Our collective grief makes a summer reading post less… joyful. I don’t share it with the same joy that I wrote it.
Still: here’s my list of 10 lovely summer reads, if and when you might welcome it.
My top choice for right now is Unlikely Animals, by Annie Hartnett, the most charming and entertaining novel on bookshelves right now. Our heroine, Emma, recently returned home to small-town New Hampshire, having failed to show up for med school in California (and having failed to tell her parents). Her parents have a few secrets of their own: Emma’s formerly best friend has gone missing, and her father talks to a ghost and sees unlikely animals everywhere. What’s a girl to do? This one takes a deep breath and dives right into the madness. Emma decides to help the local police force (of two) search for her best friend, while her dad gently loses his mind but never his heart. With a supporting cast that includes a class of fifth graders, a younger brother recently out of rehab, a former high school crush, a rescue dog named Moses, and a fox mail-ordered from a Russian farm, Emma just might be able to find her missing friend and parts of herself she thought she had lost. A chorus of voices from the local cemetery – including the ghost of the real life Dr. Doolittle – only adds to the poignancy and humor of this tale. Never saccharine, but definitely sweet, I’d give this book 5 stars for summer perfection.
If your taste runs more to edge-of-your seat suspense, try Mouth to Mouth, by Antoine Wilson, another 5-star read. We first meet Jeff Cook in the airport – a sharp-dressed man, an art dealer – where a chance meeting with an old friend leads to hour after hour in the first class lounge, sharing drinks and secrets. Life is stranger than fiction, in this novel (think about that for a minute). As Cook tells it, he was walking on a deserted beach early one morning when he saw a man floundering far beyond the surf. Cook saved the man, then became obsessed with the question of whether he had saved a good man or a bad one. He might have stalked the rescued man a bit. He might have insinuated himself into the man’s life. One thing might have led to another, as the story gets twistier and darker. Vogue calls it a “taut, compulsive chamber piece of a novel, which you’ll struggle not to rip through in one sitting… Mouth to Mouth is an elegantly told and supremely gripping tale of serendipity and deception – and delivers a brilliant ending that will leave you guessing about everything that came before.” My couples book club ate it up.
Another fantastic, twisty tale sure to give you a rush is Blood Sugar, by Sascha Rothschild. Ruby Simon, our narrator, has been accused of four murders. She’s only guilty of three, and definitely not the death of her dearly beloved husband. You’ll be rooting for Ruby all the way, from the interrogation room through the trial, despite yourself. She’s just like the rest of us, with the occasional murderous impulse; she’s just taken it a little further, when circumstances required. Set primarily in Miami, Blood Sugar also offers an insider view of what it might have been like to grow up in a small neighborhood in a big, drug-riddled city. You’ll stay up late reading this one, I promise.
I can’t say the same for Run Rose Run, by Dolly Parton and James Patterson, but it has other charms. Run Rose Run imagines the life of “AnnieLee Keyes,” who comes from small-town nowhere to Nashville with big dreams. Sleeping in a riverfront park until she can earn enough money to afford a cheap motel room, AnnieLee convinces a local bar owner to take a chance on her and give her the stage. She catches the attention of a hunky guy, then a well-known, semi-retired country music star who shares remarkable similarities with one of the authors. AnnieLee’s ascent might be meteoric, but she can’t outrun her past forever. The reason to read this book isn’t its believability, in any regard. The joy lies almost exclusively in imagining Dolly Parton and James Patterson coming up with this story and bringing it to life. The aging, semi-retired country music star and the young, scrappy, immensely talented AnnieLee seem to be lightly-fictionalized versions of Dolly. Her trademark wit and wisdom shine through, with a heaping dose of ferocious ambition and what it takes to make it in Nashville. Purchase of the book also includes a link to 12 new Dolly songs, so if you’re a super-fan, this book has your name written all over it.
