When variations on the 30-something-°-day populate the ten-day forecast, summer reading is ON. (That’s 80s and 90s, for those of us who still get hotter in °F.)
Books like Daven McQueen’s The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones and Taylor Hale’s The Summer I Drowned rise to the top of my stack. (More about summer reading soon.)
Both Hale and McQueen published their debut novels with Wattpad—in print. That’s the site/app known for user-generated stories that are shared digitally, but they now have a print-catalogue too. News to me, but although it’s early days, these are not their first crop, only some of this summer’s current releases.
I’m not reading epubs these days, so this is perfect for readers like me, who crave the connecting point between fingertips and bound books, chilled by the condensation collecting on a glass of iced tea or lemonade, within reach on the porch. (Summer is my least favourite season, but that doesn’t get in the way of good reading.)
Both stories immediately appealed to me because of their main characters’ obsession with memory and the past.
McQueen’s novel opens with a contemporary prologue, when an older character receives notice of a funeral, and then moves back to the summer of 1955 in Alabama.
Hale’s novel has a setting which is wholly contemporary, but the main character is preoccupied by the trauma associated with her near-drowning, which happened four summers earlier.
The nostalgia element boosts my interest in both of these stories (The film “Stand By Me”, based on Stephen King’s novella, The Body, is an all-time favourite). And I was immediately intrigued by how these themes could be explored via 20-something writers like these.
McQueen’s story initially focuses on Ethan, whose father has driven him to Alabama for the summer because Ethan got into some trouble at home and needs time to reflect on his place in the world. Ethan’s father thinks Alabama is the place to be. But Ethan, the only Black boy in 1955 Ellison, small-town and southern USA, is about to get an education that his white father wasn’t positioned to predict. (His Black mother is not part of this decision.)
Throughout Hale’s story, Olivia is at the heart of the action. This matters because she is still recovering from the trauma of her near-death experience, so she’s in-her-own-head a lot. Sometimes that’s an amusing place to be, but when mysteries surface, even Olivia herself must wonder whether strange events are a result of the side-effects of her prescription medication or threats which exist in the world beyond her perception. (Questions are raised without falling into tired tropes.)
In both stories, the setting is significant. In both, characters adjust not only to different places, but smaller places, whether unfamiliar as with Ethan or familiar as with Olivia. (McQueen’s Ethan is used to a small city with 20 restaurants, whereas Ellison has two, each one boasting the best burger in town, and the malt shop his uncle owns. Hale’s Olivia used to live in Maine, but now her parents have a thrift shop in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City.)
Ethan’s first glimpse of Alabama is also the first glimpse for readers; McQueen pays attention to these details. “The dust here never settled. When Ethan thrust his suitcase onto Aunt Cara’s driveway, a lazy cloud of dirt meandered into the humid air and lingered, lapping gently about his ankles. Like everything else in this town, even the ground seemed half immersed in slumber.”
Hale relies on recognizable details of shore living: sun-bleached pines, a breeze that smells like sulfur and salt and sunscreen, life jackets and insects, cliffs and a lighthouse. One aspect of her story that stands out is the reliance on watery terms, subtly reinforcing the backdrop of the story: memories leak and clouds sail, dreams dissolve and relief overflows.
In both stories, friendship is a major theme. Unsurprisingly, Ethan meets and befriends Juniper Jones in McQueen’s novel. Juniper reminds me of a cross between Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables and Beverly from Stephen King’s It (but with a different challenge in her family life). It’s ridiculous how quickly I wanted only good things for Ethan and Juniper. Their summer is divided into June, July, and August—like every western-hemisphere summer—but I wanted it to last all year.
Olivia’s friendships in Hale’s narrative are more complicated and only partly because of Olivia’s struggle to reconcile with the events of her past (also because the cast of characters is broader, and economic situations vary, which creates the potential for a different subset of challenges in teen life).
Both stories read quickly. Racism—systemic and overt acts—creates an underlying (sometimes erupting into major plot points) tension in McQueen’s novel (as well as simple prejudice, rooted in inexperience). Crimes in the Maine community add an additional layer to suspense to the question of whether Olivia will be able to recover having returned to the scene. (This aspect of Hale’s novel left me wanting a little more, but I’m more of a why-dunnit than a whodunnit mystery reader.)
What makes these stories work so well for me as summer reading? They both carefully navigate the divide between predictability and surprise. There were moments in which I thought I could chart the path (and was content to find that was so) and moments in which my expectations were overturned.
Extreme heat can leave me hungry for predictable storytelling, but I’m also easily frustrated when that’s all a story has to offer, so this balance makes for a satisfying diversion. Just what I was looking for in this hot spell. And a useful reminder that dismissing a platform sometimes does mean you’re missing out.