Despite what the book section of your local supermarket would have you believe, publishers don't really expect you to turn off your brain for the summer. Sure, every June brings a stampede of fluffy paperbacks with tired plots and hilariously unfortunate covers, but your summer reading experience doesn't have to be 50 shades of mediocre.
Already, new books by respected authors such as Toni Morrison, Robert A. Caro and Hilary Mantel have been snapped up by readers looking forward to long days and warm nights, but that's just the launch of the season. You can look forward to a host of new titles by writers who'll keep you riveted without insulting your intelligence, whether you prefer thrillers, literary fiction, biographies or page turners in just about any genre. Books are among the joys that make summers memorable, and this year we're spoiled for choice.
Suspense books have been a summer mainstay for decades, and it's not unusual for a notable title to break away from the pack each year. But it's been many seasons since one garnered as much early buzz as Gone Girl. When Amy Dunne disappears from her Missouri home, her husband, Nick, finds himself having to answer questions from reporters and police officers. And while it soon becomes clear that the Dunnes weren't the perfect couple their friends and neighbors had assumed, the circumstances of Amy's disappearance keep getting cloudier.
Flynn's debut novel, Sharp Objects (2006), scared up the praise of Stephen King. Gone Girl, her third, has already got critics cooing about her inventive narrative technique and unremittingly dark sense of humor. If Gone Girl lives up to the hype, it could vault the former Entertainment Weekly television critic into the ranks of the country's top purveyors of literary suspense. Click here to read an exclusive excerpt of Gone Girl. (Available June 5)
Anthony Swofford's 2003 memoir Jarhead was an instant hit, drawing critical praise for the young author's scathing wit and sometimes uncomfortable honesty. After the book — an account of Swofford's service with the Marine Corps during the 1990-1991 Gulf War — was adapted into a film, the writer's life began to unravel. Hotels, Hospitals and Jails recounts Swofford's struggles to adjust to civilian life and celebrity, neither of which turned out to be easy. After sustained alcohol and cocaine abuse came close to taking his life, the ex-sniper realized he needed to make drastic changes, and decided to reconnect with his dying father. Swofford is a remarkable writer, and Hotels might prove to be a timely reminder that for soldiers who have served our country overseas, returning home sometimes marks the start of yet another long battle. (Available June 5)
British children's author Mark Haddon first showed up on American literary radar in 2003 with his surprise best-seller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, his first novel for adult readers. The book drew kudos — and some controversy — for its portrayal of an autistic teenager in southwest England. For his new novel, Haddon turns to a ritual near and (very occasionally) dear to the hearts of summer readers: the family vacation. Richard, a successful physician, gathers with his new wife and stepdaughter, and his sister and her family, at a charming house near Wales. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the holiday turns out to be more emotionally trying than relaxing, as the families deal with their sometimes dark joint history. (Available June 12)
Chilean author Roberto Ampuero has lived in the United States for years, but he still might be the most famous mystery author you've (probably) never read. That could change this summer, when The Neruda Case, his first novel to be published in English, hits the shelves. The book features Ampuero's trademark detective, Cayetano Brulé, as he embarks on a mysterious mission given to him by the dying poet Pablo Neruda. Brulé finds himself traveling from Chile to Cuba, Mexico and Germany trying to solve Neruda's puzzle, but soon realizes the poet hasn't told him everything he knows. Ampuero, a University of Iowa professor, is highly regarded in South America, and U.S. readers looking for good literary detective fiction might find themselves falling in love with Cayetano Brulé. (Available June 14)
Even though it won't be released until late June, David Maraniss' biography of President Obama has been making headlines for over a month. Most of the coverage has come on the heels of an excerpt from the book published in Vanity Fair detailing the president's college love life. It's a safe bet that Barack Obama: The Story will continue to show up in the news. As he proved in his 1996 Bill Clinton biography, First in His Class, Maraniss is a dogged researcher with a reputation for treating his subjects fairly but skeptically. Expect every political pundit in America to be discussing this opus into the autumn and through to Election Day. It's not often that a book has the potential to change the course of political history, which is why this one is probably the most eagerly anticipated American book of the year. (Available June 19)
The aftermath of a natural disaster might not be the go-to subject for a marquee summer novel, but Random House is betting big on this debut by American writer and editor Karen Thompson Walker. The Age of Miracles follows 10-year-old Julia, who lives with her family in California, in the days after a violent earthquake has caused the Earth's rotation to slow dramatically. The novel is part speculative fiction, part coming-of-age story — the drastically altered environment is just one more thing for the sensitive pre-teen to worry about. Every major publisher in the country wanted this book; Random House is said to have paid a million dollars for the domestic rights. With a film adaptation already in the works, The Age of Miracles could turn Walker into American literature's next big thing. (Available June 26)
