Even the most serious reader needs an occasional break, something suitable for whiling away hot, humid afternoons on the porch or offering distraction from the terror and tedium of an airplane flight. But just because we want our summer books to go down easy -- the pages ruffling through our hands almost as quickly as if they were being blown by a sea breeze -- doesn't mean we want junk reads, the kind of book that makes your brain feel the way your stomach does after you've scarfed down a whole bag of potato chips.
Here is Salon's list of recommended summer books, books with engaging stories that are also believable, funny characters who are also human and a few chills thrown in for good measure.
By Peter Moore Smith
Little Brown, 390 pages
One brother is a handsome neurosurgeon, the other is a drifter recovering from a psychotic episode. The loser says that the winner is a covert sadist, responsible for the disappearance of their 7-year-old sister many years ago. Will his pretty psychologist believe him or is the truth more complicated? Though the premise of this absorbing psychological thriller may sound a bit mechanical, Scott writes so convincingly, with such vivid eloquence, that even the most jaded reader will be kept perpetually off-balance. In particular, his depictions of the scary mental mutations of schizophrenia and the creepy dread of suburban angst feel so real you never think of looking for the backstage machinery.
Welcome to My Planet*
*Where English Is Sometimes Spoken
By Shannon Olson
Viking, 286 pages
In a wildly original marketing ploy, they're billing this book as "the next 'Bridget Jones'" and "the next 'Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing.'" The setup of "Welcome to My Planet" does fit the general outline of the genre: a 30-year-old narrator, named Shannon (like the author), has a dead-end job, a big credit-card debt, a relationship that's going nowhere fast and a general sense of dread about the future. What's interesting -- and what sets this book apart from the rest of the Bridget clones -- is that Shannon is refreshingly free of the expectation that her life should be fabulous. (The fact that she lives in Minnesota, rather than a place like New York or London that holds out the promise of glamour, helps on that score.)
There's nothing riveting in here, but there's no whining, either. She relates the mundane details of her life in a deadpan, practically affectless voice that's not quirky and not trying to be literary -- she's just trying to figure out a couple of things about how life works. The book is tuned in to the banalities of trying to make an adult life in a way that's smart and touching. It's the opposite of a thriller -- it's basically a chronicle of non-events -- but it has a no-nonsense, artless, Midwestern appeal that made me keep turning the pages even after I realized that nothing earth-shattering was going to happen.
-- Maria Russo
By Bill Flanagan
Random House, 368 pages
The characters in Bill Flanagan's rock 'n' roll potboiler "A&R" are Prada-wearing music industry archetypes -- or, less flatteringly, music industry clichis. Jimmy Cantone is the idealistic young A&R guy who thinks he's in the business for the music; Wild Bill DeGaul is the wild-man world traveler who built Tropic Records from the ground up; Booth is the Machiavellian money man with a scheme to take control of WorldWide Records, a major label that swallowed Tropic and in turn was bought out by a monolithic international media conglomerate. All three are weasels.
The novel cruises so fast -- from smudgy nightclubs to stretch limos, from boardrooms to hotel suites, from a Brazilian street riot to an island paradise -- that it really doesn't matter if it never really soars beyond parody or jarring deus ex machina device. Still, first-time novelist Flanagan is the real-life senior vice president and editorial director of the VH1 cable music channel, and music industry insiders and media types can amuse themselves by sniffing out the real-world inspirations for the maverick label chief and the multiplatinum diva whose sales have been slipping ever since she started sucking on a crack pipe. The music industry might be a complete farce, Flanagan seems to be saying, but thank God it's outrageous.
-- Jeff Stark
The Man Who Wrote the Book
By Erik Tarloff
Crown Books, 288 pages
Ezra Gordon, a 35-year-old, pathologically passive English professor at a Baptist college in central California, has very little to show for his years of hard work and self-abnegation. A charge of sexual harassment by an unstable undergraduate has tainted his already unlikely bid for tenure, he hasn't written a poem in years and he can barely make rent on his scholarly serf's income. Then Ezra escapes to visit an old college friend who has made it big in pornography in Southern California. His friend, a benign guru of carpe diem So-Cal-style, suggest Ezra write a book for his publishing house. Ezra agrees on one condition: that his identity remain a secret. And whaddayaknow, becoming a pornographer is just what Ezra's sense of self-esteem needed all along.
