Summer Reading Picks from Critics, Listeners

Steve Bercu's top pick for summer: Susan Casey's The Devil's Teeth hide caption

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David Kipen's top pick: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas hide caption

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Laura Miller's top pick: John Burdett's Bangkok Tattoo hide caption

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Listener Recommendations

  • Pest Control by Bill Fitzhugh recommended by Rodney in Cleveland, OH
  • The Accidental Pope: A Novel by Raymond Flynn and Robin Moore recommended by Lisa in Cleveland, OH
  • How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theatre by Marc Acito recommended by Floyd in Portland, OR
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini recommended by Paul in St. Louis, MO
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, translated by Lucia Graves recommended by Dave in Palm Coast, FL
  • Dream of the Great Blue: A Novel by Don West recommended by Barbara in Tucson, AZ
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman recommended by Jason in Raleigh, NC
  • The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins recommended by Jim in Ft. Collins, CO
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: A Novel by Susanna Clarke recommended by Rob via e-mail
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville and Ulysses by James Joyce recommended by Gary in Buffalo, NY
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon recommended by Suzie via e-mail
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling recommended by Heather in North Tonawanda, NY
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: A Novel by Marina Lewycka recommended by Kate in Livonia, MI
  • Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger recommended by Joe via e-mail
  • The Childhood of Sherlock Holmes by Mona Morstein recommended by Dave in Cleveland, OH
  • Oh, The Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey recommended by Billie in San Mateo, CA
  • Secret Service: Untold Stories of Lesbians in the Military by Zsa Zsa Gershick recommended by A.G. in Vancouver, WA

What's in your beach bag? A historical thriller or flashy crime novel? Provocative economic theory? Or are you strengthening your shoulder to haul the next Harry Potter?

Three critics — and Talk of the Nation listeners — share their top picks for summertime reading.

STEVE BERCU, Publisher's Weekly 2005 Bookseller of the Year and owner of BookPeople in Austin, Texas

The Devil's Teeth by Susan Casey (Henry Holt and Co.)

Author Susan Casey travels to the Farallon Islands to meet great white sharks and the biologists who study them.

Compulsively readable, The Devil's Teeth manages to make the Farallon Islands and the scientists who live there as compelling as the awesome great white sharks who return to those waters year after year.

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo (New Directions)

Vogelstein attends the annual meeting of the Israfel Society (devoted to the study of Edgar Allen Poe) in the hopes of meeting Jorge Luis Borges, but he hasn't counted on having to team up with Borges to solve the murder of one of the other attendees.

Murder, academic intrigue, secret societies, and orangutans, all in a petite, 135-page package — who could resist?

Here, There, and Everywhere by Chris Roberson (Pyr)

Schoolgirl Roxanne Bonaventure meets a dying old woman who gives her a strange bracelet that allows her to travel through time and alternate histories in this rollicking debut novel.

It is a rare author who can take the "science" part of science fiction so seriously yet not sacrifice a great story or compelling and well-realized characters.

Misfortune by Wesley Stace (Little, Brown)

Rose Old is a foundling rescued from a garbage heap by the richest man in Britain who raises her as his own, making her the luckiest little girl in the world with one small exception: She's not a girl. Sometimes you need a big book that you can really sink your teeth into, and this Dickensian romp has it all: eccentric characters, scheming relatives, triumphs, tragedies, and through it all, the fabulous Rose Old, who you won't soon forget.

The Right Madness by James Crumley (Viking)

Minnesota private eye C.W. Sughrue agrees to take on an "easy job" for a friend, and before you know it, there's an impossible mystery to solve and the bodies are piling up.

There's enough booze and drug-fueled, blood-soaked action here for the casual reader, but Crumley never sacrifices his characters for action. If you like Chandler and Hammet, give Crumley a try.

Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin (Penguin Press)

Freddy is next in line for the British throne, but since he lacks a certain charisma, he and his not-too-bright wife are shipped off to America to complete a quest that will reveal Freddy's destiny.

This not particularly subtle satire of British and American society is also a screwball romp, making it a great summer read.

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (Simon & Schuster)

In 1979 a secret wing of the U.S. military was formed with the purpose of creating soldiers capable of walking through walls, turning invisible and killing a goat merely by staring at it, and Jon Ronson tells us all about it in this funny and disturbing book.

Ronson has a terrific sense of humor which makes for easy reading, but he's also adept at finding the darker implications of this wacky true story.

Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo (Knopf)

Set against the backdrop of the Sudanese wars, Caputo charts the rise and fall of Douglas Braithwaite and Knight Air, which begins by flying relief supplies and ends in corruption and arms smuggling.

This slow-moving, atmospheric novel is perfect for the long, slow summer days.

Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Three interconnected stories by the well-known author of The Hours.

Lint by Steve Aylett (Thunder's Mouth Press)

This mock biography covers the life of science-fiction writer Jeff Lint from his early pulp days to comics and screenplays, complete with salacious details, cover art from Lint's books, and even excerpts from his screenplays.

Lint is dense and funny and works on many levels, and Aylett is an author who should be better known in this country.

