Summer brings vacations, lazy days at the beach, and lots of time for reading. Literary Mama editors and staff put together a list of some of the books we’ve been enjoying. We hope these quick reviews provide some inspiration for your summer reading list!
What other books are on your Summer Reading List? Tell us in the comments below!
Creative Nonfiction Editor Kate Haas writes, “I just finished reading All the Horses of Iceland by medievalist Sarah Tolmie and am still trying to figure out what makes this slim novel so intriguing and hard to forget. A ninth century Norse trader goes on a journey with a caravan, arriving at last on the steppes of Central Asia, where he acquires some horses and brings them back to Iceland. Along the way there are wars to avoid, foreign customs to navigate, and eventually, with the help of a grieving mother (who is also a sorceress), a ghost to placate. (There’s also a magical mare.) All of this is related with great straightforwardness, in a plain, understated style, much like that of the narrator. Yet the whole thing is so thrilling—this imagined glimpse of another time and place, when so much about the world was unknown to most of the people in it.”
Senior Editor Christina Consolino writes, “I recently made the acquaintance of Elizabeth Sumner Wafler, author and podcast host of The Evocative Author and fellow member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She wants her readers to be ‘imbued with a sense of hope and possibility—with the magic that can happen when someone first pokes a toe out of her comfort zone and decides to make things happen.’ And that’s just what the characters in her latest novel, Topanga Canyon, do. The book focuses on Dare O’Day, a candy heiress turned editor living in Virginia and her somewhat estranged daughter, Caroline, who lives in an intentional community in Topanga Canyon, California. When Dare is caught up in a community scandal, she decides to take a chance and visit her daughter, who welcomes her into the fold. Despite her initial reservations, she soon finds herself charmed by and embracing this new ‘found family.’ Topanga Canyon is a satisfying story of mothers and daughters, the strength of their bond, and how time and forgiveness can bring about healing, even when secrets are at stake. Wafler’s characters are genuine, both complex and flawed, and their emotional story reminds the reader that second chances are often worth the risk. A lovely, heartwarming read.”
Managing Editor Jenny Bartoy writes, “I’ve recently found great pleasure in listening to audiobooks on my daily walks and just finished Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life by Alan Cumming. Bookended by stories of his two marriages, the first to a woman and the second twenty or so years later to a man, this memoir recounts the actor’s trajectory from rural Scotland to Hollywood and Broadway. Baggage may be chock-full of cinematic adventures and theatrical shenanigans, but at heart it’s a poignant coming-of-age tale. With writerly chops and self-deprecating wit, Cumming examines what it takes exactly to become an authentic, happy person. Years ago, I read his first memoir, Not My Father’s Son, an engrossing story in which he wrote about his youth under the rule of an abusive father and his subsequent estrangement from him. Where Not My Father’s Son spiraled inward however, Baggage bursts outward. Cumming wrestles with his trauma and his success, but he forges a path forward through truth and unabashed openness. I found Baggage laugh-out-loud hilarious but also deeply moving and inspiring. Cumming is an excellent performer. With a luscious Scottish brogue, he projects charm and a compelling intensity. The audiobook is a treat.”
Managing Editor Tracy Stewart writes, “I’ve just finished David Hockney – A Life by Catherine Cusset. Translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan, it’s a slim volume, perfect for summer reading. The author stresses that this is not a biography but a novel, so while all the facts are true, she has imagined the feelings, thoughts, and dialogue, using intuition and deduction rather than actual invention. It’s a beautifully crafted homage to a legend of the art world, and I couldn’t put down. Cusset’s style and the excellent translation has the engaging pace of fiction but still allows the reader to revel in the details. There are no illustrations in the book but I didn’t feel deprived because Cusset has a real talent for rich visual descriptions of both the art and myriad locations that influenced Hockney so profoundly. I think the book is actually enhanced by their absence. It’s ultimately a tender and accessible portrait of an emotionally complex man with an extraordinary creative vision spanning his youth to his elder years. As the artist himself says ‘Catherine Cusset’s book caught a lot of me. I recognised myself.’”
