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Hello! I’m Sara Hildreth: a reader, writer, and lifelong learner dedicated to putting great books into the hands of great people.

 But around here, the reading life goes beyond books! So grab a cup of something cozy & find the resources, products, and recommendations you need to live your best literary life.

June 12, 2021

Book Lists

The 2021 Paperback Summer Reading Guide

There’s nothing quite like summer reading. Even when we no longer get three months “off” from our responsibilities or prizes from the library for pages read, the magical feeling of summer reading sticks with us. For me, it tends to be the season when I let go of thoughts of what I should be reading and indulge in exactly what I want to read. And that means more backlist titles–the paperbacks I’ve been meaning to get around to forever that I can throw in a tote and cart with me wherever I go, ready to be opened whenever I have a few uninterrupted minutes.

So while I love perusing summer reading guides brimming with new-to-me titles and shiny hardback books, I wanted to put together something a little different for the backlist lovers like me. This summer reading list consists entirely of books available in paperback. Some of them are decades old, others just came out last year, but all of them are easier on your wallet and have shorter library waitlists.

The trouble with a paperback summer reading guide, of course, is limiting myself. Without being limited by publication date, it’s tempting to simply stock this list with all of my favorite books. To manage this impulse, I decided to start by thinking about the types of books I want to read this summer. My reading mood is a little different this year as I can feel myself leaning into books that provide me with some sort of break or escape. My personal reading moods became the categories for this list, and I filled those in while sticking to a total of 30 books. I chose books that I thoroughly enjoyed personally, but that offer wide-ranging appeal–with a handful of oddballs and challenging reads sprinkled throughout. There’s a lot of variety on this list so not every book will be for every reader, but I do hope you find something you’re excited to take on vacation, bring to the pool, or read in your own backyard!

When you’re in the mood…

For something long and leisurely

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Loosely based on the life of Laura Bush, this novel spans decades and follows shy, bookish Alice Lindgren from a tragic teenage accident through a whirlwind romance with an ambitious and privileged politician. Through Alice’s life, Sittenfeld explores large-scale questions about class and politics, as well as making more intimate observations about marriages between people who may fundamentally disagree. The book is introspective in a way that lets you feel completely absorbed in Alice’s life and perspective, but so much happens to and around her to make the plot as compelling as the characterization. 

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A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

This gorgeous book (literally gorgeous…the cover is stunning) is billed as a coming-of-age story that follows 12-year-old Kirabo as she seeks to uncover the truths about her missing mother and her divided self. Kirabo is a wonderful character and watching her journey is one of the joys of this novel, but I was surprised to find that the book is also a multigenerational epic that spans decades and features several complex female characters whose lives you’ll become intensely invested in. In addition to characters who leap off the page, I loved this book for Makumbi’s seamless inclusion of Ugandan history and legends.

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A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Sometimes you read a book and something about the author’s craft makes you feel like you’ve known the characters your whole life. Often these are the characters who stick with me the longest and pop into my mind when I’m least expecting it. A Place for Us is definitely one of those books. In this novel, Mirza introduces us to Rafiq and Layla, Indian-American immigrants living in California with their three children. As the family attempts to navigate dual cultures, we see how seemingly small choices–and major national events–come to affect each child differently and permanently. I lingered over this book reading as slowly as possible because I didn’t want to leave this incredible family.

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The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia

A sweeping family saga that’s truly deserving of the descriptor, the story starts when Nana Reja finds an abandoned baby covered in a blanket of bees on the outskirts of her quiet Mexican town. Thus begins the journey of Simonopio and the swarm of bees that protect and follow him through the Spanish Flu, the Mexican Revolution, and frequent family turmoil. There are characters to root for, gorgeous settings, and a touch of magic. Mostly, the writing (and translation) in this novel are just outstanding. I recommend going into this book without much prior knowledge and letting yourself get caught up in the epic story.

