Our July Summer Picks are books with summer vibes, or summer settings, or books with gripping plots that are impossible to put down, or (in some cases) all of the above. Whether you're reading poolside, on your balcony, at the beach, on the dock, on a blanket in the park, or a campsite that's only accessible by canoe, you will be glad you brought any of these titles along with you.
Big Shadow, by Marta Balcewicz
About the book: In an unnamed town in the summer of 1998, Judy is an isolated and inexperienced teenager on the cusp of adulthood struggling to craft an identity for herself—especially as the artist she wants to be.
There is little help around her. Her only friends are increasingly obsessed with a cultish belief in a coming "Big Shadow." Her mother is afraid of life and finds solace in TV shows. At her lowest point, Judy meets Maurice Blunt, a visiting summer poetry class professor who is a "has-been" fixture of the 1970s NYC punk music scene. Judy believes Maurice—a man more than twice her age desperately seeking lost adoration—is the ticket out of her current life. Soon, she begins taking secret weekend trips to visit him.
Judy's visits to his apartment in New York bring hopes of belonging to the city's cultural world and making a living as a video artist. With each trip and frustrated promise, however, she feels the creeping realization that there is a price to pay for her golden ticket entry into this insular and moribund scene. Judy must navigate the shifting power dynamics with her aging gatekeeper and the possibility of building an early adult identity alone.
An affecting novel of psychological nuance and dark humour, Big Shadow explores the costs of self-deceit, fandom, and tenuous ambitions, exposing the lies we’ll tell ourselves and the promises we'll make to edge closer to what we want… or what we think we want.
Coq, by Ali Bryan
About the book: From Leacock finalist Ali Bryan, a witty and immensely fun dramedy about a family's memorial trip to the City of Love, where chaos ensues at every turn.
It's been ten years since Claudia's mother died after a tragic collision with a banana boat. Her kids are now teenagers, her brother's wife has left him, and her ex has had a spiritual awakening that has him hinting at reconciliation—all things she can handle.
But when her septuagenarian father decides to remarry after a brief courtship with a woman who is decidedly different than their mother, the entire family is thrown off course, and plans a long overdue memorial trip to the only place their mother ever dreamed of going: Paris. However, minutes after take-off, the trip takes an unpredictable turn and sets off a chain of events that threatens to derail the closure the family desperately seeks.
Chance meetings, poolside confessions, run-ins with mimes, climate protests, and a man with a death wish force Claudia to reconsider everything she thought she knew about love, both the familial and the romantic, the tragic and the sublime. How well do we really know those closest to us? And how well do we really know ourselves?
In this follow-up to her award-winning novel Roost, Ali Bryan explores thorny family dynamics with her trademark offbeat humour and insight. Coq is a darkly comedic contemporary family drama that explores grief, identity, and second chances in the one-and-only City of Love.
Recipe for a Good Life, by Lesley Crewe
About the book: Globe & Mail bestselling Lesley Crewe's new novel follows a mystery author with writer's block from 1950s Montreal to rural Cape Breton, in search of much more than her next big story.
On paper, Kitty's life is perfect. She lives in Montreal, so vibrant in the 1950s; she married her childhood sweetheart, who happens to also be a handsome movie star; and her detective novels, written under a plausibly male nom de plume, are bestsellers. But Kitty is suffocating under the truth of her life: Montreal feels chaotic and lonely without her mother, and with her father all but estranged. Her husband is a glib Lothario. And she never, ever wants to write another detective novel. When she says as much to her publishers, they panic. She's their golden goose. And so they convince her to go on a writing retreat to a beautiful remote island, Cape Breton, where with solitude and a luxurious change of scenery, she'll be able to whip up her next book. At least, that was the plan.
Kitty arrives in Cape Breton to a leaky, drafty shack and a cast of characters unlike anyone she's ever met. There's Edith, who listens in on everyone's party line calls and never keeps good gossip to herself; generous Bertha and her enormous family...and Bertha's son, Wallace — Walrus, to all his nieces and nephews. A gentle giant who always has half a dozen children hanging off him. Soon Kitty's writing retreat turns her life upside down, and she has to face which parts of her life are non-negotiable and which she must cut loose. Can she preserve what she loves in Montreal now that Cape Breton is calling? If she frees herself from the weight of her past, will she float away altogether?
From Globe and Mail-bestselling author Lesley Crewe comes a story of loneliness and belonging, and a love letter to the women who have always kept the kettles warm and the neighbours fed in rural Cape Breton.
And the Walls Came Down, by Denise Da Costa
About the book: Back in the low-income neighbourhood where she was raised, a young woman rediscovers the importance of community, home, and finding one’s voice.
Just before the demolition of her childhood home in east Toronto, Delia Ellis returns to retrieve her beloved diary. Using it as a compass, she rediscovers life as a precocious teen growing up in the nineties.
Delia’s writings reveal her anxieties following a move to Don Mount Court, a Toronto government housing complex, where she struggles to navigate life with an overprotective Jamaican mother and her father’s inept replacement, “Neville the nuisance.” Delia’s troubles compound when she enlists her naive younger sister in a scheme to reunite their parents and recapture the idealistic life she yearns for.
Yet, through the lens of adulthood, Delia’s entries take a wrecking ball to the perception of her parents’ love story she’d long built up in her mind, uncovering a child’s internalization of a failed marriage, poverty, and a mother come undone.
Pebble and Dove, by Amy Jones
About the book: This is the story of a family falling apart, only to be brought back together again by an unlikely champion—a 1,000-pound aquatic mammal named Pebble.
