June 2014's Best Books: 10 Must-Reads You'll Want to Start ASAP

It's June: the sun is beaming, the temperature is finally causing you to break a sweat, and bikini-bearers are out in full force — aka it's finally summer. June kicks off the season of backyard BBQs, beach-bound road trips, rooftop sunbathing sessions, and poolside cocktails. More importantly though, it marks the start to your epic summer reading expedition. To ensure that you leave ample time for feasting on ice cream and backstroking in the ocean, though, we've gone ahead and narrowed down that endless list of books so you can get right down to reading time. 

From gothic thrillers and comic satire to heart-throbbing memoirs and romantic beach reads, our selective menu is appropriately varied to satisfy even the more robust literary appetites. Prepare for a cynical doctor, a trio of San Franciscan nightclub dancers, a lovelorn British painter, and a feisty female ice cream mogul to become your new poolside pals. 

So throw on your flip flops, slip into that flattering swimsuit, and sprint to the lounge chair ASAP. It's time for that bookish retreat you've been waiting for all year.

1. CHINA DOLLS BY LISA SEE (Random House; June 3)

With stunning prose and deftly crafted heroines, acclaimed historical novelist Lisa See illuminates the dazzling world of 1930s San Francisco in her newest work China Dolls. Its world is one of ritzy forbidden nightclubs, eclectic performers, festive world fairs, and a brewing war on the horizon — one that brings together an unlikely trio of young Asian-American women from varied backgrounds to navigate the mysteries and hardships of the mercurial showbiz industry. 

Grace, a Chinese-American from Ohio, has fled the abusive arms of her father and come to San Francisco in hopes of securing a job as a dancer in the soon-to-open world’s fair on Treasure Island. Helen fled China with her family and headed for San Francisco where her father is now a well-known leader in Chinatown. Ruby, a boisterous beauty with a secret past she's not ready to share, defies her Japanese parents and opts to stay in California rather than return to Japan. The three women meet by chance while auditioning at the exclusive Forbidden City nightclub and a tight bond quickly forms between them. Soon, however, paranoia, suspicion, and prejudice begin to permeate the era at the onset of war and in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, all of which work to challenge their newfound friendship and the new lives they've created. 

2. WE ARE CALLED TO RISE BY LAURA MCBRIDE (Simon & Schuster; June 3)

Through its powerful narrative voices and the bittersweet lullabies they sing, We Are Called to Rise quickly and wholeheartedly draws readers into the unraveling American dream. In her debut novel, McBride takes us to the dry, desolate lands of Las Vegas, the nowhere city where neon lights and fabricated glitz pollute the skyline. We meet a disparate cast of characters whose lives will soon collide in unexpected ways. A 50-year-old mother with a crumbling marriage; a returning soldier irrevocably scarred by war; an 8-year-old Albanian refugee with a physically abusive father; an ice cream peddler made paranoid in the aftermath of political imprisonment; and a sensitive children's rights activist who rallies for the underprivileged side of Vegas — these are just a few of McBride's eclectic cast. Her characters are so real, you walk beside them as you read.

As coincidence connects their lives, they each struggle to rise above their lofty trials — poverty and racism among them — with strength as their ultimate sustenance. McBride's triumph is a masterful, affecting novel that is, at its heart, a story about hope, compassion, and the beautiful chaos of fate.

3. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez (Knopf; June 3)

In her third work of fiction, Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Cristina Henriquez brings readers a stunning cross-cultural love story under the guise of a seemingly ordinary narrative about Latino immigrant families trying to make their way in America. The result is enrapturing and heartbreaking.

The Rivera family has come to the United States from Mexico seeking a better life for their daughter Maribel after she has been injured in an accident back home. Once beautiful and dynamic, Maribel is a shell of herself post-incident; she is quiet and hermetic until she meets her neighbor, Mayor Toro. The two teens strike up a romance, which, while beginning to restore Maribel, ignites a set of events that will forever change the families. Like a music master at the harp, Henriquez elegantly plays with the human heart strings as she illustrates the complexities of the immigrant experience through the story of these two families, as well as the company with whom they surround themselves.

4. SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL by Herman Koch (Hogarth; June 3)

When best-selling Dutch novelist Herman Koch published The Dinner in February 2013, readers fell in love with his dark humor and skillful satire. The disturbingly observant novel about two families keeping one terrible secret inspired raucous conversation among readers and deep internal reflection on the moral fragility of our world. Now, we're finally getting the second helping we’ve all been craving.

In Swimming Pool, we meet Dr. Marc Schlosser, a Dutch physician who is rather lenient when it comes to doling out prescriptions. But when one of his patients, a well-known actor named Ralph Mier, dies, Marc’s disaffection and liberality are called into question — by the reader, the Dutch authorities, and Ralph’s furious widow. As Marc attempts to dissect the point where it all went wrong, he backtracks to the previous summer spent with his wife and two young daughters at Ralph’s lavish summer home in the Mediterranean, and idyll that turned sour when Marc's eldest daughter vanished and a vengeful Marc became set on finding that truth.  

The secrets are different, the flawed characters have changed, but the disquieting effects of the narrative they weave are the same and the questions they provoke equally deep and endless.  Loaded with acute, disconcerting social observations, Koch’s sharp, psychological thriller is one every reader should get hold of — or risk being excluded from the epic conversation that will undoubtedly ensue in its wake. 

5. THE LEMON GROVE BY HELEN WALSH (Doubleday; June 3)

Warning: Beware of sunburns! This sultry tale of forbidden love is likely to keep you page-turning all afternoon.

When Jenn and Greg, a happily married couple in their 40s, escape to their gorgeous villa in Majorca to lazily wander its beaches for their annual summer holiday, all seems right with the world. But Jenn’s perfect vacation is suddenly interrupted when her stepdaughter Emma brings along her handsome new boyfriend Nathan. Jenn soon discovers she might just be falling for the sexy, easygoing teen. Over the course of the next 7 days, as tension builds and light flirtation escalates, Jenn suddenly finds herself engaging in an electrifying and reckless affair.

Equally tender as it is fierce, Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove explores the fragility of marriage, the overwhelming allure of youth, and the lines we cross when we sheds cautious logic, and give in to the magnetic force of obsession and desire. It’s a sensual and keenly observant story that makes for the perfect beach companion. You’ll get so wrapped up in it, you might even forget to reapply sunscreen, so set an alarm before you disappear into the seductive, sun-drenched mountains of Majorca housed within its pages.

 6.  I’LL BE RIGHT THERE BY KYUNG-SOOK SHIN (Other Press; June 3)

When the novel opens, twentysomething Jung Yoon has just received a phone call from an ex-boyfriend with whom she hasn’t spoken in 8 years. He has called to tell her that their former literature professor, beloved by many of his students, is on his deathbed and if she wants to give him a final farewell, she should visit soon. The call incites a stinging flood of memories from Yoon’s teenage years — of the intimate bond forged with her professor, of a long lost past with her first love, of her mother’s death, and of former friendships carved through a shared sense of seclusion.

Set in 1980s South Korea in the midst of political upheaval, Kyung-Sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There is an insightful examination of a tragic personal history with a powerful emotional pulse that enchants readers until the very end. Shin’s intense, yet accessible ruminations on death, solitude, and uncertainty are magnetic alongside invigorating tales of friendship and love.

7. THE ICE CREAM QUEEN OF ORCHARD STREET BY SUSAN JANE GILMAN (Grand Central; June 10)

Like a glittering mound of ice cream on a sizzling mid-June afternoon, Susan Jane Gilman’s fiction debut will be a sweet delight to any summer reading list. In The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, Gilman wields a playful pen to craft a charming American odyssey staring feisty, irreverent protagonist Malka Treynovsky.  In her raucous, abrasive voice Malka narrates her journey from a devastated farmhouse in 1913 Russia to the squalid tenements of Lower East Side Manhattan to the gilded apex of the American ice cream industry.

