The top 20 must-reads 

From a post-apocalyptic weeper to a Scandinavian thriller to the crazy story of the creator of the World Series of Poker, these are the summer's best bets.

As anybody can tell you, crafting a best-seller is simple. All you have to do is take a feisty, female protagonist, throw her into a dangerous dystopian world, draw up two heroic dudes to serve as the bottom points on the love triangle, and, viola, you've won the adoration of millions and secured you're very own Hollywood movie deal. Yay! Of course, it's never that easy. Writing is damned difficult stuff, and steering clear of the popular literary memes of the day — at least partially — is something to be celebrated. Which is why these 20 summer books — both fiction and non-fiction — are worth getting your paws on.


Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands
Chris Bohjalian

In his latest heart-wrencher, the bestselling author of Midwives and The Sandcastle Girls, follows 16-year-old Emily as she navigates the streets of Burlington, Vt., after nuclear fallout has rendered the area an "exclusion zone." After discovering that both her parents were killed in the explosion, Emily, a compellingly voiced narrator, must manage her new, dangerous life amidst the ruins.

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

World War II is the setting for Doerr's two emotional story lines, which ultimately intersect toward the end of the novel. In one, Marie-Laure, a blind teenager in a walled city in Brittany, struggles to survive the Allied bombings with her great uncle. Meanwhile, we also meet Werner Pfennig, a German orphan whose radio transmission skills earn him a spot in the Wehrmacht. Further subplots unfurl, but it's the full-bodied rendering of his main characters that make Doerr's novel so memorable.

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To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
Joshua Ferris

Dentistry, baseball obsession and identity theft all collide in Ferris' third novel, a suitable companion to his renowned debut, Then We Came to the End. Paul O'Rourke owns a thriving dental practice in Manhattan, but when someone opens a website, Facebook page, and Twitter account under his name without his permission, his contented life goes awry. As the eerie tale unfolds, Ferris deftly — and often hilariously — explores themes of conspiracy, faith, love, and digital skullduggery.

An Untamed State
Roxane Gay

A kidnapping in Haiti forms the core of this harrowing debut novel, but it's the interior life of Gay's protagonist, Mireille, that truly shines. Moving between Mireille's present captivity — punctuated by frequent beatings and sexual assault — and flashbacks to her childhood, Gay expertly evokes Mireille's terror and helplessness in a style that is immediate and plainspoken, and the story is all the more powerful for it.

The Magician's Land
Lev Grossman

In the stirring conclusion to Grossman's bestselling Magicians trilogy, Quentin Coldwater is bereft after being expelled from the kingdom of Fillory. As he seeks to build a new life, he encounters old friends, buried secrets, and possibly, redemption. Likely the best of the series, it's the perfect cap to Grossman's beautiful fantasy realm and a truly remarkable achievement from a talented writer and world builder.

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The Possibilities
Kaui Hart Hemmings

Hemmings showed great promise in her debut novel, The Descendants, and she became a household name when Alexander Payne adapted it into an Oscar-winning film starring George Clooney. There's certainly no sophomore slump with The Possibilities, an emotionally charged story of a single mother who loses her son in a freak accident and grapples with the feelings of grief, anger, and pain that inevitably ensue.

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel

Another post-apocalyptic novel? Not to worry. Mandel's entry in the genre, set in the Great Lakes region after the collapse of civilization, is a winner. Moving back and forth in time, Mandel follows the survivors of the Georgia Flu, a group of musicians, actors, and artists, as they fight to survive and adjust to the new world order. The author weaves in just the right number of subplots and luminous strands of coincidence, chance, and intrigue to keep the pages turning.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami

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It's not as ambitious as 1Q84, but Murakami's latest novel is just as eerily haunting and continues the author's singular ability to blend the commonplace with the dreamlike and nightmarish. As Tsukuru struggles with suicidal thoughts brought on by his friends' abandonment, he also seeks a new way in life in a narrative that, as usual with Murakami, displays a slippery sense of time and place. Alternately hallucinogenic and lucid, it's a classic story that will thrill fans and possibly win him some new ones.

The Son
Jo Nesbø

Though not as well known as Stieg Larsson, Nesbø continues to be one of the most talented practitioners of the Scandinavian crime genre, with such dark literary thrillers as Phantom, The Snowman, The Leopard, and The Redeemer to his credit. The Son, a stand-alone break from the Harry Hole series starring an addict and prisoner who supposedly has "healing hands," continues in that vein, delivering all the underworld madness we've come to expect from Nesbø.

