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Summer’s Last Stand: 12 Books to Read in August

A new Julian Barnes, more thrills from Lisa Jewell and the latest from Taylor Jenkins Reid round out our list of the month’s best fiction / BY Nathalie Atkinson / July 28th, 2022

For these waning summer days and nights, our pick of the month’s top fiction includes a spooky literary gothic, domestic suspense, artistic ambition, female friendship and a masterful campus novel that takes on colonialism in an inventive way.

Obsessive Book Buyers: Zoomer editors have carefully curated our book coverage to ensure you find the perfect read. We may earn a commission on books you buy by clicking on the cover image. 

1Kismet by Amina Akhtar

If it’s summer and there’s a swimming pool on the cover, I am going to read at least the first chapter. This darkly funny nail-biter set in the upscale New Age spa world of the Arizona desert kept me turning the pages. Like her protagonist Ronnie, Akhtar (a former fashion editor at Vogue and The Cut) is of Pakistani descent, and this is a witty satire of the white wellness industry’s cultural theft. You can read our interview with Akhtar here. (Aug. 1)

2Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra

Marra’s debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena brought fame, and his latest – similarly sweeping and also set largely during the Second World War –  is about an Italian-born movie producer who tries to keep her studio afloat in Los Angeles. The New Haven, Conn.-based author explores Hollywood’s propaganda films. and the racial stereotyping that fuelled American xenophobia, through a community of artistic exiles and emigrés who take refuge from the fascism advancing in Europe, all plying their creative skills in the industry as much as they are allowed. (Aug. 2)

3The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

Anders wakes up one day to find his white skin has turned dark, and he’s not alone – everyone in town is slowly turning brown. British-Pakistani novelist Hamid (How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia; Exit West) says he wanted to explore whiteness unsparingly and honestly in this powerful allegory that recasts Kafka’s Metamorphosis and interrogates the current racial age. “My need to write this novel grew during the aughts, when I lived in London, encountering more of a threatened whiteness during the unease that morphed into Brexit.” (Aug. 2)


4The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

The enchanting cover by my long-time favourite English paper artist Su Blackwell is what led me to this modern fairy tale about a secret line of people who metabolize the contents of the books they eat – and I’m thrilled it did. The story of Devon, who takes her son on the run to escape her community’s tradition of arranged marriages, is a speculative fiction meditation on queerness and motherhood that Dean, an autistic author of fantasy fiction, calls a love letter to fairy tales and a critical examination of their flaws. It’s a perfect fit for Neil Gaiman fans. (Aug 2.)

5Small Angels by Lauren Owen

I’ve been anxiously awaiting this novel since I read the English writer’s epic Victorian vampire debut, The Quick, which, at the time, I described as Henry James meets Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The tense and atmospheric Gothic, about a family cursed to serve the whims of a vengeful spirit, leans into folk-horror when a wedding in a small English village reawakens a perhaps-haunted, perhaps-magical wood. Exploring landscape, folklore, the bonds of sisterhood and a long-ago murder, it’s a sumptuously written contemporary update on the classic ghost story. (Aug. 2)

6The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell

You don’t have to have read the first book to be gripped by the continuing twists and turns of the beleaguered Lamb family in the sequel to the London writer’s bestseller, The Family Upstairs. (But you should: it’s a chilling house of horrors). The taut psychological suspense novel picks up a few years later, when mysterious human remains wash up on the shore of the Thames and unanswered questions from the previous case resurface, with a new inexplicable murder-mystery that’s somehow related. (Aug. 9)

7Utopia by Heidi Sopinka

It begins as if Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was set in the patriarchal Los Angeles art scene of 1970s, and the resemblance is deliberate. Following ambitious young artist Paz, who takes the place, so to speak, of her husband’s late first wife Romy (also an artist), this novel of entanglements among a group of artists muses on power, artisthood and female friendship. Toronto writer Sopinka, one half of the made-in-Canada women’s clothing label Horses, has written a California-desert dream capsule. (Aug. 9)

8Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

The Elizabeth of the title is an inspirational continuing-education teacher of a Culture & Civilization class that profoundly marked her pupils. She is recalled in the narration by former (and still devoted) student Neil, a middle-aged man of failed marriages and careers. Musing on the notes Elizabeth left him after her death, it’s full of sentiment, inquisitiveness and philosophy. British Booker Prize-winner Barnes (The Sense of an Ending), 76, has written a sort of roman-à-clef homage: the remarkable subject of Neil’s fascination and tribute is based on Barnes’s close friend, the award-winning novelist Anita Brookner. (Aug. 16)

9Please Join Us by Catherine McKenzie

If you crossed Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In with the not-quite-secret collective of international business and political elites called the Bilderberg Group, you’d get something like this potboiler by former Montreal lawyer McKenzie (whose You Can’t Catch Me has been optioned for TV). The idea of a similar female cabal forms the plot of this sinister tale about a mid-career lawyer whose fortunes change after she joins an exclusive anonymous women’s networking group, but ends up with more trouble than she signed up for. (Aug. 23)

10Babel by R.F. Kuang

This dark academic thriller is set in an alternate 1830s Oxford, where scholars from colonized nations work at the university’s prestigious institute of translation. The novel’s hero, Robin, a Chinese boy saved from a cholera epidemic and raised in England, is dropped into this rich milieu of secret societies and, soon, student protests. Pitched as a decolonial response to Kuang’s favourite book, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, as well as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the award-winning author, translator and Yale academic (of The Poppy War trilogy) takes on imperialism, translation studies and global trade. Liberally footnoted, richly drawn and extremely ambitious, it’s already being hailed as a masterpiece. (Aug. 23)

11The Witches of Moonshyne Manor by Bianca Marais

What if the Golden Girls were a coven? That’s the premise of this rom-com about misfit octogenarian witches who have fallen behind on their mortgage payments and become the target of unscrupulous developers. Written in the lockdown winter of 2021, it is  interspersed with recipes from the witches’ grimoire (including love spells, shaving potions and cocktails – because the witches are distillers, naturally).  The South Africa-raised, Toronto-based author of Hum if You Don’t Know the Words has been praised by Ann Patchett, and this is a great romp of a read – especially if, as Marais says in her author’s note, you “have big plans to age as disgracefully as you possibly can.” (Aug. 23)

12Carrie Soto is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Los Angeles bestseller TJR was already a superstar of summer reads when her 2017 novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo blew up on BookTok, and now the forthcoming adaptation of her Daisy Jones & The Six will star Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Riley Keough. Her latest smart, breezy read tells the story of tennis champ Carrie Soto, a minor character from last year’s hit, Malibu Rising, who was coached to greatness by her father. When nemesis Nicki Chan topples Soto’s record-setting 20 Grand Slams, she comes out of retirement to reclaim it. Much of the novel is set in a fictional version of the 1980s women’s tennis scene (with composites of Chris Evert Lloyd, Martina Navratilova, et al.), and takes readers inside the making of an elite athlete – the game tactics, relationships and sacrifice, complete with media misogyny. Think: The Natural, but make it feminist and tennis. Even if you aren’t into the sport (I’m not), you’ll be riveted (I was). (Aug. 30)


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