Summer is for diving into pools and books, and combining the two pursuits with a good waterside read. We’re excited to team up with the Texas Book Festival for a summer reading guide this year. Here, Austin authors Amy Gentry and Maya Perez and Book Fest literary director Julie Wernersbach share what they love about summer and reading, along with book recommendations you can use to load up your e-reader or fill your library request list. Bonus: Wernersbach is going to share more recommendations monthly throughout the year. Look for those starting in June, and join our Austin360 Book Club on Facebook to share what you're reading and connect with fellow book lovers. The Texas Book Festival will be Oct. 26-27, and they have other events throughout the year. Keep up at texasbookfestival.org. — Sharon Chapman, executive features editor
Listen to our Austin360 podcast, 'I Love You So Much':
As a child, summertime meant the pleasure of reading a book all (or nearly all) in one long, lazy sitting, preferably outdoors. The experience, already rare in my adult life, nearly vanished altogether when I became a mother. The trick to hanging onto that summer feeling, I’ve found, lies in books that are exquisitely short, to the point and packed with atmosphere. Here are some of my favorites:
“Ghachar Ghochar” by Vivek Shanbhag: The title phrase of this delicious novella-length book about one family’s changing fortunes in Bangalore means “all tangled up,” but Shanbhag weaves the threads together with such deceptive simplicity that you won’t see the knot coming until you’re already snared. A one-sitting read that will lull you with perfect prose and then leave you gasping.
“A Room With a View” by E. M. Forster: The original summer lovin’ story, spiked with Forster’s trademark wit. Written in 1908, this romantic confection about buttoned-up Lucy Honeychurch falling in love with free-spirited George Emerson flies by on a hazy Italian breeze.
“The Summer Book” by Tove Jansson: Summer’s right there in the title of this funny, wistful novel-in-vignettes following the exploits of a 6-year-old girl and her grandmother on an idyllic Finnish isle. Jansson, who wrote and illustrated the wildly popular Moomins cartoon, sketches the relationship between an aging woman and her wayward granddaughter with a playfulness that brushes up against melancholy, without ever veering into Precious Moments sentiment. The result is something you can read between hammock naps that will stay with you forever.
“The Girls of Slender Means” by Muriel Spark: Divine and wicked by turns, Spark is always charming, and never more so than in her seventh novel about a boarding house for young ladies in Kensington in the 1940s. What seems at first blush like a humorous group portrait of the girls in the house eventually reveals itself to be an intricate puzzle explaining a single moment of surprising violence and poignancy — all in a book as slender as the title implies.
“Hollywood Homicide” by Kellye Garrett: For sheer page-flipping delight, it’s hard to beat the shenanigans of actress-turned-sleuth Dayna Anderson. The first book in Garrett’s "Detective by Day" series won multiple awards for its cozy mystery premise, keen evocation of L.A.’s cars-and-consignment-shops culture and lovable cast of celebrity-adjacent misfits. But it’s down-on-her-luck Dayna, whom we first meet getting turned down for a job at a Hooters-type establishment, who steals the show. The only book on my list that cracks 300 pages, it still reads like a poolside dream.
“Conundrum” by Jan Morris: Elegant and moving, this 1974 memoir by travel writer Jan Morris begins with her earliest memory of sitting under a piano at age 3, knowing she was a girl “born into the wrong body.” Conundrum traces Morris’s fascinating life as a soldier, explorer, spouse and parent, both before and after her transition. While certain sections set in the waning British empire date poorly, Morris’ gorgeous prose so brilliantly captures mood and atmosphere that readers find themselves voyaging straight into the conundrum of identity itself.
“Lot” by Bryan Washington: This debut short story collection out of Houston hums with the hot breath of a city that’s been perhaps the most grievously overlooked and underwritten in American fiction. Stories about one gay, biracial boy’s coming-of-age in Alief are both brutal and tender, and flashes of other lives and neighborhoods ably balance the voice of a community with the specificity of a single life, making Washington a writer to watch.
“Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway” by Sara Gran: I’ve grabbed so many lapels urging people to buy and read Sara Gran’s books that I’m developing a hand cramp. Claire DeWitt, the hard-boiled hipster detective at the center of Gran’s metaphysical noir trilogy, scorches the pages with her melancholy, self-destructive genius in every book, but the second in the trilogy works on its own as a remarkable stand-alone evoking a world just a bit sadder, stranger and truer than our own.
RELATED: In Amy Gentry's ‘Last Woman Standing,’ fury, comedy and tech go hand in hand
As the kid who brought a book to slumber parties, the local library's summer reading list always made me giddy, promising introductions to fascinating new characters and worlds. Older, I’d dedicate summers to reading through the oeuvres of Terry McMillan, Sidney Sheldon, Gloria Naylor, Danielle Steel and Stephen King. For summer reading I want novels that grab me immediately — no wading through several chapters to get hooked — stories that will keep me up late, my eyes burning, unable to put the book down until I finish. Here is my summer reading list, to be enjoyed on the grassy hill of Barton Springs, on a long car ride, in an air-conditioned library and into the early hours of the morning.
“Kindred” by Octavia Butler: Dana, a modern black woman, is unpacking books in her California home, acclimating to married life with her new husband, when she’s summarily transported to the antebellum South. “Kindred” starts with a bang, and this horror story is all the more terrifying for Butler’s matter-of-factness. But it’s not without humor and, on one of Dana’s brief jerks back to her present, I couldn’t help but think, “Oh, God, yes,” when she grabs a toothbrush, toothpaste and painkillers in preparation for her inevitable return to a time with seriously lacking hygiene and medical care.
