Summer reading rarely involves as much déjà vu as it will this year. We’ll be reading a new Harper Lee book, “Go Set a Watchman,” only 55 years after the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We’ll still be looking for that next “Gone Girl,” the thriller fan’s equivalent of Ahab’s great white whale. We’ll be hit with “The Devil Wears Prada” knockoffs, including one that’s actually called “The Knockoff” and borrows just as freely from “All About Eve.” The Stephen King-type chiller, in which a famous writer falls prey to an obsessed fan (sound familiar?), will have been written by Stephen King. It’s called “Finders Keepers.”
And Adolf Hitler will be making a curtain call. For laughs. Anyone interested in “Look Who’s Back,” the comic novel that describes this, will have two soul-searchers to answer: Can I possibly treat a book about this monster as beach reading? And while I’m on the beach (or bus, or plane — this is a great one for travelers) with a hardcover copy, do I keep the jacket off or on? The jacket’s stark caricature is a hoot, but not everyone will think so.
“Look Who’s Back” obviously works as a conversation piece. So does Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” Entertaining as he is, Mr. Ronson has hit a collective raw nerve with this book’s anecdotal evidence of how much damage the social-media mob can do. Some of his stories, like that of how Jonah Lehrer self-destructed by allowing plagiarism to creep into his book “Imagine” and, worse, lying about it, are already familiar. But Mr. Ronson’s gift is for burrowing into the heart of such messes to find some enduring takeaway. In this case, if you’re already a liar, have you learned nothing from history? Don’t weasel. Tell the truth about your lies.
For readers who need regular reminding about the threat posed by social media’s fake friendliness, Jacob Silverman’s “Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection” is a good scare for the summer. The Orwellian tech-book market is a booming genre, to the point where it’s now reached Beach Book viability. When not overly technical, it can work as a mix of history, science fiction and news you can use. Among the practical points here is Mr. Silverman’s closing suggestion that you start lying about yourself to avoid being accurately pigeonholed. “Don’t be a jerk, but have fun with it,” he recommends. That’s just Tech Etiquette 101.
This summer will bring the first major biography of Joan Didion, a California native who was keenly attuned to sophisticated conspiracies long before Silicon Valley was a place capable of hatching them. “The Last Love Song,” by Tracy Daugherty, is a very hefty book about her, and its most avid readers already know who they are. However piercingly and often Ms. Didion has written about herself, there is sure to be further interest in her story: as the modern novelist who best made ennui sexy; as the tough social critic and political essayist whose pieces take no prisoners; as the wife and parent who has endured such terrible losses; and as the shrewd Hollywood power player, no more noble than any other of that breed. This book has room for all that and an encyclopedia. It comes out in August.
Summer readers love war heroes, too. What is this year’s “The Boys in the Boat” (the 2013 book about an unlikely Olympic quest) going to be? Here’s a curious candidate: “The Ingenious Mr. Pyke: Inventor, Fugitive, Spy,” by Henry Hemming. It’s about a chameleon better known in his native Britain, where this book was published last year with the title “Churchill’s Iceman.” One of this so-called mad scientist’s notable accomplishments was to suggest that the British could use ice strategically in World War II: by building aircraft carriers from a compound of sawdust and ice. Pyke’s ideas weren’t entirely unfeasible, and they weren’t rejected out of hand.
Pyke, who was “like a figure on a Byzantine icon” to the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, led a life that would have made for a roaring good read from any biographer. But this book contains these magic words: “Only now, following the release of previously classified documents by MI5, can this man’s extraordinary story be told in full.”
The book is not only newsworthy but also has an imaginative structure. Each chapter is presented as a lesson in something Pyke accomplished (“How to Become Invisible”) or at least tried to (“How to Defeat Nazism,” “How to Prevent a War”). He was intrepid, brilliant and bizarre. Any one of those qualities, let alone all three, could land a biography on a summer reading list. Brilliant and intrepid also apply to the subjects of David McCullough’s latest biography, “The Wright Brothers,” another work of blue-chip history from this exalted source. Your dad will love it. You may, too.
Let me now acknowledge having done what thriller writers love doing: burying the lead. It’s “Disclaimer” that turns out to be the “Gone Girl” of the season, even if every publicist with a thriller about a troubled marriage is making that claim. This debut novel by Renée Knight has a great opening hook: Filmmaker finds an unfamiliar book near her bed, then opens it to see it’s a barely fictionalized account of the worst thing she’s ever done. When she looks at the disclaimer page, the part about its being based on no persons living or dead has been crossed out. In red ink.
