The days of summer are dwindling down, and all of the blockbuster movies we were waiting to see have long been released. What’s a cinephile to do when there’s not much left worth seeing in the month of August? Here are three entertaining novels that fall into typical movie genres to help you get through the rest of summer.
Looking for an edgy intergenerational dramedy? Pick up Mat Johnson’s Loving Day. Warren Duffy has returned to the Philadelphia ghetto to claim the dilapidated roofless “mansion” left to him by his recently deceased Irish American father, his black mother having died years before. Warren’s life can’t possibly get any worse, or so he thinks. He’s a not very good, not very successful comic book artist. He identifies as a black man although he’s so light complexioned he consciously overcompensates in an attempt to fit in. His marriage is over and the comic book shop his wife bankrolled for him has gone belly-up. He owes her some serious money and his only hopes of making some quick cash is drawing for hire at a comic book convention. Imagine Warren’s surprise when one of the convention attendees turns out to be the teenage daughter he never knew he had. Tal is more than surprised to learn about her racial identity, having been raised by her Jewish grandfather. She chalks up her hair and features to imagined Israeli roots. Johnson’s down-and-out protagonist retains his ironic sense of humor as he is forced to man up and become a father while exploring his own racial identity and helping his daughter to do the same. Potential love interests for both father and daughter make things interesting, especially since they stem from a special charter school at The Mélange Center, dedicated to helping biracial persons “find the sacred balance” between their black and white perspectives. Broadly comic and insightful as it comments on race issues today, Loving Day explores the dynamics of relationships of all kinds.
If suspenseful thrillers are your thing, look no further Michael Koryta’s latest. Last Words follows Florida investigator Mark Novak, a man whose wife and colleague at their pro bono legal firm is killed under mysterious circumstances. A year and a half later, a distracted and still distraught Novak is sent by his boss to a snow-covered Indiana small town to look into the unsolved murder of a 17-year-old girl, Sarah Martin. Although the case has been cold for nearly 10 years, it’s still very much on the minds of the residents of Garrison. It seems the main suspect, the eccentric outcast Ridley Barnes, wrote the firm to specifically request Novak’s services. Barnes raison d’etre is the continued exploration of the supercave beneath the town, a cave he believes is almost a living being. Barnes was the one who emerged from that cave with Sara Martin’s body after a search team failed to locate her. But Novak soon finds out that the caver isn’t the only potential suspect, and that the citizens of Garrison are not very happy to see the case revisited. Novak makes a crucial mistake heading into the case — he fails to do any research before he arrives, a decision he regrets almost immediately. Tightly plotted with interesting, well-developed characters and plenty of suspenseful action, both in the past and present, Last Words would make an excellent screen adaptation. Koryta has chosen an interesting backdrop for the potential crime, and he uses the cave and the exploration of its dark, cold, claustrophobic, labyrinthine network to suspenseful potential.
For the thrill of a satisfying psychological horror film, it’s hard to top Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. As the book begins, 20-something Merry is returning to her family’s former Massachusetts home (now fallen to ruin and up for sale) to meet with a bestselling author. Merry has a fascinating story to tell, one that continues to permeate all aspects of her life. Fifteen years earlier, the Barretts were struggling. Their father had been out of work for some time, and they were in danger of losing their house. Teen Marjorie had begun acting strangely. The stories she has always told 8-year-old Merry have taken on a sinister tone, and she delights in upsetting her. Strange things start to happen. Is it mental illness or something supernatural? While their stressed mother takes Marjorie to a therapist, their father opts for visits with a Catholic priest with ties to the media. Soon, the cash-strapped Barretts foolishly agree to allow their situation to become a reality television show, The Possession, as a way to pay the mortgage. Tremblay builds suspense and tension by telling the story through present day Merry, 8-year-old Merry and a snarky horror blogger named Karen who is deconstructing The Possession 15 years later. A Head Full of Ghosts is funny, clever and thoroughly chilling. Tremblay brings in plot elements from many famous horror movies, even as he pays homage to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story of madness “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Shirley Jackson’s classic gothic chiller We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Could Marjorie have been faking the whole thing, or was she possessed a la The Exorcist?
