale lore. I’m going to read it again to see how he pulled it off.

“American Romantic” by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Now in his late 70s, Ward Just covered the Vietnam War as a journalist, and he’s been haunted by it ever since. He writes critically praised, multilayered novels that explore the dark side of American foreign policy and its consequences. “American Romantic” tells the story of a U.S. Foreign Service officer whose entire career is blighted by a youthful misadventure in Vietnam. Like Ignatius’ books, Just’s novels offer an insider’s view — in this case, of the privileged American elite that controlled foreign policy during Vietnam. The title has a lovely double meaning that you will have to read the entire book to understand.

“Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil” by James Runcie(Bloomsbury). Sidney Chambers is an Anglican clergyman who is continually being diverted from his devotional duties to solve crimes. The “Grantchester Mysteries” (three released so far in America), are collections of long short stories, and they have followed Sidney from young adulthood in 1953 to, thus far, middle age.

I love these books for Sidney’s internal dialogues with himself, and often with his sidekick Inspector Geordie Keating, about crime and evil, love and forgiveness. Runcie is the son of Robert Runcie, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991, so he knows the clerical territory. A British television series following the adventures of Sidney, called “Grantchester,” is currently in production.

Ruth Downie’s “Medicus” series. British author Downie is the creator of Gaius Petreius Ruso, a Roman “medicus” (doctor) attached to Roman troops in Britain. Downie’s books offer a window into life in Roman Britain, both for the Roman military and for British natives none too happy with their position under the Roman heel. Ruso, by turns gloomy and funny, wry and astute, solves mysteries. His independent-minded wife, the British native Tilla, helps. Sometimes.

The latest in this series is “Tabula Rasa”(Bloomsbury) but try the first, “Medicus,” to see what you think.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

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