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Middlemarch by George Eliot

Not every reader wants to pick up an 800 page classic in the summer, but for those who do, Middlemarch is the way to go. Eliot’s masterpiece follows an ensemble cast of Victorian villagers striving to do the right thing and become the best versions of themselves. Although these characters lead lives that are completely different from my own, they feel remarkably real in the way that only a master writer can achieve. Through their mistakes, triumphs, heartaches, and secrets, Eliot explores the timeless clash between individual desires and societal expectations in a story that still feels relevant 150 years later. 

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To read something off the beaten path

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Makina is one of those unforgettable heroines who magically comes to life in the brief span of 125 pages. Carrying two secret messages–one from her mother to her brother, another from the shady underworld of her town–Makina embarks on a journey across the U.S.-Mexico border that will change her forever. Through Odyssey-like adventures and allusions to myth and folklore, Herrera uses Makina’s voyage to explore the way language and borders can divide and heal, and completely shape our reality.

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Spinning by Tillie Waldon

A coming-of-age and coming out story set in the chilly world of competitive figure skating, Spinning is a poignant and delightful graphic memoir that will warm your heart. This beautiful book (in terms of both story and visuals–the duotone illustrations are stunning) is a tender commentary on identity, and what happens when the passions and pursuits that have made us who we are ultimately fail us. It’s also a book you can enjoy in a single sitting, making it the perfect graphic novel to pack in your tote bag this summer.

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Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth

Heist stories are the perfect addition to a summer lineup. Add a bereaved teenager, a curmudgeon named Cleveland, and thousands of farm raised chickens and you have an oddball heist that will add a little bit of weird to your beach bag. This novel follows Janey who, after the death of her beloved mother, finds herself living in a small town Midwestern town with her father working as an egg industry auditor. When she and her boss decide they need to save some of their charges from their dire conditions, they set out on a wacky quest and eventually find hope and healing.

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To travel the world

You, Me, Everything by Catherine Isaac

If you’re looking for a book to serve you up something sweet this summer, try this lovely family story set in the French countryside. The novel follows Jess and her son William, who agree to spend part of their summer at the castle hotel William’s estranged father Adam has been restoring. While Jess is apprehensive about the trip, she’s determined to help her son build a relationship with his father no matter what. This complicated family story is earnestly rendered and the family members themselves are endearingly flawed. Plus, you really will feel transported to a French chateau, and who doesn’t want that right now?

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Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

In this novel, Edugyan introduces eleven-year-old Wash, an enslaved boy on the island of Barbados. When Titch, the eccentric scientist brother of the plantation owner takes an interest in Wash, his life is irrevocably altered and Wash sets off on a journey that spans from the Caribbean to the arctic, London to Morocco. This isn’t escapist travel reading. Edugyan doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutal realities of slavery, but she has somehow managed to write an incredibly compelling adventure novel while addressing the legacy of racism and white saviorism. It’s a truly remarkable piece of fiction.

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Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

Kevin Kwan is the author I trust most to whisk me away on a vicarious extravagant literary voyage. In Sex and Vanity, Kwan’s retelling of E.M. Forster’s classic travel novel A Room with a View, we meet Lucie Churchill, who is attending a lavish wedding on Capri with her older cousin (and chaperone) Charlotte. Sparks fly when Lucie meets George Zao, but Charlotte deems him an inappropriate match for her young charge and insists that Lucie return to the U.S. with her immediately. George doesn’t disappear from Lucie’s life forever, of course, and the novel follows her from Capri to glitzy NYC parties and into a complicated love triangle. This book is fun and sparkling, but it also includes frank commentary on race, class, and culture, which made me love it all the more.

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Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

In this classic American road trip book, readers have the chance to explore Yellowstone National Park, traverse the California coast, and visit roadside pit stops and dive bars across the United States with a great American writer and his French poodle, Charley. While some of Steinbeck’s observations on America are dated now, this short memoir does give you a glimpse into the way he saw the world as a writer and thinker, and is the perfect way to experience his quintessential writing style in a much more accessible (and I’d argue enjoyable) form. It’s also the perfect summer book for lovers of dogs and the American West.

