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Where to begin? We’ve all been living a dystopian novel for the last 15 months, but things are finally starting to head toward something closer to normal. Like many of you, I’m now fully vaccinated and isn’t that a relief? I’m out and about more, have seen friends, and even got to go visit my mom last weekend. Hopefully, this summer will bring you more vacations than last, but whether you’re summer involves travel or just time to breathe, great beach bag books are always a MUST!
This year I’m sharing 21 books that I hope will make for fabulous summer reading. Books are broken down into four categories, including three that highlight 2021 books: Smart Suspense, Loving Literary, and Delightfully Different. The final category, Backlist Beauties is mainly made up of books from 2020 which I read after last year’s Beach Bag Books.
I’ll be talking about many of these books and some that you don’t see here on the May 12th episode of Sarah’s Bookshelves Live. Between Sarah and myself, your summer TBR list is going to explode!
The Push by Ashley Audrain (1/5/21, 320 pages) – I’ve finally come to realize that really smart, literary suspense is the sort of thriller that works best for me and The Push falls squarely into that category. This is the story of a mother who has little to no connection with her daughter, but for good reasons. Worse still, cause to fear her. Debut author Ashley Audrain sewed doubt and fear throughout the story, constantly keeping me off balance. And, the ending? Absolute perfection! (full review)
Too Good to Be True by Carola Lovering (3/2/21, 352 pages) – Sometimes a title says it all, and that was certainly the case for me with Too Good to Be True. I have a sticky relationship with domestic thrillers, but when one works for me, it really works. This is the story of a man and the women he’s married to. Yes, I said “the women.” Through twists and turns this man finds himself with two wives, and a whole lot of reasons why. I can’t reveal more, but know that this was one of those books I could not put down! (full review)
What Comes After by Joanne Tompkins (4/13/21, 429 pages) – I’d looked forward to What Comes After for a long time, so expectations were high. Let’s just say I was NOT disappointed. This is the story of a pregnant homeless girl who finds herself in the most unlikely of places. It’s the story of two grieving parents who have both lost their teenage sons. It’s a story of hard truths, personal growth, loyalty, forgiveness, and love in seemingly impossible situations. It’s everything and will keep you up late into the night. (full review)
When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain (4/13/21, 370 pages) – This book is a departure for Paula McLain and it’s also her most personal book, so be sure to read the afterward. When the Stars Go Dark revolves around Anna, a police detective fleeing tragedy in her own life only to find herself in the midst of another tragedy in the town where she spent much of youth. McLain beautifully wove together Anna’s childhood traumas, a period of healing, and the dual mysteries of her present loss and the case of a missing girl. It’s all so good! (full review)
What Could Be Saved by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz (1/12/21, 464 pages) – This was the first 2021 book I read and it started out the year on a high not for sure. this is the story of three siblings, one of whom vanished in Thailand when they were children. More than fifty years later news that he may still be alive reaches his sisters. Told with dual timelines, the complicated feelings of all three siblings are at the heart of this extremely well told story of both trauma and healing. (full review)
The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood (2/2/21, 368 pages) – This story is a different take on the immigrant experience, featuring two very different Muslim families, one from Pakistan, the other from Iraq. The son of one, Anvar, and the daughter of another, Azza, are the cornerstones of this tale. With absolutely stellar writing Masood uses irreverent humor to take some of the edge off of complex relationships and sometimes scary situations. The Bad Muslim Discount is a story with loads of heart! (full review)
Landslide by Susan Conley (2/2/21, 288 pages) – I have to be honest, Landslide is my favorite book so far this year. I felt such a personal connection with Conley’s main character, Jill, the mother of two teenage boys she affectionately thinks of as “the wolves.” Jill is faced with all the usual concerns around raising teenage boys, complicated by an absent husband, and personal doubts. Everything about this story felt so real to me. Months after finishing it, Landslide still resonates in my soul. It’s going to be hard to top! (full review)
When I Ran Away by Ilona Bannister (3/30/21, 336 pages) – I loved this unusual story of a woman suffering from postpartum depression. At a complete loss, Gigi steps out of her life, running away from her husband and children. The story alternates between Gigi’s feelings on that day, and both the recent and more distant past. That might sound like a lot for a writer to handle, but debut author Bannister beautifully balanced it all. (full review)
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (1/26/21, 368) – I love a good Greek mythology retelling and A Thousand Ships was exactly that. In each chapter, different woman relate the story of the Trojan War from the female vantage point. These women rightly never went easy on what had happened to them or who was to blame. The Odyssey was related by Penelope, the long suffering wife of Odysseus. Written as a series of letters to her husband, I loved her sarcastic and increasingly caustic delivery. (full review)
Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano (2/2/21, 368 pages) – I really shouldn’t have liked this book about a mom who through a series of misunderstandings ends up being believed to be a paid assassin. Her nanny gets drawn into the mix and the two spend the book trying to “dig” their way out of the trouble they’re in. It sounds over-the-top, but somehow debut author Cosimano made it work. If you’re on the hunt for a fun, light-hearted thriller, look no further. You’ll find it in Finlay Donovan Is Killing It. (full review) 🎧
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (2/2/21, 288 pages) – This debut features Lala, a hair-braider and new mother from Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, a lovely spot for tourists, but not as much for locals. Lala is married to Adan, a petty criminal (and maybe more) who also has a violent streak that Lala regularly sees up close and personal. It’s also the story of Mrs. Whalen, a new widow, trying to find her footing. I’d call this book a literary mystery, with the island locale adding a vacation vibe. (full review) 🎧
