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Vacation Mode: 10 Guaranteed Summer Reads

Our vacation recommendations are gripping and smart, but won't feel like homework / BY Nathalie Atkinson / July 12th, 2023


“What a blessing it is to love books,” Elizabeth von Arnim wrote in The Solitary Summer. “Everybody must love something, and I know of no objects of love that give such substantial and unfailing returns as books and a garden.” 

What was true in 1899 holds today — whether you’re headed to a cottage or stealing a few hours in the city park. A book and a garden — and maybe a refreshing drink are all you need to unwind at this time of year. 

The history of summer books and their particular mood is ground I covered last year “In Praise of Summer Reading.” But lately the idea that you can start and reasonably finish a book on holiday has also taken hold in publishing circles — it’s among the reasons we’re seeing slimmer books and novellas (according to Esquire magazine’s “The Rise of Short Books”). They’re a satisfying read, and also give you a sense of accomplishment. For example, I recently tore through the scant 240 pages of the late-capitalist satire The Vegan, although almost as quickly as I did the slightly longer, emotionally affecting thriller Strange Sally Diamond (both in my sizzling July picks). Time flies when the book is good.

Friends and social media followers always hit me up for vacation novel recommendations from my personal year-to-date reading, with that common refrain of wanting something to suck them in — gripping and smart, but that doesn’t feel like homework.

As always, bibliophile cartoonist Tom Gauld gets it.

 

Vacation Reads
Photo: instagram/tomguald

 

After I’ve urged them to peruse Zed Book Club’s latest thematic listicles and skim my recent monthly fiction highlights, my most enthusiastic suggestions tend to be for The Girls and Bad Summer People (in my May fiction list), Symphony of Secrets (from April) and Künstlers in Paradise (read my interview with author Cathleen Schine), while the Hollywood-set Everybody Knows remains my pick for noir of the year (I reviewed it here).

But there are always — always! — more books. Here are a few recent personal selections for guaranteed great holiday reads — engrossing enough to hold your attention even as full-on family vacation chaos happens around you.

1The Wager by David Grann

While waiting for Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the New Yorker staff writer’s previous award-winning book, read his latest sordid history. The true tale excavates the 1740s history of survivors on the British naval ship (then at war with imperial Spain) wrecked on a desolate island off the tip of South America. The chronicle of treasure, mutiny and murder reads like a thriller.


2You Can’t Stay Here Forever by Katherine Lin

Lawyer Ellie does not spend the life insurance windfall after her husband’s death on anything practical. No: To process her grief and bewilderment, she impulsively treats herself and best friend Mable to the legendary Hotel du Cap Eden Roc on the French Riviera (decadent past host to boldface names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald). They are soon befriended by a mysterious couple, which gives the debut novelist (a San Francisco Bay Area attorney by day) the opportunity to discover the truth about their marriage and dissect aspects of race, class and identity, all in a glamorous escapist package. (For lovers of the shady dead husband sub-genre, I also highly recommend Stephanie Bishop’s The Anniversary.)


3The Glow by Jessie Gaynor

The cynical foundation of wellness and self-care is the target of this takedown in which a hapless young public relations manager turns a random retreat host she follows on Instagram into a wellness celeb. Celebrity gurus and Gwyneth’s GOOP are so over-the-top they’re already satire, but Gaynor (an editor at LitHub) offers an entertaining novel with of-the-moment commentary on the commodification of people and profiting from empowerment.


4The Stolen Coast by Dwyer Murphy

I recently watched the free online restoration of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killersboth the 1946 Robert Siodmak and 1964 Don Siegel versions — which put me in the mood for a heist. (Granted, it doesn’t take much.) There’s a touch of Papa in the prose of Murphy, the editor-in-chief of CrimeReads (my go-to for genre coverage) — the booty is diamonds and the hustlers are also former lovers. Set in a seedy faded Massachusetts resort town, it scratched the heist itch.


5A Quitter’s Paradise by Elysha Chang

The inaugural title in Sarah Jessica Parker’s new publishing imprint, SJP Lit, is a story about grief that’s surprising, devastating and darkly funny all at once, as the actor recently told Good Morning America. It’s an intergenerational story about a complicated woman whose acquiescence to duty has left her personally and professionally unfulfilled. While trying to satisfy the traditional expectations of her late mother, who emigrated from Taipei in the 1970s, she attempts to understand who her mother was. And Just Like That … you’ll be hooked.


6All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby

I loved the Virginia writer’s thrilling violent noir, Blacktop Wasteland, so I automatically put his propulsive police procedural on this list. (Stephen King also gave it a rave review.) Cosby’s Southern gothics are as intense as they are powerful: this one opens with an active school shooter. While investigating the messy aftermath, Titus Crown, a former FBI agent who’s become the rural Virginia community’s first Black sheriff, uncovers the work of a serial killer while navigating intricate issues of policing, racism and homophobia in the community.


7The One by Julia Argy

In this knowing send up of reality TV and romance mythology, Emily joins the cast of The One because she’s out of a job. The clever novel takes on both the genre’s pervasive retrograde and cravenly opportunistic qualities, but also understands the hope for love that makes the contestants-and-confessionals format so outrageously popular. Like our heroine, I’ve never watched The Bachelor, but this Boston writer’s debut makes me feel like I have. And it left me smiling.


8Be Mine by Richard Ford

You don’t have to have read the Pulitzer Prize winner’s four previous books about Frank Bascombe (beginning with 1986’s The Sportswriter) to find this final Bascombe instalment elegiac. Taken together, they form a social history about a middle-class baby boomer who likes to expound on the state of American experience. But, on its own, this coda is an account of a man, now 74, ground down by loss and taking his dying middle-aged son on a road trip to Mount Rushmore. “Age, forgetting, fathers, children, happiness: the scene is set,” as one reviewer put it.


9A Perfect Vintage by Chelsea Fagan

Lea Mortimer may have my dream job: she’s a highly organized American hospitality consultant who spends summers in France overseeing boutique hotel revamps and transformations of outdated country estates. Things get complicated on the friendship and romance front when she brings her newly separated best friend and niece along to help update an ancestral Loire Valley château, and they get embroiled in family drama. Evocative lifestyle descriptions of the beautiful setting — the grounds, interior design, meals, wine tastings and outfits — are what make this romance a poolside must.


10Monsters by Claire Dederer

If you want to end the thorny perennial argument about divorcing art from artist, pack this American essayist’s provocative non-fiction book. Her 13 thematic chapters (“Drunks,” “The Anti-Semite,” etc.) sort familiar problematic names — like Roman Polanski, Vladimir Nabokov and Woody Allen — associated with behaviour as sordid as they are talented, and reckon with whether one can love the art while hating the artist. You may not win the dinner party argument, but at least you’ll figure out where you stand. 


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