This compact, user-friendly guide whittles the overwhelming array of readerly options down to 7 diverse categories of 5 titles each—because a list of 5 great books is The 2015 Summer Reading Guide. Your guide to the season's best books—because a highly curated selection is much more useful than a list of thousands. Includes 7 fun categories of 5 books each, new releases and backlist, with tips on why you should read each one. Happy reading!

Kick off the summer with a curated guide to the best summer reads. Anyone can browse a best seller list, but those lists don’t help you decide if those are the right books for YOU.

That’s why I put out this guide every year. These are my hand-picked top reads for the season. I’ve read every book in it, front to back, and can tell you why each title may or may not be the right book for YOU. Amazon has millions of books, your local bookstore has thousands, but this guide has just 30 handpicked titles—-that’s 5 books each over 6 categories–so you can bypass the duds and go straight to the good stuff.

This guide is so much fun to put together and I’m so happy to share it with you. I hope you find some amazing titles to read this summer.

FLIGHTS OF FANCY
wildly imaginative novels

The Life Intended

The Life Intended

The publisher calls this Sliding Doors meets P.S. I Love You: the premise is far-fetched, but it's supposed to be. Early in their marriage, Kate’s husband dies in a tragic accident. Twelve years later, Kate promises to marry a man who’s good on paper—but the night of their engagement, Kate vividly dreams about the life she would have had if her first husband had lived. The dreams keep returning, night after night. Harmel uses her strange jumping-off point to explore how suffering shapes our lives in surprising and even hopeful ways. Don't worry: it's not at all depressing, and Harmel's a great storyteller. Warmhearted and richly told.

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Garden Spells

Garden Spells

Like all the women in her family, Claire Waverly possesses a unique magic: she uses edible flowers to prepare foods that affect the eater in “curious ways.” Years ago, Claire’s sister fled town—and her Waverly gift—but she discovers her own sort of magic when she returns. What to say about this book? The romance is cheesy, the magic is impossible, but put them together and it sings. A few love scenes are a little racy (ahem). If you’re not down with supernatural food or a magical apple tree, skip this one—but you should know how many readers call this “a wonderful surprise.” (If you loved The Language of Flowers, bump it to the top of your list.) Sweet, sparkly, and thoroughly Southern.

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Einstein’s Dreams

Einstein’s Dreams

Author:

Science writer Lightman’s premise is as follows: in 1905, young Albert Einstein dreamed repeatedly about time as he worked on his paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” and made creeping progress on his special theory of relativity. Each dream reveals "one of the many possible natures of time.'' Lightman presents these (entirely fictional) dreams as a collection of poetic vignettes. Small enough to read in an afternoon, but easy to wander in and out of. Unusual and utterly delightful.

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Ready Player One

Ready Player One

Author:

Dystopian novels abound, but they’re not usually this fun. It’s 2044 and the world is in shambles, so who can blame Wade Watts if he’d rather live in a virtual reality than the real one? Like many of his peers, Wade spends his waking hours by himself, logged into a virtual reality game, racing through a computerized scavenger hunt in which his success depends on his knowledge of obscure ‘80s pop culture references. Sounds like geek heaven, right? But here’s the thing: I couldn’t care less about video games or John Hughes movies, but this exceptional book hooked me from page one. The audio version (read by Wil Wheaton) is fantastic. Suspenseful, funny, and insightful.

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore

Author:

Harry Potter meets National Treasure. This fast-paced book is mystery, quest, and love letter to the written word, all rolled into one. In this rip-roaring adventure, the best secrets are hidden in plain sight, in the ancient volumes of a magical bookstore. It’s not technically brilliant, but plenty readable, engaging, and just plain fun. Book nerds, beware: you’ll want to climb Mr. Penumbra’s ladders and browse his shelves. Warm, friendly, and smart—and the cover glows in the dark. That’s hard to beat.

