Grab some sunglasses and a hat. The holiday season is almost here and that means one thing – it’s time to lose yourself in a great book. Here are Editor Group’s picks of recent releases that are perfect for a lazy summer afternoon.
Elizabeth Strout (Penguin Books, $29.99)
If, like me, you were a huge fan of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Olive Kitteridge you will not be disappointed in this follow-up about the life of this brash, opinionated and outspoken personality.
The story starts two years after the death of Olive’s husband, Henry, as she starts a new relationship with university professor Jack Kennison. As in the first book, multiple separate stories are woven together, with Olive the thread that connects the lives of those around her. We revisit many characters we met in the first book and encounter others who find themselves thrust into Olive’s orbit as she struggles to understand not only a rapidly changing world but also the lives of those closest to her.
Elizabeth Strout is an extraordinary storyteller who gets to the heart of the people and community of the book’s setting, Crosby, Maine. She tackles the struggles that affect any town anywhere – aging, regrets and loneliness but also love, friendship and empathy. Although Olive, Again can be read as a standalone novel, I recommend reading Olive Kitteridge first to fully appreciate the depth of this character and her journey.
By Cassandra Butler
Elton John (Pan McMillan, $44.99)
As a shy young boy growing up in a council house in a drab suburb of London, Reggie Dwight dreamed of becoming a musician. Saturday morning piano lessons were the highlight of his week and he took to wearing heavy horn-rimmed glasses to try to look like Buddy Holly (ruining his eyesight in the process). Fast forward a dozen years and 23-year-old Reggie, now calling himself Elton John, is astonishing audiences across America with his catchy songs, exuberant stage presence and increasingly outrageous costumes.
Since then, Elton has gone on to become a genuine rock ’n’ roll superstar, with more than 300 million record sales, the record for the biggest-selling single of all time (‘Candle In The Wind 1997’) and a trophy cabinet full of awards.
And what a journey it’s been, if Elton’s autobiography, Me, is anything to go by! From the highs of his chart-topping success, to his friendships with Freddie Mercury, Rod Stewart and George Michael, and the lows of his struggles with drug addiction, Me is wildly entertaining, honest and often incredibly moving.
Memorable anecdotes include the time Elton and John Lennon refused to open the door to Andy Warhol because, as John said, “Do you want him coming in here taking photos when you’ve got icicles of coke hanging out of your nose?” Then there’s the time actors Richard Gere and Sylvester Stallone almost came to blows over Princess Diana at Elton’s house. And the time Elton claims he saw the Queen playfully slap her nephew Viscount Linley during a party, while saying “Don’t argue with me, I am the Queen!”
But Elton also writes about getting clean and changing his life, finding love with husband David Furnish and becoming a father to his sons Zachary and Elijah, who he says have “made my life complete”. Bless!
By Ylla Watkins
Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Headline Publishing Group, $32.99)
Philip Roth meets fourth-wave feminism, Fleishman is in Trouble is 2019’s ‘great American-Jewish novel’.
Brodesser-Akner’s debut chronicles New York hepatologist Toby Fleishman’s unravelling marriage. It traverses consumerism, sexual harassment, the gendered division of labour, all the ways in which the modern medical system stacks the cards against women … Modern fodder, but every word in this “work of utter perfection” (Elizabeth Gilbert) drips with age-old neuroses.
As the book opens, Fleishman has just liberated himself from his career-obsessed, maternally inept wife, Rachel. Short and ordinary – and not expecting much in the way of rebounds – Fleishman is equal parts shocked and delighted when the dating apps on his phone bring him more female attention than he’s had in a lifetime. But before he’s had time to capitalise on his newfound popularity, Rachel vanishes – leaving Toby with 24/7 care of their two teenagers.
As Toby darts between patient consultations, school camp pick-ups and app-enabled rendezvous, we become more and more aggrieved at Rachel on his behalf – until the narrator, his old friend Libby, begins to complicate the picture. As we near the end of the novel and discover where Rachel’s been all this time – and what she’s been going through – we realise that Fleishman’s complaint isn’t as convincing as we’d first thought.
