It’s time for summer reading lists. They’re popping up everywhere. I’m pulling from (mostly) the last couple years to find the best options for your airplane seat or beach chair. Not everyone wants the same beach read so I’m dividing these up into Light, Medium, and Heavy fare.
First off, the sad news. You’ll have to wait until late-Summer and Fall for a bunch of great picks. Upcoming memoirs and essays from Mindy Kaling and Jenny Lawson aren’t out until August/September. Sad face. Same goes for upcoming nerd fodder in Felicia Day’s memoir (out in August) and the new novel from Ready Player One author Ernest Cline, Armada, which is out in mid-July. Get your pre-order game on accordingly.
Crazy Rich Asians is a perfect pick for this category, fluffy and indulgent, perfect for people who secretly read gossip magazines or celebrity websites but only with guilt. The sequel is out in June, China Rich Girlfriend, and author Kevin Kwan follows the same kind of formula (family clashes, relationship drama, ridiculous wealth, all with maximum melodrama and a humorous, light touch) moving the setting from Singapore to mainland China. He keeps many of the main characters, but I was relieved that I didn’t need a refresh on who was who, the book picks right up and you’ll be fine if you have only vague recollections of Nicholas, Rachel, Astrid, and the rest. Another pick on the rich and famous: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. American girl falls for English prince, paparazzi, drama, and hilarity ensue.
Want scares? Go for The Deep by Nick Cutter. It takes the everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to scares and has kind of a Stephen King-slash-Michael Crichton feel. Speaking of King, his thriller Mr. Mercedes is really, really good and makes you wonder why King went for horror when he does crime so well. (King has a new novel, Finders Keepers, coming out this summer but I haven’t read it yet.)
Swinging 60’s London is the scene of Funny Girl, from author Nick Hornby, who’s written plenty of smart and super readable novels. Following a small town girl who becomes a famous TV comedienne, it’s good for fans of zippy dialogue and quick wit.
If you want twisty and turny, don’t overlook YA. The genre is busting with plot-heavy novels that you can read at breakneck pace. I have a bunch of great picks here. Tiny Pretty Things is basically Mean Girls meets Center Stage. Elite ballerinas, sabotage, betrayal, all that fun stuff. Authors Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton are great writers, so the book feels like more than a soapy romp, there are real characters and real stakes.
Want realistic teenage struggle and romance? If you’ve run out of John Green books, you should try Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for lots of heart, great characters, excellent dialogue, and a pageturning love story. Simon hasn’t come out yet, but he’s fallen in love with a boy online whose identity he doesn’t know. When he’s threatened with blackmail, it all gets kind of crazy. One of the best high school coming-of-age novels I’ve read. For another YA with strong characters and a realistic feel, try The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes (which has some religion and survivalism thrown in to boot) and Guy In Real Life (which has geeks and video games).
If you prefer more sci-fi flavor, try The Cage by Megan Shepherd. A group of teens wake up to find themselves in an impossible place where there are empty buildings and strange black windows. It isn’t long until they realize they’re being held captive and that someone (or something) is watching. The first in a new series. Another great choice is The Leveller, set in the near-future in a world with virtual reality. Protagonist Nixy makes bank by finding kids in the virtual world and delivering them to their parents for bounty. She gets the job of her life when she’s sent to rescue the son of the billionaire developer who created the game who doesn’t want to be found.
The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman is pitched as We Were Liars meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and it’s actually a pretty decent comparison. (Usually these X Meets Y pitches are sketchy at best.) It takes place in a world a lot like our own, except for the existence of hekamists (basically, witches) who can do magic but are outlawed from practicing it. So of course there’s a black market for their services, and plenty of their spells are cast on people without their knowledge. It gets really complicated and really messy, a great plot concept that’s pretty well executed.
There are plenty of big books from the last year or so that you may not have caught up with yet. Now’s the perfect time.
Though it came out last summer, still building buzz and going strong is Everything I Never Told You, a family drama with a mystery feel that would be great for your book club. Author Celeste Ng mines the family-secrets-in-the-suburbs genre but subverts it by focusing on the family that doesn’t really fit in, Chinese immigrant James Lee, his white wife Marilyn, and their three children. They are much more than they appear on the surface and the book’s slow reveals are fascinating.
