20 greatest hits from 8 years of the Summer Reading Guide

20 greatest hits from 8 years of the Summer Reading Guide

Readers, this past May I released the eighth annual Summer Reading Guide. I released the first back in 2012, back before summer reading guides were commonplace, and had so much fun doing it that it’s become a much-anticipated tradition around here.

As we’ve built more history around the guide, I’ve started hearing a question with increasing frequency: After all these years of summer reading guides, which books do you still love and recommend? Which have stood the test of time?

Today I’m answering that question. I’ve combed through every selection in all the years of Summer Reading Guides, and forced myself to choose my top twenty favorite titles.

The good news: this was hard. The vast majority of Summer Reading Guide selections—I’d say a solid 90%—are books I would still wholeheartedly recommend to readers today. And another 7% are ones I’d still recommend with caveats. (The remaining sliver contains books that just haven’t aged well, even if we’re only talking about 8 years.)

Want to check out all the past Summer Reading Guides yourself? Click here to do just that.

20 greatest hits from 8 years of the Summer Reading Guide

Summer Reading Guide Greatest Hits
Happiness for Beginners

Happiness for Beginners

Several Katherine Center titles have appeared in the Summer Reading Guide; this one was in the 2015 edition—and also got its own recent episode of One Great Book. 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. More info →
Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

As I told readers of the 2012 Summer Reading Guide, I would never have picked this book—first published in 2004—off the shelf: I just couldn't get past the awful cover. But a friend with great taste recommended it, and more importantly, she put the actual, physical book in my hands. I gave it a try out of loyalty to her, and I've been recommending it ever since. This nonfiction narrative about a Hungarian gentleman thief reads like a novel, but this true story is stranger than fiction. More info →
Eve in Hollywood

Eve in Hollywood

Author:
2014 Summer Reading Guide readers got the opportunity to enjoy an ebook-only novella that was pulled from shelves shortly thereafter. Eve in Hollywood picks up exactly where Rules of Civility 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. More info →
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

This 1999 nonfiction account from one of my favorite writers was included in the 2015 Summer Reading Guide. Frederick Law Olmsted became 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. More info →
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, included in the 2015 Summer Reading Guide. 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. When I was in NYC I watched a woman miss her bus stop because she was utterly absorbed in this novel. It's that good. More info →
First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen

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

From the 2015 Summer Reading Guide. 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. More info →
Cinder

Cinder

Author:
This pick from the 2014 Summer Reading Guide kicks off the YA fantasy series The Lunar Chronicles; each book 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—and that, combined with the terrible cover, kept me from reading these for years. YA fantasy isn't usually my thing; I'm so glad I finally took the recommendation of a wide range of readers and gave these a try. It's been my pleasure to put them in the hands of countless readers since. More info →
Americanah

Americanah

This 2015 guide pick is unquestionably one of my most-recommended titles. 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. 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. Terrific on audio. More info →
Astonish Me

Astonish Me

This 2015 Summer Reading Guide selection is one I still think about all the time: the story and characters have stuck with me. Spanning 30 years, told from 4 different viewpoints, this novel swept me into the world of classical ballet—a world I didn’t know I’d been longing to enter. 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.) More info →
The Light of the World: A Memoir

The Light of the World: A Memoir

I LOVED this memoir and included it in the 2017 guide. In Alexander's words: "The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story." The author's husband died just four days after his fiftieth birthday. A few years later, Alexander looks back on their life together, their love, and the impact of that loss in her life. Her source material is fantastic: Alexander is an American, born in Harlem. Her husband was born in Eritrea, in East Africa, and came to New Haven as a refugee from war. Both were artists—and their home sounds like this amazing, vibrant, multicultural extravaganza with food and friends and music and art. I could barely put this down, and while sad, it exudes joy. Heads up for audiophiles: Alexander's narration of her own work is magnificent. More info →
The One-in-a-Million Boy