Soon he's living a nebbish's fantasia: large-breasted yet intelligent women compete for his attentions, leaving him emotionally reeling and physically spent. Then something unexpected happens: His book takes on a life of its own and carries Ezra's into utter chaos. Tarloff juggles his cast of appealingly cartoonish characters with ample panache, pulling off his tale of male fantasy with just enough wit and self-awareness to quell my exasperation more than once. But in the end it's the topsy-turvy plot that keeps you turning the pages even after the summer moon has set in the early morning. You can't help but root for the Ezra that lives in all of us: a sorry-assed superego who finds redemption in his id.
-- Carol Lloyd
Artful Dodging: Painless Techniques for Avoiding Anyone Anytime
By Jeanne Martinet
St. Martin's Griffin, 154 pages
Cornered at a cocktail party? Fake an injury -- e.g., biting your tongue, biting down on your fork, hitting your shin on the coffee table. "Even the most self-involved bore will not expect you to stay and listen to him when you're doubled over in agony." Jeanne Martinet's funny and surprisingly humane how-to guide resurrects those civilized excuses that used to be known as white lies before somebody decided that unflinching honesty represented the moral high road. Martinet is a feelings-sparer; she won't countenance leaving phone calls unreturned or standing people up. Beyond those strictures, though, not much fazes her. Blow an obligation? Invoke the terrible, horrible, very bad day. "Your freshly made error of omission will then become just another part of this 'bad day,' just a small piece of a run of bad luck, with which everyone can empathize." Among the mishaps you could call on: busted high heel/lost your keys/pigeon went to the bathroom on your head/therapist made a pass at you/found cockroach in food/raw sewage leak in apartment/tripped over crack in sidewalk and skinned everything so now pantyhose are caked with blood ... which was enough to make me regret that I don't wear pantyhose, because whose heart wouldn't go out to you when you claim that one?
-- Craig Seligman
Too Much Coffee Man's Parade of Tirade
By Shannon Wheeler
Dark Horse Comics, 143 pages
Too Much Coffee Man is a jittery, angst-ridden superhero with a coffee cup for a head. In this collection of Too Much Coffee Man Nos. 1-8 he (not necessarily in this order) gets created, dies, takes on Trademark Copyright Man (TMCM vs. TM)M), battles the superhero clichi and even, "for no apparent reason," gets "hit by lightning, radioactivity, or something, and becomes omnipotent!" He uses his power to solve all the world's problems, then grows bored with being worshiped by the inhabitants of a perfect world and tries to kill himself, but he's too powerful to be killed. Damn!
At any rate, none of this really matters, because the main event in "Too Much Coffee Man's Parade of Tirade" isn't TMCM's adventures, but the two stories that weave themselves around those adventures: the story of Shannon Wheeler, the snaggletoothed, slightly neanderthal-looking fellow who draws the comic ("It's an emotional self-portrait," he tells a fan, and he gets nicer-looking as he becomes successful), and Joel, a neurotic fan of the comic whose life degenerates as Wheeler's improves.
By the way, Nos. 1-8 actually collects only six issues, because Wheeler got tired of the story arc and skipped to the end, thus making Nos. 6 and 7 the ultimate collectible comics, because they don't exist. You should look for them.
-- Gary Kaufman
Beach: Stories by the Sand and Sea
Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker, editors
Marlowe & Co., 256 pages
Despite what its title suggests, "Beach: Stories by the Sand and Sea," edited by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker, is no carefree romp on the subjects of shore and surf. This collection of short stories, novel excerpts and narrative nonfiction by J.G. Ballard, Albert Camus, Jamaica Kincaid, Vladimir Nabokov and John Steinbeck, among others, contemplates its subject slowly and somewhat solemnly, as if noting the singularity of each froth of wave, tuft of sea grass, grain of sand or swath of skin.
