After two years of being stuck at home during the pandemic, people are ready to get out into the world. You can grin and bear the high price of getting on an airplane these days — or transport yourself through the pages of a good book.
And for that, we have a whole lot of suggestions in the inaugural summer edition of NPR’s Books We Love project.
From the 167 book recommendations, we’ve selected 10 that transcend time and place: from the red-light district of Lahore, Pakistan, and streets of Mexico to the royal court of 18th century Korea and a dystopian future where Japan no longer exists.
The Return of Faraz Ali by Aamina Ahmad
It starts out as a crime novel. A murder. A cop. An investigation. Then it evolves into so much more. This assured debut novel evokes an older Pakistan, with all the many complications of class, society, entitlement, entangled history. Anyone looking for a pat ending should leave this one alone. Instead, come for the evocative writing, the subtle characters and plot — some of which veered into completely unexpected territory.
— Nishant Dahiya, deputy supervising senior editor, NPR International Desk
I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes From a Southern Chef by Vishwesh Bhatt
Born in Gujarat, India, Mississippi chef Vishwesh Bhatt had me from hello with his genteelly defiant title, I Am From Here. Western India and the Southern U.S. share more culinary parallels than you’d think, from rice varietals and sesame to okra, shrimp and fresh tomatoes. Here, these ingredients explode in gleeful fusion, the torrid affair of a spice cabinet and a well-stocked pantry. Juicy shrimp pop beneath a crust of black pepper and coriander; pork shoulder melts in a sweet arból-guajillo chile paste. What about sourcing ingredients? After two years of lockdown, don’t tell me you don’t know how to mail-order dal!
— T. Susan Chang, food writer
Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn
Yinka has done everything her Nigerian-born mother expected — except find a husband, something her mother prays for loudly at their family gatherings. But Yinka has to figure out what she wants: from her career, in love and for herself on her own terms. Set in London, the novel depicts the challenge of navigating two cultures, both of which Yinka is a part of and apart from. In her commitment to being her whole self and true to her faith and ideals, Yinka writes a prayer for herself, a rallying cry to which we can all shout, “Amen!”
— Tayla Burney, director, NPR Network Programming & Production
A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times by Meron Hadero
Debut books don’t get much stronger than this. Meron Hadero’s remarkable stories explore a diverse cast of people doing their best to find acceptance or at least stability — a 10-year-old Ethiopian immigrant who befriends a German man in Iowa; a pair of refugees in New York determined to learn how to cook classic American food. Hadero is deeply perceptive; her dialogue always rings true; and the regard she has for her characters is apparent. This isn’t just an excellent first book, it’s an excellent book, period.
— Michael Schaub, book critic
The Red Palace by June Hur
A palace nurse becomes entangled in a murder investigation when four women are found dead and her beloved mentor is accused of being the killer. It soon becomes clear that the intrigue runs far deeper than she could have anticipated and, in solving it, she may destroy the fragile balance that holds a royal dynasty in power. The Red Palace is an expertly choreographed mystery with a touch of romance and an emotionally satisfying conclusion that beautifully binds fiction to historical fact.
— Caitlyn Paxson, book critic
One for All by Lillie Lainoff
In this gender-bent retelling of The Three Musketeers, 16-year-old Tania de Batz has a chronic illness that can incapacitate her — frustrating for someone who wants to follow in the footsteps of her former Musketeer father. After her father’s death, Tania is sent to Madame de Treville, who trains young women to be Musketeers. With Portia, Théa and Aria, Tania searches for evidence to uncover a plot to assassinate King Louis XIV — and to find the identity of her father’s murderer. But handsome Étienne Verdon becomes an obstacle, because a Mousquetaire is not supposed to fall for her target.
— Alethea Kontis, author and book critic
Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island by Emily Meggett
If you’ve never heard of Edisto Island, Emily Meggett’s cookbook is a great place to start learning. Meggett is the matriarch of the island, which is home to many Gullah Geechee people and the food they’ve made for generations. The recipes are fantastic: One of my absolute favorites is Meggett’s Stuffed Fish with Parsley Rice and Roe, which is time-consuming but so worth the effort. You’re going to want to make these dishes again and again — especially Meggett’s Deviled Crab, Fried Okra, She Crab Soup, and Red Rice. And in doing so, you’ll realize the impact that the Gullah Geechee community has had on American food history.
— Wynne Davis, editorial assistant, All Things Considered
Paradais by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes
Fernanda Melchor’s Paradais, the follow-up to the Booker Prize-nominated Hurricane Season, is another grim and powerful indictment of the depravity encouraged by Mexico’s racist, sexist and classist societal structures. Translated by Sophie Hughes, Paradais stars a a luxury housing complex’s beleaguered gardener, who’s driven by one of its residents to follow his worst impulses. Melchor’s prose is singular, with its fair share of page-long sentences that travel from the deepest psychic corners of her characters to the broadest panoramas of Mexican life.
— Leland Cheuk, author and editor
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh
In this absolutely gorgeous Korean folk tale retelling, 16-year-old Mina jumps into the sea and gives herself to the Sea God in place of the beautiful Shim Cheong. In a magical underwater land filled with spirits, demons, gods and creatures of legend (including the giant snake Imugi), the Red String of Fate binding Mina to the Sea God is severed by the handsome-but-coldhearted Lord Shin. But the Red String of Fate reappears, only this time attaching her to Lord Shin. Mina has a month to investigate the Sea God’s curse and detach herself from Lord Shin before losing her mortality forever.
— Alethea Kontis, author and book critic
Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada
This dystopian novel is riveting, bizarre as can be, and like nothing else I’ve ever read. I’m terrified not enough people will read it. A refugee from a Japan that no longer exists, Hiruko is a teacher who travels through Europe speaking in her invented language that somehow just makes sense to everyone. The book’s told in episodes and strange little spells of romance and precise world-building, which is incredibly fun in itself. But the real pull is Hiruko, one of the most charming and memorable characters I’ve ever encountered. Forget Wordle: Hiroko has us doing word games in a dystopian world! What more could one ask for?
— Kamil Ahsan, biologist, historian and writer
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After two years of being stuck at home in the pandemic, people are ready to get out in the world. Now, you can grin and bear the high price of getting on an airplane. Or you can transport yourself through the pages of a good book. And I am so pleased to get to talk about all this with Maureen Pao. She helped put together the first summer edition of NPR’s Books We Love Project. Maureen, thanks for being here.
MAUREEN PAO, BYLINE: Thank you. I’m so delighted to be here.
MARTIN: So usually, NPR puts out this massive list at the end of the year. But it does make sense to do it now, right? I mean, summer is a perfect time to dig into a whole pile of new books.
PAO: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, that’s exactly what we were thinking. We’ve got a ton of books – 167, exactly. They’re published between January and June across genres – historical and literary fiction, mysteries and thrillers – just to take you different places this summer.
MARTIN: Yes. We all want to go different places, different – dark living rooms and basement offices. All right. So let’s get started. I personally am a sucker for dystopian fiction, the darker the better. Do you have anything to satisfy that?
PAO: I do have one recommendation. It’s not exactly dark dystopian. But…
MARTIN: OK. I’ll take, like, you know, grayish.
PAO: (Laughter) Exactly. This one’s called “Scattered All Over The Earth,” by Yoko Tawada. And our reviewer called it riveting and bizarre as can be. In this world, Japan no longer exists. And the main character is a climate refugee who is now traveling around Europe, teaching a new language that she invented herself. And it features wordplay in this invented language and sort of has been described as word games in a dystopian world.
MARTIN: This is so totally my thing. I lived in Japan and taught English. I’m super into weird word puzzles. I think you’ve just given me my next read.
PAO: I’m so glad.
MARTIN: OK. I want to ask about food because this is another way you can immerse yourself in another culture, right?
PAO: Yeah. Absolutely. And here’s where my own personal bias might come in a little bit. I’m from the South. It’s from my home state of South Carolina. It’s called “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking,” by Emily Meggett, the matriarch of Edisto Island. And it’s the home to the Gullah Geechee people, who are the descendants of enslaved people brought over from West Africa. Because they lived on these barrier islands, they were sort of isolated and were able to preserve their own language and…
PAO: …Cultural traditions. So this is sort of the story of the Gullah Geechee people told through sort of classic recipes, like red rice and deviled crab, which are some of my favorite things.
MARTIN: (Laughter) All right. So Maureen, you have kids. I have kids. We need to occupy them this summer and preferably not in front of screens. So what book recommendations might you have for them?
PAO: One I wanted to highlight is called “One For All,” by Lillie Lainoff. From the title, you can probably gather that it is a retelling of the story of “The Three Musketeers.” And it takes us both to a different place and time.
PAO: It’s set in 17th century Paris in the time of Louis XIV. And the twist is that the swashbucklers are all young women. And I just love it, its, like, sisterhood. My own teenager is reading it right now. So I can vouch for this one.
MARTIN: OK, traveling through time and space, always a winner for a book that’s going to keep your kids’ attention. Maureen Pao has given us so many good recommendations for books this summer. You can find all 160-plus at npr.org/bookswelove. Thanks, Maureen.
PAO: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUN-EL AND SIMMY SONG, “HIGHER”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.