The One-in-a-Million Boy

Author:
Can I just say the 2016 Summer Reading Guide was something special? We culled our inaugural MMD Book Club selections from these books; the greatest hits included here continue to occupy a special place in my heart. I went into this novel knowing nothing and I liked it that way, so I'll just say Wood explores themes of love, loss, and identity through a quirky 11-year-old boy who loves making lists, a wily 104-year-old woman, an absentee father, a Boy Scout project, and the Guinness Book of World Records. Perfect for fans of The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, A Man Called Ove, and Harry's Trees. More info →
I Let You Go

I Let You Go

From the 2016 guide. In a publishing environment where every suspense novel is expected to have a "shocking plot twist!" this tightly-crafted novel makes your jaw drop time and again, without feeling gimmicky or manipulative. I was stunned as I slowly came to see that the story wasn't about what I thought it was about at all. Part police procedural, part domestic suspense, with the ring of authenticity, no doubt thanks to Mackintosh's own 12 years as a police officer. More info →
Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Author:
One of my faves from the 2016 guide: I knew I had to read this when my husband (who beat me to it) couldn't stop sharing Cleave's well-turned sentences aloud, and even many months later, I still think about this book all the time. There have been so many WWII novels of late; this tale of four young, warm, wise-cracking friends in wartime England is a standout. Cleave's writing perfectly matches the story, and it all feels so real—maybe because Cleave based his novel on his own grandparents' experiences, or because he put himself on war rations while writing to better experience London during the Blitz? There's a sequel on the way (working title: Everything Sad Is Forgotten), and however long I have to wait, it will be worth it. Listen to me describe this book on What Should I Read Next (Episode 32). More info →
Before We Visit the Goddess

Before We Visit the Goddess

I LOVED this book from the 2016 guide (and so did many of you). This novel in stories was nothing at all what I expected. The novel tracks three generations of Indian women and their fraught relationships. The title comes from a chance encounter one of these women has with a stranger, which is fitting because my favorite parts of the story deal with the small moments that change the course of a person's life, and the unlikely friendships that do the same. This is a wonderful, beautiful, and sad book, and I've been recommending it like crazy since I read it. Listen to me describe this book on What Should I Read Next (Episode 48). More info →
Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person

Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person

Author:
From the 2016 guide. This inspirational memoir's epigraph bears quotes from Maya Angelou and Christina from Grey's Anatomy, which gives you a good idea of what you'll find inside. Rhimes is the queen of Thursday night tv, creating and producing smash hits like Grey's and Scandal. This time she's telling her own story of how her sister issued her a six-word wake-up call—You never say yes to anything—and the year of YES that followed. More info →
The Dry

The Dry

Author:
I've recommended this to pieces since it appeared in the 2017 guide. "You lied. Luke lied. Be at the funeral." Federal Agent Aaron Falk is summoned home with these words after his best friend Luke dies in a heartbreaking murder-suicide, turning the gun on himself after killing his wife and 6-year-old son. Falk obeys—but he can't believe his best friend could have done such a thing, and so he starts digging, dragging long-buried secrets back to the surface. The setting is the drought-ravaged Australian Outback, and the brittleness and heat are almost palpable. Of all Jane Harper's books, this debut continues to be my favorite. More info →
The Confusion of Languages

The Confusion of Languages

This 2017 Summer Reading Guide selection flew beneath the radar, but it's worth seeking out. The book begins with an accident. It was just a fender-bender, and it wasn't their fault, but after two years in Jordan as an Army wife, Cass has learned it doesn't matter—as Americans, they're always the guilty party. Newly arrived Margaret, whose husband is also stationed at the Embassy, chafes at these local "customs," and all the other cultural pressures she feels as an American living in a country that's becoming increasingly dangerous. But Margaret determines to go pay the "guilt tax" anyway, and asks Cass to babysit her child while she tends to her quick errand. When Margaret doesn't return, Cass becomes annoyed, then increasingly worried.... as it dawns on Cass that she never understood her friend at all. This close look at two women, two marriages, and two worlds is dark and broody in the best kind of way. More info →
The Almost Sisters

The Almost Sisters

From the 2017 Summer Reading Guide, Jackson's novel about a complicated Alabama family and the "two Souths" it inhabits is one I've been recommending like crazy. This is a fast-reading, big-hearted novel that tackles Serious Issues really, really well—while spinning a terrific story. Audiobook fans: Joshilyn Jackson reads her own work here, and I highly recommend listening in this format for an enjoyable and atmospheric listening experience. More info →
Hum If You Don’t Know the Words

