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12 noteworthy books for July and August

7 min

Modern and historical fiction, a thriller with a tinge of horror, whip-smart satires and several engrossing memoirs offer multiple selections to read under a beach umbrella or atop a hammock.

‘Joan,’ by Katherine J. Chen (Random House)

Joan of Arc has long enthralled novelists, who have portrayed her as a virginal warrior with holy visions. In her afterword, Chen describes trying to reconcile these conflicting representations of fighter and saint. It wasn’t until she imagined the brutality of Joan’s youth in a medieval war zone that she could realistically capture her protagonist’s humanity. Chen’s Joan has a scrappy, resilient childhood filled with both abuse and love. She grows up learning to fight, but always for justice on behalf of the people and country she loves.

21 books to read this summer

‘Fellowship Point,’ by Alice Elliott Dark (Scribner/Marysue Rucci Books)

Dark, best known for her award-winning short story “In the Gloaming,” made into a movie starring Glenn Close, has released her first novel in 20 years, an ambitious and satisfying tale of the lifelong friendship between two women in their 80s. When Maine coastal development encroaches on the land trust held by the few residents of their Quaker-inspired summer community, friends Agnes and Polly contend with shifting demands and loyalties while considering what they believe is right for their own legacies and for the nature they strive to preserve.

‘Corinne,’ by Rebecca Morrow (St. Martin’s Press)

As a teenager in a fundamentalist church, Corinne idolizes strait-laced Enoch Miller, the eldest son of the people who brought her family into the fold. More than a decade later, after Corinne has been cast out of the church and cut off from her family, she has never felt worthy of love. But after a chance encounter with churchgoing Enoch, a mutual attraction rekindles — and raises a question about love and faith: Can you have one when you don’t share the other?

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‘Any Other Family,’ by Eleanor Brown (Putnam)

Two weeks in a vacation rental will test any family’s togetherness capabilities, especially one with newly built bonds. Brown thoughtfully explores the ways a chosen family’s dynamics work, or do not, through the voices of three adoptive mothers of four biological siblings. Committing to keep their children connected, their fragile unity is tested when the children’s birth mother announces she is pregnant again. Brown’s experience with adoption brings emotional depth to her chronicle of each woman’s anxieties.

‘Sister Mother Warrior,’ by Vanessa Riley (William Morrow)

Two real-life women — Marie-Claire, a free woman of color who became the first empress of Haiti, and Gran Toya, an enslaved warrior who became a freedom fighter — were Riley’s inspirations for this expansive saga. Despite different backgrounds, their connections with revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines brought them together to play crucial parts in Haiti’s fight for independence from French colonial rule. Riley expertly weaves together the women’s stories, vividly reframing a defining moment in Western history.

‘Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional,’ by Isaac Fitzgerald (Bloomsbury, July 19)

After his early years in Boston, Fitzgerald’s childhood was abruptly transformed at age 8 with a move to rural western Massachusetts into a dilapidated house next to his disapproving grandparents. Suffering through his parents’ rocky marriage and his mother’s mental instability, he made rage-induced choices, such as starting a teenage fight club and drinking himself into oblivion, but he never stopped searching for a community that would embrace him. That search took him from San Francisco to Burma (now Myanmar), and he candidly shares the formative experiences that helped him put aside anger to live with acceptance and understanding.

‘The Force of Such Beauty,’ by Barbara Bourland (Dutton, July 19)

This is not your grandma’s fairy tale. Former world-record-holding Olympic athlete Caroline marries Finn, the prince of an idyllic seaside kingdom. As she transforms into an international symbol of femininity, becoming the wife and mother her new homeland demands, the luxurious trappings quickly become a prison. Even her physical body, which once carried her powerfully through competitions, becomes something other people admire and control. Influenced by the struggles of real-life princesses, Bourland’s brilliant satire skewers the theatrics of power, excessive materialism and economic corruption.

‘The Devil Takes You Home,’ by Gabino Iglesias (Mulholland Books, Aug. 2)

With a cancer-stricken 4-year-old daughter and no health insurance, Mario agrees to kill a man for money in a desperate attempt to pay bills. When the act of slaughter releases pent-up rage, he takes another more lucrative and dangerous job that sends him on a gory journey through Texas and Mexican border towns. Iglesias describes his fiction as “Barrio Noir,” a genre that combines crime and horror with multiculturalism and political issues. The incongruity of devotion to family with brutal vigilante justice creates dreadful tension as Mario tests his new moral compass.

‘Diary of a Void,’ by Emi Yagi, translated by David Boyd and Lucy North (Viking, Aug. 9)

Ms. Shibata doesn’t love that her unwritten job description includes cleaning up the half-empty cups stuffed with cigarette butts left behind in her office’s meeting room, so she announces a fake pregnancy as an experiment to see whether her co-workers will clean up after themselves. Attention and accommodations follow. She’s encouraged to leave on time instead of working late, and her free evenings allow her to take better care of herself by cooking healthful meals and exercising. As the months progress, she keeps up her charade, both at work and with her newfound friends from the mommy aerobics club. Yagi artfully blurs the boundary between truth and lies with this riotous solution to women’s workplace challenges.

‘Fruit Punch: A Memoir,’ by Kendra Allen (Ecco, Aug. 9)

Allen’s powerful debut memoir reckons with coming of age after a childhood assault. Chapters switch between present-day talks with her therapist and the memories stirred up by those conversations. Labeled “disobedient” and “fast” while growing up in Texas in the 1990s and early 2000s, Allen experienced the prevalent adultification of young Black girls. As she tries to understand herself, she cleverly forces consideration of her humanity — each sentence in a chapter about her adolescent fumblings starts with a reminder of her youth (“I’m thirteen and...”; “I’m twelve and…”). Her writing is filled with insight and humor, and provides a nuanced representation of often-marginalized voices.

‘All Signs Point to Paris: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Destiny,’ by Natasha Sizlo (Mariner, Aug. 16)

Sizlo’s marriage and real estate business had collapsed when she met Philippe. He was handsome, French and up for fun, and their relationship was perfect, until it wasn’t. After their breakup, she is given a session with an exclusive celebrity astrologer, who tells her that her soul mate was born in Paris on Nov. 2, 1968 — just like Philippe. But in a flash, she realizes that her ex isn’t the only man born on that date in that city. Her soul mate is still out there — all she needs to do is find him. Sizlo’s engaging account of her trip to Paris has all the pleasures of a spirited rom-com, enhanced by her real-life bravery in confronting the doubts and fears she had been hiding from herself.

‘Scenes From My Life: A Memoir,’ by Michael K. Williams and Jon Sternfeld (Crown, Aug. 23)

Williams, known for roles on “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire,” spent his formative years in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush’s projects, where he didn’t aspire to much beyond staying alive. Janet Jackson’s 1989 “Rhythm Nation” video was an earthquake that shook his world, showing him Black people who were optimistic, proud and courageous. He followed his artistic dreams, until his burgeoning modeling career was derailed when his face was cut in a bar fight; but the scar would become one of his trademarks as an actor. Williams suffered from a lifelong drug addiction, even when his stardom rose to stratospheric levels. “I still wrestle with demons that won’t leave me be,” he writes in his soul-baring memoir. “They never go away; they just get quiet enough so I can think straight.” Williams died in 2021 of a drug overdose; he was 54 years old.

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