Spring at last. That means outdoor reading season is officially upon us. Whether you prefer to read in a hammock, on a park bench, or on a beach towel, there's nothing like enjoying a great book en plein air. If you're unsure what to pack in your day bag, we've got you covered.
2021 has so much to offer for your literary diet, meaning that even if you’re missing the normal rhythms of social life, you'll have plenty to keep your mind occupied. Our favorite books of the year thus far come from authors both emerging and established, meditating on everything from life online to life in the intersections of identity. Set everywhere from the all-too-real world to the distant past, and even peering into the speculative future, these books offer escape, education, and spiritual enlargement—whatever you’re looking for.
Not all of these books have hit shelves yet, but if you see something you like, do yourself a favor and pre-order it. When it lands on your doorstep in mere weeks, consider it a gift from Past You—and don’t waste any time diving in.
In this striking debut novel, structured as a polyphonic oral history, a magazine editor traces the electrifying origin story of Opal Jewel, an Afro-punk performer, and Nev Charles, an English singer-songwriter. Together the duo produced a singular seventies sound, until they flamed out when a photograph of Opal wrapped in a Confederate flag emerged from a gig turned riot. Decades later, Opal and Nev’s 2016 reunion tour is threatened by a shocking secret. Walton brings rock and roll to life in this powerful story of art and activism’s intersections.
“I don’t want you to rehabilitate me,” Philip Roth told Blake Bailey when the renowned biographer of John Cheever and Richard Yates proposed to make Roth his next subject. “Just make me interesting.” The resulting biography, a literary event a decade in the making, clocks in at over 800 pages, chronicling its complicated but inimitable subject from cradle to grave. Bailey dissects the multitudes Roth contained, from his long memory for bitter grudges to his problematic dalliances with women, while illuminating the ways in which Roth could be generous and encouraging. Through Bailey’s careful study, a titan of American literature comes into three-dimensional view, as does the staggering body of work he left behind. Read the first excerpt exclusively here at Esquire.
What if you could look at life from outside of life? What would you see? That’s the provocative question posed in this previously unpublished novel from one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, wherein a Black man named Fred Daniels is apprehended by the police, brutally tortured, and forced to sign a confession for a violent crime he did not commit. To escape his captors, Daniels flees into the city’s underground sewers, where he transforms into someone else entirely. Beneath an unfair world, Daniels tunnels into the basements of local establishments, leading him to startling truths about morality, injustice, and what matters most when the world’s systems are stripped away. Though the novel was written in the 1940s, its visceral vision of crime and punishment continues to hold modern resonance.
In this gripping true crime story about the Last Call Killer, who preyed on New York City’s queer men during the 80s and 90s, Green foregrounds the shamefully forgotten lives of the killer’s known victims. Not only does he consider the profound losses carved out by their murders, but also the role of homophobia in shaping their lives and deaths. Green thoroughly sketches the queer bar scene of the era, ravaged by the AIDS crisis, and the law enforcement indifference that allowed the killer to lure men to their gruesome deaths. In these riveting pages, Green reclaims a time, a place, and a community, weaving together a decades-long forensic investigation with a poignant elegy to murdered men.
Few writers so memorably capture the quirky interior lives of their characters as Heiny, the author of Standard Deviation. She returns to form with Early Morning Riser, a wry and wise novel about the intertwined romantic lives of the residents of a small Michigan town. New-in-town Jane falls hard for handyman Duncan, but struggles to come to terms with the growing knowledge that Duncan is the local casanova, having slept with nearly every woman in town. When a tragic car crash binds Jane forever to Duncan, his ex-wife, and his mysterious coworker, Heiny soars in her offbeat examination of small-town baggage and found families.
This sweeping novel, beginning in 1914 and clocking in at just under six hundred pages, revolves around two lead characters: Marian Graves, a thrill-seeking female aviator who disappears over Antarctica, and Hadley Baxter, the ambitious actress set to play Marian in a biopic a century later. Marian’s globe-trotting story of adventure, courage, and longing moves through Prohibition-era Montana, Alaska, and the South Pacific, culminating in her fateful disappearance during a record-setting pole-to-pole flight. Years later, Hadley’s determination to break free of tabloid celebrity sees her quest for self-determination overlap with Marian’s, making for a mellifluously intertwined meditation on how women chart their own courses, in the sky and on the ground.
