You probably know from my summer reading lists in 2016, 2015, 2014, etc. that I don’t believe in the “beach read” concept. I just want a book that grabs me, I don’t care if it’s light or heavy. But, as always, I’ll make sure to make it clear how far on the light-to-heavy spectrum a book is. I’ll start light and work my way up. As usual, links are to Amazon, and if you purchase through them I may get a small commission.
First up a few honorable mentions because this list was ridiculously long: I’ll Eat When I’m Dead by Barbara Bourland (murder mystery at a high fashion magazine featuring lots and lots of outfit descriptions), Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny (character-driven domestic drama with top notch writing), Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (creepy literary fiction if you want something midwestern and moody), Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (memoir of a highly unusual family with a distinctive voice and I hear it’s great on audio), and This Is Just My Face, Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe (celebrity memoir that’s super fun and perfect plane reading).
Startup by Doree Shafrir. My review of this book calls it, “frothy,” “smart,” and “compulsively readable.” If I was going to give my top pick for beach/plane/speed reads of the summer, this is the one. At the center of the book is an app, a startup founded by the same guy who has founded every startup, and an online media site focusing on tech news, where a reporter starts to hear about some possible dirt on the company. If you have ever worked in this kind of setting, this book may be a little too real.
The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden. A friend of mine called this American Gods meets District 9 and that’s not so far off the mark. This is a WILD sci-fi/fantasy novel set in South Africa with a diverse set of characters and a storyline that is unlike anything you have ever read. If you feel like every book you read is the same, that they’re all cliches, I can promise you this book is different. It’s a rollercoaster ride that won’t ever go where you think it’s going to. And if you’re tired of the white-male-ness of SFF, I highly suggest supporting this book from a black female author. (I am also reading N. K. Jemisin this summer, who I like even more.)
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. A mystery-within-a-mystery, one of them of the old school English countryside variety, the other a modern thriller set in London. Our narrator is an editor, and the internal mystery is the manuscript from one of her most successful authors. But there’s a problem, and a real-life mystery to solve. I am nostalgic for old-school Christie-esque mysteries and most of this book hit the spot, and the two plots means that nearly any mystery/thriller reader is going to enjoy themselves. One of my go-to recommendations of the year.
The Birdwatcher by William Shaw. A mystery novel for fans of melancholy British series like Broadchurch, a solidly written police procedural. Protagonist William South is not your gritty, grizzled detective. He’s a rather soft, inexperienced patrol officer in a small town on the coast of Kent. In the first chapter we learn of two murders: that of South’s neighbor and birdwatching partner, and one South himself once committed. In parallel stories we’ll follow the search for the new killer and South’s efforts to evade detection. It’s a solid, slow-burn procedural that isn’t trying to shock you with twists but get you slowly more and more tied up with its quiet central character.
Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan. I will read almost anything that is compared to The Secret History and this one, while very different, actually is one of the few books that makes that comparison that actually does seem to have a kind of kinship with TSH even if I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is. A group of college friends are at the center of a murder that will impact them all in unexpected ways. Years later new evidence is found that puts them back under the microscope. At first it seems like more of a suspense novel, but about halfway through you realize that this is actually a very smart character study with the crime as the impetus for everything else that happens. I would recommend going into it with as little information as possible. Even reading the jacket copy could be too much. Go into it cold, and I especially recommend the audiobook, which is read by the author.
Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me by Janet Mock. I enjoyed Mock’s previous memoir, Redefining Realness, which is at its heart about gender identity and finding the courage to be true to yourself. (It’s also a solid recommendation when you want to give someone a book with a real person they can root for and plenty of Trans 101 info.) Her second memoir is less your traditional queer suffering/coming out story and more traditional memoir and it’s a story most people will be able to relate to. Janet navigates first love, heartbreak, striking out on your own, finding career, and more. A good one for anyone currently navigating their way through their twenties who could use some inspiration from a great source.
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal. In a lot of ways this is part of the growing Indian immigrant fiction genre, joining the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri, Mira Jacob, and many others. These books can be difficult or heavy, they can be deep explorations of identity and culture. But Satyal has written a book that keeps that sense of purpose but is also lighter and has a sense of fun. Our main characters are Harit, a middle-aged man living with his aging mother, and Ranjana, whose only son has just gone off to college. Neither of them feels fulfilled, either by the American world around them or their Indian immigrant communities, and they slowly reach out in search of more. I found this book so incredibly satisfying and emotionally fulfilling.