Amelia Tate lands the role of a lifetime when she, a relative unknown, is cast to play Princess Ann in a remake of the classic film Roman Holiday. That’s the role that catapulted Audrey Hepburn to fame, and Amelia is over the moon with excitement in Rome in Love by Anita Hughes. Her life couldn’t be more perfect with this dream job, a handsome boyfriend and two months of living and working in the picturesque capital of Italy.
Once settled in Rome, Amelia’s reality doesn’t live up to the fantasy. She struggles with the part, her fear of failure and the director’s intense expectations. She also learns that distance doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder when her boyfriend presents her with an ultimatum of him or her career. While dealing with the breakup she must also cope with the ever-present paparazzi and longs for anonymity. On one of her escapes she meets handsome journalist Philip, who believes she is a hotel maid. As their relationship develops and attraction deepens, the guilt she harbors about concealing her identity intensifies. Little does she know that she’s not the only one hiding the truth.
Staying in the same suite Hepburn did during her filming helps bring Amelia closer to her idol, especially when she finds a stash of letters Audrey wrote during her filming. She also befriends a young woman named Sophie, a princess enjoying one last hurrah until an arranged marriage will force her to settle down. Together the two take every opportunity to discover the bountiful riches throughout Rome, and along the way find love that could jeopardize both of their worlds. This enjoyable read will entrance readers with fairy-tale romance, transporting them to modern Rome with sumptuous descriptions of food, drink and fashion.
Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari is the latest comedian to try his hand as an author. Rather than write the typical memoir, Ansari has joined sociologist Eric Klinenberg to study dating in Modern Romance. Ansari and Klinenberg conducted research around the world in an attempt to discover how romance has changed in recent years and present it to readers in relatable way.
The pair started their research by asking residents of a New York retirement community how they found love when they were in their early 20s. They used this as a baseline to compare with the results from focus groups about modern romance. Some in the groups even allowed Ansari and Klinenberg to look through their phones to see how they interacted with potential mates through texts or on various online dating apps like Tinder or OkCupid. The pair also analyzed differences around the world, interviewing people from the United States, Argentina, France and Japan. The cultural differences were striking, as were the differences between larger cities in the United States, like New York City and Los Angeles, and smaller cities like Monroe, New York and Wichita, Kansas.
Modern Romance may not be what longtime fans of Ansari expect, but this sociological look at the world of dating is infused with his signature humor. Those familiar with Ansari’s standup routines will see similarities from some of his bits, such as analyzing people’s text messages. Listening to the book adds another layer of humor, with Ansari as the narrator who occasionally steps beyond that role to make fun of the listener. Modern Romance is an informative, funny look at the world of dating.
The lush setting of Barbados — its rich history and tenacious people — is the backdrop of Naomi Jackson’s elegantly-written debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill.
Sixteen-year-old Dionne and her 10-year-old sister Phaedra are shipped to live with their tough grandmother Hyacinth in Barbados to lessen the burden on their ill mother. The culture shock of living in a world apart from their beloved Brooklyn and navigating the tumultuous waters of adolescence in a place foreign to them is starting to wear on their own sense of self and their relationship with each other.
Dionne’s desire to be a true American teenager — with parties, dates and taking risks — contrasts sharply with the Bird Hill neighborhood of close-knit women. Whispers of her own mother’s difficult teenage years follow her around, and she wants desperately to be both similar to and separate from that legacy.
Phaedra observes how the entire community leans on her grandmother for support, both in this world and beyond. Hyacinth’s practice of obeah, an ancient mysticism of the West Indies, lures Phaedra into learning as much as she can from her grandmother. As the festival time of Kadooment Day draws near, Dionne and Phaedra will have to reconcile their past selves with their new lives, and make a difficult decision about where they want to be.
Richly constructed and heartbreakingly honest, this beautiful novel should be at the top of the summer reading list for fans of Zadie Smith and Alice McDermott. Those looking for a new, bold literary voice will find one in Naomi Jackson.
Who doesn’t love a cookie? As a baker and lover of cookies and all things sweet, I couldn't pass up this book once I saw it on the new book shelf. Cookie Love by Mindy Segal is getting some love from the critics. It even made the Epicurious list of 30 spring cookbooks. They are excited about it, and for good reason.
Deliciousness abounds in eight chapters of various types of cookies, from drop to sandwich to twice baked. You'll want to bake all 60 recipes. Segal provides us with an introduction to each cookie, how she came to love it, tips for baking each cookie and information about the ingredients. As any baker knows, Segal says she never bakes a recipe just once, but rather tries to improve upon it each time. Segal is a James Beard Award-winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef, so this book is sure to please.
If you're looking to satisfy your sweet tooth, this is the book for you! The recipes are detailed enough that any baker new or old will be at home in the kitchen. I can’t wait to try out some of these recipes. Chunky Bars were my favorite candy bar as a child, so I'll be making Ode to the Chunky Bar very soon.
Sophie Kinsella, of Shopaholic series fame, returns with the new teen novel Finding Audrey. Protagonist Audrey is a 14-year-old British teen who has undergone severe bullying at the hand of her classmates. This has caused her a great deal of anxiety and depression, which leads to her leaving school, wearing dark glasses all the time and rarely leaving her house.
Audrey’s family is incredibly supportive of her, even if they don’t always understand her anxiety disorder. Her family, consisting of mom, dad, older brother Frank and younger brother Felix, provide levity throughout the story. Their antics, which Audrey records in a video diary that her supportive therapist suggests she make, are hilarious. When her brother’s friend, Linus, begins coming over to their house to practice for a gaming tournament, Audrey is pushed out of her comfort zone. She finds herself relearning how to interact with people other than her family. As Audrey becomes more comfortable with Linus, she finds herself wanting to push herself more, at times frustrated with what she thinks is her slow progress.
Kinsella has written an honest portrayal of a teen with anxiety — Audrey isn’t magically fixed, but has to work hard to make progress with a combination of therapy and medication. Finding Audrey is at times funny, sad and romantic — switching between video diary script and traditional prose. Kinsella has written a novel that will appeal to teen readers as much as it does to adults.
The novel In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware is a gripping page-turner guaranteed to become a must-read for the summer. Ten years ago, Leonora stopped going by Lee and became Nora. She left her past behind her, moved to a new location and became a successful and reclusive novelist. Nora soon receives a dubious email inviting her to a bachelorette party somewhere in the English Countryside to celebrate the nuptials of her old college friend, Clare. When the weekend is over, Nora wakes up in a hospital bed, severely bruised, having survived an apparent car crash. Scanning her recent memory, she can’t recall the events that lead her there, and with the arrival of the police, she realizes that something is very wrong. Someone at the party is dead, and Nora cannot be sure that she is not the murderer.
In a Dark, Dark Wood is a psychological thriller at its best. Ware keeps the reader as much in the dark as the menacing woods surrounding the house where the action takes place. The atmosphere is tense, taught and slightly disturbing, and the reader will feel an impending sense of dread right along with Nora. As each piece of the story is slowly revealed, the reader will be glued to the pages until the final outcome — great for readers who enjoy domestic suspense. Readers who enjoy this title may also want to try The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford, Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly or Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty.
In The Sculptor by Scott McCloud, David Smith has made a deal with Death. He is given 200 days to make his mark on the art world — for the things he makes to come out just as he imagines them. But he's David Smith, awkward and angry, and a man of strong opinions and often hard edges, stiff and unbending. With his mortality in short supply, David has just met the love of his life.
The Sculptor is a great many things. It is made up of the countless small moments and memories that make up a life. It is made up of the big ideas that drive those moments. This is a metacommentary on the expression of life through art, and if that sounds intimidating, it shouldn't be because this story comes from the capable hands of Scott McCloud, who literally wrote the book on graphic novels as an art form (Understanding Comics, 1993).
