Summer reads: the best paperback books of 2021 to take to the park

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The best new thrillers, staycation reads and memoirs for lazing in the sun. 

Spring is here! With blossom on the trees and rays of sun lifting our hearts (plus the news that social dawdling in the park is now acceptable), now’s the time to think about your new season reading list for spring summer 2021. 

Last year’s big hitters (prize winners and longlist nominees such as Hilary Mantel, Brit Bennett and Naoise Dolan to name a few) are coming out in paperback right now and we’ve also rounded up all the unmissable fiction, memoirs (Michelle Obama and George M Johnson are particular favourites), staycation reads, thrillers, debuts, reissued classics and non-fiction titles that are out now or just about to hit your local indie bookstore.

So grab your tote, sunnies, coffee, an easy-to-carry paperback, find yourself a comfy bench (or stake your spot on a grassy bank with a blanket) and transport yourself to other worlds. Never has an afternoon reading in the sunshine been so well deserved. 

  • Incredible memoirs and biographies

    Becoming by Michelle Obama
    Best paperbacks for spring 2021: Becoming by Michelle Obama

    Finally out in paperback is Michelle Obama’s Becoming (out now, £12.08, Penguin). Written in her precise and straightforward way, she beautifully conjures up her childhood lessons on a piano with a chipped key, her grandfather’s love of music and her own underwhelmed reaction to the laidback and lauded new guy who joins her carefully planned out life at a Chicago law firm – all the while tackling the truth of being Black in the US even after you’ve gone all the way to the White House.

    Craig Brown’s brilliant, funny and enlightening One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (out now, £9.29, Fourth Estate) is a rollercoaster ride through the 1960s and beyond told via letters, fan meetings and a farcical tour round John Lennon’s old house. George M Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue (out now, £8.36, Penguin Random House Children’s UK) is a YA memoir-manifesto that traces the life of journalist and LGBTQ+ activist Johnson and what it means to be both Black and queer – both the terrifyingly violent moments of bullying and the joys of sex and consent.

    Gargoyles by Harriet Mercer (out 8 April, £9.29, Dead Ink Books) is a series of essays exploring health and bodies, love and loss and is deeply moving and providing a serious connection with readers. Eiderdown Books is also releasing a series of books entitled Modern Women Artists celebrating the lives and work of Sylvia Pankhurst, Frances Hodgkins and Eileen Agar to name a few (out now, £10.99 each). Musa Okwonga’s One Of Them (out 15 April, £8.36, Unbound) is a fascinating insight into his own time at Eton and an urgent exposition on how this school’s undue influence is shaping political forces from the current government and Brexit to the rise of nationalist and racist politics. 

    I Am An Island by Tamsin Calidas (out 8 April, £9.29, Transworld) is a raw and redemptive read for fans of Wild and The Salt Path as the author moves to the Scottish Hebrides from London only to find her life and body fall apart. A similar book of transformation is Fury by Kathryn Heyman (out 6 May, £92.9, Myriad) which traces the aftermath of the writer’s sexual assault and her escape to work as a deckhand on a fishing trawler in the Timor Sea.

    For history obsessives, both Hadley Freeman’s House Of Glass (out now, £9.29, HarperCollins) and Ariana Neumann’s When Time Stopped (out 15 April, £8.99, Scribner) unpick their Jewish family histories to uncover jaw-dropping true stories.  

  • Staycation stories

    All Adults Here by Emma Straub
    Best new paperbacks for spring 2021: All Adults Here by Emma Straub

    One of our favourite funny and kind books of the year is Emma Straub’s All Adults Here (out 15 April, £8.36, Penguin) which is perfectly pitched holiday-reading as widowed Astrid decides to shake up her own life only to discover her three grown children are badly grappling with their own. Conjure Women by Afia Atakora (out 15 April, £8.36, HarperCollins) is a sweeping epic of a mother and daughter set against the Civil War, slavery plantations and magic; utterly spellbinding, it’ll sweep you up in its path. Hashim & Family by Shahnaz Ahsan (out now, £8.36, John Murray) is a wonderful book that traces one family’s migrant experience from 60s Manchester through the next two decades.

    Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon (out 15 April, £8.36, Sandycove) is one of the Women’s Prize For Fiction longlist and is a brilliant exploration of marriage and grief that’ll leave you pondering your own relationships. We’re pretty much in love with the whole longlist this year and in paperback you should definitely make time for Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures (£8.36, Orion); Dawn French’s Because Of You (£8.36, Penguin) and Avni Doshi’s incredible Burnt Sugar (£13.94, Penguin) which a searing examination of mothers and daughters.

    The wonderful Scabby Queen by Kirsten Innes (out 29 April, £8.36, HarperCollins) tells the tale of Clio Campbell – a former one-hit-wonder musician who leaves a trail of chaos, excitement and activism in her wake and explores how women are perceived during their lives and after their deaths and in contrast The Never-Ending Summer by Emma Kennedy (£7.43, Cornerstone) is about the comic innocents Agnes and Bea falling into a London summer of love while Agnes’ mother Florence breaks out of her life’s constraints. 

  • Non-fiction reads

    What White People Can Do Next by Emma Dabiri
    The best paperback for spring 2021: What White People Can Do Next by Emma Dabiri

    Non-fiction is having a moment so add these to your shopping basket. Emma Dabiri’s pocket-sized new release, What White People Can Do Next (out now, £7.43, Penguin), deftly and wittily deconstructs allyship and white saviour tropes to give an unblinkered takedown of what needs to happen next. At a moment in history when our protesting rights are being curtailed, Why Rebel by British activist Jay Griffiths (out 8 April, £7.43, Penguin) explores why rebellion is the only way to act against climate change and I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite (out now, £8.36, Quercus) is now out in paperback and a stark read that underlines the racial healthcare gaps (Black mothers are four times more likely to die while pregnant or during birth than white mothers) and how Black mothers are treated across culture, fashion, social and in their own lives.

    Ben Aikens’ funny and moving The Gran Tour: Travels With My Elders (out now, £13.94, Icon Books) celebrates age, wisdom and coach tours to Llandudno and is the type of gentle travel writing that will leave you aching to visit a local seaside resort; similarly, Vintage Shops London by Michelle Mason (out 22 April, £12.08, Pimpernel) is a beautifully illustrated and fact-filled guide to bric and brac palaces in the capital that makes us ache for a mooch around Annie’s Antiques and underling the joy of vintage is Lauren Bravo’s How To Break Up With Fast Fashion (out 29 April, £9.29, Headline) which is a very necessary read. For a boost to your wellbeing don’t miss the brilliant The No-Nonsense Meditation Book by Steven Laureys (out 15 April, £12.99, Green Tree) which unites brain science with practical tips.

    Finally, in Why Solange Matters (out 6 May, £9.29, Faber) by journalist and Black feminist punk musician Stephanie Phillips, the author traces Solange’s career “through an inflexible industry and… describes how Solange has embraced activism, anger, Black womanhood and intergenerational trauma to inform her remarkable art.” It’s one to pre-order now. 

  • Brilliant thrillers

    The Thin Place by CD Major
    Best paperbacks for spring 2021: The Thin Place by CD Major

    CD Major’s The Thin Place (out 15 April, £8.36, Amazon) has a brilliant creepy premise (thin places are “a Celtic term. About places where the gap between heaven and earth is closer”), interconnecting storylines that ramp up the tension and is based on an actual beauty spot in Dumbarton that’s guaranteed to leave you sleepless and chilled. Enjoy! Alyssa Cole’s When No One Is Watching (out now, £8.36, HarperCollins) is an addictive take on Brooklyn’s gentrification and racism that’ll leave your head whirling.

    The New Girl by Harriet Walker (out 15 April, £8.36, Hodder & Stoughton) is particularly enjoyable if you’re currently mainlining The Bold Type as it’s set against a backdrop of women’s magazine publishing and feeding off the paranoia of women handing over their jobs on maternity leave. Harriet Tyce’s The Lies You Told (out now, £8.36, Headline) has excellent Big Little Lies vibes thanks to its school-gate insanity and is the perfect beach read – even if that beach is a manmade sandpit in a local playground.

    Rachel Hawkins’ The Wife Upstairs is a really fun update of Jane Eyre that’s also deeply satisfying (out 29 April, £7.43, HarperCollins) and Lucy Foley’s story of an upscale wedding party on an isolated island descending into violence, retribution and chaos in The Guest List (out now, £8.36, HarperCollins) has to be one of the most fun books of the decade.

