Your summer reading list: 7 non-fiction books you won’t want to put down

Category: News

The UK lockdown is lifting, and you may be heading away for a summer holiday.

Whether you’re planning a trip abroad, a staycation, or just taking it easy in the garden, you’ll probably be looking for something to add to your summer reading pile.

Reader numbers soared in lockdown as the nation turned to the comfort and escapism of a good book. Here’s a list of seven non-fiction works to add to your summer reading list that you won’t want to put down.

Covering true crime, history, travelogue, essays, and popular science – there’s something for everyone, wherever you’re settling down to read this summer.

1. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story, by John Berendt

A finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, Berendt’s Southern Gothic tale is set in the town of Savannah in the US state of Georgia.

The book combines true crime with elements of travelogue and memoir. Clint Eastwood directed an adaptation in 1997, starring John Cusack and Jude Law.

The story follows Berendt as he travels to Savannah and meets the town’s cast of colourful characters, including the well-respected antique dealer, Jim Williams.

When local 21-year-old, Danny Hansford is found murdered, his former employer, Williams, is arrested. During the course of the book, he will stand trial for the murder four times.

Midnight in the Garden of Good Evil spent 216 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

2. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson

Erik Larson’s number one bestseller centres around the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Also known as the Columbian Exposition, the event welcomed over 27 million visitors to the city during its six-month run.

The novel follows the lives of two men in the run-up to the event. One man, architect Daniel Burnham, is Director of Works for the fair. The other is H H Holmes, a murderer who would come to be known as America’s first modern serial killer. He used the influx of visitors to the fair as cover for his crimes.

Larson captures the visceral feel and smell of 1890s Chicago and both stories are equally fascinating. Burnham’s difficulties in opening the fair on time become as nail-biting as the appalling crimes of     H H Holmes.

And however farfetched the story might seem, it is based entirely on fact. As with other Larson works, all text in quotation marks throughout the book comes from a genuine letter, memoir, or other written document.

A meticulous feat of research and a fascinating story.

3. Chaos: The Amazing Science of the Unpredictable, by James Gleick

Another non-fiction work that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Gleick’s popular-science book, Chaos, tells the story of the history of chaos theory.

Most commonly understood as explaining the butterfly effect – the metaphor of a hurricane influenced by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings –  here, the science is accessible and the storytelling engaging.

Through the eyes, and the lives, of the scientists involved, Gleick builds a picture of an exciting (and largely accidental) discovery. And a new field in the world of science.

The emergence of chaos theory has implications for all of us and they make for an enthralling and thrilling read.

4. The Girl in the Picture: The Remarkable Story of Vietnam’s Most Famous Casualty, by Denise Chong

Chong’s compelling and devastating biography charts the life of Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old girl captured running from a napalm attack, in one of the most powerful photographs of the Vietnam War.

From the war itself to the Vietnam that remained after the Americans left, the story follows Phuc beyond the image that came to symbolise the war.

First as a propaganda puppet for the Communist regime, then as part of a family trying to survive the poverty of post-war Vietnam, and finally to her dramatic escape to Canada.

The book documents the horrors of war and the corruption of governments as well as the aftermath of unwanted celebrity, and how a single image can change history.

5. Corsairville: The Lost Domain of the Flying Boat, by Graham Costner

A former BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, Corsairville takes the reader back to the era of the flying boat.

The height of luxury in air travel, flying boats – as opposed to seaplanes – take off and land on the wide underside of their fuselage. They once provided the quickest routes from Britain to Africa and America.

In 1939, the flying boat Corsair crash-landed in the Belgian Congo and a salvage mission began. The mission went on to require a team of people so large a town grew up around the site: Corsairville.

The story intersperses the history of the flying boats with Costner’s own trip in search of Corsairville. The book becomes history, travelogue, and memoir in one.

Costner’s joy and enthusiasm for the halcyon days of the forgotten flying boat comes across on every page. It’s an enthusiasm that’s contagious.

6. The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

American writer Tom Wolfe is arguably best known for his 1987 satirical novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. However, his best book may well be his 1979 exploration of America’s manned space programme, The Right Stuff.

From the high-powered test rockets that would see Chuck Yeager become the first pilot to break the sound barrier, to the first Project Mercury astronauts selected for the NASA space programme, the book follows these brave men – and their wives – as they fight to prove they have the right stuff.

Alan Shepherd. Gus Grissom. John Glenn. The Space Race was fought between two Cold War nations by individuals who would become heroes. At stake: a place in history, and control of the heavens themselves. 

7. The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla

Released in 2016, The Good Immigrant is a collection of 21 essays by black, Asian and minority ethnic authors. Together, Shukla describes the collection as a document of “what it means to be a person of colour” in Britain today.

The essays in The Good Immigrant provide a picture of what it’s like to be an immigrant – whether first or second generation, refugee or asylum seeker – in modern Britain.

It asks why some immigrants are deemed ‘bad’ immigrants, whilst others – the Olympic medallists and reality TV show winners – are deemed ‘good’? What does it mean to be told to ‘go home’ when you’re already home? How does it feel to always have to tick the box marked ‘Other’?

It’s a brave and challenging collection of insights into race in the UK today.