There are a number of factors I use to judge how much I enjoyed my summer. In terms of camping, this summer rates poorly– I don’t think we got the tent out once. Ditto for canning, boating and swimming. The weather was mostly fine, and my trip to Maine was great, although short… However, I like to focus on the positives, so I am writing today about what was the best reading summer in recent memory. The stars aligned so I almost always had a book in hand I was dying to read, eager to get back to, or excited to talk about when I was done. Here are some of the highlights.
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel
There are three qualities to my ideal summer read: water, family drama and mystery… in the sense of “I have no idea what will happen next”, not necessarily a whodunnit. Set in Martha’s Vineyard (bonus points) and featuring a family confronted with the loss of their monetary comfort, I flew through Sons and Daughters and immediately checked out the author’s short story collection, A Guide to Being Born.
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
Oh, my heart. I always say that I am a sucker for old men narrators and dogs, and this novel had both; the story is essentially the narrator’s version of his life story, as told to his rescue dog. I worried at first that SSFW would be a little heavy and sad for summer reading, but was so quickly drawn into the story and then couldn’t bear to put it down. There is such hope, and love, within this sad tale. The tone reminds me of two recent favorites: Sweetland by Michael Crummey and All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld.
The Nix by Nathan Hill
I organized this list alphabetically by author so I wouldn’t have to rank them in order of preference… but The Nix was definitely my favorite of the entire summer. It’s a little challenging to summarize this novel, with all that’s going on, but the author in a recent interview described it as the story of a mother who abandons her eleven year old son, and the son’s journey many years later to figure out why. There’s parallel political drama– Chicago in 1968 and New York City in 2004– as well as some of the best character development I’ve read recently: a college student who made my teeth hurt, because I ground them every time I read about her; a gamer consumed by his beloved online world; strange but sympathetic twins. It’s really a great story, impeccably written, and I did not want it to be over.
Tribe by Sebastian Junger
Lest you think I while away all my days with fiction, let me tell you about Tribe. It looks like another book about war, and I expected another “war is bad” warning, but that is not really the focus here. The author, who you remember from The Perfect Storm and other books, is a journalist who delves into why soldiers returning from combat are having such a hard time readapting to American society. Yes, some of it has to do with PTSD, but there is a strong argument to be made about the negative effects of the general anonymity and detachment we all experience in Western culture. Junger makes points that bring the problems beyond war, beyond the soldiers, and implies strongly that our current rote approach to welcome soldiers home is just not enough.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
A Cameroonian man, his wife and children are living in New York City while he works to become a citizen. We watch his struggles, sympathize with his persistence and hope, and turn each page wishing for good results and good news. We meet his employer, his immigration lawyer, his cousin and friends. I held my breath reading, understood and liked each character for different reasons, and enjoyed the heck out of this novel. Against the heavy backdrop of current political debate, it felt surprisingly positive and light. I hope it gets the same attention and regard as Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz; it reminds me of both, for different reasons.
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney*
My surprise of the summer! I was vaguely interested in this novel after reading that it has been shortlisted for several awards, but it sounded a little more murder mystery-ish than I generally like. Thank goodness I read it anyway! Fans of Tana French, of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries, even of the Showtime tv show Shameless, will be thrilled to find Lisa McInerney. The characters are crisp; they buzz with tension, anger, and passion. When I watched Breaking Bad, I marveled at the writers’ ability to blur the lines between good guy and bad guy, and McInerney does the same here. The main character is the teenage son of an alcoholic; his mom died, he deals cocaine for pocket money and street cred, and he’s in love with a beautiful girl. A bad guy, right? A guy who makes bad choices, for sure, but one who is kind to his friends, protective of his family, and a defender of the those who need some help. He is one of several complex characters you meet in these pages. I think this is a tremendous read for fans of mysteries and literary fiction alike, and I am secretly hoping Ms. McInerney brings some of the characters back in future novels.
Little Nothing by Marisa Silver**
I read Mary Coin by Silver last year and it was so good, I vowed to read everything she has written, as quickly as possible. Well… that hasn’t happened yet, but I eagerly seized the chance to read Silver’s newest novel, Little Nothing. I was expecting something along the lines of Geek Love or A Prayer for Owen Meany, but got so much more than that. LN is broken into four distinct periods of time and features the same characters: a daughter, her parents, the man who loves her and a young boy. The readers’ job is to discover how they relate to each other. If you’re like me, you will have a hard time putting the book down until you figure it out. With elements of comedy and magic realism, this reminds me of John Irving, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jim Shepard. I really don’t want to give away any more of the plot, because I so enjoyed unveiling the story as I read; I really hope this novel catches on to a wide audience.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
The tiniest slip of a novel; I read it in two hours on a sunny Sunday morning. Fans of Ian McEwan, Graham Greene or Michael Ondaatje will enjoy the perfectly formed story, the plot of which I won’t dare give away. Next time you are thinking about sitting down to watch a movie, especially if it’s a love story or period drama, just pick up MS instead. The only bad thing about this book is that it’s so short.
Miss Jane by Brad Watson
I read The Heaven of Mercury a few years ago and liked it well enough to check out Mr. Watson’s newest novel. I hadn’t read any reviews or summaries and, frankly, the gorgeous cover and my vague memories of his last book were enough to sell me on reading this one. I am glad I trusted my instincts. This was an absolutely fascinating novel about a woman born in rural Mississippi in the early 20th century with a birth defect her family and doctor expect will make for a miserable, lonely life. With fearlessness and positivity, Miss Jane proves everyone wrong. An inspiring story of a strong female character unlike any other in recent memory.
So there you have my favorites of summer 2016. My top picks were mostly fiction and almost all novels, but eclectic in their own right. I hope that lists like this will help you find the next great book to try, or to gift to someone you know. We are barreling into a fall release season full of big names and “much-anticipated” labels– Jonathan Safran Foer, Ian McEwan, Michael Chabon, Tana French, Eimear McBride, Francine Prose, Britt Bennett and Zadie Smith are just a few I am eager for– and I couldn’t be happier. My to-read list is so full, my friend D and I joke constantly about whether we are drowning in possibilities or weighed down by all the choices. I say it’s a good problem to have! Please comment and let me know what *you* are reading, waiting for, or loved recently. Happy reading!
*I received a review copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. These opinions are my own.
**I received a review copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. These opinions are my own.