That inaugural guide included timeless classics like Pride and Prejudice and Brideshead Revisited, along with buzzy new releases hitting bookstore shelves. But it wasn’t long before I was reading advance review copies to sift through summer’s most anticipated releases so I could recommend my personal favorites.
Today I’m sharing 20 of those favorites from past Summer Reading Guides—the standout books that have stuck with me years later. I’ve returned to many of the books on this list for a reread (and not just in the summertime!).
In addition to your enthusiasm for our upcoming guide full of brand new releases, I’ve also heard many requests for backlist books to read this summer. “Backlist” simply means “not newly published.” (For example, since Don’t Overthink It is my most recent book, it’s my “frontlist” title. My backlist titles are I’d Rather Be Reading and Reading People.) Because backlist books have been out for awhile, they’re often available in paperback and have shorter wait times at the library.
Readers, your bookish enthusiasm has helped our annual summer reading tradition grow from a blog post to a beautifully published digital magazine—and I can’t thank you enough for your support. If you’re eager to spread the Summer Reading Guide joy this year, we made it simple with shareable graphics and an easy-to-link landing page.
Tell your readerly friends the 2021 guide is on the way, and in the meantime, I hope you find a few promising backlist Summer Reading Guide titles to add to your library tote or beach bag.
I love the craft here: Towles sets his scenes so well, and the opening and closing scenes frame the story beautifully. I can't stop rereading to see just how he does it. This Gatsby-esque novel plunges you into the glittering, glamorous streets of Manhattan, circa 1938. Young secretary Katey Kontent and her roommate Evelyn meet handsome Tinker Gray by chance. The girls vie for his affection—until one impulsive decision changes everything. A well-drawn story of wealth and class, luck and fate, love and illusion. Warning: this one is hard to put down. More info →
Fashion, romance, and … espionage. If you loved Casablanca, try this novel set during the Spanish civil war, originally written in Spanish and translated by Daniel Hahn. Sira Quiroga works her way from dressmaker's assistant to a premier couturier, putting her in contact with the wealthy and powerful. When the British government asks her to spy for them as World War II gears up, she agrees, stitching secret messages into the hems of dresses. The dialogue is a little bumpy in places, but the story is worth it. More info →
This ostensibly foodie memoir is as much about identity as it is about fancy restaurants. When Ruth Reichl takes the plum job of New York Times food critic, she’s determined to let ordinary diners know what the city’s great restaurants are really like. She soon discovers that the Times food critic is no ordinary diner: her headshot is pinned to the wall of every kitchen in the city so the staff can recognize and wow her. So Reichl goes undercover, enlisting the help of an old theater friend to become a sultry blond, a gregarious redhead, and a tweedy brunette, each with her own backstory. A fascinating read for any foodie, or student of human nature. More info →
In this evocative follow-up to the masterful The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver returns to her native southern Appalachia, following three couples over the course of one life-changing summer: a wildlife biologist who returns to her home county to work, a widowed farmer's wife at odds with her husband’s family, and a pair of feuding neighbors. Her emphasis on the natural world will feel familiar to lovers of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Verdant, lush, and vivid. More info →
In Alexander's words: "The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story." The author's husband died just four days after his fiftieth birthday. A few years later, Alexander looks back on their life together, their love, and the impact of that loss in her life. Alexander is an American, born in Harlem. Her husband was born in Eritrea, in East Africa, and came to New Haven as a refugee from war. Both were artists—and their home sounds like this amazing, vibrant, multicultural extravaganza with food and friends and music and art. I could barely put this down, and while sad, it exudes joy. Heads up for audiophiles: Alexander's narration of her own work is magnificent. More info →
I knew I had to read this when my husband (who beat me to it) couldn't stop sharing Cleave's well-turned sentences aloud, and even many years later, I still think about this book all the time. This tale of four young, warm, wise-cracking friends in wartime England is a standout in the WWII historical genre. Through their characters, Cleave throws issues of wartime morality, race, and class into sharp relief. This is for you if you love a great story and admire a beautifully-rendered, wry turn of phrase. We got to chat with Cleave for the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club and hearing him discuss his own work made me love the novel even more. Book club members will enjoy revisiting that chat and discussing Cleave's work in Backlist Book Club this summer. More info →
