I know, I know. It’s nowhere near the end of summer. We passed that mark several weeks ago.
I also know it’s November, but I couldn’t resist putting that bit in. Brooklyn Nine-Nine just gets me.
Anyway, I’ve been trying to change up my reading habits; rather than reading in my usual favorite genres, I’ve started trying to “read deeply and widely,” something that has been brought up at all three JRW conferences I’ve been to. I figured if it was so important it was brought up three consecutive years by three different people, I had to try it.
So far, it’s working out! One thing I never did before was consistently check bestseller/new release lists. I figured if the books on those lists were any good, I’d eventually hear about them. After all, that’s what happened with The Hunger Games and Divergent, and I loved those series!
But if you’re an aspiring writer (or, like me, an aspiring publisher), you need to know the industry. You need to know what’s selling. So I started reading the books off those lists; not every single one, just those that popped out at me, and those that people whose tastes I shared recommended.
I read more books than are on this list (some were good, some were meh), but these are the top five best books I read this summer:
Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina
Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous year 1977 in New York.
After a freezing winter, a boiling hot summer explodes with arson, a blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam, who is shooting young people on the streets seemingly at random.
Not only is the city a disaster, but Nora has troubles of her own: her brother, Hector, is growing more uncontrollable by the day, her mother is helpless to stop him, and her father is so busy with his new family that he only calls on holidays.
And it doesn’t stop there. The super’s after her mother to pay their overdue rent, and her teachers are pushing her to apply for college, but all Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. There is a cute guy who started working with her at the deli, but is dating even worth the risk when the killer especially likes picking off couples who stay out too late?
Award-winning author Meg Medina transports readers to a time when New York seemed about to explode, with temperatures and tempers running high, to discover how one young woman faces her fears as everything self-destructs around her.
I first met Meg Medina at the 2015 James River Writers Conference. I’d bought her book, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, but hadn’t read it when Burn Baby Burn hit bookshelves. It was an instant success, so I knew I had to read it. It was just as good as everyone says, and I got to get a signed copy of the novel when I met her again at the 2016 National Book Festival.
The Girls by Emma Cline
Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.
…I’m starting to see a disturbing pattern between some of my favorite reads of the summer. Girls living during violent/messed up periods of our country’s history? Maybe I wasn’t drifting too far from my regular genre (historical fiction) after all. Oh well.
The point is, this novel was amazing. I learned so much because as I was reading (and this was true for Burn Baby Burn as well), I did a lot of research online to corroborate the things I was learning from the book itself. Cline changed up some of the Manson family– some people have been erased, others have been condensed– but overall the storyline remains very similar. I was struck with how violent the deaths were and how nonchalant the characters were with the murders, but as I did my research, I found it was nothing compared to what happened in real life. Cline did a really amazing job with this one, so I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.
Sex Object by Jessica Valenti
Author and Guardian US columnist Jessica Valenti has been leading the national conversation on gender and politics for over a decade. Now, in a darkly funny and bracing memoir, Valenti explores the toll that sexism takes from the every day to the existential.
Sex Object explores the painful, funny, embarrassing, and sometimes illegal moments that shaped Valenti’s adolescence and young adulthood in New York City, revealing a much shakier inner life than the confident persona she has cultivated as one of the most recognizable feminists of her generation.
In the tradition of writers like Joan Didion and Mary Karr, this literary memoir is sure to shock those already familiar with Valenti’s work and enthrall those who are just finding it.
I listened to this one on audiobook and cried about 600 times, give or take. It was so beautiful, honest, and moving. Valenti was incredibly brave to write this, especially with much of the personal stuff she tackles. I normally shy away when people tell me that books should be required reading, but I absolutely believe that this book (or at least some chapters) should be required reading in schools. Also, unrelated, but I love this cover.
Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
This is a collection of short stories that are sometimes bizarre, mostly magical realism. Throughout the novel is an interwoven narrative of Greek mythology, aided by the links between various characters in the stories.
Okay, so this one’s technically not a new release; it came out in 2004. But it was so great I had to add it to this list. I’m a mythology nerd, so all the references to Greek mythology and re-writes of some of its greatest hits made my little heart sing. The first chapter threw me off a little, but once I got into the rhythm of the book and began to acclimate myself to its voice, it wasn’t so bad. I’d definitely recommend this to readers of poetry, or anyone who really loves literary fiction.
And our overall winner…
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel
Labor Day, 1976, Martha’s Vineyard. Summering at the family beach house along this moneyed coast of New England, Fern and Edgar—married with three children—are happily preparing for a family birthday celebration when they learn that the unimaginable has occurred: There is no more money. More specifically, there’s no more money in the estate of Fern’s recently deceased parents, which, as the sole source of Fern and Edgar’s income, had allowed them to live this beautiful, comfortable life despite their professed anti-money ideals. Quickly, the once-charmed family unravels. In distress and confusion, Fern and Edgar are each tempted away on separate adventures: she on a road trip with a stranger, he on an ill-advised sailing voyage with another woman. The three children are left for days with no guardian whatsoever, in an improvised Neverland helmed by the tender, witty, and resourceful Cricket, age nine.
Brimming with humanity and wisdom, humor and bite, and imbued with both the whimsical and the profound, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is a story of American wealth, class, family, and mobility, approached by award-winner Ramona Ausubel with a breadth of imagination and understanding that is fresh, surprising, and exciting.
I’m obsessed with this book. It was so, so beautifully written. Ausubel’s initial descriptions of the family’s beach house were immediately compelling. I’m also a sucker for clever/genius siblings going on adventures (see: A Wrinkle in Time, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Boxcar Children, A Series of Unfortunate events, etc.). I’ve been recommending this book left and right; the plot/premise is fantastic, the writing is beautiful, and the cover makes me want to do a happy dance. Grab this one if you get the chance!