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TALES OF BADASS WOMEN
stories with gutsy leading ladies

Veronica Mars #2: Mr. Kiss and Tell

Veronica Mars #2: Mr. Kiss and Tell

This second Veronica Mars novel picks up right where the movie left off, with a case that hits uncomfortably close to home for Veronica. A woman is left for dead after a brutal assault at the Neptune Grand, and rather than call in the corrupt and incompetent local sheriff, the Grand’s owners turn to Veronica to prove—or disprove—the woman’s story. This standalone mystery is filled with snarky humor, twists and turns, and cameos by old favorites (even Leo!) and oozes with the spunk and intelligence of the show. This reads just like an episode of the show. So much fun for marshmallows. (Hot tip: the audio version is read by Kristen Bell.)

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Cinder

Cinder

Author:

Each book in the YA fantasy series The Lunar Chronicles puts a new spin on an old fairy tale. In this first installment, Cinderella becomes a kickass mechanic, despised by her mother and stepsisters because she’s a cyborg. Admittedly, it sounds cheesy, but it works. Though it’s clear where the story is headed, spotting the imaginative ways Meyer reinvents the old fairy tale keeps the reader turning the pages. Fresh, fun, surprising, and compulsively readable.

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Americanah

Americanah

This is Nigerian novelist Adichie’s third novel, but the first I've read. The story centers around a smart, strong-willed Nigerian woman named Ifemelu. After university, she travels to America for postgraduate work, where she endures several years of near-destitution, and a horrific event that upends her world. She finds her way, winning a fellowship at Princeton, and gaining acclaim for her blog, called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black." A highlight: Adichie seamlessly weaves blog posts—about race, national identity, class, poverty, and hair—into the narrative. The novel grapples with difficult issues without becoming overwrought. I would not have read this based on the flap copy, but I was hooked from page one. Haunting, moving, incredibly well done. Terrific on audio.

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Backlands

Backlands

Shorr puts a fictional spin on real-life Brazilian folk heroes Lampião and Maria Bonita in this lyrical debut. After enduring 6 years of a loveless in-name-only marriage to a man she couldn’t stand, Maria Bonita leaves to become the wife of Lampião, Brazil’s beloved bandit, whose vigilante justice is indisputably more fair than the official kind. Soon Maria earns renown as the fiercest woman in Brazil, the queen of a band of merry outlaws. A well-paced novel, if not a page-turner: don’t give up when the going is slow in the first two chapters. It gets better. Evocative and moving.

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Shadow and Bone

Shadow and Bone

Author:

The first in a YA trilogy, rooted in Russian and Slavic myth, in which each new book is better than the one before. During a terrifying encounter on the magically-created Shadow Fold, quiet and passive Alina discovers her remarkable gift: she is a sun summoner. As she studies with the magical elite, she begins to understand how she has the power to save her kingdom—or ruin it, if her gift falls into the wrong hands. A magical coming-of-age story.

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HIT THE ROAD
stories to inspire wanderlust

Happiness for Beginners

Happiness for Beginners

A year after getting divorced, Helen Carpenter needs a do-over, so she signs up for a notoriously tough wilderness survival course to prove that she can make it on her own. But then she finds out her kid brother’s best friend is joining her on the trip, wrecking her plans before she even gets to the mountains. Once there, Helen confronts a summer blizzard, a group of sorority girls, rutting season for the elk, and spin-the-bottle—yet she also discovers what it really means to be brave. A fun and light read that still manages to tackle some serious topics. If you love this, go back and read The Lost Husband.

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One Plus One

One Plus One

Author:

A road-trip-from-hell as a romantic comedy? Yep. Moyes’s latest novel is a departure from her previous works, this time focusing on a single mom, her weird kids, and a geeky tech guy. Financially strapped Jess can’t afford to send her math whiz daughter to a decent school, but then a scholarship opportunity arises—in Scotland, and she can’t afford to drive there. Enter Geeky Ed, who owes her a favor, but mostly wants a chance to think about anything besides the insider trader scandal he’s embroiled in. The story is told from four different points of view, with different voices for each, which makes the audio version great. Quirky and endearing.

