Summer vacation is in full swing, which means I have been taking advantage of the long, lazy days to read to my heart’s content. June was full of inspiring reads, from a novel about a pioneering aviatrix to a memoir about traveling around the world with children in tow. I also finally turned my attention to some books that have been languishing on my nightstand throughout the school year, such as a crackling mystery set in a small Australian farm town and a timely novel about immigrants fleeing their homelands. All in all, it was a good month for reading, and I couldn’t be more pleased with my choices.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett / Of the books I read this month, this was the one that I had the highest hopes for (mostly because I greatly enjoyed Patchett’s novel State of Wonder), yet it was the one that I had hardest time completing. While I was moved by some of the characters’ struggles, I was mostly angry and annoyed with the adults in the novel and their short-sighted selfishness. Early in the novel, an act of infidelity leads to two marriages dissolving, one new relationship forming, and six children’s lives forever changing. More than anything the novel left me sad—sad for the children, sad for their fates, and sad for pain that one lustful kiss causes. However, while the novel was emotionally hard for me to enjoy, Patchett’s crystalline prose made the experience worth it.
Little Bee by Chris Cleave / Chris Cleave wrote one of my favorite books that I read last summer, the heartbreaking and inspiring Everybody Brave Is Forgiven, so when I saw his novel Little Bee sitting on the shelves of Big Island BookBuyers in Hilo, I knew I had to take it back home to Maui with me. I am so glad that I did. This novel of two strong, surprising, complicated, and heartbroken women is one that will stay with me for a long time. Sarah and Little Bee could not come from more disparate lives. Sarah lives in the safe, comfortable, bourgeois world of London where her unhappy marriage, her satisfying affair, and her endearing son vie for her attention, while Little Bee comes from the a small village in Nigeria where the cassava fields and surrounding forest comprise her world until oil interests (and the hired henchmen sent to ensure that the land is clear) destroy everything she knows. Sarah’s and Little Bee’s worlds collide one fateful day on a Nigerian beach, and from that day, their lives are forever linked. This is a novel about sacrifice, survival, family, love, and hope. It raises powerful questions that have no easy answers.
The Dry by Jane Harper / I first heard about The Dry on Modern Mrs. Darcy‘s delightful podcast “What Should I Read Next?” (episode 68, to be exact), and I knew I had to read it once I heard Anne Bogel describe it to her guest. Boy, is it a page-turner! I sped through this Australian crime thriller thanks to Harper’s brisk prose and engaging plot. Federal Agent Aaron Falk is drawn back to his scorched and struggling hometown of Kiewarra after his childhood friend is found shot to death along with his wife and son. At first, this murder-suicide seems like a closed case, but first appearances are deceiving and Falk finds himself looking for clues that might help him solve the murder of his friend. Atmosphere is everything in this novel, where the small town is crackling with fear and tension. The heat is palpable; temperatures are rising in this rural farming town and emotions are raging as Falk handles secrets that have been hidden for twenty years. If you are a fan of Tana French’s mysteries, then this novel may be for you.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub / To me, this family drama set on the Spanish island of Mallorca was the quintessential summer read. It was bright and sparkling, like the diamonds of light reflecting off of the Mediterranean, and it was easy to devour in one day. In the novel, the Post family gathers for a two-week family vacation in a villa on Mallorca. Their whole trip teeters on the verge of irreparable disaster as family secrets that were easy to maintain back at home come to light under the harsh Spanish sun. Desires, doubts, infidelities, and financial troubles are just some of the struggles that the family deals with, but they begin to address these issues honestly, both testing and strengthening the bonds that keep married couples together and families united.
