Summer 2021 Recommended Reads

Summer 2021 Recommended Reads

I love summer reading lists and had a blast creating this one.  So many great books have published since last summer. I divide the lists into four genres and include some favorite books for the beach, the mountains, or just enjoying a staycation at home.  Enjoy! Thanks for considering buying these books through Blue Willow Bookshop to support an independent bookstore and to help me continue producing my podcast.

Contemporary Fiction:

 

Are We There Yet? by Kathleen West

I loved Kathleen’s first book, Minor Drama and Other Catastrophes, and I think this one is even better. Are We There Yet? addresses the impact cell phones and social media have on our lives and the lives of our children and will really make you think.

Book summary:

Alice Sullivan feels like she's finally found her groove in middle age, but it only takes one moment for her perfectly curated life to unravel. On the same day she learns her daughter is struggling in second grade, a call from her son's school accusing him of bullying throws Alice into a tailspin. When it comes to light that the incident is part of a new behavior pattern for her son, one complete with fake social media profiles with a lot of questionable content, Alice's social standing is quickly eroded to one of "those moms" who can't control her kids.  Then her mother unloads a family secret she's kept for more than thirty years, and Alice's entire perception of herself is shattered. Now, with all her shortcomings laid bare, she'll have to figure out to whom to turn for help and decide who she really wants to be.

 

Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour

Black Buck is a timely and entertaining book that will have you laughing out loud one minute and cringing the next. I really enjoyed the clever format and Askaripour’s humor.

Book summary:

An unambitious twenty-two-year-old, Darren lives in a Bed-Stuy brownstone with his mother, who wants nothing more than to see him live up to his potential as the valedictorian of Bronx Science. But Darren is content working at Starbucks in the lobby of a Midtown office building, hanging out with his girlfriend, Soraya, and eating his mother’s home-cooked meals. All that changes when a chance encounter with Rhett Daniels, the silver-tongued CEO of Sumwun, NYC’s hottest tech startup, results in an exclusive invitation for Darren to join an elite sales team on the thirty-sixth floor where Darren reinvents himself. Black Buck is a hilarious, razor-sharp skewering of America’s workforce; it is a propulsive, crackling debut that explores ambition and race, and makes way for a necessary new vision of the American dream.

 

The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

The End of Men was written pre-pandemic, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Once I picked it up, I could not put it down. In addition to the pandemic theme, Sweeney-Baird tackles gender issues and addresses what could happen if 90% of the world’s men disappeared. A truly fascinating read.

Book summary

The year is 2025, and a mysterious virus has broken out in Scotland--a lethal illness that seems to affect only men. When Dr. Amanda MacLean reports this phenomenon, she is dismissed as hysterical. By the time her warning is heeded, it is too late. The virus becomes a global pandemic--and a political one. The victims are all men. The world becomes alien--a women's world.What follows is the immersive account of the women who have been left to deal with the virus's consequences, told through first-person narratives. Through these women and others, we see the uncountable ways the absence of men has changed society, from the personal--the loss of husbands and sons--to the political--the changes in the workforce, fertility and the meaning of family.

 

The Siren by Katherine St. John

Part escapist-read, part-social commentary, The Siren is a fabulous and fun read and will be the perfect addition to your beach bag.

Book summary

In the midst of a sizzling hot summer, some of Hollywood's most notorious faces are assembled on the idyllic Caribbean island of St. Genesius to film The Siren, starring dangerously handsome megastar Cole Power playing opposite his ex-wife, Stella Rivers. Three very different women arrive on set, each with her own motive. Stella, an infamously unstable actress, is struggling to reclaim the career she lost in the wake of multiple, very public breakdowns. Taylor, a fledgling producer, is anxious to work on a film she hopes will turn her career around after her last job ended in scandal. And Felicity, Stella's mysterious new assistant, harbors designs of her own that threaten to upend everyone's plans. With a hurricane brewing offshore, each woman finds herself trapped on the island, united against a common enemy. But as deceptions come to light, misplaced trust may prove more perilous than the storm itself.

 

Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

This fabulous young adult book is Reese’s Summer YA pick and is an absolute delight to read. The love story is sweet, and I learned so much about Japan and Japanese culture.