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The Summer Sail by Wendy Francis

The Summer Sail is probably the brightest and breeziest book of the bunch, and while that’s not usually my genre of choice, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this fluffy vacation novel when I read it. The book follows three women–Abby, Caroline, and Lee–who’ve been best friends since college, as they embark on a cruise to Bermuda to celebrate Abby’s 20th wedding anniversary. All of them want this to be an opportunity to unwind, reconnect, and forget their worries, but they’re all facing major life changes that they aren’t quite ready to grapple with openly. What I really appreciate about this (in addition to the complete brain break it gave me) is that it’s a pure beach read that focuses more on friendship than romance, which I found extremely refreshing.

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To travel through time

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno Garcia

Silvia Moreno Garcia is truly gifted at evoking a sense of place and atmosphere. If Mexican Gothic was the perfect eerie novel for fall, this sparkling novel of manners is just the right book to spend a summer afternoon with–think Garcia’s version of Jane Austen if Mexican Gothic was Bronte-esque. The book follows Nina, a young woman gifted (or cursed) with telekinesis whose debut as part of her community’s Grand Season has gone horribly wrong. But while no one in her life seems to understand Nina or her powers, all of that changes when the dashing Hector Auvray, a fellow telekinetic, arrives on the scene ready to sweep Nina off her feet and help her harness her gifts. There’s intrigue and betrayal here, alongside a frothy and fun exploration of the classic romance genre.

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Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

This young adult World War II novel can easily be appreciated by teen and adult readers alike. At its onset, we meet “Verity” who has been arrested by the Gestapo after her plane crashes in France and is currently being held and tortured for information. While she believes that her fate is sealed, she sees these interviews as an opportunity to save the life of her best friend Maddie, who was piloting the plane that went down. I loved the way the characters’ friendship was depicted in this book, but what makes it perfect for summer are the layers of deception and shocking twists Wein weaves into Verity’s tale. If you end up loving this one, the sequel, The Enigma Game, is also out now.

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The Garden of the Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

These days it’s rare for a book to come out of nowhere and blow me away, but that’s just what happened with The Garden of the Evening Mists. I hadn’t heard of this novel at all until a coworker leant it to me, and when I began reading I found myself instantly swept up in a history and culture I knew nothing about. Set in dual timelines in Malaya, this novel explores the lives of Yun Ling Teoh, a former prisoner of a Japanese war camp whose successful career as a judge is threatened by the onset of an incurable illness. Leaving her prominent position behind, Yun Ling returns to Cameron Heights, a lush Japanese garden in the Malayan mountains where she found healing after the war. This book is a haunting exploration of memory interspersed with stunning imagery of mountain gardens. It’s utterly breathtaking.

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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Set during the British heat wave of 1976, this quirky mystery excels at evoking a sense of time and place. The entirety of the book takes place on “the Avenue,” the main street of a quiet English town where Mrs. Creasey has gone missing. When ten-year-old friends and amateur sleuths Tilly and Grace take it upon themselves to solve the mystery of Mrs. Creasy’s disappearance, more than one secret of the Avenue gets unearthed. Cannon writes these girls, their friendship, and their obsession so well and intersperses the child point-of-view chapters with snippets from other neighbors, giving readers a full and nuanced picture of this complicated ensemble.

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The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

An epic adventure rooted in history and myth, The Bird King is a quest story with two of the most lovable protagonists I’ve ever encountered. The story is set in Granada at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. When Inquisitors arrive at the last thriving sultanate in the country, Fatima–the sultan’s favorite concubine–and Hassan–her best friend and a maker of magical maps–flee and go in search of the mystical Bird King who visits Fatima’s dreams. Their journey is harrowing and will keep you turning pages, but their friendship is the true heart of the novel and one I’ve thought about long since closing this book.

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Something twisty and compulsive

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

The title really says it all here. This novel follows Korede, the dutiful but overlooked elder child, and Ayoola, the beautiful (and favorite) younger sister who has a bad habit of killing her boyfriends. Ayoola’s serial killer tendencies have gone unnoticed by the law because Korede–a trained nurse–is a pro at cleaning blood and moving bodies. But when the doctor Korede’s been pining after expresses interest in Ayoola, Korede decides something needs to change. This book is both a sharp, witty satire and an intriguing page-turner; and while it’s not quite a thriller, if you love thrillers, you’ll appreciate the tropes Braithwaite is playing with here.

