Book reviews to fill your summer vacation time, should you be so inclined. We’re going to make this list pretty fast to read, calling out Read If You Like comparisons as shorthand to help you find the right book for you. The one consistent note, we look for truly great writing, so that’s table stakes—these writers are at the top of their game in these books. As always, we have a link for you to click through to longer reviews if you need more information.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
by V.E. Schwab
Some time travel, literal deals with the devil. Perfect if you loved the core 1980s Anne Rice vampire books, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Life After Life. Yes, in the fantasy genre, which may not be your thing, but the book is beautifully written, and the entire idea could fill a book club meeting, so worthy of consideration.
City on Fire
by Don Winslow
Winslow is a terrific writer, but you need to plan on going short on the sleep when you start his books. His work reads like non-fiction due to his meticulous research. The books are always propulsive, you’ll stay up all night to race to the end. RIYL Michael Connelly, Joe Landsdale, Dennis Lehane, Fast and the Furious car chases.
Happy for You
by Claire Stanford
RIYL modern tech office comedies, e.g., Several People Are Typing, The Circle, Then We Came to the End or academic farces, e.g., The Idiot, Dear Committee Members, Lucky Jim. Also, if you like to support new writers. This is a debut, it’s terrific.
by Peng Shepherd
Another debut, always good to support. A smidge of fantasy, but otherwise very real. Good if you can’t go too deep into fantasy (think Stephen King 11/22/63, perhaps Kate Atkinson’s Time After Time, The Absolute Book). Oddly comforting, bad stuff happens, but you feel good as the book goes on, bit of romance, family drama, academia, and a lot of maps. Definitely must read read if as a child you owned or coveted one of the poster maps of Narnia or Middle Earth, or have a road trip with paper maps planned. (Susan confesses to having owned the Narnia map.)
The Candy House
by Jennifer Egan
Obvs, if you loved A Visit from the Good Squad, you probably snapped this one up immediately. A bit of a sequel, first one not required, interesting novel, each chapter is a new back story, somewhat interrelated to the the ones before, from a previously supporting character. Excellent if you’d like to read a novel but your kids are still young enough to interrupt you all the time, or you are reading to fall asleep, and can’t take on Trollope as a vacation read. Full of terrific sentences with which you can annoy your fellow vacationers by reading aloud. Skewers big tech, life hacking, generally attuned to the tragedy and ridiculousness of modern family/friend life. RIYL the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, Karen Russell, George Saunders.
by Terry Miles
Apparently, there’s a related podcast, didn’t know that when I read the book. This is another propulsive read. Perfect for fans of Ready Player One, The DaVinci Code, Jurassic Park, Snow Crash, The 22 Murders of Madison May. A little bit conspiracy, all thriller. Very convincing. Finished the book, a week later I noticed in the second season of The Flight Attendant there was a rabbit in the art over the fireplace in Cassie’s new apartment, and I though “hmmmm.” (Also good if you like HBO’s The Flight Attendant or Made for Love). Potentially a great pick for a smart teen who prefers screens over books.
In the Quick
by Kate Hope Day
If you liked The Martian, 100% match for In the Quick. If you’ve got an aspiring female scientist close to your heart, also an excellent gift. A little bit of Dune, with the themes of space, family, interior thoughts of a main character who starts young. A good match if you liked Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Little Women, TV’s The Big Bang Theory, JD Salinger’s Nine Stories, The Family Fang.
Sea of Tranquility
by Emily St. John Mandel
Again, obvs if you liked her books Station Eleven or The Glass Hotel, you probably already finished this. If you liked the style of The Candy House, above, you will also like this. RIYL How High We Go in the Dark, The Great Believers, The Overstory, Lincoln in the Bardo.
Joan is Okay
by Weike Wang
Joan is likely not okay but despite the parameters (Joan is an ER doc in NYC in early 2020), this is a not to be avoided just because you have banned pandemic books from your free time. You know it’s out there, and it comes up at the end, but it’s really more about families, second generation immigrants, generational gaps, and careers. All done with love and humor. Delightful, fast read, perfect if you’ve ever felt a little bit lost. RIYL The Maid; Less; Where’d You Go, Bernadette; My Hollywood, Jessi Klein essays, The Joy Luck Club.
by Mark Prins
Another debut novel, shades of dark side of academia novels such as The Secret History, Wonder Boys, and The Human Stain, but also recent bestsellers that retold classic myths (Circe, A Thousand Ships, Ariadne). The harassment in this novel is so bad, without being an actual felony, that I found myself gasping out loud at every turn, but also totally believing it was possible someone would do this. Excellent discussion fodder for book clubs. Fascinating to read, because you never know where it’s going to go next (shades of Don Winslow’s City on Fire, above.) Do not read if you are currently in a toxic workplace or considering leaving your doctoral program. If you laughed all through the horrors of The Hangover movies, you may be able to laugh out loud during the reading, but not over-the-top workplace humor as with The Devil Wears Prada.
by Hervé Le Tellier
Again, we have one non-realistic detail that makes this world different than ours, but it’s a mistake to put this book in any genre except great literature. RIYL the movie The Arrival, The Silence, Lauren Groff’s Matrix, Before the Fall, In Five Years. While an airplane book, it’s not a crashing airplane novel, and while it’s got a potential conspiracy, that’s also not really the point. More than anything else it’s a philosophical conundrum. What’s the right thing to do if this one anomaly happens? It reminded me more of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach than anything else. If this one thing happens, then let’s see how individual people pivot. A gorgeously written thought experiment. If Schördinger’s Cat fascinates you, you’ll love this book.
Sorrow and Bliss
by Meg Mason
RIYL The Silver Linings Playbook (movie or book); Prozac Nation; Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Postcards from the Edge; Eat, Pray, Love; anything by Nina Stibbe. Fantastic writing, no punches held on the character’s mental illness, but still, at heart, an optimistic take on the world. If the dark humor doesn’t scare you off, delightful vacation read. Just a joy to read, polished it off in two weeknights—mad dash to find out where we were going. Some echoes again of TV’s Fleabag (originally a play sometimes accessible via National Theatre Live, btw.)
Four Thousand Weeks
by Oliver Burkema
Ugh, a self-help productivity book for vacation? No way. Except it’s really a meditation on how to accept that you’re not ever getting it all done, perfectly. Not ever. You’re going to have to say no to some things, and go down some blind alleys, retrace your steps, and well, just be a human. Favorite idea, brief mention: What if instead of FOMO, we think of it as JOMO—the Joy of Missing Out? Good for you, you’re missing the baseball game with college roommates because you’re having a beach day with your daughter. Didn’t get to take that start up job because you’re helping your spouse get through law school, what a great person you are! Almost missed this one, feel quite lucky to have reconsidered.
Life Without Children
by Roddy Doyle
Short stories, so stop here if that’s a dealbreaker. Set in the pandemic, but nothing dramatic, catches the mood of it all. I’ve encountered a lot of these, but the people are more essential–out in the thick of it, trying to work and homeschool at the same time. This is a different demographic, and the tone of it all really clicked. Uplifting and yet, not. If you’re in the mood, we highly recommend.