Journeys filled with mouthwatering delicacies and hair-raising adventures. Family secrets. Hidden desires and criminal cover-ups. Missing girls. (Always, so many missing girls.) Forays into sin and redemption. Fantastical worlds found at the border… and in Florida. Stories of love and loss and love found again. Journeys from Russia to Mongolia, Zambia to the Netherlands, and all across the United States.
These are the scenes and stories that will populate your memories of the summer of 2019 when you spend the long, hot days diving into the best new reads of the season. (Editor’s note: This list pairs best with a sandy beach.)
Orange World by Karen Russell
Russell’s short stories are delightfully jarring, lulling readers into worlds that seem familiar, only to take a sudden turn to the bizarre. Whether you find yourself in the economically and physically fraught world of tornado farmers, rooting for two young grifters attempting to escape the romantic overtures of a ghostly construction crew whose members don’t realize they’re dead, or wincing at a new mother’s desperate deal with the devil, Russell offers vividly imagined, precisely told stories that will propel you down a dark and twisted roller-coaster that you hope will never end.
Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
For anyone who is a fan of Brodesser-Akner’s feature writing—and who isn’t?—it will come as no surprise that her debut novel is an incisive, rousing success. Toby Fleishman is a recent divorcee trying to navigate the new jungle of online dating while maintaining his duties as a dad and a doctor. But when his ex-wife goes missing, he begins to question all the stories he has told himself about his relationship. Fleishman Is in Trouble offers a fresh take on modern relationships and mid-life reckonings in a story that complicates the roles of gender, social status, and ambition, with a delightfully comical exploration of emoji culture to boot.
Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer
What would you do if you were a restless high-school graduate who had no idea what to do with your life? If you were Lara Prior-Palmer, you would sign up for the longest and most dangerous horse race in the world. Rough Magic is Prior-Palmer’s wry, no-holds-barred account of how she went from finding herself at the starting line of the 1,000-kilometer Mongol Derby with zero training and zero business riding in the race to becoming the youngest person and first woman to ever win. While some of her antics will leave you questioning her sanity—“who is your mother?” one incredulous competitor was finally driven to ask—her self-awareness and refusal to take herself too seriously will have you galloping through this batshit crazy romp of hardship and hilarity.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
“Even in death the boys were trouble.” So begins Whitehead’s latest novel, a dark and poetically wrought tale of the Jim Crow South that is being touted as a companion to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad. Based on a true story, The Nickel Boys follows two young black boys who are sentenced to an infamous juvenile reformatory in Florida. What follows is a compact, horror-filled novel whose story of injustice, abuse, and incarceration in the 1960s has echoed through the decades.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
At this point, it almost feels obligatory to include the latest Sally Rooney novel in “best of” round-ups, but the decision is no hardship when the acclaim is this well deserved. Rooney writes the modern coming-of-age novel in a style unlike any of her contemporaries. Connell and Marianne’s lives have crossed paths since high school. In sparse, highly charged prose, Rooney documents the ebbs and flows of their relationship as they deal with the anxieties of class, love, and the ever-shifting sands of popularity that will feel all too familiar to anyone who has come of age in the 21st century.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert has taught us the importance of traveling as spiritual self-care, how to harness our creativity, and the shifting global context of marriage. But with City of Girls, she offers up pure, unadulterated entertainment. This novel is the quintessential summer read painting a vibrant portrait of New York in the 1940s through the eyes of one young girl who finds herself in the character-filled world of a working-class theater and who refuses to follow the rules set by society or to accept anything short of wringing the most she can out of her life.
Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
This compelling mystery will scoop you up from page one and won’t let go until the very end. Told from the perspectives of three different women in the Lee family—Ma and her daughters Sylvie and Amy—the novel is an emotional story of the search for identity and belonging across cultures and within one’s own immigrant family. Come for the mystery surrounding Sylvie’s disappearance, and stay for Kwok’s empathetic and masterful exploration of the painful choices one family makes to survive and the unintended consequences of intergenerational secrets and misunderstandings.
