29 Summer Books You Won't Be Able To Put Down
From a Zadie Smith–approved debut to bestselling author Brit Bennett's second novel.
Sam Waxworth is a data journalist and staunch believer in the idea that everything in life is knowable and quantifiable. After successfully predicting the outcome of the 2008 presidential election, he’s offered a job as a columnist for a cushy magazine, and he’s quickly assigned a profile of Frank Doyle — a disgraced opinion columnist who covered both politics and baseball. But Sam likes Frank more than he expects to, and his previously very neat life philosophy gets muckier as he comes to know Frank’s family — his wife Kit, whose family-run investment bank is failing; his son, Eddie, who’s just returned from a tour in Iraq; and his daughter, Margo, an academic who’d rather be a poet. Beha’s third novel is a masterful interplay of big, fraught themes of privilege, race, wealth, and ethics. —Arianna Rebolini
This dark, speculative thriller is about a prestigious school (though even that label doesn’t cut it: “No, it wasn’t a college, exactly ... Let’s say, a community of minds”) that offers free tuition plus room and board to students who, in return, essentially cut themselves off from the outside world for the three years they are enrolled. Ines, our narrator, is more than happy to leave a past trauma behind her, and isn’t eager to get out into the real world — but the further she gets in her Catherine House education, the more apparent it becomes there’s something sinister underneath it. It’s an electrifying update on gothic horror, evoking haunting institutional imagery and weaving in “psychosexual” experimentation and power imbalances. —A.R.
Late one August night in 1968, 16-year-old identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella run away from their small Southern hometown Mallard — a community founded by the son of a white father and an enslaved mother, built for others “like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes” — and escape to a new life in New Orleans. But when their world expands, their lives diverge: Stella goes north to live as a white woman, marrying a white man who knows nothing of her past; and Desiree has a daughter with an abusive man intent on punishing her for her light-skin privilege, eventually leaving with her daughter and returning to Mallard. The novel spans decades, following the sisters’ daughters as their own stories intertwine, in a captivating, expansive, and insightful story about family, race, and legacy. —A.R.
Magnetized: Conversations With a Serial Killer by Carlos Busqued, trans. Samuel Rutter (Catapult; June 2)
In September 1982 in Buenos Aires, over the course of one week, the bodies of four taxi drivers were discovered murdered in the same way. It didn’t take long to find the killer, who didn’t protest when his horrified family turned him in; 19-year-old Ricardo Melogno spoke of his crimes with an unsettling calm. More than 30 years later, Argentine writer Carlos Busqued started visiting Melogno in prison to talk about his history, his way of thinking, and this series of crimes Melogno swore he couldn’t explain. Magnetized comprises those conversations, in straightforward transcription, interspersed with forensic documents, newspaper articles, and Busqued’s own analysis. It’s a chilling but fascinating portrait, and a must-read for true crime fans. —A.R
The Groom Will Keep His Name: And Other Vows I’ve Made About Race, Resistance, and Romance by Matt Ortile (Bold Type Books; June 2)
In this witty and insightful essay collection, Ortile (a former BuzzFeed employee) covers a lot of ground but does so gracefully. He writes about moving from the Philippines to Las Vegas as a child with tenderness and bittersweet clarity, capturing both the dreamy anticipation of a thrilling change and the understanding, with distance, of just how much the reality would fall short. He writes about his changing relationship with his Asian identity, deftly exploring the ways in which he learned to hide aspects of himself, and what he gained and lost in his efforts toward assimilation. And he writes frankly about dating in New York as a gay Filipino man, inhabiting a body “marked as other, even by men who desire it.” Throughout, Ortile expands upon his own experiences through historical and cultural analysis. —A.R.
Pizza Girl’s narrator, Jane, won me over immediately, her voice sardonic, unimpressed, and just a bit playful. She’s 18, pregnant, and working as a pizza delivery girl in suburban LA, where she lives with her mother and boyfriend — both of whom are much more excited about the baby than she is. So it’s not surprising she starts to feel alienated in her own house and finds comfort in short escapes to work or, more frequently, to her abusive late father’s shed. When a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom calls in with a desperate need for pickle-and-pepperoni pizza, Jane is immediately smitten — and as the two get closer, Jane’s ambivalence about her own future gets harder to deal with. It’s a punchy and riveting story about struggling to take control of your life. —A.R.