This dark fairytale takes place in modern day Manhattan. Alice and her mom have spent 17 years on the run, trying to dodge the persistent bad luck mysteriously connected to an unnerving book of stories penned by Alice's estranged grandmother. When Alice's grandmother dies, her mother thinks they're free—until the day Alice comes home from school to discover Ella has been kidnapped, leaving behind a page torn from her grandmother's book and a note: Stay away from the Hazel Wood. But Alice has to save her mom, so she enters what she slowly begins to see is her grandmother's book of stories-come-to-life—and they suddenly look a lot more like horror than fantasy. This seriously twisted and sometimes bloody fairy tale reminds me of The Thirteenth Tale, with a dash of The Matrix. More info →
I loved this emotionally resonant debut about class, culture, regret, and the road not taken; it deserves more attention than it's gotten. After twenty years abroad, the Zhens return to their native China to take up residence among Shanghai’s nouveau riche. But deep unease lies behind the façade of their pampered lifestyle, and the reappearance of a long-lost brother stirs up a host of long-buried emotions, and forces the family to revisit complicated (and secret) past choices. The backdrop of contemporary Shanghai and a national festival highlights how the family embodies China's current conflicts and complexities: rich vs poor, urban vs rural, old vs new values (and I loved talking with Cindy Brandt about the realities of these divides in episode 140 of What Should I Read Next). More info →
In her entertaining essay collection, Philpott shares real, relatable stories that feel highly personal yet manage to encompass the universal experience of managing a life that, at times, grows unwieldy. The situations Philpott writes of will be familiar to many readers; after all, we’ve lived them ourselves. But she articulates her own experience in a way that makes you see it again, for the first time—and for that, I am grateful. Funny and poignant, smart and witty, and highly recommended for fans of Kelly Corrigan, Glennon Doyle, and Beth Ann Fennelly. I also loved chatting with Mary Laura Philpott about her favorite memoirs in WSIRN Episode 195: Wanted: book enthusiast at large, plus she gives an inside look at what it's like to work at Parnassus Books in Nashville. More info →
In the debut novel from Pop Culture Happy Hour host Holmes, a grieving widow and a disgraced Major League pitcher start over after each suffers their own kind of tragedy. Evvie’s husband dies in a car accident, but the truth surrounding his death is painful for reasons her small town community can never know. Dean’s career took a nosedive when he inexplicably developed “the yips”—he can’t pitch for reasons that might be all in his head, but nobody can figure it out. Evvie needs the income a boarder would bring, and Dean needs a refuge, so a mutual friend connects the two. Out of mutual kindness and witty banter, a friendship develops, and then something more … but starting over as a grown-up is complicated. A warm, witty, and satisfying summer read. More info →
See spins a tale of female friendship spanning eighty years, set against the backdrop of history in an incredible setting—the very real South Korean island of Jeju. On Jeju, women are the breadwinners, making their families’ livings by free-diving into the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean, harvesting seafood to sell, while the husbands stay home with the children. This tradition has gone on for thousands of years, and we see it lived out in the lives of Young-sook Mi-ja. The two girls become fast friends as seven-year-olds in 1938, but their respective marriages take them down different paths, and bring unforeseen tensions into their relationship. (The real historical events woven into the pages make for heartrending reading.) A second storyline, set in 2008, gives readers hints of what may have caused the rift between the girls, but it’s only in the final pages that all is revealed. A fascinating, rewarding story of strong women, little-known history, and human resilience. More info →
This book was such a fun surprise for me: I devoured this on audio. In the ten years she's known her, Lucy has never felt her mother-in-law Diana approved of her—an especial disappointment because she'd hoped Diana would finally be the mother she'd never had. Yet she’s distraught when the police show up to announce that Diana has died by apparent suicide—and even more so when they reveal that the evidence points to possible murder. As we get to know the family members, we discover each of them had a motive to harm Diana, and stood to benefit from her death. A wholly satisfying domestic mystery that kept me guessing till the end. More info →
I've been keeping my eye out for more from Gabel after thoroughly enjoying this debut. It's the 1990s, and four promising musicians decide to forego the usual soloist path and bind their professional (and personal) lives to form a string quartet. Jana is driven, Henry a prodigy, Daniel a success through dogged determination, and Brit a bit of a wild card. With the feel of a dysfunctional family novel, the characters aren't always likable but always ring true, and Gabel nails a wide range of human emotions—joy and pain, envy and fear, frustration and near-despair—as she portrays the group's turbulent eighteen years together. An utterly believable and emotionally compelling submersion into the competitive world of classical music. More info →
Psychotherapist Gottlieb gets to the heart of what matters in life: how do we grow, how do we change, how do we connect with each other—and how can we do it all more effectively? I love the structure of this book. First, Gottlieb introduces us to four of her patients, taking us inside the room to show us what happens in their sessions. But Gottlieb is also in therapy herself, thanks to a sudden breakup, and through her eyes, we get the patient's perspective as well. I so enjoyed getting to know the people in these pages, session by session, and rooted hard for them as they worked through the process. Part memoir, part educational glimpse into the profession: if you like to learn something from the books you read, and you enjoy a good story, well-told, add this to your list. More info →
The first in a series of Canadian procedurals centers the investigative team of detective Esa Khattak and his assistant Rachel Getty, who are often called upon to investigate crimes in the Muslim community of Toronto, navigating cultural and political divides to do so. I beg you, do NOT read the spoiler-laden reviews of this book, or even the jacket copy! I'll just say that the pair is called in to investigate the seemingly accidental death of a wealthy local man, and it slowly becomes apparent that this crime's roots go deeper than the detectives could have dreamed. This series is now five books (plus one short story) strong; I've read two so far and am looking forward to catching up. (If I say this is another good series to read when you've run out of Louise Penny novels, will you add it to your TBR immediately?) More info →
This WWII novel tells the story of Nancy Wake, the unsung French Resistance leader who was #1 on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list by the end of the war. The real Nancy was larger than life; bold, bawdy, and brazen—a woman who, as the only female among thousands of French men, was not only respected as an equal, but revered as a leader. The story is set during WWII, yes—a setting the author says she came to kicking and screaming, because there are a lot these days—but at its heart this is a story of friendship, and of love. Nancy leaps off the page with her Victory Red lipstick, snappy one-liners, and incredible bravery. The audiobook version is excellent: Barrie Kreinik's narration makes Nancy leap off the page, and Peter Ganim joins to narrate scenes told from husband Henri's point of view. More info →
The much-anticipated follow-up to Bennett's smashing debut The Mothers was totally worth the wait. Identical twins Desiree and Stella grew up in a town so small it doesn't appear on maps. They're closer than close, so Desiree is shocked when Stella vanishes one night after deciding to sacrifice her past—and her relationship with her family—in order to marry a white man, who doesn't know she's black. Desiree never expects to see her sister again. The twins grow up, make lives for themselves, and raise daughters—and it's those daughters who bring the sisters together again. It's a reunion Stella both longs for and fears, because she can't reveal the truth without admitting her whole life is a lie. Bennett expertly weaves themes of family, race, identity, and belonging into one juicy, unputdownable novel spanning five turbulent decades. More info →
Bridget planned for the perfect summer ... but then it all went wrong. First her boyfriend breaks up with her, over email (!). Then her two twenty-something children, each dealing with their own crisis, invade her empty nest. And then the classical trio that is her livelihood comes unglued, and her aging father sets his own nearby house on fire. In the course of one short summer everything that can go wrong, does go wrong—and to fix it requires Bridget to fess up to secrets she’s buried for more than twenty years. It’s not the summer Bridget planned for, but it delivers the second chances she needs—and it’s hilarious, with laugh-out-loud dialogue and a pitch-perfect ending. More info →
The Poet X author Acevedo dedicates her new novel in verse to the memory of the lives lost on American Airlines flight 587, the passenger flight that crashed en route to Santo Domingo from JFK on November 12, 2001. Taking this historical event as her leaping off point, Acevedo tells the story of two teenage girls—one in New York, one in Santo Domingo—who are shocked to discover they are sisters in the aftermath of the crash, when the truth of their father’s double life was unceremoniously revealed. The girls tentatively bond as they explore the love—and pain—they share. A lyrical, heartfelt exploration of what it means to discover secrets, to find family, and to discover your own hidden resources in the face of great loss, and surprising joy. Heads up: like all of Acevedo's novels, this one is superb on audio, as read by the author herself and Melania-Luisa Marte. More info →
I'm so glad many of you took a chance on this not-quite-traditional summer reading selection. I wouldn't have "gotten" this at 22 but adored it in my 30s. Time, memory, marriage—things many of us relate to, or can at least imagine—but Shapiro writes about them with such freshness the concepts seem brand new. My favorite line of exploration: the nature of mistakes, near-misses, and time: "The stumbles and falls; the lapses in judgment; the near misses; the could-haves. I’ve become convinced that our lives are shaped less by the mistakes we make than when we make them." If I were to judge my books by how many passages require book darts, this one wins everything. More info →
What are your favorite backlist books from past Summer Reading Guides? I can’t wait to see your summer reading favorites in the comments.