Summer reading means something a bit different to everyone, but I’ve got you covered in my 2021 Summer Reading List. Some of you like to put their brains completely on vacation with fun, easy reads. Some of you like an action-packed page turner. Some of you want something with a bit more substance. And some of you might like to head off the beaten path.
Personally, I like books you can fly through, books you don’t have to work too hard on, and books you can get easily immersed in. I avoid books that demand to be read in perfect peace and quiet (last time I checked, the beach and pool generally have screaming kids around!).
I’ve read every book that appears on this list and, as always, will continue to add new selections throughout the summer.
Stay tuned tomorrow’s episode of the Sarah’s Bookshelves Live Podcast…where Susie from Novel Visits and I talk about books that missed last year’s Summer Reading Guide, “teacher” summer picks, and our #1 2021 summer picks!
A couple elements are returning from last year:
- Printable Cheatsheet – the Summer Reading Guide in quick recommendations in PDF format for easy printing (great for taking to the bookstore or library!). Download for free below!
- #1 Picks for Each Category – I highlighted my very favorite book in each category in the Guide (Something Fun, Something Intense / Fast-Paced, Something With A Bit More Substance, and Something Different). Stay tuned because these picks could change as I add more books to the list throughout the summer!
This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link), through which I make a small commission when you make a purchase (at no cost to you!).
2021 Summer Reading List
Something Light / Fun
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: The four grown Riva children (their father is famous musician Mick Riva…a character from The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo) grew up with their mother amid the 1960’s Malibu surfing scene. It’s now 1983 and the Rivas are gearing up for their legendary, annual end of summer party…where tensions explode.
My Thoughts: This story set in the 1980’s Malibu surf scene perfectly balances substance with glamour and fun. I fell in love with the Riva children and desperately wanted things to work out for each of them. The story is told through dual timelines: a present-day “24-style” (the TV series) narrative focused on the day of the party and flashbacks to the Riva parents’ relationship and the kids’ childhood. The old-school Malibu surf culture comes alive, creating a sultry setting. I rated this one 5 stars and it’s one of my favorite books of the year so far!
Plot Summary: When Meddelin Chan accidentally kills her blind date, she calls in her mother and “Aunties” to help get rid of the body…which kicks off a crazy journey involving a glitzy wedding and an ex-boyfriend.
My Thoughts: This debut Indonesian – Chinese, #ownvoices novel is part romance, part murder caper, part large family story…all set amid a glitzy wedding where Murphy’s Law reigns. It’s light, snarky, and completely over-the-top in a fun, cinematic way (a bit like the movie The Hangover). I’m normally sensitive to over-the-top plots, but I just rolled with this one (except for one part of the ending that jumped the shark for me). Sutanto’s sarcastic humor about her family and their customs reminded me of a much lighter The Bad Muslim Discount in that there was love along with the snark.
Plot Summary: When “First Son” of the U.S. (Alex Claremont – Diaz) and Prince Henry of England (the “spare”) are forced to stage a fake friendship for media, their relationship evolves beyond friendship.
My Thoughts: It’s rare that I call books “delightful”, but this one truly was. It’s steamy, fun, and easy to fly through…and “not cheesy” (a must for romances for me!). Alex and Henry hilariously trash-talk each other for most of their relationship, which helped the banter avoid cheesy territory for me. I loved seeing the inner workings of the U.S. First Family and the British Royal Family. Ultimately, this is a heart-warming story about the right to live authentically and I was rooting hard for Alex and Henry.
Plot Summary: Two authors (Eva, an erotica writer and single mom, and Shane, a reclusive literary author) had a steamy week together years ago, but get a chance to rekindle things when Shane shows up to a literary event where Eva is a panelist.
My Thoughts: This smart, snappy #ownvoices romance is much more than your traditional romance (and is one of the best romances I’ve ever read…5 stars!). It has incredible depth and is not cheesy at all (but it is steamy!). Eva and Shane both go on intense personal journeys over the course of this story, resulting in an empowering romance that enables both of them to be who they truly are. The romance is almost the cherry on the top of these personal journeys, not the other way around. Plus, there’s lots of meta publishing industry commentary.
Plot Summary: Harvard Law grad Alexandra (Alex) Vogel falls under the spell of the high-powered M&A group in her first year of her job at a prestigious NYC law firm, but she eventually finds there’s a dark underbelly to BigLaw where women take the fall.
