CS PETERSON RECOMMENDS: The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
Elevator pitch: Hot cars and hard rock, an ancient Welsh king, a magician, a dead boy, a forest where the trees speak Latin, the town girl who will kill her true love with a kiss, the son of privilege with whom she has fallen in love, town-and-gown conflict, a house full of psychics and a dreamer who pulls his nightmares into reality with the power of ley lines that arc through the wooded hills of Virginia. With the publication of the fourth and final book in this series, now is the perfect time to settle in and read them as a piece.
Good if: You appreciate the perils of life-or-death magic, the politics of power, privilege and class conflict, the risks of coming out, facing down demons and the dangers of falling in love.
Not so good if: You’re looking for a fluffy YA love story.
Where to read: Picnicking in a magical forest produced by one of the many North American ley lines.
What to drink: Sun tea brewed with wild-crafted herbs of questionable origin.
What to eat: A feast you’ve pulled out of a lucid dream. We recommend it include neon-blue escargot and homemade psychic pie.
Thickness rating: Massive - make this series the mythic backdrop of your whole summer.
THEODORE McCOMBS RECOMMENDS: Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
Elevator pitch: A group of editors at an Italian vanity press, bored with reading piles of preposterous occult conspiracy theories, creates a computer program to synthesize these texts at random into one grand conspiracy—Templars, telluric currents and all! But then, “the Plan” starts to take on a life of its own ... Have they hit upon a real conspiracy, or tricked dangerously gullible minds into creating one? Is there any difference? With Eco’s passing earlier this year—man, 2016 has sucked—it’s good to spend some time revisiting this encyclopedic, mischievous, and utterly unique imagination.
Where to read: Trapped in Paris’s Musée des Arts et Métiers, watching a sinister scene unfold.
Good if: You enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, but wished it had been better written.
Not so good if: You found The Name of the Rose a little indulgent in its esotericism. Gurl, you don’t know the half of it.
You might also like: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comics, not the movie), another post-modern mash-up of supernatural notions from a witty, encyclopedic, and demented mind.
What to drink: The elixir of life or, barring that, a cold Italian soda on a sultry day.
What to eat: Espetinhos, a Brazilian street kebab. Seriously, the book’s Brazil festival scenes are fantastic, and the Plan is basically one screwy occult espetinho.
Thickness rating: 7 out of 10 Kabbalistic emanations.
Elevator pitch: Travelers from distant points in the galaxy are summoned to planet Hyperion for the final pilgrimage to the Time Tombs. A scholar Jew questioning the concept of obedience, the vice-ridden poet, the warrior tricked by a false lover into bloodthirsty war crimes. As sacrifices, only one will come out alive, but all make the pilgrimage for different reasons, from revenge to answers. Like The Canterbury Tales, the journey in the novel serves as a scaffolding for the divergent novellas of the pilgrims’ mysterious suffering and loss caused by the legendary Lord of Pain, the Shrike. If real, the Shrike is a god-like entity living outside of time and inflicting befitting punishments upon the pilgrims. It is a bloodthirsty lover, a poet’s muse, the god of Abraham to a father; a combination of devil and grim reaper armed with sharpened steel limbs.
Where to read: In the broad daylight where nothing could possibly sneak up on you.
Good if: You like tightly constructed, suspenseful, lusty stories, each told with a distinctively different narrative voice. Each would be marvelous stand-alone novellas.
Not so good if: You don’t enjoy literary and historical references to great poets like Keats, Henry the 2nd, Talmudic conundrums, and noir thrillers.
You might also like: The other award-winning books of the Hyperion Cantos because the ending of this book only hints at conclusions.
What to drink: Blood-red wine.
What to eat: Food is not recommended.
Thickness rating: Double-wide, but if you get the e-version, add the Audible narration because you won’t be able to put it down.
