Book Club: Get Lost In The Best Summer Reads For 2021

By Julia Gessler
Photo / Guy Coombes for Viva Magazine – Volume Two

FOR A JOURNEYHistorical, emotional and fictional voyages

Our Country Friends by Gary ShteyngartReading about people in a pandemic during a pandemic can feel less like a salve and more like a truly heinous flashback. But this holed-up-in-a-country-house contagion tale is worth any presumed discomfort as one meets the Levin-Senderovskys — Sasha, Masha, and Natasha — and their four close friends. The rustic estate of this dark comedy proves, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be a pressure cooker for personalities and unnerved psyches. Allen & Unwin UK, $33

The Books of Jacob by Olga TokarczukAfter seven years of translation, the Polish Nobel Laureate's magnum opus, centred on controversial mystic Jacob Frank, has seen its English release. Shedding identities as quickly and adeptly as a reptile sheds its skin, the Polish-Jewish religious leader wrought havoc through 18th century Europe with a sect embroiled in nefariousness, to the veneration of his followers and the ire of many. The dauntingly huge novel was not without contention itself — Tokarczuk's publisher temporarily hired her bodyguards after its first publication. Text, $40

Assembly by Natasha BrownIn a series of vignettes, our unnamed narrator sees her vision of success become an agonised hollowness in the wake of being diagnosed with cancer. Told in an unapologetic sparseness, Natasha Brown's literary debut is rendered in brevity and unfolds as a vivid portrayal of the effects of racial prejudice. Hamish Hamilton, $22

Bolla by Pajtim Statovci"This story was dismal as hell," begins one Goodreads review for Pajtim Statovci's recently translated novel set during the Yugoslav wars. For those who relish in the dark and angsty, Statovci offers an emotionally intense tale of star-crossed lovers through his narrator, Arsim. Read for the harrowing story, stay for the lyricism. Pantheon, $49

To Paradise by Hanya YanagiharaStretching across three centuries in a triptych set in 1893, 1993, and 2093, the third novel from Hanya Yanagihara of A Little Life fame, coming in January, imagines America in three counter-historical iterations, each richly rendered and inextricably linked by love, utopia and dystopia. Mark your calendar. Picador, $38

FOR A THRILLCrime, malevolence and a helping of terror

Billy Summers by Stephen KingWhile Stephen King may feel inseparable from the horror genre, his recent release offers a wholly enjoyable dive into noir. Set firmly in the 'kill-for-hire on one-more-job-before-they're-out' plot, this anti-hero assassin tale is twisty and tense-jumping, and a good entry point for readers who have often veered away from King's more frightening folio. Hachette, $35

Harlem Shuffle by Colson WhiteheadRay Carney, small-time crook and furniture store owner, is embroiled in a safe deposit box heist in the eighth page-turner from the author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. The book's ordinary-Joe-turned-imperilled-con about-turn leads to a three-act crime thriller that gently nudges at the genre's will-they-won't-they formula without getting lost in it. It's an exquisite, dutifully narrated triumph from the double Pulitzer Prize winner. Little Brown Book Group, $35

A Good Winter by Gigi FensterDoting grandmother Lara, "a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-on-with-it sort of person", tends to her bereaving daughter Sophie and her grandson in the wake of her son-in-law's death. Her friend Olga helps too, masking her jealousy of this redirection of attention with considerate gestures in this psychological thriller that deals in a warped, dutiful obsession. Text, $38

A Line to Kill by Anthony HorowitzRetired detective Daniel Hawthorne and writer Anthony Horowitz (the character) make for the isolated island of Alderney in this curious whodunnit, delicately spun with tantalising, Agatha Christie-like clues and taut misdirections. Like any good mystery, everyone is clouded with a level of dubiousness, there's friction between the murder-solving duo, and humour moving seamlessly between it all. Century, $37

Kurangaituku by Whiti HereakaKurangaituku, part woman, part bird, is the focus of this two-part retelling of Maori lore from the perspective of the clawed being who, in traditional tales, is said to have captured Hatupatu, the youngest of four sons, and held him captive at her cave high in the mountains. It's a sort of monster redemption story, offering a fresh perspective for a misunderstood figure. Huia, $35

FOR THE BITE-SIZEDShort stories, lasting impressions

Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson: And Other Very Short Stories by Jack Remiel CottrellThe joys of these very, very short stories (many don't extend longer than a page) are that every word has meaning, and in the hands of New Zealand writer Jack Remiel Cottrell, they're wielded with an exacting precision. Expect sci-fi and comedy, robots and time travel, Greek gods and pranks in this expansive debut where, one feels, there are no wrong words, only sharp ones. Canterbury University Press, $30

