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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.

Paraic O’Donnell’s strange, tense and utterly beautiful novel The Maker of Swans will haunt you. It dances along the line between literary fiction and magical fantasy, but you’ll hardly notice. You’ll be too busy sinking deeper into its inescapable grasp.

On an estate in the English countryside live two men and a girl. One man is Eustace the butler, the guardian of the house and its daily rhythms. The other man is Mr. Crowe, a preternaturally gifted, magnanimous artist who is long past his glory days of creating wonder and beauty for aristocrats across the world. The girl is Clara, Mr. Crowe’s ward. Mute, inquisitive and able to recall any passage from any book in the library, Clara knows the house and the grounds better than anyone. This odd trio is on track to live out their lives uneventfully until one fateful night when a gunshot breaks the peace of the house: Mr. Crowe has killed a man in the driveway. Eustice, Mr. Crowe and Clara each rush to save what is important to them before the fallout from this act changes their lives forever.

To give any more details would ruin the particular spell of this book. Pasts and presents intermingle, bringing to the surface each character’s unique pain. Motivations are murky at best. Visions of swans on a lake are a surreal promise of what’s to come. This book is far more expansive than its 368 pages might suggest, and all credit goes to O’Donnell for cramming it full with as many ideas as he did. Alongside the magical elements are questions on the nature of the universe, on art and beauty, on instinct and knowledge. O’Donnell’s complex and agile prose jumps between dreamlike mysticism and terse, suspenseful action almost without warning. He knows when to expand language and when to contract it, when to throw in the kitchen sink and when to hold back.

Two key elements hold everything together. The first is how O’Donnell drives the story forward like a thriller, giving the more abstract elements a solid foundation. Even as things get stranger and stranger, the core plot is straightforward: A man was murdered, and people are coming to deliver the consequences. The relationships among the three inhabitants of the house provide the second grounding force, particularly the bond between Eustace and Clara. Their relationship is tender, reciprocal and, importantly in a book such as this, human and real in a sea of the strange and mystical.

Let The Maker of Swans invade you. Be challenged by it. Let it wash over you. If you like beautiful things, read this book.

Paraic O'Donnell's The Maker of Swans is an enthralling dance along the line between literary fiction and magical fantasy. If you like beautiful things, read this book.

In Ordinary Monsters, author J.M. Miro introduces readers to the Talents, a fragmented Victorian community of young people with supernatural gifts. This global adventure traverses 19th-century America, England, Scotland and Japan before eventually landing at the Cairndale Institute outside of Edinburgh, where the Talents are learning to control and hone their powers. These lessons become crucial once they hear that the drughr, a creature from the netherworld that absorbs other beings’ power, is on the loose—and headed right toward them.

The first in a planned trilogy, Ordinary Monsters plays off the well-loved and well-worn tropes of chosen ones and magical institutions for children, but Miro (the pen name of a literary novelist) freshens things up with a large, sweeping scope and a likable, diverse cast of characters. Charlie Ovid is a 16-year-old Black boy whose body heals itself no matter the severity of the wound. For Charlie, the Cairndale Institute provides an escape from the post-Civil War American South. Marlowe, an 8-year-old boy who glows blue, travels from the streets of London to a Midwestern sideshow troupe before ending up at Cairndale. These powerful children are unsurprisingly poignant, but their allies and guardians are the ones who really seize the reader’s emotions. Standouts include the duo who shepherd Charlie to Cairndale: Alice Quicke, a wily and resourceful detective, and Frank Coulton, her gruff partner (who’s secretly a total teddy bear). Another is Marlowe’s guardian, Brynt, a tattooed carnival wrestler whose stature is only dwarfed by her kindness.

As the children try to unravel the secrets of the Institute and the intentions of its head, Dr. Baghurst, the high stakes never falter, the body horror is deliciously and macabrely wrought, and the mysteries and surprises never stop coming. Miro intersperses crucial flashbacks to characters’ backstories during intense moments, creating a gleeful and maddening ride between the past and the present as each character’s arc is explored in full detail.

Miro cleverly adapts beloved fantasy tropes and swirls them into Ordinary Monsters, a book about life and death, magic and monstrosities, with plenty of mysteries for readers to solve.

J.M. Miro cleverly adapts the beloved fantasy tropes of gifted children and magical schools in Ordinary Monsters.

Maya Deane’s childhood obsession with the Iliad led her to the secret history of trans-feminine people in the ancient world and, ultimately, to reimagining Achilles in her debut, Wrath Goddess Sing.


I have not always been drawn to the Iliad—only since I was 6 years old. I asked my father to read me something that wasn’t for children, and he, a linguist with a classical bent, picked the Iliad, because I might as well start at the beginning.

I now know, of course, that the Iliad is not the beginning (neither is Gilgamesh), but I fell headlong into the epic, obsessed with Athena and thus obsessed with Achilles, whom Athena protects from herself—that is, from Achilles’ own rash behavior and emotional decisions—at every turn.

You’ll notice I call Homer’s Achilles “herself,” too. Achilles was the first question mark for me, the first sign that something about the story of the Iliad didn’t quite add up.

As I grew older, I learned the myth of Achilles on Skyros, also called Achilles among the maidens. The outlines of the story are simple: Thetis hides Achilles on Skyros, disguised as a girl; Odysseus and Diomedes go to find the warrior and instead find young women; they find the true Achilles by offering all the girls swords, and only the disguised boy wants one.

This story struck me as ridiculous. First, as I suspected at the time and have since confirmed, everybody likes swords. Second, who would actually fall for that ruse?