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton (3/30/21, 368 pages) – Opal & Nev uses an oral history format to tell the story of a short-lived 1970’s rock duo that’s considering a long awaited reunion. Nev grew up involved in the music scene in England, and Opal, a young, bald, outspoken Black woman grew up singing with her sister in church. This unlikely pair are at the heart of a tragedy that still haunts them. This book has been compared to Daisy Jones, but is really it’s own unique story. (full review)
Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau (5/11/12, 320 pages) – I loved this story set in Baltimore in 1975. At it’s heart is Mary Jane, a 14-year old girl nannying for the summer, for a young couple nothing like her parents. Not only are they free spirits, but they have a rockstar and his actress wife hiding out with them for the summer. Through all of these new adults Mary Jane is exposed to a world completely different from her own. Mary Jane has it all, sex, drugs and rock & roll and is so much fun! (full review yet to come)
The Hunting Wives by May Cobb (5/18/21, 368 pages) – This was a guilty pleasure read! I really shouldn’t have liked it, but I DID. It’s a story about a bunch of very privileged white women doing whatever they want to get everything they want. They run roughshod over anyone in their way, drink copiously and constantly, use high school boys as playthings, and haven’t seen a line they weren’t willing to cross. They’re awful, but if you’re looking for a fun domestic thriller, I’d add The Hunting Wives to your beach bag this summer. (full review yet to come)
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha (10/15/19, 320 pages) – I don’t know how I missed this book, but finally read it a year after it published. It’s the story of two Los Angeles families connected by two high profile shootings, the first in 1991, the second 28 years later. The book moves back and forth between the original shooting of a 15-year old Black girl, and the shooting of her killer, a Korean woman, all those years later. Cha brought ALL the characters to life, and even the most unsympathetic you had to feel for. (full review) 🎧
Sea Wife by Amity Gaige (4/28/20, 288 pages) – I loved this story about Juliet, a depressed mom, in a stormy marriage, who reluctantly agrees to a year-long sailing adventure in the waters of South America. This had always been her husband, Michael’s dream, but Juliet knew nothing of sailing or exactly how Michael managed to acquire/ buy a boat and make it possible for them to take a year off from their lives. This one’s a bit of a thriller, told by Jill looking back on the trip and Michael’s Captain’s Log. (full review)
One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London (7/7/20, 417 pages) – If like me, The Bachelor franchise has been a guilty pleasure for you, then you’re definitely going to want to read One to Watch. Bea, a plus-size influencer, reluctantly embarks on breaking new ground as the first woman above a size 4 on such a show. She’s not doing it for love, but to build her brand, though as you might expect, her heart has other plans. Bea’s story a lot of fun, and getting a back stage look at the creation of such a show was eye-opening! (full review)
Dear Emmie Blue by Lia Louis (7/14/20, 311 pages) – this is a late breaking addition to my Beach Bag Books 2021! I just finished it and knew I had to include this story of a girl who meets her best friend, Lucas, at 16 through a message she sent off to the world in a balloon. Fourteen years later, Emmie is in love with Lucas and he’s getting married to someone else. She graciously agrees to be his “best woman” despite her own world crumbling around her. Romance? Yes, but also fun and it was so easy to fall into this story! (full review yet to come) 🎧
A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost (7/14/20, 312 pages) – Sometimes timing is everything. I first started this book shortly after it published, only to put it aside after a couple chapters. I picked it up again months later and loved it! Throughout, Jost tells stories of his life, with the heart of it being his love of comedy, and his years on SNL. His tellings were laugh-out-loud funny and a chapter about his mother on 9-11, was my favorite chapter. I was already a fan of Jost, but now, even more so. (full review) 🎧
The Boys’ Club by Erica Katz (8/4/20, 416 pages) – This literary legal drama made for some excellent summer reading last year. It centers around Alex Vogel, a Harvard Law School grad, that joins a Big Law firm planning on taking on one of the easier specialties, but finds her competitive nature won’t let her stay away from the drama and prestige of Mergers & Acquisitions. Of course, along with the pressure comes lines that are crossed. Lines that at first fascinate Alex, but ultimately being to scare her. (full review)
His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie (9/1/20, 288 pages) – Afi, a young Ghanaian woman of few means receives a marriage proposal from the middle son of the most wealthy woman in her community. A proposal like this is too good to turn down, but after the wedding Afi realizes something is wrong. She almost never sees her new husband and Afi is determined to find out the truth about why! Medie delivered a completely fun story, and one that taught me about many elements of the Ghanaian culture. (full review) 🎧
🎧 – Books I listened to and would recommend on audio.
I hope your summer reading is a pure delight!
BEACH BAG BOOKS 2021 PIN ⇓
So many good picks. 🙂 I’m looking forward to some summer relaxation with several of these. Hope you are too as you count down the days until the end of the school year!
Les in OR says
Wow. My TBR list just exploded! I’ve put together a list of books for the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge and will get that posted tomorrow. I may have to save your recs for the fall.
Deb Nance at Readerbuzz says
A great list! Thank you.
Hi Susie: I enjoyed listening to you & Sarah discuss many of these on the podcast!! And I’d like to get to many of these that you recommend. I did like Sea Wife, Your House Will Pay, and The Push …
The top three you recommend … that I want to get to most … are: Susan Conley’s, Paula McLain’s and the Bad Muslim novel …. all perfect for summer weather! can’t wait for those.
Canada (Alberta) is in a terrible lockdown now … so we need to get to where the States are in terms of opening up … won’t happen till July or August it appears. Sigh. We will see. I’m still waiting here to get shot #2. Glad you are more free there and things are nearing summer for you. Enjoy.