Book summary

Izumi Tanaka has never really felt like she fit in—it isn’t easy being Japanese American in her small, mostly white, northern California town. But then Izzy discovers a clue to her previously unknown father’s identity… and he’s none other than the Crown Prince of Japan. Which means outspoken, irreverent Izzy is literally a princess. In a whirlwind, Izzy travels to Japan to meet the father she never knew and discover the country she always dreamed of. But being a princess isn’t all ball gowns and tiaras. There are conniving cousins, a hungry press, a scowling but handsome bodyguard who just might be her soulmate, and thousands of years of tradition and customs to learn practically overnight. Izzy soon finds herself caught between worlds, and between versions of herself—back home, she was never “American” enough, and in Japan, she must prove she’s “Japanese” enough.

 

Under the Southern Sky by Kristy Woodson Harvey

Kristy Woodson Harvey is the master of Southern fiction, and Under the Southern Sky is her best book yet. Charming and heartwarming, this book will give you all the feels.

Book summary:

Recently separated Amelia Saxton, a dedicated journalist, never expected that uncovering the biggest story of her career would become deeply personal. But when she discovers that a cluster of embryos belonging to her childhood friend Parker and his late wife Greer have been deemed “abandoned,” she’s put in the unenviable position of telling Parker—and dredging up old wounds in the process. Parker has been unable to move forward since the loss of his beloved wife three years ago. Each dealing with their own private griefs, Parker and Amelia slowly begin to find solace in one another as they navigate an uncertain future against the backdrop of the pristine waters of their childhood home, Cape Carolina.

 

Historical Fiction:

 

Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Better Luck Next Time is the perfect kind of historical fiction - it transported me to another time and place and was filled with characters that truly leapt off the page.  I loved every page.

Book summary:

It’s 1938 and women seeking a quick, no-questions split from their husbands head to the “divorce capital of the world,” Reno, Nevada. There’s one catch: they have to wait six weeks to become “residents.” Many of these wealthy, soon-to-be divorcees flock to the Flying Leap, a dude ranch that caters to their every need. Ward spent one year at Yale before his family lost everything in the Great Depression; now he’s earning an honest living as a ranch hand at the Flying Leap. Admired for his dashing good looks—“Cary Grant in cowboy boots”—Ward thinks he’s got the Flying Leap’s clients all figured out. But two new guests are about to upend everything he thinks he knows: Nina, a St Louis heiress and amateur pilot back for her third divorce, and Emily, whose bravest moment in life was leaving her cheating husband back in San Francisco and driving herself to Reno.

 

The Chanel Sisters by Judithe Little

This book was on my top ten list for 2020, and I have recommended to to everyone I know. I really enjoyed learning about Coco Chanel's early years and about her sister Antoinette; the writing is stunning too.

Book summary:

Antoinette and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel know they’re destined for something better. Abandoned by family, they’ve grown up under the guidance of nuns. The walls of the convent can’t shield them forever, and when they’re of age, the Chanel sisters set out with the determination to prove themselves to a society that has never accepted them. Their journey propels them out of poverty and to the cafés of Moulins, the performance halls of Vichy—and to a hat shop on the rue Cambon in Paris, where a business takes hold and expands to the glamorous French resort towns. But when World War I breaks out, the sisters must gather the courage to fashion their own places in the world.

 

The Girl in His Shadow by Audrey Blake

The historical fiction genre is seeing a boom in stories about strong women, and this one is a compelling story about a woman ahead of her time.

Book summary:

Raised by the eccentric surgeon Dr. Horace Croft after losing her parents to a deadly pandemic, the orphan Nora Beady knows little about conventional life. While other young ladies were raised to busy themselves with needlework and watercolors, Nora was trained to perfect her suturing and anatomical illustrations of dissections. Women face dire consequences if caught practicing medicine, but in Croft's private clinic Nora is his most trusted--and secret--assistant. That is until the new surgical resident Dr. Daniel Gibson arrives. But pretense has its limits. And when she makes a discovery that could change the field forever, Nora faces an impossible choice. Remain invisible and let the men around her take credit for her work, or let the world see her for what she is--even if it means being destroyed by her own legacy. 

 

The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck

Robuck brings real-life American heroine Virginia Hall to life, highlighting her immense bravery as an Allied spy in German-occupied France during World War 2.