Vivid and incisive, Fleishman is in Trouble is mandatory summer reading.
By Greer Gamble
Michelle Obama (Penguin Books, $49.99)
You can read Michelle Obama’s bestselling book in several ways: as a memoir of politics (or the sordid side of it), motherhood or marriage. It can even pass as a story about race and class. But broadly, Obama’s memoir is a coming-of-age story – of growing up in working-class South Side, Chicago, attending Ivy League universities despite being told she wasn’t “Princeton material”, and eventually becoming a resident of the White House.
The book is split into three sections: ‘Becoming Me’, ‘Becoming Us’ and ‘Becoming More’. Ignore the blandness of the titles. There’s enough humour and candour on their pages. And the level of honesty is refreshing. There are stories of vulnerability, such as Obama’s miscarriage and failing the bar exam. And quips about politicians who called her husband awful names but still wanted photos with her as a “framed keepsake for their mantel”.
Obama’s goal in Becoming is clear: to empower readers, particularly those who struggle to find their voice. She does this with little preachiness and a dose of pragmatism. It helps that Obama told her story with a strong sense of self. I did get bored in parts where she gushed about her husband’s brilliance and lingered in talking about her domestic relationships. But this abiding sense of self kept me reading.
However, what I really enjoyed were little anecdotes about Obama’s great-aunt Robbie and mother Marianne. They were self-effacing characters in the book yet shared powerful wisdom.
And if you’re wondering if Obama lambasted Donald Trump in Becoming, yes, she did.
By Manuelita Contreras
Sonny Liew (Epigram Books, $65)
What sort of country is Singapore? Westerners who live here get used to being asked that question whenever they go home, along with: “Have you been fined for jaywalking yet?” and “Can you chew gum?”
This graphic novel offers both answers and a fresh view on the stereotypes. Liew charts the career of a fictional cartoonist, Charlie Chan Hock Chye, who comes of age in post-World-War-II Singapore. As Chye’s life and work is revealed, so too is the turbulent history of the post-colonial years, from self-government to merger with Malaysia, separation and independence.
The book is worth a look for Liew’s sumptuous art alone. But there’s also an edge to it: he challenges conventional understandings of Singapore’s past, exposing the forgotten underbelly of those left behind in the island-state’s rapid development.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, for a work of political critique, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was deemed highly controversial when it was first published in 2015. Singapore’s National Arts Council went so far as to withdraw a publishing grant, citing “sensitive content” which “potentially undermined the authority or legitimacy of the Government”. But in trying to silence Liew, the council inadvertently amplified his message. The book went on to become a national bestseller and win widespread acclaim, including the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016. Only a few years after publication, the book has achieved cult status and is regarded as a classic of its kind.
By Melissa de Villiers
Nir Eyal (Bloomsbury Publishing, $29.99)
Behavioural scientist Nir Eyal knows a thing or two about addictive technology. In fact, he wrote a how-to book on it in 2014 – Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products. The book was dubbed “an essential crib sheet for any startup looking to understand user psychology” by Dave McClure, the founder of Silicon Valley startup incubator 500 Startups. And it has gone on to sell more than 200,000 copies.
Fast-forward five years, countless speaking engagements by Eyal on the “Hook Model” and tens of thousands of addictive apps later, and Eyal has a new bestseller. The subject? How to free ourselves of our addiction to technology.
Of course, Eyal doesn’t really believe that we were addicted in the first place. When you tell yourself you’re addicted to something, he argues in Indistractable, it’s sloughing off personal responsibility. Technology is not the problem; our need for distraction is. The solution is to deal with the reasons we’re looking for distraction and take back responsibility.
I’d love to be able to tell you I’d implemented all of Eyal’s strategies for doing this and was blissfully ‘indistractable’ but let’s just say it’s a work in progress. Hey, did anyone hear my phone ping just then?
