It’s officially time to kick off the spooky season, and I do declare that Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo should be your first pick. The book is part southern gothic, part paranormal mystery, and part dark academia set against the backdrop of prestigious Vanderbilt University and rural Tennessee. It’s hot and humid and confusing as all get out but it’s a strong 2021 dark horse pick that you should definitely consider.
Despite what everyone says, Andrew knows Eddie didn’t commit suicide. They were best friends, and each moment of their lives had been laid out perfectly in step. Eddie would never leave him behind. Would he? But Eddie botched their plan to attend graduate school together and went to Vanderbilt a semester early while making excuses to keep Andrew from visiting. It just doesn’t make sense. Now Eddie is gone, and Andrew is left with an extensive trust fund, a house in Nashville, Eddie’s wild(-ly attractive) friend group, and a ghoulish haunt on his heels. Andrew’s arrival in the leftovers of Eddie’s life reveals he didn’t know what his friend was up to, and the tangled mess of his death is complicated and dangerous.
Summer Sons is a slow burn juxtaposed with frenetic energy as a mystery slowly unfolds amidst Andrew’s outbursts and general chaos. At first, it’s incredibly frustrating. I just wanted to put the pedal to the metal and figure everything out. But then I realized this story was something else entirely. The paranormal mystery is just background noise. The real story is watching Andrew stumble along as he explores his trauma and grief. He’s (badly) trying to learn who he is now that his dependent crutch has been pulled out from under him. Mandelo dragged me through this story, leading me to many dead ends in my exploration of the path forward, and somehow found ways to push all my buttons. And it was a great experience because the storytelling personified Andrew entirely. It captured his energy, anger, confusion, and sadness. The plot is messy but so is Andrew, and I enjoyed Mandelo’s ability to place me in his state of mind.
Our main character is an absolute wreck of a person, and he’s hard to love–but that fits the story. Andrew’s sole motivation is to solve Eddie’s murder, and through that filter, he uses the people around him to accomplish his goal. He’s in a dark place, and it’s very evident in his erratic behavior. I cringed every time Andrew coldly dismissed people. And the horror of watching him ignore emails from professors and skip classes was nightmare-inducing for me. Andrew has an “act now, worry about it later” mentality, and his reckless behavior (from street racing to physical altercations) honestly had me hyperventilating. It’s uncomfortable as a humid Tennessee summer, but Mandelo does such an amazing job making you sweat.
There’s a lot to unpack in this book. I’d say it’s a coming-of-age story first, paranormal mystery second. There’s violence, ghostly possessions, recreational drugs, and souped-up cars. Then there are undercurrents of racism and homophobia rearing their ugly head. When I look at all the pieces individually it feels like several different stories. But Mandelo artfully combines all the elements, making it one of the most unique books I’ve read this year. Although I really enjoyed the immersion into Andrew’s character development, I found the paranormal elements confusing and the mystery a little lackluster. There is a really creative, spooky element that hovers over Eddie and Andrew’s friendship, but it never manifests fully. And I know I am hard to please when it comes to mysteries but there wasn’t a lot of build-up to whodunnit and it was pretty clear early on as to who it was. Where Mandelo truly shines is their ability to connect you with the characters, and that alone kept me engaged even if I didn’t find the other elements as interesting.
I personally was pulled in by Summer Son’s paranormal aspect but ended up staying for Andrew’s personal journey. I never quite knew where Mandelo was going to take me, and I’m pleasantly surprised with the end result. I think this book will be appealing to many because it can pull you in for lots of different reasons. So I encourage you to pick this one up and find which part calls out to you the most.
Rating: Summer Sons – 7.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to us in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.