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12 Summer Reads for 2013

Our favorite books to dive into this season — and one to avoid

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The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Summer Book Recommendations (Courtesy Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Narrator Nora Eldridge is a benign, 42-year-old third-grade teacher in brainy Cambridge, Mass. But her fury at having become "the woman upstairs" — pleasant, unremarkable and basically invisible to the world — blisters every page of this novel. Nora's lifelong dreams of becoming both an artist and a mother took on a sort of virtual reality five years ago, when the charismatic Shahid family floated into her life. There's 8-year-old Reza, an adorable student in her classroom; his alluring Italian mother, Sirena, an installation artist; and his intellectual Lebanese father, Skandar. Nora lets herself be lured into their lives — that's skeevy, she knows — but the Shahids promise a wider existence that's too seductive to resist. Ever felt trapped by your own life choices? You'll find familiar echoes in this incendiary novel. — CK

Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman, Summer Book Recommendations (Courtesy Gale Group)

Rage Against the Dying
by Becky Masterman

As a young reader, I devoured Nancy Drew mysteries because the girl had brains and bravado. Now I've found a grownup Nancy: She's retired FBI agent Brigid Quinn, a flawed heroine who's nonetheless strong, sensitive and oh-so-experienced. At 59, Quinn is a rule breaker unafraid to kick some major butt. (Don't call her "Cupcake"; the nickname's "Stinger"!) In Rage, a page-turner more thrilling than last summer's hot read Gone GirlQuinn sets out to nail a serial killer. Masterman writes with the forensic certainty you'd expect from an editor of medical texts — her job in "real life." But it's her smart, sure-footed character that will make you hope Rage is merely the first episode of Agent Quinn's retirement saga. — Lorrie Lynch

Norwegian by Night by Derek Miller, Summer Book Recommendations (Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller

Eighty-two-year-old Sheldon Horowitz — an American Jew who happens to be a Korean War veteran — moves to Oslo to stay in touch with his granddaughter, Rhea, when she marries a Norwegian man. Sheldon's short-term memory ain't what it used to be, and the ensuing culture shock only makes it worse. Then he witnesses a murder that orphans a 6-year-old boy. Sheldon doesn't know his name or speak his language, but he takes the boy under his wing and heads for the back of beyond — that is, rural Norway — to keep him safe. With family members, an evil Balkan mobster and two Norwegian detectives in hot pursuit, Miller's novel becomes a stunning examination of how our lives shape our character, and how our allegiances shape our destiny. — Bethanne Patrick

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls, Summer Book Recommendations (Courtesy Scribner)

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

Don't be fooled by the packaging: Though marketed as literary fiction, this evocative tale of two adolescent girls standing up to adult abuses of power in 1970 is really a young-adult novel in disguise — and an excellent one at that. "Bean" Holladay (age 12) and her sister, Liz (age 15), hop a bus in California when it becomes clear that their unstable mother, Charlotte, won't be coming home anytime soon. Their destination: the crumbling-but-genteel mansion of their Uncle Tinsley in southwest Virginia. A moneymaking scheme lands Liz in hot water (she's also victimized by the local Richard Cory), but emotional and tangible support ultimately emerge from an unexpected source. Prepare for tear-stained pages — or screens. (June 11) — BP

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, Summer Book Recommendations (Courtesy Random House Publishing Group)

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Susan is still living in the small Maine town where she was raised with her brothers, Bob and Jim Burgess, when her teenage son, Zach, does the unspeakable: He throws a pig's head into a mosque. Bob and Jim, now middle-aged New York lawyers, head for home — the site of a decades-old family tragedy — to defend their besieged nephew. Strout, who won a Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge (2008), never explains why a shy, nice-seeming kid would commit such a hateful act. But you'll forgive that lapse as you sink into her provocative exploration of how guilt and innocence intertwine. — Christina Ianzito

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld, Summer Book Recommendations (Courtesy Random House Publishing Group)

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Our list would not be complete without this book — and a warning about it. Even if you venture no farther than your local library this summer, you're going to spot someone reading this fourth novel by the author of Prep and American Wife. When that happens, I want you to march up and give that person my permission to put the book down and never turn another page. Why so bitter? Because this novel about twin sisters with an odd bond — they're prescient and telepathic — promises shattering earthquakes and shuddery mind probes but delivers little more than diaper changes and breastfeeding dilemmas. That's 397 pages of my life I'll never get back. No need for you to repeat my fate. (June 25) — AF

About our reviewers: Mark Athitakis serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle; Ron Charles is the editor of the Washington Post's Book World; Bethanne Patrick is the "Now Read This!" columnist for; John Wilwol is the book editor of Washingtonian magazine. Allan Fallow, Christina Ianzito, Carol Kaufmann and Lorrie Lynch are AARP staffers.

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