The heroine of this year’s best beach read was beheaded 476 years ago. The most chilling nonfiction spy story unfolds in cyberspace. The coolest biographical subject is a comic-book character. The hottest history is recent. The most amazing act of kindness is performed by an elephant. The most Harry Potter-ish action-adventure romance unfolds against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. And the Olympian Walter Cronkite shares space on the TV shelf with the guy behind Bravo’s “Real Housewives” shows.
Summer reading used to be so easy. No vampires. No handcuffs. Just cookie-cutter choices from genres so broad they could be spotted from space, and the occasional standout hit — “Seabiscuit” (2001), “John Adams” (2002), “The Lovely Bones” (also 2002), “Moneyball” (2003) — that drew readers of every stripe.
“Beach” was a buzzword, but even James Patterson, busy co-author of “Beach House,” “Beach Road,” “Lifeguard” and “Swimsuit,” has stopped flogging it. This year “Granddad, There’s a Head on the Beach” is the best beach title around, and its author, Colin Cotterill, isn’t even pandering. His droll mystery novels, set in Asia (among them “Curse of the Pogo Stick”), just have titles like that.
The one must-read of the season is Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies,” the craftiest work of fiction this side of Ms. Mantel’s “Wolf Hall.” Both are parts of a trilogy about Henry VIII’s political and marital woes, as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s fixer and a brilliantly chosen main character.
“Bring Up the Bodies” finds Cromwell torpedoing Anne Boleyn, the queen who schemed her way to the throne in the much knottier “Wolf Hall.” Though both books have intricate plots, “Bring Up the Bodies” has greater intimacy, wit, chicanery and malice. It ends in 1536, but those qualities are hardly dated. They’re beach book essentials, and they would have reader appeal in any century.
“Bring Up the Bodies” is steeped in English royal history. But there are more recent types of history that are being newly explored and are growing more important by the minute. For the reader who each year vows to complete one big, mind-improving summer-long slog and measures the value of the experience by its difficulty, “Turing’s Cathedral,” George Dyson’s look at a seminal point in the history of computer programming, fits that bill.
Packaged to look like a punch card, the book tells how computer memory was conceived and structured, a process that literally unfolded bit by bit. Mr. Dyson, whose father, Freeman Dyson, was part of the A team of math and physics innovators at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, can be very clear about the scientists’ personalities — John von Neumann leaps out of this book with unexpected star power — but thornily abstruse about the small-bore details of their work. Mr. Dyson is mostly able to convey the gist and assess the importance of each leap forward and fill his book with humanizing glimpses of genius at work.
A different kind of Internet history fuels “We Are Anonymous,” Parmy Olson’s reportorial, very accessible account of the global hackers whose targets included PayPal, the Church of Scientology, Sony Entertainment and the Vatican before one of them, Hector Monsegur, known as Sabu, became an F.B.I. informant and brought the hackers’ methods to light.
Reported by the London bureau chief of Forbes, this book delves into the recesses of the so-called Deep Web to understand the saboteurs’ mind-set and methods. The drama in this story is akin to that in the film “The Social Network.” It links teenage rebelliousness, cyberpranks and increasingly dirty Web tricks to dangerous consequences in the flesh-and-blood world.
But this year’s improbably charming book about hackers is “Alif the Unseen,” a novel prompted by its author’s frustration. G. Willow Wilson, admired for her graphic novels and memoir, says that she was sick of treating her readers as separate factions (“comic-book geeks, literary NPR types and Muslims”) and sick of assumptions that blogging and social media could not have political consequences.
So she conjured Alif, a young Arab-Indian hacker living in an unnamed Middle Eastern high-security state. Alif falls for Ms. Right on the Web, meets her in real life (“in an instant he forgot all his mental projections of Lebanese pop stars and Egyptian movie actresses”), gets into trouble with the authorities, taps into the secrets of a genie and stirs up a bookload of wizardry and glee. For all its spirited fun, this book incorporates the violence that spills off the Web and into Tahrir Square.
Other beach-worthy fiction this season includes “The Kings of Cool,” the Don Winslow book for anyone overdue in discovering Don Winslow. This author’s “Savages” is the basis for a coming movie. “The Kings of Cool” is its prequel, studded with the same sharp, lean dialogue and quick-witted calculation. Mr. Winslow’s thoughts on America’s two wars in Iraq, as filtered through “The Godfather,” come out like this: “41 as Brando. 43 as Pacino.” It takes a mixed process of reading and decoding to appreciate fully Mr. Winslow’s hard-boiled, blazing talents.