After her father disappears, Olivia decides to enroll in the Levitation Center, one of her father’s old haunts and a Buddhist meditation spot said to be the only place in America where people can still levitate. At the center, which houses a group of mostly white teenage girls looking for Buddhist enlightenment, Olivia becomes friends with three other girls: Laurel, Janet, and the mysterious Serena rumored to be able to “convince you of anything, anything at all, by looking directly into your eyes and telling you it was true.” Over the course of the summer, Olivia falls more and more deeply into Serena’s thrall as they go to increasingly violent lengths to achieve the power of levitation and grapple with their shared attraction to a gardener at the center named Luke. An elegantly written look at the cruel naivete of teenage girls. —Tomi Obaro
Conell’s offbeat debut takes place over the course of one day in the life of Martin, a humble (if slightly bitter) superintendent in an Upper West Side co-op, and his daughter, Ruby, who’s moved back home years after getting an art degree that’s brought her little more than massive debt. The day begins with an earnest but futile attempt at meditation — Martin can’t quiet nagging resentments about his impossibly wealthy tenants; Ruby keeps “going on anxiety spirals” about an upcoming interview for a “dream job” — and unfolds toward its culmination at a penthouse party that will change their lives. Throughout, Martin is haunted by the tough-love anti-capitalist voice of his favorite tenant, whose recent death allowed one of the last rent-controlled apartments to be gutted and turned into “a potential investment property for a sure-thing asshole”; while Ruby comes to terms with the unspoken imbalances between herself and her childhood best friend Caroline, who now lives in the penthouse her father built on the roof. Conell creates a microcosm of life on the shit side of the wealth gap in New York City, fills it with absurd, infuriating, and endearing characters, and hilariously skewers privilege that can’t (or won’t) recognize privilege. —A.R.
Wasserman’s sophomore novel is a labyrinthine story about memory, truth, and power, told in two timelines. In 1999, a woman arrives in Philadelphia with no money, ID, or memory of who she is. She falls under the care of the state and is invited to be part of a study on memory run by Dr. Benjamin Strauss, who sees her as nothing but a vessel for investigation. Lizzie, Strauss’s assistant, lover, and future wife, spends her days getting to know the mystery woman (called Wendy Doe) and imagining the freedom a new beginning could give. Twenty years later, Lizzie — now Elizabeth, and Strauss’s widow — finds Wendy’s 18-year-old daughter Alice at her front door, looking for her mother, who’s gone missing again. What are the secrets connecting these three women, and can they help each other? —A.R.
Nothing in Elizabeth’s life is quite as she’d hoped it would be: She’s using her PhD and love of books to teach English at a New York City charter school more interested in the idea of disciplining “underserved” (i.e., working class, black) students than educating them; she and her husband live in a too-small apartment, sleeping in a loft bed in a closet so their daughters can benefit from a well-funded school zone; they’re broke and declaring bankruptcy; and lately she finds herself preoccupied with thoughts of her ex–best friend Sasha. Strong breaks up the present timeline with flashbacks to Elizabeth and Sasha’s high school and early-twenties friendship, a relationship that involved Elizabeth’s complete enthrallment with her beautiful and magnetic best friend, whose interactions with the world revealed both the blessings and perils of being a woman universally desired. And through Elizabeth’s reconnection with Sasha at this moment of crisis, Strong astutely explores the complexities of wanting within biased systems — as a woman, whose desires are so often quashed, but also as a white woman raised with wealth and the message that anything desired can be attained. —A.R.
When Justin Taylor was 30 years old, his father, Larry, drove to the top of the Nashville airport parking garage to kill himself. He didn’t go through with it — he turned on his cellphone and was overwhelmed by missed calls and text messages from worried family members — but the plan (which Larry would eventually talk about frankly), the depression preceding it, and Taylor’s reaction that day (unconvinced his father was in any real danger, he called just once) would weigh on Taylor for years to come. In Riding With the Ghost, Taylor jumps back and forth in time, treading carefully and precisely through the delicate territory of his father’s suicidal depression, never veering into the sentimental as he works toward understanding how Larry came to be the complicated man he was, and explores the ways in which he shaped the man Taylor himself grew to be. —A.R.