DAVID KIPEN, book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Random House Trade Paperbacks)

For as long as I've been reviewing books professionally, I don't believe I have ever loved a new book the way that I love Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas is actually structured like six short novels nested inside of each other to form a chevron. You read half of each, then the only undivided one, and then Mitchell returns to each of his five cliffhangers in reverse order — exactly as if you were reading, not six books in one, but six books chevroned inside each other.

Behind all the brilliant structural cantilevering is a writer blessed with a ventriloquist's perfect ear, a prodigiously sneaky gift for black comedy, a full-throated disgust at the hash mankind is making of the world, and the one thing you never find in the same package as all those other virtues: plot. David Mitchell can plot like a house afire, which coincidentally may be just what he sees when he looks at the planet — a house afire.

Paradise by A.L. Kennedy (Knopf)

Imagine Days of Wine and Roses set in modern Scotland, and you'll still have no idea what Kennedy pulls off with this sexy, beautifully written first-person novel about a woman who has to decide which she loves more: her alcoholic boyfriend, or alcohol itself. Usually novels about drinkers leave me cold, in the same way a novel about book critics might be expected to leave other people cold. Who else cares, right?

But Kennedy's descriptions of her two addictions, to this guy and to the next drink — and her funny, withering disdain for anything else — make for a book that reads like a bender. You disengage from it bleary, hungover, looking around for just a little more Kennedy to kill the foggy throb of withdrawal.

Meritocracy: A Love Story by Jeffrey Lewis (Other Press (N.Y.))

This is that rare bird, a novel with an argument behind it. Forty years ago, a few recent Yale grads drive up to Maine for one last weekend together before the senator's son among them ships out for basic training. Lewis winds up contending that the reason the United States is in such a fix right now is that, just as in Europe after World War I, a whole generation of brave young men died, leaving behind a bunch of rich boys and rationalizers to run the country.

I'm not sure I buy this thesis, but it's so refreshing to read a novel with a point that I can't get it out of my head. Also, the middle-aged narrator's still-fresh crush on the hero's wife, even after four intervening decades, comes across with real wit and sting.

Fat Girl by Judith Moore (Hudson Street Press)

Moore inherited a weight problem from her mostly absent father and a sense of worthlessness from her disastrously present mother. If not for a few crumbs of affection from an uncle and the occasional sympathetic playmate, who knows what might have become of her?

Fat Girl is a sobering lesson in how much stronger a little kindness can be than a busload of grief — and just how much harder to come by. At a cultural moment when Brooke Shields can milk a few weeks of fully insured and successfully medicated postpartum depression for a book deal, there's something invigorating about a woman who says, in effect, "I'll never be thin, I'll never be well-adjusted, but I can write like a banshee and that'll just have to do."

Any Bitter Thing by Monica Wood (Chronicle Books)

Monica Wood's Any Bitter Thing is a quiet, cunning novel about a woman recovering from an accident who tries to piece together the disappearance of her beloved uncle and guardian from her life when she was still a girl. Here, as in Cloud Atlas, the forgotten, undersold virtue of good sound plotting proves its worth outside the usual confines of genre fiction.

Any Bitter Thing is also an unapologetically emotional book, full of well-observed grace notes and observations about grief and marriage that bring you up short with a grateful shiver recognition.

LAURA MILLER, book critic for Salon

Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett (Knopf)

This follow-up to Bangkok 8 centers on Buddhist police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who works in the Thai capital's red-light district — District 8. It's a wild and crazy, very funny, very smart and very non-Western look at life in the big city. Pretty much every government institution the hero deals with is corrupt — and yet everything works, so the Thais don't understand why Westerners object.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (Little, Brown)

A band of intrepid historians hunt for the real-life Dracula — and visit plenty of far-flung European locales. The book is a great tour of these exotic locations — from the deep forests of Bulgaria and other wild and savage places, to obscure little monastery towns in the south of France. The Historian is a little vacation between two covers — with a little Dracula thrown in for good measure.

10 Men by Alexandra Gray (Atlantic Monthly Press)

A smart and stylish debut in which an unnamed heroine guides us through her personal history of love, one man at a time, as she searches for true happiness.

Oblivion by Peter Abrahams (William Morrow)

Detective Nick Petrov confronts the case of a missing girl — and a life-changing brain tumor — in this sleekly written, suspenseful crime novel.

The Hidden Family by Charles Stross (Tor Books)

In this second novel in "The Merchant Princes" fantasy series, past, present and future collide as investigative journalist Miriam Beckstein navigates parallel universes — and alters the course of history.

Cast of Shadows by Kevin Guilfoile (Knopf)

A father uses cloning technology to track down the man who killed and raped his daughter in the near-future. It sounds preposterous, but Cast of Shadows is actually a clever, well-executed thriller.

Misfortune by Wesley Stace (Little, Brown)

In this enjoyable, 19th-century potboiler with a twist, a boy is raised as a girl, and a balladeer plays a starring role in solving the mystery of her parentage.

In the Shadow of the Law by Kermit Roosevelt (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Vivid — and very funny — characters make this K Street thriller about corporate law a standout. It's a hilarious portrait of what it's like to be a young laywer just starting out — and it's never boring.

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