A gentler novel, somewhat in the “Lovely Bones” mode, is Karen Thompson Walker’s “Age of Miracles.” In this story a young girl notices that the rotation of the earth has begun to slow, and the new, longer days usher in an eerily altered world. Readers who prefer more virulent strains of unreality will appreciate the sneaky mind games of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” a thriller rooted in the portrait of a tricky and troubled marriage.
Some of this summer’s best stories are from and about real people, and the bigger the better. Frank Langella’s “Dropped Names” is exactly that: a series of chapters about Mr. Langella’s run-ins with a different famous person, framed by a master raconteur, and one who pulls no punches. Fifty years of acting experience have made Mr. Langella so adroit that he is credible even when dropping Noël Coward, President Kennedy and Adele Astaire, Fred’s sister, into the same Cape Cod luncheon-and-dance encounter. Mr. Langella grew up in Bayonne, N. J. He did not inherit pretensions. He learned to say “luncheon” rather than “lunch” during the kinds of adventures that “Dropped Names” describes.
Andy Cohen, self-proclaimed loudmouth in “Most Talkative,” travels in very different circles. Mr. Cohen, who is as funny as Augusten Burroughs used to be, was set on his career path by a magical meeting with Susan Lucci, the “All My Children” star who was the idol of his college years. After that, it was out of the closet (“I did have one interest that didn’t scream G-A-Y: the St. Louis Cardinals”) and into the dishiest realms of television production. He was unstoppable: “I could have come upon a door with a sign reading MORLEY SAFER PEDICURE SUITE, PROCEDURE IN SESSION and I still would have barged right in,” he writes. It requires zero interest in “Top Chef,” “Real Housewives” or anything else on Bravo to find him highly entertaining company through this joke-filled joy ride.
Dame Daphne Sheldrick, a Kenyan naturalist turned memoirist, does not share Mr. Cohen’s idea of what big means. To her, big is Eleanor, an orphaned elephant she raised for 40 years. She was once with a friend when they came across an elephant that looked familiar. “I’ll call her,” Ms. Sheldrick said, “and if this is Eleanor, she will respond.” The elephant did. “Hello, Eleanor,” Ms. Sheldrick remarked. And, naturally, to an elephant, “You’ve put on weight.”
But this quirky anecdote then leads to calamity: Ms. Sheldrick had been wrong. She got too close to an elephant that was a stranger, and it attacked her. Ms. Sheldrick was picked up by a trunk and thrown onto a clump of boulders. She expected to die, even more as the elephant’s foot approached. But then she began to see that the same creature that had hurt her was now trying to save her.
“I knew then and there that I had an absolute duty to pass on my intimate knowledge and understanding of Africa’s wild animals,” writes Ms. Sheldrick, who has also had a mongoose friend called Higglety and a zebra friend called Huppety. Her genteel memoir, “Love, Life and Elephants,” has an animal population big and personable enough to fill a zoo.
The laws of the jungle are harsh in Ms. Sheldrick’s stories. A very different kind of brutality is the subject of Michael Stephenson’s intense, grippingly specific “The Last Full Measure,” a military historian’s account of exactly how soldiers die in battle. The book travels from the ancient Greeks to knights in armor to Civil War battlefields, World War I trenches and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The weapons change accordingly, and so do the grisly possibilities. Mr. Stephenson honors the fallen by making their experiences fiercely, viscerally understandable. Though it hardly qualifies as escapist reading, its fascination with historical detail and celebration of raw courage make it hard to resist.
Walter Cronkite didn’t have a fighter’s wartime experience: He had a reporter’s. “I did not see a single thing,” he wrote to his wife after D-Day. “I was never so disgusted in my life. Why, we didn’t even get shot at.”
This battlefield memory is part of the avalanche of Cronkite lore amassed in Douglas Brinkley’s doorstop-size biography, “Cronkite,” and not all of it is worth knowing about. But the Cronkite career has vast scope, and the cumulative effect of this book is illuminating, not only about the man himself (who is seen holding kittens in one photograph) but also about the way he filtered history for a nation.
We know our times by our heroes, and Larry Tye’s “Superman” is a study of how one superhero has made himself adaptable to the different eras in which he has thrived. Mr. Tye, the author of an outstanding biography of the pitching star Satchel Paige, isn’t a flashy writer. But he investigates each new Superman incarnation with care. The importance of his thorough book is best summarized by something Joe DiMaggio once said to his teammate Lefty Gomez: “Lefty, you know what day today is?” Lefty said it was Wednesday. “No, no,” Mr. DiMaggio said, “today is the day the new Superman comes out.”
