A fresh crop of rousing essays, sizzling beach reads and bold short stories to delve into this season
A brilliant book is as essential to your holiday packing as a good SPF. Whether you’re after something slim enough to slide into your pocket for a short weekend away, or a longer novel to get lost in on languorous days in the sun, we’ve got you covered. From creepy novellas to sensual stories and intelligent thrillers, these are the books to take to the beach this summer.
Poet, essayist and Rookie contributor Jenny Zhang adds another string to her bow with this collection; seven stories told from the perspective of daughters of Chinese immigrants. The narrators of these tales pull you close and hold you hostage with their singular takes on the world. They tell us of parental sacrifices, bodily functions (and bodily funks), experiences of otherness, and of the painful ramifications of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. You’d be hard pressed to find a more intimate, raw and funny collection this summer.
Set on the Greek Island of Patmos, this sun-kissed literary thriller follows Ian Bledsoe, a wealthy New Yorker who’s just been written out of his inheritance. Ian arrives on the island – a place rich with spiritual history – to visit his childhood friend Charlie, an even wealthier New Yorker who’s heir to a Cypriot engineering dynasty. Ian’s first few days are filled with decadent meals, glimmering yachts and the scorch of too many vodka cocktails. Things take a turn when Charlie goes missing, and Ian finds himself plunged into a world far seedier than Patmos’s cyan waters and white-washed walls initially suggest. It’s a slick, suspenseful tale that makes for ideal poolside reading.
A delightfully digressive campus novel narrated by Selin, a second-generation Turkish migrant studying at Harvard in the mid-90s. Falling in with friends Ralph and Svetlana, Selin crushes hard on a tall Hungarian boy named Ivan, sends her first ever email, and muses about the capabilities and limitations of language. Lines like this will be familiar to anyone who has ever sat through a particularly terrible 9:00am lecture: “Never in my life had I seen such a boring movie. I chewed nine consecutive sticks of gum, to remind myself I was still alive.”
Following on from her cult campus novel Pages for You – which saw young undergrad Flannery fall deeply in love with her teaching assistant, Anne – Brownrigg’s latest book catches up with the protagonists 20 years later. Now married to a brilliant but brutish male artist, Flannery is struggling to balance motherhood with her career as a once-promising author. When the opportunity to speak at a conference moderated by Anne comes her way, she finds herself unable to resist. In elegant prose, Brownrigg weaves a story about female sexuality, identity and authorship, plumbing the depths of her characters to explore how they inhabit their varied roles; as mothers, wives, lovers, mistresses and artists.
Told through urgent and candid journal entries, Evening Primrose is the story of Masechaba, a junior doctor in South Africa. After graduating medical school, Masechaba finds that the reality of working in her country’s under-resourced hospitals doesn’t quite match up to her dreams. Befriending a co-worker, the politically-minded Nyasha, she finds herself in a difficult position. Attempting to battle a rising wave of xenophobia (which carries worrying echoes of apartheid) puts her not only in her mother’s verbal crossfire, but in physical danger, too. Matlwa takes on themes of gender, race and national identity with a distinctive and engaging voice, pinwheeling from humorous to heart-stabbing and (almost) back again in a mere 150 pages.
Imagine the ominous foreboding of a Shirley Jackson story with the rich psychodrama of early Guillermo del Toro movies and you’ll get somewhere close to this eerie novella. It follows seven-year-old Marina, who arrives at an orphanage for girls following a car crash that killed her parents. Marina is both magnetic and repulsive to the other orphans, so when she suggests a strange bedtime ritual, involving dressing up a different girl as a “doll” each night, the other children play along – with catastrophic consequences. Barba conjures a world that strikes a chord with the reader’s earliest memories, replicating the cognitive dissonance of childhood. It’s haunting, poetic and utterly terrifying.
Fans of Maggie Nelson will love this debut; a story of a woman coming to terms with the death of her mother, whilst becoming a mother for the first time herself. Thandi, raised in the largely-white suburbs of Philadelphia, is mixed race. When her mother is diagnosed with cancer, Thandi stands to lose not only the woman who raised her but also her strongest tie to the South African side of her family. “I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless”, she tells us when describing her experiences growing up. Recounted through a collage of compact chapters, quotes, lyrics and diagrams What We Lose is a powerful and propulsive narrative examining grief, race, sex and motherhood with stark clarity and a wry sense of humour.
At the age of 24 Reni Eddo-Lodge felt tired of discussing race with white people; she was consistently met with defensiveness and hurt-feelings almost every time she tried. So she wrote a blog post, which went viral, and now she’s written a book – a clear and passionate call for white people to acknowledge their complicity in Britain’s structural racism. The essays cover important historical and cultural moments in race relations, from the history of Britain’s slave trade to Stephen Lawrence’s murder and the casting of a black actress as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Racism, Eddo-Lodge writes, is “a problem in the psyche of whiteness that white people must take responsibility to solve”, which makes this book essential reading for a large portion of this country’s populace.
The first novel from former Lucky Peach editor Rachel Khong is a bittersweet tale of a young woman helping to care for her dementia-suffering father. After a recent break up, 30-year-old Ruth moves back to her family home only to discover that her Dad, Howard – a well-loved history professor – is rapidly losing his memory. When he’s cut from the faculty, she joins his assistant in an elaborate plot to make it seem as though Howard is still teaching classes. At the same time, painful memories of Howard’s alcoholism and infidelities resurface and plague Ruth, her Mum and her brother, affecting each in different ways. Filled with lovable characters, this tender debut reads like Lorrie Moore meets Still Alice.
Frances is 21, a communist, and a talented poet. Together with her ex-girlfriend (now best-friend) Bobbi, she performs to Dublin’s literary set. One night the twosome meet Melissa, an older writer of notable acclaim. Whilst Bobbi is charmed by Melissa, Frances finds herself more interested the contents of Melissa’s house, namely the fanciness of her kitchen, and the handsome husband sitting in it. What follows is a thoroughly modern love story; a complex ménage á quatre told with wit and intelligence.