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12 Summer Reads for 2013

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

Woman reading book in hammock, Summer Book Recommendations (Henry Arden/Cultura RF/Getty Images)

Henry Arden

Our editors pick their favorite books to read this summer. Find them online and in bookstores before heading for the hammock.

Book publishers sure find us lovable: Why else would they flood our offices with all these "advance reading copies" of their upcoming titles?

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We can't read them all, of course, but we have been turning pages just as fast as our carpally challenged fingers will let us to find the novels and nonfiction we think you'll enjoy this summer.

We call our proudest finds "watercooler cool reads"; they're the ones we talk up when we run down the block for coffee.

After listening to the 119th spontaneous review from a caffeinating colleague, I asked my coworkers (and a few select book world friends) to put a lid on it — that is, to cap their cappuccinos, return to their keyboards and capture their thoughts about any favorite new work, so long as it feels like play. Our fevered scribbles follow. Unless otherwise specified, the books are currently available online and in bookstores.

Joyland by Stephen King

Looking for a valentine to 1973? You'll find it in King's new ghost story/mystery novel, where the characters in a beachside amusement park smoke Winstons, drink Cold Duck and listen to the Doors. Oh, and chase phantoms, of course: The park's Horror House is haunted, and it's up to novice carny barker Devin Jones to free more than a few trapped spirits. After savoring all that King stuffs into Joyland — dialogue, action, coming-of-age epiphanies and at least two ghosts — pause to admire everything The Master wisely leaves out: You'll meet not a single wasted word as you zip through these pages. (June 4) — Allan Fallow

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

This fiendishly inventive novel should be the Blair Witch Project of the book-publishing world this summer. It's a sort of literary scavenger hunt retracing the efforts of Scott McGrath, a journalist disgraced by an on-air rant, to get at the truth behind the suicide of the brilliant and disturbed Ashley Cordova at age 24. Ashley's father, Stanislas, is a cult-movie director whose "night films" (such as Thumbscrew and La Douleur), shown only in underground screenings, are "so horrifying, audience members are known to pass out in terror." The 35-year-old Pessl's innovative use of multimedia to tell this creepy tale deepens her renown as a stylistic show-woman. (Aug. 20) — AF

Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

Publishing insiders call the dragon-tatted genre "Scandi-noir," and a few pages into this thriller you may find yourself cynically ticking off its predictable elements: Isolated northern European village? Check. Teen girls who vanished more than a decade ago, plus dysfunctional characters who know each other wa-a-y too well? Check and check. Young, curious, black-clad, punked-out, over-pierced woman? Check times 5! Stick with it, though: This international best seller features an engaging pair of detectives wrestling demons of their own, and a twisty-turny plot that keeps you guessing what befell those teens until just pages from the end. — Carol Kaufmann

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brillant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley by Neal Thompson 

And the award for most fascinating biography of the summer goes to … this tale that returns America's greatest showman to the spotlight. The gawky, stuttering, bucktoothed Ripley got his start at 18 in 1908, when Life magazine recognized his genius as an editorial cartoonist. He then wrote a sports column that detailed amazing feats of athleticism, but turned to factoids when he ran low on material. The items in Ripley's "Believe It or Not!" newspaper feature were designed either to rile the public (uh, Lindbergh was not the first to fly the Atlantic?) or revolt it; the man who could dislocate his jaw and "swallow" his own nose comes to mind. Thompson's breakneck pace lets you polish off this jaunty bio in a single weekend. — John Wilwol

Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival Art at America's Most Celebrated House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux by Boris Kachka

Farrar, Straus & Giroux is the Versailles of American publishing: It's been home to Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag and Jonathan Franzen. But every palace has its intrigue, as Kachka shows us in this lively, witty account of the financial struggles and fragile egos that stalked FSG as it pursued literary greatness. The extramarital (and often intramural) affairs conducted by publisher Roger Straus in the 1960s and '70s were legendary — his wife called the company a "sexual sewer" — but the entire office apparently would have made Don Draper blush. Kachka dishes up these cold cases piping hot, but his research reveals an equally fascinating business story: How do you balance fine art and filthy lucre? (Aug. 6) — Mark Athitakis

The Son
by Philipp Meyer

Stretching from pre-Civil War cowboys to post-9/11 immigrants, this follow-up to Meyer's American Rust is a Great American Novel of the type John Dos Passos once wrote. The first part is a spectacular captivity narrative about a white boy adopted into the Comanche band that killed his family. The second follows the long shadow of an act of shocking violence against a Mexican family. The third brings us into the present day as lived by one of the world's wealthiest women. This 200-year cycle of theft and murder shreds any golden myths we may cherish of civilized advancement. It's also historical fiction at its most stirring. — Ron Charles

Next page: More page-turners for summer reading. »

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

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 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

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

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

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.