29 Summer Books To Get Excited About
A love triangle involving a student, her professor, and her mother; a poetic meditation on the Chicago race riots of 1919; a fable of a girl born with a torso twisted into a knot — and much more.
It's impossible not to fall in love with Azalea "Knot" Centre, the star of In West Mills, whom we meet as a hotheaded 27-year-old bachelorette in North Carolina in 1941. Her boyfriend keeps proposing, and her well-meaning neighbor Otis Lee begs her to accept, but Knot is more interested in working, drinking, and enjoying her own company. Knot's sense of independence and identity is rattled, though, when a hookup leads to a baby she doesn't want — and the aftermath resonates for decades. In West Mills follows Knot, Otis Lee, their families, friends, and neighbors, from 1941 to 1987, exploring the bonds of friendship, the weight of secrets, and all the sacrifices we make in our attempts to live a self-determined life.
Oh man, I love this book — so utterly crass, surprisingly tender, laugh-out-loud funny, and deliciously strange. It's a climate change cautionary tale in the form of a zombie story, narrated by a domesticated pet crow who's learned to speak English and who you'll wish were your best friend. S.T. — short for Shit Turd, which will give you a sense of his general vocabulary and demeanor — is an outcast within the animal kingdom, favoring mankind and its culture, which he's gleaned from his antisocial, quasi-deadbeat owner, Big Jim. When Big Jim suddenly starts acting strange (his eye falls out and he doesn't seem bothered; he won't stop scratching at the walls), S.T. realizes it's up to him to save not only Big Jim but also humanity as a whole — and to convince the rest of the natural world that they're worth saving. It's a joy to read.
A Pure Heart tells the story of sisters Rose and Gameela Gubran, the former an Egyptologist living in New York City with her white journalist husband, the latter a devout Muslim living with their parents in Cairo — that is, until she's killed in a suicide bombing. As Rose travels to Egypt and then back, she finds herself reckoning with the loss in surprising ways — desperate to settle unanswered questions Gameela left behind, unable to quiet the nagging belief that Gameela's death was partially her husband's fault, and torn between her life in the US and her heritage in Egypt. It's a profound and deeply affecting examination of fate and free will, family and identity, sin and redemption, and the unique bond between sisters.
The stories in The World Doesn’t Require You all take place in the fictional town of Cross River, Maryland, built by the leaders of the country’s only successful slave revolt. Each story follows different enchanting residents: a struggling musician who is also the last son of God, a PhD candidate whose dissertation unwittingly sparks chaos, a robot. As a whole, the collection weaves incisive criticism, dark humor, and magical realism in unexpected and arresting explorations of belief, love, justice, and violence.
Jake Wolff's debut is ambitious and bountiful, centered on the universal human yearning for eternal life. Wolff explores this desire through 16-year-old Conrad, who finds out on the first day of his senior year that Sammy, his chemistry teacher and secret lover, has died of what appears to be suicide. When he finds that Sammy has left him his journals, Conrad realizes that Sammy had been testing an immortality elixir on himself for years — and Conrad decides to pick up where he left off. Fittingly, the story is larger than life, and Wolff connects Conrad's journey with historical asides about others' attempts at solving the problem of death. He weaves in the past through Sammy's journal entries and projects into Conrad's future, all the while exploring the often desperate emotions underlying our search for everlasting life — hope, love, and grief.
Sarah Gailey's dark and fantastical Magic for Liars follows private investigator and resigned loner Ivy Gamble as she's brought to the hidden Osthorne Academy for Young Mages (her estranged sister's alma mater and current employer) to look into a grisly murder. Ivy is reluctant to take the case — she's a confident PI but doesn't like being out of her comfort zone, and being surrounded by magicians digs up deep insecurities — but once she arrives on campus, there's too much evidence to ignore. Gailey expertly teases details of the case, keeping you speeding through the pages, but never sacrifices the depth of their characters or their relationships. It's an eerie and highly entertaining magical mystery.
7. Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime and Obsession by Rachel Monroe (Scribner, Aug. 20)
In Savage Appetites, Rachel Monroe probes our cultural fixation on violent true crime and why it's so often women who are drawn to it. Through the stories of four real women whose lives became enmeshed in murder, Monroe identifies four archetypes of the true crime obsessive — the detective, the victim, the defender, and the killer — and delves into the machinations driving each, seamlessly weaving together biography, cultural analysis, and personal narrative. It's an illuminating exploration rooted in a convincing thesis, and even the most dedicated true crime reader will find something new within it to enjoy.
The "Red Summer" of 1919 saw brutal race riots in cities across the US; the most devastating was in Chicago, lasting eight days and resulting in 38 deaths and nearly 500 injuries. In her second poetry collection, Eve Ewing grapples with this violent moment in history, drawing from a 1922 report by six white men and six black men meant to analyze the event, and expanding this examination through her own keen insight and evocative imagination. Ewing blends past, present, and future, imagining the stories of those who lived through the riot and beyond, and inquiring into its lasting consequences.
PhD candidate Richard is burned out at 29 years old: He can't get himself to care about his thesis and is at risk of losing his funding; he's disillusioned by the New York City dating scene, though it seems everyone around him is coupling up; he suspects he's becoming old and irrelevant. When Anne, an academic ally with a crush, offers some help, their relationship turns romantic — which is complicated for Richard, since he's gay and finding that a bad first date with a charming lawyer named Blake might be evolving into something serious. Going Dutch is a sharp, endearing update of the love-triangle rom-com, and James Gregor's depiction of millennial New York is masterful. It's an exciting debut and will leave you eager for more.
Sarah M. Broom's expansive memoir whisks you away to early-20th-century Louisiana and then traces Broom's lineage to the modern day through the lens of the house her mother bought and built up in 1961 in the up-and-coming neighborhood called New Orleans East. It's an exploration of physical space and the ways in which our environment can both reflect and act upon us; Broom's mother raises 12 children in that home, and after her husband dies, it slowly deteriorates. Broom's prose flows so easily it's almost meditative — you'll look up from the book after what feels like five minutes and realize you've been reading for an hour. And as much as this book is about Broom's family, it is also about New Orleans East — its history and culture, its racial tensions, its devastating destruction, and the resounding effects of its abandonment post-Katrina.
With her fourth novel, Very Nice, the always exciting writer Marcy Dermansky set out to write a "literary soap opera." She succeeded exquisitely. Through multiple points of view, Dermansky creates a messy, sexy, super-fun drama that unravels over one summer. It begins with Rachel, the angsty college student who sleeps with her creative writing professor, Zahid — a young and depressive writer grappling with fame following his critically acclaimed novel — and then agrees to watch his pet poodle while he travels to Pakistan. But when Zahid's trip is cut short, he arrives at Rachel's extravagant childhood Connecticut home and quickly falls for her recently divorced mother, all the while ignoring Rachel's advances. Rounding out the complicated web is Khloe — who is subletting Zahid's Brooklyn apartment and happens to be the protégé of Jonathan, Rachel's dad — and her twin sister, Kristi, Zahid's best friend, who might be in love with him. It sounds thornier than it reads; in Dermansky's able hands, the narrative flows smoothly. It's also impossible to put down.
[ Read: On the Joys of Writing "Bad" Women ]
Speaking of Summer begins with a burst of wild energy; the narrator, Autumn Spencer, speaks directly to us, recalling a frantic sprint through Harlem, explaining, "My sister is gone, hardly forgotten. Whatever came for her is coming for me, too." That mysterious urgency is what drives this complex and suspenseful novel, which follows 34-year-old Autumn as she sacrifices her professional and personal lives — as well as her emotional and psychological well-being — in the pursuit of her missing sister, Summer. The story unravels in Autumn's mind, reading at times like a stream of consciousness with flashbacks woven throughout, and culminates in a powerful story of discovery — on the surface, a search for Autumn's sister, but ultimately an excavation of herself.