Nadia Owusu is the daughter of an Armenian-American woman who all but abandoned her as a toddler and a larger-than-life Ghanaian diplomat who died when she was thirteen years old. That alone is enough to pull you into her story. Owusu interrogates her stateless, motherless upbringing in this dazzling memoir, reflecting on how she grew up both everywhere and nowhere. Now an adult, Owusu ruminates on the lingering claw marks of loss—of country, of family, of innocence—while charting her peripatetic journey across continents in search of a homeland to call her own. Powerfully and poetically told, Owusu’s remarkable story chronicles the lasting legacies of grief and trauma, as well the thorny, non-linear journey of healing.
Geller’s skill as an archivist takes center stage in her formally ambitious memoir, constructed from the ephemera of her late mother’s life, which includes diaries, receipts, photographs, and letters. This fragmented inheritance sends Geller spinning unflinchingly backward through the alcoholism and neglect that colored her childhood, as well as through her mother’s slippery reminiscences of her upbringing in the Navajo Nation. Moved by her mother’s stories, Geller sets out to discover her heritage, heading to the Navajo reservation to reconnect with her estranged family—and with the part of herself she’s never known. In this transcendent story, Geller refuses to look away from the agonizing cycles of abuse and addiction, while also writing with deep compassion about the limitations of the people we love.
In this electrifying debut novel, three lives coalesce around an unexpected pregnancy, forcing a bittersweet examination of identity, parenthood, and family. When Ames learns that his boss-turned-lover is pregnant, he confesses that he once identified as a trans woman, then hatches a plan for his lover to co-parent with his ex-girlfriend, a lonesome “trans elder” yearning to become a mother. In this compassionate, gut-punching story, Peters leans all the way into the tragicomedy of how families and identities are formed, making for a deeply searching novel that resists easy answers. Read an exclusive excerpt here at Esquire.
In this moving prequel to The Hate U Give, the smash bestseller that launched Thomas into the literary stratosphere, Thomas returns us to Garden Heights while turning back the clock seventeen years, transporting us to the fraught young adulthood of Maverick Carter. At seventeen years old, Maverick has inherited his imprisoned father's gang affiliation, and he sells hard drugs to make money while attending high school. When Maverick becomes a father, he decides to go straight, but the astronomical cost of leaving the gang soon threatens to tear him apart. Through Maverick's powerful coming of age story, Thomas probes bittersweet truths about boyhood, manhood, and the winding road in between.
"The part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world," George Saunders writes in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It's perhaps the truest distillation of Saunders' visionary life and work, encapsulating the characteristic generosity and humanity of his artistic outlook. Saunders has spent over two decades teaching creative writing in Syracuse University’s MFA program, where his most beloved class explores the 19th-century Russian short story in translation. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders has distilled decades of coursework into a lively and profound master class, exploring the mechanics of fiction through seven memorable stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol. In these warm, sublimely specific essays, Saunders’ astounding powers of analysis come into full view, as does his gift for linking art with life. By becoming better readers, Saunders argues, we can become better citizens of the world.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction returns with another sobering look at our Anthropocene Epoch, this time centered not on the countless calamities ahead, but on the trailblazing efforts of scientists to turn back the doomsday clock. Kolbert describes the subjects of Under a White Sky as “people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems”; she turns her lens to human interventions in nature, like the storied redirection of the Chicago River, and to the pressing need for further intervention to correct our folly. Traveling everywhere from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef, she chronicles her encounters with scientists, who are pioneering cutting-edge technologies to turn carbon emissions to stone and shoot diamonds in the stratosphere. Heralded by everyone from Barack Obama to Al Gore, Kolbert’s urgent, deeply researched text asks if our ingenuity can outrun our hubris.
In this firmament-shattering examination of how we teach creative writing, Salesses, a novelist and professor, builds a persuasive argument for tearing up the rulebook. Tracing the traditional writing workshop to its roots in white, male cultural values, Salesses challenges received wisdom about the benchmarks of “good” fiction, arguing that we must reimagine how we write and how we teach. Only then will our canon and our classrooms be the inclusive, expansive spaces we want them to be.