The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained by Colin Dickey (Viking; July 21)
Colin Dickey’s examination of fringe beliefs is absolutely perfect for the current moment, as we watch a growing (and worrying) distrust in science. Dickey acknowledges this resurgence — citing studies from Chapman University that show recent and dramatic increases in Americans’ belief in things like cryptids, aliens, and lost civilizations like Atlantis — and explores their context and consequences, drawing compelling connections between believers obsessed with UFOs, and those whose skepticism has more nefarious, and very real, ramifications (see: anti-vaxxers, COVID deniers). Why do these beliefs take hold, even permeating mainstream culture, when they do? How do they comfort the masses in moments of change, when the majority’s stronghold on society is threatened? In shrewd, accessible analysis and firsthand reporting, Dickey explores his own theories about theories. —A.R.
Evelyn is not “good at confrontations,” we learn early on in this BuzzFeed News executive editor’s third novel. Her father is dying, her marriage is on the rocks, and Evelyn, at 37, has just quit her run-of-the-mill assistant job. When she decides to join a death doula group, helping people with terminal illnesses end their lives, she discovers a whole new world of people seeking answers for life’s biggest tragic inevitability. While the subject matter is undoubtedly dark, this novel is a ruminative, incredibly moving reflection on the impossible heartbreak of waiting for a loved one to die. —T.O.
Van den Berg returns to short fiction in a collection of 11 stories about women and the ways in which they ache and survive. In “Karolina,” a woman is forced to acknowledge a disturbing truth about her brother. In “Friends,” Sarah keeps alienating potential friends with stories of the mother she left back in her hometown. In “Slumberland,” a woman who can’t sleep spends her nights trying to outrun a memory by photographing strangers from afar. These women are haunted by specters of their past, often left unspecified by van den Berg, who instead drops references to traumatic events and lets the reader piece them together — it isn’t the event she’s interested in, but rather its echoes, and their disorienting and sublimating effects on a person’s sense of self. —A.R.
Read an excerpt from van den Berg’s novel The Third Hotel here.
When this future Pulitzer Prize–winning poet was just 19 years old, her mother was shot and killed by Trethewey’s former stepfather. Memorial Drive is Trethewey’s first wrenching prose account of that loss. In the beginning of the book she recounts happier days when Natasha’s father, a white Canadian academic, and her mother were still together — her parents marrying a year before Loving v. Virginia struck down anti-miscegenation laws. But everything changes when Natasha moves with her mother to Atlanta and a man Trethewey refers to as Big Joe enters their lives. Relying on memory, case documents, and transcripts of recorded phone conversations between her mother and Big Joe, Trethewey offers a gutting depiction of domestic violence. This book is not an easy read, but it is an illuminating one. —T.O.
Read our profile of Natasha Tretheway here.
Sometimes, on very rare occasions, you read a debut novel with a narrative voice that is so assured, so confident, so astute, and so devastatingly funny, it leaves you reeling. That’s how I felt reading Luster, the debut novel from Raven Leilani that has garnered high praise from the likes of both Zadie Smith and Mary Gaitskill. (Smith who taught Leilani at New York University, even wrote a whole essay about Leilani for Harper’s Bazaar.) Upon reading the first page, you’ll immediately understand the hype. Edie, a black 23-year-old trapped in a deadend New York publishing job has an unorthodox affair with an older white man in an open marriage. When Edie meets his wife and adopted black daughter, their relationship only becomes more complicated. Leilani’s brutally accurate observations and rapier wit make this novel a singular, mordant delight. I know it’s a cliché, but I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. —T.O.
Cotman’s third short story collection is a work of odd genius, creating worlds both alluring and strange, campy and powerful. “Seven Watsons” is about a group of young, mostly black, men enrolled at a Pittsburgh Job Corps; it’s a story that is just as much about the futility of working tirelessly for a future in a world destined to fail you, as it is about a family of geese who have been turned into humans. Then there’s the high school volleyball tournament in hell; the lonely prince finding comfort in automatons; the fruit that grants immortality. Cotman blends humor, emotional clarity, and wild imagination to bring life to stories about identity, power, and human nature. —A.R.