With Understanding Comics, McCloud took apart graphic novels, studying how pieces large and small, overt and subtle, fit together to create tones, ideas, impacts and stories. The book is a masterwork of art criticism, necessary and friendly reading for anyone who wants to understand graphic novels or any other form of narrative art.
In The Sculptor, McCloud has put the parts he explained back together, and the result is nothing less than a masterpiece. This is not a book so much as it is a symphony, with great rising movements, drumming beats, soft counter melodies and a wave of pictures and people living through ordinary lives in extraordinary ways.
This is a big read, with questions about art, integrity, family, love, purpose. But it is also a peaceful read. Everything is colored in a soft, blue-gray that never stresses the eyes. David walks the simple, complex and bittersweet joys of growing into a new love. The images come with the wild energy of an artist pushing their boundaries as hard as they can, living alongside quiet domestic scenes, neither ever drowning each other out.
Which is better, to live a good life or to throw everything into a calling?
Virginia Boecker was able to cross an item off her bucket list when she published her debut novel The Witch Hunter. As an English history buff, Boecker was spending time in London when she was inspired to write the novel. Though this story takes place in a very different world, where witches and other paranormal creatures are common place, the setting is reminiscent of old world England.
It’s 1558, in a place known as Anglia, where witches and other creatures are pitted against the monarchy for the right to live and practice their beliefs freely. The country is divided with many wanting to see witchcraft practiced openly. King Malcom and his grand inquisitor do all they can to eradicate witches and witchcraft by having a small and elite band of witch hunters that tracks and captures witches who are later burned alive.
By day, Elizabeth Grey is a servant in the kitchen. By night, she is one of the king’s most capable witch hunters. When she is caught with a collection of suspicious herbs, she is arrested as a witch. It’s while she sits rotting in a cell and awaiting her execution that she finds an unlikely ally who leads her to question her black and white world. Could it be that she has been manipulated by the very people she trusts the most, or is she simply being misled?
This young adult novel is a wicked mashup of genres, from romance to adventure, with a healthy dose of historical paranormal fiction to tie it all together. If this is your magical brew, look to Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes for another gripping historical paranormal fantasy with a strong female protagonist, who also has a tendency to challenge authority.
Sarah Gerard’s unnamed narrator in Binary Star is channeled from a place most of us will never visit in our lifetimes. It’s a wonder that Gerard is capable of emerging from this place only to return again for the sake of siphoning creative energies, and her trial blurs the story in Binary Star into an unsettling reality.
The nameless protagonist in Binary Star is a young woman studying astronomy at Adelphi University in New York. She is anorexic and bulimic. Her boyfriend John lives in Chicago and is an alcoholic and an abuser of prescribed medication. The narrator is at a point in her life where she feels completely directionless. Though she’s intelligent enough to realize the cause of her misery is her failing health — she weighs just a hair over 90 pounds — she refuses to break the cycle she’s trapped in. John denies his condition with boisterous, masculine assertions, often leading to broken bones and bruised egos. Together, the two are a pathetic spectacle — but at least they’re something.
Gerard illustrates in Binary Star that sometimes people need each other in order to exist. Splashes of science parallel this tumultuous relationship:
A binary star is a system containing two stars that orbit their common center of mass. The relative brightness of stars in a binary system is important. Glare from a bright star can make detecting a fainter companion difficult.
They embark on a road trip with no real destination, which necessitates visits with old acquaintances and frequent stops at convenience stores. Through vegan literature collected during their journey, the couple becomes devoted to anarchy-fueled ecoterrorism. Will this new cause balance their orbit, or cause them to violently burn out?
Readers who enjoyed the classic anonymously written and narrated novel Go Ask Alice will find a lot of similarities in Binary Star. For more literary work on the topic of eating disorders, readers should look for How to Disappear Completely by Kelsey Osgood.