Sara Nelson picks the summer’s beach-reading musts, including a long-awaited Pat Conroy novel, the tale of Facebook’s creators, and a celebrity drunkalog with juicy anecdotes about not sleeping with Frank Sinatra.
And... they’re off. Just as Memorial Day announces the start of summer, so, too, do readers begin packing vacation bags with novels, stories, and biographies to read from now through August. Here’s a baker’s-dozen list of the must-reads, the great reads—and the slightly offbeat titles you might not yet have thought of, but will likely be hearing a lot more about.
The Girl Who Played with Fireby Stieg Larsson
In an American mystery writer’s hands, this novel—the second in a trilogy that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—might read like a Law & Order episode. But the late Swedish journalist-turned-novelist’s brooding tone and the fantastically odd bisexual geek heroine Lisbeth Sander make this everything the folks at Knopf have been crowing that it is: riveting, unputdownable, a sure bestseller.
The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich
Lucky for the hundreds of millions of Facebook devotees that Mark Zuckerberg’s parents apparently never made him shut off his computer. Zuckerberg, an unpopular nerd at Harvard, invented the social-networking site one night in his dorm room, becoming, by age 25, a billionaire several times over. The author of the bestselling Bringing Down the House chronicles that success—and the relationships it both created and destroyed.
The Invisible Mountainby Carolina de Robertis
This debut about three generations of strong women in late 20th-century Uruguay is the brainiest dynastic novel in years. A high-end, Euro Danielle Steel story full of sex, politics and family—with just a little bit of magical realism to give literary heft to the whole delightful concoction.
Satchel by Larry Tye
Woody Allen named one of his children for the “majestic and enigmatic” pitcher born Leroy Paige in pre-civil-rights Alabama. (The nickname comes from his work as a railroad porter.) Well-known for his remark about age—“If you don’t mind, it don’t matter”—Paige emerges here as a child of a washerwoman who developed his pitch in reform school and went on (at age 42!) to lead the Cleveland Indians to the World Series.
The Bolter by Frances Osborne
The author is the great granddaughter of Idina Sackville, a Jazz Age femme fatale who flouted convention by doing exactly as she pleased, the woman some say inspired the character of “the Bolter” in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. Through diaries, letters, and countless interviews, Osborne recreates her ancestor’s life and loves, from England to Kenya and back again.
The Slippery Year by Melanie Gideon
Forty-four years old, married with children, satisfying work and social circle—and still, the author of this memoir wonders “Is that all there is?” It’s hard to pull off a book like this without sounding whiny and overprivileged, but Gideon is a good enough writer to make even some male readers we know understand (maybe for the first time) at least a little bit about what women want.
Lies My Mother Never Told Me by Kaylie Jones
The perfect 20th-century hybrid—the drunkalog/celebrity autobio—by the daughter of iconic author James ( From Here to Eternity) Jones is a cut above the rest, thanks to Jones’ dry wit and some fantastic literary anecdotes about not sleeping with Frank Sinatra, and what to do when your famous late father’s famous best friend propositions you when you’re barely 20.
Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga
The stories in his collection—written before his Man Booker-winning debut The White Tiger—again exhibit the author’s characteristic subversive sensibility and pointed prose and again address the power, corruption, and seething despair among India’s underclass.
My Judy Garland Life by Susie Boyt
In the tradition of the celebrity-obsession memoir— think What Would Jackie Do?—this debut from a Financial Times fashion writer and great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud (!) is a cross between a fan’s notes and a heartfelt story of a lonely British girl who found more love and inspiration in one movie star (and the clothes she wore) than in anyone closer to home.
Queen Takes King by Gigi Levangie Grazier
Can the über-ex-Hollywood-wife do it again? Will Debra Messing be involved in the TV version? These are the questions fans of The Starter Wife and Maneater will want to know about a novel about a high-flying New York real-estate executive whose divorce will “trump” even the more scandalous ones we’ve seen in real life.
Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa by Mark Seal
The Vanity Fair contributing editor pens his own White Mischief with this tale of the conservationist Joan Root. While Root came to prominence as a wildlife filmmaker in Africa with her husband Alan, her story really began after their divorce—and was soon cut short by her shocking murder.
Israel Is Real by Rich Cohen
Iconoclastic and provocative (as would be expected from the author of Tough Jews), Cohen’s book is about the people and politics that have shaped the young nation. Part history, part polemic, and all original, it is hard to categorize politically, which may be why readers will be arguing about it for years to come.
South of Broad by Pat Conroy
Save this novel from the author of The Prince of Tides for an end-of-summer beach weekend, whether or not you’re anywhere near Charleston, South Carolina, the author’s hometown. That stately place is as much a character in this novel as the flawed, sexy, melodramatic Conrovian characters millions of readers have been longing to meet again.
Sara Nelson is a critic for The Daily Beast and the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. She is the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.