27 backlist summer reading recommendations

Looking for your next summer read but hate the hold list at the library? Here are 27 books I've read and loved that may have a shorter hold at your library or be available in paperback. I've also mixed in a few newer books that I had to share because I loved them and thought they would make for some excellent summer reading!

I have grouped the recommendations by category, with a handful of recommendations in each category. All of the books I've shared below are available for purchase through the linked title.


LEading ladies

I love a good story featuring a female lead. These five recommendations range from meditations on motherhood, womanhood, love, and mental health. Though the leading ladies in these stories can be frustrating, they were all characters that I identified or admired somehow.


Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng was a sleeper hit for me. I picked it up back in 2015 on a recommendation at my local indie and was blown away by the beautiful writing. Tseng is also a poet, and that definitely shows in this book. Mayumi works as a librarian on a small island off the coast of New England. She has a young son and a distant husband. She meets a shy 17-year old at the library, and their relationship quickly turns into an obsession. This book was wonderfully written and had some twists and turns I did not see coming.


Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason was a recent 5-star read for me. Martha, our leading lady, is on the brink of 40, and her marriage is crumbling and has been struggling with an undiagnosed mental health disease since she was 17. Martha was maddening at times, but I really loved the family dynamics in this one. The writing was just so great, and it was darkly funny and emotional.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas is a chunky book but was one of my favorite reads of 2017. Joan, our main character, is grappling with what it means to be a mother, wife, and artist. Her sons, who she never intended to have, are now teenagers and she is finally getting back to finishing her masterpiece novel she started years before. A betrayal happens and she finds herself needing time away from her family. I absolutely love books exploring what having a family means for creative ambitions, and this one was no exception.


The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré was a book that I loved much more than expected. The main character, Adunni, is 14 years old and has her sights set on escaping poverty and obtaining an education. I loved this one for Adunni's strength, for all the insight into Nigeria's culture, and the empowering feminist themes woven throughout. Adunni faces so much adversity, but she can overcome it.


The Summer Demands by Deborah Shapiro was one of my favorite books of 2019. Emily and David inherit an abandoned summer camp in Massachusetts. They move there after a miscarriage and Emily finds herself adrift, thinking about what comes next. Stella, a 22-year old, lives at the property and quickly Emily and Stella form a relationship that blends the line between mother/daughter, lovers, and friends.


MEMOIR

Pretty much the only non-fiction I read is memoir. These are a handful of titles that have stuck with me that I often recommend to others.


Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur is a memoir about Brodeur's relationship with her mother and her mother's lover. When she is 14, her mother confides in her about her affair with a close married family friend. Brodeur then helps them keep their secret and continue their affair for almost a decade. ⁠This was a wild ride, and I especially loved the Cape Cod setting. I think this is a great, juicy well-written memoir to add to your stack.


I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott is a book of essays that is also a memoir. Philpott checked all the boxes she thought she was supposed to in life but found that she still didn't feel fulfilled. She goes on a journey to find joy in life and each of these essays was thoughtful, funny, and tender. Reading this book felt like sitting down to coffee to ask advice from your cooler, big sister.


The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh is a beautiful and sad, and ultimately happy memoir. I found it really interesting to read E.J. Koh's story because it illuminated some differences between Korean and American family culture and dynamics. ⁠I loved the writing in this one, and Koh is also a poet, so I saved so many quotes from this one.


FOR MUSIC LOVERS

At one point in my life, I thought I would work in the music industry; I even majored in music in college. I've strayed from that dream but I still love a good novel about music and the music industry.


The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton is a new release but truly belongs on everyone's reading list. Set in the 70's era of glamorous rock and roll, we follow along with Opal & Nev, who rise to fame with their unlikely pairing, eccentric fashion choices, and bold music. A tragedy strikes at their first industry showcase and their paths begin to diverge – one of them eventually shooting to mega fame and the other struggling to find a place in the industry. Walton highlights just how much the music industry, and our society as a whole, punishes Black women and rewards white men. Told as a fictional oral history (a la Daisy Jones), this story was so immersive and I often found myself forgetting that it was a fictional story.


The Ensemble by Aja Gabel hooked me back in 2018. If you love stories that span decades and stories about friendship, then this one will be up your alley. Brit, Daniel, Henry, and Jana are four musician friends brought together through a quartet. Vastly different but tied together through their music, this story follows the arc of their friendship and delves into the cutthroat world of classical music.