My Thoughts: The Boys’ Club is my favorite kind of Brain Candy…one that reads easy, but has good substance (aka Brain Candy with substance). The Boys’ Club was marketed as Sweetbitter meets The Firm, but I thought it was more The Devil Wears Prada. Katz (which is a pseudonym, as she actually works in “BigLaw” in New York City) paints a spot-on portrayal of the world of BigLaw, which is incredibly stressful and can be a toxic culture for women. And, she provides excellent commentary on women’s unique struggles with trying to pursue a career in an intense, male-dominated industry. My Review.
Something Intense / Fast-Paced
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: After a tragedy in her personal life, missing persons detective Anna Hart flees to her hometown of Mendocino, CA where the adopted daughter of a famous, but reclusive actress (Cameron Curtis) has gone missing. She, of course, is compelled to help in the search for her.
My Thoughts: Paula McLain is known for her historical fiction, but she tackles a literary / police procedural in her most personal book yet (like her protagonist, McLain grew up in foster care and is a sexual abuse survivor)…and, my favorite book of hers (5 stars and one of my favorite books of this year so far)! It’s incredibly atmospheric and leads with the stories of the victims. McLain goes deep into the psychological impact of childhood trauma and works real life missing persons cases (including Polly Klaas) into her narrative.
Plot Summary: When a black lawyer and a white local girl are murdered in Lark, Texas (rural East Texas), Darren Matthews (a black Texas Ranger) is called in to investigate amid racial tensions.
My Thoughts: Bluebird, Bluebird is a police procedural with depth…covering more issues than just who did it. It deals with racial tensions in East Texas, racial inequality in law enforcement, and small-town secrets. It’s super atmospheric…you can feel the heat, dustiness, isolation, and danger of East Texas. Perfect for fans of literary police procedurals!
Plot Summary: When Eddie Flynn agrees to defend superstar actor Bobby Solomon for the double murder of his wife and bodyguard, he doesn’t realize he’s up against a killer who’s on the jury.
My Thoughts: Thirteen is one of the best fast-paced thrillers I’ve read this year! I love the unique premise of having the killer sitting on the jury for the crime he committed and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before in a legal thriller (not to say it hasn’t been done at some point). The entire story and all the suspense that goes with it come from the how and the why of it all. If The Holdout by Graham Moore made you skeptical of the impartiality of juries, Thirteen might take you to the point of no return.
Plot Summary: A woman (Skye) with severe OCD has had trouble finding a lasting relationship…until she finally finds love with an older man (Burke). However, Burke is not what he seems.
My Thoughts: I loved Lovering’s debut novel, Tell Me Lies, and Too Good to Be True is a bit different, but almost as addictive. The premise of this story isn’t new, but Lovering had me turning the pages quickly to find out how this tangled web would resolve itself! I loved that each character had shades of gray and that there was some exploration of class and privilege, cloaked in the guise of domestic suspense.
Plot Summary: When a growing “flock” of “sleepwalkers” begin walking across the U.S., the CDC must figure out why and what that means for the world.
My Thoughts: I haven’t read an 800 page book in years, but this one turned out to be readable and addictive…the kind of book where you keep saying “just a few more pages!” The story is about a pandemic (though not exactly like COVID-19) and it was downright eerie to read about these characters grappling with issues similar to what we’re grappling with in real life last summer (i.e. whether or not to quarantine, who has the power to do certain things, how the media is reporting on the pandemic, etc). The first half mostly explores the question of what’s causing the sleepwalking, while the second half is more about how the world will adjust to this new reality.
Slow Burn Suspense
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: Blythe, who comes from an extremely dysfunctional childhood with a mostly absent mother, has her own daughter and finds she’s lacking a connection. She fears Violet is not like other children. After having her second child, something drastic happens with her family.
My Thoughts: This debut novel (which is one of my favorite books of the year so far!) is being marketed as a “page-turning psychological drama,”, which I interpreted to mean psychological thriller…but, it’s NOT that. It’s a dark, emotionally intense, dysfunctional family story focused on motherhood. It’s deeply unsettling and emotionally taut. It’s not a book for everyone and it will be divisive, but I loved it. 5 stars! Full Review.
