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Every year, the BookPage editors must once again ask the question: What, exactly, does “summer reading” even mean? Here are our definitions, in literary form.

The Season

I devour lighthearted, escapist romances and mysteries during the summer. Basically, if it can hold my attention despite all the distractions of a packed pool or a sunny park, it’s going in my tote bag. However, to keep my brain from snapping in half when I inevitably turn to more challenging books in the fall, I also make sure to reach for a few weightier yet still seasonably appropriate titles. Kristen Richardson’s history of the debutante is my gold standard. Impeccably researched but unabashedly glam and gossipy, The Season describes gorgeous gowns and high society queen bees with the same inquisitive rigor it applies to unpacking the intersections of race and class. In its various permutations, the debutante tradition encapsulates cultural ideas about femininity and its value; depending on the context, it can be regressive or liberating, stifling or affirming. (The chapter on African American debutante balls alone is worth the price of admission.) Make this your afternoon poolside read, and you’ll be the most interesting person at dinner later that night.

—Savanna, Associate Editor

Deacon King Kong

When my yard is alive with bugs and birds, when they’re screaming and singing and zipping through the trees, I want a book that crackles with that kind of electricity, like Deacon King Kong. Set in 1969 Brooklyn, James McBride’s seventh novel opens in the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing projects where, in broad daylight, a 71-year-old alcoholic church deacon known as Sportcoat shoots the ear off a 19-year-old drug dealer. That seemingly gritty opening leads into an affectionate village novel that follows a multitude of characters, including congregants of the Five Ends Baptist Church, a lovelorn police officer and an Italian mobster known as the Elephant. As readers learn the truth about Sportcoat’s actions, they also follow foibles and treasure hunts and slapstick party scenes. No one’s the “bad guy,” not even the mob bosses or dirty cops. The dialogue is some of the best you’ll ever read, and many scenes are gut-bustingly funny. Summer is a joy, and so is this book.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

Group

I am not a great lover of summertime. The heat, the dirt, the bugs—all of it sends me indoors with a glass of lemonade. This makes a book like Group by Christie Tate my perfect summer read. I tore through this book on vacation last year, using every moment alone in the empty, air-conditioned house to fly through a few more chapters while everyone else was outside. Tate’s memoir of the years she spent in an unconventional group therapy setting ranges from salacious to vulnerable to truly touching. All she has to do, her new therapist tells her, is show up to these group sessions and be honest—about everything. Sexuality, food, relationships, family, death—everything. As Tate slowly opens up to her fellow group members, she builds real friendships for the first time and learns to defuse the shame and low self-worth that had kept her from making authentic connections during her first 26 years. Perfect for a weekend trip or plane ride, this book’s got heart, hope and enough juicy confessions to keep you turning the pages at lightning speed.

—Christy, Associate Editor

All That She Carried

Whether I’m traveling across the world on a plane or installed under an umbrella on the beach, summer adventures inspire me to decenter screens and their attendant distractions. This means I have the capacity to focus on books that reward a reader’s careful attention, like Tiya Miles’ National Book Award-winning All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. Miles, a historian and MacArthur Foundation fellowship recipient, uses a single artifact—a simple cotton sack given to a 9-year-old child named Ashley by her mother when Ashley was sold to a different plantation—to offer insight into the often undocumented lives of Black women. As she traces the journey of Ashley’s sack from its origins in 1850s South Carolina through the Great Migration and to its eventual discovery at a Nashville flea market, Miles honors the strength of family ties and finds creative ways to fill gaps in the historical record. This book will make you both think and feel, providing a reading experience to remember.

—Trisha, Publisher

The Diviners

There is nothing I want more in the summer than a big honking series. (Especially if it’s complete. No cliffhanger endings for me!) I want to dive into a fictional world for as long as possible before coming up for air, and Libba Bray’s quartet of novels about supernaturally gifted teens solving mysteries in New York City during the Roaring ’20s fits the bill to a T. The series opener is replete with positutely delicious period vernacular and horrors both imagined (a murderous ghost resurrecting himself with body parts carved from his victims) and all too real (“color lines” at jazz clubs where Black Americans perform on stage but aren’t allowed to enter as customers). The Diviners is exactly the sort of tale I love to stay up into the wee hours of hot summer nights reading—which is good, because in Bray's talented hands, some scenes are so terrifying that I wouldn't be able to turn off the lights anyway.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Any book can be a beach read if you put your mind to it.

Fans of Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel, Election (the inspiration for the beloved film starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick), will be delighted that protagonist Tracy Flick gets another star turn. In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, the sharp-elbowed high schooler with visions of becoming the first female president is now a 40-ish, world-weary (albeit still driven) assistant principal of Green Meadow High School in suburban New Jersey, where she hopes to ascend to the top job after the principal announces his retirement. The darkly comic story that ensues is further proof of Perrotta’s mastery of the subtle complexities of American suburban life.

