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10 big books for summer 2020

You need an escape. Let these gripping summer novels take you away.

Speculative fiction on Hillary without Bill, and a Hunger Games prequel are two of the season's big books.
Speculative fiction on Hillary without Bill, and a Hunger Games prequel are two of the season's big books.Read moreRandom House (Rodham) / Scholastic (Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes)

The 10 books on this list have it all: Big names and hungry newcomers! High drama and irreverent comedy! Sex! Violence! Rock stars, aliens, and cannibals! A bunch of bloodthirsty Sasquatches! OK, that’s enough exclamation points.

Yeah, we’re in for a summer without movies, but these books may just soothe the blockbuster-hungry beast.

And before you start loading up your Amazon cart, consider supporting your friendly neighborhood independent bookstore. True, you can’t walk in and browse the aisles right now, but several of them — from Brickbat to Big Blue Marble to Uncle Bobbie’s, and Harriett’s to Head House — are keeping the torch lit with mail-order and pickup services. Locally sourced books just read better!

New this week

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins (May 19). If any of this century’s many dystopian YA series still have legs, surely it’s The Hunger Games, which was memorable for its likable characters, fantastical world building, and sober portrayal of PTSD. Set 64 years in the past, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes explores the early days of the original trilogy’s most nefarious elements: the games, the oppressive government, and the villainous Coriolanous Snow. (Turns out he was kind of a good dude back in the day. Weird.) It’s been 10 years since the last Hunger Games book; is anybody salivating for a Katniss-free prequel? Those Fantastic Beasts movies are doing just fine without Harry, so who knows.

Rodham: A Novel, Curtis Sittenfeld (May 19). Hillary Clinton’s always been a mannequin for America’s hopes and dreams, someone allies and enemies could dress up to suit their needs (savior, scapegoat, villain, underdog, etc.). As is often the case with real live humans, none of it fits perfectly. Maybe that’s why Sittenfeld decided to make a whole new Hillary — imagining a world where she turned down Bill’s proposal on the way to an entirely new political and personal destiny. More than an exercise in speculative fiction, Rodham offers sharp insight into the real Hillary, but it’s up to you to decide whether she, or the country, are better off in the long run.

Available now

Wow, No Thank You., Samantha Irby. Midwestern comedian Irby — author of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life and Meaty — returns with another collection of essays that mine her everyday life for humor with a light twist of heartache. Irby’s got a killer deadpan and an endlessly derailable train of thought, but sometimes it’s her IRL awkwardness that provides the biggest laughs. (Like when she tries to make a new friend on the street by shouting, “We should get together! We could eat some black licorice and watch God Friended Me!”) Wow, No Thank You. is the distraction we need right now.

Big Summer: A Novel, Jennifer Weiner. Less than a year after Mrs. Everything, Philadelphia’s beach-read all-star is back with another instant best seller (despite beaches and bookstores being hard to come by right now). Big Summer centers on Drue and Daphne, two BFFs turned sworn enemies who are reunited after six years when the former asks the latter to be the bridesmaid at her high-society, high-drama Cape Cod wedding. Since bursting onto the scene in the early 2000s with Good In Bed and In Her Shoes, Weiner has molded popular summer fiction in her image, but with Big Summer she’s aiming to do the impossible: humanize the Instagram influencer.

» READ MORE: Jennifer Weiner talks about ‘Big Summer’

June releases

The Lightness: A Novel, Emily Temple (June 16). A senior editor at online literary hub Literary Hub, Temple steps into the spotlight with an elegant and entertaining debut novel. A mystery disguised as a coming-of-age story, The Lightness follows smart, sarcastic 16-year-old Olivia to a so-called levitation center at the top of a mountain. It’s billed as an eight-week “special teen retreat,” but she takes one look around and decides it’s a “Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls.” It’s also the last place anybody’s seen her father. Can Olivia figure out what happened to her dad? Will she actually learn to levitate? This is one of those books that breaks your heart when it’s over.

Devolution, Max Brooks (June 16). It’s been 14 years since World War Z became a cult-classic zombie book, but it’s all people want to talk about with Max Brooks these days thanks to his strenuous research into disaster preparedness, epidemiology, etc. One can assume similar levels of meticulousness went into Devolution, subtitled A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, even if Bigfoot attacks aren’t on the national radar right now. Brooks has once again created a tightly tangled yarn, this time about sitting-duck schmoes whose isolated, eco-conscious community in the sticks becomes ground zero for a bloody Squatch uprising.

Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (June 30). After receiving a rambling letter from her cousin — a frantic missive full of ghosts, violence, and paranoia — charming party girl Noemí leaves the city nightlife behind to investigate. Is her cousin going crazy? Being abused by her no-good husband? Or is something even more sinister going on in her creepy old mansion in the Mexican countryside? This deliciously eerie and unsettling novel (one of two released by the endlessly prolific Mexican-Canadian author this year) is haunted by terrors from this world and maybe the next one, too.

Later this summer

Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell (July 14).Mitchell (author of The Bone Clocks, Cloud Atlas, and that upcoming Matrix sequel) never writes in a straight line, instead opting for time-skipping, mood-altering narrative structures. This new one, about a London folk-rock band coming up during the psychedelic ’60s, is already being described with words like “puzzlebox” and “kaleidoscopic.” Fair, but that doesn’t mean it ain’t fun. Utopia Avenue’s got all the sex, drugs, and broken dreams you want in a rock novel, plus guest appearances by Jagger, Jerry, Janis, and Jim (Morrison).

Axiom’s End: A Novel, Lindsay Ellis (July 21). “YouTuber/author” sounds like a dubious combination, but Ellis — known for making witty, thoughtful video essays about big-budget movies — delivers the goods in her debut novel. In fact, there’s something nakedly cinematic about this tale of a young woman who gets roped into becoming the official translator for a biomechanical alien stuck on Earth. Suspenseful and inventive, but also funny and full of action, Axiom’s End remixes the Hollywood alien-invasion playbook.

Tender Is the Flesh, Agustina Bazterrica (Aug. 4). Not gonna lie: This Argentinian dystopia set in a future where a pandemic has killed off all the animals so humans are being raised and slaughtered as livestock is not for everybody. If you can stomach it, however, Tender Is the Flesh proves almost as thought-provoking as it is brutal, and its portrayal of a civilization that’s become comfortable with everyday horror looks a little bit like our own. Hey, are those meatpacking plants staying open or what?