David Dalton’s “Who Is That Man?” extols a different Superman: Bob Dylan, the most overexamined pop cultural figure we have ever known. There are libraries full of Dylanologists’ noodlings. There’s no crying need for any more. But Mr. Dalton, a founding editor of Rolling Stone, dates back so far in Dylan watching that he was all but present at the creation. And he has absorbed the many books that preceded his. So he writes not just about Mr. Dylan but about what it’s like to have lived in close psychic and musical proximity to him for so long. Mr. Dalton doesn’t think that this is Bob Dylan’s world and we just live in it, but he thinks that Mr. Dylan is part of our collective landscape. His book roams all over that landscape’s map. The power of the Dylan story will be history some day too.
Finally, this summer’s closest approximation of a chick book: “Women From the Ankle Down,” Rachelle Bergstein’s book-length claim that shoes are more interesting than you’d think. Among the famous shoes on display: the ones that made Marilyn Monroe wiggle, the disco strutters of “Saturday Night Fever,” the Reeboks that helped Jane Fonda popularize aerobics, the high heels that were the spirit of pinups and the beatnik ballerina flats that separated Audrey Hepburn from the crowd. Birkenstocks, army boots and glittering red slippers also appear.
But the single best footwear belongs to Nancy Sinatra, who wasn’t going to be able to appropriate Lee Hazlewood’s country song “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” until her father, Frank, said she could. Tall white boots became famous and so did Ms. Sinatra, once she followed Mr. Hazlewood’s suggestion about how her record should sound. Mr. Hazlewood advised that she sing it like a 14-year-old girl with a penchant for truck drivers. “I can do that,” Ms. Sinatra said. And she did.
Titles That Will Take You Away
WE ARE ANONYMOUS: INSIDE THE HACKER WORLD OF LULZSEC, ANONYMOUS, AND THE GLOBAL CYBER INSURGENCY by Parmy Olson. 498 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $26.99.
MOST TALKATIVE: STORIES FROM THE FRONT LINES OF POP CULTURE by Andy Cohen. 273 pages. Henry Holt & Company. $25.
LOVE, LIFE, AND ELEPHANTS: AN AFRICAN LOVE STORY by Dame Daphne Sheldrick. 334 pages. Farrar, Straus & G
WOMEN FROM THE ANKLE DOWN: THE STORY OF SHOES AND HOW THEY DEFINE US by Rachelle Bergstein. 284 pages. Harper. $24.99.
WHO IS THAT MAN?: IN SEARCH OF THE REAL BOB DYLAN by David Dalton. 383 pages. Hyperion. $26.99.
CRONKITE by Douglas Brinkley. 819 pages. Harper. $34.99.
GRANDAD, THERE’S A HEAD ON THE BEACH: A JIMM JUREE MYSTERY by Colin Cotterill. 324 pages. Minotaur Books. $24.99.
GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn. 419 pages. Crown Publishers. $25.
SUPERMAN: THE HIGH-FLYING HISTORY OF AMERICA’S MOST ENDURING HERO by Larry Tye. 409 pages. Random House. $27.
THE LAST FULL MEASURE: HOW SOLDIERS DIE IN BATTLE by Michael Stephenson. 464 pages. Crown Publishers. $28.
DROPPED NAMES: FAMOUS MEN AND WOMEN AS I KNEW THEM by Frank Langella. 356 pages. Harper. $25.99.
TURING’S CATHEDRAL: THE ORIGINS OF THE DIGITAL UNIVERSE by George Dyson. 401 pages. Pantheon Books. $29.95.
BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel. 410 pages. Henry Holt & Company. $28.
ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson. 431 pages. Grove Press. $25.
THE AGE OF MIRACLES by Karen Thompson Walker. 288 pages. Random House. $26.
THE KINGS OF COOL: A PREQUEL TO SAVAGES by Don Winslow. 336 pages. Simon & Schuster. $25.
I HATE EVERYONE … STARTING WITH ME by Joan Rivers. 242 pages. Berkley Books. $25.95.
LIZZ FREE OR DIE by Lizz Winstead. 307 pages. Riverhead Books. $25.95.
GIRL WALKS INTO A BAR . . .: COMEDY CALAMITIES, DATING DISASTERS, AND A MIDLIFE MIRACLE by Rachel Dratch. 248 pages. Gotham Books. $26.
YOU’RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT: TALES OF MARRIAGE, SEX, DEATH, AND OTHER HUMILIATIONS by Michael Ian Black. 243 pages. Gallery Books. $23.99.
IS EVERYONE HANGING OUT WITHOUT ME? (AND OTHER CONCERNS) by Mindy Kaling. 222 pages. Crown Archetype. $25.