The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan is a contemporary fiction book that explores what celebrity and pop star status can do to a person. After reading this book, I watched the Britney Spears documentary and I saw a lot of parallels. This one is full of pop music and early 2000's references and was fun, engrossing, and emotional. Cassidy Holmes was a member of one of the hottest pop groups of the moment until they suddenly imploded in the early 2000s. It's been fifteen years since then and as they are getting ready to embark on a reunion tour, Cassidy is found dead. The story explores the dark side of fame and I couldn't put it down.


set in the past

I love a good historical fiction novel in the summer. I'm picky about my historical fiction, though. I don't particularly like to read about war times. I much prefer reading about the glamour and bad behavior of the privileged - usually set in some summer location.


The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams was my first foray into Williams' work (she has an impressive backlist of titles!). I loved this one for its setting on an island off the coast of New England and the twists and turns she wove into this story. Miranda arrives on Winthrop Island in the summer of 1951, just after her mother has remarried and they find themselves suddenly in the upper class. The island is split into two: the wealthy vacationers and the locals. Miranda tries to find a way to fit into both and ends up falling in love with a local boy. A catastrophe strikes and Miranda is banned from the island for two decades and we slowly learn more and more about the secrets kept.


Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller is a dark and suspenseful novel. Set in the English countryside in the summer of 1969, Frances is staying at the dilapidated English mansion to research the architecture of the surrounding gardens for the new owner. Cara and Peter are also staying at the mansion to take care of the property and Frances begins spying on them from her rooms above them. The three become close, but secrets are withheld and as the summer goes on, tensions rise. I absolutely loved the setting of this book and was so intrigued the whole way through.


The After Party by Anton DiSclafani took hold of me in the summer of 2017. I read it in one sitting on a flight home from Texas and was absolutely enthralled by the two main characters: Joan and Cece. Friends from childhood, Joan is the glamorous and reckless one and Cece is the careful and responsible one. During the summer that they turn 25, Joan's behavior begins to take a bad turn and Cece is left trying to protect her friend while also maintaining her relationship with her husband and child. This one was juicy and would make a great companion for a beach or pool day.


love stories

I love a good love story and there are so many that I could recommend. These three are contemporary romances that I found to be very fun and memorable.


One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London is a rom-com that takes place on a Bachelor-like reality show. Note: I am not a reality TV watcher and this one still managed to pull me in. Bea is a plus-sized fashion blogger and influencer who lands a spot as the star on Main Squeeze, a reality dating show. Recovering from heartbreak, she decides to do the show and we follow along as she meets many men, has lots of fun excursions, and has many self-doubts about her body and image. I loved Bea and I loved seeing different representations in the TV/reality TV space.


Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno is an enjoyable and magical summer read. It is a YA (young adult) novel, but it definitely reads like a book for a slightly older teen audience. Georgina and Mary, twin sisters, are part of a family of women who have magical powers. Georgina is awaiting her powers as their 18th birthday looms closer, in fear that her powers will never arrive. They live on a small New England island, By-the-Sea, where strange things happen. This summer, even stranger things start happening and we follow along for a tale of adventure, love, and coming of age. I thought this one was enjoyable and sweet and I recommend it to so many people!


Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory Iis by far my favorite Guillory novel I've read. Olivia has just started her own law firm in LA with her best friend. Dating is the last thing on her mind when she meets Max at a hotel bar. They hit it off and later she finds out that he is the hotshot junior senator. Max is the opposite of what she assumed he would be - he's not just some white privileged politician. They start dating in secret because of his high-profile job. I found this one so sweet and read it in the summer of 2020 when American politics were pretty much a dumpster fire, so it was nice to fantasize about a world where politicians are good people.


A little dark and funny

This is definitely one of my sweet spots for reading: books that are a bit dark but balance that out with some humor.


The Clasp by Sloane Crosley is, in my opinion, an underrated part of Crosley's work. She typically writes hilarious non-fiction essays, but her first and only novel is full of her dark humor and wit. Victor, Kezie, and Nathaniel are reunited at the extravagant wedding of a college friend. Their old dynamics quickly fall back into place, which sets off an absurd chain of events involving a necklace that went missing long ago. They go from Miami to NYC to LA to Paris and the story takes off from there. This one is absurd and funny and confusing and an exciting ride.


Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky is one of those books that you end up laughing the whole way through. Sure, you may not agree with any of the characters' decisions, but it's so good! The story follows Zahid, a famous writer, as he has an affair first with his student, Rachel, and then with her mother, Becca. The trio spends a summer cooped up in a fancy house on the Connecticut shoreline as tensions rise and everyone goes through a bit of self-discovery. I loved how the multiple character storylines overlapped and wove in and out of each other as the story was told from multiple perspectives. Highly recommend this one for fans of Emma Straub, Maria Semple, and even Sally Rooney.


Orange World by Karen Russell is a book that catapulted Karen Russell onto my radar. Since then, I've read a number of her other story collections and she has quickly become one of my favorite authors. One of the things that I love about her is her ability to write dark stories and a brilliant, witty take on them. This book of stories hooked me and I couldn't stop thinking about the stories and the writing the whole time I was reading. I read with a pen in hand to mark all of her lovely, strange ways of portraying the world.


chunky summer reads

Sometimes there is nothing better than settling in with a big, chunky 400+ page book during a hot day.


The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien was a top 10 book for me in 2020. I was blindly recommended it at a bookstore and I devoured it over the course of a few days. The book is actually a trilogy of three short novels, published in the 1960s (and originally banned in Ireland when first published!). It takes place in Ireland and paints a fascinating portrait of what it was like to be a woman during that time in Ireland. We follow Kate and Baba from girlhood through adulthood as they navigate all the pressures that society, politics, and the catholic church put on women. ⁠This one would be perfect for fans of Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan Novels.


The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is a novel that took me by surprise. I never thought I'd love a novel about baseball, but here we are! Henry is destined for baseball fame while playing at Westish College when he injures himself. This sets into motion a series of events that five characters are wrapped up in. I loved this one for its characters and its depth. Plus, the campus setting was great.


Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan is my favorite novel by Sullivan that I've read. Friends and Strangers centers around a couple that has just had their first child. They have moved from Brooklyn to a college town upstate and are trying to settle down. The main character, Elizabeth, is settling into her new life as a mother and trying to find community in a group of women that she doesn't particularly like. She hires a nanny, Sam, a senior at the college in town and the two quickly become friends. Their relationship takes on more than employer/employee: bordering on a sister or mother/daughter dynamic. I found it so intriguing to learn about these women who are separated by 10-15 years.


Stray City by Chelsey Johnson is a story about found family. Twenty-three-year-old artist Andrea Morales escaped her Midwestern Catholic childhood—and the closet—to create a home and life for herself within the thriving but insular lesbian underground of Portland, Oregon. But one drunken night, reeling from a bad breakup and a friend’s betrayal, she recklessly crosses enemy lines and hooks up with a man. To her utter shock, Andrea soon discovers she’s pregnant—and despite the concerns of her astonished circle of gay friends, she decides to have the baby. I really loved the characters, insights, and commentary in this novel!

family dynamics

I absolutely love a good family drama novel. I could probably write a whole blog post with a long list of recommendations in this category, but here are some that are perfect for summer reading.


Musical Chairs by Amy Poeppel is a book about a privileged white family, so go into knowing that you will have some eye-roll moments when they talk about their money. However, I found this one so entertaining. I loved the connection to the classical music scene in New York and I enjoyed the Connecticut countryside setting. I found the characters modern and relatable (at least in the sense of trying to figure out what the heck you are doing with your life) and loved how Poeppel told the story from various character's perspectives. Highly recommend it if you are looking for a fun, quirky family drama!


The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray is told from the perspective of three different sisters. We follow along as the oldest, Althea, is jailed. The story jumps back and forth in time and as we learn more about the characters, we also begin to learn what has brought them to their current reality. We also see how a family can shape each other and the ripple effect that our decisions can have on the ones closest to us. A theme, which I really identified with, is mothering. How do we mother each other? How does a lack of mothering affect us? How does that relationship form who we are?


Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead is set, of course, on a New England island. The Van Meter family convenes at their summer family home for the wedding of one of their daughters. What follows is a lot of bad behavior as three days of precisely planned wedding festivities begin to unravel. This one was fun and I loved the setting and the summer vibes from the story.


See any that caught your eye? I'd love to know if you end up adding any of these to your summer stack! You can check them all out on this list on Bookshop.


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