Beyond that, “Disclaimer” doesn’t begin all that well. It takes a while to show its real strength, which lies in plotting, not prose. As in “Gone Girl,” the author uses contrasting points of view, and we know somebody’s hiding something. Part of the narration comes from the spooky old widower who is using the book as a weapon. We don’t know how the book’s separate pieces and time frames fit together — until we do. Once the gears start moving, Ms. Knight switches her pace to a gallop and keeps the sinister promises her narrative made at the start.
“The Royal We” is for readers who prefer their love affairs straight up, without poison. It’s smart, funny fluff from the fashion-obsessed duo known as the Fug Girls — Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. (Their website, gofugyourself.com, is best enjoyed whenever any well-known person goes out in public with clothes on.) And it’s a roman à clef with inevitable role models: a certain heir to the British throne and his tall, beautiful, fun-loving wife. “The Royal We” makes her an American and has them meet cute on her first day at Oxford. He offers to carry her luggage. She gazes unawares at a portrait of one of his ancestors. “British monarchs do love their syphilis,” she says, and it’s not quite love at first sight. At the end of the book’s opening chapter, she watches him thronged by marriage-minded British aristocrats, waves her drink at one of them and declares, “Well, nobody has anything to fear from me.”
The Fug Girls write like the pros they’ve become. Shanna Mahin’s “Oh! You Pretty Things” sounds more like a first novel, but it buzzes with hard-won wisdom. It describes the life of a personal assistant to Los Angeles celebrities, a line of work Ms. Mahin knows firsthand. This would be sheer voyeurism — which also has its place on summer reading lists, let’s face it — but the book is smarter than that. It’s insightful in illustrating how even a self-described “easy” star can get more and more difficult if given everything he or she wants. More specs on a Starbucks order than on a new kitchen? Sure, the joke’s been done to death. But it doesn’t get old because of the real, coddled craziness that lies beneath it, and because real people get paid to be on the receiving end of this treatment.
Let’s turn at long last to the sine qua non of beach reading: water. William Finnegan’s memoir, “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” is the muscle book in this category. From a ’50’s boyhood in California and then Hawaii, when he managed to surf even before school, not to mention after, Mr. Finnegan knew this would be his abiding passion. But he cannot have imagined how far he’d be able to roam. “Barbarian Days” spans early years fighting off Hawaiian bullies to exotic adventures in Tavarua, Fiji, which he sees change from an undiscovered paradise to, later, a private resort for the rich touted on the cover of Surfer magazine.
Surfing is Topic A here, but it inevitably connects with politics (when Mr. Finnegan taught in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1981, students boycotted his classes to protest apartheid), environmental issues (he sees great surf spots both created and destroyed by human enterprise) and much more. Still, he has been in very few places with coastlines where he hasn’t found a way to surf, no matter what else is going on around him.
“Orient,” by Christopher Bollen, is watery, too, thanks to its picturesque eastern Long Island setting. This is a long, engrossing small-town novel in which the narrator’s arrival as a troubled foster teenager roils the local residents’ peace and quiet and sets a string of troubling incidents in motion. The characters are drawn in vivid detail, and the atmosphere is thickly enveloping. That book is a portrait of serenity, however, in comparison with “The Cartel,” a magnum opus coming in June from Don Winslow, who is to the Mexican drug wars what James Ellroy is to L.A. Noir. It’s a long-awaited sequel to one of his greatest, “The Power of the Dog.”
You can’t go many pages in “The Cartel” without the thought of someone or other’s violent death arising. For less dangerous confrontation, consider a couple of books about being entertaining. Sort of. Jon Fine’s “Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear)” is everything a cult-fave musician’s memoir should be: It’s a seductively readable book that requires no previous knowledge of the author, Bitch Magnet or any other band with which he’s played.
Instead, it gets by on lines like: “Onstage I wanted to dominate. I didn’t want to see smiles in the audience. I wanted to see people looking slightly stunned, as if something very large had just struck them and they were trying to calculate whether that collision were very bad or very good.” Mr. Fine, now the executive editor of Inc. Magazine, kept his guitar loud enough to stun himself into hearing loss. His book explains why he’s not sorry to have made that trade.
“Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy” is an anthology of interviews that Judd Apatow, the comedy maestro who got his first big break with the television series “Freaks and Geeks,” about teenagers, started conducting when he himself was only a high school kid. He tracked down every famous funny person he could find, and he must have been persuasive. The book includes a couple of interviews from 1983, including one with Jerry Seinfeld, who sounds only slightly impatient when the newbie interviewer asks him: “When did this all start, being funny?”