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain / This novel was such an exhilarating escape and such an inspiring story. Before picking up this book, I had only heard of Beryl Markham, but I had no idea who she was or what she did. Now, after reading about her life, I want to know more about her and to read her memoir West with the Night, along with Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Dinesen was the pen name for Karen Blixen, who becomes of major figure in Markham’s life in Kenya). As McLain presents her in the novel, it is hard not to be impressed with Markham’s spirit, along with her insistence on living life on her own terms, and her deep connection with the African landscape where she grew up. From becoming Kenya’s first female racehorse trainer to being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from England to North America, Markham aims to stay to true to the woman she is and not be swayed but what others expect of her.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng / To the reader, there are no secrets in this novel. Everything is laid bare, starting with the novel’s very first sentence. However, while the reader knows all of the characters’ actions, thoughts, desires, and dreams thanks to the novel’s omniscient narrator, the characters must come to terms with what they have kept hidden from others and how these secrets have affected their identities and relationships. Set in a Midwestern college town in the 1970s, Everything I Never Told You focuses on the Chinese-American Lee family reeling after the death of one of the children. Moving through both the past and present, the narrative shows how the parents’ experiences during their childhoods and teenage years impact their children’s lives through well-intentioned though damaging expectations. The novel explores the effects of these expectations, as well as issues of racism, alienation, sibling-dynamics, and gender expectations.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid / What if you could open in a door in your house, step over the threshold, and enter another place on the planet? This idea—doors as portals to other places—is central to Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel. For the novel’s main characters, Nadia and Saeed, a door is a means of safety, a way to flee their unnamed war-torn homeland for the relative peace and security of another place. They are fleeing violence and political instability, while other characters in the novel leave their homes due to poverty, scarcity of resources, and changing environments. There are also characters who move for curiosity, adventure, or a fresh start. This stark yet elegant novel feels both timely and timeless. Open today’s newspaper, and you will undoubtedly find articles related to the issues explored in this novel. However, people have always been on the move in search of safety, shelter, security, and better lives in new places. This novel presents the constant flux of people who move between and within geographic spaces and political borders. Nadia and Saeed’s relationship gives this novel intimacy, revealing the impact these transitions can have on individuals and how they can draw people together as well as tear them apart.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom / Family is at the heart of Kathleen Grissom’s debut novel. Her novel shows how our families can be the ones we create by loving and accepting others. When young Lavinia is orphaned during her family’s passage from Ireland to the American colonies in the late 1700s, she is left alone in a new world as an indentured servant on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. There, she must move between two worlds in which she does not fully belong: the isolated, privileged world of the big house and the welcoming, friendly home of the slave quarters. The inhabitants of both of these worlds come to love and accept Lavinia, just as she grows to see them, especially Belle, Mama Mae, and Papa George, as her family. Her love for others guides all that she does. While there is a lot of joy, life, and love within these pages, there is also unspeakable pain and sorrow. The novel’s greatest strength is its rich characters, people whom you might want to meet, spend time with, and hear their stories.
At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider / This book felt like a gift. For a while now, I have been dreaming about taking a year to travel the world with Vinny. Many weekend afternoons have been spent poring over travel websites or scrolling through globe-trotting feeds on Instagram, gathering ideas and planning how we could make a year of travel work. These articles and photographs only fueled my quietly simmering wanderlust. In my research, I came across Tsh Oxenreider’s website about her family’s travels, and then later her website on simple living. Both of these sites struck me with their warmth and honesty. I began following them regularly, which led me to learn about Oxenreider’s recently published memoir At Home in the World in which she chronicles her nine months of traveling around the world with her husband and three children. Each chapter in the memoir focuses on one of the countries the family visited during their travels, and each one feels like an escape to a different part of the world. Oxenreider has a keen eye for noticing the details of a place, and her descriptions resonate with their graceful precision. I savored each chapter, and I felt grateful to be reading this book at this point in my life. Ultimately, after reflecting on what home and travel mean to me and after reading Oxenreider’s book, I have come to the conclusion that an extended trip of a six months or longer might be too long for me. I crave the comforts of home too strongly to be away for that long. However, I know that Vinny and I have many adventures ahead of us, and I can’t wait for the next time we get to add another stamp in our passports together.