Honestly, We Meant Well by Grant Ginder
You could plan a trip to Greece this summer, or you could stake out a chair at your local pool and travel to the sun-baked islands by way of Grant Ginder’s rollicking treat of a novel. Each member of the Wright family has the best of intentions that are thwarted by the lies, affairs, and secrets into which they can’t help themselves from bumbling. Against the backdrop of a Greece that comes alive on the page, Ginder stages a smart and endlessly entertaining tragicomedy in which the follies of the protagonists rival those of the Greek gods.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
In August, two young sisters disappear from the remote Russian town of Kamchatka after spending a day at the beach. What follows is a gorgeous exploration of the crime’s ripple effects over the following year as told through the lives of local women and girls. With echoes of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, each chapter opens the curtain on the life and mind of a different female resident in an innovative style that is part subtle thriller, part psychological portrait of a community of women whose lives seem both so far away and so close to home.
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
The fact that this hefty and ambitious novel is Serpell’s debut is astonishing. The Old Drift is a deeply ambitious story spanning centuries and continents that manages to be both sprawling and intimate. With a vein of magical realism that nods to Gabriel García Márquez, the novel introduces readers to unique and complex characters whose lives interrogate the effects of colonialism and political power struggles, love and loss, the ordinary and the extraordinary all in Serpell’s poetic prose that will cast a spell over you.
Whisper Network by Chandler Baker
Part page-turning thriller, part smart examination of the #MeToo movement, part feminist rallying cry, Whisper Network is a wildly entertaining and empowering tale for anyone who has dealt with sexist micro-aggressions or outright sexual harassment from that guy at work. (Oh yes, we all know the one.) Baker’s insights are so on the nose that they can elicit a visceral response (“I want to punch him in the face,” I furiously scrawled in one margin). But whether you’re screaming in frustration or raising a glass in sisterhood, Whisper Network is the satisfying “beach read” we’ve earned. As the one-line prologue reads, “If only you’d listened to us, none of this would have happened.”
Finding himself in a bit of a rut, Gordinier’s life is changed in 2014 when he receives a phone call from René Redzepi. Suddenly “anointed” by and welcomed into the inner circle of one of the greatest chefs in the world, Gordinier follows the Noma guru and his coterie—think Danny Bowien, David Chang, and Malcolm Livingston— around the world for four years, bringing the sights, sounds, and, most importantly, flavors of his pilgrimage to life with such colorful and rich detail that you can almost taste them. While their quest for culinary nirvana can get a bit bro-y, there is nothing short of magic in this globetrotting tale that leads to descriptions like that of Enrique Olvera’s mole as “an epic poem about history and time.”
Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang
Wang has established herself as a must-read literary force with this debut collection of stories that brings to life characters from the Chinese diaspora. From Mott Street to Los Angeles, Beijing to the remote province of Heilongjiang, these stories explore issues of immigration, privilege, maturation, and the compromises young people must make in order to survive and thrive. Each story introduces readers to a wildly different scene and characters—a troubled member of the wealthy parachute generation, a working-class man who makes a questionable choice to better his station, the abandoned kids of desperate immigrants—but each one underscores the imaginative and compelling mind of this fresh new voice.
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
The relationship between sisters is complicated in the best of times, but when you add in a family secret, the ripple effects of tragedy, and the pressure of trying to live up to the true love of your seemingly perfect parents, things get even messier. Told in vibrant, unsparing detail, Lombardo’s sizable debut novel shows how the spoken and unspoken, the good and the bad, weaves itself into a family’s DNA over a lifetime and can unravel in a single, life-changing year.
The Queen by Josh Levin
There is something uniquely special about a work that sets out to re-examine the origin of an American social trope—the original “welfare queen”—and results in such a meticulously researched book that both complicates ideas of race and class many previously took for-granted and reads like one of the most outlandish true crime capers of the season. Linda Taylor was largely forgotten after being confined to jail in the late 20th century, but after Josh Levin’s gripping investigation, it will be no surprise if she becomes a household name for her complicated and fascinating criminal career.
Tears of the Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores
This novel is unlike any you will have read before. Set on the South Texas border in a fantastical world that is only barely recognizable (they’re on their third wall), Flores weaves an enthralling, mind-bending tale about a border resident who sets out on a quest for an animal who lives on only in legend: the trufflepig. Smart, entertaining, and highly relevant, Flores’s trippy novel is a delight.