Are you on the hunt for your next great read? All Things Considered asked booksellers across the country to share recommendations for books that you can take with you on vacation — or just to the nearest shade tree.
We heard from: Nina Barrett, Bookends and Beginnings, Evanston, Ill.; Julia Green, Front Street Books, Alpine, Texas; John Evans, Diesel, Oakland, Larkspur and Brentwood, Calif.; Janet Webster Jones, Source Booksellers, Detroit; Harriett Logan, Loganberry Books, Shaker Heights, Ohio; Jake Reiss, Alabama Booksmith, Homewood, Ala.; Sue Zumberge, Subtext Books, St. Paul, Minn.
Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel follows a South Vietnamese army captain (who is actually a spy for the Viet Cong) living in the U.S. after the Vietnam War. The captain struggles with identity and loyalty as he lives and works in an unfamiliar place.
"It's a sort of a dark comedy," says Diesel bookseller John Evans. "It's bleak, but it also is funny. It's giving us a Vietnamese point of view on the Vietnam War and the post-war period in America."
The year is 1889 and London is still reeling from the Jack the Ripper murders when another serial killer surfaces — this time targeting Scotland Yard investigators. This is the first novel in Alex Grecian's Scotland Yard's Murder Squad series, and it dives into the department's early years, when detectives were first allowed to enter people's homes without their permission.
"It gave them the opportunity to investigate a crime any way they saw fit ..." says Julia Green of Front Street Books. "[Grecian] includes a lot of Victorian history, a lot of history of Scotland Yard. So it's a nice historical mystery that has great character development."
Lawrence Hill's novel is set in 2018 in two fictional countries: the poverty-stricken Zantoroland, and the much wealthier Freedom State. Marathon runner Keita Ali leaves his native Zantoroland after his journalist father is killed for his outspoken views. He flees to Freedom State, where he becomes one of many undocumented immigrants trying to avoid capture.
"It's so timely ..." says Janet Webster Jones of Source Booksellers. "This book is about immigration, the whole issue of refugees and the overreach of the state. ... The character in the book is a runner, and he's running for his life, and he's running for his freedom."
The Sport Of Kings
The Forges, one of Kentucky's oldest and most powerful families, are on a mission to breed the next superhorse — a mission that's threatened by the arrival of an ambitious young groom, a black man named Allmon Shaughnessy.
Diesel bookseller John Evans says author C.E. Morgan "goes into the history of horse racing, the natural history of horses, as well as the history of slavery in this particular community." He calls The Sport of Kings "a very dramatic tale."
City Of Women
City of Women takes place in World War II Berlin. Most of the men have shipped off to war, and the city's women are struggling to survive in wartime conditions. "They're struggling with rationing," says Julia Green of Front Street Books. "They're trying to feed what's left of their families; they're trying to feed themselves; they're trying to hold on to what few jobs there are — jobs that are not typically allowed for women."
The main character, Sigrid Schröder, is engaged to a Nazi soldier, but Green says, "She doesn't believe in what Germany is doing, [and she's] trying to reconcile that with the women that she is surrounded by. And of course the resistance gets involved, and there's a little bit of spying and intrigue."
An Ojibwe man accidentally shoots and kills a neighbor's child while hunting deer. In the aftermath of the tragedy, he decides to give his own son, LaRose, to the parents of the dead boy.
Diesel bookseller John Evans says Louise Erdrich's novel is an example of the things fiction does best: "present us with ourselves in all of the intricate complexities ... and ideally presenting something universal, but through a very specific cast of characters, in a specific place, in a particular culture."
In this graphic novel, writer and artist Derf Backderf pulls from his own experience as a trash collector to tell the story of three garbage men in small town Ohio.
Harriett Logan of Loganberry Books says, "[Backderf] also throws in some nice ecological history of how trash is generated, where it is kept [and] how every single trash collection point in America is faulty and leaking and dangerous."
Dinitia Smith's novel reimagines writer George Eliot's honeymoon with her second husband, John Walter Cross, who was 20 years her junior. Eliot was still grieving the loss of her first husband, George Henry Lewes, when she became engaged to Cross.
Bookends and Beginnings bookseller Nina Barrett says, "It's a ... very moving, insightful look at a woman who had a very unconventional life, although she longed to be conventional. [She] had this kind of omniscient consciousness in her books, but in reality was very vulnerable. You see her at a frail moment in her life."
In this memoir, journalist William Finnegan recounts his life through the lens of surfing, an obsession that has sent him all over the world in search of challenging waves.
Diesel bookseller John Evans says the world of surfing isn't the most articulate ("It's a world of 'Yeah, man,' " he says) but that's changing. "Increasingly, voices are coming out of that culture that represent it much more evocatively and can bring it to people who haven't ever ridden a wave. And [Finnegan] is extremely good at doing that."
Kill 'Em And Leave
Author James McBride explores the mysterious history of soul genius James Brown, as well as the musician's impact on American culture.
"Regardless of your musical taste, this is a spellbinding biography," says bookseller Jake Reiss of Alabama Booksmith. "And it unearths much that we've never been told about the godfather's private life. ... There's been I think 18 or 20 biographies of James Brown and this one really does bring an awful lot of new information about his private life that I didn't realize."
In her debut memoir, geobiologist Hope Jahren reflects on her life in science and how her close relationship with a longtime lab partner has informed her work.
From lab work to relationships, Harriett Logan of Loganberry Books says Jahren "takes apart a truth and makes you absolutely stunned how every vein tells a story. ... Her inquisitiveness is infectious, her writing is sublime, the pan of love she has for her ... lab partner and her energy for life is enviable."