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words

Author:
I've been pleased to see this 2017 selection getting renewed attention thanks to the release of Marais's brand-new novel If You Want to Make God Laugh, which I recommended in a bonus episode of One Great Book. In 1970s Johannesburg, race is everything, yet two people who are completely incompatible in apartheid-ruled South Africa are thrown together following the 1976 Soweto Uprising. After white police open fire on peacefully protesting black schoolchildren, 9-year-old Robin Conrad's life is shattered when her parents are killed in the backlash. Meanwhile, Beauty Mbali's daughter goes missing, and Beauty's search for her coincidentally lands her a job as Robin's caretaker. As time stretches on, Beauty grows to care deeply for this child she is being paid to "love," and Robin, while fiercely possessive of Beauty, is keenly aware her parents wouldn't approve of this relationship. More info →

I feel like the 2018 Summer Reading Guide just happened, so it’s not fair to identify those still-fresh releases as “greatest hits.” But I would like to highlight 5 outstanding selections from last year. In no particular order:

  1. I’ll Be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos
  2. The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
  3. What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan
  4. The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
  5. A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

I hope you enjoyed this round-up today. And remember, you can still get the 2019 Summer Reading Guide right here.

Happy reading!

Anne

P.S. Very soon I’ll be sharing which books have been most popular in this year’s Summer Reading Guide. If you haven’t taken our survey yet, click here to do so.

46 comments | Comment

46 comments

Leave A Comment
  1. JCasto says:

    Can’t find Eve in Hollywood on Amazon. Any other ideas? Read Rules of Civility when it first came out, I’m now listening to it and love it even more this time around. Would love to read the follow-up!

  2. What a fun post! I think I’ve only been following the Summer Reading Guides for 3 or 4 years now, so this provided lots of “fresh” titles for me! I’ve read 4 on the list (and liked them all!), so I’ll have to dive into some of these others, especially some of those memoirs, since I seem to be able to burn through those faster than anything 🙂

    Thanks for taking the time to put together all these Summer Reading Guides for us—they truly are a delight!

  3. Kate Elkins says:

    Thanks so much for the list! A couple are already on my shelves waiting to be read. I would love to read Amor Towles’ Eve in Hollywood, but also can’t find it on Amazon.

  4. Hannah says:

    Is there a way to read Eve in Hollywood? It feels cruel to dangle such an enticing read out there for us and not have it available!

    • Sue says:

      Anne, tell everyone to go to amortowles.com, under Rules of Civility and Q and A, for instructions on how to get Eve in Hollywood! Shakespeare and Co. in NYC has it for $16!

      • Sandra says:

        Thank you so much for this post! I happened to be in NYC (visiting for a few days on vacation and leaving tomorrow to return home to Minnesota) when I saw your post. I dragged my family to Shakespeare & Co before they closed tonight to get the book! What a fun memory made possible by this group!

  5. Sue says:

    I’ve only read two on your list of 19 (I only discovered you about a year ago); One in a Million Boy was SUPER, The Almost Sisters was disappointing, probably because of the cover, the hype, and my own expectations of what I thought it would be. From 2018, Widows of Malabar Hill just didn’t do it for me, but I have read Marisa de los Santos and LOVED her, so am looking forward to I’ll Be Your Blue Sky.

    • Skye says:

      I didn’t love Almost Sisters either but I tend to not vibe with “southern” novels. I don’t know why. Loved Americanah and Astonish Me. Off to find a copy of The Confusion of Languages and the Claire Mackintosh books. These guides have been great!

  6. Holly Williams says:

    Finally a book for my extremely learned husband who is always finding books for me! The Hungarian thief!

    Also sent the architect book to a young roofer/fourth year architecture student from Mexico 🇲🇽 City who I just met!!!

  7. Holly Williams says:

    For example, my husband discovered « The Dry » for me and my Book Club. Fabulous book! Listened to it twice.