The city of Nashville provides a vibrant setting in Run Rose Run, and Charleston takes center stage in the marvelous new debut novel by Gervais Hagerty, In Polite Company. Hagerty’s twenty-something narrator, Simons (pronounced “Simmons”) grew up in a prominent lowcountry elite family, studied journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, then returned home to become a news producer. When we meet her, she’s questioning her engagement to her steady, predictable, law student boyfriend. She’s also asking probing questions of her beloved grandmother, Laudie, who ran away to Atlanta as a young woman to audition for the Ballet, but returned to Charleston to live a traditional life instead. “Gervais Hagerty’s compelling debut novel allows us a fascinating glimpse into an elite Southern society trying to hold on to age-old traditions and values in a rapidly changing world. Caught in the middle is a daughter of old Charleston, a young woman struggling to find her place without rejecting all she holds dear. This is the kind of highly readable, richly populated, and beautifully written book you will be eager to recommend to others!” writes author Cassandra King. (I agree.)
The most peaceful book I can recommend for the beginning of summer is the phone booth at the edge of the world, by Laura Imani Messina (which also wins, hands down, for best cover). The real-life phone booth at the edge of the world – known as the “Wind Phone” – stands in a cliffside garden near the site of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Mourners make the trek to this tucked-away garden to find peace by “speaking” to those they have lost. Author Laura Messina imagines that Takeshi and Yui meet on their journey to the Wind Phone, each of them trying to find the secluded place. Takeshi lost his wife in the tsunami, while Yui lost her 3 year old daughter and mother. The story proceeds slowly and gently, as they become a part of the informal community of regulars. When a typhoon threatens to destroy the phone booth, Yui takes matters into her own hands to protect it. It might be the worst decision of her life. But storms, we are reminded, do pass.
Below are several other notable books getting lots of attention for Summer of 2022…
Wingwalkers, by Taylor Brown
From the book jacket:
Wingwalkers is one-part epic adventure, one-part love story, and… one large part American history. The novel follows the adventures of Della and Zeno Marigold, a pair of Great Depression barnstormers who are funding their journey west by performing death-defying aerials stunts from town to town, and braids them with the real-life exploits of author (and thwarted fighter pilot) William Faulkner. When their paths cross during a dramatic air show, there will be unexpected consequences for all.
“Brown’s vision is as fresh and audacious as his language. Gusty, original, and powerfully imagined,” writes author Paula McLain.
Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus.
From the publisher:
Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans; the lonely, brilliant, Nobel-prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with – of all things – her mind. True chemistry results.
But like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (“combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.
“If you can imagine Julia Child channeling a little bit of Lucille Ball, and all of the science edginess of Madame Curie, then you’ll have a really good idea of the humor and the wit and the warmth that just shine through this entire novel,” says Minnesota Public Radio News.
This Time Tomorrow, by Emma Straub
From the publisher:
“What if you could take a vacation to your past?
On the eve of her fortieth birthday, Alice’s life isn’t terrible. She likes her job, even if it isn’t exactly the one she expected. She’s happy with her apartment, her romantic status, and her independence, and she adores her lifelong best friend. But something is missing. Her father, the single parent who raised her, is ailing and out of reach. How did they get here so fast? Did she take too much for granted along the way?
When Alice wakes up the next morning somehow back in 1996, it isn’t her sixteen-year-old body that is the biggest shock, or the possibility of romance with her adolescent crush. It’s her dad: the vital, charming, forty-nine-year-old version of her father with whom she is reunited. Now armed with a new perspective on her own life and his, is there anything that she should do differently this time around? What would she change, given the chance?”
“If I could time travel, I’d go back just far enough to start Emma Straub’s beautiful novel This Time Tomorrow again for the first time. The pages brim with tenderness and an appreciation for what we had and who we were. I could not have loved it more,” says Ann Patchett.
When Women Were Dragons, by Kelly Barnhill
From Barnhill’s website:
“Kelly Barnhill writes books. It is a strange job, but, to be fair, she is a strange woman, so perhaps it makes sense. She is a former teacher, former bartender, former waitress, former activist, former park ranger, former secretary, former janitor and former church-guitar-player. The sum of these experiences have prepared her for exactly nothing – save for the telling of stories, which she has been doing quite happily for some time now.”
On When Women Were Dragons: “This story of an alternate 1950’s America, in which rebellious women turn into dragons, is thrilling, subversive, and original. It’s filled with such poignant beauty that deserves to be savored with tissues nearby. Do not miss this one,” writes Gwenn Papp, out of Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI.
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Originally published at StyleBlueprint.