Summer Reading Preview: 25 can’t-miss reads

Although Summer doesn’t technically begin until June 21, for most people (alright, most North Americans)  it begins in early June when school gets out or Memorial Day weekend is behind them. That means it’s time to preview the many intriguing female-authored novels arriving in the next three months. For once, readers might actually have the time to read most of the books on their TBR (to be read) list. Here are 20 novels worth looking into. 

Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun – Natalia Sylvester (Amazon/New Harvest, June 3)

Sylvester’s debut is the story of Andres and Marabella, a long-married couple living amidst the social and political upheavals of Lima, Peru. Andres thinks she has left him again, but he soon learns that terrorists have kidnapped her. How far is he willing to go to get her back? Is their troubled marriage worth saving? Andres works with a mediator to negotiate for her release, all the while caring for their two young children.

Home Leave

Home Leave – Brittani Sonnenberg (Grand Central Publishing, June 3)

The Krigstein family has lived a peripatetic existence, following husband and father Chris’s job to such far-flung locales as Berlin, Singapore, and Shanghai, before eventually settling in Madison, Wisconsin. Wife Elise has enjoyed the advantages of a clean slate every few years, while their daughters have developed an extremely close bond to cope with the constant change. When the family is rocked by a stunning loss, their lives and lifestyle are called into question. Extra bonus: Sonnenberg writes like a house on fire. The opening chapter alone is worth the price of this book.

Sixteenth of June

The Sixteenth of June – Maya Lang (Scribner, June 3)

Lang’s debut novel examines the intimately connected lives of a young married couple and the husband’s young brother over the course of one summer day in Philadelphia. Both a close observation of twenty-somethings and a satire of ambitions dreamed, thwarted, and abandoned, The Sixteenth of June pays tribute to James Joyce’s Ulysses with its single-day time frame and the characters’ attendance at a Bloomsday party.

We Are Called to Rise

We Are Called to Rise – Laura McBride (Simon & Schuster, June 3)

A wide cast of characters, whose lives appear to be falling apart, struggle to survive in Las Vegas during its recent boomtown years. Seemingly unconnected, their paths eventually cross. At the center of this compelling novel are an 8-year-old Albanian immigrant boy, a middle-aged woman whose marriage has just imploded, a lawyer who volunteers as a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate for children), and a recently returned Iraq War veteran. As the title suggests, together they find a way to rise above their troubled circumstances and repair their damaged lives. Haunting and inspiring in equal measure and beautifully written.

The Book of Unknown Americans

The Book of Unknown Americans — Cristina Henriquez (Knopf, June 3)

When their fifteen-year-old daughter Maribel sustains a traumatic brain injury, the successful Rivera family decides to leave everything they have achieved in Mexico behind to go to the United States so Maribel can attend a special school and receive state of the art treatment. They end up living in a dilapidated apartment building that is home to struggling and ambitious immigrants from nearly every Latin American country. The voices of the residents explore what it means to be an “unknown American” while believing intensely in the American dream. The novels is enriched by Panamanian immigrant Mayor Toro’s love for Maribel, which leads to a close relationship between the Toro and Rivera families. This is a sweet, compassionate, and hopeful story.


Euphoria — Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press, June 3)

King made a big splash with her debut novel, The Pleasing Hour, in 1999, and has written several other notable novels in the last 15 years. Euphoria, based in part on the life of Margaret Mead, explores a love triangle among three anthropologists in New Guinea during the 1930s. Englishman Andrew Bankson is ready to call it quits when he encounters Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen, who have just been through their own trauma. The three anthropologists are re-energized by their professional and personal chemistry and the discovery of a matriarchal tribe. But conflicts soon arise, jeopardizing their important work and their friendship.

What is Visible

What is Visible — Kimberly Elkins (Twelve Books, June 3)

Elkins brings to life the young woman who was reputed to be the second-most famous in the world in the 19th century. Laura Bridgman lost four of her five senses due to scarlet fever at age 2. She was Helen Keller before the Keller herself came along, and they had much in common. Elkins explores Bridgman’s amazing life and the reasons Keller became the poster child for overcoming profound disabilities while the woman whose experience laid the groundwork for Annie Sullivan’s success with Keller faded into obscurity. Listen to Kimberly Elkins interview with Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition here.

All Day and a Night

All Day and a Night – Alafair Burke (Harper, June 10)

The latest installment in the Ellie Hatcher detective series, All Day and a Nightis Burke’s tenth police procedural thriller. When a Brooklyn psychotherapist is found murdered, her husband is the prime suspect. But an anonymous caller knows that her body was abused in a way that matches the trademark of a serial killer who has been imprisoned for 20 years. The killer maintains his innocence, and now it appears that the actual killer is still at loose. Of course, the plot is far thicker than a brief synopsis can convey. As with Burke’s previous thrillers, All Day benefits from Burke’s years as a prosecutor. Her work is also distinguished by the presence of strong and realistic female characters.

Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street — Susan Jane Gilman (Grand Central Publishing, June 10)

One of the most highly anticipated books of the summer, Gilman’s first novel is a multi-faceted fictional biography of a life that parallels many of the key events of the 20th century. Russian immigrant Malka Treynovsky arrives in the Lower East Side of New York City as a child and is soon crippled in an accident with an Italian ice vendor’s horse cart. When her poor and desperate parents abandon her, the vendor adopts her, changes her name to Lillian, and teaches her the business. Eventually she marries and takes over the business, which she and her husband, Albert Dunkle, rapidly expand. In time, Lillian Dunkle’s chain of ice cream stores is the most successful in America. She is famous not only as the ambitious queen of the Dunkle empire but also as a charming television personality. In reality, Lillian is an imperious and opinionated force to be reckoned with and a character that readers will both admire and despise.

The Quick

The Quick — Lauren Owen (Random House, June 17)

Looking for a literary mystery dripping with atmosphere and strong sense of place? The Quick might be your book. Set during the Victorian era in both Yorkshire and London, this suspenseful Gothic thriller about a brother and sister is full of twists and turns, shocks and surprises. Yet another strong debut novel.


Abroad — Katie Crouch (Sarah Crichton Books, June 17) 

Abroad is the second novel in less than a year to take the experiences of American college student Amanda Knox as a starting point (Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois was published in October 2013; see my review here: Knox is the foreign exchange student in Italy who was charged with the murder of her British roommate, with the motive centering on a romantic triangle gone wrong. She was convicted and spent four years in an Italian prison before an appeals court overturned the ruling and released her in late 2011. She returned to Seattle to watch a second trial proceed without her presence, resulting in a guilty verdict and  a sentence of 28 years. She remains in the U.S. With Abroad, Crouch has fashioned a coming-of-age-in-Italy story about a British college student who is pulled into a group of thrill-seeking girls hungering for every experience they can squeeze out of their year abroad. Her roommate, an American, is concerned, but when they both fall for the same Italian boy, everything gets very complicated very fast. Abroad is a dark, lurid tale of privilege, friendship, passion, and betrayal.

Mambo in Chinatown

Mambo in Chinatown – Jean Kwok (Riverhead, June 24)

Kwok, the author of the highly regarded Girl in Translation, tells the story of 22-year-old Chinatown resident Charlie Wong. She is leading a dreary life, working as a dishwasher, when she lands a job at a ballet studio. Charlie, as it turns out, has her own dancing talent. But her family is Old World Chinese and disapproves. Then her sister becomes seriously ill, and a conflict arises between Eastern treatment and Western medicine.

Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, June 24)

When their middle daughter Lydia is found dead in a nearby lake, the marriage of Marilyn and James Lee, a Chinese-American family avidly pursuing the American dream, begins to unravel under the burden of James’s guilt and Marilyn’s determination to find the killer. Lydia’s older brother has his own theory about who killed her, but quiet younger sister Hannah may hold the key to solving Lydia’s murder and restoring the family’s delicate balance.

The Arsonist

The Arsonist — Sue Miller (Knopf, June 24) 

Miller has had a long and impressive career full of terrifically readable books. She returns with a story centering on arson in a small New Hampshire town. The intrigue centers on the fact that the arsonist is burning down only the houses of summer owners. This opens up a divide in the town’s social fabric as suspicions run wild like bushfires. The protagonist, Frankie Pomery, has returned to stay in her family’s summer home after 15 years in Africa, only to encounter the kind of trouble she thought she’d left behind.

Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing — Mira Jacob (Random House, July 1)

Comparisons to the work of Jhumpa Lahiri are inevitable — and justified — with this debut novel about a dysfunctional middle class Indian-American family. Jacob’s novel is split between India and New Mexico, where brain surgeon Thomas Eapen and his wife Kamala reside.  Their daughter Amina, a photographer living in Seattle, returns home to find that a trip the family took to India 20 years earlier is having unforeseen ramifications.

Red Joan

Red Joan – Jennie Rooney (Europa Editions, July 1)

This historical novel is a character study based on the case of Melita Norwood, who was exposed at age 87 as a KGB spy who had spent decades in Great Britain. Rooney has crafted a psychologically astute portrayal that makes suburban grandmother Joan Stanley a believable, three-dimensional character whose motivations are understandable if not laudable.