Holly Rizzuto Palker, Profiles Editor, writes, “I’m listening to The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany by Lori Nelson Speilman. A friend recommended it as a comp for my novel-in-progress and I find myself laughing out loud. I’m only a few chapters in but I connect with the characters’ lively Italian heritage which is the backdrop for this work of women’s fiction. Most of all, it’s a fun story that readers from any background who love family will enjoy, and it’s a great ‘drive to the beach’ listen. Since the day Filomena Fontana cast a curse upon her sister more than two hundred years ago, not one second-born Fontana daughter has found lasting love. Some, like second-born Emilia, the happily-single baker at her grandfather’s Brooklyn deli, claim it’s an odd coincidence. Others, like her sexy, desperate-for-love cousin Lucy, insist it’s a true hex. Both are bewildered when their great-aunt calls with an astounding proposition: If they accompany her to her homeland of Italy, Aunt Poppy vows she’ll meet the love of her life on the steps of the Ravello Cathedral on her eightieth birthday, and break the Fontana second daughter curse once and for all. Against the backdrop of wandering Venetian canals, rolling Tuscan fields, and enchanting Amalfi Coast villages, romance blooms, destinies are found, and family secrets are unearthed—secrets that could threaten the family far more than a centuries-old curse.”
Profiles Editor Brianna Avenia-Tapper writes, “I recently finished Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, a gorgeous speculative novel about legacy, connection, and reproductive rights. This book—set in a future when human embryos have ‘personhood rights’—felt particularly urgent to me at this moment, when Americans’ access to basic healthcare (i.e. our ability to safely and legally end unwanted or dangerous pregnancies) is under threat. But Red Clocks is not a political treatise; above all, it’s a gripping story. The book has narrative tension for days, plus an arc and pacing that will make you forget where your kids are. The story is told from multiple perspectives, each of which Zumas constructs with impressive specificity and insight. There is Ivor, a female polar explorer writing from a time when women did not explore poles. Then there is Ro, a writer and teacher who wants to have a child using artificial insemination. We also hear from Mattie, a teenage math star who wants an abortion; Susan, an unsatisfied mother who wants to leave her marriage; and Gin, a healer, recluse, and descendant of pirates who wants to stay out of jail. Zumas knits the women’s voices together, overlapping their experiences such that the bricolage illuminates new aspects of what it means to live in these particular female bodies. On the last page, I had the sense that I was leaving an intimate community, both saddened by our parting and inspired by our fleeting closeness.”
Andrea Lani, Senior Editor and Literary Reflections Editor, writes, “I recently re-read Two in the Far North, the classic account by Margaret Murie of moving to and exploring Alaska in the early 1900s. Murie moved to Fairbanks in 1911 at age nine, and a little more than ten years later met and married Olaus, a federal biologist. They spent their honeymoon traveling into the interior of Alaska by various kinds of boats and, eventually, dogsled, to continue Olaus’s studies of caribou migrations. After a brief stint in Washington, DC, the couple returned to Alaska for a summer of banding Canada geese on a remote river, their infant son, Martin, riding along in the boat with them. Murie is game for all the challenges of wilderness travel, while doing her best to make their living quarters—whether in a boat, a tent, or an old miner’s cabin—homey and comfortable, and whipping up devil’s food cakes, fudge, and penuche over campfires and in boat canteens. Motherhood doesn’t slow her down, but it adds poignancy to her observations. During the summer boat trip one day they came upon a bear dining on twin newborn moose calves. While protecting her own child from the onslaught of mosquitoes, Murie contemplates the ‘wildlife tragedy’ that took place on the sandbar: ‘I had time to think of that other mother who had lost both her babies that afternoon. All up and down the sandy bank the willows were stripped of bark where she had eaten, awaiting her labor, and the tracked-up beach showed the signs of her frantic dash after the villain had arrived.’ Though she had helped her husband prepare countless caribou specimens, this particular wildlife death held a note of sorrow, as the mother in Murie related to the other mother’s loss. Murie’s writing is lively and engaging, and she paints of vivid picture of the Alaska of the last century—both the scenery and the inhabitants (with, it should be noted, some of the stereotypes of the time with regard to the area’s Indigenous Peoples). The Muries eventually moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where they raised their three children in the wilds (as chronicled in her later book, Wapiti Wildreness) and became champions for protecting wild places in general and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in particular.”
Blog Editor Crystal Rowe writes, “I recently listened to the audio version of Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder and found myself taking wrong turns in the car just to listen for a few more minutes. There’s a fantasy component, in that the main character thinks she is turning into a dog, but what captivated me most was the way Yoder portrayed just how difficult it is to be a mother and an independent woman at the same time. This story awakened parts of me that have been dormant for many years. I found myself saying, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ over and over again as the story progressed. The main character—who interestingly doesn’t have a name other than ‘Nightbitch’—is an artist who has set her career aside to care for her son. Over time, she begins to wonder if motherhood is enough to fulfill her desires and dreams. As a dog, Nightbitch can express her desires in a way that isn’t possible for a human, raising fascinating questions regarding society’s impossible demands on the modern mother. I’ll be recommending this book to every mother I know.”