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.)
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
"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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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: