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Following a breakup with his fiancée, “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent Conor Knighton sought distraction in travel. He spent a year touring the nation’s 63 national parks, and in Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park, he provides a funny, fascinating account of his trip. Knighton, who started his trek at Acadia National Park in Maine, shares hilarious anecdotes from the road and provides insights into the history of the park system. Reading groups will enjoy digging into themes of nature, conservation and the allure of travel.

In The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America, Elizabeth Letts chronicles the extraordinary travels of Annie Wilkins. In 1954, Wilkins learned that she had only a few years to live. Determined to see the Pacific Ocean, a lifelong dream of hers, the 63-year-old set out on her horse, Tarzan, riding from Maine to California and attracting national attention along the way. Letts brings Wilkins’ adventures to vivid life in this unforgettable book.

Mark Adams’ Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier is a spirited tribute to one of America’s most idiosyncratic states. Inspired by Edward H. Harriman’s famous 1899 exploration of the Alaskan coastline, Adams (Turn Right at Machu Picchu) traveled the same route as Harriman and his crew. He documents the ways in which Alaska has changed in the intervening years and crosses paths with an array of colorful characters, providing astute observations about environmentalism, Alaskan history and the oil industry in the process.

Kate Harris was a Rhodes scholar studying at Oxford and MIT when she set out to travel the Silk Road by bike, an excursion she recounts in Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. Harris, who had long dreamed of exploration, was accompanied by her best friend, Mel. Together, they cycled their way into Turkey, India, Nepal and China, traveling for nearly a year. Harris mixes history, geography, travel writing and personal reflection to create a richly detailed narrative that’s a testament to the transformative power of travel.

These true stories of national park-hopping and continent-traversing will inspire reading groups.

★ Rock of Ages

Junior Bender, burglar by profession but crime solver by avocation, doesn’t get much of a chance to pursue his ostensible career in Timothy Hallinan’s wildly entertaining Los Angeles-set caper Rock of Ages. Junior’s sleuthing skills are requested by nonagenarian gangster Irwin Dressler, which in Junior’s world is akin to being summoned by God. Dressler has invested in a rock ’n’ roll revival tour, but now none of his co-investors, who are also criminals of note, are returning his calls. Sensing that he is about to get stiffed, Dressler hires Junior to ascertain whether his worries have merit and, if so, to stymie the efforts of his potentially larcenous partners. No salary is mentioned for the gig; it is a simple exchange of favors, with Dressler’s favor to Junior being Junior’s continued existence. Hallinan worked in the music industry for years before becoming an author, and his insider familiarity with the LA music scene shines through in Rock of Ages. Those of us who remember classic rock when it was just “rock” will be amused to recognize the real-life stars Hallinan’s fictional doppelgängers represent. As a special added attraction, Junior’s smart and sharp-tongued daughter, Rina, plays a more central role than previously in the series, and she is seemingly poised to follow in her dad’s furtive footsteps.

★ Last Call at the Nightingale

At first blush, Vivian Kelly, the protagonist of Katharine Schellman’s Prohibition-era mystery, Last Call at the Nightingale, displays little in the way of sleuthing credentials. By day, Vivian is a seamstress in what we would now consider a sweatshop, and by night she is a regular at the Nightingale, a Manhattan speakeasy of some note among Jazz Age cognoscenti. She dances, she flirts without gender bias, she drinks, and for a while each evening, she forgets about her daytime drudgery. But when Vivian stumbles upon a dead body in the alley behind the club, the speakeasy’s hitherto bon vivant ambiance begins to melt away, revealing something altogether more sinister. Vivian is hauled off to jail in a police raid that happens soon after she discovers the body, and Nightingale boss Honor Huxley puts up her bond. In return for this kindness, Vivian agrees to have a quiet look into the murder of the man in the alley. She discovers early on that she possesses quite a knack for investigating, though she is often oblivious to the dangerous ripples she’s causing. The well-developed supporting cast is diverse in race, gender and sexuality, and the suspense will keep readers guessing until the end.

★ Wild Prey

Wild Prey, the second book in Brian Klingborg’s series featuring Chinese police inspector Lu Fei, takes him from his home in the northeastern corner of China to the steamy wilds of Myanmar. The story starts with Tan Meirong, a doggedly persistent teenage girl who insists that her sister, Meixiang, has gone missing. Meixiang worked at a gangster-owned restaurant that provides rare foods for wealthy clients to gorge on, ostensibly for medicinal purposes. (People in China have long consumed parts of bears, rhinoceroses, tigers and more, often for use as aphrodisiacs.) Lu launches an investigation and soon comes around to his supplicant’s way of thinking: Something is clearly amiss. However, Lu excels at incurring the wrath of his superiors, and this time is no exception. He gets pulled off the case, then suspended. Soon afterward, he is quietly approached by a Beijing bureaucrat who asks him to spearhead an undercover operation targeting a wild-game preserve in Myanmar. The bureaucrat believes the preserve is central to the illegal exotic animal trade into China, so perhaps this investigation will help Lu find Meixiang as well. Klingborg nails the atmosphere of Myanmar—the longyi, the flip-flops, the works. Lu is well drawn, world-weary but not beaten, and he has markedly upped his game in this second adventure.

★ Razzmatazz

Christopher Moore’s latest novel, Razzmatazz, is the wild card of this group: It’s a mystery, to be sure, but one with snippets of folklore, science fiction and the supernatural, all blended with the author’s legendary irreverent humor. For example, very few noir novels have ever begun with a tongue-in-cheek minihistory of China’s Qing dynasty. (“The sky is black with the smoke of burning villages, and it is widely agreed throughout China that the soup of the day is Cream of Sadness.”) Also, to my recollection, zero noir novels have ever featured a dragon that wasn’t just a tattoo. As this sequel to 2018’s Noir opens in 1947 San Francisco, bartender and “fixer” Sammy Tiffin has been tasked with a couple of jobs: 1) tracking down the killer of Natalie Melanoff, aka Butch, a bouncer at a lesbian nightclub who was found floating faceup in San Francisco Bay; and 2) locating a mysterious dragon statuette that went missing some 40 years prior and is now an object of keen interest to the Chinese criminal underworld. Much of the story centers on Jimmy’s Joynt, the club where Butch worked, which is a relative oasis of joy in an era not noted for its acceptance of LGBTQ people. Racism rears its ugly head as well, particularly toward the Chinese community that, then as now, constitutes a significant portion of the population in the City by the Bay. Moore provides a warning in the preface about the period-correct dialogue, noting that “the language and attitudes portrayed herein regarding race, culture, and gender are contemporary to that time, and sadly, all too real.” Be warned, but know that Moore and his merry band of miscreants are firmly on the right side of history—and they will make you laugh until it hurts.

Let loose at a rock 'n' roll tour or a fabulous nightclub—just try not to get murdered. Plus, Brian Klingborg ups his game with his second Inspector Lu Fei mystery.

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.

The Bride Goes Rogue

Joanna Shupe sets the pages on fire in the passionate Gilded Age romance The Bride Goes Rogue, the third entry in her Fifth Avenue Rebels series. Romantically minded Katherine Delafield has always looked forward to marriage, even though her own union has been arranged by her father. Her intended, New York City tycoon Preston Clarke, is a man she’s only seen from afar, and she’s stunned and humiliated when she learns that Preston has no intention of honoring his agreement with her father. Intent on making up for lost time, Katherine attends a scandalous masquerade ball and enjoys an exciting dalliance with a masked man—who turns out to be none other than her ex-betrothed. Despite their shock at discovering each other's identity, neither truly regrets that steamy encounter . . . and all the other ones that follow. The ruthless Preston proves to have a heart after all, and despite being a naive ingenue, Katherine surprises him with her ardent desires. Shupe skillfully brings the opulent setting to life, and Katherine and Preston’s love story will leave readers with racing hearts and satisfied smiles.

From Bad to Cursed

The peace of the magical town of Thistle Grove is threatened in From Bad to Cursed by Lana Harper. Four supernaturally gifted families live side by side in relative harmony in this Illinois community. The paranormal citizens make a living providing exciting, supposedly fake experiences to tourists, aka “normies”—at an occult superstore, for instance, or a haunted house. But during one of the town’s celebrations to mark the festival of Beltane, a mysterious curse nearly strips young witch Holly Thorn of her powers. Holly’s upstanding cousin Rowan Thorn and town wild child Isidora Avramov are ordered to investigate. Rowan and Issa have been enemies for years, but as they hunt down the person who cast the curse, their antagonism morphs into a surprisingly strong mutual attraction. From Bad to Cursed is an all-senses escape into a vivid and inventive world. Written from Issa’s snarky first-person perspective, this paranormal rom-com is sure to delight.

Something Wilder

Readers are invited along on an exciting adventure in author-duo Christina Lauren’s Something Wilder. Lily Wilder leads tourists on fake treasure hunts through the beautiful desert landscapes of Utah. It’s a career path made possible by Lily’s infamous treasure hunter father, Duke Wilder—and made necessary by her late father’s lack of financial planning. To her unpleasant surprise, Lily’s latest group of clients includes Leo Grady, the man who got away (or, more specifically, left her) 10 years ago. Even as they grapple with their past and what drove them apart, unforeseen danger requires Leo and Lily to combine their reserves of courage and cleverness to survive. The authors clearly hold the red rocks and canyons of Utah dear and describe them in loving detail throughout. Something Wilder is laden with suspense, intrigue and fun as its main couple faces down danger and learns to love again.

These three romances by Joanna Shupe, Lana Harper and Christina Lauren are perfect seasonal reads.

A talented new crop of memoirists explore the friction between their queer identities and their cultural and geographical surroundings.

Asylum

Jacket of Asylum by Edafe Okporo

Edafe Okporo’s aptly titled memoir, Asylum: A Memoir and a Manifesto, recounts his experience growing up gay in Nigeria, a place known for having harsh laws against “known homosexuals.” Okporo writes with sensitivity about the scenery that shaped his childhood, his powerful familial relationships and the friendships that formed his identity. One night in 2016, however, all of these things were threatened by a mob that gathered outside his home. Okporo tried to escape out a window, but before he could, they broke down his door and beat him until he was unconscious. It was his 26th birthday.

This event marked the beginning of Okporo’s one-way journey to America as a refugee. Once he arrived in New York City, there was a potent juxtaposition between his experiences as a Black gay man from a place of repression and the freedom he encountered as an asylum-seeker. Still, the cruelty of America’s immigration system and the overwhelming whiteness of New York’s gay community presented stark new forms of injustice. With clarity and grace, Okporo casts light on the racism and oppression he discovered lurking within communities that are themselves oppressed.

Okporo was able to explore new relationships in New York, sexual and otherwise, and ultimately found both professional and personal purpose in America as a global gay rights activist. Along the way, Asylum chronicles a range of hardships, from the severe laws of the author’s home country to the bitter realities of immigrating to the U.S. Throughout these difficulties, Okporo weaves a thread of hope that he will find freedom while remaining true to himself. If you are seeking a read that couches complex issues in a heartfelt personal narrative, Okporo’s memoir will surely delight.

★ Boys and Oil

Jacket of Boys and Oil by Taylor Brorby

In Boys and Oil, environmental activist Taylor Brorby masterfully recounts his upbringing in coal-fractured North Dakota. Growing up, Brorby was teased by his peers because he played with girls and didn’t gravitate toward sports. Like many queer boys, his sexuality was in conflict with traditional models of what men were meant to do and how they were supposed to act.

Brorby’s memoir opens with superbly detailed insight into North Dakota’s geography, which becomes a powerful symbol throughout Boys and Oil. This jagged imagery grounds the narrative and the author’s journey, and Brorby’s attention to it throughout the book feels nearly ekphrastic, with sweeping, alluring descriptions of a land that is at once beautiful and damaged.

It’s within the context of this landscape that Brorby’s life unfolds, from a taunted child whose grandmother lovingly painted his fingernails, to a young man being physically assaulted outside of a small-town bar, to an out poet and environmentalist. In many parts of the country (and world), defying your culture’s expectations comes with a price. Whether as a boy in love with books or as an adult fighting to protect the broken land of his youth, Brorby writes about the personal price he has paid with striking honesty.

Queer politics calls perceived norms to task, subverting the status quo and making it possible for new structures to emerge. In his unique and breathtaking memoir, Brorby does just this, creating wonderful new categories for rural communities and American masculinity, and for gay kids’ places within both.

★ Ma and Me

Jacket of Ma and Me by Putsata Reang

Putsata Reang was born in Cambodia amid civic turmoil and unrest. Her family fled in 1975, when she was only 11 months old, and her journey would become legend. Aboard the ship her family escaped on, the infant Reang was believed to be dead. A Navy captain suggested that she be thrown overboard, but her mother resisted. Upon arriving at a U.S. naval base in the Philippines, her mother handed Reang to the doctors, and under their treatment, she survived—accruing a lifelong debt to her mother in the process.

Reang’s relationship with her mother is a strong feature in Ma and Me as the author examines her past with a surgeon’s precision and artist’s view. Reang takes a kaleidoscope of influences into consideration—including cultural expectations for girls and women, the institution of marriage and trauma caused by war and flight—as she inspects her upbringing as an immigrant in Oregon, learning to balance her Cambodian identity with the pressure to assimilate. Up close, she handles these influences on her mother with grace and compassion, even when her mother severs their relationship because she can’t handle Reang’s engagement to a woman. Reang does an excellent job of portraying the permeability of accepting loved ones for who they are and finding the limits of that acceptance.

In the world of Ma and Me, stories grow larger than life and queer identity creates conflict as it becomes a part of the long-woven tapestry of family lore. With great care, Reang addresses the legacy of trauma—both as a child of war who is displaced geographically and as a gay woman who is estranged from her family. The layers stacked together in this memoir, and Reang’s treatment of their complexity, are simply brilliant.

LGBTQ+ authors beautifully capture the places that shaped their identities.