Plot Summary: Florence Darrow, an entry level publishing employee, snags a job as the Assistant to a buzzy author who goes by the pseudonym Maud Dixon and wrote a runaway hit. Things take a turn when they both travel to Morocco to “research” Maud’s second book…with Florence waking up in the hospital after a car crash to no sign of Maud.
My Thoughts: This debut, character-driven suspense novel set in the publishing world has all the intrigue. A wildly successful author who writes under a pen name, an ambitious wanna be writer, publishing world glitz, a sexy Morocco setting, and a cat and mouse game to wrap things up. None of the characters are particularly likable, but I couldn’t wait to see which woman was going to outsmart the other. Despite the somewhat preposterous plot, this book is FUN if you want to watch two smart women locked in a battle of wills (which I definitely do!).
Plot Summary: Jacob Finch Bonner is teaching at a mediocre MFA program following his drift into literary oblivion following his successful debut novel. An arrogant student of his shares that he has a “surefire” plot that will take the literary world by storm…and, when Jacob hears it, he’s shocked to discover that his student wasn’t exaggerating. In the following years, Jacob waits in vein for the book to be published. Jacob then starts digging into what happened to his former student and his life takes a dramatic turn.
My Thoughts: This emotionally taut, slow-burn suspense about a washed up writer who encounters an MFA student who has an idea for a “surefire plot” reminded me of a mash-up between Who is Maud Dixon?, We Wish You Luck, and A Ladder to the Sky (with a more sympathetic protagonist). The story goes deep into the publishing world and the writer’s life and investigates the question of who has the right to tell certain stories (and what constitutes plagiarism). Though I did guess some (but not all) of the plot twists (the ones not included in the publisher’s blurb, which reveals way too much information), I loved the way the ending came together.
Plot Summary: Two sisters (Dara and Marie) run their family’s ballet studio along with Dara’s husband (Charlie), who used to be their mom’s star student. When an accident occurs at the studio, a contractor is hired to repair the damage and his appearance upends all of their lives.
My Thoughts: Megan Abbott writes dark possibly better than anyone and this story about two adult sisters (and one sister’s husband) who run a ballet studio might be her darkest yet. This story is about being entwined in a web you can’t escape, the ties of family, and how much entanglement is too much. It’s got sexual overtones and I will never look at the Nutcracker the same way again!
Something With A Bit More Substance
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: Journalist Sunny Shelton (the daughter of 1970’s drummer Jimmy Curtis) investigates the story behind an iconic photograph of the rock duo Opal & Nev (a black woman and white, British man) at a riot at a concert in the 1970’s…and tells the story of the rise & fall of this duo in the process.
My Thoughts: I love the oral history format and it was perfect for this fictional story about a provocative, iconic, 1970’s rock duo, told by the journalist daughter of Opal & Nev’s drummer. It’s a darker, grittier Daisy Jones & the Six with a serious racial message. The beginning is a bit of a slow build, but stick with it. The build really picks up and I was quickly engrossed. Opal is a singular, memorable character. She’s extremely provocative, yet also incredibly vulnerable.
Plot Summary: Afi lives in Ghana with her widowed mother and is offered the “opportunity” to marry a wealthy man she’s never met. He doesn’t show up at their wedding, sending someone else in his place. Nevertheless, the marriage goes through and Afi moves to a swanky apartment in Accra, but discovers her husband is in love with someone else.
My Thoughts: Peace Medie grew up in Ghana and is a women’s rights advocate who shines that lens on fiction in her debut novel. His Only Wife begins with this intriguing first line: “Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding” and, from there, explores the impact of Ghanian patriarchal culture on women through Afi’s story. It’s propulsive and reads easily, yet challenges cultural norms in Ghana. A great pick for fans of readable literary fiction! Full Review.
Plot Summary: Dana (a black woman in her 20’s living in Los Angeles in the 1970’s) is transported through time to antebellum Maryland, where she is charged with repeatedly saving a white boy’s life.
My Thoughts: Many readers told me that Kindred is one of those classics everyone must read, yet I hadn’t picked it up because I don’t usually enjoy Sci-Fi or time travel books. But, I loved this book anyway! During Dana’s time in antebellum Maryland, Kindred provides the clearest picture of a life of slavery that I’ve ever read. Necessarily, it’s brutal reading at times. 5 stars!
