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The Best Books for Summer 2021 

best books summer best books summer

There are many things summer books should be. Fun, first and foremost. Nothing that requires too much heavy lifting on the reader’s part. Easy to read with one eye while the other is trained on the overly confident swimmer in the pool. Something you can dip in and out like a longstanding conversation. Or something you can get lost in for hours, should you be so lucky for a stretch of time in a hammock. Of course, you don’t keep these books. Even if the covers are stained with suntan lotion, potato chip grease or melted margarita ice, you pass them along — to friends, sisters-in-law, or the next guest at the rental house.

Here are the best books to add to your ultimate summer reading list.


Family Dysfunction…

With Teeth by Kristen Arnett

If I’m going to commit to a domestic drama, it’s gotta be worth my time. Why read about a fictional wife nagging her partner to water the plants if I can do that IRL? On the other hand, I do love reading about messy lives. And With Teeth has plenty of that to go around. Our narrator Sammie is a stay-at-home mom in central Florida who’s married to a very important business woman. Their relationship is full of resentment; their son is a handful. And, as Sammie puts it, “Gilmore Girls was a lie.” This isn’t necessarily Fun but it’s pretty satisfying to read Sammie’s journey from becoming a gay Martha Stewart to someone who could give two fuckles about what other people think. Top shelf mess right here.


Love Story…

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

When we think about what we all responded to with Normal People…it just felt refreshing to fall in love with a love story. Open Water is a similar type of boy-meets-girl narrative, only with a sexier, stylized vibe that comes with an accompanying playlist. Two young Black artists—one a photographer, the other a dancer—in London fall in and out of love. At 150 pages, it should be considered a quick read but I kept pausing to re-read entire chapters. That’s how stunning this book is. Contrasted with the romance are the encounters the young man faces with the police, veering the characters into bleak territory. But what makes a good love story is the acknowledgment of cynicism and the overcoming of it to love anyway.



Mystery…

Finlay Donovan Is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

If you’ve ever hired a good nanny, you know she’s the one person you could trust to help you bury a body. At least that’s the case for Finlay Donovan, a struggling novelist and single mom. After being mistaken for a contract killer, Finlay kind-of-sort-of kills a dude. Now it’s up to Finlay and her nanny to cover their tracks during the kids’ naptime while searching for the real culprit. It’s been almost ten years since the release of Gone Girl and it’s still hard to find a mystery that doesn’t succumb to a Gone Girl-ification ending. Thankfully, you can count on Finlay Donovan to stick the landing. If you’re feeling spent, you could wait around a few months because this will surely be a TV series. But if I were a gambling woman, I’d put all my money on this one as this summer’s top read.


Essays…

Hola Papi by John Paul Brammer

No matter what stage of life you’re in, you can always use a little advice, especially if it’s entertaining. Advice columnist John Paul Brammer answers questions from readers by digging into his past experiences growing up queer and Mexican in rural Oklahoma. Even if you can’t directly relate to the questions he answers—for example, How to Come Out to Your Boyfriend in a Walmart Parking Lot—his ability to turn the personal into something relatable is heartwarming. It’s hard not to read his experiences of middle school bullying through a mother’s lens. You’ll want to say, “Oh, honey,” and wrap this babe in a hug.


Self-Help…

Body Talk by Katie Sturino

For the past few summers I’ve been camouflaging my mom pooch with a high waisted bikini that more or less functions as a set of waterproof Spanx. Like a sausage dropped into its casing. Va voom. Now, inspired by Katie Sturino, I’m gonna let it all hang out. The Instagram star and entrepreneur’s book serves as a guide to help you push through the endless negative self talk and body shaming BS we encounter in everyday culture. With vibrant illustrations and snappy pull quotes, there are also sections for journaling and goal setting. I want to give a copy to every woman I know, then save a batch to hand out as a door prize at my daughter’s slumber parties. Bodies are cool!


Book Club Pick…

The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters by Julie Klam

Now that I’ve participated in several book clubs across the country I can report a universal problem that plagues them all. It’s the moment when you’ve finished a successful meeting and everyone is standing around ready to leave, keys in hand, trying to pick the next book while scanning best seller lists. Help is here. Julie Klam dives into the vault of her family history to tell the stories of four amazing women. With themes of travel, genealogy, and history, there’s a little bit of something for everyone. That she manages to keep a light tone—a medium she visits shares her great aunt’s sadness over the Carnegie Deli’s closing—while addressing serious topics like sexism, mental health, and anti-Semitism is a testament to Klam’s writing. Conversation will definitely flow and your book club can rest easy for another month.


Romance…

Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert

Who doesn’t love a plucky heroine, a heavy dose of flirting, and an optimistic ending? And should you find yourself on a beach this summer, you’ll want something easy and breezy to help you pass the time. In Talia Hibbert’s newest rom-com, book 3 of her series, the most capricious Brown sister crashes into the life of an uptight B&B owner. Act Your Age, Eve Brown takes the classic enemies-to-lovers trope and inserts a dose of reality as both of the main characters are on the spectrum. Oh, and don’t worry, there are some epic sex scenes. So you might even pick up some tips for what you’re doing this Saturday night.


