There's nothing even remotely scientific about choosing books for summertime reading. Commercial tradition, of course, has it that the ideal volumes to lug along on a vacation to the beach or just to the comfort of one's sun-kissed back deck are those demanding the least intellectual involvement. As if reading was necessarily a preamble to snoozing and drooling and excruciating sunburn. Heaven forfend that you should spend your downtime with something that makes you think, or even keeps your eyes open!

And true, there are occasions when a shallow, simply plotted novel is all you really want -- a necessary but negligible distraction that will let you unwind from the stress of your job, and won't prevent you from glancing up now and then to appreciate the passing (and, one hopes, scantily clad) throng. But a book can also function as a secondary vacation in itself, a consuming escape from the world around you, no matter how pleasant and coconut-oil-scented that world is. Sometimes what you really want on holiday is a book that helps you to sink into the sands -- an all-consuming read.

January Magazine's first-ever summer books selection tries to satisfy a diversity of tastes and needs. The 71 titles listed below run the gamut from gripping adventure to lighthearted literature to moving memoirs. Each book demands a different level of concentration. To help you choose what's right for your moods and milieu, we've scored each selection on a subjective "brain scale."

Our brain scale isn't a comment on how "good" or "bad" a book might be. We've never thought star rating systems or thumbs up or down are appropriate to book reviews: they're just too arbitrary. Some of the books reviewed here and given a half brain are truly wonderful reads: they simply won't demand all of your brain to get through.

To sum it up, works meriting half a brain demand little mental involvement: you can enjoy them in bits and pieces, and pick up easily wherever you left off. Three brains means that the book is damnably hard to put down, perhaps requiring that reservations for dinner be canceled or that you move to a secluded hammock for a while; have your spouse come looking if you aren't back in a day or so. And don't forget the sunscreen. | June 2003


Fiction | Crime Fiction | Non-Fiction


J. Kingston Pierce is January's crime fiction editor and the author of the forthcoming popular history book, Eccentric Seattle (WSU Press). Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Ali Karim is an industrial chemist and freelance journalist living in England, who contributes frequently to January.