Plot Summary: Younger brother (March Briscoe) returns to his family’s small town after a 2 year absence following an affair with his older brother’s wife, kicking off a tornado of events that will change the family forever.
My Thoughts: This debut dysfunctional family story is a character-driven novel that kept me quickly turning the pages. It’s deliciously scandalous with a plethora of dislikable characters. The story is rooted in Greek mythology, with each character corresponding to a Greek mythological figure, but the story stands on its own even without this tie-in.
Plot Summary: A Pakistani boy (Anvar) and his family immigrate to the U.S. amid the rise of fundamentalism in their home country…and a girl (Azza) and her father flee war in Baghdad for American.
My Thoughts: This debut novel is a deeply layered story of two families, the Muslim faith (and struggling with it), being an immigrant in the U.S., discrimination against Muslims following 9/11, and fighting for the life that will make you happy…told in an irreverently humorous voice. Masood tackled so much in this story, but it felt totally organic and not cluttered at all. The humor in this story is subtle, snarky, and made my chuckle (the way I like my humor).
Plot Summary: Charlie Boykin, who’s from a working class area of Nashville, gets a scholarship to an elite private school and befriends a wealthy older student and his family.
My Thoughts: I adored Tarkington’s debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart (my review) and the premise of this story reminded me of the Gossip Girl TV series…only set in Nashville. It’s a character-driven novel that’s easy to fly through and a cautionary tale about privilege run amok. Tarkington is an astute observer of human nature and social behavior, which is apparent in his spot-on commentary on race, class, and privilege. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Following a career-ending knee injury ended her college basketball career, Ruth Devon married her college coach and pursued an uber-successful career as a basketball commentator and sideline reporter for the NBA. During the NBA Finals, something happens to force Ruth to figure out what she wants for her future.
My Thoughts: This story is about a woman who is unabashedly in love with her career, but also raising a daughter. It’s about a woman working in a male-domainated profession and having to figure out what she wants in life. And, it’s darker and a lot more substantive than I expected! If you loved Charlotte Walsh Like to Win, you might love this one! Note: there is a lot of basketball talk.
Plot Summary: Tracy’s (a high school student) dad is on death row for a double murder he didn’t commit. He has 250+ days until his execution date when Tracy’s track star brother, Jamal, is brought in as a suspect in the murder of a white girl (who is one of his high school classmates).
My Thoughts: YA doesn’t normally work well for me, but this novel is an exception! Though this story is heart-breaking, it leaves you with hope. It addresses a number of important themes related to race (police brutality, inequality in the justice system, and wrongful conviction) wrapped in a super fast-moving plot and compelling story. These characters will worm their way into your heart!
Plot Summary: Prior to the start of the book, the death of 2 teenage boys tore apart their Washington State community. When the book begins, a pregnant girl (Evangeline) appears from the woods and becomes involved with the 2 boys’ families.
My Thoughts: Tompkins’ background encountering trauma as a trial lawyer, judicial officer, and mediator inspired her to write this highly literary, but also propulsive debut novel exploring anger and grief, but also of growth and forgiveness. There is a suspenseful mystery, but it lies in the background of what is ultimately a character-driven story. And, reading this story felt a bit like going on a therapeutic journey without the actual therapy.
Plot Summary: When a man claiming to be Laura’s brother who disappeared in Bangkok in 1972 surfaces, Laura digs into the past.
My Thoughts: What Could Be Saved is a crowd-pleasing family drama with some elements that make it stand out from the plethora of family dramas out there (Bangkok setting, a spy element). It has a bit of a mystery, though the mystery is not the forefront of the story. Despite its length, it reads quickly and easily and is the kind of book you want to fly through. Overall, it reminded me of The Most Fun We Ever Had & The Last Romantics (including lots of adult sibling dynamics).
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: Zimmerman’s story of discovering her very accomplished ex-husband (lawyer) was a drug addict.
My Thoughts: Smacked was a rare 5 star audiobook for me (I was putting podcasts aside to listen to it)! This is a heart-breaking story, especially the impact on Zimmerman’s children. I’ve been reading a lot about the opioid epidemic this past year (ex: Dopesick and Long Bright River) and a big takeaway is that the wealthy and successful are not immune from addiction…and that’s the crux of this story. She also delves into the problems with high stress industries where drug problems get swept under the rug. A riveting cautionary tale. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Jost’s story of growing up on Staten Island, NY and rising to fame as a writer and Weekend Update co-host on Saturday Night Live.
