Summer Fiction for the Beach or Backyard

Don't let summer slip by without enjoying downtime with a great book.

By Erin Bailey

Woman lounging by the pool reading a book

One of the things I savor most about summer is the promise of a few good books. Make that great books–I don’t have time to bother with the merely good ones. Despite the naysayers who proclaimed thoughtful literature would be harder to come by in the age of digital publishing, I haven’t found any evidence that this is true. Instead, my shelves and the library’s shelves are full of provocative books that satisfy my need for entertainment in a variety of genres. If you are looking for a few suggestions for your own summer reading lists, consider one or more of these titles.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

By now, you have probably seen the movie trailer. If you’re not careful, it will suck you in with the upbeat promise of teens falling in love. BEWARE: The Fault in Our Stars will move you to tears. But it will also make you laugh, make you cheer, and challenge your assumptions about teenage cancer patients. Hazel and Augustus are charming and wise beyond their years, as those who have suffered young usually are. Hazel’s biggest worry isn’t if she looks like a dork lugging around an oxygen tank–she assumes she does–nor if her cancer will return–she knows it will. Rather, what causes her the most anxiety is what will become of her parents after she dies. She believes she is a grenade who will cause irreparable damage to those she loves and who love her in return. For this reason, she keeps Augustus at arm’s length, thus denying herself the love he so desperately wants to give.

Lucky for her, Augustus isn’t afraid of being caught in cancer’s crossfire and pursues all the love and life that is available to both of them. The addition of an interesting side story involving a reclusive author and a trip to Amsterdam provides respite from the seriousness of cancer and gives both teens a nemesis other than cancer. For anyone familiar with the typical young adult literature, the book is a refreshing departure from vampires, dystopian worlds, and fairy tale remixes. While The Fault in Our Stars produces as many smiles as tears, it is Augustus and Hazel’s fear of oblivion that will stick with you all summer long.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

The 2012 National Book Award recipient tells the story of a family in crisis set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina. As the storm bears down upon their rural Mississippi home, fourteen year-old Esch Batiste and her brothers fight for one another in ways their alcoholic father is unable to. Each of Ward’s characters is as real and unapologetically flawed as any I have ever known. Since her mother’s death, Esch has been the woman of the house, caring for her father and three brothers. Randall, the oldest, has pinned his dreams of escaping Bois Sauvage on a basketball scholarship. Skeetah can think only of his prized pit bull, China, and her newborn pups that he can sell for a relative fortune. Six year-old Junior craves the attention and approval from anyone who will give it to him, a heartbreaking reminder of how little parenting the Batiste children have known. Ward’s writing is poetic and filled with tension as Katrina draws nearer and the family drama swells. She paints a vivid portrait of a teenage girl, blindly in love with a beautiful but unattainable boy who has used up all that is left of Esch’s hope and innocence. When she realizes she is pregnant, Esch searches vainly for someone to guide her through the personal and literal storms that threaten to break her. Katrina will force the Batiste family to decide what to let go of and what to hold onto if they are to survive.

The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

I have been a fan of Bojhalian’s work since 1997’s novel Midwives. In his latest, the author moves his typical New England setting to 1950s Italy. When the daughter-in-law of an Italian marchese is found murdered, her heart ripped out and left in an ashtray, the detective who investigates the case realizes she knew the victim and her family. Detective Serafina Bettini had been an Allied sympathizer during World War II and was nursed by the Rosatti family after disfiguring burns threatened her life. But when the killer appears determined to systematically eliminate the remaining members of the Rosatti family, Serafina can no longer avoid the memories she has of the war, nor her part in it. Bojhalian weaves historic details of the Allies’ invasion of Italy into his fictional story that ultimately probes the choices that people are forced to make in the face of horrifying events. The time period and locale are richly rendered and satisfy the reader even when the story dawdles too long on character details that slow the pace. For those in search of a summer thriller, The Light in the Ruins is worth your time.