Memoir…

The Wreckage of My Presence by Casey Wilson

From Casey Wilson, the comedian and podcaster who once tried to Postmates a Plan B pill, is a memoir that will make you laugh and cry. At first it seems like a rambling collection of merry essays on her passion for the Real Housewives franchise, a David Sedaris-esque account of a vacation with her dad, a casual addiction to NyQuil. There’s even a relatable chapter on parenting. I mean, not that we can all relate to sitting in a Parent-and-Me class with Jeff Goldblum, but you know. Then, POW, the memoir turns into a love letter to her mother and an earnest take on moving through grief. The final chapter will break you.


Graphic Novel…

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel, the author of Fun Home, now brings us her profound account of a lifelong relationship with exercise. Set against a history of fitness fads, the graphic novel features her takes on the romanticism movement, Beat poets and everything in between. Warning: If you leave this one lying around on the kitchen counter, and your 7-year-old tries to read it, there’s a strong chance he’ll ask what ‘psychedelic’ means. You’ll then have to sit him down and explain, “Look, you have your graphic novels and I have mine. Paws off.” With such beautifully drawn illustrations and details, you can’t blame a kid for trying.


Literature…

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

Anybody else feel like a mommy zombie these days? Par for the course of parenting through a pandemic. Well, just ’cause our brains are fried, we still deserve the good stuff. If you’re looking for a short novel with sublime sentences, Whereabouts by Pulitzer Prize-winning queen Jhumpa Lahiri is the ticket. In a series of vignettes, we follow an unknown narrator through an Italian city for an entire year. The loosely formed plot is perfectly easy going for a summer afternoon, but you might want to pace yourself. I read half of this then set it aside for two weeks because it was going too fast. Some books need to be savored like the pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough I keep hidden in the back of the freezer.


Historical Fiction…

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

Drawn in by the title alone, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this one. Set in rural Germany in the early 1600s, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is based on the real story of Katharina Kepler, mother to the astronomer Johannes Kepler. She was accused of being a witch and this book probes into the events leading up to her arrest. Through letters and court transcripts, Galchen gives readers a glimpse at multiple perspectives. The character development is as right as it gets. Despite the heavy subject matter, this book is a total delight.


Suspense…

Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan

Good Neighbors begins with a sinkhole interrupting a neighborhood BBQ and quickly devolves into a puzzle of suburban paranoia and crime. After a year when we became closer to our neighbors than ever, it can be jarring to read a book about murdering your neighbors. So it goes. Come for the thrills, stay for the tender moments. A teen sitting with a boy in her room for the first time: “She liked the smell of him: expensive detergent and pretzels.” Swoon.


Nonfiction…

Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain by Roger Deakin

In 1996, inspired by a John Cheever story and a breakup, writer Roger Deakin set out to swim through the British Isles. His accounts of swimming in the wild are enhanced with snippets of history, geography, politics and lyrical descriptions of the natural world. The original book became a bestseller and has been reissued with a new introduction. Deakin’s writing is simply a dream. Unfortunately, I probably did not read it as the author intended, overlooking a grand swath of ocean. Instead, I was wedged into a sticky lounge chair at the JCC, paragraphs punctuated by the whistles of a power hungry lifeguard. Then again, around these parts, that’s considered going with the flow.


Sci-Fi…

Long Division by Kiese Laymon

This book straight up bangs. Originally published in 2013 and reissued this year, Long Division is a metafictional romp about time-traveling teens set in Mississippi. It explores fame, creativity and the toll of racism. You’ve got to have your head in the game, though, because there are quite a few story threads to follow. 100% worth it.


Poetry…

Buzz Words: Poems about Insects edited by Kimiko Hahn

Poems are perfect for summer because they can sustain multiple interruptions — for popsicle requests, the email to your mom re: her cucumber salad recipe, adjusting the umbrella for optimal coverage. There’s always something. This new anthology celebrates the weird world of bugs, and even the nature haters in the crowd will be charmed by the writing. Some of the poems are super old, dating back to the year 712. One was written by a poet born in 1987. Buzz Words: Poems about Insects is perfect for this summer, as parts of the country are experiencing an invasion of cicadas. “Their song not a song exactly, but a scream at the sun.”


Young Adult…

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

Some people’s idea of fun is nose diving into a longer character-driven crime-thriller. You know who you are. Firekeeper’s Daughter follows a biracial Native American girl investigating a string of drug-related deaths in her community. Set on the Sugar Island Reservation in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, this one made me ignore my family for a week. That’s a compliment, BTW.

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Toby Lowenfels is a writer and mom of three in Nashville. Follow her daily musings at @tobyfels.