Afterparties: Stories by Anthony Veasna SoAnthony Veasna So's debut collection, released posthumously after he passed away unexpectedly last year, is many things: chatty and absurd, funny and poignant, with generational trauma etched on its edges for its young Cambodian-American protagonists in California. It is haunting, in the way that great writing can be, too. Grove Press, $33

Murakami T: The T-shirts I Love by Haruki MurakamiLiterary icon Haruki Murakami (1Q84) is something of an accidental T-shirt collector: he didn't know he was collecting them until he had a collection. Discover an intimate collection of essays, peppered with photos of some of his incrementally amassed shirts, that venture from pubs in Ireland to Hawaiian surf culture. Harvill Secker, $38

Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya PowlesThose interested in a coalescence of nature writing and memories would do well to read Nina Mingya Powles' lyrical collection of essays. The bodies of water here are literal — a pool, a shore, a pond — that form a tapestry of beautiful, more figurative reflections. Allen & Unwin Canongate, $33

FOR A DEEP DIVEElucidative and thought-provoking non-fiction

The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century by Amia SrinivasanOxford professor of social and political theory Amia Srinivasan's debut book explores the feminist movement today in a series of lucid essays on the political debates shaping the way we think about pleasure and ethics, and offers a remarkably astute treatise on the structures making (and not making) the world a more equitable place. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $42

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda MontellGrappling with the detrimental, seductive effects of language, Amanda Montell reflects on the ways in which words can be weaponised from cliques to cults, multi-level marketing schemes to fervent, hardcore fitness programmes (CrossFit, Peloton) and groups like QAnon. HarperCollins, $55

A Trillion Trees: How We Can Reforest Our World by Fred PearceIn this clarion call for the planet, travel writing and science gently meld at the hand of Fred Pearce, author and environmental reporter. Readers are immersed in the world's treescapes from case studies on the forests shaped by destructive consumption, and how we can help them. Granta, $40

Around the World in 80 Books by David DamroschA bibliophilic play on Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, academic David Damrosch — a contemporary Phileas Fogg — departed on an ambitious tour of the globe from his library, with stops as varied and circuitous as the task at hand: there's Dante and Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood and Murasaki Shikibu. Pelican, $48

Orwell's Roses by Rebecca SolnitAuthorial heavyweight George Orwell is the subject of this delightfully unusual biography meets literary criticism replete with roses. With great care, Rebecca Solnit unearths the avid gardener's life and the relationship between his petal passion and his political writing, ending with a satisfying flourish: a rereading of Nineteen Eighty-FourGranta, $33

FOR A BEACH READEasily digestible prose for the sand

Apples Never Fall by Liane MoriartyThe Delaney siblings — Amy, Logan, Troy, and Brooke — are stricken with wondering whether the disappearance of their mother has anything to do with their father. Two say yes, two are unsure. In this innocence-versus-guilt tennis match, the author of Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers serves a glossy mystery steeped in fractional family relationships and neatly wrapped with shock tactics. Pan Macmillan, $30

The Sentence by Louise ErdrichA small independent bookstore in Minneapolis finds itself haunted by Flora, a recently deceased patron. Tookie, an employee, who has grounded her life in this indie outlet after incarceration, must rid the store of its ghostly interloper, one of her "most annoying customers", in this novel that contends with shadows both real and intangible. Corsair, $38

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley HellerElle Bishop loves her husband Peter, but on their annual trip to their Cape Cod summer house, she whisks away one evening for a romp with childhood sweetheart Jonas. Told over a single day, the upper crust mother of three is caught in that familiar, burning dilemma: stay or leave. Viking, $37

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-ChanThe founding of the Ming dynasty during the 14th century unfolds in this genderqueer historical fantasy variously described as a clever mashup between Mulan and Madeline Miller's epic Song of Achilles (think assumed identities, rebellion and a vanquishing of preordained fate). Pan Macmillan, $38

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony DoerrThree storylines spanning from the 15th century to the 22nd are linked by a novel-within-a-novel: an ancient (fictional) Greek adventure story by Antonius Diogenes. Doerr's richly imaginative feat practically spills with its cast of characters in this labyrinthine, sometimes fantastical ode to storytelling. 4th Estate, $35

