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.
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.
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?
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.
Maeve Kerrigan, detective constable with the London Metropolitan Police Force, is once again drawn into a case of multiple murders in Jane Casey’s The Kill. This time the circumstances are hitting close to home. The targets are all police officers on the job, performing their duty in the wake of the police shooting of an innocent teenage boy.
Hundreds of leads must be explored, including the personal lives of the victims. Unearthing the unflattering behavior of victims is a necessary, if unpleasant, part of the job. But when it’s your colleagues that have been viciously attacked it’s particularly painful. Maeve is also protecting a dark secret held by her boss, Superintendent Godley that threatens the success of the entire investigation. Her colleagues, sensing that something is shared between them, wrongfully accuse her of having an affair with the superintendent. While Maeve struggles with her conscience, she’s dealing with Inspector Derwent’s shockingly abrasive, frankly sexist personality. She’s also juggling her relationship with a fellow police officer whose work life is every bit as demanding as Maeve’s.
Casey is accomplished at layering complex situations and sophisticated relationships throughout this police procedural. The characters are raw and flawed; sometimes heroic and sometimes cowardly. Maeve’s voice is powerful, personal and painfully real. We are provided a very clear portrait of the life of a female homicide detective in a male dominated-world. But there is nothing whiny or weak about Maeve; she knows her job and is determined to make her mark.
Casey is the author of the Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning The Stranger You Know. The Kill is the fifth entry in the Maeve Kerrigan series, but is just as enjoyable as a standalone novel. After you’ve finished, the other novels in the series are compelling reads.
Fifteen-year-old Ana Cortez is in a bind when she gets kicked out of her fifth foster home in 10 years in Andi Teran’s debut Ana of California. A contemporary Anne of Green Gables, this Ana of Los Angeles will delight readers in all of the same ways as the original with her spunk, smart mouth and sometimes flawed decision-making.
At this point Ana is left with two options: a group home or a work internship on a farm in Northern California. Ana chooses the latter knowing that if it doesn’t work out, she can file for emancipation when she turns 16, which is just a few months away. Her arrival at Garber Farm owned by siblings Emmett and Abbie isn’t as welcoming as she hoped. Emmett was expecting a 16-year-old boy and thinks they should send her back. But Abbie is thrilled with Ana and is convinced that she will be a good worker. Abbie’s resolve wins out, and Ana’s first week on the farm is a blur of early mornings, hard work and new people. As a denizen of the city with limited familiarity of fresh foods, her learning curve on the farm is steep. Fortunately, farm manager Manny Lavaca takes her under his wings, and Ana appreciates the kindness of this fellow Mexican American.
Ana begins to finally feel comfortable in this place she dares to think of as home, even making her first real friend. But when one bad decision might have her headed back to L.A., she realizes that life, friendship and love is a complicated mess. This charming retelling of a beloved classic introduces an endearing heroine, a small town with quirky characters and a quickly paced coming-of-age story for readers of all ages.
Let’s get it out of the way: Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman is no To Kill a Mockingbird. For 55 years, the reclusive Lee has been lauded for her Pulitzer Prize-winning story of racial inequality and justice in Alabama as told by young Scout, and yet Lee remained a curiosity by shunning publicity and never publishing another word. Earlier this year, the book world was set atwitter with the news that Lee had agreed to the publication of Watchman, an early and forgotten manuscript said to be fodder for what became her beloved classic.
Go Set a Watchman opens with Scout, now Jean Louise Finch and a NYC resident, riding the sleeper car train back to Maycomb for her annual visit. She thinks about marrying childhood friend Hank who now practices law with Atticus, and she prepares for the inevitable head-butting with her Aunt Alexandra, who remains ever the example of proper Southern womanhood. Instead, grown-up Scout finds that she can’t go home again as she discovers the men she reveres have feet of clay, ascribing to a repugnant philosophy of white supremacy, paternalism and disenfranchisement.
Lee’s particular gift of filtering a puzzling world through the mindset of a child shines in Watchman, just as in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise’s memory of when she, Jem and Dill played a backyard game of church revival, which ends with a naked Scout’s “baptism” in an algae-slicked fish pond, is a lovely and gently sardonic poke at small town religious tradition. Both stories deal with coming of age in a community governed by a rigid unforgiving class structure which neither blacks nor whites escape. Watchman, however, seems more firmly rooted in a past when ugly language and divisive actions were acceptable in polite society, and here Jean Louise is left dealing with the unsatisfying ambiguities of adulthood.
Isaiah 21, verse 6: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. The watchman is both the announcer of the events he witnesses and a moral compass. Go Set a Watchman serves to remind the reader of the imperative to follow one’s conscience.
Annie Barrows resurrects the spirit of a small West Virginia town in 1938 in The Truth According to Us. Layla Beck, the privileged daughter of a U.S. Senator, has struck a blow for independence and refused to marry a very wealthy bore. The senator decides if Layla wishes to be independent then she can make her own way in the world. Forced to take a position as a writer with the Works Progress Administration, Layla finds herself in Macedonia, tasked with documenting the history of the town for its sesquicentennial celebration.
Layla boards with the Romeyn family and finds a font of information in her landlady, Jottie. Having lost the love of her life, Jottie has devoted herself to her brother’s children, Willa and Bird. Willa, an irrepressible, surprisingly wise 12-year-old, is determined to uphold the qualities of ferocity and devotion. Willa’s father Felix is a charming cad no one seems to be able to refuse, especially women.
As Layla unearths a wealth of not entirely flattering information to the self-proclaimed important people of the town, she falls deeper under the spell of the scheming Felix. Jottie, fearing for Layla, struggles with demons from her tragic past. The indomitable Willa, hoping to dig up what her father is really up to on those business trips, finds far more truth than anyone can hope to handle.
Barrows tells an irresistible story, slowly unfolding an 18-year-old secret. Labor unrest, social standing, old scandals and new heartbreaks define a town struggling to survive. Barrows’ characters are witty, wise and wonderfully genuine. She is the co-author of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and her latest offering is not to be missed.