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The Golden Cage by Camilla Läckberg

Translated from its original Swedish, this propulsive thriller is outrageously wild and provocative. The protagonist is Faye, a woman who abandons her ambition and ideas to settle for the security of marriage to a wealthy man, all to escape a past that haunts her. But as her husband becomes increasingly cold and distant, her life is shattered and she’s consumed by resentment and a desire for vengeance. The Golden Cage is a dark and scandalous revenge story with a morally ambiguous heroine who you’ll alternately root for and detest. There are lots of trigger warnings here, including violence against children and passages with graphic (sometimes violent) sex, so sensitive readers steer clear.

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Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

Witchy books and campus novels fit squarely in my fall reading mood, but with its snarky heroine and noir-like tone this mystery would also make for some seriously satisfying summer reading. The story features private detective Ivy Gamble who’s aware of the world of witchcraft because of her magical sister Tabitha, but isn’t part of that world herself. Ivy has tried her best to keep a distance between herself and Tabitha’s world, but when she’s tasked with solving a gruesome murder that took place at the sorcery school where Tabitha teachers, she finds herself more involved than she could have imagined. This book is fun for its winks at Harry Potter and references to fantasy tropes, but the crime itself is pretty brutal so it’s definitely for adult readers.

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The Coyotes of Carthage by Steven Wright

Political thrillers hold a special place in my heart; I just love a mystery set in an intricate–often corrupt–political web. In The Coyotes of Carthage, Dre Ross, a DC lobbyist willing to do almost anything to get back into the good graces of his boss, is sent to small town South Carolina with a quarter million dollars of dark money and a mission to convince the people of Carthage County to sell their land rights to a mining company. This book explores racial tensions in the South, the impact of money on politics, and how cultural ideology is used to manipulate political goals. It’s riveting and explosive and a lot of fun.

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Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth is just the novel for bibliophiles who love spy thrillers. The book begins at Cambridge during the Cold War where beautiful literature student Serena Frome is recruited by MI5 to infiltrate a literary circle whose cultural ideology may run counter to and be dangerous for the British government. Serena’s love of novels gives her an easy entry into the group, but also fuels the romantic tendencies that get her into trouble. I found this tale of espionage and betrayal to be a delightful bit of intrigue, and it was, of course, made all the better by its abundant bookish references.

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The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Science fiction isn’t a go-to genre for me, but I adored this romp through the multiverse because of its incredible premise, fiery heroine, and Sapphic love story. The book takes place in a future where the multiverse has not only been proven true, but humans have the capability to travel between worlds–as long as they don’t have another self living on that alternate planet. Kara is a traverser who’s been recruited because her precarious life circumstances mean she’s deceased in nearly every other corner of the multiverse. But Kara has ambitions and secrets, and she’s not going to serve as a pawn of her company forever. Pick up this book if you want something thrilling and original that will make you see our world through fresh eyes.

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For something with a sense of humor

Members Only by Sameer Pandya

Typically I struggle with these kinds of cringe-inducing stories where characters make one bad decision after another, resulting in an utter mess almost entirely of their own making. But for some reason, this one really worked for me. Raj Bhatt is an American History professor and avid tennis player who wants nothing more than for his beloved tennis club to diversify their membership. But Raj has his own biases and when interviewing a Black couple for possible membership, Raj makes a joke that leads to his club turning on him. That moment precipitates a chain of catastrophic events and leads to a no good, very bad week for Raj. Pandya manages to explore race and the campus culture wars with nuance all while making me both hide my eyes in vicarious embarrassment and laugh out loud in true hilarity.

