Summer solstice somehow only officially began two weeks ago. Where I live, summer heat starts around April and ends in September — if I’m lucky. Thankfully, my precious books are here to help me cope with the summers’ triple digit days. July’s Book Corner recommendations accidentally includes a theme: History! Travel back in time to the 1920s with a Great Gatsby retelling, or witness a cat’s exploits during 1500s Italy. Read a romance novel about a teenager who can see a relationship’s past — and future. Two nonfiction books portray unvarnished truths about facets of American history. Additionally, July’s list includes a bonus book that imagines an origin story for a famous sci-fi character. Whether you’re reading digitally from Kindle or online library apps, or you enjoy ruminating in the crisp scent of physical pages, crank up the air conditioner and journey through history with these books during July.
1. The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
Genre: Adult Fiction / Historical Fantasy
Page Count: 272
(CW: Sex, Murder, Racism, Trauma)
In the economically prosperous Western era of the “Roaring 20s,” New Yorkers relished the “a little party never killed nobody” mindset. Unfortunately, everyone knows the murderous conclusion to the party deity, Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Nghi Vo untangles the tale of The Great Gatsby and constructs a luminous retelling that transcends the source material. The Chosen and the Beautiful is a prose novel, fashioned from the exact plot framework of Fitzgerald’s literary novel. Vo’s novel still takes place in the 1920s Jazz Era on Long Island. Now though, the protagonist is background player Jordan Baker. Vo reinvents the overlooked character, molding Jordan’s story to reflect an equally swept aside experience. As the events of the original Gatsby novel play out, Vietnamese woman Jordan Baker forges her own identity. Alongside the glittering spectacle of Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby’s forbidden love story, Jordan undergoes her own magical transformation in the summer of 1927 as a bisexual immigrant who also possesses a bit of real magic.
Sometimes, you read a book and it transports your every sense inside its pages. When reading The Chosen and the Beautiful, inhale deeply. Don’t be scared to breathe in the whirlwinds of emotion that will sweep you away. Throughout the magic imbued in this novel’s pages, you will nearly smell the piercing tang of a 1920s New York summer, dripping with sweat, thrills, and a romance fated for heartbreaking disaster. Prepare for a spellbinding read that may just dance its way up to the top of your all-time favorite books list with The Chosen and the Beautiful.
2. Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice by Yusef Salaam
Genre: Nonfiction Autobiography / Self Improvement
Page Count: 304
(CW: Racism, Trauma, Abuse, Police Brutality)
In 1989, fifteen-year-old Yusef Salaam was apprehended, arrested, and ultimately imprisoned with four other teenagers in the Central Park jogger case. Crucified by the media, the Central Park Five — now essentially renamed The Exonerated Five — remained wrongfully incarcerated for seven years after a trial ruled them guilty of the brutal assault and rape of Patricia Ellen Meili. Yusef Salaam was one of those five. Since his release, Salaam has worked tirelessly as a motivational speaker, justice seeker, and prison reform activist. Salaam’s Better, Not Bitter is his memoir. The book serves the dual function of recounting his inspiring tale of finding purpose during his unfathomable experience and underscoring the overarching need for American prison reform. Here, Salaam writes about his life growing up, his family’s unrelenting desire for justice, and discovering spirituality behind prison walls.
Better, Not Bitter is a formative narrative about transformation. Yusef Salaam writes about identity and purpose with an intimately compelling ardor that will force readers to challenge fixed mindsets. Salaam draws upon his firsthand experiences to discuss the necessity of racial justice in a prison system that sets Black and Brown people up to fail — both inside and outside prison. No matter what your race, identity, or gender, Better, Not Bitter will probe your mind with mentalities you may have never before considered. Better, Not Bitter should be read by anyone and everyone. Salaam stresses how to reconstruct your mind in response toward the false narratives society engenders. You may have to take a few reading breaks when your heart becomes overwhelmed and your eyes fill up with tears. Every sentence in this vital memoir imprints itself on your mind forever.
3. By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution by David Talbot and Margaret Talbot
Genre: Nonfiction Politics and Social Sciences / Democracy
Page Count: 400
(CW: Racism, Murder, Political Conflict, Abortion)
The first American Revolution declared the colonies’ independence, shaping the country into a democratic nation. Unfortunately, this “revolution” was built to serve the elite, white, male landowners. Founded on slavery and committals of genocide against Native American tribes, those promises of freedom quickly rejected ideals they claimed to uphold. By the Light of Burning Dreams surveys key figures and movements in the radical generation of the 1960s “Second American Revolution.” Authors David Talbot and Margaret Talbot use each chapter to disseminate information about specific developments and leaders that fought for real independence for all groups of people. Leaders like Bobby Seale and Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party forged a path for Black Americans to stand up for their basic human rights against armed resistance. The book highlights the inspiring leadership of Craig Rodwell of the Stonewall riot, and feminist civil rights activist Heather Booth. Together, the authors chronicle the history of leaders against the Vietnam War, American labor revolutionaries, and many other critical figures who emboldened the Second American Revolution.
