Summer is a great time to catch up on your reading, so today I’m sharing my favorite summer book recommendations with you early in the hope you can stock up your kindle library before your big vacation!
Unlike most summer book recommendations, mine is not particularly fluffy. As such, I’ve taken the liberty of breaking them out into three groups: The Heavyweights, the Middleweights, and the Lightweights. They aren’t necessarily new – in fact, some of them are several decades old – but out of all the books I’ve read in the last five years, all nine of these books made a lasting, powerful impression on me.
You never know when the next book you read will be your next new favorite and change your world! Take a look and if you have a favorite that’s touched you in a special way, I hope you’ll share it with the rest of us!
Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
Over a thousand pages of blissful, epic storytelling, Pillars of the Earth is #1 on my list of best historical fiction novels.
The story is set in 12th century England during a time of relative chaos and anarchy and follows the life of three intriguing, diverse men – most notably, Jack Builder, an architect and stonemason, living out his adopted father’s lifelong dream to build a cathedral – and the women who surround them. Though the main plot concerns the building of a grand Gothic cathedral, it reaches deep into the lives and relationships of its characters, portraying their humanity intimately, while also giving the reader a satisfying dose of adventure, romance, and a colorful history lesson. This book is everything a fabulous summer read should be.
The Son by Philipp Meyer
Apparently, this is currently being made into a television series for AMC starring Pierce Brosnan, so move this to the top of your list if you want to finish it before having your imagination spoiled by the on-screen version.
Another epic, The Son follows several generations of the McCullough family and the early settling of western Texas.
From the moment 12 year-old Eli McCullough is kidnapped and enslaved by a Comanche Indian tribe (just after they violently murdered and scalped his family), I was hooked. Eli goes on to earn the respect and approval of the tribe, gaining the expert tracking and hunting skills along the way. He eventually escapes the tribe, but is forever changed in a way the reader sees played out in the life of his son, Peter, and his great-granddaughter (and would be cattle tycoon), JA.
The Son is tied for first place with The Goldfinch as my most favorite book of the last three years.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I’m not sure I know a soul who didn’t read this Pulitzer Prize winning novel when it came out in 2013, but in case you’re one of the few, I wanted to include The Goldfinch on this list.
While visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Theo Decker’s mother is killed (along with almost everyone else, besides 13 year-old Theo) in a an explosion. In a moment of panic and confusion, Theo takes The Goldfinch, a Dutch masterpiece of a bird by the same name by Carol Fabritius. While his crime lures Theo into the dark and sinister underworld of art – including his friendship with the unforgettable Boris who is both alluring and repulsive – the painting comes to represent the pure, uncorrupted life Theo imagines he would have had if fate had not taken his mother from him. Along the way
As a reader, you can’t help but root for him to win the war he’s fighting against his on inner demons, and yet also be maddened by Theo’s inability to recover from the tragic loss of his mother and the lengths he goes to to numb and avoid his pain.
The Goldfinch is sad and dark. There is nothing joyful or uplifting about it, other than the pleasure of being transported so completely into Theo’s world, hoping against all odds that he will emerge victorious in the end. But it is profoundly impactful and memorable and has stayed with me in a way very few books have.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Frances Wray’s life is turned upside down when Lilian and Leonard Barber, a young, newly-married couple on an extended honeymoon, become The Paying Guests when they let a room from Frances and her mom in 1920’s, post-war London.
The first half of the book tells the story of Frances’ and Lillians’ forbidden, secretive, and passionate love affair, and takes the reader on an exciting and sexy journey. But, the story takes a surprising and sudden shift from steamy love story to full-blown crime thriller halfway through that some reviews call “Dickensian”. The reader gets sucked in by Frances’ fretful inner-monologue, her naive, almost Pollyanna idolatry of Lillian, while simultaneously suspiciously second-guessing the motives and intentions of everyone around Frances.
This is a unique, intriguing story with the added bonus of being gorgeously and thoughtfully written.
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron
Shadow of the Wind, which is translated from the original Spanish, takes place in Barcelona in the 1950’s and it equal parts detective novel, mysterious psychological thriller, and whimsical love story.
Young Daniel, the son of antique book dealer, is consoled by a novel, Shadow of the Wind, after his mother dies. But when he begins a quest to find additional works by Julian Carax, the book’s author, he discovers a dark underworld in Spain in which copies of the author’s works are being systematically destroyed for unknown reasons. As Daniel investigates the life of Carax and tries to solve the mystery of his missing works, bizarre parallels between Daniel and Carax unfold.