  8. Kathy says:

    It’s so interesting to see other readers lists of favorites! I didn’t care for a couple of these and some of my favs aren’t on the list. I wish I had more friends who were readers because I love hearing what they love about a book that I thought was “meh” and it’s just as fun to talk about the books I love! Thanks for another great list ❤️

  9. Annie says:

    The One in a Million Boy is so amazing; I’d squeal when reading certain parts of it. I’m forever a MMD fan because you brought me this book. 😊

  10. Laurel Bandi says:

    Thanks so much for putting this together! I’ve read a number of them over the past few years but now I have a new list of books to read. After our zoom bookclub meeting last week, I am anxious to read a few more on this summer’s list too.

  11. Jeannette says:

    I’ve read 8 and will add the rest to my list. A couple were a challenge but I was still better from them. Happy reading!!

  12. Pam says:

    I’ve only read three of these from the main list (Cinder; The Dry; The Almost Sisters). The latter is the only of those three that I read directly on your recommendation, Anne. Loved it! Looking to read more books by this author. From the 2018 list, I’ve read only the last, by Mirza. I read it mostly because it was available at the public library, and you had recommended it. At the time, I thought it was rather slow and a bit dull, not really worth the time it took from my usual page-turners. However, over the past year, I’ve thought of it occasionally and in retrospect, really appreciated its themes around family dynamics, identity, parenthood, acceptance and forgiveness. I would recommend it to people looking for a change of pace from their usual fare.

    Rather embarrassingly, I own eight of the others on the list, but haven’t read them yet — 11 if you include books from the five on the 2018 list. Bumping them all up on my TBR!

    • Anne says:

      Hey, that doesn’t have to be embarrassing! That can simply mean you have a well-stocked library, ready and waiting for you when you need it. 🙂

  13. Pamela Thurmond says:

    For those that may be looking for Eve in Hollywood, there is also a Shakespeare & Co store in Philadelphia that will print it.

  14. Jill says:

    I really, really loved A Clearing in the Distance. I think what made it so good was how surprised I was to love it. I read it on one of my Biltmore trips and that made it all the more better.

    I’m really excited you’re going to release the results of that poll!

  15. Kim Ries says:

    I listened to One in a Million Boy on Audible and loved it. It really stayed with me for a long time. Highly recommend!

  16. Sheila DelCharco says:

    I have read 7 of the 24(? I didn’t count to see if there were 20 or 19). I have added a few more to my TBR pile based on this list but some just don’t sound as if they are for me. Thank you for always bringing new books into my life, Anne!

  17. A great list! I haven’t read First Impressions by Charlie Lovett yet, but it is near the top of my TBR pile. I purchased a signed copy directly from Lovett 2 weeks ago at a writing workshop he was leading. We were required to read his novel A Bookman’s Tale, for that class. It was a fascinating tale involving old books, a mysterious painting, and the mystery surrounding the actual identity of Shakespeare. Fascinating! Lovett is a fabulous writer and teacher. PSST! He has a new book coming out next Spring, which sounds intriguing. He also gave a sneak peek regarding his current project!

  18. Kim says:

    I bought Americanah on Audible and abandoned it due to the accents! Maybe because I’m driving and listening? I find it hard to understand some of the characters. I will probably try to read it in book form but disappointed that it was recommended as an audiobook. Maybe it’s just me? Can anyone tell me if they write the speech out as pronounced?

    • Anne says:

      That’s interesting. I know some readers say they can only do nonfiction on audio, but I do love fiction in that format myself. I know I have to slow the audio way down at the beginning so I can get oriented in the story and understand the initially unfamiliar accents. I sometimes have to pay A LOT of attention in the early chapters—but once those first few chapters are behind me I can relax and enjoy the story. (I’m sharing my experience here but of course that doesn’t mean it will be yours.)

  19. Kim says:

    I loved I’ll Be Your Blue Sky! One of my all time favorites! I read it because I enjoyed Love Walked In and Belong To Me which I read due to WSIRN recommendation. I felt like the sequel was much better. Waiting anxiously to see if there will be more books with these characters by this author Marisa De Los Santos. Thanks for this list!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *