If you’re anything like me, you think summer is made for reading. But nothing is more frustrating than picking up the latest (and much-hyped) new release to find that even though it’s a bestseller, it’s not the right book for you.
How do you enjoy the hits without wasting time on the misses? Enter the summer reading guide.
This compact, user-friendly guide whittles the overwhelming array of readerly options down to 5 titles each in 7 genres, new releases and backlist, with the tastes of MMD readers in mind.
I read hundreds of books for the summer season; this guide contains only the best of the best. More than ever, I’m channeling my inner Kathleen Kelly, keeping her reputation for “flawless taste” in mind. I don’t presume to have flawless taste, but know this: if I don’t love a book, I won’t recommend it here—even if I suspect most readers will enjoy it.
Every book here has earned its spot, and I’ve personally read it—often more than once. I can vouch for them, and answer any questions you have.
NEW THIS SUMMER
These new releases are the only books in this guide that I haven’t read (edit: I have now). Sometimes new releases can be pretty disappointing, if all you’ve heard about them are promotional pieces. For example, I hated last year’s big hit The Paris Wife. But it can also be fun to read the new book everyone’s talking about
Grisham departs from the law to weave a story about rookie baseball player Joe Castle of Calico Rock, Arkansas, who’s called up to the Cubs in 1973 and thrills fans with an astonishing rookie season that breaks all the records--until it comes to a sudden end. This story is nothing like John Grisham’s legal thrillers: Calico Joe is short and straightforward, exploring relationships and redemption--all centered around the game of baseball.More info →
First Jacobs spent a year following the Bible as literally as possible (The Year of Living Biblically) and then he read the Encyclopedia Brittanica from cover to cover (The Know-It-All). The genre is called stunt journalism, and Jacobs is good at it. In Drop Dead Healthy, he sets out to become the world’s healthiest man, consulting experts of all stripes, test-driving the conventional wisdom on health and fitness, and exploring a lot of crazy new stuff, too.More info →
Part inspiration, part action-plan, popular Harvard Business Review blogger Johnson encourages women to consider shaking up their life, to dream about new possibilities and discover their purpose in life, and to create and implement a plan to bring those dreams to life. Dare Dream Do shines for its rich storytelling and practical advice.More info →
This novel is a first-rate psychological thriller. Amy Dunne disappears on the morning of her 5th wedding anniversary, and of course her husband Nick is a prime suspect. Soon every couple in their small North Carolina town is wondering how well they really know the one they love.More info →
Build your brain, work on your relationships, or makeover your work life—while staying right by the pool. These worthwhile books are enjoyable enough to read on the beach—or in the backyard.
Vanderkam's no-nonsense, no-excuses approach to time management just might convince you that you actually have time to accomplish anything you really want to do, when you focus on your core competencies and stop frittering away your time. To get the most out of this book you must do the time diary exercise.More info →
Gottman is the famed researcher who’s able to predict with 91% accuracy if a couple will divorce after observing them for a mere 5 minutes. Gottman fleshes out what successful relationships have in common, and shows you how to view your own relationship through a marriage counselor’s eyes. Investing in your marriage is easier than you might think.More info →
This latest book from the authors of Made to Stick examines why change is sometimes hard--and what to do about it. This story-driven book is fascinating and dead-practical, focusing both on huge issues (cutting a hospital’s death rate) and small ones (getting employees to turn in expense reports on time. Switch provides lots to fascinate, and lots to apply to your personal life.More info →
The book provides a roadmap aka The Mother of All Reading Lists for adults who long for the classical education they never had. Bauer provides numerous suggestions for reading across 5 genres—fiction, autobiography, history, drama, and poetry—as well as numerous hows and whys. This is the grown-ups’ counterpart to The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (one of the books I read over and over again).More info →
Financial guru Dave Ramsey marries the concepts of entrepreneurism and leadership in this practical book of business advice. Ramsey reflects on 20 years in small business, exploring what leadership strategies have worked for his organization--and which ones have flopped, and why. You don’t have to be a business leader to benefit from this book.More info →
Jon Acuff pioneered the successful website Stuff Christians Like while he was working IT at autotrader.com. He was tired of doing the “reverse Superman” every Monday morning--changing out of the clothes he’d worn to speak at conferences about Stuff Christians Like (his dream job) and into the khaki-and-polo corporate uniform of his day job. In Quitter, Acuff tells the story of how he left his day job for his dream job--and how you can do it, too.More info →
Creativity isn’t something magical; it’s a skill--and it’s something you can have, too. Lehrer’s book is full of real-life examples of how individuals and corporations boosted their own productivity, and he shows you how you can do the same thing for yourself. (UPDATE: Lehrer's book was pulled from the shelves when it was discovered he fabricated quotes in Imagine.)More info →
If you who love a good whodunit, this section is for you. Take your pick from true crime, undercover story, or classic heist.
