Personally, I find that a good book is the best way to reward myself after finals. There’s nothing like a big, thick adult fantasy or a juicy beach read to start your summer off right! Below are some suggestions for solid starts to your summer – run out before Muckraker is back in August? Check out more on my blog, Sometimes I Read.
“Boy, Snow, Bird” by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead Books)
Snow White is one of my least favorite Disney movies. Compared to all the works that came after, the film is simple and a bit dull. It has no splashy musical numbers. It lacks the witty asides, intended for adults that make the later Disney films enjoyable for all ages. But Oyeyemi’s Snow-White-inspired novel, recently out in paperback, is a decidedly adult tale that tackles themes of race, beauty, and maternal relationships.
As a young girl, motherless Boy Novak escapes the abusive home of her rat-catcher father. She makes her way, by chance, to idyllic Flax Hill, a picturesque town of crafty, creative types. There, she rents a room in a boarding house where she makes friends her own age. She soon marries Artutro Whitman, a jewelry craftsman who already has a seven-year-old daughter, Snow. You know where this is going, right? Wrong.
Boy and Arturo have a daughter of their own, Bird. With her birth, family secrets are unearthed, many a family member’s world is upended, and Boy, Snow, and Bird are left to navigate this altered landscape. Boy and Snow, each scarred by their upbringing in dramatically different ways, must confront what they have been taught about beauty and determine what perspectives they want to share with Bird. As an inquisitive would-be reporter, Bird seeks out good stories, determined to get to the bottom of anything and everything going on around her. Told through Boy and Bird’s perspectives, this novel’s deft handling of deep themes is all the more remarkable for its whimsical prose and compact package (308 pages!).
Verdict: Affirmed, especially if you’re a fan of fairy tale retellings and don’t mind bits of whimsy with your literary fiction.
“Dept. of Speculation” by Jenny Offill (Knopf)
Need to escape dull legal writing post- (or maybe mid-) finals? Look no further than Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation.” This slim, little novel, clocking in at a mere 182 pages or a little over three hours in audio, is the perfect palate cleanser to escape the dry entrée of legal tedium. Immerse yourself in this decant dessert of incredibly lush, honest prose.
The novel’s impact is all the more impressive given its simple, even mundane, premise. Our protagonist, a professor and writer known to readers only as “the wife,” confronts her husband’s affair and the possible dissolution of their marriage. That’s literally it. The beauty of the novel is contained entirely in Offill’s masterful command of language.
It’s Offill’s writing, both witty and realistic, that makes this novel stand out. For example, observations on new motherhood, like “And that phrase – ‘sleeping like a baby.’ Some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear,” or “Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits,” speak to both mothers and non-mothers alike. They make the wife’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings understandable by all, whether it is a shared experience or only one we’ve seen others face. The wife, the husband, their child could be anyone. Their daily challenges and thoughts could belong to any of us, and do belong to many of us. Offill makes them accessible to all of us.
Verdict: Affirmed, especially if you’re looking for a case study in near-perfect prose.
“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead Books)
“The Girl on the Train” has been hailed as the next “Gone Girl,” but that description doesn’t do this book justice. “Gone Girl” had characters that entertained, but were ultimately unbelievable, and twists that any thriller reader saw coming a mile away. “The Girl on the Train” surpasses these shortfalls with a point of view that rotates between three genuine women whose lives intersect in unexpected ways.
Rachel is our central protagonist among the three – a young woman who takes the train every morning and evening past a set of houses. She often watches the inhabitants while her train stalls, and [looking for a word here that’s a mix of inspired and dazed…] by her alcoholism, she invents stories for those she sees. Yet, when a real inhabitant disappears, Rachel starts to separate her imagined story from fact, and to reconnect with people from her past to try to find out what happened to the woman she watched from the train.
“The Girl on the Train” gets it right everywhere “Gone Girl” went wrong. This is a thriller with crossover appeal that won’t disappoint fans of the genre. An unreliable narrator, some clever bouncing around in timelines, and a surprising ending make for a solid summer read.
Verdict: Affirmed. Wait to start this one until after finals, though – you won’t be able to put it down once you start. Save it for your first summer beach read!
“The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters (Riverhead Books)
I had to start “The Paying Guests” twice. I tried once with three days left until my audiobook rental was set to expire, couldn’t get into it, and abandoned it. After reading so many rave reviews at the end of the year, I put myself back on the waitlist. Let me tell you, I am so happy I did.
After World War I, Frances and her mother take in some boarders for financial reasons. Lilian and Leonard Barber move in and set the daily routines of the house slightly aflutter. The young, passionate couple reminds Frances of her own brush with scandal, and she wonders whether she and her mother have made a mistake allowing virtual strangers into their home. As Frances and Lilian get to know each other and their evolving relationship takes a sharp turn, they plunge all of the house’s inhabitants into a fresh scandal that will test this new relationship, and all of those around them.
Although this is a book with few big plot points, it manages to be both intimate and sweeping in its portrayal of Frances’ life and her relationships with her family, friends, and peers. It’s a thick book at 576 pages (or over 21 hours on audio), but it speeds by. It’ll be over before you know it, but you won’t be able to leave these characters behind.
Verdict: Affirmed, for someone who wants some depth with their scandal or enjoys a strong piece of literary historical fiction.
“God Help the Child” by Toni Morrison (Knopf)
“God Help the Child” is Morrison’s first novel set in contemporary times. The protagonist Bride is a young woman with beautifully dark skin born to a very light-skinned mother, who has just been left by her boyfriend, Booker. As she attempts to right a wrong she committed as a child and make sense of why Booker left, Bride must confront the lasting effects of her relationship with her mother.. Similarly, Booker has childhood traumas of his own that have left indelible marks on his life and continue to shape his interactions with those around him.
That’s the theme of the book, really – that the marks we leave on children are born for the rest of their lives. It’s clear in the supporting characters, who come and go throughout the novel, each carrying their own baggage and backgrounds, some of which are explored more deeply than others. If I have one criticism of the novel, it’s how casually these side characters fall away without explanation. But such is life, the side players rotate and diminish in importance as we each continue as the leads in our own lives, though we carry the effects of their relationship with us forever. I cannot fault Morrison for capturing yet another truth of human existence.
Should I be surprised that the latest from Toni Morrison is beautifully written and heart wrenching? No. Yet, I’m still eternally surprised and delighted by her stunning turns of phrase when discussing both life’s more quotidian moments (“It was raining the next day. Bullet taps on the windows followed by crystal lines of water.”) or the deepest, darkest truths of the human soul (but I won’t spoil those).
Verdict: Affirmed for fans of Morrison’s work, though I’d suggest starting with “Beloved,” “The Bluest Eye,” or “Song of Solomon” for readers who escaped studying her in college or high school.
“The Walls Around Us” by Nova Ren Suma (Algonquin Young Readers)
Ballerinas? Check. Murder? Check. Ghosts? Check. What more could you ask for in a YA novel to kick off your summer reading?
Violet is a ballerina on the cusp of success, haunted by the crime that sent her best friend, Ori, to prison three years earlier. Amber has been in the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center for years, and has no hope of getting out any time soon. When Ori is assigned to her cell, Amber is intrigued by this young woman, still optimistic and kind, unlike any other young women housed among them. Unfortunately, Amber knows what’s coming to the forty-two young women housed at Aurora Hills, and she can’t stop it.
Told in alternating voices between Amber and Violet, the reader slowly uncovers the mystery of what landed Ori in jail, and the impending doom that awaits the girls of Aurora Hill. Suma’s prose is enchanting, capturing your attention no matter where the plot is. I won’t lie, the ending let me down a little, but I let myself forget that this is a ghost story at its core.
Verdict: Jury’s Out. Come for the murderous ballerinas, stay for the writing. If ghost stories aren’t your thing though, look elsewhere.
Disclosure: I received a free advanced reader’s copy of “God Help the Child” from the publisher through Read It Forward and “The Walls Around Us” from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.