The days are getting longer – and warmer. While I am a book addict year-round, there is something exhilarating about summer reading. Below are fourteen of my all-time favorite summer reads. They span the decades and the genres…take whichever one suits your fancy.
1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
The “girl-with” literary phenomenon exists for a reason. Stieg Larsson created wonderfully complex and flawed characters in his mystery-thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and the following two novels). Set within the harsh, brittle landscape of Sweden, Larsson delivers an absorbing and suspenseful story that primarily follows a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, who disappears to a small village after being convicted of libel. There he becomes involved with a forty-year old murder mystery that turns darker and more disturbing with each discovery. The best part of Larsson’s work, however, is the introverted hacker, Lisbeth Salander, who ultimately joins Blomkvist in his investigations. Even when Larsson’s feminist commentary weighs down the plot, my connection to Lisbeth keeps me turning the pages until the last one.
You might also enjoy: The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
2. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
Epic. This book is breathtakingly epic. And I do not use that word often. The Pillars of the Earth has been around for awhile now; it was published in 1989. I stumbled across it three years ago, and I have searched for another book like it ever since. Spanning five decades, The Pillars of the Earth circulates around the town of Kingsbridge, as it witnesses the construction of a cathedral in 12th century England. There is Philip, prior of Kingsbridge, driven to “build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has known.” There is Tom, a mason and architect, who returns from tragedy only to live a conflicted life. And there is Aliena, a lady whose secrets and power force her to nimbly navigate the ruthless world of ambition and greed. The Pillars of the Earth has history, suspense, love, revenge, ambition, sacrifice, tragedy and triumph. What more can you ask for in a book?
3. Atonement, by Ian McEwan
I cannot think of a novel that better captures the sweltering, lethargic days of summer that Ian McEwan’s Atonement. The first third of the novel introduces the three main characters—Robbie, Cecelia, and Briony—and stands witness to the fragmented events that unfurl over a single summer day…and of the devastating consequences of misinterpreting one assignation. Atonement moves over the years—through World War II and beyond—and delivers a tragically beautiful commentary on the nature of jealousy, regret, memory, and the nature of Story.
4. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Forget the Twilight-saga and the other breeds of paranormal YA fiction. If you’re tired of vampires and angels—yet you still love that hint of the extraordinary—check out Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. The novel takes place in an alternative version of America (called Panem), where states no longer exist and the land is divided into 12 districts. Every year, the Capitol hosts a televised event called The Hunger Games, as a means to keep the twelve districts under control. Each district sends one boy and one girl to the Games, and while the rules and terrain might change from year to year, the contestants know that they must kill or be killed. The Hunger Games provides a fast-paced, gripping novel that is impossible to put down. Collins has created a dazzling and fresh world with her Panem, and she blends futuristic fiction with suspense and romance. Moreover, The Hunger Games throws into question the ethics of war and media, notions of sacrifice, and the affect of violence upon children. One of the best books I have read all year.
You might also enjoy: The Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld and Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
5. Something Borrowed, by Emily Giffin
I usually do not read chick lit, yet Emily Giffin is an exception. She crafts delightful and heart-warming stories that still prove satisfying. Her fifth novel was just released (The Heart of the Matter), but if you haven’t read her work, pick up a copy of Something Borrowed. What if—on your thirtieth birthday—you had too much to drink and slept with your best friend’s fiancé? Worse, what if you have been secretly in love with him and there is a possibility that he loves you in return? Not only is Something Borrowed a delicious romance, but it also highlights the often up-and-down relationship between best friends. This is a story whose heroine decides to take the front seat—for the first time in her life—and of the freedom and heartache that accompanies it.
6. Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones
You cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.
For those who enjoy philosophy and literature, the exquisite Mister Pip is a must-read. Lloyd Jones’s novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2007 and trails the life of Mr. Watts, the only white man who chooses to stay behind on a tropical island, shattered by war. In a ruined schoolhouse, Mr. Watts begins to share the story of Great Expectations with the children and teaches the students the strength of imagination. The masterful use of Dickens within Mister Pip is an almost exhaustive experience, so poignantly has Jones written his tale. This book is a testament to the power of narrative. At 256 pages, Mister Pip is the perfect novel to slip into your beach bag (or purse) and read at your leisure.
7. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
Chill down with this creepy, alternative reality by Margaret Atwood. When I was in New York last week, I perused my friend’s personal library and came across Oryx and Crake. From the first page, you are introduced to a strange, post-apocalyptic world that has seen the terrifying extremes of technology. I brought the book to the beach, which felt weird. It is hardly a typical summer read, but if you’re looking for a chilling, futuristic tale, Oryx and Crake will fully deliver.
8. Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie
My summer cannot exist without Agatha Christie. Ever since I was eleven-years old, I sought for used copies of Christie’s novels and consumed them with a zeal that probably frightened my mother. Then I discovered the Agatha Christie section at Powells Bookstore, and my world forever changed. Agatha Christie is my guilty pleasure. One of the best aspects of her novels is the length; you can read one in an afternoon. When I fancy an old-fashioned murder mystery, I tuck an Agatha Christie book into my back pocket and head to the park. (Or the nearest armchair.) Death on the Nile is merely one amongst dozens that I would recommend. Written in 1938, Egypt and the Nile still had that thrilling sense of the exotic. It seems to aptly suit the warm, lazy days of summer. Other Agatha Christie novels I recommend: The Secret Adversary, Hickory Dickory Death, Cards on the Table, They Came to Baghdad, And Then There Were None, The ABC Murders.
9. Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust
I return to Swann’s Way each summer. I have yet to finish the novel because it is easy to drown in Proust’s loquacious language. I would never recommend reading Proust all at once. I like to consume Proust, much as one does a decadent dessert. Lazy summer days provide the perfect environment to nibble on Proust a little bit at a time. And with sentences such as this, it is no wonder: “What delighted me was the asparagus, steeped in ultramarine and pink, whose tips, delicately painted with little strokes of mauve and azure, shade off imperceptibly down to their feet—still soiled though they are from the dirt of their garden bed—with an iridescence that is not of this earth.” Needlessly wordy? Perhaps. But for me, Proust provides a beautiful interplay of language. Lovers of words will enjoy Swann’s Way, if only for Proust’s slow, delicate treatment of the written word.
10. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Return to your childhood with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Dragons, trolls, golems and, of course, hobbits. Bilbo Baggins must journey to the Smokey Mountain and slay the ferocious dragon that threatens Middle Earth. The Hobbit offers an escape to a magical world while still providing meaty themes of courage, resourcefulness, and the pursuit of discovering oneself.
11. Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin
The world experienced Carroll-craze this past spring with Tim Burton’s film rendition of Alice in Wonderland. Melanie Benjamin’s novel, Alice I Have Been, looks to the girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s trippy tale of mad hatters, tea parties, and cheshire cats. Alice I Have Been is historical fiction, yet provides an interesting faux-biography if Alice Liddell had decided to chronicle her life and the ways in which one book—one character—shadowed her for the rest of her days.
12. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
I first read Gone with the Wind in high school, and I fell in love with Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler. I loved to hate them, for they are truly despicable characters. Yet they are human and placed in one of the most turbulent time periods for the United States—the Civil War. Nothing encapsulates the heat of summer more than the passionate love affair of Scarlet and Rhett. And who doesn’t want a bit of the South during summertime? Do not let the 1,037 pages deter you. If you haven’t read Gone with the Wind yet, do it. Seriously.
13. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
I still cannot decide if I admire or hate this book. I will leave the final decision to you. Meet Blue van Meer. Miss van Meer is overwhelmingly intelligent but friendless. So when she enters an elite high school, she awkwardly finds her way into an eccentric clique, headed by the vibrant and equally eccentric teacher, Hannah. What then follows is a disastrous senior-year, murder, and betrayal. The book can appear self-important, showy and intellectual for the sake of being smart. Yet the mysterious aspects woven throughout Calamity Physics hold your attention, as does the quirky—and sometimes infuriating—cast of characters. Fair warning: if you do not like abrupt or seemingly unfulfilled endings, save yourself the time and not read this book. But if you’re looking for something a shade different—a twinge of the weird—then give Calamity Physics a try.
14. One Day, by David Nicholls
Admittedly, I have not read this novel yet. But after the first chapter I was hooked. I need to get my hands on a copy of David Nicholls’s One Day and vanish to the beach for a solid weekend. The novel starts in 1988, the year in which Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley met for the first time. They only spend one day together, but over the next 20 years, they cannot stop thinking about one another. The book traces their relationship – as they live their individual lives – on the same day, each day, for 20 years. The Library Journal described One Day as “A coming-of-age story for all of us who might still be wondering what we want to be when we grow up.”
You might also enjoy: Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby.