Summer Reading Guide favorites

Prodigal Summer Barbara Kingsolver
In this evocative follow-up to the masterful The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver returns to her native southern Appalachia. She follows three stories of human love as they unfold 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: this novel oozes sensuality.
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A much-anticipated debut from former cellist Gabel. 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.
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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. The author is a poetry professor at Yale, which is obvious in the story's richness and language. Her source material is fantastic: 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—that’s his painting on the cover of the book—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. Published April 15 2015.
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From the publisher: "Detective Esa Khattak is in the midst of his evening prayers when he receives a phone call asking that he and his partner Detective Rachel Getty look into the death of a local man who has fallen off a cliff. At first Christopher Drayton's death - which looks like an accident - doesn't seem to warrant a police investigation, especially not from Khattak and Rachel's team, which handles minority-sensitive cases. But it soon comes to light that Drayton might have been living under an assumed name, and he may not have been the upstanding Canadian citizen he appeared to be. In fact, he may have been a Bosnian war criminal with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. And if that's true, any number of people could have had reason to help him to his death. As Rachel and Khattak dig deeper into the life and death of Christopher Drayton, every question seems to lead only to more questions, and there are no easy answers."
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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. Riveting.
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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.
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I loved this so much I included it in the 2018 Summer Reading Guide. 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.
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Finally, a follow-up to Bennett’s smashing debut The Mothers—and it’s 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.
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An emotionally resonant debut about class, culture, regret, and the road not taken. 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. This book deserves more attention than it’s received. For fans of Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us and Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women.
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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.
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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’s unable to pitch for reasons that might be all in his head, but nobody can figure it out. Because Evvie needs the income a boarder would bring, and Dean needs a refuge, 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.
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In her entertaining new 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.
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This gorgeous novel can almost be categorized as literary fiction, which too many readers dismiss as inaccessible. Don't make that mistake. This Gatsby-esque novel pulls several shocking plot twists, and I definitely didn’t see that ending coming.
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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. The story is told alternately from Lucy and Diana’s points of view, so we get to understand what’s going on in their minds, and how badly they misunderstand each other through the years. But is it badly enough to lead to murder? A wholly satisfying domestic mystery, perfect for Liane Moriarty fans, that kept me guessing till the end. I devoured this on audio.
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Fashion, romance, and ... espionage. If you loved Casablanca, try this novel set during the Spanish civil war. 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. Translated from the Spanish, and the dialogue is a little bumpy in places, but the story is worth it. Is it perfect? No way. But engrossing? Definitely.
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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.
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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. What's so hard about that? But she soon discovers that the Times food critic is no ordinary diner: her headshot adorns the wall of every kitchen in the city so the staff can spot her—and wow her. Not you. 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. Her mission: to experience the city's great restaurants as just another diner. A fascinating read for any foodie, or student of human nature.
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Part memoir, part educational glimpse into the profession of psychotherapy, completely absorbing. Making use of an unusual two-pronged approach, psychotherapist Gottlieb shows us how therapy really works. She introduces us to four of her patients, taking us inside the room to show what happens in their sessions. Thanks to a sudden breakup, Gottlieb is in therapy herself, and through her eyes we get the patient's perspective as well. I so enjoyed getting to know her patients, session by session, and rooted hard for them as they worked through the process. A book not just about therapy but about how we grow, change, and connect with each other—and how we can do it all more effectively. For fans of Christie Tate’s Group and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.
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Easily one of the best books I've read this year, and I don't expect that to change. 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. Publication date: April 11.
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