Tracy’s quest for what she believes is a well-deserved promotion plays out against the search for the first inductees into the high school’s Hall of Fame. The institution is the brainchild of Kyle Dorfman, an alumnus and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who’s returned to his hometown and now serves as president of the school board. Kyle believes the plan to honor some of the high school’s distinguished graduates will help dispel the “pall of mediocrity and depression hanging over the place.”

As the principal succession search plods on, fueling Tracy’s anxiety at the prospect that she’ll be passed over for a less-qualified candidate, the Hall of Fame committee dutifully sifts through the list of nominees. Perhaps the most obvious choice is Vito Falcone—a former football star who played briefly in the NFL—but the memory of his achievements on the field has been darkened by his alcoholism and the wreckage of three failed marriages. Several of the other candidates, among them a local car dealer and an obscure novelist, possess even more dubious backstories.

Perrotta expertly plumbs the depths of his characters’ lives and loves from multiple points of view, sympathetically assessing their achievements and regrets at falling short of their own expectations and those of the people around them. At the center of the story, of course, is Tracy, whose dream of a life at the pinnacle of American politics vanished long ago in the face of familial duty.

With a light touch, Perrotta raises thoughtful questions about the true measure of success and how we judge what counts as a meaningful life. By the time the Hall of Fame induction ceremony arrives, he has skillfully laid the foundation for the shocking climax of this fast-moving novel. Just as in real life, there are winners and losers, but as he reminds us in this deceptively simple but memorable story, assigning them to their respective categories may not be as easy as it might appear.

With a light touch, Tom Perrotta raises thoughtful questions about the true measure of success in Tracy Flick Can't Win, his memorable return to the heroine of Election.

The Mutual Friend is a stylized, laugh-out-loud funny social satire with devastating aim.

Like his long-running sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” Carter Bays’ debut novel is a New York City-set ensemble comedy with plenty to say about the discontents of modern life and the difficulty of connection, with one character who acts as a pivot around which the story hinges.

Alice Quick, originally named Truth, was one of twin baby girls adopted by two different families in the Midwest shortly after birth. A musical prodigy turned chronic underachiever, Alice feels rudderless and lost. She wants to be a doctor—possibly, maybe—but lacks the energy to follow through. Even registering for the medical school entrance exam is overwhelming.

When Alice’s roommate gets engaged, things go from difficult to worse. Alice is suddenly in need of shelter, and desperation lands her in a basement apartment near Columbia University. Finding housing in a convenient neighborhood seems lucky, but Alice quickly gets caught up in the whirlwind that is her new roommate, the imposing and mercurial Roxy.

Roxy is a tour-de-force character who epitomizes the ephemeral nature of life in 2015 New York City. She has a complicated yet hilarious relationship with reality, and the push-pull of her conversations with Alice is priceless. But Roxy is just one of the wonderful and absurd creations within Bays’ debut.

Like The Bonfire of the Vanities for the era of reality TV and social media, The Mutual Friend is a conflagration of cringe, as Bays paints a slightly heightened and terrifying vision of life in our age of distraction. Similar to Patricia Lockwood’s 2021 novel, No One is Talking About This, Bays’ novel sometimes replicates the thought processes of a brain addled by the overstimulation of the internet and omnipresent media: run-on sentences, a litany of random bits of information hitting the reader from multiple sources and a narrative that bounces from one topic to another with abandon.

More than anything else though, the nearly 500-page novel explores people bumping into one another and deciding if they have what it takes to make it stick. And because the book is poised for laughs and broad humor, its painful, critical sections hit harder. For example, Roxy’s second date with a slightly older man, Bob, whom she met on a Tinder-like service called “Suitoronomy,” goes south when she discovers that he’s the focus of a “DO NOT date this guy” blog post. Exposed, charming, dimpled Bob hits back with misogynistic venom. His response is beyond cringe; it’s repulsive. Yet it’s hard to dismiss Bob as a mere internet creep, as the novel gives him an origin story, too, and his tendency to follow the newest, shiniest thing is reflected throughout the larger story in many ways.

The Mutual Friend dwells at the corner of restless and randomness, displacement and dissatisfaction. The narrative is full of stray thoughts and chance encounters, everything fleeting and devastating. All told, it’s riveting.

The Mutual Friend is a conflagration of cringe, as debut novelist Carter Bays paints a slightly heightened and terrifying vision of life in the age of distraction.

An old adage, adapted from the title of a Thomas Wolfe novel, insists that you can’t go home again. Linda Holmes’ deeply entertaining and heartfelt second novel, Flying Solo, counters with: Well, you can, but it will probably be messy and chaotic, and you’ll need some wine and a few friends.