Other than the occasional description that will leave you scratching your head (due, most likely, to translation complexities), it’s beautifully written and envelops you in a dark, but fascinating world. Shadow of the Wind is pure escapism at its best.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
For those looking for a shorter read, Year of Wonders tells the story of Anna Frith, a modest homemaker-turned-reluctant herbalist and midwife after the bubonic plaque spreads to her small village of Eyam in England in the mid-1600’s.
When Eyam’s villagers murder the town’s medicine women, mistakingly believing them to be witches and therefore responsible for the illness and death of so many, Anna and the town rector’s wife, Elinor, take it upon themselves to become midwives and teach themselves how to use the herbs the “witches” left behind. Anna, widowed and mourning the deaths of her two young sons, finds great comfort in her friendship with Elinor and her husband, Michael Mompellion. But a shocking twist in the story puts Anna at a crossroads: will she rise to the occasion and trust in her own strength and the skills she’s now armed with, or degrade and deny herself the opportunity to lead?
Anna is an unlikely, but inspiring heroine and Year of Wonders is, ultimately, a coming of age story about female empowerment. A truly great read.
You by Caroline Kepnes
A truly modern story told in a contemporary voice you’ll recognize as sounding quite a bit like your teenage daughter’s, You is a cautionary tale about the perils of social media and just how serious the consequences of oversharing can be.
Although the author is a woman (a very young, very talented one at that), the story is told from the point of view of Joe Goldberg, an exceedingly creepy, demented, yet oddly likable 20-something living in present-day New York City. After a beautiful, aspiring writer, Guinevere Beck – “Beck” to her friends – makes a purchase in the bookstore where Joe works, Joe begins stalking her, orchestrating “chance” encounters with her in the locations he know she’ll be, thanks to her Facebook feed. Joe goes to great, devious lengths to learn everything he can about her with the hope he can win her over and make her love him.
Disturbing, provocative, and highly entertaining, You is a fabulous summer page-turner that will keep your bedside lamp on until the wee hours of the morning (and applying some helpful caution on your own social media feed!)
Full disclosure: Many of the women in my book club did not like this book, finding it far too pathological to be entertaining. What I interpreted as dark humor, they experienced as the personification of their worst fears, I can’t say I blame them. Proceed with caution.
The Girls by Emma Cline
If you’ve ever been fascinated by the hippie era of 1960’s California or wondered what would compel nice, smart, All-American girls to leave the comfort and safety of their suburban homes for the chaos, filth, and mindlessness of a commune, The Girls is the perfect book for you.
Based on the horrific true story of the infamous Manson Girls, The Girls is a fictional reimagining of Evie Boyd and her slow descent – but ultimately, rejection of – into a local cult, their egomaniacal leader, and the magnetic women who have pledged allegiance to them. Evie becomes enthralled by the wildly independent, slightly older Suzanne and quickly develops an intense girl-crush that draws Evie deeper and deeper into the cult. Evie maintains some semblance of logic throughout the book and manages to stay a hair’s breath away from full-on discipleship of the uber-detestable and obviously mentally ill pedaphile, Russell. But the pathology illuminated by the gifted Emma Cline is extremely compelling.
The Girls is fantastically well-written with timeless themes you’ll relate to and characters you won’t soon forget.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
I burn through six or seven lightweights a year – double or triple the number of middle- and heavyweights – so the fact that there’s only one lightweight book should tell you something.
Crazy Rich Asians is a highly amusing look into the vapid, opulent lives of the old-monied, thoroughbred, social-climbing Chinese of Singapore from the perspective of Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor from California, who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick, to accompany him to his friend’s wedding.
Once in Singapore, Rachel learns that Nick is from one of the oldest, most prominent, and wealthy families in Singapore, and heir to one of the largest fortunes in Asia. Nick’s money, good-looks, and social status also make him the most sought-after mate to a bevy of young, eligible Singaporean bachelorettes who are as rich, cultured, and beautiful as they are conniving, bitchy, and opportunistic. These Chinese “mean girls” will stop at nothing to expose Rachel to Nick for the uncivilized, unworthy commoner they believe her to be and win Nick’s affections in the process.
Crazy Rich Asians is chalked full of soap-opera like drama, backstabbing, and scheming, as well as a delicious look into the glamorous, sparkly, designer-clad lives of the men and women living on the uppermost fringe of the wealthiest of the wealthy. Poolside perfection.