Once again, the writers at Christ and Pop Culture have compiled a reading guide of some of our favorite books to entertain and edify you this summer. As usual, we have an eclectic list, including something of interest for all our readers. There’s fiction and nonfiction, young adult and fantasy, even a graphic novel. So if you find yourself with some extra time this summer, here are a few of our suggestions for what you might fill it with. Happy reading!
The Wrath and the Dawn duology by Renée Ahdieh (The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger)
Every now and then a book series takes me perfectly by surprise. That’s what happened when I read The Wrath and the Dawn and its follow-up, The Rose and the Dagger, this past year. In this sweeping Young Adult retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, Renée Ahdieh pens a compelling story that demonstrates how although revenge is more powerful than fear, love binds them both. With prose that drips off the pages like honey, Ahdieh takes the reader on a journey into the palace of Khorasan along with Shahrzad, a girl determined to avenge the death of her best friend at the hands of the young Caliph—who marries a new young bride every day and murders her the next dawn. But by submitting herself to marriage to Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan, Shahrzad finds not only her wits matched for her very life, but her heart as well.
The Wrath and the Dawn duology is fantasy, but Ahdieh plays the fantasy elements with a light hand. What struck me as being very significant, however, is that Ahdieh centers on a woman of color as the heroine of this story—which is also a retelling of a well-known tale from the Middle East. In a genre dominated by whiteness, it is refreshing to see non-Western cultural influences on the page. Whether you are a fan of Young Adult fantasy and looking for the next book to fall in love with, interested in diversifying your fantasy reading list, or brand new to Young Adult literature, I highly recommend adding The Wrath and the Dawn duology to your list this summer. It is a story that is simply beautiful, that contains much truth, and is very good. (Due to a few mature elements, for young readers, I would recommend this for ages 13+.)
Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans’s Inspired lives up to its title and subtitle. Page after page contains a galvanizing and refreshing take on the Bible. Evans has the audacity to write what most modern-day Christians are too afraid or too ashamed to think—let alone say—aloud about the Bible and our religion. She uses Inspired to challenge assumptions, expose doubts, and cradle the fears surrounding the apprehensions of our beliefs. Evans doesn’t mind disagreements. In fact, she welcomes them as a way to help the community of faith come to life in more animated and colorful ways.
Evans’s dissenting disputations in Inspired aren’t mere fist-shakes at the religious elites. They are supported by culturally, ethnically, and denominationally broad sources, infused with hope to help everyone catch a glimpse of the bigger Story we’re part of. And here is where Evans shines brightest in Inspired. Her capacity to captivate readers of various ages, backgrounds, and genders with preternatural storytelling abilities keeps readers engaged page after page; because for her, she understood that, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.”
(Rachel Held Evans passed away May 4, 2019 and is greatly missed by a broad community of Christians.)
The Belgariad by David Eddings (Vol. 1: Books 1-3, Vol. 2: Books 4 & 5)
“If you like fantasy stories, then you have to read this,” my friend held out a worn book, its edges bent and cover slightly tattered. It was called Pawn of Prophecy, book one in The Belgariad series by David Eddings. “It’s one of the best fantasy series ever written; you will love it,” she said. She was absolutely right.
The Belgariad is a five book series that follows the journey of a young farmhand named Garion as he, along with the ancient sorcerer Belgarath, the powerful sorceress Polgara, and others, tries to find the stolen orb of power and use it to stop the evil god, Torak. On the surface, the plot seems fairly straightforward: it’s a simple hero’s journey where the orphan boy must rise up and save the world. But don’t let that deter you, because while the quest is important, it is the characters that really make this a worthwhile read. The people that fill Eddings’s world are flawed, relatable, infuriating, and fun. The dialogue, in particular, shines with witty banter and the warmth of deep friendship. More than the story line, it was the depth of the characters that pulled me in the most and made these stories some of my favorites.
Apart from the strong characters, The Belgariad is filled with intrigue, danger, and stakes that feel like they actually matter. The setting is vibrant and varied; the magic, beautifully balanced, both unique in its mechanic and subtle in its use. The series is not perfect, to be sure. As with many classic works, the undertones of racial, social, and political biases prevalent at the time of writing sneaks in at times. But despite that, there is a reason they continue to be cornerstone works in the genre. They are simply really enjoyable stories. The Belgariad is a masterfully written must-read for any fantasy lover.
Lovely War by Julie Berry
This book is right smack in the middle of my reading preferences—historical fiction with a touch of fantasy—and it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. Picture this: The Greek goddess of love, caught in a Paris hotel with her paramour, tries to win her freedom by telling the story of two young couples caught up in the maelstrom of World War I. Improbable, yes. But for months I’ve been going around telling people to read this improbable—and sweet, moving, exquisitely written—book. It manages to capture the horror of both war and racism, while at the same time holding out hope that love is strong enough to rescue and redeem.
Technically, Lovely War is Young Adult, but it doesn’t read like it. Though there’s a lot of excellent YA writing out there, the skill and maturity of Berry’s writing takes this one to another level. (And ironically, her more adult-sounding book is much cleaner than most current YA fiction, aside from some heartbreaking descriptions of wartime violence and racist crimes. Even Aphrodite’s tryst—spoiler alert!—turns out to be not quite what it looked like.) At any rate, it’s a reading experience to be savored by adults and teens alike.
The Books of Bayern by Shannon Hale (The Goose Girl, Enna Burning, River Secrets, and Forest Born)
Parents looking for book recommendations for their middle-grade readers are often confounded by Young Adult books that are too mature in content and Children’s books that are too thematically unrelatable. This is where stories like Shannon Hale’s Books of Bayern shine. Beginning with The Goose Girl, a retelling of a lesser-known Grimm’s fairy tale by the same title, Hale ventures from there into three more original tales set in the same universe. Each of Hale’s four books centers on a unique protagonist—three female, one male—and although there is romance in these stories, the unifying theme is that of friendship.
The Books of Bayern are delightful, written with an eye toward what it is that truly makes young women and young men strong. Hale doesn’t shy away from using beautiful, elevated vocabulary and taking the time to deeply develop her characters, which is something you don’t always find in Middle Grade literature. I highly recommend these books for readers of all ages—your young readers and you yourself. They will magic you away and remind you of the power of fairy tales to be both simple and profound.
Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar
What if our beloved American superhero, Superman, wasn’t American? What if he landed on Earth a few hours earlier, in Russia, and was raised by Russian parents? What if he became a Russian icon and an enemy of the United States, embodying the ideals of communism and the red state of the old U.S.S.R.? In Superman: Red Son, an epic “what if” story, Mark Millar writes a well-thought narrative of possibilities that forces readers into a complex reconditioning of the ways we typically think of our heroes and foes in the Superman saga. The archetypal villains and heroes maintain their qualitative characteristics, but their proclivities are cast in different settings, projecting shadows of a different light.
You may at times abashedly find yourself rooting for characters like Lex Luthor and Batman out of a patriotic sense of duty. Superman’s telescopic X-ray vision and supersonic hearing will be pesky annoyances as they disrupt American intelligence efforts. You may not like the decisions Wonder Woman must make, and you’ll find yourself anxiously awaiting to see if the American Lois Lane can, or will, spark a relationship with the Russian Superman. Additionally, in the middle of all of this character reconfiguring, you’ll also be challenged to rewire the black and white picture of communism you probably learned about in our public schools.
Red Son requires readers to develop a more realistic—and sometimes sympathetic—picture of how a command economy functions. From the history buff, to the staunchly critical economist, to the shallow lover of superhero sagas, Red Son is a magnificent story that will inspire the childlike imaginative questions of “what if?” in all of us again.
Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I live in “Space City” Houston—home to NASA’s flight control during the famous mission—and the area’s anticipation feels like the buildup of a Saturn rocket seconds before liftoff. As with any anniversary of this sort, a number of products, books, and films have been released to celebrate the occasion. Damien Chazelle’s wonderous First Man (detailing the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong) hit theaters last year. This winter also saw the release of Apollo 11, a transcendent documentary from Todd Douglas Miller (currently my favorite film of the year). Even LEGO joined the fray with an exclusive Lunar Lander release, complete with mini-figures of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (sorry Michael Collins).
What LEGO fans probably won’t ever see is a mini-figure set featuring the engineers and mission control experts who put those astronauts in space. Yet, one of the more riveting accounts of America’s race to the moon comes not from those who physically made the “giant leap for mankind,” but from veteran NASA flight director Gene Kranz in his 2000 memoir Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. In this riveting first-person account, Kranz outlines the grueling work and countless behind-the-scenes hours it took to make history. The first astronauts may have had the right stuff, but they weren’t the only ones with stuff to offer.
While framing a history of space travel through the lens of those on the ground could easily turn into a bit of a gruel, Kranz splashes Failure Is Not an Option with anecdotes that paint NASA’s engineers and rocket scientists in all their brilliant, grounded splendor. Kranz’s account oozes with nerves and emotion, advances and setbacks. Those working on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions weren’t just exploring space, they were exploring the limits of human ingenuity. The dash to the heavens was largely the work of faithful people on the ground, offering their God-given abilities to the greater whole.
In the 60s, there was no textbook on space travel. Failure Is Not an Option is a story from one of the individuals who decided to write it.
A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar
Peek around the nooks and crannies of fantasy literature over the past decade—in a realm some distance from the multi-book thousand-page epics, but no less enchanted—and you might very well find Sofia Samatar. An English professor currently on faculty at James Madison University, Samatar is the child of a Somali scholar, though her Mennonite background comes from her mother’s side. Her debut novel is a secondary-world fantasy and bildungsroman titled A Stranger in Olondria: Being the Complete Memoirs of the Mystic Jevick of Tyom. Jevick, the narrator, leaves his home as the son of a privileged merchant in the tropical tea islands to gain an education in Bain, a continental, cosmopolitan port city. After some time meandering and soaking in the sights (and the ideas) of Bain, Jevick finds himself on the run after becoming attached to the ghost of a now-deceased young woman he once met on the way to the city. He finds himself on the run, for while mystical connection grants him special status among certain local cults, it also sets him at odds with the rationalist powers that govern the land.
Samatar’s language is exquisitely poetic, as florid as its narrator’s humid home isles. The narrative is patient, languid, perhaps even slow—it takes some time before we learn what characters besides Jevick himself are significant to the storyline. The book is, indeed, something of a travelogue, seemingly owing as much to the eighteenth-century picaresque novel as the Tolkienian fantasy genre. Samatar reverses the classic European orientalist trope—here, the familiar homeland is Jevick’s tropical Tyom, while the metropolitan Bain, with its hints of Enlightenment-era continental culture, is the exotic “other” locale. Beneath these (and other) techniques, however, A Stranger in Olondria is a story about stories, a book about books, a meditation on the ways our readings shape our character and our character shapes our writings. It is a warning not to erase the stories we may dislike, and a reminder that every person’s story deserves—somewhere, somehow—to be remembered.