From a titan of American letters comes a compendium of twelve early pieces, never before anthologized together, which find everyone from Martha Stewart to Ernest Hemingway in Didion’s crosshairs. Each essay showcases Didion at her very best, spotlighting her incisive reporting, her steely narrative gaze, and her commanding gifts as a prose stylist. Anthologized together in this compact volume, these peerless essays remind us just why Didion looms so large in the pantheon of American literature.
Through the lens of a transformative cross-country road trip from California to Connecticut, Jarrar recounts her lifelong hunger for liberation from the forces of domestic violence, doxxing, and systemic racism. Along the interstate, she tangles with racist truck drivers, destroys Confederate flags in the desert, and pays a visit to the Chicago neighborhood where her immigrant parents lived when they first touched down in the United States. This visceral, unforgettable memoir is Jarrar’s barbaric yawp, asserting her triumphant choice to live joyfully in a hostile world.
Carroll’s searing memoir recounts her complicated childhood as the only Black person in a rural New Hampshire town, where even the love of her adoptive white parents could not answer the incompleteness within her. When her white birth mother enters the picture to cruelly undermine Carroll’s Blackness and self-worth, the aftershocks reverberate across Carroll’s lifetime, sending her spiraling through a pattern of self-destructive behaviors in search of her racial identity. In this vulnerable and layered meditation on race, adoption, and family, chosen and otherwise, Carroll unspools a poignant story of becoming.
Chen’s remarkable debut collection of stories unfolds across the modern Chinese diaspora, pinballing between acutely observed realism and tragicomic magical realism. In one story, a man becomes addicted to chasing the highs and lows of the volatile Chinese stock market; in another, a group of commuters remain trapped in a subway station for months on end, awaiting permission to leave. Each haunting, exquisitely crafted story poses powerful questions about freedom, disillusion, and cultural thought, firmly establishing Chen as an emerging visionary to watch.
The novelist and viral poet behind So Sad Today returns with her outstanding second novel, a bold and luscious story of desire in all its forms—for food, for sex, for belonging. Twenty-four-year-old Rachel has replaced Judaism with calorie restriction as her religion, but when she begins a three month detox from her impossible-to-please mother, who prizes thinness at all costs, her obsessively structured life soon changes course. Enter Miriam, the devout Orthodox heiress to a frozen yogurt fortune, who wants nothing more than to feed Rachel. When Rachel’s psychosexual obsession with Miriam spirals out of control, it leads to startling insights about faith, family, and food. Rarely has the fraught intersection of pleasure, appetite, and diet culture been written about so deliciously as in Milk Fed.
One of the year’s sharpest debut novels, Fake Accounts opens on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, when a young woman snooping on her boyfriend’s phone discovers his secret life as an online conspiracy theorist. She plots to end the relationship, then decamps to Berlin, where the dizzying weight of her own falsehoods soon warps her reality. Told in our narrator’s seductive, incisive, and often deceptive voice, Fake Accounts is a ferociously smart dissection of the social media age, where we’re long on carefully-crafted fictions and short on truth.
Nesteroff traces the long and shameful marginalization of Native American comedians in this deeply researched volume, beginning as early as the 1800s, when Native Americans were forced to perform as caricatures of themselves in traveling Wild West shows in order to avoid imprisonment. The book toggles between historical analysis and modern-day interviews with emerging Native comedians, who are struggling to break into show business amid the dearth of opportunities on reservations. Nesteroff also deconstructs caricatures of Native Americans as stoic people, highlighting an irreverent and often hilarious chorus of voices aching to be heard.
Never has the experience of being Extremely Online been more viscerally rendered than in No One Is Talking About This, Lockwood’s astonishing novel about a viral celebrity who travels the world on the back of her popular tweets. It takes a family tragedy to reawaken her to the world beyond her screen, where she’s reminded that the internet can’t contain the wonders and horrors of real life. Written in a style at once lyrical and fragmentary, brimming with memes and texts, this novel locates both the profane and the profound in how we live online. No One Is Talking About This will frighten you, implicate you, and scrape your guts out, in the best way possible.
