Books for summer: whatever you’re doing
Whatever you’re doing: watching a loved one barbecue, cooped up in the office, improving yourself. This list has you covered.
The End of the World is Bigger than Love For sitting on a beach, drawing parallels between lapping waves, rising sea levels and pandemics
First things first, yes, this is a young adult novel, and no, that isn't a reason not to read it! I'm a children's bookseller, so I'm exposed to a vast array of amazing books written with younger readers in mind. But in all honesty, well-written young adult novels are just as worth reading as novels for grown-ups and offer the readability we need for a) sultry summer days and b) processing heavy duty topics.
Davina Bell is among my favourite authors at present, and The End of the World is Bigger than Love is my favourite of her published works. It's her first young adult novel, and it features identical twin sisters Summer and Winter. The world they live in has cracked into climate crisis and pandemic pieces – sound familiar? – and they live a peculiar life alone on an island with a church full of tinned food.
There's a whisper of magical realism through the mystery of two different perspectives on the same situation and the things that slip unsaid between sisters. It's beautiful and weird and thought provoking and a must-read.
Te Ruānuku For slowly testing out how much of your reo Māori you’ve retained from your akomanga this year
Basically every bookish household has a copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist somewhere – so what better way to test out your pānuitanga than with Te Ruānuku? This is one of four books in the first drop of the Kotahi Rau Pukapuka series, and while learners (like me) will want to have an English version to hand and the Māori Dictionary app on their phone’s home screen, Hēmi Kelly’s translation is accessible and worth trying to work your way through. It's not terribly long and imagine how proud we'll feel when we've finished it!
The extra for experts is to give Tā Tīmoti Kāretu’s Mātāmua ko te Kupu! a go – only available in reo Māori and replete with Tā Tīmoti’s eloquent and challenging phrasing.
The Queen’s Gambit For idle summertime research before embarking on your inevitable career as a chess Grand Master
Chess has never been sexier thanks to Netflix and Anya Taylor-Joy. Hell, The Queen’s Gambit even gave Dudley Dursley an unexpected makeover. But while you work yourself up to a competitive level of play, poring over guidebooks and cursing at the computer as you lose another round, why not read the novel that the series was based on? It was written in 1983, and various people, from Michael Ondaatje to a New Yorker reviewer have commended its unputdownableness.
Extant chess fans or general pedants will appreciate Walter Tevis' level of research and dedication to the portrayal of a troubled yet genius mind, and thanks to the miniseries, you don't have to try expend too many extra braincells trying to conjure up the visuals of extreme graphic eyeliner of the era.
Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow AKA Smilla's Sense of Snow For manifesting cooler temperatures on a scorcher of a day
This was a set text for ENGLISH 101 when I was a wide-eyed 17-year-old first year BA student, which is how I happened to discover this 1992-era Danish mystery novel. And sometimes, when the weather is sweltering and oppressively summery, you want to experience the literary equivalent of a cold plunge pool.
So why not go to Greenland and the High Arctic in pursuit of working out a conspiracy surrounding the death of a neighbour's young child? Scandinoir is always huge, but if you've already worked your way through all the latest Nesbøs and and Mankells et al, why not dive on in to the equally grim and twisty world of Peter Høeg. And if the snowy setting doesn't cool you down, the chilling storyline will – win win!
Oryx & Crake For reading in the garden while a loved one barbecues Beyond Meat type foodstuffs
The Handmaid's Tale might be Margaret Atwood's most famous dystopia, and its certainly gotten its fair share of the spotlight in recent times between a hit TV series and the state of the USA over the last four years – but it's not her only take on the future we're building for ourselves. Oryx and Crake, probably my favourite Atwood, is the first book in the Maddaddam trilogy, three books that tell parallel and then interconnecting stories in a post-apocalyptic not-so-distant future.
But before the world collapsed, there was a whole lot of creative genetic engineering going on in the compounds occupied by high echelon STEM specialists and their families – including horror-show 'creatures' like the not-really-chickens bred without brains but plenty of extra drumsticks to meet the demand for meat.
So please enjoy your lab-grown meat alternatives and thank your lucky stars that the development of those products didn't require the same genesis as the pulsating multi-appendage chickens.
Nothing to See For contemplating the duality of our lives online as you scroll through a frenemy's Instagram summer snaps
I actually wrote a whole review on this over on The Spinoff but really, if you want to boil it down to the bones of the matter: nobody does unease quite the same way as Pip Adam. Want to explore fragmented visions of reality and self while you contemplate your own divided selves as far as how you portray yourself alone, in company, online?
Even if that sounds utterly terrifying, you should still read this book. It's bizarre and funny and harrowing and alarmingly relatable at times, even though it's also a science fiction-y story about two women who also one woman – or were, or will be. Weird enough for you? Good. We all need a bit of weird in amongst the more traditional beach reads of light romance and murder thrillers.
Plus it's coming out in Australia next year, so you can make sure to have strongly formed opinions on the book before all your literary friends in Melbourne have had a chance to pick up a copy. And as an aside, the recurring references to holding onto sobriety can only be of benefit in the festive season, let's be honest.
The Great Godden For beachy escapism with a side dose of 'thank goodness that's not my family'
Sometimes you do want a straightforward(ish) beachy read in summer – maybe you're cooped up in an office or the weather at your campsite has taken a turn for the squally. This is my happy concession to a seaside story.
Yes, this is another young adult book, and yes, it's another book that can and should be read by fully grown adults too. Meg Rosoff has always been a bit wonderfully subversive and peculiar, ever since her wartime dystopia How I Live Now came out back in the early aughts. The Great Godden has all the shimmer and shine of a family seaside holiday at a well-to-do relative's house – but rather than a total crashing collapse, there's plenty of decadent and gentle summer to be had before things get a bit curly and then very twisty.
Even if you can't usually abide coming of age novels™, The Great Godden manages to fulfill aspects of that sort of narrative while also remaining oddly cool and detached from all the drama that escalates as the story progresses. It's short, compelling and well worthwhile.
Any BWB Text For using your PTO to reframe your view on the world and listen to oppressed voices
Now let's go completely earnest with a dash of non-fiction to wrap things up: I hand-on-heart love the BWB (Bridget Williams Books) Texts range. The range of writers that have been called upon to tell their stories, to share their research, to make their arguments, is remarkable. You can go from Albert Wendt's evocative mini-memoir of childhood days in Samoa (Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater) to Jess Berentson-Shaw's exploration of communication and the science behind it (A Matter of Fact) to Paul Gorman's experience of reporting on the Christchurch and Kaikōura quakes (Portacom City).
I've never met a BWB Text I wasn't taken by. And they're $15 each, compact enough to keep in your bag or even a trouser back pocket if you want to give off a bit of a Jess from Gilmore Girls vibe. You could collect any kind of book series – but why not make it one that's both affordable and full of absolutely vital stories and information?
About the selector
Briar Lawry is a writer, editor and bookseller from Tāmaki Makaurau. Considering her line of work, she spends an remarkably high proportion of her time watching stuff online compared to time actually spent reading books. Call it pop culture research.