Mini-Reviews of Recent Reads: July 2023

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Happy dog-days of summer! I’ve been lucky to have a little travel and fun with friends and family this past month, and now we’re gearing up to start school in just a couple of weeks. Where did the summer go?

As you may know from past reviews, I spend a lot of time with audiobooks in the summer, and audiobooks have been topping a lot of my favorites this year.

July, though, was different. I loved the print books I read (one in particular just felt like summer!) but the audiobooks were kind of meh.

I’m always up for a good audiobook, but it felt great to be absorbed in a print book again. The print books were all uplifting in different ways–good choices if that’s your reading mood right now.

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Print and E-Books

Small Joys by Elvin James Mensah

Small Joys

Author: Elvin James Mensah
Publish Date: April 11, 2023
Genres: Contemporary Fiction

Harley is depressed. He’s quit college and moved back home to his rural town in England. He’s on the verge of making a tragic decision when he is interrupted by his new roommate, Muddy. Muddy is the polar opposite of Harley; freewheeling, confident, masculine, and presumably heterosexual, he pulls Harley into his orbit and friend group. With his relentless positivity, zest for life, and love of birds, Muddy brings light back to Harley’s life–until the past threatens to darken it again.

I adored this novel of found family and finding meaning in small things. The friends are each different and have their own struggles, but the way these working-class 20-somethings show up, accept, and stay for one another–especially Harley–is remarkable. I loved their dynamic, I loved Muddy, and I didn’t want this to end. There are some triggers here, with Harley’s depression, but I was smiling throughout so much of this book.

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Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld

Romantic Comedy

Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Publish Date: April 4, 2023
Source: Book of the Month Club
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Romance

Sally is a comedy writer on The Night Owls, a late-night improv show (obviously modeled on Saturday Night Live). She’s content behind the scenes and used to being around stars. When singer Noah Brewster hosts, she feels unexpected chemistry with him–and is surprised when he also seems to feel it (especially in a week when she’s written a sketch about the unlikelihood of such a scenario). Could it possibly work out between them?

Romance is not Curtis Sittenfeld’s usual genre, and as with all of her books, I enjoyed seeing where this experiment took her. In my favorites of hers, she writes about interesting women in interesting places (most intriguingly in Rodham and American Wife), and while her work isn’t really “literary fiction,” (whatever that really means), it does tend to be darker and more biting than a “romantic comedy.” These qualities might not work in just any rom-com, but they did work in this setting. The behind-the-scenes of the SNL-like show were fascinating, and the egos, tensions, and maneuverings of that very specific workplace added a lot to the book. Most surprisingly, the romance was sweet, and I enjoyed the chemistry between the characters. Sittenfeld’s work doesn’t always work for me, but I’m always up for seeing what she’ll do next.

The Summer of Songbirds by Kristy Woodson Harvey

The Summer of Songbirds

Author: Kristy Woodson Harvey
Publish Date: July 11, 2023
Genres: Contemporary Fiction

Daphne, Lanier, and Mary Stuart have been best friends since they met at camp at the age of six, and Daphne’s aunt June has run the camp for decades. But the camp is in trouble, and the thought of losing the place that brought them together–the place that saved them–is unbearable. As they fight to keep it, they also have to face their pasts and determine how their sun-soaked summer memories fit into their present lives.

This is the PERFECT choice if you’re looking for a nostalgic summer read. As someone who met my own best friend decades ago at summer camp, I was all in on the camp nostalgia, lifelong friendships, and summer memories. My camps were quite different from this one, but this still transported me back to those unforgettable summers. I’m honestly not sure if this will resonate with readers who didn’t go to camp, but I highly recommend it for anyone who did, or who has a place with special summer memories.

Related: Fiction and Nonfiction Books About Friendships


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New 2023 Summer Books to Read (& Skip)

Audiobooks

Ripe by Sarah Rose Etter

Ripe

Author: Sarah Rose Etter
Narrator: Laurel Lefkow
Publish Date: July 11, 2023
Source: Libro.fm ALC
Genres: Literary Fiction

Cassie moved to Silicon Valley to take up her dream job, but one year in, it’s anything but a dream. Already plagued by depression, the unreasonable, unethical demands of the job, as well as the bleak poverty, ridiculous wealth, and general hopelessness of the chronically overworked people around her leave her at loose ends. She copes with drugs, and then finds herself pregnant, in a non-relationship with the father.

This book is unrelentingly bleak, and anyone struggling with overwhelm and depression may want to approach it with caution. It also feels realistic, because overwhelm and despair at the state of the world, hustle culture, and dark capitalism are now pretty universal. I can recommend if you’re looking for solidarity in your own struggles, but would pass if you’re deep in the shadows of it–there is not much here to offer hope.

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Hedge by Jane Delury

Hedge

Author: Jane Delury
Narrator: Molly Parker Myers
Publish Date: June 6, 2023
Source: Libro.fm ALC
Genres: Contemporary Fiction

Maud is a garden historian who has taken a job across the country, in the Hudson River Valley, after separating from her husband. While there, she strikes up a friendship (that turns into more) with an archaeologist named Gabe. But her teen daughter’s moods are concerning, and when they come to a head, Maud is left reeling and trying to sort out what’s true–and what she wants in life.

This book never really landed with me. Maud is hard to root for–and I felt like I needed to in this story, in order to care at all about her choices and the outcome. Really, all of the adult characters were hard to pin down (there was a bit of whiplash here), which just made me feel sorry for the child characters stuck dealing with them. Add this to the list of books I should have DNFed.

Super Bloom by Megan Tady

Super Bloom

Author: Megan Tady
Narrator: Marni Penning
Publish Date: May 2, 2023
Source: Libro.fm ALC
Genres: Contemporary Fiction

Joan is a massage therapist at a Vermont spa, struggling with grief after the death of her boyfriend. When romance novelist and difficult client Carmen Bronze shows up with a plan to set her next novel at a spa, Joan agrees to provide insider notes on the profession. The project awakens her creativity, and she starts to find healing while drafting her own romance novel set in a spa–violating the strict contract Bronze made her sign.

This was a bit of a wild ride, with darker themes of grief and depression and plot points around the unhinged author, worker rights, and some hijinks with friends–and it actually worked. The pressure Joan felt to just “get over it” was realistic, and the unlikely things that helped her find meaning and rebuild her life added both levity and dimension to her character arc. Goodreads lists “romance” as one of the genres for this book, but there’s very little of that. Read it for the woman-centered story, with moments of rom-com-like delight.

Related: 11 Poignant Books About Grief and Loss

What books have you been loving this summer?

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