By the Light of Burning Dreams is an example of how to write a captivating history book. Reading this nonfiction narrative can be likened to watching seven short documentaries. Each sort of vignette chapter sheds light on significant moments in history and its important — yet admittedly flawed — leaders, avoiding the dreaded “information dump” reading sensation. You can skip around to chapters about the individuals or movements that most interest you without losing that connecting thematic thread woven throughout. Not only is By the Light of Burning Dreams a social sciences lesson, but the activism and reform exhibited in the American past teaches paralleled ideals that are currently relevant in the present. The book teaches the values of learning, listening, and chiefly, leading.
4. Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Romance / Fantasy
Page Count: 304
(CW: Death, Relationships, Divorce)
Instructions for Dancing is a lovely Young Adult novel about love, friendships, and of course, dancing. Nicola Yoon, author of Everything, Everything and The Sun is Also a Star returns with a new story bristling with swoon-worthy, conventional romance. Protagonist, teenager, and disbeliever of love, Evie Thomas, rejects the notion of “true love” after her father leaves her mother — and their family — for his mistress. Bafflingly for her, Evie’s mother and sister downplay this life-altering event while Evie harbors lingering resentment. One day, love-discouraged Evie receives powers: She can see the beginning and endings of a couple’s relationship whenever they kiss. Her confusing visions, a book titled “Instructions for Dancing”, some encouragement to “just say yes” in life, and a dance competition entangle her with musician and new (hot) tango partner, X. And Evie learns to say “yes” to more than just dance lessons.
Even if you are soft on romance (like me) or the YA genre, I promise that Instructions for Dancing will leave you wishing all romance books were written with such breezy eloquence. Nicola Yoon has written (in my opinion) her best work here. Personally, I loved both books mentioned earlier, but Yoon won over my heart with the strong character voices, pointed dialogue, and narrative driven by verity. Instructions for Dancing actually benefits from the YA trope of first-person dialogue in this case. Thus, we weave our way through a first-person point-of-view of Evie’s most intimate thoughts until suddenly, our eyes reach the last word as our hearts are aching from the final words’ reverberations. You’re liable to read this perfect summer novel in one sitting. Romance is my least favorite genre, yet my eyes were misty after dancing across every word from Yoon’s magical story for three straight hours.
5. Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Genre: Juvenile Historical Fiction / Science Fiction / Fantasy
Page Count: 288
Disclaimer: Da Vinci hardly appears in Da Vinci’s Cat. Although, Da Vinci’s cat has a strong presence in this middle grade novel. Therefore, Da Vinci’s Cat proves an apt title for a timeslip story about 1500s Italian painters and an orange cat named Juno. Catherine Gilbert Murdock blends history and fantasy together, pushing real-life son of the Duke of Mantua, Sir Federico Gonzaga, to the narrative’s forefront. Unfortunately, Pope Julius II holds Frederico as a political hostage in the Vatican to maintain his fathers’ loyalty. Frederico thus spends his days interacting with artists like Raphael and Michaelangelo. One day, enigmatic cat “Juno” magically transforms from a kitten into a full cat after passing through a wardrobe. Equally mysterious, modern art collector Herbert strikes a deal with Frederico to obtain a signed sketch from Raphael. But when Bee, a girl from the present day, is vexed when discovering a painted portrait of herself from Renaissance Rome, she also slips through Da Vinci’s magic cabinet–crossing paths with Frederico. Frederico and Bee’s lives soon become endangered on their missions accompanied by their feline friend.
Honestly, Da Vinci’s Cat made this list primarily based on its inclusion of a cat. The story finds its strength through the chapters narrated by Frederico, but Bee’s character eventually finds a balance between vexing and charming. Middle grade novels can be hit or miss for readers outside the targeted audience range. Here, Catherine Murdock intertwines historical elements rooted in truth with a well-thought-out version of time-traveling inspired by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, culminating in a fascinating narrative. Readers can plausibly believe that the great Leonardo da Vinci crafted an era-jumping wardrobe. If anything, you should read Da Vinci’s Cat for the hilarious rivalry dialogue between 16th Century Italian artists. Then again, this is a light summer read if you just love cat stories.
Bonus Book: Leia, Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction
Page Count: 291
GateCrashers is celebrating Star Wars during this whole month of July! Although I haven’t read many novels based on the franchise, I’ve consistently visited author Claudia Gray’s YA Star Wars books. I thought about adding the new High Republic title I also read recently, Into the Dark here, but Gray’s Leia: Princess of Alderaan features a teenaged version of my absolute favorite Star Wars character. Gray’s narrative delves into Leia Organa’s duties growing up as a princess and how she navigates life with her adopted parents. When she uncovers secrets about Breha and Bail, Leia’s relationship with her beloved caretakers begins to fracture. Additionally, her undercover excursions unknowingly present the princess as a threat the Empire itself.
Leia has always inspired me with her sharp wit and fierce independence. There’s a strange romance in Leia that felt somewhat unnecessary (especially since Han and Leia later work as the perfect pair.) Nevertheless, Leia: Princess of Alderaan is a page-turner. The novel considers the weight of political responsibilities as a 16-year-old compounded with relationship management thrust upon our beloved Star Wars princess, Leia Organa.
Delight in quenching your literary thirst amidst July’s sweltering heat with these novel novels. If you’re interested in reading more Star Wars literature, GateCrashers is reviewing several novels in the current High Republic era of the book series. Alternatively, you can dive into other Star Wars titles by the mighty Star Wars wordsmith, Claudia Gray. Prepare for five more book recommendations from your fellow book binge-reader next month!