This book’s amazing lineup of interviewees is made up of major comic performers and writers: Larry David, Albert Brooks, Chris Rock, James L. Brooks, Key and Peele, Lena Dunham, Louis C. K., Jon Stewart, Michael Che, Stephen Colbert, Mel Brooks. The list goes on. It skews heavily male (Tina Fey is a notable no-show), and the interviews tend to ramble; at this point in his career, Mr. Apatow is on an equal footing with his subjects, and he talks that way. But open this book anywhere, and you’re bound to find some interesting nugget from someone who has had you in stitches many, many times.
“The Knockoff,” by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza, is about more desperate efforts to be entertaining: It describes the frantic process of taking a Vogue-like magazine from paper to app. The over-the-hill editor, the 40-something Imogen Tate, was out on sick leave and missed the transition. She comes back to find a former assistant, Eve Morton, commanding the computers and running the show.
This otherwise fizzy, girly, nicely executed bit of escapism makes Imogen implausibly imbecilic when it comes to all things cyber, even email. (She has it printed out for her? On paper? It’s that bad? Really?) But it steals well and has fun manipulating the generation gap facing Imogen. When she left, she was Queen. When she comes back, she’s lost her front-row Fashion Week seat to a — What? What are these? — fashion blogger!
Naturally, Imogen regrows her claws. And the book does its share of meowing about the entitled young women who now flood the magazine offices, living large because they still live rent-free at their parents’ apartments. Imogen worked her own way up. “One thing she was learning about this generation,” the authors say, “was how secure in the knowledge that they were all very special snowflakes.”
Snowflakes in summer? Sure. In the beach-book market anything goes. A lot of summer releases will do what it takes to get attention. “The Marriage Book: Centuries of Advice, Inspiration and Cautionary Tales From Adam and Eve to Zoloft,” by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler, is a solid anthology, but the Zoloft entry is wedged into the book only for the title’s sake. It’s barely a page and a half long, a mere marketing gimmick.
This year’s Best Marketing honors belong to “Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat?” It has a title combining two hugely popular genres. It has two pairs of flip-flopped, red-toed feet on its cover. It shows sand, ocean and blue, blue sky, not a worry in sight. And it bears Lisa Scottoline’s best-selling name, along with that of her frequent writing partner, Francesca Serritella. This book also has words between its covers. They’re O.K., but does it matter? It’s a perfectly engineered summer specimen, sending a Pavlovian message: nothing — nothing — but summer vacation.
Summer Reading List
THE KNOCKOFF by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza. 338 pages. Doubleday. $25.95.
FINDERS KEEPERS by Stephen King. 434 pages. Scribner. $30. (June 2.)
LOOK WHO’S BACK by Timur Vermes. Translated by Jamie Bulloch. 313 pages. MacLehose. $25.99.
SO YOU’VE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED by Jon Ronson. 290 pages. Riverhead Books. $27.95.
TERMS OF SERVICE: SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE PRICE OF CONSTANT CONNECTION by Jacob Silverman. 429 pages. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $33.50.
THE LAST LOVE SONG: A BIOGRAPHY OF JOAN DIDION by Tracy Daugherty. 703 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $35. (Aug. 25.)
THE INGENIOUS MR. PYKE: INVENTOR, FUGITIVE, SPY by Henry Hemming. Illustrated. 500 pages. PublicAffairs. $26.99.
THE WRIGHT BROTHERS by David McCullough. 320 pages. Simon & Schuster. $30.
DISCLAIMER by Renée Knight. 336 pages. HarperCollins Publishers. $25.99.
THE ROYAL WE by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. 454 pages. Grand Central Publishing. $26.
OH! YOU PRETTY THINGS by Shanna Mahin. 358 pages. Dutton. $26.95.
BARBARIAN DAYS: A SURFING LIFE by William Finnegan. Illustrated. 447 pages. Penguin Press. $27.95. (July 21.)
ORIENT by Christopher Bollen. 612 pages. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.
THE CARTEL by Don Winslow. 640 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95 (June 23.)
YOUR BAND SUCKS: WHAT I SAW AT INDIE ROCK’S FAILED REVOLUTION (BUT CAN NO LONGER HEAR) by Jon Fine. 302 pages. Viking. $27.95.
SICK IN THE HEAD: CONVERSATIONS ABOUT LIFE AND COMEDY by Judd Apatow. 489 pages. Random House. $27. (June 16.)
THE MARRIAGE BOOK: CENTURIES OF ADVICE, INSPIRATION, AND CAUTIONARY TALES FROM ADAM AND EVE TO ZOLOFT by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler. Illustrated. 536 pages. Simon and Schuster. $35.