When Malka is maimed by a street vendor's horse and abandoned by her family shortly after arriving in America, she is guiltily taken in by the Dinellos, the ice peddler's Italian family, and introduced to the family business. Though Malka adopts an Italian identity and a new name — Lillian Maria Dinello — she never quite fits in and eventually sets off to start her own rival ice cream business, along with her new husband Albert Dunkle. A lush cultural history, from the Prohibition era to the disco days, flitters in the background as Lillian, with cunning, courage, and a penchant for alcohol, navigates the American landscape in an ice cream truck.  

8. I’M HAVING SO MUCH FUN HERE WITHOUT YOU BY COURTNEY MAUM (Touchstone; June 10)

The giant, thumping heart of Courtney Maum’s debut novel beats loud and fast from its very first pages. I’m Having So Much Fun Here Without You is a deft examination of marriage told through the narrative of a lovelorn Englishman who experiences the fragility of that bond firsthand.

Thirty-four-year-old artist Richard Haddon has just hosted his first solo art show with great success, but instead of excitement, he only feels anxiety. He fears his commercial paintings are a major downgrade from the experimental art of his youth. While dealing with his fears of becoming a sellout, he’s also pinning over his young, American ex-mistress, despite being married to a gorgeous, intelligent French wife. When a sentimental painting originally made for his wife sells at the gallery, however, he is forced to face the reality of both his career and his marriage. Soon, he embarks on an ambitious mission to create a provocative art piece and win back his wife. With wit and humor, Maum brings Richard’s lopsided love story to life. As Richard struggles to piece together the debris of his crumbled marriage, and find the strength such a task requires, he ultimately comes face to face with the tragic question: Is his marriage indeed worth saving — and is saving it even possible?

9. THE QUICK BY LAUREN OWEN (Random House; June 17) 

Twenty-eight-year-old Lauren Owen is an impressive storyteller and with this ambitious debut, the literary world will soon take notice. Part gothic mystery, part Victorian romance, The Quick is a novel where the glamorous and the macabre collide to weave the story of James Norbury, a soft-spoken young man with dreams of becoming a poet, and his sister Charlotte, an English darling with a healthy curiosity. When James moves out of the aging family estate and in with a young, charismatic aristocrat he is introduced to the glitz and glam of the city’s high society and soon he discovers new and surprising romantic pursuits. But then, when James suddenly goes missing, Charlotte is faced with navigating a malevolent underground world to find her brother, a world that houses the city’s darkest secrets and most dangerous men. With suspenseful rhythm and illustrious prose, Owen succeeds at crafting a fresh, enchanting portrait of Victorian London wrapped around an irresistible mystery that is at once beautiful and terrifying.

10. GONE FERAL BY NOVELLA CARPENTER (Penguin Press; June 16) 

In her 30s, Novella Carpenter is living a non-traditional life as a California urban farmer. As a child, she grew up on 180 acres of boundless Idaho farmland until her parents divorced when she was four and her mother decided to flee the rural lifestyle with her daughters for Washington. After the divorce, Novella's father, a Korean War vet and talented guitarist with a mountain man mentality, all but disappeared from her life.

Decades later, in October of 2009, when George Carpenter officially goes missing, Novella realizes the time she has left to know her father is limited and embarks on a journey into the wild to find him, literally and emotionally. Novella's quest is made all the more significant because she's finally contemplating starting a family. In preparation for her future, she seeks to uncover the story of her parents impulsive romance and her father's own love affair with nature.

When George finally surfaces at at ratty motel in Arizona, Novella knows her search is not yet over. As Novella navigates the wilderness alongside her stubborn and solitary father, she discovers new truths about her father and herself, truths that are more complicated than she imagined. With raw sincerity and surefire prose, Novella Carpenter delivers an emotionally riveting memoir that reflects on the indelible ties between parents and their children and reminds us of the wild in all of us.

Image: calamity_photography/flickr

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