Every Bone a Prayer follows Misty, a 10-year-old girl living in a rundown trailer with her mom and sister in a small Appalachian town. It’s hard not to fall in love with Misty, who is sensitive and brave — and happens to have the ability to communicate with the world around her. Crawdads, trees, abandoned sheds all wordlessly share their histories with Misty when she reaches out to them, and she returns her own to them. It’s these creatures she turns to when she’s assaulted by a friend. And when strange objects start growing in her neighbor’s garden — a garden that speaks to Misty fearfully, in a woman’s voice carrying images of darkness and violence — Misty starts losing her sense of self. Every Bone a Prayer evokes the magic of my favorite childhood stories — thrilling, but eerie — but it’s also a painful, beautiful, and necessary examination of trauma and autonomy. And Blooms’ writing has the same effect as Misty’s supernatural gift: It is so resonant and precise as to not simply describe experiences and emotions, but to transfer them to the reader so we can feel them like they are our own. —A.R.
Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots by Morgan Jerkins (Harper; Aug. 4)
Between the years 1910 and 1970, 6 million black people made their way from the South to cities in the Midwest, West Coast, and Northeast in the hope of more opportunity. Among the folks making this Great Migration were the writer Morgan Jerkins’ own ancestors. Jerkins, who grew up in New Jersey, the only daughter of her father and mother who split before she was born, sets out to uncover her family roots. Why did she grow up being told not to go near water? Why does her father have a French last name? Is it true that there is Cherokee in her family tree? Jerkins traces her family history, spending time in Georgia, New Orleans, Oklahoma, and Los Angeles. I learned a lot reading this book, including sobering information about the fight for the Gullah Geechee to keep their land, the difference between hoodoo and voodoo, and the complicated history of freedmen — . —T.O.
Cho’s harrowing memoir recounts her experience of postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son, Cato. Cho and her husband, James, decide to leave their home in London to visit James’ parents’ home in New Jersey for a traditional Korean celebration of Cato’s 100th day of life — but along the way, Cho begins to lose track of reality and is eventually overcome by the paranoid belief that her newborn is demonically possessed. Cho’s memoir begins at the psychiatric ward where she was involuntarily committed, and where she would end up spending 12 torturous days, and jumps back and forth in time as Cho tries to figure out what happened to her, and what happens next. Throughout, Cho meditates on the ways in which Korean culture has informed her ideas of motherhood and mental health, and her expectations around both. It’s a vigorous and affecting read. —A.R.
Emezi’s debut Freshwater was a stunningly original story about alienation and depression told from the perspective of ogbanje — Igbo gods. Emezi’s second adult novel is compelling in a different way. The novel starts with a stark announcement: “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.” From there, we learn more about Vivek Oji’s origins; his father Chika and mother Kavita, his aunt Mary and uncle Ekene, and his cousin Osita. As Vivek and Osita grow into adolescence, they form an unorthodox and rebelliously queer community with a group of schoolmates, and the story behind how Vivek died is slowly revealed. While there are some plot points that never fully cohere for me, I read this book hungrily — a testament to Emezi’s skill as a writer. —T.O.
This debut novel unfolds like a mystery, flitting between genres to weave an inventive tale hinging on a depressingly familiar premise: a high school party, a passed-out girl, drunk teenage boys, possible sexual assault. Petty used to be a professional ghostwriter and you can see that influence in how she effortlessly narrates from the point of view of a former lacrosse player bro to a high school girl writing her college application essay. We slowly learn what really happened that night, but it’s the ingenuity of Petty’s genre bending that keeps you hooked until the very end. —T.O.
Swamy’s debut short story collection is rich, mesmeric, and often mournful, blurring the boundaries between dreams and reality, and making time less linear and more pliable. In “Blindness,” a newlywed’s depression causes a rift between herself and her suddenly cruel husband, leaving her to escape into alternate dream lives. In “My Brother at the Station,” a pregnant woman catches sight of (and then trails) her brother, long estranged because of his ability to see the dead. There’s the mother watching an approaching wildfire, the lonely woman who meets Krishna at a party. These are nuanced and quietly powerful stories about our most urgent and deeply felt experiences — grief, love, and desire. —A.R.
