Sure, it’s beach read season. We know, we know. But if you want to sound really cool when you get back to school after summer vacation or back to the office after a long weekend in front of the air conditioning unit, then we recommend picking up some of the reads below. You’ll be able to regale your peers and pals with incredible stories, and they’ll all be true. Whether you’re interested in reading about Otis Redding, Stalin’s offspring, hummingbird hotlines, or alcoholism, these books will rivet you with real-life stories that are heartbreaking, heartwarming, heart-attack-inducing, and everything in between.
Rhythm and soul
Otis Redding looms large in popular culture today, despite his untimely death at age 26 in 1967. One need not do much Googling to find that, in addition to his impressive discography, he has been sampled repeatedly by some of the biggest artists working today. In Dreams to Remember, Mark Ribowsky tells the story of Redding, Stax Records, and the lasting legacy that both left on soul music in the American South. Not just for diehard Stax Record fans, this expertly assembled book takes the reader on a journey through a music scene that was as influential as it was fascinating.
On shelves: June 1
My name is…
We don’t need to tell you who Joseph Stalin is. His reign in the Soviet Union is associated with gulag labor camps and purges of those whom he considered enemies of the state. Few historians would argue that he was anything other than a tyrant. That said, one of his less-examined roles was that of a father. This nuanced and rigorously-researched work takes the reader inside the world of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, who grew up in the Kremlin, lost her mother at a young age, and spent much of her adult life trying to live life on her own terms. History buffs won’t be able to put this down.
On shelves: June 2
An American tragedy
No one could ever forget the horrific scene that unfolded in an Aurora, Colorado movie theatre in July, 2012. A gunman opened fire on a movie theatre, killing twelve people and wounding many others. In this book, husband and wife Stephen and Joyce Singular attempt to reckon with the limited and less-than-explanatory nature of the information available about James Holmes. The Singulars also take it one step further: They examine the pervasiveness of mass violence in American youth culture, and attempt to make sense of a troubling topic. This is a dark book, but a sincere and smart take on a serious subject.
On shelves: June 9
Birds of a feather
So, wrap your head around this: “Hummingbird-rescue hotline worker” is an actual job. If you’re hooked, and you should be, you can read more about it in Terry Masear’s new book about the hummingbird rescue scene in Los Angeles. You’ll learn a lot about hummingbirds, but also a lot about what it means to care for something. If H is for Hawk didn’t convince you that birding is hot stuff right now, then Fastest Things on Wings almost certainly will.
On shelves: June 16
Too much of a good thing
Alcoholism is a difficult subject to tackle, but Sarah Hepola does so with grace and candor in this memoir about her own struggle with addiction. Readers, particularly young female readers, will likely see themselves in some of Hepola’s descriptions of the challenges she has faced, from maintaining her friendships to struggling with her relationship with food. This is a dark book that may hit a little too close to home for some, but Hepola’s resilience is ultimately captivating and inspiring. Hepola seems to beckon to her audience that if she can win the fight against addiction, then her readers can too.
On shelves: June 23
Give and take
“We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” It’s a message that has been repeated many times by many different people in positions of power from the White House to the State Department, and has had influence on American foreign policy for years. Jonathan Powell, however, vehemently disagrees. Powell was Tony Blair’s chief of staff, and argues in this new book that negotiation is the only responsible way to deal with terrorist organizations. It would be easy for this book to devolve into a scholarly but thoroughly impractical discussion of foreign policy tactics, but Powell doesn’t let the material get away from him: His advice is pragmatic and well-considered. Foreign policy nerds, run, don’t walk, to buy this book.
On shelves: June 30
The other Coke
How much do you know about the international cocaine trade? Odds are, probably not much. Roberto Saviano will change that in this new investigative account that focuses on Mexico’s drug cartels, but spins a wide and complicated tale about the high-stakes world of cocaine sales. From the cartels of Mexico to cocaine-toting submarines, this story is almost unbelievable, and will almost certainly change the way you think about the drug trade. This isn’t a light or happy read, but it is a fascinating one.
On shelves: July 14
On the run
Not only is North Korea the last truly closed society on earth, it is also one of the last places most of us would ever want to live. Both of these facts combined are what make Eunsun Kim’s account of escaping North Korea so fascinating. Kim has unique and rarely-heard insight into the country and the hardships faced by many of its citizens, and tells a harrowing tale about her trials and tribulations trying to leave. Kim’s story won’t just rivet you: It will also make you wonder just how many others are suffering as her family did, and what the rest of the world can do to help.
On shelves: July 21
Life after the atomic bomb
Nuclear war is something that many of us fear in the abstract. We know that an atomic bomb would quite literally blow our lives to pieces, but we don’t necessarily have a clear mental picture of what that might look like. Susan Southard’s book will change that by putting a face on a devastating day in Nagasaki nearly 70 years ago. Southard tells the stories of five hibakusha (the name given to those who survived the bomb) who were teenagers on August 9, 1945, when their lives changed forever. The book follows the five teenagers into their adult lives, and describes the continuing impact of the atomic bomb. This is a graphic and painful read, but it tells a story it would be dangerous to forget.
On shelves: July 28
Like winning the lottery
If you thought you’d heard the last of Shirley Jackson, we’re happy to be able to tell you that you’re wrong. In fact, you basically just won the literary lottery (no, not THAT lottery… ). This collection features never-before-seen short stories and essays along with other miscellany from her staggeringly impressive career. This collection is guaranteed to cost you some sleep at night, with all of Jackson’s creepy antics and spine-chilling tricks in full force. Readers will also gain an appreciation for Jackson’s essays, which are tightly-written and address a range of topics, from clowns to family life. Shirley Jackson’s influence is still alive and well in writing today, and after reading this, she’ll stick with you, too.
On shelves: August 4
The long death of slavery
When Kirkus writes “Just buy it” in their review of a book, it’s worth taking notice. This comprehensive history of slavery in the United States is expertly researched and brilliantly presented. History, in hindsight, can look like a series of events that were more or less inevitable. Patrick Rael, however, doesn’t take the easy way out in this staggeringly impressive tome: He is careful to portray the complexity surrounding each step of the abolition movement and its eventual success. History buffs should run, not walk, to purchase Eighty-Eight Years. That said, it seems that this book also has enormous potential to reach a broader audience, too.
On shelves: August 15
A picture of the future
It would be hard to find another book this easily described with so many buzzwords (“commercial art” “consumer culture” “emerging technology”), but Megan Prelinger is onto something in this insightful study of the last century’s technology and the artwork that accompanied it. Commercial artists play a vital role in Americans’ understanding of the current state of science and technology, and Prelinger delves into this relationship in a way that is fascinating without being alienating to the casual reader. You’ll be the smartest guest at the next cocktail party you attend; that, we can guarantee.