Lauren’s life is a mess. She has a storage unit full of candles she can’t sell, a growing mountain of debt, and a teenage daughter, Dove, who barely speaks to her. Then her husband sends her a text that changes everything. Eager to escape her problems, she drives herself and Dove south to her late mother’s rundown trailer in Florida. While keeping her eccentric new neighbours at Swaying Palms at bay, Lauren begins to untangle the truth about her estranged mother. How did world-famous portrait photographer Imogen Starr end up at Swaying Palms?And what happened to her fortune and her photographs?
Meanwhile, Dove has secrets of her own. A mysterious photograph leads her to discover the abandoned Flamingo Key Aquarium and Tackle, where she meets Pebble, the world’s oldest manatee in captivity. It is Pebble, a former star attraction, and her devoted caretaker, Ray, who will hold the key to helping Lauren and Dove come to terms with Imogen’s unexpected legacy.
Darkly funny and sharply observed, Pebble & Dove is a moving novel about the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters, and learning how to choose between what’s worth saving and what needs to be let go.
The Get, by Dietrich Kalteis
About the book: A surefire plan that will end his marital and money problems in one swoop … what could go wrong?
Lenny Ovitz has plenty of secrets, and his wife, Paulina, has become a liability. His life would be so much better without her in it.
It’s the mid-’60s in Toronto, and Lenny works for a ruthless gangster whose travel agency is a front for a collections racket in the Kensington Market area. Lenny’s days are spent with his partner, Gabe, terrorizing the locals into paying protection on their shops and their lives. On the side, Lenny and Gabe co-own a tenement block that they bought with dirty money borrowed from shady individuals. Overextended, Lenny plans to pay them back with more borrowed money from other loans and by re-mortgaging his house, without the knowledge of his wife.
Tired of his lies and scheming, Paulina demands a divorce. Lenny is certain she’s going to take him for everything, leaving him unable to pay the debt on the tenement block. And that’s likely to get him pitched off one of his own rooftops. Lenny would rather get than be gotten, so he comes up with a surefire way to end both his marital and money problems—Paulina’s going to have to get whacked.
Citizens of Light, by Sam Shelstad
About the book: Winner of the 2023 Crime Writers of Canada Award for Best Crime First Novel.
Colleen Weagle works in a call centre and lives in a bungalow with her mother in a quiet Toronto suburb. In her spare time she writes spec scripts for a CBC riding-school drama (her mother’s favourite) and plays an online game set in a resort populated by reindeer. It’s a typical life. Except three months ago Colleen’s husband Leonard—who led a similarly monotonous life—was found in a bog in the middle of the night, a two hours’ drive from home. Dead.
With a flatly optimistic belief in the power of routine, Colleen has been soldiering on, trying not to think too hard about all the unknowns surrounding the death. But when a local news photo twigs Colleen’s memory of a mystery attendee at Leonard’s funeral she snaps into action.
In the maddening company of her ornery co-worker Patti, she heads to Niagara Falls on a quest to find the truth behind the death. Amid the slot machines and grubby hotels, the pair stumble into the darker underworld of a faded tourist trap. What they find will lead straight to an episode from Colleen’s adolescence she thought she’d put firmly behind her.
Bleakly madcap, with deadpan dialogue, Shelstad’s debut novel is a noir anti-thriller reminiscent of Twin Peaks and the work of Ottessa Moshfegh and early Kate Atkinson. He captures call-centre life, ramshackle tourist attractions, and suburbia with wit and sharp realism, and reveals the undercurrents of melancholy and the truly bizarre that can run beneath even the most seemingly mild-mannered lives.
If We Caught Fire, by Beth Ryan
About the book: If We Caught Fire brings two families together for a wedding in St. John’s, an event that sets off a summer of fireworks in the lives of the people around them.
Edie’s calm and contained life is knocked awry when her mother decides to marry a man she met online after just a few months of dating. The groom’s son, Harlow, is a joyful adventurer who shows up for the wedding and quickly recruits Edie as his sidekick.
Harlow runs toward risk and adventure with arms wide open, unconcerned about what other people expect from him. Edie plans every step carefully and keeps her dreams small and attainable, even when others encourage her to want more. Over a few months, they develop a connection that defies definition, a situation that leaves Edie queasy with fear and tingly with possibility.
Edie and Harlow (and the rest of their new unwieldy family) do an elaborate dance, trying to discover just what they are to one another. When Edie thinks she’s figured him out, Harlow reveals a depth and darkness she didn’t see coming. By Labour Day, they’ve created connections, tested boundaries, and found they've come together and apart in unexpected ways.
East Grand Lake, by Tim Ryan
About the book: Shayne won’t get out of the car. It’s the summer of 1972 and the whole family has come up to Grandpa Murphy’s cottage for their annual trip. Three generations are out on the property, swimming, wandering through the forest, fixing up the clubhouse, getting ready to sing around the fire, and having a lovely time. And Shayne won’t get out of the car.
A novel in fourteen stories, East Grand Lake is a lovely, thoughtful, warm-hearted tale of life at the lake with a big family. Following the Murphy Clan from one evening to the next, Tim Ryan captures the many tiny, important dramas that occur simultaneously, sometimes invisibly, when everyone gets together. A pair of brothers hunt frogs. The girl cousins make a bid for supremacy. A boy is afraid of the end of the dock. Over one sun-soaked day, the Murphy family wrestles with grief, aging, betrayal, mental illness, and the many small fictions that occur when people share their lives.
Written with humour, compassion, and authenticity, East Grand Lake welcomes readers into the complex inner world of a large and loving family. This is a book for everyone who misses or wishes for summer vacation.
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