Our summer 2023 reading recommendation roundup

A cat rests on a pile of books. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)
A cat rests on a pile of books. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

Looking for a getaway? You don't need to take a vacation to escape. There are plenty of great books that can whisk you off to new places. This summer, WBUR book critic Christian Burno and associate producer Hanna Ali spent time reading all sorts of new book — all with New England ties — for our seasonal Beach Books newsletter.

And whether you're a murder mystery buff or rocky romance novels are more your thing, you'll want to bookmark this list compiling all of their book recommendations from the newsletter.

Check out their selections below. And if you missed this year's edition of the newsletter, you can subscribe here to get Beach Books in your inbox next summer.

'The Acrobat'
By Edward J. Delaney

The book is set in 1959, and actor Cary Grant — referred to as “The Acrobat” throughout the book — is undergoing psychotherapy in Beverly Hills. A part of his care plan includes “The Treatment,” that is, regular use of LSD.  Bouncing through time, Grant reminisces about the lives he’s lived — as a performer, husband and an abandoned child — going in and out of reality as he rides the LSD high.

Edward J. Delaney makes smart use of the increasingly popular storytelling method that turns a real-life figure into the protagonist of a fictional tale (Think: Hulu’s “The Great” or HBO’s “Winning Time”). He sprinkles curious but factual tidbits about Grant's life and career to create a time-bending (and often mind-bending) story.


'Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea'
By Rita Chang-Eppig

This is a novel about the historic, legendary Chinese pirate queen Shek Yeung and her fleet of seamen creating an alliance with Europeans. After her husband, Cheng Yat, is killed, Shek Yeung decides to carry on by marrying his second-in-command and having his baby. While that’s happening, she is trying to lead her fleet to victory from opposing pirate ships with help from allying fleets. Her leadership skills are put to the test as she weighs what matters most: her family or her fleet.

Rita Chang-Eppig's heroine encapsulates a wide range and, at times, unexpected modes of womanhood: pirate, mother, fighter. She tries her best to paint a vivid picture of a time of turmoil as chaotic and nerve-wracking as the sea the story is set in.


'Happy Place'
By Emily Henry

Harriet and Wyn had been together since college until their breakup five months ago. Their shared group of friends have been renting an idyllic Maine cottage for the last decade, and this year is the last time they’re able to do that. Harriet and Wyn also haven’t informed their friends about the breakup to keep the peace for the week. As they play house during this getaway, will they be able to keep up this ruse? Or is pretending to be in love even a ruse at all?

Emily Henry's romance novels are a perfect way to start the beach season. And yet,  this story is not limited to a romantic relationship, but also explores friendship dynamics.


'Little Weirds'
By Jenny Slate

This collection of essays  invites readers to book a ticket on actress Jenny Slate's train of thought and ride it through a lush countryside of strange, honest memories and moments. From the excitement of reuniting with your beloved when it "feels like I should be buying a cloud or a star” to dinner at a restaurant “where I will eat a killed and burned-up bird and drink old purple grapes,” Slate’s curious, deconstructionist takes on everyday life are pretty enjoyable.

In 200 pages or so, Slate manages to tell some dizzying, weird stories from her life. Reading this book feels comforting, like confiding in a friend about your oddest daydreams just to hear them say, "I feel like that sometimes, too."


'My First Popsicle'
Edited by Zosia Mamet

This book is a collection of stories about food from Vermont native and “Girls” alum Zosia Mamet, who tapped several of her friends to share stories about their most memorable meals and the feelings they evoke. The contributed stories cover a parent-child relationship ("Poulet Yassa" by Gabourey Sidibe), an awkward trip up to western Massachusetts for Thanksgiving ("Donut Go Gentle" by Hamish Linklater), and unforgettable dining experiences ("Mission: Jiro" by Richard Shepard) — all taken, the collection touches on comfort foods, disordered eating, heartbreak and more.

Mamet made sure to include recipes with most of the stories. Spend a day reading this book and you'll not only have a laugh, but also a new recipe for lemon rice with lentils, the "perfect" cup of Chemex coffee and even Jell-O cake, which happens to be a  Midwestern staple.


'Wannabe: Reckonings with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me'
By Aisha Harris

If you were around and aware during the early aughts, this pop culture anthology is for you. It’s filled with hilarious and witty essays and hot takes on the adolescent favorites of a generation, like “Friends,” “New Girl,” “Clueless” and more.

This book is like someone put all of the well-written cultural criticism in one place instead of me scouring Twitter for the next big essay. Aisha Harris traces our memories about hit shows and connects them to the way it has shaped our opinions and analysis today.

'Pineapple Street'
By Jenny Jackson

Sasha, Georgiana and Darley are three women in the Stockton family real estate investment empire. The matriarch of the family, Tilda, puts pressure on her daughters, Georgiana and Darley, but babies her son Cord, to whom she is trying to pass on their house. The main characters spend the duration of the book attempting to learn the ins and outs of the 1% community they are a part of.