Book summary:

Virginia Hall wasn't like the other young society women back home in Baltimore--she never wanted the debutante ball or silk gloves. Instead, she traded a safe life for adventure in Europe, and when her beloved second home is thrust into the dark days of war, she leaps in headfirst. Once she's recruited as an Allied spy, subverting the Nazis becomes her calling. But even the most cunning agent can be bested, and in wartime trusting the wrong person can prove fatal. Virginia is haunted every day by the betrayal that ravaged her first operation, and will do everything in her power to avenge the brave people she lost.

 

When We Were Young & Brave by Hazel Gaynor

Hazel is one of my favorite authors, and I always eagerly anticipate her books.  This ranks as one of my favorite of hers and is a great addition to the World War 2 historical fiction subgenre.

Book summary:

Having left an unhappy life in England for a teaching post at a missionary school in northern China, Elspeth Kent is now anxious to return home to help the war effort. But as she prepares to leave China, a terrible twist of fate determines a different path for Elspeth, and those in her charge. Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer has always felt safe at Chefoo School, protected by her British status. But when Japan declares war on Britain and America, Japanese forces take control of the school and the security and comforts Nancy and her friends are used to are replaced by privation, uncertainty and fear. Faced with the relentless challenges of oppression, the school community must rely on their courage, faith and friendships as they pray for liberation – but worse is to come when they are sent to a distant internment camp where even greater uncertainty and danger await . . .

 

Mysteries:

 

Northern Spy by Flynn Berry

I enjoyed this book when I read it, and I kept thinking about it long after I finished it which made me realize what a good read it was. It is a character-driven story that deals with very timely issues.

Book summary:

A producer at the Belfast bureau of the BBC, Tessa is at work one day when the news of another raid comes on the air. The IRA may have gone underground after the Good Friday agreement, but they never really went away, and lately, bomb threats, arms drops, and helicopters floating ominously over the city have become features of everyday life. As the anchor requests the public's help in locating those responsible for this latest raid - a robbery at a gas station - Tessa's sister appears on the screen. Tessa watches in shock as Marian pulls a black mask over her face. The police believe Marian has joined the IRA, but Tessa knows this is impossible. When the truth of what has happened to Marian reveals itself, Tessa will be forced to choose: between her ideals and her family, between being a bystander and action. Walking an increasingly perilous road, she fears nothing more than endangering the one person she loves more fiercely than her sister: her infant son.

 

A Peculiar Combination by Ashley Weaver

Filled with witty dialogue and genuinely entertaining characters, A Peculiar Combination is a fantastic read, and I am already looking forward to the next in the series.

Book summary:

Electra McDonnell has always known that the way she and her family earn their living is slightly outside of the law. Breaking into the homes of the rich and picking the locks on their safes may not be condoned by British law enforcement, but World War II is in full swing, Uncle Mick's more honorable business as a locksmith can't pay the bills any more. So when Uncle Mick receives a tip about a safe full of jewels in the empty house of a wealthy family, he and Ellie can't resist. All goes as planned--until the pair are caught redhanded. Ellie expects them to be taken straight to prison, but instead they are delivered to a large townhouse, where government official Major Ramsey is waiting with an offer: either Ellie agrees to help him break into a safe and retrieve blueprints that will be critical to the British war effort, before they can be delivered to a German spy, or he turns her over to the police.

 

The Survivors by Jane Harper

Jane Harper returns with another stunning and well-paced Australian mystery, this time choosing Southern-most Tasmania as her setting.

Book summary:

Kieran Elliott's life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences. The guilt that still haunts him resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal community he once called home. Kieran's parents are struggling in a town where fortunes are forged by the sea. Between them all is his absent brother, Finn. When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away...

 

When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

McLain's switch from historical fiction to mystery worked very well for her, and this compelling story kept me reading rapidly until I reached the end.

Book summary:

Anna Hart is a missing persons detective in San Francisco. When tragedy strikes her personal life, Anna, desperate and numb, flees to the Northern California village of Mendocino to grieve. Yet the day she arrives, she learns a local teenage girl has gone missing. The crime feels frighteningly reminiscent of the most crucial time in Anna's childhood, when the unsolved murder of a young girl touched Mendocino and changed the community forever. As past and present collide, Anna realizes that she has been led to this moment. The most difficult lessons of her life have given her insight into how victims come into contact with violent predators. As Anna becomes obsessed with the missing girl, she must accept that true courage means getting out of her own way and learning to let others in.