MARK SPRINGER RECOMMENDS: The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Elevator pitch: The Age of Oil is over and the petroleum economy has fallen into ruin, along with much of its technology. Calories, the energy of life, are the foundation of a new global economy dominated by calorie companies, the feuding agricultural biotech corporations that control the world’s food supply through genetic engineering (“generipping”), bioterrorism, and espionage. As the calorie companies generip new parasites and pathogens to attack each other’s innovations, their undercover agents, known as calorie men, scour the globe in search of genetic material from before the age of GMOs. Anderson Lake, a calorie man, is searching for a seed bank hidden in the Thai Kingdom. The kingdom tightly controls its contact with the rest of the world and has so far managed to feed its people without capitulating to the calorie companies. Anderson’s clandestine search pits him against the Thai Kingdom’s Ministry of Environment and a host of other factions, some striving for wealth and power, others struggling just to survive. Along the way Anderson crosses paths with Emiko, the titular windup girl, a genetically engineered servant (slave, let’s be honest) discarded by her master and left to fend for herself in Bangkok. Like the kingdom, Emiko’s future seems destined to be determined by forces beyond her control, right up until the moment it’s not.
Where to read: Anywhere and everywhere. Once you start, you won’t be able to put it down.
Good if: You enjoy contemplating contemporary anxieties through the lens of a broken future.
Not so good if: You’re an enthusiastic Monsanto shareholder who believes the backward corners of the world need to get with the program and peacefully submit to corporate hegemony.
You might also like: The Water Knife, Bacigalupi’s latest. It’s an eco-dystopian thriller, part James Bond, part Hitchcock, set in a near-future American Southwest ravaged by water shortages. Recently the subject of a philosophical debate here on Fiction Unbound.
What to drink: Thai iced tea (cha yen), brewed strong and sweet and served cold, to take the edge off the “angry chef” red curry you probably aren’t brave enough to try (see below).
What to eat: Organic red curry with beef and green peppercorns (kaeng phed neua phrik thai on), with extra chili dipping sauce. Properly made, the heat in this classic dish is guaranteed to evoke the sweltering tropics depicted in the novel. Fight through the pain and get your calories while you can still afford them.
Thickness rating: Medium. And, as an added bonus, the 2015 edition from Night Shade Books includes “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man,” two previously published short stories set in the world of the calorie economy.
GEMMA WEBSTER RECOMMENDS: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Elevator pitch: Beautiful blond girl, Boy Novak, runs away from her rat catcher father to a town where beautiful things are made. Utterly without the skills of craft, she takes on odd jobs until she finds the right one working in the local bookstore. She marries Arturo Whitman and becomes step-mother to the beautiful Snow. Everything seems perfect: she takes on the role of kindly step-mother and believes she will live a fairly expected life as part of a respected family. But when her own daughter Bird is born with dark skin, the Whitman family secret is revealed—they are African American and have been passing as white—Boy is thrust into the role of wicked step-mother.
Where to read: In the dappled light of a shady tree with the scent of honeysuckle and rose mingling as the day dies.
Good if: You are looking for stories that disrupt the status quo.
Not so good if: You don’t like women who speak for themselves and are squeamish about conversations of race and privilege.
What to drink: Champagne.
What to eat: Rose and Honey Glazed Blinded-Rat skewers, great on the grill. I’m sure you can find a recipe on Pinterest.
Thickness rating: Traditional novel.
Elevator pitch: In the Los Angeles barrios of 2050, a new drug appears on the virtual street, Bluescreen. It is a completely safe high that plugs right into your head. Well, actually, it turns you into a zombie puppet controlled by a corporation, and the lines between cartel and corporation are very thin. Marisa Carneseca is an accomplished teenaged hacker with a family to protect and high school to negotiate. She jumps between the virtual world and the real at dizzying speed, putting on and taking off identities like trendy clothes. She finds out something is not right, but already the clock is ticking and it is getting close to "too late." This is a no-holds-barred mash-up of Feed, Chinatown, and House of the Scorpion, a plugged-in world that hits a little too close to home, and where your thoughts may no longer be your own.
Where to read: Anywhere and everywhere in L.A. For extra credit, read it on a tablet, smartphone, or plugged directly into your brain.
Good if: You are a cyber-thriller tech adrenaline junky.
Not so good if: The pace of technological obsolescence makes you want to build a cabin in the woods and learn to live off the grid.
You might also like: Feed by MT Anderson.
What to drink: Ice cold horchata.
What to eat: Chilaquiles.
Thickness rating: One lazy afternoon in the hammock with your mind racing.