Summer Reading 2023
Summer is upon us, which means it’s time to kick back and enjoy the nice weather with a good book. Summer reading is a bit of a cliché, but let’s face it, sometimes there’s nothing better than sitting next to the pool or at the beach with a book in your hands.
With all the great books out there, I’m not at much of a loss for what to read these days. Maybe you aren’t either. That being said, here’s what I dove into over the past couple months. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Billy Summers - 2020
I finished reading Billy Summers not long ago so it’s still fresh in my mind. I’ve stared at the cover of this book for months (years, maybe?) every time I step foot in a bookstore, but for some reason I was always hesitant to read it. Probably because I equate Stephen King with horror and Billy Summers…well…isn’t.
Let’s just say I made a mistake all those months of stubborn refusal. Not only is Billy Summers great, like pretty much every other Stephen King book I’ve ever read, I flew through it. I got hooked, like Mr. King and millions of other readers knew I would.
Another reason I hesitated is because I wasn’t really sure what this book was about. The title doesn’t give much away. You might be in the same boat. So, let me clear things up.
Billy Summers is an assassin for hire with a checkered past. He doesn’t exactly feel great about his choice of career, but he agrees to do one last job for a cool two million dollar payday. Only, things don’t feel right from the start. Billy isn’t sure what’s going on, but he knows he isn’t being told the whole story. Tons of money is involved in this killing—much more than he’s being paid—but the motivations and other players are foggy.
I was dubious if it was possible to write a full-length novel about an assassin moving to a small town and taking out a criminal on his way up the courthouse steps. That’s the premise, but it’s only part of the story. A much fuller, broader narrative unfolds. Billy Summers ends up being less about an assassin taking the perfect shot and more about everything that comes next. Because Billy’s intuition was right—he wasn’t being told the whole story. And the details that were held back are the difference between life and death.
The Alienist - 1994
Sometimes I internally kick myself for going so long without reading a book that’s really good. Like once in a generation good. I admit that I should have read The Alienist sooner. It was published when I was two years old, so it’s not like I haven’t had plenty of time. This book is a crime fiction masterpiece, and what I’m sure has served as inspiration for the crime authors by the hundreds over the past nearly thirty years.
Think of The Alienist as a modernized Sherlock Holmes, although this book takes place in the same time period (1896, to be precise.) Laszlo Kreizler is a physician ahead of his time, a forefather of science and medicine implementing many of the practices we take for granted today. Theodore Roosevelt (yes, the president) hasn’t ascended to that lofty role yet but heads the New York City police as a controversial and strong-willed outsider intent on upsetting corruption and moral decay in the force. The two come together to catch a serial killer unlike any other that is terrorizing a particular segment of New York City.
It's frustrating at times reading about an enlightened individual like Kreizler having methods that we know to be sound and effective met with so much skepticism. Law enforcement of this time knows nothing about finger prints, blood spatter patterns, or using a deep understanding of a killer and their background to catch them. But it’s very difficult not to fall into this story once you start. The stakes are that high, the task at hand that seemingly insurmountable. Like Silence of the Lambs meets Sherlock Holmes. A phenomenal summer read.
Sleeping Bear - 2021
This is my genre, my cup of tea. If there’s an espionage thriller out there, especially one that deals with Russia, I need to read it. I put off reading Sleeping Bear because, honestly, I was worried it would be too good. I was also worried it would overlap closely with my own contemporary thriller, A Day in Fall. And while it is very good and worthy of all the hype it’s been receiving since it was published, the latter turned out to be nothing of the sort.
This novel is so good because it’s fresh. It’s interesting. It uses plenty of thriller tropes, but I’ve never read a thriller like it. Sleeping Bear isn’t really about espionage or two enemy countries squaring off on a secret battlefield. A grieving ex-soldier goes camping in the Alaskan wilderness. Then she’s abducted and wakes up in a Russian nightmare.
Cassie Gale finds herself trapped in, of all things, a game. It’s a deadly game in a remote and hostile environment, used for betting by the Russian oligarchy in Moscow. Only one person has any real shot at saving her, a man who has much more involvement with Russians than he ever let on. That man is Cassie’s father.