Wittman is a retired FBI agent and founder of its Art Crimes Team, and his day-in-the-life stories read like a spy thriller. His tale of going undercover to track down stolen masterpieces and bust art thieves depicts a seedy world that’s quite different from the polite cat-and-mouse games of The Thomas Crown Affair.More info →
The Whiskey Robber is Attilla Ambrus, a gentleman thief who couldn’t quite make ends meet, so he turned to robbing banks to supplement his income in 1990s Hungary, all while playing for the biggest hockey team in Budapest. His brazen crime spree goes on for years, which would be unbelievable if he weren’t up against a police team that’s almost too incompetent to be true.More info →
This is a real-life Ocean’s 11 tale of a 2003 robbery in Antwerp, Belgium, when thieves broke into a supposedly airtight vault and made off with 108 million dollars of loot. The crime was flawless, but the getaway was clumsy, and real-life diamond experts Campbell and Selby were called in to track down the thieves in a real-life worldwide goose chase.More info →
Recommended reading—for grown-ups. Sharing these great books with the kids in your life is optional.
I probably wasn't old enough to appreciate this instant classic when I first read it as a child, but that didn't stop me. (Thank goodness.) 10-year-old Milo comes home from school one day to find a tollbooth sitting in his bedroom. Since he doesn’t have anything better to do, he pays the toll and drives through–and embarks on a strange journey into a fanciful world where he encounters all sorts of strange characters. A satisfying and delightfully nerdy book that will engage both kids and adults, albeit on different levels.More info →
This is such a fun story, no matter your age. Stanley Yelnats is a boy with a history of bad luck–all brought on by his "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather." Yelnats ends up at Camp Green Lake—a juvenile detention center, where there is no lake--and has to dig a giant hole every day in the hot sun. The boys soon discover there may be more to this hole-digging business than punishment. Age 8 and up.More info →
From the author of Tuck Everlasting. Twelve-year-old Gaylen sets off to poll the kingdom about which food should stand for “delicious” in the new dictionary, but his simple quest soon reveals civil war is brewing. This is a sweet tale of a boy, his father-figure, a mermaid, and a dictionary, full of magic and mystery. Age 8 and up.More info →
If you want to read the books that have proven popular with thousands (and sometimes even millions) of readers, this is the list for you.
Cain hooks you with a great story on page 1 and doesn’t let up till the elegant ending. By sharing personal stories and fascinating research, Cain showcases introverts’ unique strengths--and how those strengths are often squelched in a culture that’s embraced the Extrovert Ideal. Quiet is smart, eye-opening, and utterly enjoyable, for introverts and extroverts alike.More info →
The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent A Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun
THP is great summer reading because while it’s not difficult, it’s thought-provoking and a lot of fun. It’s also perfect for summer because it’s very easy to read in short chunks (by the pool, on the deck, in the coffee shop). Read this now so you’ll be ready to read Rubin’s next installment Happier at Home, due out September 4.More info →
Unbroken tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete turned World War II bombardier. Hillenbrand has called Zamp’s life “almost incomprehensibly dramatic,” and she masterfully unfurls his story, which begins with his plane failing and crashing into the Pacific during a routine search mission. (After you finish, pick up Hillenbrand’s previous biography Seabiscuit, which is about so much more than a racehorse.)More info →
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan graduates from Old Miss in the 1960s and returns home to Jackson, looking for a topic to write about. She decides to tell the story of the Help. Skeeter was raised by a kindly black maid, as were many of her friends. Now they’re having babies and hiring black maids of their own. Skeeter interviews the maids of Jackson to find out what it’s really like to be a black woman who leaves her own babies at home so she can earn a living raising white women’s babies.More info →
Summer is a great time to go on an epic adventure—vicariously, through the written word.