FOR A LIFE STORYMemoirs, autobiographies and intimate insights

Real Estate by Deborah LevyThe final installment (preceded by Things I Don't Want to Know and The Cost of Living) in Deborah Levy's "living autobiography" series sees the writer enter her 60s, her children having the proverbial nest, and what she experiences as a kind of domestic unshackling: Levy, free to follow her creative desires, pursues a fellowship in Paris. It is a keen reflection on her present and past, and an intelligent exploration of what it means to rewrite oneself. "It seemed to me all over again that in every phase of living we do not have to conform to the way our life has been written for us," she writes, "especially by those who are less imaginative than ourselves." Penguin, $26

A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries (2003-2020) by David SedarisNo one makes the innocuous more interesting than David Sedaris. It is his astuteness as an observer and his sheer, unbridled nosiness (read: that time he randomly asked a reader at a book signing when was the last time she touched a monkey, expecting "Never," or "It's been years," but instead she took a step back, saying, "Oh, can you smell it on me?") that makes this possible. The second installment of diaries from the voracious maker of notes is a familiarly excellent affair of chance encounters, idiosyncratic obsessions and memorable stories of his family from a writer that trades in curiosity and candour. Sphere, $38

Things I Learned at Art School by Megan DunnIt started, as some things do, with mermaids. Megan Dunn, determined to write a book about them, had interviewed professional mermaids and read copious lore. But her first draft wasn't enthralling to her editors, by which they meant they loved everything but the mythical sea creatures. What results is a witty, deeply personal series of vignettes of Megan's life, from bartending at a massage parlour to artwork to losing her mother, with a notable cover by her close friend, the photographer Yvonne Todd. Penguin, $35

Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine EvaristoThe Booker Prize-winning author of Girl, Woman, Other pens a retrospective tour of her life that led to her history-making crowning with Margaret Atwood in a rich memoir that wends its way thematically through such topics as 'houses, flats, rooms, homes' and 'the women and men who came and went'. Punctuated with wry wit and an acute self-awareness, there are no hazy contours left here from a writer "addicted to the adventure of storytelling as my most powerful means of communication". Hamish Hamilton, $35

These Precious Days: Essays by Ann PatchettFirst published in Harper's, Ann Patchett's title essay, These Precious Days, transplants you into a writer's world, like all the reflective stories in this collection, with a warmth and deftness, as she meditates on one of the most significant friendships of her life, and human connection. Elsewhere, find a rumination on Snoopy's influence, how Patchett navigates being asked why she doesn't have children, and lessons learned in constructing fiction, in a catalogue that traces those fleeting fragments of life. Bloomsbury, $33

IN CASE YOU MISSED ITBlockbuster bestsellers and deserved award-winners

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally RooneyThe third novel from the Irish author entered this year in a cloud of fervor. And, as readers of Rooney will know, with good reason: this, too, like Conversations with Friends and Normal People, would be filled with incisive prose, where relationships — here, a friendship between Alice, a wildly successful writer, and Eileen, an editorial assistant at a literary magazine — would play out in a seductively real fashion. Between love interests and life, the young protagonists dip in and out of talking about politics and apocalypses, Marxism and art, and attempt to figure out the meaning of their individual worlds. Faber, $33

At Night All Blood Is Black by David DiopNarrator Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier, descends swiftly and tragically into madness in the wake of the trauma of the First World War — and his gruesome task, a vengeance after the death of his childhood friend, of sneaking into the enemy encampment each night, to return with the hands of his victims. First published in 2018, and the winner of this year's International Booker Prize, it's a dark, heart-wrenching, often shocking tale from the celebrated French author. Pushkin, $28

Bug Week: & Other Stories by Airini BeautraisThis debut collection of short stories, which won the prestigious Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, is biting at its best, with snappy tales that veer to the wonderfully strange — an albatross walks into a bar for open-mic poetry night — and back again. You'll find plenty of black comedy, wry storytelling, and strong feminist themes that offer an unflinching lens on contemporary life and the female experience. Victoria University Press, $30

The Promise by Damon GalgutA deathbed promise goes ignored in this domestic drama steeped in South Africa's history, unfolding in a slow, curse-like picking off of a white, bigoted family during the apartheid. Spanning decades, Damon Galgut's novel, broken into four parts, each named after the person poised to perish in its chapter, took out this year's Booker Prize, not least for its death-dealing fable but also its stunning, pivoting narration. Chatto & Windus, $37

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