In the magnificent The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead once again draws inspiration from true atrocities of America's past, this time creating a fictional account of a real-life Florida reform school for boys that was infamous for torturing and killing its poor black students — and burying their bodies — in the 1960s. Whitehead builds his story around Elwood Curtis, an ambitious, socially conscious, law-abiding teenager in Tallahassee who gets into the wrong car on his first day of elective community college classes and winds up arrested for auto theft. His sentence is enrollment at the Nickel Academy — which, despite its solid reputation, turns out to be built on cruelty, racism, and corruption. As Curtis discovers that his good behavior and best intentions won't be enough to keep him safe, his worldview shifts, and survival becomes more of a strategy. Whitehead's prose is meticulous; he nimbly shifts between the 1960s and present day, creating a fully fleshed-out picture of violence and (in)justice.
Catherine Chung, a former math major at the University of Chicago, leans on her own real-life aptitude for math in her sophomore novel about a talented mathematician named Katherine whose attempt to solve the Riemann hypothesis uncovers secrets about her family's past. Nearing the end of her life, Katherine looks back at all she's been through, beginning as one of the few female graduate students at MIT in the 1960s, meeting and befriending some of the world's greatest scientific minds, but never being able to shed her role as an outsider amid the boys club. Woven throughout her professional research, though, are Katherine's inquiries into her own history as she discovers that her parents might not be who they seem to be. It's an interrogation of truth and its value — of secrets, sacrifice, and identity.
When Jessa Morton finds her father dead by suicide right in the middle of his taxidermy shop, the responsibility of the family business falls on her while the rest of her family falls apart. Her mother can’t stop sneaking into the shop and putting the stuffed animals into compromising positions; her brother goes silent; her sister-in-law (whom Jessa happens to be in love with) walks out. As Jessa struggles to keep her family afloat, she realizes she must come to terms with who these people are — and how they’ve made her who she is, too. It’s a poignant, hilarious, and often macabre examination of grief, and it revels in the (deeply relatable) messiness of intimate, loving, but complicated family bonds.
Sarah Rose Etter's The Book of X is dizzying and grotesque — and I say that with the utmost love. It's an astute exploration of humanity and the body — specifically the female body — through the lens of young Cassie, who continues in a long line of women born with their torsos twisted into a knot. Cassie hates her knot profoundly; it becomes the focal point of her loneliness, insecurity, and pain both physical and existential — all of which is compounded after she experiences a traumatic assault. In The Book of X, Etter has built an eerie, surreal world — the Earth is literally built of flesh; Cassie's father makes a living reaping tender cuts from the "meat quarry" — and she seduces you into it with dreamy lyricism. You won't want to leave.
Ariana Reines' fourth book is a tome — an expansive journey through nature and humanity, culture and creation, history and modernity. These poems, divided into 12 parts, touch upon Hurricane Sandy, politics, Twitter, tabloids, and more, with a thread of ironic restlessness throughout. In "Mistral," Reines writes, "Haven't you traveled enough?" The 350-plus pages that follow seem to answer no, and the verses within them grapple with our ability to yearn and desire despite our disillusionment, to be moved in spite of our cynicism.
Poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is written as a letter from Little Dog, a man in his late twenties, to his mother, who can’t read. The evocative letter unravels into their family’s past, beginning in Vietnam before Little Dog’s birth and continuing into the US. Through this history, the son is able to welcome his mother into parts of his life he’s never shared, contemplating issues of race, class, masculinity, and trauma.
[ Read: "Trevor" by Ocean Vuong ]
Taffy Brodesser-Akner's debut novel is a fast-paced, bighearted romp centered on 41-year-old Toby Fleishman, a recently divorced father and doctor who's pleasantly surprised to find that in the New York City dating scene, he's suddenly irresistible. Toby's adventures in endless sex are narrated (hilariously) by his old friend Libby Slater, a New Jersey–based journalist turned stay-at-home mom who finds herself dissatisfied with her own domestic situation. Fleishman Is In Trouble reads so smoothly, you'll want to speed right through, but it's in your best interest to slow down — lest you miss any of the quick barbs or droll asides that make this book so utterly delectable.