Krakauer climbed Mt. Everest while on assignment for Outside Magazine in 1996, which would become the deadliest year in the history of the mountain. 8 people died on the mountain the day Krakauer himself summited; 15 died that season. Krakauer made it back down to tell the tale of what it was like on the mountain that May. A first-class adventure story.More info →
McDougall’s quest begins with a simple question: “Why does my foot hurt? In search of the answer, he delves into a world of ultramarathons, American expats and the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. Don’t be put off by the lengthy segue about Why Running Shoes Are Bad. This is a great book.More info →
This true story of the storm of the century, which took place off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1991, weaves in the tales of the fishing crew aboard The Andrea Gail and the dramatic rescue of the three-person crew aboard the sailboat Satori in the Atlantic. A compelling and page-turning tale of man vs. nature. Add Audible narration for $3.99.More info →
Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West: Meriwether Lewis Thomas Jefferson and the Opening
This sweeping history of the Lewis and Clark expedition reads like an adventure story. Drawing from the journals of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, Ambrose re-creates the history of the expedition itself, and he succeeds in bringing the characters to life. The book’s a little slow to warm up, but once the expedition begins it’s fascinating.More info →
CLASSICS NEW AND OLD
Feeling guilty because you’ve never read the famous books that everyone assumes you covered in high school? These classics—some old, some modern—are good enough to read on the beach.
I’ll bet you weren’t assigned this breezy Cinderella-ish story set in 1930s Britain back in English class. When a placement agency sends unemployed Miss Pettigrew to the wrong address, she spends the day of her life with a glamorous nightclub singer, extricating her hour by hour from one scrape after another. Miss Pettigrew is light, charming and utterly delightful.More info →
This short work of classic fiction contains only one character: the demon Screwtape, who is writing letters to his nephew Wormwood for the purpose of instructing him how to best tempt humans off their course (if they are bent on good) and into the service of the enemy (“Our Father Below”). This intriguing and unique book helps you come at the familiar concept of good vs. evil in an entirely fresh way.More info →
I came to this classic expecting a dry read, but was swept up in this epic coming-of-age story set in Britain between the world wars. I’ve read it ten times since then, entranced by the story of the Flyte family’s unraveling–along with the rest of Britain’s aristocracy–and by its themes of love, loss, and grace. Recommended reading for Downton Abbey fans.More info →
Southern Baptist Missionary Nathan Price heads off to the African Congo with his wife and 4 daughters in 1959, and nothing goes as planned. Though they bring with them everything they think they will need from their home in Bethlehem, Georgia--right down to the Betty Crocker cake mixes--the Prices are woefully unprepared for their new life among the Congolese, and they all pay the price.More info →
The best memoirs read like novels, and are all the more compelling for being true. These are five favorites I can’t stop recommending.
Roosevelt penned this book--part memoir, part advice manual--in 1960, when she was 76 years old. It’s striking how fresh and wise her insight seems today, over fifty years later. Roosevelt offers an interesting perspective on history, unique insights into her life (which contained a surprising amount of personal tragedy), and a good bit of wisdom you might just apply to your own life.More info →
When Ruth Reichl takes the plum job of New York Times food critic, she’s determined to let ordinary diners know what the city’s great restaurants are really like. What's so hard about that? But she soon discovers that the Times food critic is no ordinary diner: her headshot adorns the wall of every kitchen in the city so the staff can spot her—and wow her. Not you. So Reichl goes undercover, enlisting the help of an old theater friend to become a sultry blond, a gregarious redhead, and a tweedy brunette, each with her own backstory. Her mission: to experience the city's great restaurants as just another diner. A fascinating read for any foodie, or student of human nature.More info →
When Miller plunged into the world of screenwriting to translate his memoir Blue Like Jazz into a screenplay, he learned what elements are needed to make a story great--and realized that his own day-to-day life wasn’t amounting to much of a story. A Million Miles is Miller’s chronicle of how he started living a better story. He’ll inspire you to do the same.More info →
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter
Deresiewicz had zero interest in reading Jane Austen—he thought it was chick-lit, fluffy and boring. But then as a young grad student he was forced to read Emma for class, and actually reading Austen shattered his preconceptions. A Jane Austen Education is part memoir, part literary criticism: Deresiewicz reflects on the path of his own life through each of Jane Austen’s novels in turn. It works.More info →
Child didn’t stumble into the world of French cooking until she was 36, when she moved to Paris with her husband Paul, who worked for the U.S. Foreign Service. It was 1948. Since she had no job and nothing else to do, she began shopping the French markets, learning the style, and taking cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu. Julia’s tales will entertain, inspire, and make you laugh out loud.More info →
Four of my favorite books only available digitally.