In spite of these questions, the myth would not leave my mind. But every version of it I encountered seemed wrong, from first-century poet Statius’ unfinished Achilleid onward. In Statius’ version, Achilles literally changes into a woman to “invade women’s spaces” and rape the Skyrian princess—a grotesquely transmisogynist version of the story.

Read our review of ‘Wrath Goddess Sing' by Maya Deane.

Despite being little-known to the general public, the story of Achilles among the maidens has been so popular in art that, for the last 2,000 years, the character has frequently been portrayed as a woman in paintings and sculptures. From mosaic floors in classical Greece to oil paintings from the Italian Renaissance to the statue gardens of Versailles, Achilles is a woman warrior, beautiful and armed to the teeth.

Haunted by the myths, I learned more and more of the deep and scattered history of trans women, a palimpsest erased and whitewashed over and over again by colonizers from the conquistadors to the Victorians. Trans-feminine people existed in every society and culture and time, from the lamentation singers of Inanna in ancient Sumer to the priestesses of Athirat in Canaan to the gallae of Kybele and the castrated worshippers of Diana of Ephesus to the mystery cults of Aphrodite Ourania and the enarees of the ancient Scythian steppe. Everywhere, women like me had been buried under layers of history. Victorian museums literally kept collections of nude statues of trans women hidden from sight, loath to destroy antiquities but unwilling to reveal us to the world.

All of this distilled into a single question: What if Achilles were like me?

And when I asked that question, a long-buried possibility was at last revealed. If you want to read that history, you’ll find it in Wrath Goddess Sing.

Photo of Maya Deane by nlcrosta.

Achilles as a woman is just the tip of the iceberg. Author Maya Deane reveals the secret history of trans women in the ancient world.

In the alternate modern-day U.K. setting of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, a recent civil war among witches and warlocks has left their community in shambles. The titular congregation of witches has protected and supported the monarchy through wartime and peace alike, but their coven is now a mere shadow of its former glory. Many of its members were killed in the violence of the internecine war, while others have left in favor of either practicing in solitude or forming more inclusive covens than the stodgy and traditional HMRC.

Niamh, Helena, Leonie and Elle were bound by their girlhood oath to the HMRC and their friendships with one another. But those friendships, like the HMRC itself, are showing wear. While Helena, the new high priestess of the HMRC, has stayed within its stifling halls, the others have moved on. Niamh, still reeling from the death of her fiancé and the betrayal of her twin sister in the war, has retreated into her veterinary practice. Elle, who hails from an ancient line of powerful witches, has elected to live as a mundane housewife, while Leonie has risen as the queen of a new coven that welcomes witches from marginalized backgrounds into its ranks. Their bonds are further tested when a powerful young warlock threatens to destroy the HMRC for good.

British author Juno Dawson’s adult fiction debut is a femme-forward story of power, morality and fate that is not shy about its politics. While the political arguments in Her Majesty’s Royal Coven are couched in magical terms, they closely align with issues in our own world. Dawson explores the complexities of modern feminism with particular poignancy: The HMRC is stuck in its ways and takes a rigid view of womanhood and witchcraft, holding up a mirror to the failures of modern feminism. Despite its stated good intentions, the coven often discounts or even demonizes both trans witches and the traditional practices of non-white witches.

Beyond its politics, what especially makes Her Majesty’s Royal Coven shine is its impeccable voice. Dawson’s conversational, matter-of-fact tone calls to mind writers like Neil Gaiman and Diana Wynne Jones; it’s at times funny, at others heartbreaking, but always perfectly calibrated. Dawson makes you feel like she has laid all her cards on the table, but every so often she manages to pull a hidden ace from her sleeve that shocks you.

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is a thoughtful entry into the witch canon that intrigues and challenges as much as it delights.

Her Majesty's Royal Coven uses the setting of an alternate Britain where witchcraft is real to mount a delightful and thoughtful exploration of modern feminism.

With dashes of inspiration from One Thousand and One Nights, Chelsea Abdullah’s debut fantasy kicks off in a world of sand and magic. The Stardust Thief follows Loulie al-Nazari, aka the Night Merchant, a trader of illegal magic who is ordered by the sultan to find a powerful relic—a lamp that will heal the land but destroy all jinn in the process. With the help of her jinn bodyguard, Qadir; the sultan’s son, Prince Mazen; and Aisha bint Louas, a relentless jinn hunter, Loulie must cross through treacherous territory and endure brutal trials to recover the lamp.

Rather than overwhelming the reader with multiple plotlines and a sprawling cast of characters, The Stardust Thief focuses on its central trio and the locales they visit. The various settings never feel empty or underpainted, especially in the sections told from Prince Mazen’s perspective: Forced to live cooped up in the palace for most of his life, his eager delight at finally experiencing the broader world is infectious. As the party draws closer to the lamp, Abdullah slowly unveils new truths about this world, resulting in a narrative that grows richer as it intensifies in pace. With each revelation, from the nature of relics to the existence of ifrit (hyperpowerful jinn), Abdullah propels the reader forward, heightening anticipation for what the next few pages will bring.

Loulie, Aisha and Mazen are drawn in exacting detail, with all their strengths, faults and feelings on full display, and The Stardust Thief is full of captivating intrapersonal conflict. Abdullah does a fine job creating realistic protagonists with clear differences and opposing philosophies: Loulie despises the task she has been given, Aisha despises the work Loulie does and Mazen just wants everyone to stop fighting.

Abdullah has put together a strong start to a series, setting up characters readers can root for even when those characters are opposed to one another, building a world that promises new twists every few pages, and crafting an ending that clearly leads into the next two books in the series. With its healthy balance of intrigue, character growth and action, The Stardust Thief is an enjoyable read that slowly enchants its readers.

Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, The Stardust Thief will enchant fantasy readers with its captivating balance of intrigue, action and character growth.

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