Summer Book Preview

The best books for your beach bag

New York TimesJune 14, 2014 

  • Plots (and more) to pore over

    ‘Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Romance in Aviation’s Glory Years,’ by William Stadiem. Ballantine, 368 pages.

    ‘The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair,’ Joel Dicker. Translated by Sam Taylor. Penguin, 640 pages.

    ‘I Am Pilgrim,’ by Terry Hayes. Emily Bestler/Atria, 612 pages.

    ‘The Closer,’ by Mariano Rivera with Wayne Coffey. Little, Brown, 280 pages.

    ‘#Girlboss,’ by Sophia Amoruso. Putnam, 241 pages.

    ‘You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About,’ by Dave Barry. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 224 pages.

    ‘Mr. Mercedes,’ by Stephen King. Scribner, 437 pages.

    ‘Midnight in Europe,’ by Alan Furst. Random House, 251 pages.

    ‘Big Little Lies,’ by Liane Moriarty. Amy Einhorn/Putnam, 416 pages.

    ‘The Fever’ by Megan Abbott. Little, Brown, 303 pages.

    ‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,’ by Joshua Ferris. Little, Brown, 337 pages.

    ‘The Vacationers,’ by Emma Straub. Riverhead, 292 pages.

    ‘Factory Man,’ by Beth Macy. Little, Brown, 464 pages.

    ‘The Secret Place,’ by Tana French. Viking, 464 pages.

The shredder ate your ATM card. You hear sirens because you butt-dialed 911. Your kid blew up canned cherries in the all-white kitchen because she’s an aspiring filmmaker, and Steven Spielberg once did it – his mother got to like the bloodstained look. You finally bagged the neighborhood pest in a Havahart trap, and it’s the cutest, fluffiest thing, but you never want to hear the deranged hiss of an angry raccoon again.

Yet throughout all this, you haven’t looked up from what you’re reading. Why not? Because we have entered the fun season with the sandy nickname, the one known for books impossible to put down.

Whatever your taste, the publishing world has an offering for you, whether it’s sci-fi populated by talking bees (Laline Paull’s “The Bees”) or the would-be Proustian Norwegian literary event of the season, “My Struggle,” by Karl Ove Knausgaard. (Volume 3 is just out.) For those playing catch-up, Michael Lewis’ “Flash Boys” is the most urgent nonfiction horror story of the year.

As for this summer’s brand-new reading, if there’s one overriding motif, it’s this: the crazier, the better.

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The most curious work of gossip is William Stadiem’s “Jet Set,” a jumble of aeronautics history, high times from the 1950s and ’60s, incredibly versatile name-dropping (from Mrs. John Jacob Astor to Christine Keeler of the Profumo scandal) and Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” as a kind of theme song. If, by hook or by crook, it can be connected to the glamorous days of air travel, it’s shoehorned in here.

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The most curious international hit, with a blurb invoking Stieg Larsson, is “The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.” Written by Joel Dicker, who is Swiss but spent childhood summers in Maine, it is weirdly tone-deaf about American life. The narrator has written only one novel, but it is such a hit that he shows up on red carpets, has a VIP box in Madison Square Garden and gets “the right to make every man in New York jealous by dating Lydia Gloor, the star of the country’s top-rated TV show.”

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Then there’s Terry Hayes’ “I Am Pilgrim,” a first novel of dubious literary provenance, since Hayes’ earlier writing credits include a couple of musty “Mad Max” movies. (These are not remembered for their dialogue.) From a distance, “I Am Pilgrim” looks like a movie treatment or another lurid, violent thriller with a case of ADD. It begins with a grisly New York crime scene in which the victim’s 6-inch heels lead the main character, a forensics wizard, into a morbidly erotic daydream about exactly how she died. It is so much in keeping with current pop cultural cliches that it leaves him thinking, “Sex today sure isn’t for sissies.”

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As a stellar new author, Hayes can’t rival the man behind “The Closer,” a warmhearted, charmingly frank baseball memoir. But Mariano Rivera, telling his story with Wayne Coffey, knows the value of understatement. At the start of this book, it is 1990, and Mariano has grown to age 20 in a sleepy Panamanian fishing village when a contract-toting man from the New York Yankees arrives, offering $2,000. For that, Mariano figures, he can buy shoes without holes and play a little baseball before settling into his chosen career, that of a mechanic. Babe Ruth? Hank Aaron? He’s never heard of ’em.