The Civil War of Amos Abernathy

Thirteen-year-old Amos Abernathy loves history. He and his best friend, Chloe Thompson, volunteer as reenactors at the living history park in their small town of Apple Grove, Illinois. When Ben Oglevie begins volunteering at the park, Amos is instantly impressed with his knowledge of Abraham Lincoln, who is Amos’ favorite Illinois historical figure. It takes a little longer for Amos to realize he’s also got a serious crush on Ben.

When the park invites volunteers to submit proposals for a new exhibit, Amos struggles to come up with an idea until Ben sees a gay couple visiting the park and wonders whether LGBTQ people are part of the park’s history. Amos sets out to find answers and discovers Albert D.J. Cashier, a transgender man who fought in the Civil War and lived out the rest of his life in a town near Apple Grove. Amos knows that Albert’s story should be told at the living history park, but not everyone—including Ben’s conservative, religious parents—agrees.

Michael Leali’s debut novel, The Civil War of Amos Abernathy, is an inspiring portrait of determined young people helping their community become more inclusive. Told through diary-style letters that Amos writes to Albert, the book’s first-person narration is conversational and authentic, and Amos’ self-deprecating earnestness is quickly endearing.

The Civil War of Amos Abernathy is thoughtfully intersectional: A notable subplot depicts the racist and sexist resistance that Chloe faces when she applies for an apprenticeship in the park’s blacksmith shop. As Amos, Chloe and Ben work on their proposal, Amos becomes determined to change the way that “only some identities matter” in the story that the park tells about the past.

This tale of tweens who teach the adults in their lives important truths about justice, equity and the power of history shines with respect for its impassioned young protagonists.

★ Different Kinds of Fruit

Sixth grader Annabelle Blake is bored. She’s been attending the same small school since kindergarten, and it seems like nothing new or interesting ever happens in her small town. She often wishes that her family would move to the nearby big city of Seattle, just for some excitement.

Then Bailey, a nonbinary kid, moves to town. Bailey’s fashion is impeccable and their whole vibe is electrifying, so Annabelle is confused when her parents discourage her from getting close to them. If Annabelle's parents don’t accept Bailey for who they are, then maybe she won't be accepted either as she tries to determine which of the LGBTQIAP+ letters fit her best.

The actual reason is a secret that Annabelle’s parents have concealed her entire life: Annabelle’s father is a transgender man and is the person who gave birth to her. He was rejected by his trans community for his decision to become a birthing parent, and his pain has kept him in hiding ever since.

Kyle Lukoff’s remarkable Different Kinds of Fruit juxtaposes two generations of gender-nonconforming people’s experiences. It honors the trauma that Annabelle’s dad went through but, as in The Civil War of Amos Abernathy, shows how much adults have to gain by listening to and learning from young people.

Annabelle also has a lot to learn—about herself, her family and her community. Her eager, openhearted spirit makes her story especially accessible to readers who are also beginning to understand the spectrum of gender identities but who may not have ever met a nonbinary or transgender person. Different Kinds of Fruit will be as meaningful to young people today as Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was for earlier generations of readers.

The Rainbow Parade

Emily Neilson draws on childhood memories to offer young readers a front-row seat to San Francisco’s Pride celebration in The Rainbow Parade.

On the day of the Rainbow Parade, Emily loves to take the train with Mama and Mommy and meet family friends in the city. As they walk down the sidewalk together, Emily sees people “wearing whatever makes them feel most like themselves,” whether it’s swishy dresses, casual clothing, leather outfits or nearly nothing.

When the parade begins, Emily enjoys the loud motorcycles and the bright colors. But when the rainbow fairy queen invites Emily’s family to join the parade, Emily wonders, “Maybe I’m not loud enough or proud enough” to join the festivities. Emily’s moms offer reassurance that the parade is a place where everyone belongs and that “sometimes finding your pride takes a little practice.”

The Rainbow Parade is a dazzling celebration of queer families that captures how empowering it is to be accepted for who we are. Neilson’s digital illustrations convey the joyful fun of marching in the parade as well as watching it from the sidelines. They expertly communicate Emily’s emotions via facial expressions and body language, whether the child is grinning and striding toward the train, hand-in-hand with Mama and Mommy, or gazing wide-eyed at the people marching and pondering the possibility of joining them..

The final page of The Rainbow Parade includes photos of Neilson as a child attending Pride celebrations with their family, as well as a moving note in which Neilson pays tribute to their moms for teaching them “how powerful it can be when we love and accept ourselves.”


Correction, May 26, 2022: A shortened version of this article that appeared in print used pronouns when referring to the protagonist of The Rainbow Parade. This character’s pronouns are not specified in the text of the book.

The past is present in these books that powerfully remind us how young people will one day lead us all into the future.

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