Editor’s Note: This commentary is part of our special focus on Summer Reading for the month of May.
I spent the heady, humid summer of 1995 in Portland, Oregon. There are no beaches in Portland, and the swimming pools are few and far between. My only escape from the heat was a paperback copy of Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, which I read in one sitting. I traveled through the novel’s portal to a sleepy town in Massachusetts, where the beautiful Owens sisters contended with love, magic, and men. For a straight hour and a half, I was absorbed.
Then, as quickly as the story swept me up, it was over.
I put the book down on the guest bed’s white spread and covered it with my hand. Outside, it was still summer. But inside me, the Owens girls walked through the rooms of my imagination, talking to one another, turning the lights on and off. They lingered for a day, and then I was on to another book. I’d just encountered the perfect summer read, and it was an experience that stays with me over two decades later.
What is summer reading? A vacation between two covers. A trip to another world, another time, another perspective. It is a book that is well crafted and deep, but easy to read. Believe it or not, writing a novel that can be enjoyed in only a few hours is not a simple task. The best beach reads—whether they’re romances, thrillers, mysteries, or nonfiction—take us somewhere else, effortlessly. We may be tanning poolside in Dallas, or watching our kids do cannonballs off the dock in Montauk.
Yet, our summer books take us to the polar ice caps, modern London, or deep space—and as easily return us to earth, just in time to apply another layer of sunscreen. Here are my top three picks for summer reading, in no particular order.
The White Devil by Domenic Stansberry
This 2016 Foreword Indies Finalist is a suspenseful noir set in Rome, under Pope John Paul II. Vittoria, as she’s known in Italy, is a small-time model and actress, recognizable but hard to place. Guided by her delinquent brother, Johnny, Vittoria enters the upper circles of Roman society. Before long, she’s mingling with the high rollers, corrupt senators, and powerful movers. Among them is Paolo Orsini, who quickly claims Vittoria. Too bad he’s married; too bad his wife, an aging film icon, is murdered. Vittoria soon finds herself at the heart of a scandal. Is she innocent, or just turning a blind eye to the facts?
Stansberry keeps this thriller centered by pinning his characters to Italy’s timeless hills: “Tuscany spread out in front of us, beautiful, ancient. The landscape had a runic quality, like a puzzle waiting to be solved.” The cinematic cliffs, beaches, and architecture contrast with the violence that lingers, like a cloud, around Vittoria. When she’s able to finally see through it, she has two choices: feign ignorance, or take revenge of her own.
White Hot Truth by Danielle LaPorte
What better time to contemplate life’s spiritual side than the dog days of summer? Danielle LaPorte shares her spiritual misadventures in the funny, thought provoking book White Hot Truth. Her willingness to describe her misadventures in spiritual seeking is heartening—especially in a genre where many authors portray themselves as gurus.
LaPorte samples from a wide base of religious and spiritual practices, and is quick to say that although she’s tried pretty much everything—including hiding amethyst crystals in her bra and meditating through a coffee colonic—she’s still learning and adapting, too. If anything, she says, the “spiritual overachiever” mindset worked against her: “I had to see that somewhere between the yoga classes, support calls with a shaman, and guided visualizations, my spiritual path had become another to-do list.”
LaPorte’s voice is authentic and relatable, and her message comes through with wonderful humor and self awareness. After all, laughter, on the other hand, is the best medicine. White Hot Truth shares it in abundance.
Living With The Living Dead by Greg Garrett
If self-help and scenic landscapes aren’t your bag, maybe you need a summer read with some teeth. Living With The Living Dead is a voracious study of pop culture, an extended conversation with a nerdy friend that ranges from Cormac McCarthy to The Walking Dead. Garrett’s tone is both academic and playful. He’s personable, and frequently funny, even when his subject is the creeping undead.
Zombies, he says, are everywhere, and the “zombie apocalypse” narrative is the perfect metaphor for life as we know it today: transitioning “from one state to the other, a movement so shocking that we often stand … mouths wide open, simultaneously marveling and horrified at the changes taking place.” Garrett’s writing is as mesmerizing, and as he fleshes out his case, drawing new connections, Living With The Living Dead becomes impossible to put down.
Where will your reading take you? Maybe a few hours in Italy’s picturesque vistas? How about a nerve wracking trip to a bunker besieged by flesh eating monsters? Summer is a great season for leisurely reading, in every genre. Whether you choose a sultry novel or one that gives you goosebumps, give yourself a chance to get away this summer.