“The Closer” describes such a devout and admirable guy that “Happy Father’s Day” might as well be its subtitle. It’s as inspiring as it is exciting, and a tonic next to this summer’s more risqué success stories.

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Compare Rivera’s uphill journey with that of Sophia Amoruso, the author of “#Girlboss,” a book of advice for the budding young female chief executive. Never mind that the clothing empire Amoruso presides over is called Nasty Gal; never mind that her book describes Dumpster diving and shoplifting as early phases of her career. The fact is that in 2006 she started an eBay shop selling vintage clothing, and she now calls herself the head of a $100-million-plus business, dishing out maxims like “Money looks better in the bank than on your feet.”

As a book meant to amuse and instruct young women, “#Girlboss” certainly has the edge on most of what passes for advice right now. Amoruso actually sounds interested in the success of persons other than herself. But if you were on that clichéd desert island and could follow only one sage’s advice, it would have to be Dave Barry’s. When Barry stops delivering books funny enough to annoy the traveler sitting next to you, let’s stop dropping his name.

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That’s not to say that Barry’s latest, “You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty,” is uniformly funny. There are a few pieces you might skip; his “Fifty Shades of Grey” parody isn’t as drop-dead as his recent takeoff on the “Twilight” series. But his “Air Travelers’ FAQ” is guaranteed to disturb other passengers.

And in a chapter called “How to Become a Professional Author,” he warns that there is no easy way to achieve literary success. “No, you must roll up your sleeves, plant yourself in front of your computer and perform the difficult – and lonely – task of writing a letter to a successful author asking for free advice.” Should such letters go unanswered for more than two weeks, it’s wise to begin stalking those famous authors, be they living (James Patterson) or dead (Jane Austen). Speaking of Austen, he believes that if she were alive to read the “Fifty Shades of Grey” books, she would die all over again. Barry’s fans know who they are, and his book’s fate is an absolutely sure thing.

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So is that of “Mr. Mercedes,” the latest from Stephen King. He’s in reliably fine form with a taut, suspenseful race-against-time book about a retired cop who is pitted against a Mercedes-driving thrill killer. Since King delivers such cafeteria-style abundance and variety, a very different kind of King novel, “ Revival,” is only six months down the road.

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Two more sure things: anything by Alan Furst, who has yet to write an unalluring spy novel and whose latest, “Midnight in Europe,” has the novelty of beginning in New York in 1937. “You could do what you liked, nobody cared,” he writes of an Irish bar in Murray Hill, because there’s not a place in the world Furst can’t make sound louche. Even his version of Christmas shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue sounds ominous and erotically charged. And anything by Liane Moriarty, if just circumstantially. Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” (due out July 29) comes after “The Husband’s Secret,” which was so popular that a follow-up with blank pages could rack up brisk sales.

“Big Little Lies” infuses a school community in Australia with a sinister aura, but the book to beat in that plot realm is “The Fever,” by Megan Abbott.. What has gotten into the girls in this book, sending them into seizures? Something occult? Chemical? Erotic? Psychosomatic? Abbott plants a strange phosphorescent lake in the region, attaches frightening symptoms to the girls’ attacks and then keeps her readers scared and guessing.

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Two of the summer’s most entertaining novels come from previously well-praised but underwhelming sources. Anyone who failed to appreciate Joshua Ferris’ “Then We Came to the End” and “The Unnamed” should be that much more delighted by the astringent wit of “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” his caustic book with a deadpan dentist for a narrator and a surprising spiritual bent that struggles forth from the man’s cynicism.

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Emma Straub’s “The Vacationers” is a scrappy portrait of a family bringing its New York troubles to Mallorca for repair. The 20-year-old heroine is keenly observant enough to think that Cary Grant in “Charade” reminds her of her father: “high-waisted pants and a way of talking that was both flirtatious and belittling at the same time.”

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Another big surprise: “Factory Man,” the first book by Beth Macy, who has found a terrifically rich subject for her investigative reporting. Macy zeroed in on a family-run Virginia furniture company that was being put out of business by cheap Chinese knockoffs, and happened to find an owner determined to fight back. Macy got to know the factory town, its workers, the facts behind offshoring and the tactics that might keep it at bay. Early warning: “Factory Man” (coming July 15) is an illuminating, deeply patriotic David vs. Goliath book. They give out awards for this kind of thing.

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And finally, here’s a sure way to tell when the summer reading season is ending. The last hurrah will arrive Sept. 2. It’s “The Secret Place,” by Tana French, and there are some things we bet on. Leaves will change color. And French’s next one will be good.

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