This book was such a big hit because it has everything you want in a thriller. There are tons of twists, unbelievably high stakes, and enough action to satisfy anyone. The Brad Thor’s and Lee Childs of the world would be proud. It’s fun, exciting, and great for summer.
The House Across the Lake – 2022
Casey, a grieving widow, finds solace—and plenty of booze—at her family’s lake house on a small lake in Vermont. The place where her best memories took place, and where the press can’t find her. She passes the time watching the couple across the lake: a tech innovator and former model. They seem to have it all.
But the more she watches, the more she realizes the couple’s marriage is far from perfect. Then she hears a scream one night, followed by the wife across the lake vanishing. Casey becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to her, and convinced that her tech innovator husband must be the culprit. But her obsession with discovering the truth isn’t so healthy, and it’s never good to spy on your neighbors.
The House Across the Lake might be the ultimate summer read. When it comes to conspiracy thrillers, this is the best one I’ve read in a long time. I tore through this book. What sets it apart isn’t the tension, the stakes, or the characters. It’s that the ending—including the twists along the way—is utterly unpredictable. This is the kind of book that chills you to your core when you figure out the truth. All the better to read on a nice, hot beach, but maybe not next to a lake.
Jackal – 2022
Erin E. Adams
Jackal is scary in more ways than one. Her predominantly white hometown in rural Pennsylvania hasn’t been good to Liz Rocher. She doesn’t want to go back, but she can’t miss her best friend’s wedding. Unfortunately, that’s where everything goes wrong.
The bride’s young daughter goes missing during the reception, leaving behind a piece of her outfit covered in blood. What comes next is a multi-day, town-wide manhunt to find the missing girl. Liz feels personally responsible; she was supposed to be watching Carolina when she went missing. Maybe the finger of blame is being openly pointed at her, but people are whispering behind her back.
There’s a pattern no one else has noticed. This isn’t the first time a young, black girl has gone missing. Far from it. None of them have ever survived. If Liz is going to stop the same fate befalling Caroline, she must figure out who keeps taking these children, and what is stalking all of them in the woods.
A great horror novel. This book creeped me out, and its ending was worthy of the wait and a slow build that led to the grisly truth. Monsters aren’t real, but maybe they are. Maybe we’re the monsters. If you live near a forest, you might want to stay inside for a while after you read this one.
Blame – 2017
Blame isn't pulling any punches with the title. Jane Norton crashed her car and lost three years of her life to amnesia. She also lost her best friend and next door neighbor who was sitting in the passenger seat. Now, his parents have vowed to never forgive her. Her own mother treats her like an invalid that should be committed. And the whole town of Lakehaven, Texas hates her because of a suicide note found at the crash site.
Jane was trying to kill herself that night and David died in her place. Or was she? She can’t remember, but she knows her life can’t go on until she figures out the truth of that night. Her former friends, her mother, and David’s parents are all keeping secrets. But an anonymous someone has promised to bring them to light with a cryptic message: All Will Pay. How many people will have to pay? And what’s the price?
For me, this gets a silver medal in the conspiracy thriller category behind The House Across the Lake. The truth came out little by little, pushed by Jane’s strong will and refusal to let that night go. Because it was her life that got torn apart in the aftermath, and if she can’t remember why she’s going to make sure those who do tell her. Or she’ll just break in and steal their secrets when they’re not home. Jane makes for a great protagonist, lost memories and all, and the amnesia angle makes this a unique, gripping read.
Bonus: The Kremlin Letter – 1966
I’ll admit I had no idea when this book was published until sitting down to write about it. I assumed it was fairly recent and written as a historical spy thriller. Knowing now that it was written in the sixties, at the height of the Cold War, makes a lot more sense. There were certain qualities to the writing that just didn’t feel super modern.
None of that means The Kremlin Letter wasn’t good. It was great. Even the best thriller authors of the 2020s don’t write them quite like this anymore. This is espionage and tradecraft at its finest, but there’s so much deceit and subterfuge that the story gets a touch confusing in places.
Where to begin? There’s a mole in the Kremlin that may be sympathetic to the West, and a letter to prove it. An off the books group headed by a man called the Highwayman is responsible for training and inserting American operatives into Moscow to gather the needed intelligence. This group leaves no stone unturned, preparing operatives over a period of weeks in every way possible and then only sending the best into enemy territory. But this task is dangerous, and there’s almost no chance they all come home alive.
