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The 2014 Summer Reading Guide

9 smart, entertaining new books to get you through the summer

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The Post family is heading to Mallorca for a two-week holiday, and they're bringing along a lot of metaphorical baggage. Franny is a frazzled food writer and enraged wife, her husband Jim is a disgraced magazine editor who's been let go for "inappropriate behavior," their daughter Sylvia is weeks away from her freshman year at Brown and determined to lose her virginity in the interim, and their twenty-something son Bobby is, well, a complete mess. Straub can really turn a line and her social commentary is on-the-money. What's more, Straub genuinely wants her characters to feel happy and fulfilled—and that sentiment ends up infusing The Vacationers with a lightness and whimsy. It's rare to find a novel that seeks joy for its protagonists but doesn't tack a saccharine bow on every interaction. The Vacationers is that rare novel. (Available May 29)

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Joanna Rakoff's yearlong stint at "The Agency" happened to coincide with J.D. Salinger's (slightly harebrained) scheme to republish his massive prequel to the Glass family saga, "Hapworth 16, 1924." As the very green assistant to a very storied agent, Rakoff was given the lowliest task: responding to Salinger's fan mail, which he famously refused to even scan. Through her encounters with the famous recluse's rabid readers, Rakoff begins to appreciate his talent and hone her own as a poet and short story writer. This sweet, smart memoir is far from unbridled fan worship, however. Rakoff writes clearly (and very, very funnily) about the advent of the Internet in the publishing world and the prickly personalities that populated it. And while she loves and respects Salinger, she never lets his story take over her own. (Available June 3)

Problems with People by David Guterson

Guterson's literary reputation is distinctly tied to his Pacific Northwest–set novels (The Other, Snow Falling on Cedars, etc.), so a collection of globe-trotting short stories at first seemed ... off-key. But he applies his usual dreamy sensibility and keen awareness of the complexities of human consciousness, and the result is a contemporary musing on E.M. Forster's directive to "Only connect." What separates us from those around us? What prevents intimacy and understanding? Guterson struggles with those questions and more in what is one of the best short story collections of the year. (Available June 3)

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Rachman's debut, The Imperfectionists, managed to tell the story of one newspaper's rise and fall through the viewpoints of more than a dozen of its employees—without ever feeling spastic or unfocused. In fact, the novel was pretty darn close to perfect. For his second book, Rachman has only one protagonist—twenty-something bookshop owner Tooly—but it leaps back and forth through time, and skips all across the globe. It's a bookshop-lover's book, and beautiful prose-lover's book, and read-it-all-in-one-weekend book. (Available June 10)

Abroad by Katie Crouch

Knowing all the details of Amanda Knox's story—that she was arrested, convicted, sent to an Italian prison, and then released—doesn't spoil Crouch's provocative, empathetic novel, though it is clearly based on Knox's supposed involvement in the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher. She hems carefully to known facts about the Knox case, but manages to make the story entirely her own with precise, deft twists. And while she offers her own theory on whodunnit, Crouch's careful manuevering means you're never sure whether you're being told the terrifying story of a wrongfully accused young woman or decieved by that same woman. (Available June 17)

The Quick by Lauren Owen

It feels wrong to say any more than this about The Quick: The first quarter of this debut novel is a lovely, poetic tale about an orphaned brother and sister who grow up on a crumbling estate in late-Victorian Yorkshire. The second quarter revolves around the brother's fledgling homosexuality. The last half is entirely bonkers and totally unexpected. Read it with the lights on. (Available June 17)

California by Edan Lepucki

Frida and Cal were just a regular young married couple living in LA when the apocalypse rolled in. Now, they're barely surviving in a shack in the woods, foraging for mushrooms by day and exhaustively analyzing their precarious existence by night. Then, Frida discovers that she might be pregnant, and the two begin to question whether it's better to hunker down or venture out in hopes of finding a community. Lepucki smartly avoids dragging zombies or nuclear war into the narrative, and instead centers her apolcalypse around the gradual decline of the American economy—a much more likely and terrifying prospect then the return of the undead. Class warfare, guerrilla domesic terrorism, and the rise of mob mentality mingle carefully with a more traditional character study of a marriage under duress. The result is one of the wisest and scariest apoloclypse novels I've ever encountered. (Available July 8)

The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

If you haven't read the first two books in Grossman's Magicians trilogy, buy them immediately and set aside a weekend to read them straight through before you turn to The Magician's Land. The series, which follows a group of—you guessed it—magicians through the emotional foibles of young adulthood has been called "Harry Potter for adults." But it's way more complex than that. Grossman hones in on the particularly brutal business of being young, and then adds layer upon layer of literary allusion, creating works that are both homages to fantasy's past and glimpses at it's future. (Available August 5)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

We don't know much about Murakami's latest, only that it's a great deal shorter than his last novel (which cleared one thousand pages), and that it revolves around a middle-aged man (of course) who sets out High Fidelity–style to understand why his high school friendships unraveled. But when Murakami writes short, the results are almost always dreamy, compelling, insightful works (think Norwegian Wood). If nothing else, Colorless Tsukuru's arrival means another chance at Murakami Bingo. (Available August 12)