By Ylla Watkins
Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury Publishing, $29.99)
Ann Patchett’s latest novel is a fantastic read offering astute insights into flawed families and human nature. I loved the echo of a dark fairytale throughout this book, complete with a mysterious missing mother, a haunted castle-like house and the requisite wicked stepmother.
Danny and Maeve grew up in the Dutch House, a lavish home in the suburbs of Philadelphia that is the jewel in the crown for the children’s aloof real-estate investor father, Cyril. After their mother disappears, Maeve takes on her role, raising Danny alongside the family’s two housekeepers, and the siblings form an unshakeable bond. Their father remarries and, like all good fairytales, the children are poorly treated by their new stepmother and eventually are unceremoniously ousted from their family home to fend for themselves.
Told from Danny’s perspective as he looks back on his life, childhood and the house he can never go back to, this wonderful slow-burn of a novel raises questions about family, belonging and home. Don’t miss The Dutch House, even if it’s just for the gorgeous painting on the cover!
By Cassandra Butler
Margaret Atwood (Chatto & Windus, $42.99)
I first discovered Margaret Atwood’s brilliant dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale as a late teenager. Since then I’ve read it probably half a dozen times, bought multiple copies as gifts and recommended it to many more friends.
So, I had mixed feelings about both the television adaptation of the book and the news that Atwood was writing a sequel more than 30 years after The Handmaid’s Tale was published. Yes, it is a timely cautionary tale given the current political climate in the United States. And, of course I’ve wondered what happened to handmaid Offred, but don’t mess with my favourite book!
Fortunately, Atwood has resisted the temptation to pick up the story where The Handmaid’s Tale left off. The Testaments is set 15 years after the events of the first book and is told through the testimonies of three radically different women as their lives converge. Two of these are young women who’ve grown up in the Republic of Gilead. The third is one of the founding ‘Aunts’ of the regime, whose power lies in the secrets she ruthlessly accumulates and deploys like landmines.
The Testaments is a very different novel to its predecessor, not least because the conditions in which the women in Gilead live are no longer shocking (to us or the book’s characters), but it is just as intriguing and immersive for the reader. It is also, ultimately, a hopeful book at a time when the world needs hope. It came as no surprise to me to learn that The Testaments had been named co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction. Praise be!
By Ylla Watkins
Vince Beiser (Penguin Putnam Inc, $49.99)
What better time to become a sand expert than the season of sunny beach reads? Admittedly, Vince Beiser’s nonfiction volume – deeply researched, charmingly written and crisply edited – doesn’t really fit into the ‘light summer romance’ category, but it should leave you with a fond appreciation for the beach on which you lie.
It’s incredibly easy to underestimate the significance of sand. Yet, as Beiser points out, our world would be nothing without it. No concrete – that means no roads, bridges, structural foundations or skyscrapers. No glass – so no reading glasses, drinking glasses, microscopes, telescopes, windows, smartphones or TVs. No silicon chips – no computers, smartphones, modern machinery or long-range communications. And, of course, no beaches – a world without a shoreline.
Baiser roams all over the world to tell the thrilling (no, really) tale of how we have put the humble grain to work for us. From North Carolina – where the purest silicon for computer chips is manufactured in ultra-high-purity quartz crucibles (also made from sand) – to Dubai, where sand from deep under the sea is dredged up and compacted to form new offshore lands. The World in a Grain reveals complexities that you (or at least I) might have never thought about. Of course, you can’t use ocean sand for construction work – salt plus steel equals rust – but it’s a challenge easily overlooked. Desert sand, so evenly polished by wind, lacks the irregularity that gives concrete its structural integrity. Specific types of sand, like any natural resource, are a valuable commodity subject to mining, trading and even smuggling. Consider that as you hotfoot it across the beach this summer.
By Olivia McDowell
Want to buy these books? You can find them here.