“No more pencils, no more books,” the song goes, and can we just say that we do not approve? Summer in this hemisphere officially arrives on June 21, but the summer reading season is already upon us, and more books are frankly just the thing.
That’s why I’m following Parul Sehgal’s excellent advice and tearing through Kristen Arnett’s debut novel, “Mostly Dead Things” — it’s a gorgeous, funny story about love and grief and taxidermy — but if you’ve already read that, or are saving it for your two weeks at the lake house, then you might dip into the new sf collection from the great Ted Chiang, or read Jericho Brown’s latest book of poetry, or spend some time with Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir, “Good Talk.” Just read.
We bring you Swedish thrillers and Tudor mysteries and an alternate-reality jungle-infested 1920s Manhattan, assuming you like that kind of thing as much as we do. And if your summer plans involve armchair travel rather than the real thing, we offer one debut novel set in Alaska, another set in eastern Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, and a group biography of the characters who have taken up residence over the years on the isle of Capri.
For the record, we like pencils too.
Senior Editor, Books
MOSTLY DEAD THINGS, by Kristen Arnett. (Tin House Books, $24.95.) In this Florida-set debut novel, a young woman inherits her family’s taxidermy business after her father commits suicide. The book has plenty of room for wit alongside its earnest considerations of love and memory. “There’s none of the shyness and self-consciousness of so much American fiction that masks itself as austerity,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes. Arnett “writes comic set pieces to make you laugh, sex scenes to turn you on. The action flips from the past to the present, swimming through first love and first grief on a slick of red Kool-Aid and vodka, suntan oil and fruity lip gloss, easy and unforced. This book is my song of the summer.”
THE POISON BED, by Elizabeth Fremantle. (Pegasus Crime, $25.95.) A novel set in the court of Henry VIII that reopens the case of Robert and Frances Carr, aristocrats charged with killing a man who opposed their marriage. With skill and delicacy, Fremantle presents the period as a cabinet of curiosities; our reviewer, Sarah Perry, says that the novel makes “toothsome use of all this hurly-burly” to depict the Jacobean age with “the vivid, cleverly constructed and always faintly unreal quality of a stage set. … Throughout, the author’s eye for gleaming edges and the textures of flesh provides much to admire — objects and bodies in particular have a forceful and occasionally grotesque presence on the page.”
BEYOND ALL REASONABLE DOUBT, by Malin Persson Giolito. Translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles. (Other Press, paper, $16.99.) In this absorbing Swedish legal thriller, a young attorney, reviewing the horrific case of a doctor convicted of molesting and stabbing a teenage girl, comes to believe the law was not entirely served. But was justice done anyway? “The author does not feel the imperative to explain too much or to tie her ending up in a neat bow,” Vanessa Friedman writes, reviewing the novel in her roundup of recent thrillers. “Instead, while by the end of the book the central question has been answered, even more have been posed — and not in the way that sets up a sequel (though that could happen), but in the way that imitates life, in all its messiness and obfuscation.”
PAGAN LIGHT, by Jamie James. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) Italy’s isle of Capri owes its cultural heritage to the famous and infamous outsiders who claimed it for their own, from the Emperor Tiberius to Oscar Wilde and Pablo Neruda. James’s “splendid history … presents a pageant of these decadent invaders and illustrious exiles,” Liesl Schillinger writes in her roundup of travel books for summer. “If you read James’s book, you will know that you should do more than sail through the narrow entrance of the Blue Grotto: You must hunt down the former Villa Behring, near Capri’s main square, where Gorky and Lenin played chess, and seek out the homes of the lesser-known figures of Capri’s past, whose rich stories are the true focus of this marvel of nuanced, connected biography.”
EXHALATION, by Ted Chiang. (Knopf, $25.95.) Many of these nine deeply beautiful stories explore the material consequences of various kinds of time travel. Reading this book feels like being seated at dinner with a friend who will explain the state of the sciences to you without an ounce of condescension. “These stories are carefully curated into a conversation that comes full circle, after having traversed extraordinary terrain,” Amal El-Mohtar writes in her latest science fiction column. “It is as generous as it is marvelous, and I’m left feeling nothing so much as grateful for it.”
GOOD TALK: A Memoir in Conversations, by Mira Jacob. (One World, $30.) Jacob’s graphic memoir is focused on what it means to be a person of color in America. Born in New Mexico to parents who immigrated from India, married to a white man and raising a biracial child in New York City, Jacob explores the tensions through talks with her relatives and others. “The medium is part of the magic of ‘Good Talk,’” Ed Park writes, reviewing the book for his graphic literature column. “The old comic-book alchemy of words and pictures opens up new possibilities of feeling. … The graphic elements (monochrome cutouts, photos) of ‘Good Talk’ seem to be a commentary on race. The people are black and white — except, of course, they’re not.”
WESTSIDE, by W. M. Akers. (Harper Voyager, $22.99.) Akers’s lush, shimmering mystery is set in a Prohibition-era Manhattan that has been divided by a wall separating the affluent Eastside from the nightmarish Westside, which is teeming with jungle, rot and darkness. Our reviewer, Lyndsay Faye, calls it a “superb debut” that’s “steeped in existentialism while delivering gun molls, drunken wastrels and purebred thugs.” The private eye heroine, she adds, “attacks both trivial and impossible questions with endearingly clearheaded ferocity and good humor.”
THE TRADITION, by Jericho Brown. (Copper Canyon, paper, $17.) Brown's poetry catalogs injuries past and present, personal and national, in a country where blackness is akin to illness. Even as he reckons seriously with our state of affairs, Brown demonstrates a spirit of semantic play. “In Brown’s poems, the body at risk — the infected body, the abused body, the black body, the body in eros — is most vulnerable to the cruelty of the world,” Maya Phillips writes in her review. “But even in their most searing moments, these poems are resilient out of necessity, faithful to their account of survival, when survival is the hardest task of all.”
DISAPPEARING EARTH, by Julia Phillips. (Knopf, $26.95.) When two sisters are kidnapped on the remote Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia, it sends shock waves through the community. “The women who populate Phillips’s novel are so intrinsically and intelligently identified with their region that it’s impossible to understand or even consider them without Phillips’s precise evocation of Kamchatka,” our reviewer, Ivy Pochoda, writes. “She describes the region with a cartographer’s precision and an ethnographer’s clarity. … A tidy ending does not diminish Phillips’s deep examination of loss and longing, and it is a testament to the novel’s power that knowing what happened to the sisters remains very much beside the point.”
THE UNPASSING, by Chia-Chia Lin. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Addressing themes of cross-cultural mingling and immigrant assimilation, this captivating debut novel about a Taiwanese family in Alaska disarms with beautiful prose and intermittent moments of poetic idiosyncrasy. “What makes Lin’s novel such an important book is the extent to which it probes America’s mythmaking about itself, which can just as easily unmake as it can uplift,” Brian Haman writes in his review.
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