“My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite: Wanted or not, siblings often claim specific roles within a family — the overachiever, the athlete, the beauty — and Nigerian sisters Ayoola and Korede are inextricably connected by theirs: the serial killer and the one who cleans up afterward. As the net of law enforcement closes in, jealousy, betrayal and good old sibling rivalry threaten to upend their precarious situation, and Braithwaite deftly eases out that there are other events that connect them, events from which there is no escape.
“Good as Gone” by Amy Gentry: Two things I love in stories: unreliable narrators and good people who do bad things. Gentry’s suburban suspense story delivers on both. It kicks off with the terror of a kidnapped girl, and the mystery only increases when, years later, she — or someone claiming to be her — returns. At the heart of this carefully structured novel — each chapter seeming to lead us further from the truth even as more information is revealed — is the uncomfortable realization that sometimes the most unreliable narrators are the people we think we know best and that often the truth is the most difficult story to accept.
“The Old Drift” by Namwali Serpell: This is the epic, continents-crossing, multigenerational great Zambian novel the world needs. Take your time with this incredible saga that follows three families as they ribbon in and out of each other’s lives, attempting to make their lasting marks in an unsympathetic world. Set against the backdrop of developing Zambia, this work of speculative fiction has it all — bush life, fancy hotels, safari culture, political revolution, sex, drones, betrayals, electro-nerve technology and a virus that wipes out more than 15 percent of the population. I want to call “The Old Drift” sprawling for all the territory it covers, but there’s nothing loose or lazy about Serpell’s tightly crafted sentences and story as she shows the endurance and vulnerability of people trying to keep their heads above water against the overpowering waves of time and societal evolution. Extra points for taking me back to my teen years of making out with boys in the shadows at the Agricultural Show at Showgrounds in Lusaka — aside from library reading lists, is there a more summer activity than that?
“She Would Be King” by Wayétu Moore: Can a curse also be a gift? Part slavery narrative, part "X-Men," this thrilling debut novel explores personal identity alongside the formation of Liberia, the settlement established in Africa for free-born and newly freed African Americans. Told from the perspectives of three unforgettable characters — a woman who cannot die, an enslaved man with superhuman strength and a boy with the power to make himself invisible — the strangest aspect of this story turns out not to be the elements of magical realism but the very real history of slavery and the subsequent project of this “free colony.”
For me, summer is all about hitting the road and reading on blankets alongside Texas rivers, in camping chairs at state parks and in the passenger seat on long car rides. I love books that transport me to different places and times, that send me on mini-vacations within my vacation. And then there are those big, hot summer days when I stick around Austin and want a great collection of essays to read in between dips at Deep Eddy and short story collections that don't mind being tossed in a tote bag and sipped with a good glass of iced coffee or wine on a shaded patio. My summer reading is always as wandering and eclectic as those sunny days. Here are some of the books that are drifting with me this season.
“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong: File this under: Summer reads do not have to be breezy. The reconciliation of a family’s past with its present, the effect of the Vietnam War through generations, and a young man’s sexual awakening and coming of age all weave through this remarkable novel by an award-winning poet. There is a vitality in this language that buckles the reader to the hard truths of history while transcending the grief, giving us something more, something beautiful, a lily and rose and young love, all in the intimate form of a letter to a mother from a son. This story will stay with you.
“Night Moves” by Jessica Hopper: I love a summer read that takes me to a different time and place. In Hopper’s case, the place is Chicago and the time is her youth, riding around listening to underground indie bands, hanging out with her friends, discovering music, discovering herself. The short chapters make this a perfect book to dip in and out of in between jumps into Barton Springs.
“Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi: This novel knocked me out. Set in a performing arts high school and following the intimate lives of its students, this story takes a big turn in the middle. Stick with it and be prepared to have everything you thought you knew turned on its head. Choi delves into the murky territory of truth. How do we know it? Who do we trust to tell it? How do we ever know what really happened between two people?
“The Leavers” by Lisa Ko: A mother-son story set in New York’s Chinatown, “The Leavers” was a finalist for the National Book Award and received many other accolades when it was first published. Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to work at a nail salon one morning and never returns. Her son, adopted and raised by a white family in upstate New York, comes of age never knowing what truly happened to his mother. The story moves through themes of family, belonging, assimilation and the difficult choices of a complicated mother.
“We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” by Samantha Irby: This collection of ab-so-lute-ly hilarious essays reads like a long, wine-laced night with the good friend who isn’t afraid to share totally honest and unpopular opinions about sex, life, love, mental health, aging, family, money, work and being alive in a seriously less-than-perfect world. Irby is by turns irascible and endearing, self-deprecating and self-assured. In fashioning herself as an anti-hero with a penchant for cheap and dirty meals, doomed relationships and a happy life of cranky spinsterhood, Irby cracks sharp jokes with one hand while revealing poignant emotional vulnerability with the other. Just be careful – you may laugh so hard you fall right out of your hammock.
“Death in the Air” by Kate Winkler Dawson: Personally, I think summer is a great time to delve into big history. In her riveting book, Dawson looks at five days at the end of 1952, when smog covered London and put the city on lockdown. In the strange and dangerous darkness, as more than ten thousand people died from the poison air, a serial killer struck. True crime meets environmental catastrophe in this impossible-to-put-down story of a chilling moment in British history.