It seems we have been inundated with stories about the rich and privileged (“White Lotus,” “Succession,” “Fleishman is in Trouble”). They’ve been candy for us viewers. "Pineapple Street is like those but in book form. This is Jackson’s debut as an author, but she has been in the publishing game for quite some time as a successful book editor. The projects she has had a hand in are some of the most notable works of literary gold in recent history, including “Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan and my favorite read from last year “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin.

'The Cherry Robbers'
By Sarai Walker

Death on their wedding night. That’s the mysterious curse protagonist Iris Chapel has been running from for decades — the curse that killed her five older sisters, one after the other. While it’s not clear why these sisters are fated to die tragically, all Iris knows is that she’ll do anything to avoid a similar end. By 2017, she’s changed her name and lives far away from New England. But when a journalist investigating the Chapel girls’ mysterious deaths reaches out to her, Iris is forced to reckon with the horrors that occurred decades ago at her haunting family home in Connecticut.

Walker’s story flips a classic romance archetype on its head: In “The Cherry Robbers,” true love’s first kiss means death — a fate Iris refuses to accept. Through a series of diaries, she chronicles what happened to her sisters, how she managed to survive the inescapable and the cost of her journey.

'When We Were Mothers'
By Nicci Kadilak

In a dystopian future, maternal and infant mortality rates are low. That’s because natural birth has been outlawed, and all children are required to be conceived, incubated and born via “nursery wombs” in laboratories. A secret society of women wants to bring the choice to bear children back to the world. But when one member dies during childbirth, Lucinda, the First Daughter of the secret Garden Society, must find a way to conceal the crime.

Reproductive choice is at the center of the conflicting perspectives showcased in this novel. Though some in this future world feel women’s health is seemingly prioritized, others say the new order strips women of their personal autonomy. There’s also an element of thrill as Lucinda must avoid the detectives investigating the Garden Society member’s death, which makes this a real page-turner.

'Crook Manifesto'
By Colson Whitehead

Ray Carney is a family man working as a furniture salesman in 1970s Harlem. He also has an under-the-table business hawking stolen goods, which has at times been his most lucrative, rewarding gig. Carney wants to turn away from crime for a few years, but when his teen daughter asks for Jackson 5 concert tickets, he revisits his unsavory contacts to try and get them for her. Unfortunately, the best person to help him get those tickets is a corrupt cop who suggests Carney take on a job that puts him in the middle of a murder.

Whitehead has carved out a space for himself in the publishing world writing gorgeous works of fiction mostly set in the past. There’s thoughtfulness in his writing and it’s cool to follow Ray Carney’s story through this series.

'The Half of It'
By Juliette Fay

It’s 2021, and 58-year-old Helen Iannucci Spencer is staying with her daughter’s family in fictional Belham, Massachusetts. The move follows the death of her elderly mother to COVID-19 and the sudden, unrelated passing of her husband. Looking back on her life, she sees mistakes — not marrying the right person, not living with her mother sooner. But when she bumps into a (more-than) friend from high school, their conversations begin to uncover what went wrong between them decades ago and how pain eventually comes to the surface.

In "The Half of It," Fay's characters navigate complicated feelings like regret and grief in the same setting many of us have to deal with them: Everyday life. In all, the book is beautifully written and carries you through the rocky reconnection of two long-lost loves and the hard path to healing one’s own regrets.

A bonus: You'll get a good laugh from all the fake Massachusetts town names (why yes, I did Google if “Velmont” and “Belham” were real).

By R.F. Kuang

At the start of the novel, June, a white writer who wants to revive her lackluster career, is hanging out with Athena, her successful Chinese peer with book and TV deals, awards and another unreleased novel in the works. In the throes of celebration, a freak accident occurs, killing Athena.

Amid the chaos, June sees Athena’s manuscript for her latest novel sitting on the table. June steals it and claims it as her own. The novel ends up making June an overnight success, but fame also gives her a front row seat to some of Athena’s hardships.

Kuang's novel can read as a cool fantasy thriller or an on-the-nose commentary of the racial dynamics within the publishing world, taking the reader on a journey with fast-paced prose.

'The Guest'
By Emma Cline

Alex, a 22-year-old New York City party girl and grifter, gets kicked out of her apartment for stealing and not paying rent. She’s currently dating Simon, a wealthy older suitor who brings her to his beach house on Long Island for the rest of the summer. Unfortunately for her, she slips up at his dinner party and he dumps her from his vacation compound. Not willing to give up on her summer of riches, she plans to win him back at his Labor Day party, which is just five days away. She just has to keep herself afloat in Long Island until then by tapping into her old ways: lying, swindling and wandering into people’s homes for shelter.

Cline’s tale will keep you on your toes the entire time because of its chaotic protagonist who, at the end of the day, is just trying to survive her own life.

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Irina Matchavariani WBUR Newsroom Fellow
Irina Matchavariani is a newsroom fellow at WBUR.


Hanna Ali Associate Producer
Hanna Ali is an associate producer for newsletters at WBUR.


Christian Burno Contributor
Christian Burno is a former arts reporting fellow for WBUR’s arts and culture team.



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