Memorial Day weekend is considered the unofficial start of summer. And that means not only can you now wear white pants, but you’ve finally got some time to do all that reading you’ve been looking forward to. And publishers always “cooperate” by releasing a passel of must-read novels and story collections between May and August. Because there are so many books worth sharing, I’ve split this preview into two parts. Part 1 covers May 31 to June 28. Look for Part 2, covering July 5 to September 13, soon!
Emma Straub — Modern Lovers (Riverhead)
In “The River,” Bruce Springsteen asked, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Straub catches up with the former members of a band as they build their family lives in Brooklyn, and suggests that there might be a third answer to that question: that some youthful enthusiasms remain beating quietly beneath the surface, to be revived later, when they’re truly needed.
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore — June (Crown)
MBW has mastered the smartly written melodrama, perfect for summer reading. In June, a young woman named Cassie is bereft following the death of her grandmother, the June of the title, who had raised her. But then Cassie learns that she is the heir to the fortune of aging Hollywood star Jack Montgomery. How can that be? Did he know June? When the star’s daughters dispute the will and show up in Cassie’s small Ohio town, they all learn the sinister truth about Jack and June, and face the consequences of a past they could never have imagined.
Yaa Gyasi — Homegoing (Knopf)
Some books have pre-publication buzz and some books have Big Buzz. Homegoing is the latter, one of the Big Books of Summer, generated in part by the auction that led to a seven-figure advance for Gyasi’s debut novel. The novel begins with two half-sisters in 18th century Ghana, one of whom is married to a British colonizer, the other sold into slavery. Their wildly divergent paths create the real attraction of Homegoing: the novel’s structure, which follows several descendants of the sisters up through the 21st century, exploring the rippling effects of family, history, slavery, and racism. It’s an ambitious and auspicious debut from an author we’ll no doubt be hearing a great deal from.
Anna Noyes — Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove Press)
Noyes’s collection offers a set of interconnected stories about women of all stripes, struggling to make their lives work in the midst of economic, family, and social challenges in Maine and elsewhere in New England. The characters move in and out of each other’s stories, the way we do in the real world, with effects both salutary and harmful.
Alexis M. Smith — Marrow Island (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Smith blew me away with her slim but potent debut novel, Glaciers, in 2013. This time she expands her scope beyond the life of one quiet young woman in Portland. Lucie Bowen grew up on Marrow Island in the Puget Sound, until she and her mother were forced to flee to the mainland following an earthquake and oil refinery explosion that killed her father. Now, 20 years later, her best friend from her island youth writes to tell her that the island is inhabitable and is being repopulated by what she calls the “Colony.” When Lucie returns to visit, she soon develops serious misgivings about the colony and its leader, a former nun with an ambitious plan. As with Glaciers, Smith’s writing sparkles even in this dark story.
Ramona Ausubel — Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (Riverhead)
Ausubel made a big impression with her distinctive vision in her debut novel about the Holocaust, No One is Here Except All of Us, and her sophomore collection of surreal stories, A Guide to Being Born (think Karen Russell). She returns with the story of a privileged family in the mid-1970s who are confronted with a massive financial setback. The parents go their separate ways and their three children hunker down and try to cope with their changed and parentless world.
Emma Cline — The Girls (Random House)
Cline’s first novel is also generating a lot of talk. A shy 14-year-old girl becomes friends with an older, charismatic girl and her mysterious friends. They soon suck her into the secret world of a cult living in the nearby hills. The parallels to Charles Manson’s “family” are obvious in this dark coming of age tale set in the Northern California in the late 1960s.
Natashia Deon — Grace (Counterpoint)
Deon’s debuts is a complex portrait of slavery pre- and post-Emancipation Proclamation. Fifteen-year-old Naomi runs away from her Alabama plantation and ends up in a Georgia brothel, where she falls in love with a white man. The bulk of the story follows their child, Josey, who is separated from her mother and raised by a freed slave in the years following the Civil War; she negotiates a life of violence as a mixed-race slave, then as part of a group of freed women. Rebecca Solnit says, “People will compare this book to Twelve Years a Slave, Cold Mountain, and Beloved, and those are fair comparisons for the kind of time and place here, and the evocation of the south 150 years ago. But reading it, I thought of murder ballads, those songs of melancholy and injustice.” Grace is a moving story about the bonds of mother and daughter in the most difficult of circumstances.
Annie Proulx — Barkskins (Scribner)
In a novel that seems like to occupy a parallel universe to Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, two young woodcutters (“barkskins”) land in 17th century New France hoping to create lives in the New World. Like the half-sisters in Gyasi’s book, their personalities, skills, and luck are diametrically opposed, with dramatically different results. Proulx depicts the paths of their family trees for the following 300 years with her inimitable style and insight.
Lionel Shriver — The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (Harper)
Shriver is widely admired for her compelling family dramas We Need to Talk About Kevin and Big Brother. Now she moves into speculative, dystopian fiction, a la Margaret Atwood, to probe the nature of family life when a global currency collapse wipes out the fortune they expected from their 97-year-old patriarch.
Anne Tyler — Vinegar Girl (Hogarth Shakespeare)
Tyler’s modernized take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is the latest in a series of similar books published by Hogarth. Of course, modernizations of Shrew have been with us a long time, such as the musical Kiss Me Kate and the teen-oriented movie 10 Things I Hate About You. So one would think there was nothing left to do with this story of a difficult young woman who refuses to marry, complicating the marriage plans of her younger sister. Here, 29-year-old Kate Battista teaches pre-school and keeps house for her eccentric scientist father and takes care of Bunny, her younger sister. The plot thickens when Dr. Battista needs to find a way to keep his Russian research assistant in the country and looks to Kate for help.
Jessica Anya Blau — The Trouble with Lexie (Harper Perennial)
The irrepressible Blau is back with another breezy yet biting tale of a young woman in various forms of trouble (as in her last book, the darkly comic The Wonder Bread Summer). Lexie James has overcome a troubled upbringing, earning a master’s degree, nabbing a plum job at a prestigious New England prep school, and becoming engaged to a terrific guy. As her wedding date nears, she is plagued by self-doubt. Does she really deserve a life like this? An alumnus of Ruxton Academy becomes the catalyst for Lexie’s journey of self-discovery. In The Trouble with Lexie, Blau offers up an entertaining combination of humorous and poignant moments in a fast-paced, fun read.