The Summer of Ellen
Readers who love Scandi-noir will welcome Agnete Friis’s latest crime novel, set in Copenhagen and the Danish countryside. The story begins during a summer when a young woman disappears. Jacob was present that summer, and 40 years later, he receives a call from his elderly uncle who still wants to know what happened to her. Jacob hasn’t been back to the island where his uncle lives since 1978, the summer he had an enormous crush on Ellen, a young woman who lived on the local hippie commune. As Jacob begins his search for answers, he soon finds himself in the middle of a labyrinth that he’ll have to use his wits to escape.
Daisy Jones & The Six
Taylor Jenkins Reid
Taylor Jenkins Reid takes readers on the road with the hottest band of the decade in this rollicking rock-and-roll novel. While Daisy and her bandmates can drive stadium audiences to ecstasy, the clash of egos behind the stage are in danger of destroying the act. Daisy fought hard to be a singer and never had any interest in being some musician’s muse. But before their new band was formed, Billy ran the show, and he’s resentful of the support role he now occupies. Daisy and Billy struggle to keep the band together, efforts that are further complicated when the group’s success leads to destructive types of excess.
A community of Californians trying to live by the rules of their commune opt to make a gigantic move in 1970. In T.C. Boyle’s novel, readers meet these would-be utopians as they decide to give up California cool in order to start a new community in the Alaskan wilderness. The complications begin immediately, when they discover that another community of homesteaders are occupying that patch of land. The commune members must try to come to a peaceful solution in order to honor their ideals of love and cooperation, and sure enough, romances and friendships take root in the Alaskan soil. But you can’t grow a garden without weeds, and conflicts sprout.
John Lennon is 37 in 1978, two years before he’s murdered. He’s an icon, and he’s left an infant son in New York City to journey west of Ireland, to spend time on a small island he owns. Lennon has been engaged in Primal Therapy—a practice tried by the real star—and hopes to be alone on his island so he can “scream his fucking lungs out” and cast his demons into the sea. Once word gets out of his presence on the island, a handler takes Lennon into hiding, and for much of the book, the musician reflects on a life that has wearied him, one full of what his therapist Dr. Janov calls “amorphous doom and nameless dread.” An atmospheric book that will transport readers to the Ireland not seen by tourists.
I have an emotional attachment to this book, the first novel I read in my first women’s studies course during my freshman year of college. Before she wrote such novels as Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace, Atwood wrote this slim work that’s part thriller and part relationship novel, in which an artist heads to a remote island in northern Quebec in hopes of tracking down her missing father. She takes her boyfriend with her, and they’re also accompanied by a married couple. Her mission to find her father gets hijacked by the others’ desires, and the couple’s failing marriage creates mayhem for everyone. As readers are pulled further into Surfacing, they’ll wonder whether the artist-narrator is losing touch with reality or if someone else is manipulating events to skew her sense of self. This is one of Atwood’s most tightly paced works.
The Bluest Eye
Before she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, announced the arrival of a riveting voice with a shattering story. Pecola Breedlove prays each day for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will give her a better life. She’s the butt of jokes and bullying by other kids who focus their rage on the young girl’s curly hair and dark skin. Pecola thinks that if she meets her tormentors’ standard of beauty, they will accept her, but Morrison’s searing prose shows readers the myriad ways that young Black girls are taught they will never meet standards of white beauty.
A Brief History of Seven Killings
Political unrest in 1970s Jamaica led to people being killed in the streets. Bob Marley sought a way to bring all sides together so peace could be restored, and his idea was to host a concert. Not everyone was convinced that Marley was a peacemaker—some saw him as a quiet supporter of the government in power. Those suspicions led to an awful night in December of 1976 when seven armed men stormed Marley’s home. Bob Marley was shot in the chest; Rita, his wife, was shot in the head; and two other men associated with the band were also wounded. And while each of them survived, most of the questions of what really happened that night have never been answered. Marlon James won the Booker Prize for this novel that takes readers inside Marley’s home and then makes them spectators for the events that followed the shootings.
Watergate dominated the news during the summer of 1974, and Richard Nixon would finally resign on August 9. But at arts camp, six gifted teenagers are forming lifelong bonds while pursuing their talents. Wolitzer follows each of the friends as they chase dreams of artistic success and couple those dreams with the realities of daily life. Wolitzer examines how social class, gender, money, and other factors play their part in greasing the wheels or throwing up barriers. Meanwhile, the friendship among these artists becomes a sustaining force for each of them. It’s a novel that asks a range of big questions, like what happens to unrealized talent, and how do you nurture the dreams of youth when you’re no longer youthful?
City on Fire
Garth Risk Hallberg
A shooting in Central Park on New Year’s Eve propels a cast of characters in Hallberg’s magisterial debut novel that won its young author rave reviews. The cast of characters who populate Hallberg’s opus include anarchists, detectives, a straitlaced gay Black man newly arrived from Georgia, a suburban nerd, the spoiled heir to a banking fortune, and a disillusioned journalist. All of them are hiding things—from each other, from themselves—while the police try to solve the crime. When a blackout turns everything dark on a hot summer night, secrets are finally revealed.
Everything I Never Told You
Before the enormous success of Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng wrote this moving novel that alerted critics to the presence of a major talent. One morning in 1977, the Lee family wakes to the news that the body of their daughter Lydia has been found in a lake. Lydia had been struggling with her parents’ expectations of her, and as the police begin their investigation, it’s not clear whether she was murdered or ended her own life. As her family grieves, various truths about Lydia’s life begin to emerge—and as these stories are brought to light, the secrets her parents have been keeping from each other also emerge with troubling results. Ng is masterful in her evocation of grief, and her portrayal of American life in the 1970s will transport readers back to those days.
All the Beautiful Girls
Elizabeth J. Church
The Rat Pack was a group of Hollywood actors and singers who hung out with Frank Sinatra; many of them also performed regularly on the Las Vegas Strip, providing entertainment to both big-time gamblers and families who came to Vegas to see the stars. Lily Decker grows up a world away from Vegas, but her dancing provides her with a ticket away from her small town. In Vegas, Lily changes her name to Ruby Wilde and secures a job in a chorus line. But amidst the excitement, Lily feels that something essential is missing from her life. Church brings readers along on Lily’s journey to becoming Ruby, and what she finds when she arrives.
What happens when you envision yourself as Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, but when you get your chance to pose the tough questions, what comes out of your mouth is “Alibi hullabaloo gullible bellyflop smellafish”? Meet Lionel Essrog, a private eye operating in 1970s Brooklyn, who’s hampered by Tourette syndrome. When the man Essrog works for is murdered, author Jonathan Lethem sets Essrog free inside a plot that features all the facets of classic noir. The results are a novel that readers will remember long after they’ve finished the book.
Abram Singer introduces himself to readers: “I’m a reference point, a glimmer of light, living testimony that humans do not prefer the darkness: I am my words and my actions.” He’s a parish priest based in Manhattan, where he ministers to those seeking absolution for their sins and provides solace to those afflicted with grief and suffering. But underneath his vestments, Singer is a complex man with his own struggles, including his inability to observe the rule of chastity. But his faith in the work is solid, and he finds many ways to manifest that faith. Monda’s novel raises multilayered questions about a priest’s role in the modern world.
Chris Ware has attracted fans from around the world who love his cartoons and graphic novels. One critic referred to him as a “novelist’s graphic novelist,” a compliment for the man whose graphic novels comprise pages of detailed drawings into which readers will find themselves falling. His previous works, including Monograph and Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Boy on Earth, have been published while he’s been at work on his latest. It tells the story of Rusty Brown of Nebraska, a nerdy kid who attends a parochial school in the 1970s. Brought into Rusty’s orbit are new kids Chalky White and his older sister, Alice. The people they interact with—a panoply of eccentric characters—are brought to life by Ware’s intricate illustrations.
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty
Labor Day is the traditional “last day of summer,” the day when the summer house is packed up and the kids are readied for going back to school. But on Labor Day in 1976, Fern and Edgar, who have been living off of Fern’s parents’ estate, are informed that all of the money is gone. The two have no other income, and the comfortable life they and their three children have grown accustomed to is about to disappear. Fern and Edgar react in ways that will shock readers, including leaving the three children alone for days at a time. Cricket, their 9-year old, assumes care for her younger siblings while her mom and dad freak out. The lives the children create in the absence of their parents will bring to mind many of the familiar fairy tales about plucky orphans left alone in an unfamiliar world.
Coelho draws from his own life to spin a tale about a life-changing journey across Europe and Asia in the 1970s. It begins in Amsterdam, with a chance encounter between Karla and Paulo, a Brazilian man who dreams of becoming a writer. Karla talks Paulo into accompanying her on the trip she’s been dreaming of for a long time. They leave Amsterdam onboard the Magic Bus, a way of traveling the “Hippie Trail.” The trail went from London to Kathmandu, with stops in Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan on the way to India and beyond. While Paulo and Karla begin the journey as near-strangers, what they experience together will cement a relationship that changes both of them.
If the ’60s had been a decade in which young people focused their attention on making changes in their society, the ’70s has often been called “the me decade,” as individuals turned their attention inward in hopes of finding peace from outside chaos. The enormous social problems people had protested in the 1960s didn’t disappear, but for a variety of reasons, social issues didn’t seem as compelling to many people as the need to change themselves. Self-help became big business.
On the cultural front, the ’70s was a decade of fads: Pet Rocks, Sea Monkeys, Pop Rocks, Earth Shoes, and black-light posters were just some of the products that turned into must-have items. The Godfather, Jaws, All the President’s Men, Star Wars, and Apocalypse Now were blockbuster hits that celebrated different forms of courage in a political era full of conmen and crooks. The decade began with testosterone-fueled heavy metal acts like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin and ended with disco, which celebrated the gay community and racial diversity.
In these novels that explore life during the 1970s, individuals retreat to islands, take off for epic journeys to find self-knowledge, chase fame and fortune as entertainers, and find other ways to assert their individuality.
Featured Image: @ajweislogel/Unsplash