For a feel-good memoir with plenty of heart, go for Yes, Please by Amy Poehler. It was one of the big books at the end of 2014 and if you didn’t catch it then you should definitely catch it now.
Riding a very long train of buzz still leftover from Fall 2014 is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which really is as good as everyone says it is. With its mix of graphic novel geekdom and high Shakespeare with apocalypse thrown in for good measure, it’s appeals to a really broad readership. Along
Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is the big-buzz book of early 2015. If you haven’t read it yet, summer vacation is a good time to catch up. It falls in the Medium section rather than Light because it has the dark plot and unlikable characters that are kind of in vogue now with the successes of Gone Girl and The Dinner. While not as good as those two (they are pretty killer in the genre) it’s a tightly plotted book. If you don’t like books about bad people, skip it. Because the whole premise is that the main character, who is descending ever deeper into self-destructive alcoholism, has potentially witnessed a crime while on a bender.
Now, let’s move on from what everybody’s reading to talk about what more people should be reading.
If you haven’t yet jumped on the Rainbow Rowell train, now is a great time. Landline, her most recent novel, is one of my favorites of hers. Some may put Rowell books automatically in the Light Reads category, but I don’t. She isn’t afraid to put her characters in situations where there isn’t an easy solution and they aren’t their best selves. If you’ve been married (especially with kids) chances are you’ll find a lot that’s familiar in the story of Georgie McCool and her troubled marriage. Of course it’s not all difficult and sad. Georgie is a comedy writer, she’s funny even when she’s in the midst of a crisis, and it’s fun to tag along with her. The twist of magical realism in the book works astonishingly well, allowing Georgie to have conversations with her husband… except she’s calling back in time to speak to a younger version of him. Rowell makes her characters work for happiness, she doesn’t just bestow it on them, and it’s one of the things I love about her.
If you’re looking for something fast-paced with complex subject matter try Hyacinth Girls by Lauren Frankel. Rebecca is raising Callie, the daughter of her best friend, after her mother died. When Callie is accused of bullying at school, Rebecca thinks back to her own tumultuous teenage years and is determined to prove Callie’s innocence. But after she does, Callie starts being targeted and Rebecca worries that it will all end in the same tragedies she lived through.
For suspense-driven horror that’s more than cheap frights, be sure to read Bird Box by Josh Malerman, the single most terrifying book I’ve ever read in absolutely the best way. It really is suspense and not horror, but it’s just so expertly done and ultimately unrelenting that it starts to feel like horror. I’m not going to tell you anything about it. But I know a lot of people who have read this book and the results are almost entirely very, very enthusiastically positive. A good matching book would be Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, part police-procedural, part trippy horror, set in gritty Detroit.
Police procedural fans probably already know that Richard Price put out a new novel this year even though it’s officially “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt.” Long story. Anyway. The Whites is, like many of Price’s novels, gritty and gut-wrenching and perfect. Price doesn’t write pulpy procedurals where the hot young FBI agent and the hot young psychiatrist consulting on the case fall in love. His books zero in on the blue collar life of cops and the lives of the criminals they chase. The Whites is all about revenge and has two parallel plot lines that come together so well that only a top caliber novelist could pull it off. You get intimately acquainted with the rhythms of detective Billy Graves’ life, but you also race through the story to solve a string of murders targeting murderers who managed to avoid prison time for their crimes. Seriously satisfying, one of my best books of the year for sure.
For a crime novel that’s less procedural and more of an old school feel (think Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes) try The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. There’s a lot of fantastic crime fiction in Japan, but this one has a throwback style complete with an eccentric physicist who advises his detective friend on cases and a plot that’s so meticulously constructed that you have no idea how complex it is until the last page. I was in awe of this book. I listened to it and physically gasped at the end. I wanted to applaud the author. And read all his other books. (Only 2 more are currently translated into English. Let’s fix that.) Just don’t read this one on a plane. I made that mistake and when it was over all I wanted to do was talk about it or meditate on it and instead I was just stuck on a plane (which is basically the worst).
