When it comes to packing for vacation, there are certain essentials that must not be forgotten: the beach umbrellas, the beach towels, the sun block, the dog dishes, the dog food, the dog toys, the dogs. But most important are the books, the delicious pile of books waiting to be savored one by one as the wave-washed days tick by.
And they must not all be thrillers. I like to think of the ideal array of beach books as a Chinese menu, a delectable mix of flavors, some light, some more substantial. There's one requirement: the books must grab the attention completely in the first page, or at least the first chapter. With this in mind, we offer a mix of books, authors and locales that will entertain and engage you.
*Blame by Michelle Huneven. A young professor wakes up in jail and discovers that she has been charged with a drunken driving accident that killed a mother and daughter. This spellbinding novel of guilt, atonement and family is a page turner with a plot twist you won't see coming.
*The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. This richly atmospheric ghost story from a Man Booker Prize-nominated author vividly renders a wealthy family fallen on hard times, a mother crushed with grief, and attraction that becomes obsession, all playing out in post-war Britain in the crumbling mansion of Hundreds Hall.
*The Hole We're In by Gabrielle Zevin. This bitingly funny profile of the debt-ridden, God-fearing, all-American Pomeroy family surprises with its moments of grace and its insights into the holes we dig for ourselves and our children.
*Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. An epic novel of family, rich in sweetness and sorrow, is painted in masterful strokes against the colorful backdrop of a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by a physician with an astonishing gift for storytelling.
*The Help by Kathryn Stockett. You may think you don't want to read this white author's take on a white would-be journalist secretly interviewing black maids in pre-Civil Rights era Mississippi, but it reads like a thriller and you may finish it in one go.
*Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan. A Smith College grad makes a sparkling debut in her charming novel of four members of the Smith Class of 2002 and their struggle to forge their own paths as a generation of women with multiple choices.
Cum Laude by Cecily von Ziegesar. The "Gossip Girl" author targets an adult audience in this hilarious novel of rich kids, townies, sex and drugs amid the "snow globe" claustrophobia of a small Maine college.
*The Defector by Daniel Silva. Spy fiction master Silva continues the bloody adventures of Israeli art restorer and assassin Gabriel Allon.
*Delusion by Peter Abrahams. This master of richly atmospheric psychological thrillers always manages to surprise. A 20-year-old videotape mysteriously surfaces after a hurricane floods Belle Ville, La., exonerating a man imprisoned for murder and turning upside down the life of the woman who identified him as the killer.
*The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall. Modern India, in all its colorful squalor, provides a vivid backdrop for this well-crafted whodunit as private investigator Vish Puri tries to clear an anti-corruption crusading lawyer accused of murdering a servant (while going about his main business, screening prospective suitors).
*Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotterill. In 1977, the 73-year-old national coroner of Laos is called to a remote province when a body is found entombed in a concrete walkway just before a big Communist Party celebration. Cotterill offers a fascinating political backdrop, colorful characters and a well-plotted mystery.
*Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. You will be inspired to arrange more playdates for your pooch after reading this fascinating study of how animals think, from the autistic genius who pioneered the humane slaughterhouse. (The HBO movie starred Claire Danes as Grandin.)
*The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by New York Times science writer Natalie Angier. No kidding, this is a great beach book and you feel so smart when you're done!
*A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation by Daniel Menaker. "A Good Talk" is a wonderful read -- witty, wise and short.
*How Did You Get This Number? by Sloane Crosley. The next Candace Bushnell (HBO is developing her first essay collection, "I Was Told There'd Be Cake," as a pilot) offers acerbic wit and skewed perspectives in essays, from post-college apartment hunting in New York to her abiding terror of a middle school bully: "Her daily presence was like a wolf's glowing eyes in the woods. It might not be chewing your face off right this very minute, but you felt a hell of a lot better when it was gone."
*Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist offers a fascinating family memoir and thrilling detective story in this engrossing tale of his search to learn why his mother kept secret the fact that she had a disabled sister who was sent to an insane asylum at the age of 21.
>ME, MYSELF AND I
*Open by Andre Agassi. Even if you don't play tennis or have never read a sports memoir, Agassi's fascinating book will suck you in: The obsessive, violent father driving him to be a tennis great (making 7-year-old Andre hit 2,500 balls a day, giving 10-year-old Andre speed before a match), Andre's rise through the ranks, marriage to Brooke Shields and then Steffi Graf, and most of all, his photographic recall of every shot of every match.
*My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs and Stand-Up by Russell Brand. It's certainly not for everyone, but this entertaining, X-rated memoir (liberally footnoted to explain such Britspeak as "Worzel Gummidge") explores the painful coming-of-age of the brilliant, foul-mouthed, sex-addicted British comedian, who was so hilarious as alter-ego Aldous Snow in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (and "Get Him to the Greek").
*Last Words by George Carlin (with Tony Hendra). This fascinating, expletive-laden chronicle (finished by Hendra after Carlin died in 2008) starts at birth (a religious vision inspired his 40-year-old mother not to have an abortion) and explores his struggle to break into comedy, his battle with substance abuse and his fiery disdain for religion. One tidbit: Carlin once found himself, live on the air, instructing Mike Douglas how to cook a jelly bean omelet, as ordered by Douglas' producer, a twentysomething Roger Ailes.
*Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer by John Grisham. A 13-year-old takes on a murder case in this well-crafted thriller, the first of a series.
*Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, the eagerly awaited final installment in her best-selling Hunger Games trilogy. (Coming Aug. 24)