Hayley walks you through the steps of creating a small wardrobe that works (a “capsule wardrobe”) and shares specific instructions for shopping thrift stores, value stores (like Old Navy), dressing while you’re pregnant, and transforming jeans and a t-shirt into a bona fide outfit. Read it on vacation so you can spend some time thinking it over without feeling like you need to immediately clean out your closet.More info →
Shawn tells the story of how he took a scary leap to transition to full-time writing after his business went bust. Practical tips from other accomplished writers on writing and the writing life are woven throughout, effectively breaking up the narrative and pacing the story. Shawn writes beautiful, reflective prose but somehow manages to avoid being heavy-handed with his words. This is no small feat. Beautiful story, beautifully written.More info →
The beauty of a great series is that when you fall in love with a great series, you always know what to read next.
L’Engle begins her groundbreaking science fiction-fantasy series with the famous opening line “It was a dark and stormy night,” and plunges you headlong into the world of the Murry family, who must travel through time to save the universe. The novels are interwoven, but each stands on its own.More info →
Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert of Prince Edward Island, Canada decide to adopt an orphaned boy to help them on their farm. Their messenger mistakenly delivers a girl to Green Gables instead—an 11-year-old feisty redhead named Anne Shirley. The series follows Anne from her childhood at Green Gables until she is a mother herself; the later books are about her children’s adventures more than they are about Anne. Age 9 and up.More info →
In The Making of a Chef, journalist Ruhlman enrolls at the Culinary Institute of America to discover how top-tier chefs are trained. In The Soul of a Chef, Ruhlman studies what makes a chef great, observing the Master Chef exam at the Culinary Institute of America and profiling successful celebrity chefs Michael Symon at Lola and Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. In The Reach of a Chef, Ruhlman explores the paradox of every profession: get good enough at what you do, and soon you’ll be managing the work instead of doing it yourself.
Ruhlman excels at injecting a sense of drama into his food writing: he draws strong characters and is able to turn something as simple as preparing a classic sauce into a dramatic event.More info →
In the post-apocalyptic country of Panem, 12 poor districts are each forced to send two tributes to the oppressive Capitol’s annual Hunger Games: a gladitorial-style competition where the teens are forced to fight each other to the death while the district’s citizens have to watch. But rebellion is already brewing in the districts, and the Capitol gets more than it bargained for when Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister’s place as tribute.More info →
Sayers is one of the greatest mystery writers of the 20th century, and many of her mysteries center around Lord Peter Wimsey--the aristocratic detective who loves expensive clothes, fine wine, and British wit. There are 11 novels featuring Lord Peter, and several short story collections, but they need not be read in order. The first is Whose Body? (published 1923), in which Lord Peter investigates a naked dead body found in the bath, wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez.
My favorite is Gaudy Night (published 1935), a psychological thriller set at Oxford that features female protagonist Harriet Vane. Sayers is a mystery writer, but she approaches her topic delicately: though many of her novels feature murder plots, they’re not at all graphic.More info →
8 great series for your summer reading list | Modern Mrs Darcy
Let me begin by saying some of you will hate this series. But some of you will love it, so: the first 3 books--beginning with Glittering Images--take place in the Church of England in the early 1930s. The latter 3 take place in the 1960s. Each book stands on its own, and each is narrated by a different character. While This is a gritty series--for Christian fiction, at least.More info →
In this classic series, 4 british children discover that a wardrobe in their London home opens into a magical world called Narnia, where animals talk, magic is real, and the evil White Witch duels the fierce lion Aslan. The Narnia books are loved by young and old alike. Age 7 and up. Older C. S. Lewis fans should check out his Space Trilogy, which is better suited for older teens and adults.More info →
Orphaned Harry Potter has no idea how famous he is until he turns 11 and receives his invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, opening up a whole world of magic and muggles, potions and spells, friends and enemies. The series is now available in ebook form--which makes it a lot easier to take a whole boxed set on vacation. Starting June 19, Amazon Prime members can borrow Harry Potter books for free from the Kindle lending library, (though borrowing is limited to one book a month at this time).More info →