Beginning unforgettably with a young girl’s high-octane escape from a Catholic reform school, Engel’s sweeping novel gives voice to three generations of a Colombian family torn apart by man-made borders. When Elena and Mauro move their children to the United States, the cruelty of deportation sunders their family, but never their bonds. Gorgeously woven through with Andean myths and the bitter realities of undocumented life, Infinite Country tells a breathtaking story of the unimaginable prices paid for a better life.
Set in the foothills of North Carolina, Coster’s gripping sophomore novel centers on two mothers: Jade, a Black single mother striving to set her son up for success in a racist world, and Lacey May, a white woman who refuses to recognize the heritage of her three half-Latina daughters. Their small community is riven when the predominantly white high school begins accepting students from the largely Black side of town; meanwhile, when Jade’s son and Lacey May’s daughter grow close during a school play, the two families become bound forever. Coster’s remarkable characters, each one of them authentically flawed and gorgeously realized, propel this wise and loving story ever forward, making for a graceful meditation on family, inequality, and the ties that bind.
In Ishiguro’s first publication since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, we meet the humanoid robot Klara, an Artificial Friend designed to be a child’s companion. Sunning herself in the display window of a store, Klara ruminates on the world passing her by, hoping all the while to be chosen. When she is at long last adopted by a teenager named Josie, their growing bond is threatened by Josie’s terminal illness. Tender and suspenseful, the novel probes timeless questions about personhood, morality, and what makes a good life.
In this blistering sequel to 2015’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s nameless North Vietnamese spy, last seen speeding across the sea to an uncertain future, washes up as a refugee in Paris, where he embeds himself in the French criminal underworld of the 1980s. To survive his harrowing life as an outsider, the Sympathizer deals drugs to the upper echelons of political and intellectual society, but he can’t shake traumatic memories of his past, nor plot a trouble-free future. Like The Sympathizer, The Committed rewards repeated reading, deepening with each read from a noirish literary thriller into an elegant treatise on colonialism and identity. You’ll want to sit with this one again and again for years to come.
On the morning that Mona, a young Peruvian-American writer, is set to fly to a Swedish convention where she’s been nominated for a prestigious literary prize, she wakes up covered in inexplicable bruises. At the convention, she longs to be subsumed by the familiar rhythms of the professionalized literary world, rife as it is with resentful and entitled men, but the haunting mystery of what’s happened hems in at the edges of her consciousness. At once a brutally observed satire of literary society and a tragic story of how identity can be commodified, Mona is a daring new work from one of Argentina’s most exciting novelists.
In the fictional African village of Kosawa, the locals live in fear of Pexton, a predatory American oil corporation, whose destructive practices pollute the water and the farmland. When children begin dying after ingesting toxic drinking water and the corrupt government turns a blind eye, the villagers mount a courageous uprising—one that comes at a steep personal cost. A generation of narrative voices, many of them children, shape this sweeping, elegiac story of capitalism, colonialism, and boundless greed, reminding us of the myriad ways we fail to make a better world for our children.
Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female physicians in the United States, this mesmerizing novel begins in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, where Libertie Sampson is expected to follow her mother’s path in the medical field, despite her musical calling. When a Haitian doctor proposes marriage, promising to live as her equal in Haiti, she elopes with him, only to discover that colorism and sexism reign supreme on the island. Freedom in all its forms comes under Greenidge’s powerful lens: freedom from oppression, freedom to choose one’s own path, freedom to love and forgive. What emerges from her careful study is a powerful, transporting story about self-determination in an oppressive world.
The celebrated author of Go Ahead in the Rain returns with a far-reaching collection of twenty essays, each one a remarkable synthesis of criticism, autobiography, and cultural study about Black performance in America. Abdurraqib meditates on performances past and present, spotlighting everything from Soul Train to Whitney Houston, Josephine Baker to the Wu-Tang Clan. He illuminates what’s personal and political about Black performance, weaving a jubilant love letter to the resilient entertainers who’ve graced stages both big and small.