Noel Behn has a better grasp on the tradecraft of Cold War espionage than any author I’ve ever read. The level of detail and thought behind how to successfully blend in communist Russia is outstanding. Behn takes the spy novel to the next level, and the twists and turns along the way are like a punch to the gut. If espionage is your kick, read this book.
Bonus: City On Fire – 2021
City on Fire is a modern day Godfather. That might be the best way to describe Don Winslow’s crime fiction saga. Two criminal empires control New England: Irish and Italians. They thrive together in a truce that borders on somewhat tense friendship, but the enmity of the past still exists below the surface. It boils over when a hot-headed Italian loses his girl to the Irish boss’s son.
Tempers boil over, and this singular transgression evolves into a game of hits and retaliations, the two sides becoming more and more angry and dangerous. An all-out gang war breaks out on the streets of Providence, Road Island. Unless the protagonist, Danny Ryan, can do something to stop the bloodshed, it will continue until only one side remains standing.
This is an epic story about people thrown into a world of violence. Some of them thrive, most don’t. In time, all of them come to fear for their lives. Mob hits, illegal schemes, and betrayal all play a central role in the story. No one is safe, and no one comes out of the feud better than they were going in. This is a dark and gloomy book with enough violence to last me the summer, but once I read the first chapter I couldn’t put it down.
Bonus: Everybody Knows – 2023
Mae Pruett is a black-bag publicist in Hollywood. Don’t know what that means? Neither did I. She deals primarily with scandals, keeping them from muddying the names and images of some of the world’s biggest stars. Bad news must be kept from the public at all costs.
The Mae’s boss is shot and killed outside the Beverly Hills Hotel moments before he was supposed to let her in on a major secret, and everything changes. Investigating why he was killed and what he knew becomes Mae’s sole focus. But Hollywood isn’t a place or an idea—it’s a demented system designed to keep the powerful on top and the truth buried. Only, the truth is much more morbid than anything Mae could have imagined.
This book plays on the theme that some of Hollywood’s most powerful players are also its very worst characters. There’s a Weinstein-esque character preying on young actresses. There’s murder and coverups practically by the dozen. And through it all, Mae realizes what she’s known all along—she’s fed up with helping protect bad people and can’t do it anymore.
I love books set in LA. One minute characters are in the Hollywood Hills. The next they’re at the beach. There’s something about it I find captivating, the charm of a city full of glamour intermingled with some of the worst things you can imagine. Behind the veneer this city isn’t what it seems, and that juxtaposition makes for great crime fiction. Everybody Knows takes advantage of this and is a compelling, exciting read that dives into a world few people know about.
Bonus: The Expats – 2012
Last but not least, we have The Expats. This book feels like a spy thriller in some ways, but doesn’t really involve actual espionage. Yet, it had me on the edge of my seat for almost the entire read.
Kate Moore is—shocker, given the title—an expat living with her husband and kids in Luxembourg. She goes from being a CIA operative living a secret life to a stay at home mom, her days full of coffee with other expats and caring for children. Her husband’s new job is supposedly very lucrative, but he won’t tell her anything about it. He’s acting suspiciously, taking unplanned trips, and as they travel around Europe on weekends she starts looking over her shoulder.
Then they make friends with a couple that Kate suspects aren’t who they claim to be. Getting to the truth of this couple, and her husband’s activities, threatens to tear apart her marriage, and her life.
Pavone does a superb job of messing with the timeline to make this story much more interesting. The Expats is sophisticated and witty with a big reveal that I can’t imagine how anyone would see coming. Secrets abound, and being in Kate Moore’s head feels like a roller coaster ride that refuses to stop. She’s the kind of protagonist that’s hard to find, and even harder to forget. I liken this book to a cross between a spy novel and a conspiracy or suspense thriller. The sense of place is great throughout, and I’d read it again in a heartbeat.
There you have it, a fairly exhaustive list with plenty of amazing books to choose from. I highly recommend all ten of the books I shared in this article, and encourage readers who enjoy crime, thriller, and mystery to give them a try.
Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe for more articles and updates about my own books. Please comment and share and feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @charles_harned. And please drop the great books you’ve read this summer in the comments!