Following her devastating debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn returns to familiar themes of strained mother-daughter relationships, class, and sexuality in Patsy. Her sophomore book is meaty and consequential, following single Jamaican mother Patsy in her attempt to secure a visa for a new life in the US. Her journey begins in 1998, when she gets a tourist visa with the caveat that she must leave her 5-year-old daughter, Tru, behind. But she keeps her dream of a better life in New York at the forefront of her mind — a better financial future for Tru, and a better romantic life for herself; she nurses hope of rekindling a romance with her childhood best friend (and current Brooklyn resident), Cicely. But reality, as it tends to do, gets in the way of these dreams, and in dual perspectives, Dennis-Benn shows us how both Patsy and Tru survive the aftermath of Patsy's world-shattering decision in the years that follow.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls takes the reader back to 1940s New York City through the perspective of 89-year-old Vivian Morris, who reminisces about her wild time in the theater. Her story is rich with memorable characters — the eccentric aunt she moves in with who owns her own theater, albeit one in major disrepair; the larger-than-life leading lady; the chorus of showgirls; the alluring leading man — and a vibrant setting. All of it comes tumbling down when Vivian finds herself involved in a sexual scandal. Gilbert's expert world building, flawless dialogue, and attention to detail place you right in the middle of the action.
Darrel J. McLeod's memoir is quietly affecting and full of heart (the title, Mamaskatch, is a Cree word meaning, "It's a wonder!") and recounts his upbringing in Treaty Eight Cree territory in Northern Alberta. The narrative is told and retold in cycles, touching upon heartbreaking elements of alcoholism, poverty, and domestic abuse and dipping into stories of McLeod's mother as well — the trials she lived through and hopes to protect her children from. Through these fragmented stories, we see McLeod navigating conflicting desires within his sexual, spiritual, and native identities, and ultimately thriving.
Right at the tail end of the summer, fiction master Edwidge Danticat sneaks in an astounding short-story collection. The eight stories hover around Haiti and those who've left it, delving into the lasting effects of migration and displacement on families and individuals, and written with the kind of emotional precision that leaves you gasping. We meet a young woman whose first and last encounter with her father is at his deathbed, a hardworking nurse who dips into her savings to help her ex-husband's new wife, a mother fighting dementia long enough to dispense wisdom to her daughter — a whole cast of characters who feel absolutely real: so striking in their ordinariness, so complex in their humanity.
Also check out:
Kathryn Scanlan's Aug 9 — Fog (MCDxFSG, June 4) is something between fiction and nonfiction, a loose narrative created out of fragments of a found journal. It's a super-fast read — as in, you can read it in less than a half hour — but it's worth revisiting. Like life itself, it's full of the kind of mundane beauty that's so easy to miss. Nell Zink's Doxology (Ecco, Aug. 27) is sharp, empathetic, and at once critical and hopeful, following an oddball trio from their beginnings as a terrible punk band in the 1990s Lower East Side through their coming of age into a post–9/11 New York City and world beyond.
Uzma Jalaluddin's Ayesha at Last (Berkley, June 4) is a modern, Muslim retelling of Pride and Prejudice, about a young woman who doesn't think she wants an arranged marriage — until she meets the devastatingly handsome (if judgmental) Khalid, who is dedicated to tradition. Equally charming is Hannah Orenstein's Love at First Like (Atria, Aug. 6), which follows a jewelry-shop owner who accidentally posts a fake engagement announcement on Instagram and then decides to just roll with it. Both are full of charm, whimsy, and giddy romantic tension.
Blake Crouch's Recursion (Crown, June 11) is about a dangerous epidemic called False Memory Syndrome, whose victims find themselves remembering things that never happened and lives they've never lived, and who lose their grip on reality as a result. It will keep you up all night — first because you can't stop reading it, and then because you can't stop thinking about it. And if you're looking for something more pensive and intimate, you can't go wrong with Beth Mayer's We Will Tell You Otherwise (Black Lawrence Press, August) — a poignant, unflinching collection of stories about family, friendship, and how we relate to one another.
Update: The entry for Magic for Liars has been updated to reflect the fact that Sarah Gailey uses they/them pronouns.