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The Geography of You and Me

The Geography of You and Me

Owen and Lucy live in the same apartment building, but don’t meet until they’re stuck in an elevator together during a blackout. They forge an instant connection—but almost immediately after, Owen and his father take off for New Mexico, then California, then Seattle, and Lucy and her parents move to Scotland, then England. (Long-distance travel is quite the metaphor for adolescence, no?) As they move farther apart, their connection deepens, which makes them wonder: what if home isn’t a place, but a person?

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A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods

Author:

Renowned travel writer Bryson takes to the Appalachian Trail in this laugh-out-loud travel memoir. After returning to America after 20 years in England, Bryson reconnects with his home country by walking 800 of the AT’s 2100 miles, many of them with his cranky companion Katz, who serves as a brilliant foil to Bryson’s scholarly wit. A superb hiking memoir that skillfully combines laugh-out-loud anecdotes with serious discussions about history, ecology, and wilderness trivia. Droll, witty, entertaining.

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Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour

Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour

Author:

For fans of Sarah Dessen and Jenny Han. After her family (or what’s left of it) impulsively moves from California to Connecticut, Amy has to get her car cross-country. There’s just one problem: because of a tragic accident, Amy doesn’t drive. Enter Roger, an old family friend who volunteers to come along for the ride, and who is dealing with his own heartbreak. Before long, the two friends decide to ditch her mom’s carefully-orchestrated route in favor of the scenic route, stopping to see familiar haunts, old loves, and plenty of small town America. Matson adds color to this sweet story with emails, receipts, and playlists galore. Sure to inspire wanderlust. If you like this, read Since You’ve Been Gone next.

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BOOKS YOU CAN'T PUT DOWN
engrossing novels that keep you turning the pages

Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You

Author:

“Lydia is dead, but they don’t know this yet.” That’s not a spoiler, that’s the opening line of Ng’s stunning debut. When this unexpected loss is discovered, the family begins to fall apart, and as they struggle to understand why it happened, they realize they don’t know their daughter at all. Ng’s use of the omniscient narrator is brilliant: she reveals what’s going on in her characters hearts and minds, allowing the reader to learn the truth of the tragedy, even if the family never does. An exploration of love and belonging, fraught with racial and gender issues. This is one that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Powerful, believable, utterly absorbing.

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First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen

First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen

Who really wrote Pride and Prejudice? That mystery drives this literary thriller, which plunges the reader into the world of first editions, secondhand books, and zealous collectors. When a young librarian discovers a document that casts doubt on Austen’s authorship of Pride and Prejudice, she struggles to clear her beloved author of plagiarist charges before it’s too late. Lovett flips back and forth between the time when Jane was writing her best-known story and today’s desperate race to prove her innocence. Lovett’s love of books permeates every page. Farfetched? Of course, but piles (stacks?) of fun for booklovers. If you love this, go back and read Lovett's fantastic debut The Bookman's Tale.

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The Accident

The Accident

Author:

This literary thriller revolves around a manuscript called The Accident, which reveals a damning secret that has been successfully kept for twenty-five years. When the new manuscript mysteriously appears on a literary agent’s desk, all hell breaks loose, beginning with the murder of her assistant. The action unfolds over the course of one desperate, dangerous day, as powerful forces ruthlessly attempt to contain the damage. Featuring some of the same characters from Pavone’s first novel, The Expats. A fast-moving page-turner.

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The Martian: A Novel

The Martian: A Novel

Author:

When a deadly dust storm cuts their mission short, astronaut Mark Watney’s crew makes an agonizing decision to return to earth without him. They saw his biosigns go flat: they believe they’re leaving his body behind. But Watney is very much alive, and now he must find a way to survive on Mars, in a damaged station, with limited food and no communication. Next step: to cobble together a rescue plan. Think Cast Away, in outer space. Funny, thrilling, and surprisingly plausible.

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Astonish Me

Astonish Me

This book, set in the rarefied world of professional ballet, is unlike anything I’ve never read in form and content. Spanning 30 years, told from four different viewpoints, this novel sweeps you into the world of classical ballet—a world you didn’t know you’d been longing to enter. Some of the flashbacks are wobblier than others, but the richly drawn characters and powerful storytelling keep you turning the pages, The Times hated it, but nevermind that. (A warning: check all your preconceptions about good girl ballerinas. There’s lots of language, and so much cocaine.)

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STORIES WITH STYLE AND SUBSTANCE
exceptionally well-crafted novels

Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility

Author:
This Gatsby-esque novel plunges you into the glittering, glamorous streets of Manhattan, circa 1938. Young secretary Katey Kontent and her roommate Evelyn meet handsome Tinker Gray by chance. The girls vie for his affection—until one impulsive decision changes everything. A beautifully drawn story of wealth and class, luck and fate, love and illusion. Warning: this one is hard to put down. A smashing debut. If you love this, try the follow-up novella Eve in Hollywood. More info →
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Ursula, Under

Ursula, Under

Author:
The setting: Michigan, 2003. A girl falls into a well, but according to Hill, the story began long before, if we believe “all back story is also story, that the underside of the iceberg explains what we see above.” During the course of the 17-hours-and-27-minutes rescue effort, we embark on a wild ride to reveal the underside of the iceberg: the history of young Ursula and her family. We visit China in the 3rd century B.C., 8th century Finland, 17th century Canada and Sweden, and 19th century California, before landing back in Michigan for the rescue effort. A fascinating look at the invisible threads that bind us together, whether we know it or not. At first this reads like a disjointed collection of short stories, but it comes together. (Just don’t give up in China.) Warning: some difficult scenes. More info →
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A God in Ruins

A God in Ruins

Author:

I loved this one. Named one of the Best Books of 2015 by TIME, NPR, Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, The Seattle Times, The Kansas City Star, Kirkus, Bookpage, Hudson Booksellers, AARP. Add Audible narration for $12.99.

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Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache Mysteries, No. 1)

Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache Mysteries, No. 1)

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This was one of the most popular books on the blog last summer. In the idyllic small town of Three Pines, Quebec, where people don’t even lock their doors, a beloved local woman is found in the woods with an arrow shot through her heart. The locals believe it must be a hunting accident, but the police inspector senses something is off. The story is constructed as a classic whodunit but it feels like anything but, with its deliberate pacing, dry wit, and lyrical writing. A stunningly good first novel. Still Life is the first in a series (of 11 books to date) that keeps getting better. For fans of Jacqueline Winspear. Great on audio.

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Prodigal Summer

Prodigal Summer

In this evocative follow-up to the masterful The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver returns to her native southern Appalachia. She follows three stories of human love as they unfold over the course of one life-changing summer: a wildlife biologist who returns to her home county to work, a widowed farmer’s wife at odds with her husband’s family, and a pair of feuding neighbors. Her emphasis on the natural world will feel familiar to lovers of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Verdant, lush, and vivid: this novel oozes sensuality.

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BEACHY NOVELS
breezy reads for your summer vacation

Love Walked In

Love Walked In

Cornelia is a hopeless romantic, obsessed with the epic love stories portrayed in classic films, but floundering in her own life. Everything changes the day a Cary Grant look-alike walks through the door of the coffee shop she manages. Of course she falls for him, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with his 11-year-old daughter. You can’t help but cheer for these characters as they navigate the tricky waters of friendship, heartbreak, and love. De los Santos is a poet by training, and it shows in her prose. If you love this, good news: there’s a sequel.

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The Royal We

The Royal We

This book will not make you feel smarter, wiser, or better read: it’s 100% Kate Middleton fan fiction, and it couldn’t be more fun. Fashion bloggers Cocks and Morgan reinvent the royal fairy tale: when American Bex Porter heads to Oxford to study abroad for a year, she first befriends—and then falls in love with—handsome Prince Nicholas of Wales. Sure, why not. The big enemies of their love are his family—and the tabloids. Especially the tabloids. Bex loves Nick, but does she love him enough to endure a lifetime of public scrutiny? Hugely entertaining and wickedly funny.

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The Blue Bistro

The Blue Bistro

Within hours of arriving on Nantucket, Adrienne lands a job at The Blue Bistro, its acclaimed oceanside restaurant. Over the course of the summer, she falls in love, endures family drama, and confronts a medical mystery, but the real star of this book is the restaurant itself. Hilderbrand’s tales from the belly of a fabulous summer hotspot are riveting and realistic: you’ll find yourself rooting for Adrienne as she figures out how to survive in the cutthroat setting. Warning: all that great food on the page will make you hungry. Hilderbrand is queen of the summer novel; this is one of her best.

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Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies

Moriarty’s particular talent is to write novels that read like the fluffiest fluff … but have a depth that will stay with you long after you turn the last page, thanks to her sharp insights into human nature. This story follows three moms who have children in the same kindergarten class in an idyllic Australian seaside community. Parents behaving badly provide plenty of fodder for wicked humor. This is Moriarty at her finest, right up there with What Alice Forgot. Darkly comic: this is summer reading with an edge.

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Little Beach Street Bakery

Little Beach Street Bakery

Author:

Polly’s life is in ruins: in one fell swoop, she’s lost her business, her boyfriend, and her flat. She can’t afford a place in town, so she’s forced to move out of the city—way out of the city, to a remote British island town, in a flat above an abandoned shop. (Everyone’s reaction to her new home: shouldn’t this place be condemned?) Polly turns to baking to cheer herself up, and before long her favorite hobby turns into something more substantial than she ever dared to dream. This is absolutely chick lit, but it’s multilayered and well-written chick lit. (Many readers will appreciate the lack of lascivious scenes. Her characters aren’t all chaste, but that action happens offscreen.) A sweet story about starting over, with lots of heart, perfect for fans of Emily Giffin and Jojo Moyes.

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GET SMART
books that entertain and inspire

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Rubin’s much anticipated follow-up to her happiness books is all about habits: how we make them, why we break them, and how we can improve them. That may not strike you as poolside fare, but the chatty writing, illuminating insights, and story-driven narrative make this guidebook anything but dry and boring. Packed with relatable tales from Rubin’s life, which are easy to apply to your own. If you put them into practice, this book will change your life. Practical, engaging, entertaining.

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I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time

I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time

Can a woman truly have it all? 168 Hours author Vanderkam explores what true balance looks like, meticulously upending the dominant culture narrative that presume a woman’s professional success comes only at great personal cost. In this data-driven narrative, based on hundreds of time logs from successful professionals, she shows how women who “have it all” succeed at work, enjoy their families, and make time for themselves. An important (and readable) contribution to the ongoing discussion of work/life balance, and I’m not saying this just because a post on this blog inspired the study.

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A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century

A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century

If you’ve reached your thirties and haven’t found your calling, take heart: Olmsted found his vocation relatively late in life, becoming the world’s premier landscape architect at a time when there was no such thing. He fell into the work by happenstance, and turned out to be a genius at it. His legacy reflects his conviction that ordinary people need beautiful landscapes: he designed Central Park (remarkably, his first commission), Boston’s Back Bay Fens, the campus of Stanford University, Biltmore Estate, and many other public and private parks. Surprisingly absorbing: an outstanding account of an incredible life.

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Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Author:

The concept couldn’t be simpler: this compendium holds the daily routines of 237 writers, composers, painters, choreographers, playwrights, poets, philosophers, sculptors, filmmakers, and scientists. We glimpse the creative processes of drinkers and drug takers, early risers and exercisers, nap takers and night owls. Some schedules are mundane, others are wildly eccentric. With their contradictory routines, you’ll be assured there’s no “right” way to work. While you could read it straight through, it’s best enjoyed dipping into again and again, slowly over time. A perfect laid-back read: you don’t even need a bookmark.

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The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook

The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook

What really makes relationships work? Washington Post weddings reporter McCarthy weighs in with this wise, warm, and relatable collection of essays, based on her interviews with more than 200 couples who’ve walked down the aisle. McCarthy dishes on what she’s learned on the beat, and shares her own insights on love and marriage (and breakups, including the one she endured her first day on the job), in essays bearing titles such as “Screw Meeting Cute,” Don’t Look for Lightning,” and “Top Ten Reasons to Call It Off.” Smart, funny, hugely enjoyable—though her sociologist’s approach will make some of you crazy.

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