Laurie Sassalyn’s beloved great aunt Dot has died. A journalist living in Seattle, Laurie has been tasked with going through Dot’s belongings and preparing her seaside house in Calcasset, Maine, for sale. Laurie travels to her hometown for the summer and sets to the task at hand with the help of her childhood best friend, June, and her ex-boyfriend Nick, now the town librarian.

As Laurie sorts through 90 years’ worth of photos, letters, books and memorabilia, she comes across a handcarved, beautifully painted duck tucked deep inside a chest. Intrigued, Laurie begins researching this mysterious duck and why Dot had hidden it so carefully. The more Laurie learns, the more she is convinced there is a secret attached to this simple wooden duck.

NPR pop culture reporter Linda Holmes’ first novel, Evvie Drake Starts Over, which was also set in Calcasset, is beloved by readers and critics alike. Flying Solo is another absolute winner. It’s hilarious and insightful, with vivid characters who act and speak in utterly human and believable ways.

Holmes describes Calcasset with such precision and love that it becomes an additional character. In particular, the local library features prominently in the story: “A small parking lot, a bike rack, and a book drop bin sat in front of the big stone building, more like a church than the kind of brutalist block big cities had, or the office-park splat of a structure that too many suburbs got stuck with in the 1970s. This building had been here since 1898 and was on the National Register of Historic Places. This was a proper library.”

Flying Solo has it all: a mystery, shady con artists, a fabulously funny and supportive friend group and even a steamy romance. In the end, though, it’s a deeply felt examination of the choices we make and the many ways we define family.

Linda Holmes’ second novel has it all: a mystery, shady con artists, a fabulously funny and supportive friend group and even a steamy romance.

One of the many important decisions we had to make in 2020 was who we would allow into our COVID-19 quarantine bubbles. As the first months of the pandemic rip the world apart in Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends, eight friends, strangers and rivals are thrown together in a house in rural New York. The falling-down second home, owned by novelist Sasha Senderovsky, becomes a site of bottomless drama as the crew shelters in place.

Shteyngart is terrific at building characters who feel fully fleshed out, and it’s a real feat to do so with eight primary players. Some of the characters face truly difficult pandemic-related problems: Sasha’s wife, Masha, is terrified of the virus infecting their bubble, and their daughter, Nat, struggles with home-schooling. Others have dragged personal problems to the country refuge: career upswings and downswings, unrequited love, unsatiated horniness and internet infamy.

The dark backdrop of the outside world—COVID deaths, job losses, George Floyd’s murder—is a distant concern to these self-absorbed characters, but the reality of the times casts a pall over the superfluous country house exploits, from the famous actor’s wandering eye to the romantic foibles of a successful app creator.

While most of the plot takes place at the country home, the narrative’s tentacles reach far back in history and all around the globe. Several characters are first-generation immigrants, and they illustrate the mix of hardiness and anxiety that comes with uncertainty on a societal level. These are the moments when it feels like Shteyngart has something to say about resilience and strength.

Stalwart fans of Shteyngart’s brand of satire won’t find these characters’ narcissism to be too grating, but given the gravity of the past year and a half, not all readers will have the patience for their flimflammery.

A country home becomes a site of bottomless drama for eight characters during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Set in a small seaside village in Britain, Julietta Henderson’s debut novel, The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman, is a tender tale of comedy, hope and courage, told from the perspective of 12-year-old Norman and his loving single mum, Sadie.

Norman’s quiet, lonely life gets a surge of excitement when a new student named Jax joins his class. Jax is loud, funny and a perpetual troublemaker—the yang to Norman’s yin. Their instant friendship is strengthened by their shared love for stand-up comedy. The two dream of performing as a comedic duo at Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe when they turn 15.

But when Jax dies, a heartbroken Norman decides to revise the plan. Despite the fact that Jax was the one with the comedic timing, Norman will enter the comedy festival in four weeks’ time to honor his friend’s memory. He also wants to find out who his father is—something that Sadie cannot answer.

Sadie is caught off-guard by Norman’s announcements, but seeing him get excited about something, anything, makes it impossible for her to refuse to go along with his plan. Filled with fear and trepidation, she agrees to a road trip to Edinburgh, planned by her elderly but sharp friend Leonard. Reminiscent of the movie Little Miss Sunshine, the trio set out on an adventure with plenty of twists and turns along the way.

Henderson’s cheekiness and humor shine as mother and son share their innermost fears and discuss how to carry on amid loss and grief. A lineup of great supporting characters keep things memorable and often laugh-out-loud funny. At its core, the novel is a celebration of friendships, new and old, that shape life in the best possible way. This is a happy tear-jerker for sure.

Julietta Henderson’s debut novel is a celebration of friendships, new and old, that shape life in the best possible way—a happy tear-jerker for sure.

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