The Best Summer Reads of 2021
If you want to escape people you’ve been stuck with for more than a year or just enjoy something poolside—we’ve got you covered.
This summer is full of expectations as the first vaccinated season free from isolation. There are missed trips to be made up for, friends to reconnect with, and parties to remind us what life was like before. This feeling and fervor is matched by an exciting slate of books published this spring and summer.
Whether you’re looking for a reason to escape the unfamiliar overload of social interactions or whether you need a novel to pair with your beachside piña colada, here are 18 of the best books to read this summer.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
This showstopper of a debut novel is framed as a piece of journalism—an oral history of the 1970s rock duo Opal & Nev. In this conversational format, Walton weaves together a symphony of unique voices to tell the story of how the wholly original Opal, a Black singer from Detroit, and the British Nev came together to make music history. Unsparing and raw in its exploration of the personal and political complications these characters face, the novel explodes with color, style, and music as it explores the challenges of love and art, racism and gender inequality in a story that doesn’t leave a single note out of place.
The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson
Like watching a garden grow from seed to harvest, this novel quietly unfolds to tell the story of several generations of Dakhóta women and the land that connects them. In 2002, Rosalie Iron Wing returns to the home she was ripped away from after decades spent in foster care and married to a white farmer. Wilson, who is also Dakhóta, writes beautifully of the historical sins that have been passed down and are still present in the people and in the earth, both of which bear the scars. But as Iron Wing begins to deal with her past, she realizes it’s not too late for hope.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
Maggie Shipstead’s latest is epic in both length and scope. Great Circle ranges from Antarctica to the middle of the Atlantic, from the vast open skies to the scandal-ridden public eye of Hollywood stardom. Centering around an early 20th-century aviatrix and the actress who plays her nearly a hundred years later, plus the characters who orbit their lives, Shipstead brings this complex world to life in a fresh and engaging structure to create a propulsive and entertaining read.
Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi
It’s the season of travel and we’ve all been longing for a long, luxurious train ride. But The Lucky Day is no ordinary locomotive and the trip Xavier, Otto, and their pet mongoose embark on for a quasi-honeymoon is no ordinary vacation. In this delightfully strange novel, Oyeyemi proves yet again that her imagination is unparalleled as the bewitching journey unfolds and the couple is forced to look more closely at their lives, their pasts, and each other. As the mysterious heiress and resident of the train writes in a note welcoming them aboard: “Here’s to unseeing the world.”
Why Peacocks?: An Unlikely Search for Meaning in the World’s Most Magnificent Bird by Sean Flynn
Journalist Sean Flynn’s title poses a good question—one that probably hasn’t crossed the minds of most readers. But from the earliest chapters of this compulsive account of one family’s foray into raising peacocks, you will wonder why not. Flynn’s family romp is full of colorful and quirky details, beautiful writing, and unexpected twists that will have you viewing these magical birds in a new light. As far as Flynn’s answer to that big question that brought these extraordinary new members into his family: “I’m sure it was from exasperation that George Mallory finally said he was climbing Mount Everest simply because it was there. So: because of feathers. That is the reason. And colors.”
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
The author of the book behind HBO’s blockbuster The Undoing is back with another psychological thriller, this one based on the machinations of the male-dominated literary world. Jacob Finch Bonner is steadily proving himself to be a washed up one-hit wonder, relegated to teaching no-talents in a low-residency MFA program. There, he meets an arrogant student whose plot really is a guaranteed bestseller. When Bonner later learns that Evan Parker (who plans to use the pseudonym Parker Evan) has died, he steals the idea for himself and achieves the literary fame of his dreams. But his act of theft may not have been the first time this idea was stolen, and the suspense ramps up as someone begins threatening to expose his secret.
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
This novel opens with an elderly woman dying after a fall on her isolated English cottage’s hearth in an accident that goes unheard by her middle-aged twins sleeping in the rooms above. As the siblings come to terms with the death of the woman around whom their lives have revolved, the world that they thought they knew slowly begins to unravel. Fuller’s novel is slow and brooding as one mystery after another arises and two siblings who have been left behind by the modern world face changes both gentle and profound.
Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy by Larissa Pham
Larissa Pham has written a stunning collection of essays that blends memoir with reflections on art and criticism. Her lyrical prose roils with emotion as she reflects on love and longing, heartbreak and travel, the search for meaning and ultimately herself. She is one of those writers whose words light a fire in your soul, making you restless with inspiration and the need to begin your own journey through the life-changing works of art and forgotten corners and that have come to populate your life.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Just in time for the return to the office, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s debut brings a compelling new voice to the workplace drama. The Other Black Girl is a timely, smart, and humorous exploration of the lily-white book publishing world centered around Nella, the sole Black employee at Wagner Books who is thrilled when another Black woman is hired onto the team. Part dramatic thriller, part horror story, this book deals with urgent topics—workplace diversity, racial politics, and identity—with a deftness that will make readers think while also entertaining them on every single page.
Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
Ashley C. Ford has been one of the standout voices of the past decade, so it’s no surprise that the announcement she was writing a memoir came with much fanfare. And Somebody’s Daughter delivers. Ford excavates her childhood memories and her relationships with her incarcerated father and tough mother and grandmother with a tender heart and clear-eyed insight that will stay with you long after the last page.
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
In this retelling of the Great Gatsby, Vo turns Fitzgerald’s American classic on its head to present a world recognizable in outline, but brought to new life in imaginative detail. The Chosen and the Beautiful is magical, quite literally. In this Jazz Age New York, ghosts haunt mansion corridors, flappers drink special elixirs that make them float, and members of the elite have obtained their fame and fortune by selling their souls to demons. Vo’s razor sharp eye on social conventions, sexual politics, and personal desire, will delight, entertain, and make you entirely rethink the world of Jay Gatsby.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
In her latest, Taylor Jenkins Reid time travels back to 1980s Malibu where four siblings in various shades of rich and famous are on the eve of hosting what has become the city’s annual party of the year. Reid has produced the perfect summer novel, a vibrant story filled with sun, surfing, and flawed but lovable characters who are forced to come to terms with their family’s history and the secrets they are keeping from each other as the past converges with the present in a day whose hours tick down to an explosive inferno.
How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
From the grounds of Monticello to the gift shop at Angola, journalist Clint Smith takes readers on a tour of nine places to examine the legacy of slavery and how that history is being remembered and passed on. This book is a beautiful, painful tour of some of the darkest and most complicated parts of American history that will make readers rethink the truth being told about the sins of our past that are still very much alive in the present.
The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
When her niece’s best friend is murdered, group therapist Mariana rushes to her side at Cambridge University, where she becomes fixated on a young, charismatic Greek tragedy professor who holds a cult-like sway over a secret society of female students who call themselves The Maidens. Michaelides’s psychological thriller simmers with an eerie, sinister atmosphere as Mariana is stalked by men and the gods of fate as she relentlessly pursues the truth to its startling twist.
Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor
There is a deep fear in the publishing world of the “second book slump,” the idea that the follow-up to a blockbuster hit can never match the original’s genius. But Taylor has blown this myth to pieces with his new collection of short stories that comes a year after his debut novel Real Life received rave reviews. He stays in the same world of the Midwest with a cast of characters who allow him to explore the dark, vulnerable, and often ugly side of being human and searching for connection.
Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke
This past pandemic year has exacerbated one of America’s growing health problems: loneliness. Writer and illustrator Kristen Radtke began exploring this topic for her latest graphic novel in 2016, but it became even more relevant four years later when we were plunged into a mandated lockdown. From amateur radio operators sending out CQ calls into the night to the invention of the laugh track to combat solo viewing of at-home entertainment, Radtke looks at the ways the isolation of our modern society and the biological imperative to cultivate social connections are at odds.
Afterparties: Stories by Anthony Veasna So
This collection of stories brims with life and heart as its characters — all first-generation Cambodian Americans from an immigrant community in central California — struggle to come of age and come to terms with their cultural identities and the legacies of their parents’ trauma as survivors of the Cambodian genocide. From the universal, often mundane, concerns of growing up and trying to get out to the realities specific to this refugee community, So’s debut collection explores the youth experience in exciting, immersive prose that is all the more urgent and tender given the author’s untimely death in December at the age of 28.
Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson
This lengthy novel spans just one year over four decades ago—the summer of 1977 to the summer of 1978—but it couldn’t be more relevant today. Damnation Spring follows three different members of one family: a logger who has just spent his life savings on a stand of redwood trees that he hopes will be the foundation for his family’s financial future; his wife plagued by a series of miscarriages who begins to suspect that the logging industry is poisoning the area’s water; and their son. Davidson’s well researched debut explores the rifts that develop in a community facing the detrimental effects their way of life is having on the environment.