John Updike conjures a lifeguard who's also a divinity student, finding God in the stretch of water before him: "Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved." Cyrus Colter gives us a man who essentially sacrifices his family for a beach umbrella (and its accompanying social acceptance), and Doris Lessing offers an 11-year-old boy who challenges himself to a treacherous swim through an underwater rock and emerges, bleeding and breathless, into manhood. Deep stuff to go with your sunscreen. Taken in short doses, "Beach" might be just the thing to sample between leisurely dozes in the hot sun and bracing dips in the water. And you'll probably take its images home with you -- like sand in your shoe.
-- Amy Reiter
Car Camping : The Book of Desert Adventures
By Mark Sundeen
Quill, 240 pages
Remember a time when a vacation could happen at any moment? When you didn't have to get supervisor approval, consult travel agents, confer with spouses or worry about how to keep the kids amused? Housepainter Mark Sundeen, 22, tells of hopping in his ramshackle station wagon, alone or with some of his more eccentric family members, and hightailing it out of his Southern California neighborhood for various godforsaken, fascinating parts of the American West. These are the kind of people who head off for Sedona, Ariz., without quite knowing where it is. Sundeen, via his faux-naive authorial persona, makes many delightfully sly comments on the pretentious rich inhabitants of Telluride, tourists chasing Native American "spirituality" and the true meaning of the term "National Recreational Area."
-- Laura Miller
By David Lodge
Penguin, 128 pages
Fanny Tarrant is glib, cruel, in her 20s and makes an inappropriately successful living eviscerating the famous every Sunday in the pages of the London Sunday Sentinel. (She also bears a strong resemblance to the nubile know-it-alls in American print and TV media, whose words cut a lot deeper than their own frown lines.) Her most recent victim is the wealthy TV writer Sam Sharp, who, she reports, "swaggers around his estate with his Ralph Lauren jeans tucked into high-heeled cowboy boots. He can use the heels, actually, being a little short in the shank." She also writes of his toupee and his generally indefensible vanity. Sam turns to his old friend, a reclusive, onetime famous novelist named Adrian Ludlow (who shares some traits in common with Lodge), and the two hatch a scheme. Adrian agrees to let Fanny interview him, while plotting to use the occasion to turn the tables on the hectoring hack.
Fanny's writing -- heavy-handed and cheap -- is just good enough that you can imagine it making her a star. But being callow isn't the same as being evil, and that makes her inevitable comeuppance fairly unsatisfying. But she becomes an incidental foe in "Home Truths" anyway. Where the book really succeeds is as a meditation on how fame is destructive when it's unwanted, but even more so when it is subconsciously pursued.
-- Kerry Lauerman
Body of a Girl
By Leah Stewart
Viking, 311 pages
In middle school, I remember creeping into the off-limits bedroom of my best friend's notorious older sister to study the defiant faces in her photo collages, smell her perfumes, twist her lipsticks and sometimes -- when feeling brave -- to touch the smoky-smelling clothes that lay strewn across the floor. For a stolen, exhilarating three minutes, I was a mysterious, romanticized version of her. Leah Stewart's first novel is the story of a similar seduction, set during a burning Memphis "summer of murders." The 25-year-old narrator, Olivia Dale, is a crime reporter for a daily newspaper investigating the brutal rape and murder of young Allison Avery. As she reconstructs the murder, Olivia emulates the wild Allison, wearing her wig, frequenting her favorite bars and befriending her loved ones. Caught somewhere between compassion and curiosity, it is not long before Olivia takes over Allison's life -- recklessness and all. "Body of a Girl" unfolds like a mystery, with leads and suspects and surprising revelations, but it's not the whodunit element that makes the book a compelling read. Stewart, a former editor of DoubleTake magazine, evokes the way we measure death by the number of words we afford it in newspapers and the danger of seeking humanity and truth in the sad, tormented lives of strangers.
