Summer Reads

From romantic trysts to Soviet espionage to a new Swedish sensation, Janice Kaplan picks the top novels and thrillers to bring with you to the beach or wherever your vacation takes you.

Walks With Men by Ann Beattie

At barely 100 pages, Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men ends before Tolstoy could clear his throat. The story of edgy love and inappropriate marriage captures New York in the ‘80s with a surety reminiscent of early John Updike. The ending lacks the bang you expect from Beattie, and the setting may be better than the characters. But her minimalist voice—missing from the literary scene the past few years—still has great appeal.

Beautiful Maria of My Soul by Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos celebrates the 20th anniversary of Beautiful Maria of My Soul, the story of the woman behind the song. Like Maria herself, the book is sensual, passionate, and completely enthralling. Just indulging in the lyrical and rhythmic writing makes you feel like you’ve committed some secret sin. Hijuelos could be a one-man Cuban tourist board since he makes Havana feel vibrant and enticing, and even the most minor characters throb with life.

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

In his bold debut novel Mr. Peanut, Adam Ross offers a stunning view on marriage—and the fine line dividing love from hate. The noir-ish plot and brilliant writing keep you turning pages, and even the implausibility of some events seems part of the crazed haze we enter in states of passion. The story revolves around a man who loves his wife but dreams (from page one) of her dead. When she chokes to death on a peanut, can anyone prove he killed her? One of the detectives is Sam Sheppard—yes, the man jailed for killing his wife—and a long section about that unsolved murder adds to the nightmarish intrigue. My husband slept gently next to me as I read—and I did think of hiding all knives before I turned out the light.

The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw

Another unconventional take on love emerges from The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw. Though set on Cape Cod (with a cover of rippling water), the ominous tone brings this to a different level of summer read. The heroine Marcella had an affair years earlier with a married man and now gets passionately involved with his grown son. Atmospheric and intriguing, the events never feel as warped as the plotline would suggest. This, too, is a debut novel, intricately woven and well-crafted.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s mystery series is Harry Potter for adults—required reading as zeitgeist trend. With more than 40 million books worldwide, Larsson has out-Pottered Potter as the top seller in many countries. This summer’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, third in the trilogy, has the same measured pace, political activism, and extraordinary heroine Lisbeth—a damaged, anti-social computer hacker—as the previous two. She connects with Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist who shares her disdain for government manipulation and violence against women. The books pull you into their very real world. As with the boy wizard stories, these should be read in order. The first, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has become a dark Swedish movie (with subtitles) and probably remains the best novel of the three.

Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg

Larsson died before any of the books were published—making him even more inaccessible than J.K. Rowling—so booksellers are looking for other Swedish stars (of a writerly kind) to exploit. Camille Lackberg, a bestseller in Sweden, comes to America for the first time with Ice Princess–a compelling, very readable mystery about a woman found dead in a frozen bathtub. Despite the setting, Lackberg seems less Larsson and more Agatha Christie--with classic characters and a neat puzzle well-solved.

The Inheritance by Simon Tolkien

A Brit who reads like a Brit is Simon Tolkien, a former barrister whose legal mystery The Inheritance begins with the death of an Oxford historian. The saved-from-the-gallows tale is better on characters than plot—the “codex” on which the plot revolves feels flimsy. Tolkien doesn’t have quite the imagination of his grandfather, J.R.R. Tolkien, though publicists insist the two were very close. No word if grandpa used to call him “My little hobbit.”

Deliver Us From Evil by David Baldacci

Many popular American thriller writers publish a new book every year—and like the latest flavors of Tasti D-Lite, they tend to be tempting but not very substantial. Only a few of the top sellers continue to amaze with fresh ideas and stunning plots. High on the list is David Baldacci whose latest, Deliver Us From Evil, offers a Stalin-era villain sufficiently scary to keep you at the edge of your chaise lounge. You can forgive Baldacci for his grisly torture scenes because he also offers complex female characters who are unexpectedly well-developed. In the midst of complex international intrigue, the romantic interludes feel more genuine than anything Nora Roberts could imagine.

61 Hours by Lee Child

Lee Child also remains in consistently top form, and in 61 Hours his hero Jack Reacher, a military ex-cop who wanders without settling down, gets stuck in cold, snowy South Dakota after a bus crash. The local problems involve a drug cartel, a prison riot, and a witness who needs protecting. Just your typical small American town. Reacher remains endlessly appealing as the classic tough-guy hero who wins any fight, believes in what’s right, and can’t be tamed.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Mundane daily experiences gracefully mix with the surreal in Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake–where a protagonist named Rose discovers at age 9 that she can taste emotions in food. With a bite of dinner, she knows if her mother is sad or lonely or having an affair. Her strange gift allows her to begin understanding the secrets that get hidden in all families. As Rose slowly realizes that her brother, too, has an unearthly power, the story becomes a subtly detailed exploration of the trials and differences we all endure.

One Day by David Nicholls

You don’t need special powers to taste the yummy emotions in One Day by David Nicholls. The day they graduate from university, Emma and Dexter have a fling, and the story follows their lives every July 15 for the next two decades as they become close friends, occasional lovers, and each other’s touchstone. It’s When Harry Met Sally with an English accent. Their efforts to find happiness in various professions (from waitress to TV talk-show host) and meaningless relationships ring true at every step. Nicholls offers sharp dialogue and wry insight that sounds like Nick Hornby at his best. An unexpected ending puts all their tribulations in a different, and touching, perspective.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin’s hefty book The Passage is getting rave reviews for its apocalyptic tale of crumbling civilization and vampire attacks. I’m sure it’s enthralling, but you’re on your own for this one. If I’m going to read a 784 page book on my summer vacation, I might as well get back to War and Peace.