If spy novels are more your speed, I can definitely recommend The Distance by Helen Giltrow. It’s not your normal spy novel, but it has that same kind of breakneck pace and shadowy secret figures. After reading this, I suspected it would appeal to the John Le Carre and Tom Clancy crowd so I gave it to my Mom, who gave it a very positive review. Karla “gets things done” for powerful people. But her newest job for a mysterious client is to kill a target in an experimental and impenetrable prison colony. There are layers and layers of intrigue, and a plot that left me in awe.
Slow down a little for Eden West, a moderately paced but mesmerizing book about a teenage boy who’s been brought up in a religious commune. At first they seem unusual and mostly harmless, with antiquated social orders and a live-off-the-land heartiness. But as Jacob grows up he sees more and more that troubles him and starts to question everything he’s ever known. Especially when the world becomes much more real when he encounters a girl from the outside on one of his border patrolling trips. Author Pete Hautmann does so well with this book because he treats Jacob’s beliefs with respect and understands the struggle and compromise that comes with religion and community.
For more of the drama that comes with community, read The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, about a group of immigrants who live in the same apartment complex. They come from different countries, they have vastly different backgrounds, but they all have the same dreams and they come together for better of for worse in this book. At the center of the story is Maribel, a teenager whose parents have brought her to the US to be treated for a traumatic brain injury. Mayor, the boy across the hall, sees in her a
While summer reads for many people mean light or fast reads, there are those of us who like something meaty and difficult to contrast with our relaxed surroundings. For you guys, I have some bigger reads.
There are several recent releases that fit the bill. Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, a companion novel to Life After Life, is out now. Either one would be a hefty summer read. The books follow 2 siblings in a large family. Ursula lives and dies and lives and dies and lives again in Life After Life, getting a little farther and doing a little better and being a little different each time. It’s an interesting conceit that lets you explore characters in significant depth while seeing them in drastically different circumstances. A God in Ruins is a more traditional novel that follows Ursula’s brother Teddy, focusing mostly on his time as a pilot in WWII, his marriage and daughter, and eventually his grandchildren. The book flashes forward and backward through Teddy’s life, saving key bits of insight to be revealed after you thought you understood everything. Atkinson is a wily writer but also a wise one. It is the kind of heavy novel that’s all about humanity and family and love and war and what it all means.
There is also the final novel from Kent Haruf out in bookstores. Haruf writes quiet, meditative novels set in the mountain west. Our Souls at Night is the kind of book that has only a small amount of plot. It is grounded firmly in realism and exploring its characters. Addie is a widow and Louis is a widower. They are older, parents of adult children, and have known each other for many years. They forge a new relationship, something between friendship and romance, creating real intimacy and (of course) setting the neighbors talking. Much of the book is the conversations of these two, their thoughts, their dreams, their regrets. It is spare, delicate, rich with emotion, and best read in the quiet evening air.
I know someone who took Missoula, the new nonfiction book by powerhouse Jon Krakauer, on vacation because it was the only way she would be able to get through it. There’s something to be said for taking this difficult book to a place that is soothing so it’s a little easier to deal with. Missoula follows several young women in a Montana college town. Each of these women is raped by someone who is an acquaintance or a close friend, and each of them struggles with what to do. As these crimes turn into a problem that takes over the community, Krakauer examines how we respond to rape in our society, especially the myths that abound about how victims respond to rape and the complex issues around non-stranger rape.
If you haven’t yet tackled the big doorstop of 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and the big doorstop of 2015, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, you now have no excuses. If you love big books but can’t fit them into your busy life, use your vacation. (And preferably your e-reader because they really are heavy.)
If I had a vacation, I’d probably think about finally reading Redeployment by Phil Klay, the highly praised book of connected stories about soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and what happens to them when they return. War books are tough for me, and I tend to put them off, if you’re in the same boat you may want to pick it up.
So that’s the list! It should have something for pretty much everyone. I’d love to hear your suggestions for what you’re taking with you to read this summer.