One of the great things about summer in Michigan is that we don’t need to leave the state to get away somewhere gorgeous and relaxing. But what’s a lakeside weekend without a good book to read in the hammock between catnaps? And with four new novels with Michigan ties out now, why not make your beach read a Michigan beach read? Here’s a brief guide to the voice, vibe, and flavor of each book that will keep you turning pages.
Em’s Awful Good Fortune By Marcie Maxfield
Plot: The narrator, Em, chronicles what outwardly seems like an adventurous expat “tagalong wife” life, with stints in Japan, South Korea, France, and China. Her husband’s work, overseeing construction on arenas and expo sites, is the reason for their nomadic family life, but as the novel opens, the now middle-aged couple is checking out Shanghai, which would play host to the couple’s first deployment without their two (now grown) children, if Em agrees to come. She’s had to make compromises and sacrifice her own career aspirations to keep her family together over the years, and the novel jumps around in time and locale to show precisely how this couple has arrived at this new chapter in which Em and her husband must finally confront each other and the legacy of their choices.
Michigan’s Role: Maxfield now calls Los Angeles home, but she grew up in Detroit and gives Em the same backstory, which pops up here and there: “Ortheia Barnes sang ‘You Are My Friend’ at our wedding. Ortheia was Detroit soul royalty, big and bluesy. Andra and I used to hang out at a nightclub where she worked, sit in the powder room with her on breaks between sets and gab.”
Biggest Hook: Em’s caustic, edgy narrative voice. Because you know from the start that the couple has at least made it to the “raising kids” finish line, Em’s Awful Good Fortune relies heavily on the reader connecting with the smart, funny woman who’s looking back in midlife in order to see her way forward.
Boys Come First By Aaron Foley
Plot: Three Black gay men in their 30s face turning points in their lives and in their collective friendship. Dominick, a Detroit transplant living in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, suddenly finds himself out of a job, and then comes home to find his longtime boyfriend having sex with another man. To figure out his next move, he returns to Detroit, where his old friend Troy — a socially conscious teacher with a complicated boyfriend situation of his own — introduces him to a hugely successful realtor named Remy, who’s dating two men who won’t commit. The three friends rely on and check each other as they contend with challenges large and small.
Michigan’s Role: Detroit is essentially the fourth main character in this book, not just providing a backdrop but also regularly being discussed and unpacked by the three men: “I couldn’t get Roland to go out with me in public in Detroit at first. … But now we’ve started having brunch downstairs at Andiamo. And that’s turned into walks along the Riverwalk. And you know for Detroit standards, a romantic walk on the Riverwalk is damn near a marriage proposal.”
Biggest Hook: Breezy prose that still manages to tackle some substantive issues (racism, gentrification, etc.) makes Boys Come First feel like an all-male rom-com with teeth. Told from the friends’ perspectives — though strangely, only Remy narrates in first person, which was initially jarring — the novel unabashedly focuses on the men’s relationships, their friendship, and their evolving senses of self.
Chevy in the Hole By Kelsey Ronan
Plot: At the book’s outset, 26-year-old August, brought back from the dead with Narcan, returns from Detroit to his hometown of Flint. While stumbling through something like recovery (as the city’s water crisis looms), August starts volunteering at a local farm, where he’s drawn to young, determined activist Monae. Meanwhile, by way of August’s relatives from earlier generations, Ronan offers a kind of tour of Flint’s riches-to-rags past, so that readers’ understanding of this famous city and its residents is deepened in a moment when the biggest blow of all is poised to fall.
Michigan’s Role: This is a book about Flint and its people, plain and simple. The title, a reference to a part of Flint where an auto plant once stood, is described like this: “A concrete bowl carved in the middle of the city with the Flint River running through it, it had once held acres of Chevrolet assembly line. Birds tumbled from the power lines. … The railroad tracks that once huffed in car parts had been turned into a bike path. When August was little and his father was pink-slipped, the hill had seemed so much steeper.”
Biggest Hook: Ronan’s observant, literary prose, as well as a called-up curiosity about Flint, a city that’s long held an important (but perhaps misunderstood) spot in the local landscape. To grapple with the present, we all must examine the past that brought us to this point, and Ronan achieves this through both a family story and an unlikely romance between opposites.
Renovated to Death By Frank Anthony
Plot: A gay couple in the Detroit suburbs — a writer, Peter, and an actor, JP — have found fame as TV show hosts of a renovation show, and they’re poised to do a second season. At a dishy dinner party with neighbors, a handsome, love-’em-and-leave-’em older man, Tom Cash, urges the couple to take on his long-deceased parents’ house as their next project, even though his quieter twin, Terry, seems uncomfortable with changes to, and the eventual sale of, their childhood home. When Tom turns up dead at the foot of the house’s staircase, Peter and JP suddenly have a mystery to solve.
Michigan’s Role: Set in the ever-so-slightly disguised Detroit suburbs (Pleasant Woods, Royal Heights, Fernridge), Renovated nonetheless keeps its observations real: “On the west side of Woodward Avenue, the main thoroughfare that bisected the community, lavish dwellings rested on oversized lots belonging to the upper middle class. The east side — affectionately dubbed Peasant Woods — gave way to smaller properties whose owners, while still well-off, earned far smaller incomes.”
Biggest Hook: Cozy mysteries live and die (ahem) by the company the reader gets to keep while the murder’s being solved, and from the first chapter, this group of witty gay men (and one straight antique-store owner) make for some fun companions. Plus, if home renovation shows are your jam, there are plenty of architectural details that will probably seal the deal.