The Hundred-Year House — Rebecca Makkai (Viking, July 10)

Makkai’s second novel is a cleverly-constructed family saga with a satirical bent. Zee Devohr is an academic who rejects her family’s wealth and privilege in principle but still lives on the estate. Her husband Doug, a struggling biographer, begins work on a book about the artist’s colony that resided in the house for more than 30 years mid-century. But his attempt to conduct research on the house’s long history leads to conflict with Zee’s eccentric mother, Gracie, who refuses to give him access to the records. Both the Devohr family and the house they’ve long lived in have an even stranger history than Doug and Zee could have imagined.

Land of Love and Drowning

Land of Love and Drowning – Tiphanie Yanique (Riverhead, July 10)

Set in the Virgin Islands during the early 1900s, Land of Love and Drowningtells the story of three siblings orphaned in a shipwreck. The story runs 1916 through the 1970s, following the three members of the Bradshaw family and their progeny through the full range of life events. Yanique weaves Caribbean history and her family experiences with a magical realism inspired by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, all told in her powerful and rhythmically distinctive Caribbean prose.

Life Drawing

Life Drawing — Robin Black (Random House, July 15) 

Robin Black attracted a lot of attention with her debut, the short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, in 2011. Life Drawing is her first novel, and it has received even more acclaim (having been published in the UK in April), including a rave review by Claire Messud (author of The Woman Upstairs and The Emperor’s Children) in The Guardian. Augusta (Gus) and Owen have “retired” to the country to escape the urban life and concentrate on their art and writing, respectively, and to spend more time together in hopes of rekindling the flames of their earlier passion. Of course, there is a hitch: an affair long ago casts a long shadow even now and a young, attractive neighbor complicates matters further. Black is an astute observer of human nature and has written a compelling character study that will pull you in and hold you fast until these issues are resolved, for good or ill.

The Home Place

The Home Place – Carrie La Seur (HarperCollins, July 29)

Alma Terrebonne has left her troubled family and life in rural Montana behind to become a lawyer. But she is drawn back into her past when her sister dies accidentally. Or did she? This debut novel is said to explore family life, small town rigidity, and the secrets held by both in an evocative style with a strong sense of place.

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies — Liane Moriarty (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, July 29)

Moriarty, author of the smash The Husband’s Secret, returns with another clever potboiler set in a small town that examines relationships during and after marriage, the challenges of raising children from these marriages, and the suspicions and misunderstandings that occur despite good intentions. Big Little Lies is the story of three women: divorcee Madeline (whose ex-husband and his new wife have just moved into town with their own child), Celeste (charismatic, community-oriented mother of exhausting twin boys), and Jane (a young single mother who is taken under the wing by Madeline and Celeste). They are connected through their children’s school, where multiple tensions come to a head.

Lucky Us

Lucky Us — Amy Bloom (Random House, July 29)

Bloom, whose last novel, Away, was critically acclaimed, tells the tale of a mother and daughter’s (mis)adventures across America in the 1940s. Heading out from Ohio in an old station wagon intending to make mother Iris’s dreams come true in Hollywood, they end up in locales as far-flung as Long Island and London. Lucky Us is about mothers and daughters, creating families, experiencing a new world and a new life together, and surviving one crisis after another, from scandals to World War II.

Invention of Exile

The Invention of Exile – Vanessa Manko (Penguin Press, Aug. 14)

Based partly on her own family history, The Invention of Exile, set in 1913 and thereafter, follows Russian immigrant engineer and inventor Austin Voronkov and his American wife Julia as they are deported for Austin’s alleged communist/anarchist activities. The story details their life during the Russian Civil War and their escape to Mexico City. While Julia is allowed to repatriate to the U.S., Austin is trapped in Mexico, where he devotes himself to designing new inventions in the hope that obtaining a patent will lead to his return to Julia and their children in Connecticut.

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton (Ecco, Aug. 26)

Both an atmospheric study of a house and family in 1686 Amsterdam and a suspenseful page-turned with a supernatural bent, The Miniaturist is the story of an 18-year-old country girl, Nella, her wealthy merchant husband Johannes Brandt, and his martinet of a sister, Marin. When Johannes gives Nella a chest-size version of the family home, to be filled with replicas of themselves and their lives crafted by a miniaturist, Nella begins to learn the truth behind the family and their lifestyle, and the story takes a turn toward the supernatural. Or is it all in Nella’s mind?


Rainey Royal — Dylan Landis (Soho Press, Sept. 9)

Landis has expanded one of her popular stories into this captivating novel. Rainey Royal is the talented 14-year-old daughter of a New York City jazz musician, and her story, set in the 1970s, follows her attempts to explore her own creative impulses and create a new family (her mother has abandoned her husband and Rainey). Landis captures the tenderness and rebellion of adolescence, the artistic ferment in the rough and tumble NYC of the 70s, and the vicissitudes of friendship and family.


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