Here comes the sun, little darlings! So put on your sunscreen and grab a good book! Today’s article features a variety of summer reading options … beach reads, literary fiction, a memoir, a book of advice and one steamy thriller for the beautiful days ahead.
The Summer Book
By Tove Jansson
NYRB Classics; $14
My top recommendation for summer 2016 is like an unbroken sand dollar you find on the beach: perfection, a miracle. The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson, tells the story of a grandmother, her 6-year-old granddaughter and their summers on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland. This book in the hand feels like a work of art — it is small, with an evocative cover — and what lies within is even more exquisite. Grandmother can be tired and cranky. Sophia can be bratty and tempestuous. Yet it is a wonder: between them they ask all the big questions and imagine whole worlds together on the desolate little island. Every note of this book rings both true and familiar and impossibly distant in time and place. Tove Jansson (1914-2001), born in Helsinki, is best known for her children’s books featuring the Moomintrolls. The Summer Book was first published in 1972.
Dimestore: A Writer’s Life
By Lee Smith
Algonquin Books; $24.95
My next recommendation is like a walk on the beach in the early morning. Maybe you’ve read some Lee Smith novels over the years — Fair and Tender Ladies, Oral History, Saving Grace. Her new memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, will pull you in as gently and smoothly as her fiction. Smith grew up in a small town in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Her father ran the town’s dimestore, where one of Smith’s jobs was to take care of the dolls. Each summer, she rededicated her life at their church revival, though her mother scolded that “[a] nice girl does not rededicate her life at the drop of a hat.” Their neighbors, the Trivetts, “ate the most exotic things, even foreign things, such as lasagna and chop suey.” Smith’s story is no mere hymn to a Southern past, though; she also reflects on her divorce, the mental health struggles of her parents, and the schizophrenia and death of her son. Throughout, she considers how her life informs her writing.
The Excellent Lombards
By Jane Hamilton
Grand Central Publishing; $26
You’ve walked on the beach and now you’re ready to settle in under an umbrella with a novel. If you loved Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird or Fern in Charlotte’s Web, I think you’ll love Jane Hamilton’s beautiful new novel, The Excellent Lombards. Mary Francis Lombard (“Frankie”) is growing up on a family apple orchard and farm in the Midwest during the 1980s. She and her brother, William, at ages 4 and 5, promise to marry each other and never leave the farm, owned and operated by their father (think Atticus Finch at his finest) and his eccentric brother. Frankie and William must, of course, outgrow childish dreams, and family farms have a hard time surviving. This is a book that will warm your heart then threaten to break it, but as with Charlotte’s Web or To Kill a Mockingbird, you’ll be glad you’ve read it.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven
By Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster; $26.99
Another fantastic new novel that will appeal to those who liked All the Light We Cannot See or The Nightingale is Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave (author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Little Bee). I suspect we’ll be seeing this one on the bestseller lists soon as well. Mary North is a privileged Londoner torn between two loves, one of whom is stuck in London with her as the bombing raids begin while the other serves in the British Army. She struggles with her feelings and meanwhile finds herself drawn into the war effort, first as a teacher to the children left behind in the evacuation and later as an ambulance driver. Her relationship with one of her pupils, a black boy from America who performs with the minstrel show, gives Cleave the chance to explore race relations in Britain during the war. This may sound strange to say about a World War II novel, but the dialogue positively sparkles with wit and humor. The warm relationships are the heart of the book, the counterpoint to the cold cruelties of war. Cleave based Everyone Brave is Forgiven in part on his grandparents’ experiences during World War II, and he has honored them tremendously with this gorgeous, generous novel.
By Emma Straub
Riverhead Books; $26
For a more lighthearted, traditional beach read, try Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub. It “shares a soothing warm-weather vibe with her equally entertaining 2014 novel, The Vacationers,” writes Washington Post critic Carol Memmot. “It’s hard to top the locale of The Vacationers — a sunny island in the Mediterranean Sea — but in Straub’s skillful hands, the Brooklyn setting of Modern Lovers is just as colorful a destination.” Approaching age 50, friends and former college bandmates Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe all live within a stone’s throw of each other in gentrified Brooklyn. They’ve married, bought homes and had kids — and those teenage kids are now coming into their own, doing the distressing things teenagers do. “Like ABC’s ‘Modern Family,’ Modern Lovers celebrates the updated look and feel of familial love and all of its complexities,” Memmot concludes. “Straub’s clever and perceptive observations on growing up are gentle reminders that coming of age isn’t just for kids.”
By L.S. Hilton
Random House; $27
If you’re looking for a little more heat in your beach read, try the steamy thriller Maestra, by English author L.S. Hilton. Only pick this up if you appreciate gratuitous sex and excessive designer clothing. Our heroine (anti-heroine?) Judith is a smart girl from a working class background who fell in love with art, and she’s managed to get herself an education and a job at an elite auction house in London. She dreams of nothing more than working her way up the ladder. Life gets more complicated when she discovers and exposes a major fraud. You’ll follow her to Rome, Paris and Portofino, in yachts and private planes, and then on the lam. You’ll find her in sex clubs and hotel bedrooms and under dark bridges at night. Best of all, you’ll hear her using all those great English words like “knickers” for panties, “brolly” for umbrella and “fag” for cigarette. Do not start this book if you are squeamish about explicit, graphic sex scenes that go well beyond Harlequin romance material (I don’t want any hate mail!).
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
By Cheryl Strayed
The day winds down. You’ve enjoyed the sunset and a refreshing sauvignon blanc with dinner. The book you might pick up before bed is one Ann Patchett recommended when I saw her recently at Parnassus Books in Nashville — Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed has been in the limelight the last few years as the bestselling author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail (subsequently made into a movie). Before she hit the trail, she had been writing the advice column “Dear Sugar” at TheRumpus.net, and Tiny Beautiful Things, published in 2012, is a selection of columns both old and new. She describes it as “a collection of intimate exchanges between strangers.” It is also an autobiography by way of advice column, quite possibly the first ever in that genre. Sharing stories from her own life, Sugar offers advice about marriages falling apart, families tearing each other up, bad sex, good sex, illicit sex, past abuse, financial instability and boredom, among other topics. Whether you’re dealing with something challenging in your own life or not, this book will cause you to reflect on your relationships and your dreams. It will encourage you to be brave. Even if you’re cold inside right now, or sad, this is a book that will help you think: Here comes the sun. It’s all right.
Thank you, Jennifer! Visit BaconOnTheBookshelf.com for additional reading recommendations, reflections, guest posts and the adventures of Pepper, a dog of uncertain parentage.