-- Suzy Hansen
What's Not to Love? The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer
By Jonathan Ames
Crown Books, 272 pages
If you haven't had the treat of watching Jonathan Ames' hilarious, sui generis live performance pieces, reading his new book "What's Not to Love?" is the next best thing. It's like eating pistachio ice cream: soothing and weirdly interesting at the same time. Through chapters with titles such as "Pubertas Agonistes," "Sex in Venice" and "The Lord of the Genitals," Ames calmly and amiably dissects his everyday anxieties and perversions -- everything from his idiosyncratic style of masturbation to an impromptu trip to a dominatrix to his grown-up-mama's-boy thing for much older women. Even Ames' oddest, potentially sordid sexual encounters are presented straight and with great affection, such as his fling with a woman who "only liked to do one thing: sit on my face and suffocate me ... after about an hour of just sitting there like a hen, she would have an orgasm. The whole thing was so exotic and unusual that I enjoyed it." Not all of these chapters, originally written for Ames' column in the New York Press, work, but most of the book is a hoot. The self-deprecating Ames is a cheerfully gracious neurotic, which makes laughing at his humor feel easy, uncomplicated and unexpectedly joyful.
-- Maria Russo
Not a Day Goes By
By E. Lynn Harris
Doubleday, 208 pages
E. Lynn Harris puts the "dog" in the "dog days" of summer with the return of Basil Henderson, the confused cutie at the center of his newest novel, "Not a Day Goes By," and a recurring Harris hero. This well-plotted trashy romp follows bisexual bad-boy Basil and his clueless fiancie, the beautiful and wicked Yancey Braxton, through the half-truths and entire lies that doom their relationship. Like most soap-opera characters, these lovers have fascinating jobs -- he's a sports agent, she's a Broadway performer -- that rarely intrude on their crying/lying/cheating time. Yancey, haunted by memories of another man, loves Basil with all her icy little heart. Basil, haunted by memories of another man, loves Yancey too, but not nearly as much as he loves himself.
Sweaty sex and bad behavior ensue, and everyone gets what they have coming in the end. Harris keeps the action flowing, even though pricey toys often get a more thorough description than characters, especially women. But despite its flaws, this book consistently entertains, and it won't drag down your vacation or plane ride with a lot of deep thoughts. Instead, like its hero, "Not a Day Goes By" offers sweet, guilty thrills that leave you longing for more.
-- Alicia Montgomery
Magic Terror: Seven Tales
By Peter Straub
Random House, 335 pages
When thunderstorms ruin your weekend plans, "Magic Terror" is the perfect way to savor the dark, gloomy, pathological ambience. Peter Straub's seven tales of human dementia are thoughtfully disturbing rather than gruesomely horrifying. He knows that it's scarier to find yourself empathizing with homicidal kindergarten teachers and home-grown psychopaths. The author is tender with his depraved characters; he's not just portraying monsters, he's trying to understand them.
Straub may cover these stories -- whether about Vietnam or witchcraft or jazz -- with healthy smatterings of blood, gore and fecal matter, but his butchery and body functions are never overdone. Besides being smart and scary, Straub writes with evil wit, like the sort of black-clad, high school wiseass who scores perfect on the SATs: "Because I was twenty and already writing books in my head, I thought that the cave was the place where the other 'Tom Sawyer' ended, where Injun Joe raped Becky Thatcher and slit Tom's throat." Sick, but watch, you'll soon be snickering gleefully into your book.
-- Suzy Hansen
Marrying the Mistress
By Joanna Trollope
Viking, 293 pages
Despite its title, "Marrying the Mistress" is no mere sexy romp detailing the lurid details of a juicy affair. Instead, Joanna Trollope offers a domestic drama that gives us an insider's view of what happens to a family when the respected head of the household -- 60-year-old judge Guy Stockdale -- announces he is leaving his wife of 40 years to marry his much younger mistress, Merrion. From his teenage grandson who thinks it's cool that Gramps can still snag a hot young babe to his feisty daughter-in-law who sets up a secret meeting to check out the Other Woman, this is a nuanced tale that manages to be both familiar and surprising. What makes the situation complex -- and the book beach-bag worthy -- is the fact that Merrion is far from the stereotypical villain/slut/husband stealer. She is intelligent, independent, successful and impossible not to like. Reading "Marrying the Mistress" is like spying on the neighbors that everyone on the street is gossiping about -- without the guilt.
-- Catherine Davis