By the time the legendary underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar died in 2010, he was as synonymous with Cleveland as rock 'n' roll. But he wasn't just famous in Ohio — his long-running autobiographical comic-book series American Splendor was considered a pioneering achievement in the genre, and a series of hilarious (but often contentious) guest spots on Late Night with David Letterman made him something of a television cult hero. Pekar was never afraid to court controversy, so he probably would have enjoyed the storm his new graphic memoir is bound to kick up. The son of devoted Zionists, Pekar recounts his growing frustration with Israel, whose actions he finds increasingly difficult to grasp or justify. The subject might sound heavy and fraught, but Pekar is an unbelievably vivid and engaging writer, and his work is, consistently, a triumph of graphic literature. (Available July 3)
If you're one of the many people who read Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches last year, good news — your long wait is almost over. The best-selling fantasy novel ended with a cliffhanger, which Harkness' follow-up, Shadow of Night, promises to resolve. When readers last heard from college history instructor (and witch) Diana Bishop and her lover, scientist (and vampire) Matthew Clairmont, they had decided to travel back in time to 16th-century London in order to gain the skills they'll need to defeat a small army of angry undead evildoers. In Harkness' fictional world, life in the ivory tower is significantly more exciting than you'd think. A Discovery of Witches was a No. 1 hit, and it drew comparisons to Anne Rice's insanely popular vampire novels. If Shadow of Night does even half as well, the University of Southern California history professor should be able to quit her day job — though if the life of a historian is as compelling as she makes us believe, who'd want to? (Available July 10)
And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, As Written by Our Genetic Code
Sam Kean's 2011 debut, The Disappearing Spoon, did something that generations of high school chemistry students had previously thought impossible: It made the periodic table of the elements interesting. With fascinating anecdotes about every element (up to atomic number 112, anyway — sorry, ununtrium!), the book established Kean as that rare thing: a science writer with a sharp sense of humor and a knack for explaining chemistry to those of us who never managed better than a D-plus in the laboratory.
Kean's sophomore effort, The Violinist's Thumb, follows a similar formula, but the subject this time is genetics. The book tells the story of the discovery of DNA and the mapping of the human genome, and provides the answers to questions you didn't know you had. (Apparently, your genes might determine what kind of pet you prefer.) Kean is one of America's smartest and most charming science writers, and his new book could be perfect for summer readers who prefer some substance with their fun. (Available July 17)
Stephen L. Carter was already a best-selling author when his fiction debut, The Emperor of Ocean Park, became the hottest summer book of 2002. A Yale law professor and former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Carter is now known equally for his nonfiction, which concerns law and current events, and his literary suspense fiction. His latest thriller takes place in an alternate 1867, when President Lincoln, having survived John Wilkes Booth's attempt on his life, is being impeached for his actions during the Civil War. Among his defense attorneys is a young African-American lawyer who finds herself investigating the murder of another member of Lincoln's legal team. Carter's alternate history should appeal to fans of legal suspense, especially those who can't get enough of the presidential campaign season. (Available July 10)
Padgett Powell's debut novel, Edisto, enchanted critics way back in 1984. In fact, Saul Bellow was so impressed he called Powell the best author of his generation. Like his late fellow Southerners Donald Barthelme and Barry Hannah, Powell is a postmodernist with a brash sense of humor and an endlessly inquiring mind, and his recent novels (like 2009's The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?) have been as fun as they are smart. The writer's latest, You & Me, doesn't rely on intricate plotting — the whole novel is just two guys talking on a porch — but if anyone can pull that off, it's Powell. The book promises to be a Southern-fried, whiskey-soaked version of Waiting for Godot, and could put Powell in the running for the major literary prizes he's long deserved. (Available July 31)
If this summer brings the kind of punishing heat and Wolf Blitzer overload that is expected, you're going to need a laugh. Enter Maria Semple, a former writer for Mad About You, SNL and Arrested Development, and author of what's turning out to be the year's most anticipated comic novel. Where'd You Go, Bernadette follows Bee, a Seattle teenager who was promised a family trip to Antarctica if she managed a straight-A report card. Unfortunately, her architect mother, Bernadette, has severe agoraphobia, and when she realizes she'll have to make a trip to the most desolate place on Earth, she panics and disappears. Semple exhibited a dark sense of humor and a knack for biting satire in her 2008 debut novel, This One Is Mine, though Bernadette looks to be a little less harsh. The book has received seals of approval from literary heavyweights like Jonathan Franzen and Stewart O'Nan, neither of whom can themselves lay claim to being regular laugh riots — and it already has the makings of a late summer hit. (Available Aug. 14)
The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald
Writer-filmmaker Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line wasn't just a documentary masterpiece; the 1988 movie actually resulted in the release, after 12 years behind bars, of Randall Dale Adams, an Ohio native falsely convicted of killing a Dallas police officer. Morris returns to the subject of criminal justice with A Wilderness of Error, which suggests that Jeffrey MacDonald, the Army doctor and infamous "Green Beret killer," might not be guilty after all. MacDonald was convicted more than 30 years ago of murdering his family, despite his claim that his loved ones were slaughtered by four hippies wielding clubs and knives and chanting, "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs." The case has already inspired two famous books: Joe McGinniss' controversial Fatal Vision, and Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, which harshly criticized McGinniss and his work. Morris, a former private detective, and his eagerly awaited book will almost certainly bring the case back to the headlines. (Available Sept. 4)