Land of Love and Drowning
Tiphanie Yanique

All the beauty and mystery of the Caribbean inhabits Yanique's debut novel, a family epic that spans from the early 1900s to the 1970s and encompasses three generations of the Bradshaw family and their varying perspectives on island life. The rhythmic story recalls the work of Marquez and other magical realists, as Yanique gives us a layered examination of heritage and faith that is rich in historical detail, local color, and vivid characterizations.


Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves
Laurel Braitman

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Smirk if you must, but animals do experience emotions, including depression and anxiety, and they can even suffer from madness. In her debut book, Braitman, who has a doctorate in the history of science from MIT, takes us inside the minds of a variety of creatures large and small. Beginning with the story of her own dog Oliver, who exhibited signs of mental illness, Braitman makes a convincing case for further exploration of the inner lives of animals.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Roz Chast

For more than three decades, Chast has delighted readers of the New Yorker with her cartoons, which feature a signature blend of wry wit and deceptively simple drawing. While retaining her trademark humor, this poignant memoir demonstrates the artist's facility with emotional engagement. Through the story of her relationship with her parents, particularly as they physically and mentally decline, Chast provides an exemplary graphic memoir that is consistently moving without becoming overly sentimental.

American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood
Paul Greenberg

Around Charleston and much of the Southeast, the salt marsh is a sacred, yet often threatened ecosystem. Greenberg, the author of Four Fish, explains the connection between the salt marsh and the quality and sustainability of seafood. It's an issue of utmost relevancy in the Lowcountry, and Greenberg's expertise and firsthand reporting create a must-read for fishermen, outdoorsmen, and environmentalists of all stripes.

The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture
Euny Hong

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Remember "Gangnam Style?" Of course you do, whether you want to admit it or not. Korean musician Psy's megahit dominated the charts for much of 2012 — and beyond. In her first book of nonfiction, Korean-American journalist Euny Hong playfully and insightfully dissects her native culture, explaining the importance of "Hallyu," the successful export of South Korean pop culture around the world. Psy may be Hallyu's avatar, but Hong shows that there's much more to it than just "Gangnam Style."

Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee
Michael Korda

In the South, Robert E. Lee is often considered a demigod, and few are more capable of doing the great general justice than acclaimed popular historian Michael Korda. In this meaty (832 pages), masterful biography, the author covers all the highs and lows in Lee's intriguing life, illuminating the many reasons why Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, and thousands of young soldiers followed him into battle without hesitation.

My Salinger Year
Joanna Rakoff

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Ever since a cache of unpublished J.D. Salinger material was discovered last year, interest in the reclusive novelist has ramped up considerably. Rakoff takes a personal approach to the acclaimed Catcher in the Rye author, adeptly chronicling her work at a literary agency in which her main tasks were focused on Salinger-related business, including the development of a correspondence with the author and the handling of his voluminous fan mail.

Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)
Christian Rudder

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Most of us know that data-mining companies are collecting all sorts of information about us, but few know the full extent of the digging. As a Harvard-trained mathematician and the founder of OkCupid, Rudder is intimately familiar with the machinations of Big Data, and he lays it all out in Dataclysm, which follows in the getting-behind-the-scenes-of-technology tradition of James Gleick's The Information and Steven Levy's In the Plex.

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette
Hampton Sides

In this gripping story of polar exploration in the Arctic waters of Russia 150 years ago, the acclaimed popular historian Hampton Sides once again proves to be a master at pacing, characterization, and suspense, skills he has honed in such previous books as Hellhound on His Trail and Ghost Soldiers. Readers who were transfixed by Into Thin Air and other such tales of dangerous adventure are sure to love In the Kingdom of Ice.

Take This Man: A Memoir
Brando Skyhorse

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The author of The Madonnas of Echo Park returns with a memoir about his tumultuous childhood with his temperamental mother and her series of lovers, each of whom briefly served as a father figure for Skyhorse but ultimately contributed to the author's dysfunctional upbringing. Simultaneously moving, hilarious, and sociologically insightful, Take This Man is one of the best memoirs of 2014.

Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker
Doug J. Swanson

Though he appeared to be just another Texas hillbilly, Benny Binion grew to become one of the most successful gambling moguls in 1930s-'60s Las Vegas. Swanson captures his subject in all his antiheroical glory, uncovering sordid tales of fast living, corruption, and even murder — not to mention Binion's glorified publicity stunt that eventually became the World Series of Poker.


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