There are so many good books out there that it’s impossible to keep track of them all. That’s why we rely on friends, Good Reads, Amazon, and blogs to point us in the direction of books that are really worth our time. I’ve read a lot of good books in the past year — it seems like it’s been the best year for fiction in quite a while — and culled my reading into 10 terrific books that everyone should know about and, time permitting, read. Many sites are posting recommendations for “great summer reads” or “beach reads,” featuring romantic melodramas, page-turning thrillers, and other fast, easy reads. But I think the summer is an equally good time for reading literary fiction. Just because you’re lying beside your pool or the ocean, or flying long distances, doesn’t mean your brain is “lying down on the job” too. These 10 books are worth your time any time of year. They will take you to exotic locales (Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Australia, and the wilds of Alaska), and varied times (during and after WWI, the Great Depression, the 1970s and 1980s, and contemporary settings). Pick up any of these books and you will be doing some summer traveling from the comfort of your chair or beach towel.
Books are listed alphabetically by author’s last name. This is not a ranking.
Kind of Kin — Rilla Askew
This novel is a model of blending topical events into a first-rate story. Through the prism of one extended family in rural Oklahoma, Askew examines the many sides of the immigration debate. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment is that she never becomes polemical, instead focusing on the very human angles of this complex issue. She does manage to reveal her sympathies, though, with her scathing depictions of an opportunistic young state politician and the local police chief. Protagonist Sweet Kirkendall holds the multiple strands together — while struggling mightily to hold her multi-generational family together despite being caught in the center of the illegal immigration storm — with her earnest yet pragmatic approach. An involving read.
The Orchardist — Amanda Coplin
This debut novel will transport you to central Washington state at the opening of the 20th century. Talmadge, the orchardist of the title, finds his quiet life disrupted by the appearance of two pregnant young runaways. Cautiously allowing them into his life, he finds his life, and then himself, changing. A measured and stately exploration of loneliness, family, and obligation, The Orchardist is a hypnotic read.
On Sal Mal Lane — Ru Freeman
Freeman uses the microcosm of several families on one cul-de-sac in Colombo to examine the clashes between various ethnic and religious groups before and during Sri Lanka’s civil war of the late 1970s and 1980s. Moving, inspiring, and heartbreaking — like all the best books. You won’t forget these “invisible” people. Remarkable writing!
News from Heaven — Jennifer Haigh
Perhaps the best short story collection in the past year, at least for those who prefer more traditional storytelling methods (as opposed to the very modern approach of George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Ramona Ausubel). Haigh returns to the fictional coal mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania featured in her 2005 novel Baker Towers to revisit the main characters. The stories both stand alone and interlock to create a mosaic of life in one town.
The Snow Child — Eowyn Ivey
A childless older couple moves to Alaska in the 1920s to homestead. One day, the wife spots a little blonde girl in the snow, who disappears. Is she real, a figment of the distraught woman’s imagination, or a snow fairy? Ivey manages the difficult trick of blending realistic depictions of harsh frontier life and fairy tale magical realism. A captivating read.
In the Shadow of the Banyan — Vaddey Ratner
Ratner’s debut novel turns her experiences as a young girl into a riveting novel. Raami, a 7-year-old Cambodian princess, narrates the story of her family’s efforts to stay alive and remain together after the Khmer Rouge took over the country from 1975-1979. Like stories of the Holocaust, Banyan depicts the horrors of genocide but also the unbroken spirit and will to survive of Raami and her family. Many of the heartbreaking scenes remain indelibly etched in my mind. Like many of the writers on this list, Ratner writes with aplomb.
The Lifeboat — Charlotte Rogan
Rogan takes what could be a hackneyed and predictable story and turns it inside out into an intense psychological study of the inhabitants of a lifeboat…and the murder trial that follows. Set in 1914, on the eve of World War I, The Lifeboat explores every moral dilemma in this world of its own and burrows under the skin of many of the lifeboat’s intriguing characters, including narrator Grace Winter and the lifeboat’s captain, ship’s officer Mr. Hardie. The book is made all the more compelling by one’s sense that Grace is far from a reliable narrator.
Mary Coin — Marisa Silver
It’s one of the iconic photos of the 20th century and the defining photo of the Great Depression. Silver investigates the lives behind “Migrant Mother” — Oklahoman mother Mary Coin and government photographer Vera Dare (based on Dorothea Lange) — through the research of present-day historian Walker Dodge and the result adds tremendous richness to our understanding of that era and the difficult lives many women led (including Lange, who had polio that left her with a limp). When you’re finished, you will know who Florence Owens Thompson was — at least one possible version. Cleverly structured, beautifully written, with a poignant conclusion.
The Light Between Oceans — M.L. Stedman
Stedman’s first novel poses one of the ultimate moral quandaries: Who does a child really belong to? Returning from the trenches of France, Australian soldier Tom Sherbourne seeks peace of mind as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, off the coast of southwest Australia. Before long, he meets and marries Isabel, a spirited young woman from the nearby port. Despondent over their apparent inability to have children, they are stunned one day to find a rowboat with a dead man and a live infant. With no idea where it came from, they decide to keep and raise the baby. Tom wants to spread word back in port, in case someone knows about a missing man and baby, but Isabel is desperate to make the baby her own. Of course, there is a mother, and she is equally desperate in searching for her missing husband and child, both presumed drowned. The Light Between Oceans is a gripping page-turner that neatly avoids most of the traps of melodrama to remain a well-written, well-plotted psychological study of three damaged people.
The News from Spain: 7 Variations on a Love Story — Joan Wickersham
This is the other short story collection that really impressed me this year. Wickersham, who writes for the Boston Globe, has created a multi-faceted diamond of stories about the varieties and vicissitudes of love. The seven tales explore a range of people, places, and times, but all are distinguished by a sharp insight into the ways in which love is central to our humanity. Her writing is elegant but never showy and is often reminiscent of Alice Munro at her best.