If you’re anything like me, you think summer is made for reading. But nothing is more frustrating than taking a much talked-about book on vacation only to realize it’s underwhelming (or just plain awful) and you’re stuck with nothing.
Anybody can browse a bestseller list, but just because a book is a bestseller doesn’t mean it’s the right book for you. How do you find 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, with the tastes of MMD readers in mind. I’ve done the curation so you don’t have to take a dud novel on vacation—or to the backyard.
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.
You can’t go wrong with a compelling story that’s light, fun, and fast (but still plenty smart)—especially if you’re beach-bound. These easy-reading novels are the perfect antidote if your reading has been heavy lately.
Can you fall in love with someone just by reading their email? For Lincoln O’Neill, the answer is YES. When he takes a new job as an “internet security officer” he doesn’t realize that means he’ll be reading people’s emails. But it’s the company's policy, and besides, all the employees know their emails are being monitored—at least in theory. Before long Lincoln has pored over countless personal emails between Jennifer and Beth, and he's sure of two things: he's in too deep, and it's too late to confess. It’s not as good as Eleanor & Park, but you couldn’t ask for a better beach read.More info →
Gilmore Girls fans, listen up. Lorelai's voice comes through loud and clear in Graham's debut novel about a comedy actress struggling to make it in 1990s NYC. Franny Banks is nearing the end of her self-imposed three-year deadline to make it or get out of town, but the only calls she's getting are for peanut butter commercials and dish soap (unless you count that cute boy in her acting class). Of course, hilarity ensues—and part of the fun is wondering how much of the story is autobiographical.More info →
Semple cut her teeth writing for Mad About You and Arrested Development, and that snarky tone is all over this screwball satire. Bernadette Fox was once a cutting edge architect whose work earned her a MacArthur genius grant, but after her daughter is born, she quits, and moves to Seattle with her Microsoft rock star husband, slowing sinking into a town—and a life—she loathes. The format is (appropriately) a little wacky: Bernadette tells her side of the story, sure, but emails, school documents, police reports, and even an emergency room bill clue us in to what's happening. Eventually we figure out where Bernadette escaped to—and why. This feels similar to Gone Girl, but this easy read is lighter, fresher, and a lot more fun.More info →
Don Tillman can count his friends on one hand, has never been on a second date, and is clearly (to the reader, at least) on the autism spectrum. When a colleague surprises him by remarking he would make a wonderful husband, Don creates "the Wife Project," and embarks on a search to find his perfect partner. (To Don, that means creating the perfect questionnaire.) But when he meets a woman that's all wrong for him—at least on paper—he's forced to reconsider what he really wants, and what love really looks like (all while his scientific, orderly approach to life is getting wrecked). Fast, fun, and smart. Heads up for a few f-bombs and racy scenes.More info →
SHORTS AND SINGLES
Not sure what to read this summer? Load up your Kindle with one (or all) of these enjoyable but low-commitment reads. One good book leads to another, so finish it quickly and build your reading momentum for the summer.
Michael Ruhlman has written more than a dozen books on cooking and has worked with an impressive list of chefs (among them Thomas Keller, Michael Symon, Eric Ripert). Ruhlman knew since he was a kid that he wanted to write for a living, but he never intended to be a food writer. In this Kindle single (10,000 words/35 pages, and just $2), Ruhlman shares the improbable story of how he found his calling. Remember, he’s friends with Bourdain--this one’s briefly crude at two or three places.More info →
Rules of Civility dazzled with its glittering, glamorous depiction of New York circa 1938 and characters whose lives turn on one impulsive decision. Towles's Gatsby-esque novel surprised with shocking plot twists, including the unforgettable ending. Eve in Hollywood picks up exactly where Rules left off (and if you haven't read it yet, start there). In this novella—a series of short takes, each in a different voice—we see how Eve impacts everyone she meets in Old Hollywood, in potentially life-changing encounters. Fast, fun, and incredibly well-written. (This novella has been removed from digital distribution but you may be able to find a print copy at Shakespeare & Co in NYC.)More info →
If you're impatiently waiting for Moyes's next novel, One Plus One, to drop on July 1, let this novella tide you over. Mirroring the back-and-forth format of The Girl You Left Behind, this prequel follows the two couples on their respective Parisian honeymoons, which are alternately disastrous and delightful: Liv and David in 2002, Sophie and Édouard in 1912. This book isn't as challenging as its sequel, making it perfect reading for a lazy summer afternoon.More info →
Helen McGill doesn't realize she's teetering on the verge of a midlife crisis until the professor rolls into town. He wants to sell her brother Parnassus—his traveling bookstore on (wagon) wheels. Helen falls in love with the idea of traveling through upstate New York, matching book-deprived readers with the right books, and she buys Parnassus herself. Adventures ensue. For fans of Miss Pettigrew (another terrific beach read). Essential reading for book lovers, and anyone who believes that when you sell a man a book, you sell him a whole new life.More info →
Marriage, ministry, and motherhood may not sound like riveting beach reading material, but hear me out: the author is a pastor and a wife and a mom, and she writes beautifully about the places where those things collide–and sometimes those collisions are pretty bumpy (and hilarious). This 114-page collection of bite-sized essays is genuine, inspirational, and moving, with enough laugh-out-loud moments to make it beach reading material.More info →
Southern literature has a sense of place and history, but its also known for its wonderful storytelling, beautiful imagery, and emphasis on a slew of uncomfortable themes (think race, class, and religion). These modern novels continue in the tradition of the Southern greats.