    For an intelligent and intriguing thriller then A Double Life by Charlotte Philby (out 15 April, £8.36, HarperCollins) is your go-to: Gabriella works as a senior negotiator in the Foreign Office and has got herself into a right old tangle and Isobel is a journalist who stumbles across a huge story. 

  • The modern classics

    Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
    Best paperbacks for spring 2021: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

    Last year’s biggest books (both literally and metaphorically) are now in paperback which means you can read them without the strength training. From Douglas Stuart’s incredible Booker Prize winner Shuggie Bain (out 15 April, £8.36, Pan Macmillan) which once read will never be forgotten (tackling poverty and alcoholism, it’s also a tale of fierce love) to Hilary Mantel’s epic and glorious The Mirror And The Light (out 29 April, £9.29, Fourth Estate) which wraps up Thomas Cromwell’s doomed ending in such a way, you’re likely to start reading Wolf Hall from scratch again (we actually did this).

    One of last year’s breakout titles is Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (out 29 April, £8.36, Little, Brown), the addictive story of two twin sisters who lead divergent lives – one as a Black woman, one as a white woman (Bernardine Evaristo describes it as: “It seduces with its literary flair, surprises with its breath-taking plot twists, delights with its psychological insights, and challenges us to consider the corrupting consequences of racism on different communities and individual lives”.) Don’t miss it.

    Adding to your book-buying bill is Naoise Dolan’s very funny and insightful Exciting Times is now in paperback (£8.36, Orion) which totally lives up to its much-heaped praise and Jacqueline Woodson’s Red At The Bone (£8.36, Orion), a sweeping and moving family tale that’s filled with characters who will live in your head rent-free.

    Other big hitters (and prize nominees) include Maggie O’ Farrell’s Hamnet (out now, £8.36, Headline) which won the Women’s Prize For Fiction last year (reflecting our pandemic times, it’s about the death of William Shakespeare’s son aged 11 whose name Hamnet was interchangeable with that other famous title: Hamlet); Sophie Mackintosh’s Blue Ticket (out 15 April, £8.36, Penguin) which is a piercing and very feminist exploration of motherhood in another reality and Anne Tyler’s Redhead By The Side Of The Road (out now, £8.36, Vintage) about one man’s determination to be self-sufficient in a world where we all need love – it’s particularly moving giving the loneliness of the last 12 months and will leave you weeping with joy.

    Also out now is Deacon King Kong by James McBride (£8.36, Transworld): a favourite of Barack Obama and Oprah’s Book Club Pick of Top 10 Books of 2020. Set in Brooklyn in 1969, it’s the story of a deacon who kills a drug dealer its rippling effect on a huge cast of characters. Witty, ambitious and original, it’s an HBO series in book form.   

  • Rereleased gems in paperback

    Hitting A Straight Lick With A Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston
    Best paperbacks for spring 2021: Hitting A Straight Lick With A Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

    Written in the 1920s, Hitting A Straight Lick With A Crooked Stick (out 29 April, £8.36, HQ) is a collection of short stories by literary goddess and Harlem Renaissance woman, Zora Neale Hurston. Exploring love, gender, class, racism and sexism, Hurston is an absolute must-read. Bear by the late writer Marian Engel (out 30 April, £9.29, Daunt Books) is described as “a much-loved and controversial Canadian classic, [it’s] Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book meets Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen: a novel about a shy librarian who moves to a remote island in summer… and the unexpected relationship with a bear that ensues.”

    Fans of Nora Ephron and Katherine Heiny (whose brilliant and unmissable Early Morning Riser is out in hardback on 15 April) should also pick up Happy All The Time by Laurie Colwin which was originally published in 1978 (out now, £8.36, W&N Essential) and is described as a “jewel of a romantic comedy” that’s perfect for fans of When Harry Met Sally

    Headline have also reissued Octavia E Butler’s soaring Patternist (out now, £9.29 each) series of books which tackle a hidden history of networked telepaths and social structures which powerfully unpick the constructs of race and gender; what a writer. Finally, Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy (£8.36 each, Cornerstone) is an escapist treat for back-to-back reading. 

Images: courtesy of publishers

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Francesca Brown

Francesca Brown is books editor for Stylist magazine and Stylist Loves; she also compiles the Style List on a weekly basis. She is a self-confessed HBO abuser and has a wide selection of grey sweatshirts. Honestly, you just can’t have enough. @franabouttown