 

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

As an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota nation, Weiden credibly details what life is like on a reservation, the broken criminal justice system, what it means to be Native American in 2020, and the challenges faced by those trying to preserve their own cultural identity while also finding a place within their larger community. It is a must read.

Book summary:

Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop. They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. 

 

Nonfiction:

 

The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free by Paulina Bren

In The Barbizon, Paulina Bren captures not only the story of the legendary hotel but also important moments in women’s history from that time period.

Book summary:

Liberated from home and hearth by World War I, politically enfranchised and ready to work, women arrived to take their place in the dazzling new skyscrapers of Manhattan. But they did not want to stay in uncomfortable boarding houses. They wanted what men already had—exclusive residential hotels with daily maid service, cultural programs, workout rooms, and private dining. Built in 1927 at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the Barbizon Hotel was intended as a safe haven for the “Modern Woman” seeking a career in the arts. It became the place to stay for any ambitious young woman hoping for fame and fortune. No place had existed like it before or has since.

 

Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way by Caseen Gaines

Footnotes chronicles the creation and production of Shuffle Along, a 1921 Broadway musical written and performed by an all-Black cast and crew that revolutionized both Broadway and the music coming out of Harlem during that era. Chock full of fantastic photos and stories, Footnotes provides a glimpse into show with a legacy that remains today.

Book summary:

When the curtain rose on Shuffle Along in 1921, the first all-Black musical to succeed on Broadway, no one was sure if America was ready for a show featuring nuanced, thoughtful portrayals of Black characters--and the potential fallout was terrifying. But from the first jazzy, syncopated beats of composers Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, New York audiences fell head over heels. Footnotes is the story of how Sissle and Blake, along with comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, overcame poverty, racism, and violence to harness the energy of the Harlem Renaissance and produce a runaway Broadway hit that launched the careers of many of the twentieth century's most beloved Black performers. 

 

My Remarkable Journey by Katherine Johnson

This short autobiography is Katherine's story in her own words. Intelligent and captivating, she recounts her century on this planet and the amazing legacy she crafted.

Book summary:

In 2015, at the age of 97, Katherine Johnson became a global celebrity. President Barack Obama awarded her the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor—for her pioneering work as a mathematician on NASA’s first flights into space. Her contributions to America’s space program were celebrated in a blockbuster and Academy-award nominated movie. In this memoir, Katherine shares her personal journey from child prodigy in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia to NASA human computer. In her life after retirement, she served  as a beacon of light for her family and community alike. Her story is centered around the basic tenets of her life—no one is better than you, education is paramount, and asking questions can break barriers. The memoir captures the many facets of this unique woman: the curious “daddy’s girl,” pioneering professional, and sage elder. 


Robert E Lee and Me: A Southerner's Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule

A marvelous and thought-provoking read about how history is shaped and molded and the resulting impact on society and individuals. Another must read.

Book summary:

Ty Seidule grew up revering Robert E. Lee. From his southern childhood to his service in the U.S. Army, every part of his life reinforced the Lost Cause myth: that Lee was the greatest man who ever lived, and that the Confederates were underdogs who lost the Civil War with honor. Now, as a retired brigadier general and Professor Emeritus of History at West Point, his view has radically changed. From a soldier, a scholar, and a southerner, Ty Seidule believes that American history demands a reckoning.

 

A Season with Mom: Love, Loss, and the Ultimate Baseball Adventure by Katie Russell Newland

Katie's beautiful and heartfelt tribute to her mother will have you laughing and crying and wanting to set out on your own adventure. 

Book summary:

Join Katie as she travels more than 30,000 miles to all 30 MLB parks in a single season, a rare feat covered by the likes of ESPN. Along with black-and-white photographs, Katie shares letters written to her mom, who died of cancer before the two of them could go on the adventure of a lifetime together. During the journey, Katie beautifully illustrates the brevity of life, the impetus of adventure, and the clarity that comes by watching America’s favorite pastime. A Season with Mom reminds readers that in life, as in baseball, sometimes you strike out, but sometimes you hit home runs.