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Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Corrupt politicians, satirical depictions of the South, fraying friendships, and children who burst into flames: this book has it all. When Lillian’s estranged high school best friend Madison calls her in need of a favor, Lillian drops everything to move to Madison’s estate and look after her two stepchildren. They’re great kids with the minor issue of catching on fire when they’re upset, a huge problem for Madison and her politically ambitious husband. This book is wryly funny and cuttingly snarky, but it’s not without heart. At its core, it’s a deeply moving story of found family and the sacrifices we make for the people we grow to love.

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My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley

This book is delightful and hilarious…just rereading the summary to jog my memory of it put a smile on my face. McCauley gives us three wonderful characters to cheer on in the midst of personal crises. There’s David, a private college counselor for San Francisco’s elite who feels stuck and dejected after his younger boyfriend leaves him. There’s Julie, David’s ex-wife who’s running a shabby Airbnb because she needs to make money fast so she can buy out her home from her second husband before their divorce is finalized. Then there’s Mandy, Julie’s whip smart 17-year-old who can’t seem to stop making poor and dangerous choices as she processes her parents’ separation. All three of these characters living under a single roof provide ample opportunity for hilarious, as well as tender, moments and give McCauley space for some epic one-liners.

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For something quick and quirky

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton

Packaged in a concise 175 pages, Margaret the First depicts the life and literary legacy of Margaret Cavendish, a 17th century duchess and political exile who wrote and published everything from philosophy to poetry to plays. Her work was prolific, but often mocked, and she kept on writing. In this book, Dutton delves into Margaret’s interior life and proposes some fascinating answers to what might have motivated this spunky woman who insisted on forging her own path. Margaret is a wholly real and original character who will stick with you long after you finish reading.

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Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony

If I gave you a plot summary of this book, you’d likely roll your eyes and pass on it entirely…I almost did. Enter the Aardvark is absurd. From its premise to its commentary on the American political system, this novel revels in its own ridiculousness, making it a book you can’t take too seriously and still enjoy. But if you can suspend your disbelief for 150 pages, you will fly through this book in one afternoon, laughing out loud until the final scene, which will leave you chilled to the bone reflecting on the levels of individualism, narcissism, and ambition among American politicians.

Buy on Amazon | Buy on Bookshop

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Interior Chinatown is a difficult book to explain, but just trust me that it’s one of the strangest, wittiest, most profound books I’ve read in years. And if you don’t trust me, trust the National Book Award judges (this book took home the top prize last year). Our protagonist is Willis Wu who plays the role of Generic Asian Man in the TV cop show Black and White. He also sees his role in life as Generic Asian Man, at best a side character and at worst a prop in his own life. Lots happens to Willis in his quest to propel himself into the role of Kung Fu Guy, and through his journey Yu explores the history and legacy of racism against Asian Americans in a wholly unconventional and sharply satirical style.

Buy on Amazon | Buy on Bookshop


I hope this guide helped you find something to add to your beach bag! Comment below to tell me about your summer reading mood and the books you’re hoping to read this season!

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  1. What a great idea for a summer reading list! Books that can be found in the library! Lots of interesting ideas in this wonderful list. Thank you!

  2. Pam says:

    I love that you are featuring paperbacks/back lists. Several have caught my eye and I will be adding them to my tbr. Thank you!

  3. Cat says:

    Seriously great list, thank you! Some that I’ve NEVER heard of, and some that have been on my list and just needed that budge to the top (The Garden of Evening Mists!). Thanks for all the hard work that goes into putting this together.

    Oh, and Members Only was a sleeper hit for me last year, so good.

    • Sara Hildreth says:

      This makes me so happy, Cat! Thanks for the kind words. And I’m so glad to meet someone else who loved Members Only. It was fantastic!

  4. Emily says:

    Your blurbs for each of these novels makes me want to pick up all of them! I really appreciate the thought and care that went into choosing and writing about these books. Thanks for sharing!

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holiday

lifestyle

recommendations

book lists

Categories

Read With Me!

Search

Follow Along

Hello! I’m Sara Hildreth: a reader, writer, and lifelong learner dedicated to putting great books into the hands of great people.

 But around here, the reading life goes beyond books! So grab a cup of something cozy & find the resources, products, and recommendations you need to live your best literary life.