The poems in this collection deal intimately with the possibilities and limits of language, specifically black vernacular as the title of the collection suggests. In “welcome to how the hell i talk,” the narrator mentions that he talks in both Missibamaisianans and 20% magnet school doublespeak. In “nigger joke,” a black man walks into a bar, listens to a talkative white guy say a bunch of racist things, and walks out, now the “nigger joke.” There are aubades to the hood; an ode to Harold’s Chicken Shack, a Chicago mainstay; and poems about economic stress and missing family heritage. But the bent of these poems point toward new futures: “my hope is like my language is like my people,” writes Marshall in the title poem: “it’s Black / & it’s brown & it’s alive.” —T.O.
Read a poem by Nate Marshall here.
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Milkweed Editions; Aug. 11)
Reading World of Wonders, it’s clear that Nezhukumatathil is a poet. These essays sing with joy and longing — each focusing on a different natural wonder, all connected by the thread of Nezhukumatathil’s curiosity and her identification with the world’s beautiful oddities. In bits and pieces, we learn about a chaotic childhood spent moving around the country for her parents’ jobs, among white classmates who made certain she understood she wasn’t like them. We learn about her life by learning about the creatures that helped her survive or understand it — how the axolotl’s smile can be deployed when “a white girl tells you what your brown skin can and cannot wear,” how the touch-me-not plant protects itself. It’s a heartwarming, poignant, and often funny collection, enlivened by Fumi Nakamura’s dreamy illustrations. —A.R.
Few books electrify me the way Cook’s surreal short story collection Man v. Nature did, but her debut novel — which continues her exploration of the interplay between nature and civilization — has done it again. In a too-familiar version of our world, Bea is desperate to leave the heavily polluted City, whose air is slowly killing her 5-year-old daughter, Agnes. When a study calls for volunteers to move to the last nature area on earth, the Wilderness State, there’s no question — they’re ready to go. What begins as a group of 20 dwindles over the years (they’ve lost track of time) as the Community struggles to survive in an environment that doesn’t care if they live or die. The emotional core of the story is the relationship between Bea and Agnes, whose perspectives drive the narrative. It’s a damning piece of horror cli-fi, but it’s also a gripping and profound examination of love and sacrifice. —A.R.
Read an original short story by Diane Cook here.
Khadijah Queen’s last poetry collection, 2017’s I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On was a blistering indictment of the predatory male gaze. The poems in her latest collection tend to be more subdued, though their subject matter is no less weighty. In the opening poem, “In the Event of an Apocalypse, Be Ready to Die,” the poet warns us to “chronicle the heroes & mothers, / artisans who went to the end of the line.” In other poems she writes about the confusing devastation of a loved one lost to dementia, the chafing microagressions of being a black professor; pain and how to dull it momentarily. These poems reward slow, careful reading— they are ruminative in all the best ways. —T.O.
Read a poem by Khadijah Queen here.
Weiden’s debut is a gritty, complex, and dynamic thriller, about a vigilante named Virgil Wounded Horse who metes out punishment on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota when the American judicial system or tribal council comes up short. He’s a standoffish character, ambivalent about his life and Native identity, and he’s reluctant to get involved in a case about drug dealers. But when his nephew Nathan — the son of his beloved late sister — ODs on heroin laced with fentanyl, he sets off on a mission to find the man responsible, with the unexpected help of his ex-girlfriend. They find themselves in the midst of a complicated web of drug cartels, uncovering a dangerous world of money, power, and violence with far-reaching ramifications. It’s an absolutely riveting page-turner, compelling not only for the mystery at its core, but also for its piercing criticism of US (mis)treatment of Native populations. —A.R.
It’s 2011 in Egypt, and Egyptians are in open revolt against their despotic government in what would come to be known as the Arab Spring. Caught up in the crosshairs are Sami, a college student living with his white American girlfriend in Cairo unbeknownst to his devout mother Suad, and Jamila, a pregnant Sudanese refugee who cleans Sami’s girlfriend’s apartment and is desperate to obtain asylum. Each of these three characters grapple with ghosts from their pasts and their uncertain futures in this engrossing debut. — T.O.
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Correction: The definition of freedmen was misstated in a previous version of this post.