The Bad-Ass Librarians Of Timbuktu
After al-Qaida seized control of Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012, a government librarian risked his life to smuggle thousands of ancient manuscripts out of the city, enlisting family and friends to help save the priceless texts before it was too late.
Jake Reiss of Alabama Booksmith says Joshua Hammer's book "reads like fiction, but it is a true-to-life amazing story. ... As a novel, this would make a scary page-turning thriller. But no one would believe that this tale was possible."
The Warmth Of Other Suns
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of America's Great Migration by retracing the journeys of actual African-American families, including her own, as they made their way north and west.
"She really tapped into her own family life experiences and went to where people were in the places that she talked about ..." says Janet Webster Jones of Source Booksellers. "She really put herself into this book."
The River Of Doubt
The River of Doubt tells the story of Theodore Roosevelt's treacherous journey through the Amazon rain forest after the failure of his 1912 presidential campaign. Author Candice Millard recounts the extraordinary challenges Roosevelt and his team faced (rapids, starvation, disease) as they explored an unmapped tributary of the Amazon River.
"If I was planning my whole summer ... it would be all nonfiction and it would be all written by Candace Millard, who is one of my favorite current historians," says Sue Zumberge of Subtext Books. "She is ... one of those people who gives you the entire background, that plops you down in the middle of it. ... She is just one of those historians who envelope you in the time."
Empire Of The Summer Moon
Empire of The Summer Moon is about the last chief of the Comanches, and his tribe's decades-long war with white settlers for control of the West.
"The Comanches really held them, [the settlers], at [bay] for a long time," says Janet Webster Jones of Source Booksellers. "So it traces the rise and fall of the Comanche, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history; one of the most remarkable narratives ever to come out of the West."
Mattie C.'s Boy
When Shelley Stewart was 5 years old, he watched his father brutally murder his mother with an ax. The rest of Stewart's childhood was marked by homelessness, abuse and racism — yet he managed to graduate from high school and begin a career in broadcasting.
"After terrible, despicable treatment ... this small African-American boy ... ran away from home, and he was taken in by a white family who let him sleep in their stable," says Jake Reiss of Alabama Booksmith. "He went on to become a famous DJ in these parts and then eventually bought the station. It's a book you absolutely cannot read without being inspired."
A History Of Food In 100 Recipes
Editor and culinary expert William Sitwell takes us on a journey through the evolution of food in 100 recipes, starting with Egyptian bread and concluding with modern culinary delights.
"He writes about these many different recipes that we're really familiar with, and talks about the history of them, where they came from, how they got going," says Source Booksellers' Janet Webster Jones.
Under The Big Black Sun
This history of LA punk rock features the voices of those who lived it, including musicians Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Mike Watt (Minutemen) and John Doe (X), who co-authored the book.
Diesel bookseller John Evans says Doe is "a great writer and a great songwriter and a straight talker. ... He was everywhere when the LA punk scene took off." Evans says Under the Big Black Sun is "a great and generous memoir of LA punk."
All Over But The Shoutin'
In his memoir, journalist Rick Bragg recalls growing up in poverty in northeastern Alabama. The book is a kind of love letter to Bragg's mother, who struggled in her marriage to an absent, alcoholic husband and picked cotton in order to provide for her children.
"This book really honors all mothers," says Jake Reiss of Alabama Booksmith. "The writing is beautiful. The story is truly amazing. We think this book ought to be required reading everywhere."
Children And Young Adult
The Evolution Of Calpurnia Tate
Jacqueline Kelly's debut novel (for ages 9 to 12) focuses on a young Texan girl in 1899. Calpurnia Virginia Tate develops an interest in science and natural history after she starts to wonder about the grasshoppers in her backyard. She looks to her grandfather for answers, and together they explore the natural world.
"She's so desperate to learn about her surroundings, to read On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, that she finally starts a conversation with her grandfather ..." says Julia Green of Front Street Books. "He's been interested in natural history for quite a long time — since the Civil War — and he hasn't really had anybody to share that with."
Pax (for ages 8 to 12) tells the story of a boy, Peter, and his fox, Pax, during wartime. When Peter's dad decides to join the military, Peter is forced to send Pax into the wild before going to live with his grandfather. But Peter's guilt over leaving Pax is so strong that he runs away in the middle of a war to reunite with his fox.
Diesel bookseller John Evans says the story is simply but beautifully told. It's "a kind of folk tale that really captures of the hearts of adult readers, including readers who read mostly literary fiction for adults," he says. "They are struck by the storytelling. She's an amazing writer."
Dead End In Norvelt
Jack Gantos' autobiographical novel (for ages 10 to 14) opens with a young boy getting in trouble at the start of summer vacation. His punishment is to help an elderly neighbor with an unusual task: writing obituaries of the town's founding residents, who are dying at a suspicious rate.
Julia Green of Front Street Books says, the boy "learns the values of a relationship with someone of an older generation. ... He's not just learning from the grandmotherly type — she's learning from him. She's learning how to re-embrace life because she's with a 12-year-old. It's really a sweet story with the multi-generational view. And it's funny."
Thunder Boy Jr.
In this picture book (for ages 2 to 5), a young boy named after his father resents that he doesn't have a name that's all his own. He wants a name that celebrates something exciting he's done, so he and his father come up with a solution.
"Every child wants an identity and a name of their own," says Harriett Logan of Loganberry Books. "I think they can relate to that."