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki. A dark, suspenseful novel about the intertangled lives of two troubled women? Tell me more, please. If you do not enjoy books about unlikable women, please move along. Lady has clawed her way up to a life in the Hollywood Hills, a wealthy (currently estranged) husband, and a life story she has decided to write as a memoir. Esther is freshly finished at Berkeley, freshly failed at a big performance art project, and ready to start a new one: to take on the persona of her mother at her age. Her first requirement is to get a job as a nanny, which is how she ends up living in Lady’s guest house and watching her young son. They slowly accumulate possibly dangerous secrets in this study of challenging women and difficult mothers. (Note: there are some problematic discussions of autism and deafness in this book if those are issues for you. See my full review for more.)
The Changeling by Victor LaValle. I am always excited about a new LaValle book. He mashes up and messes with genres so enjoyably, he explores characters and fears so deeply. This book is all about the way family makes you afraid and vulnerable, even as it makes you brave and strong. Apollo, son of a struggling single parent, suffering from chronic strange dreams, rises from humble beginnings to become an unlikely dealer of antique books. He meets a wonderful women, and they are thrilled to start a family together until things start to go wrong. It’s spoiling the journey to say much more. But this is a book that plays with horror and fantasy and the worst fears of every parent. (Note: probably best to pass for people sensitive to issues of PPD and other postpartum mental disorders, as well as those who struggle with stories of a child in peril.)
Chemistry by Weike Wang. The unnamed protagonist of this book seems to have a perfect life. The child of immigrants, she has worked hard and made it into a good school. She is in a prestigious chemistry postgraduate program. She has a handsome and smart boyfriend. But she is slowly falling apart. Her boyfriend, also a chemist, is a better worker, faster, and more successful. Her parents constantly pressure her to succeed. She isn’t sure if she wants to continue with her studies, or her boyfriend, or much of anything. This is a book that takes a little while to get used to, where you have to get accustomed to the narrator, her prickliness and her difficultness. She is slow to open up to the reader and it is only near the end that you realize just how and why she is broken. An unusual and interesting character study.
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck. This is one of my favorite books this year and perhaps the most under the radar on this list. This is Scandinavian dystopia and I didn’t realize how much I needed it in my life. This is the kind of science fiction that does things you have not seen science-fiction do. It reminds me of how it used to feel reading sci-fi as a teenager when I didn’t even realize what was possible. It’s also a masterwork of setting and mood, with Scandinavian sparsity and a bleak society reminiscent of the Soviet era. Vanja is a government worker in this strange world who is sent on assignment to a city she has never been to. People are different in this other place and from the very beginning something feels off. Soon Vanja is pulled deeper and deeper into the mystery of what is happening in this place and to these people and I will leave the rest for you to discover.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay. If you haven’t heard everyone talk about this book, I’m not quite sure where you’ve been. Needless to say, this is the best book I’ve read this year. It’s a memoir that makes you rethink memoir. Gay is not just talking about her life but her body, what it is like to inhabit the world in a body that breaks the rules, a body that is black, female, queer, and–most importantly for this narrative–fat. This is a book that cuts straight to the heart like a razor, so quickly and sharply you don’t even realize it’s happening until the blood spills out. Gay doesn’t have any two books that are at all alike, having two from her this year is just a gift. (Note: a difficult book for those who may have struggled with eating disorders or been victims of sexual assault.)
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. A publicist sent me this book in the mail with a note saying that she thought, given my background, it would be a great fit. I was skeptical. I do not like true crime. But I was intrigued by the introduction, featuring the author’s first day at her internship at a death penalty nonprofit where she watches the videotape of a murder suspect’s confession. She will become obsessed with this case for reasons she does not initially understand. Eventually it will help her open up her own past, family secrets that have remained unspoken. This is a very difficult read for the same reasons that I ended up liking it so much more than I usually like true crime. It is written with deep sympathy and understanding because of the way the author goes through the story of one crime, to arrive at the story of another much more personal crime. (Note: involves murder and molestation of children.)
I am still working my way through this summer’s books, what else should I hunt down?