My Thoughts: I don’t watch SNL and don’t particularly like memoirs by comedians. But, Jost is likable, self-deprecating, and doesn’t try too hard with his humor (this is the reason comedian memoirs don’t generally work for me). He speaks with humor about his upbringing on Staten Island and my friend who grew up there said his portrayal is accurate. But, the star of this book is actually Jost’s mother, who was Chief Medical Officer for the FDNY during 9/11. The section about her experience on 9/11 made me cry (the only book that’s made me cry this year). Full Review.
Plot Summary: The story of Farrow’s experience trying to break the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment / assault scandal for NBC.
My Thoughts: Farrow’s story of his experience trying to break the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment / assault scandal for NBC reads like a thriller. Farrow’s take on this story (compared to She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey) focuses on NBC’s and Harvey Weinstein’s efforts to kill the story (which include cloak and dagger tactics) and illustrates just how tainted actual freedom of the press is by power, money and connections.
Plot Summary: Chang’s memoir about growing up Korean American in Northern Virginia, his struggle with mental illness, and how he built his Momofuko restaurant empire.
My Thoughts: Eat a Peach might be my all-time favorite food memoir, but it is much more than just a food memoir. Chang talks about what it’s like to be an Asian American who does not fit traditional Asian stereotypes (i.e. he’s not book smart and he’s a big guy), going into a non-traditional profession as the child of Korean immigrants, his childhood as a golf prodigy (what?!), and his struggle with mental illness (bipolar disorder). He’s incredibly self-deprecating and I love his philosophy on food. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Laura (host of the podcast 10 Things to Tell You Podcast) helps women be open and vulnerable to achieve true depth in their relationships through 10 probing questions…starting with herself.
My Thoughts: Laura has now written a book inspired by her podcast. Her podcast episodes always cause me to reflect in some way…and often have me saying “Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been feeling!”…and her book did more of that in an even deeper way and more concrete way. I read it and worked through the exercises soon after the new year and it was an excellent exercise in self-reflection (which I’m normally terrible at taking the time to do).
Plot Summary: This part history / part travelogue examines the complex history of Natchez, Mississippi…a city that was the center of slavery and still celebrates the “Old South” while also electing a gay, black mayor with 91% of the vote.
My Thoughts: Natchez is an eccentric, incongruous place that’s fascinating to read about. It has this incredibly dark history rooted in slavery, but present day Natchez is filled with quirky characters, dueling Garden Clubs, an amateurish play featuring the Confederate flag and hoop skirts…all set against an increasingly progressive elite population. They’re going through a bit of a racial reckoning. This would pair well with Natchez Burning by Greg Isles…Natchez’s most famous resident who has an integral role in The Deepest South of All.
Plot Summary: A collection of short stories centered around black women choosing not to adhere to society’s expectations of them.
My Thoughts: I’m normally not a bigger of short stories, but this collection hit for me! I loved her simple, yet hard-hitting writing style (and her provocative first lines that grabbed me immediately and made me want to keep reading). Unsurprisingly based on the title, many of the stories involved hypocrisy in the church, a theme I identified with.
Plot Summary: While an undergrad at Harvard, Cooper hears the story of a 1969 murder of Jane Britton (a Harvard Anthropology graduate student and daughter of Radcliffe VP) in her apartment…the rumored (and unsolved) story so intrigues her that she begins a decade long quest to investigate what happened.
My Thoughts: We Keep the Dead Close is part (literary) true crime, part memoir (Cooper shares her own story of investigating Jane’s death and the effect it had on her) and reminded me of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark in that way. It has a super atmospheric setting and Harvard feels like a romantic, yet sinister character. It also feels a bit like a gossipy expose of Harvard and the Anthropology department specifically…the rampant sexism, the insular “protect Harvard’s reputation at all costs” mentality, and the interdepartmental politics of academia. Though this book is long, it’s broken up into smaller sections and has pictures throughout, so it moves faster than you’d think. It was one of my Best Books of 2020!
Happy Summer Reading!
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