Summer reading
STARRED REVIEW

June 2022

Your 2022 BookPage summer reading guide

Maybe your perfect summer read is pure escapism, heady fun, nonstop thrills or great big heaps of feelings. Whatever your summer vibe, we’ve got a book for you.

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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.

Cat Sebastian returns to the Georgian-era setting of 2021’s The Queer Principles of Kit Webb with The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes, a charming story about two chaotic bisexuals who cross each other’s paths while pursuing their criminal endeavors.

It’s hard to be sanctimonious when you have to rely on the man blackmailing you. That’s exactly the situation Marian Hayes, the Duchess of Clare, finds herself in after shooting her husband. The only person she can think to turn to for a quick exit strategy is Rob Brooks, the cheerful highwayman and con artist who’s blackmailing her. If she could reach her own rear end, she’d kick it. And thus starts another highly enjoyable romance from Sebastian.

Sebastian’s prose is playful, and she sets a fast, jaunty pace as Marian and Rob ramble around the countryside, trying to figure out their next moves. She has a knack for making her characters relatable to modern audiences while still ensuring that they feel like people who live in 1751 and thus have to grapple with a rigid class system. Rob is an impulsive, reckless career criminal with an enviable resume of robbery, counterfeiting and horse theft. His secret is that he’s recently become the heir to a dukedom that he doesn’t want, seeing as he is firmly opposed to the aristocracy on a philosophical level. Meanwhile, the quick-witted and courageous Marian married a duke in order to ensure her family would be taken care of, but she soon learned that the price of the title was too high to pay. Unlike many historical romances, wealth never gets the characters of The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes anywhere: It never makes them happy, and it never truly changes the circumstances of their lives.

The couple’s mutual (and initially grudging, on Marian’s part) fondness morphs into a sweet romance moored by their shared practicality and humor, and by the quiet wounds of loneliness that echo in each of their hearts. Rob loves Marian almost from the beginning, and even though she struggles to open her heart in return, she always treats his love as the precious treasure that it is.

If you’re not already a fan of historical romance, you will be when you’re done reading this one.

If you're not already a fan of historical romance, you will be when you're done reading The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes.

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.

If you enjoy hiking up and down remote mountains while laden with excessive outdoor gear, then The Hiking Book From Hell is probably not the travelogue you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you enjoy strolling through your city, hanging out in pubs or chatting with strangers, then author Are Kalvø is your man. Kalvø, one of Norway’s most popular satirists, is a cheerful urbanite with little to no interest in nature. In his mid-40s, however, he realized that many of his friends were joining the swelling ranks of people who subject themselves to deprivation and possibly even death in pursuit of an “authentic” experience with nature. This insight brought Kalvø face to face with life’s most profound question: Is it them, or is it me?

Kalvø also had serious questions about Norwegians’ mania for nature. As a committed extrovert, he found their quest for isolation and silence disturbing. Also, nature worship can be exclusionary; the high cost of equipment and clothing ensures that nature is reserved for the well-off, while proposals to make the outdoors more accessible to disabled people are vigorously opposed. And if people went into nature to lose themselves in a transcendent experience, then why were there so many nature selfies on Instagram?

Accompanied by his wife, the “Head of Documentation,” Kalvø went on two nature treks to see what all the fuss was about—but he never really found out. Climbing steep, fog-bound mountains in the rain is as much fun as you would expect. Skiing for miles can be pretty boring. And, as he discovered, there’s something about being one with nature that changes ordinary people into boastful, unbearably smug liars who tell you with a straight face that a hike is “lovely” when they really mean “likely to kill you.”

But Kalvø tells his story with such deft humor and affectionate irony, wonderfully conveyed by Lucy Moffatt’s translation, that all you can do is laugh at his misadventures—and be grateful that you’re reading The Hiking Book From Hell in the comfort of your home.

Are Kalvø, an urbanite with no interest in nature, tells of venturing into the outdoors with such deft humor that all you can do is laugh at his misadventures.

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.

When do pleasures become guilty, transforming from sources of pure fun into fodder for defensiveness? And why is it so difficult for so many adults, especially women, to enjoy their interests regardless of what other people think?

Australian science writer Tabitha Carvan found herself asking these questions when, much to her surprise, she suddenly became a devoted fan of English actor Benedict Cumberbatch at age 36. As an overwhelmed and exhausted mother of two young children, she was “stuck in an interminable holding pattern, circling the airport and dumping fuel. . . . I was praying for something to hit me, just to break up the monotony.”

Author Tabitha Carvan extols the importance of completely pointless fun.

Turns out, watching Cumberbatch in the BBC series “Sherlock” was just the thing. But the intensity of her interest confounded Carvan, not least of all because of its similarity to her teenage obsessions with U2 and INXS. She thought she’d left those sorts of fanatic feelings behind, she explains in her clever and charming debut, This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch: The Joy of Loving Something—Anything—Like Your Life Depends On It. And she had no idea why they were surging back in response to this man, at this time.

She dove into Cumberbatch’s repertoire in search of answers, following a “viewing schedule [that] was being determined by Benedict Cumberbatch’s IMDb page like it was the actual TV guide.” Along the way, Carvan found that she felt the need to hide her infatuation, even as it was reviving her sense of self. So she investigated her new dedication to fandom: She read books on identity and fantasy, pondered friends’ comparatively dull obsessions (“that bird was very boring and Benedict Cumberbatch is very interesting”), and interviewed numerous fellow Cumberbatch fans.

Carvan’s candid revelations about the ways in which passion, bias, identity and motherhood intersect are hard-won and insightful, not to mention humorous. As she shares them in This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch, she makes an excellent case for taking time to figure out what you like and embracing the delight it brings—no shame allowed. Plus, a witty, well-researched appendix offers copious information for the Cumber-curious; “Top ten Benedict Cumberbatch characters, hairwise, according to me” is particularly enlightening.

In her funny, thought-provoking memoir, Tabitha Carvan makes an excellent case for figuring out what you like and embracing the delight it brings—no shame allowed.

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