Center's novels read as easy as the fluffiest chick lit, but they run surprisingly deep, and are emotionally wise. Libby is attempting to rebuild her life, and that of her two kids, after her husband died in a car crash two years ago. But she's finally had enough of living with her crazy mother, and moves out to the Texas hill country to try out a new life on her crazy Aunt Jean's goat farm. This short and easy read has a familiar arc: girl in a mess, girl sees the light, girl finds happiness, yet its themes of family, forgiveness, and redemption make it worth your while. Recommended reading for Brené Brown fans.More info →
Charleston, November 1803. Sarah Grimké turns 11. Her birthday gift? A slave named Hetty ("Handful"). This sweeping novel tells the story—in alternating voices—of real-life abolitionist Sarah Grimké and the wholly imagined slave Handful through several decades and up and down the East Coast during a tumultuous time in American history. A can’t miss for fans of The Help or Monk Kidd’s first hit, The Secret Life of Bees. An engaging mix of fact and fiction.More info →
What happens when we get the thing we desire most in life—only to find that it might destroy us? That's the question Margaret faces at the opening of Evensong. This tale, set in the mountains of North Carolina, faithfully examines marriage and vocation and calling through the eyes of Margaret, a thirtysomething Episcopal priest, who is forced to finally confront matters when three unexpected and—let's face it—unwelcome guests arrive in her sleepy North Carolina mountain town of High Balsam. This book, first published in 1999, has the fingerprints of the millennium all over it. If you love it, go back and read its predecessor, Father Melancholy's Daughter.More info →
This oddly structured pageturner from Nashvillian Ann Patchett fuses opera and a hostage crisis–and surprisingly, it works. Japanese businessman and opera buff Katsumi Hosokawa is celebrating his birthday in an unnamed South American country, in the company of diplomats, government officials, and businessman. Mr. Hosokawa knows he's being shaken down for a large donation, but he can't resist attending, because the South Americans have secured a performance by legendary soprano Roxanne Coss. The country's president is unable to attend (he's much too interested in what happens on his favorite soap opera on Tuesday nights), and his fixation spares him from being taken hostage when the militant group La Familia storms the gathering. Intriguing, highly readable, and loosely based on a true story.More info →
Skip the publisher's description on this one: you'll enjoy it more if you come to it without expectations. But I will say this: Emmalee Bullard is a young, unwed mother who is all alone in the world, and has suffered one hard knock after another. Just when she thinks she's found a way out, something tragic happens, dashing Emmalee's hopes—possibly forever. This story about the the resilience of women and female friendship is moving, heartwarming, and Southern to its core. For fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Sue Monk Kidd.More info →
ON THE BIG SCREEN
There’s a reason movie-makers snatched up the film rights to these hits: they’re good stories that will look amazing on the big screen. Read the books now, see the movies later, and then decide which one you think is better.
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 →
Don’t worry if you’ve seen the movie already; Quick’s original version is the same, but different. The story begins with Pat coming home from a long stay in a mental hospital, hoping to end Apart Time with his estranged wife. Pat tells his own story, giving the reader a breathtaking glimpse into the nuances of mental illness, while examining the complexities of marriage and relationships, the gradations of messed-up-ness, and the Philadelphia Eagles. Touching, quirky, hopeful.More info →
In April 1962, an American actress mysteriously arrives by boat to fictional Porto Vorgogna, a tiny pin prick of a town. Dee is gorgeous, alone, and dying. She's been exiled here from the set of Cleopatra, the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film that remains one of the most expensive and scandal-ridden movies ever made. As the story bounces back and forth between present-day Hollywood and the golden era of film, we discover why a Hollywood power player sent her away—and what happens next. Containing scenes from plays both real and not, the first chapter of a novel, a movie pitch, and someone else’s memoir. It's going to be breathtaking on the big screen. Release date TBD.More info →
Welcome to the "ideal" future, where a perfect society embraces Sameness. But something sinister lurks beneath the surface of this tightly controlled community. At a much-anticipated ceremony, the resident twelve-year-olds are sorted into vocational assignments, Harry Potter-style. Jonas is skipped over, and the Chief Elder soon reveals why: instead of receiving a typical assignment, Jonas has been chosen to be the next receiver of memory. When he begins his training with the old man known as The Giver, he discovers books, colors, snow, and love—and he begins to understand what his people lost when they gave away their memories. The star-studded lineup for the movie includes Jeff Bridges, Taylor Swift, Katie Holmes, and Meryl Streep. Coming to theaters August 15.More info →
These books cleverly combine two of my favorite genres: memoir and food writing. These books don’t focus just on the food, but tell amazing stories through food. Whether you’re looking for funny or thought-provoking, around the world or close to home, relaxing or flat-out intense, there’s something for you here.
Wizenberg is one of the original food bloggers, and her brand of intimate, chatty conversation—mixed with reliable recipes—works well in long form. If you’re new to her work, you may enjoy starting with her first book A Homemade Life, in which, among other events, she meets and marries her husband Brandon after he contacts her through her blog. In this sequel-of-sorts, Brandon and a somewhat reluctant Molly have their first "baby": a pizza place named Delancey. In her familiar style, Wizenberg reflects on the messy and marvelous muddle that is her young marriage, and her younger restaurant, and shares recipes for the simple, delicious food that chefs like to eat at home.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 →
If you've ever daydreamed about what it might be like to attend culinary school, wonder no longer: you can vicariously experience the training of a top-tier chef through the eyes of journalist Ruhlman, who talked his way into the CIA because he thought the resulting experience would make for a good book. He was right. Ruhlman finds the CIA to be a world of imposing personalities, towering egos, high drama, and amazing food. You'd never guess that the making of a brown sauce, the unmolding of a terrine, or the trussing of a chicken could be occasions for high drama, but in Ruhlman's hands, these culinary adventures read like the pages of a spy thriller. The first of a trilogy.More info →
If you're the type that tends to over-romanticize the City of Lights, let David Lebovitz snap you back to reality. As an American expat who chose to move to France (but didn't feel like he really belonged until the day he put on dress pants and a freshly ironed shirt to take out the trash), he loves Paris—of course he does—but he also has no qualms about exposing the ridiculous, baffling, and frustrating side of le France. You'll be inspired to make (or at least eat) French favorites like warm goat cheese salad, chocolate mousse, and macarons. For those who have lived in Paris, been to Paris, or just want a good laugh.More info →
Imagine the best of the Food Network, with a lot more girl talk mixed in. Niequist's food writing will make your mouth water, but this book isn't just about the food. Her recipes are vehicles—to conversation, community, and all good things that happen when people gather around the table. Bread and Wine contains some great-looking recipes (Green Well salad, Michigan blueberry crisp, magical white bean soup) that will inspire you to get cooking. The short chapters make this perfect summer reading. Just clear your calendar for that dinner party you'll want to throw when you're finished with it.More info →
These are the kind of page-turners that will have you reading “one last chapter” until 2:00 a.m. You’ve been warned.
In the second of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series, which can be read in any order, detective Cassie Maddux is pulled off her current beat and sent to investigate a murder. When she arrives at the scene, she finds the victim looks just like her, and—even more creepy—she was using an alias that Cassie used in a previous case. The victim was a student, and her boss talks her into trying to crack the case by impersonating her, explaining to her friends that she survived the attempted murder. The victim lived with four other students in a strangely intimate, isolated setting, and as Cassie gets to know them, liking them almost in spite of herself, her boundaries—and loyalties—begin to blur. A taut psychological thriller that keeps you guessing till the end.More info →
Fashion, romance, and ... espionage. If you loved Casablanca, try this novel set during the Spanish civil war. Sira Quiroga works her way from dressmaker's assistant to a premier couturier, putting her in contact with the wealthy and powerful. When the British government asks her to spy for them as World War II gears up, she agrees, stitching secret messages into the hems of dresses. Translated from the Spanish, and the dialogue is a little bumpy in places, but the story is worth it. Is it perfect? No way. But engrossing? Definitely.More info →
This title comes from the Victorian Era’s literal language of flowers, which they relied on to convey feelings rarely spoken of: ardor and friendship, jealousy and envy, infidelity and grief. We meet Victoria Jones on her eighteenth birthday: the day she is emancipated from foster care. Though fluent in the language of flowers, Victoria uses her flowers to communicate distrust and discord. But as she strikes out on her own, she comes to learn that the language of flowers is more complicated than she was taught to believe. This beautiful debut is easy-reading, yet has depth and feeling. Ultimately, it’s a redemption story. And who doesn't love a good redemption story?More info →
Some might try to categorize this as “religious fiction,” but that wouldn’t be quite right—unless your religious fiction typically comes with lots of romance, psychoanalysis, and sex. Glittering Images is the first book in the Starbridge series, set in the Church of England in the 1930s, and later, the 1960s. That may not sound like your idea of a page turner, but the characters are rich and engaging and the stories suck you in. Each of the series’ six books is self-contained, but is told from the perspective of a different character: taken together, they make a magnificent composite. Recommended by the likes of Anna Quindlen and Jacqueline Winspear. Now that's high praise.More info →
Any Morton novel would make a great summer read, but The Secret Keeper is her finest. When she was 16, Laurel witnessed a violent crime involving her mother, Dorothy. The family hushed it up, and Laurel hasn't spoken of it since. Now, fifty years later, Dorothy is dying, and Laurel is determined to unravel the secret while there's still time. As Laurel pursues her clues, the story flips back and forth in time between today and the years before and during World War II, including the London Blitz, which Morton recreates so vividly you can almost hear the bombs dropping. Filled with twists and turns that will keep you guessing to the end.More info →
For you intellectual types—you know who you are—these compelling nonfiction reads weave together story with tales of start-up culture, baseball, animation, origin stories, bacteria, business, and more.
If you've ever dreamed of opening your own bookstore, this one's for you. Wendy Welch and her husband flee jobs they loathe and escape to the tiny Virginia coal-mining town of Big Stone Gap, where they buy a huge white house to fulfill their lifelong dream of—what else?—opening a used bookstore—a decision fueled by piles of nachos and pitchers of sangria. It was an audacious goal (do people still buy real books, anyway?) but they lived to write about it. Book nerds will swoon over the behind-the-scenes peeks at a bookseller's life. A must-read for book (and bookstore) lovers.More info →
This deeply-researched, fascinating glimpse into twitter's early days has the pacing of a good novel and is rich with interesting insights into social media, the larger web, start-up culture, and human nature. You can't make this stuff up—but if you tried, you could only hope to invent anecdotes as bizarre and readable as the ones in this account. Recommended reading for Jon Krakauer fans.More info →
At age 6, Goodwin's father taught her how to keep score, igniting a lifelong love affair with baseball—and the Brooklyn Dodgers. This family history is hopelessly tangled with post-war life on Long Island and the grand scale events of the era. Popular (and accessible) historian Goodwin gives a fascinating glimpse into 1950s New York: the advent of television, Cold War nuclear drills, and the rise of the free agent. Surprisingly, this book isn't much of a departure from her prize-winning work on heavy-hitting subjects like Lincoln, FDR, and the Kennedys. Lots of fun—even for Yankees fans. You don't have to love baseball to love this book, but it sure doesn't hurt.More info →
If you liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is for you. Tuberculosis was the biggest killer in the 19th century, and one of the most frightening—because no one knew its cause. When Nobel winner Robert Koch announced he had found a treatment for the disease, the world flocked to his door. But Conan Doyle (better known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes) remained skeptical, and justifiably so: Koch's faulty remedy proved to be his undoing. Goetz's account of fledgling germ theory, medical pioneers, brash personalities, and deadly diseases reads like a true crime thriller. Follow this one up with A Study in Scarlet.More info →
Pixar has been called the most fascinating company on the planet, and it's easy to see why in this enthralling history, filled with big players (Steve Jobs, George Lucas) and bigger leaps forward in technology that changed the animation business, and popular culture with it. Catmull gives us a glimpse inside the company-like-no-other, from the little things (why they ditched their oval table for a square) to the big ones (Pixar's annual shutdown day, devoted to company-wide improvement). Sure to delight creatives, managers, and anyone who loves a good yarn, and an absolute must-read for Pixar fans.More info →