Some books are better together. Drawing inspiration from a beloved wine tasting method, we’ve long adopted the practice of grouping books into “flights” to allow readers to sample, compare, and learn.
Last year, we included a full page of book flights in our Expanded Summer Reading Guide. This year, we’re bringing our summer pairings to the blog!
These purposeful literary pairings match 2021 Summer Reading Guide titles with backlist selections to enhance your appreciation for a certain topic, theme, or style.
Some readers choose to read these selections back to back, while others might take advantage of shorter library wait times by prioritizing backlist titles. However you choose to approach these book flights, I hope you find an unexpected pairing or thoroughly intriguing topic to explore this summer.
2021 Summer Reading Guide Book Flights
Farming and family
Natalie Baszile’s collaborative, community-driven compilation breathes life from its pages, sharing stories of Black land ownership and knowledge handed down for generations in a kaleidoscope of texts from fabulous contributors like Michael Twitty, Joy Harjo, Elizabeth Alexander, Margaret Wilkeron Sexton, and Ross Gay—plus interviews from the author’s cross country travels. The title comes from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, this portion of which serves as the epigraph: “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
After reading her sweeping nonfiction exploration of Black Southern farming, pick up Baszile’s fiction debut about a complicated Louisiana family and their sugarcane farm. The story features a strong heroine to root for and touches on the same themes and traditions threaded through We Are Each Other’s Harvest.
Friends or enemies?
Full of twists, turns, and biting social commentary, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s highly original (and highly discussable) debut novel will leave you with your jaw on the floor. Editorial assistant Nella Rogers is thrilled when Wagner Books hires another Black woman, but new hire Hazel doesn’t turn out to be the ally and friend she expected. After threatening notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk, the atmosphere grows increasingly sinister as Nella tries to befriend Hazel while surreptitiously investigating her past, while her job situation grows ever more precarious.
The main character of The Other Black Girl shares her name with Nella Larsen, the author of another page-turning novel with an ending you’ll just have to discuss. Written in 1929, Passing is the story of two Black women who reconnect after choosing very different paths—one passing as white, the other climbing the social ladder of her upper middle class Black community. As the women spend more time together, their relationship begins to resemble something out of a psychological thriller.
Heroines across history
Torn from her home and haunted by her past, Hashimi’s main character Sitara Zimani compares herself to the lost princess Anastasia. When Sitara’s family is murdered before her eyes in a 1978 coup in the Afghan palace, she miraculously survives with the help of a palace guard who whisks her away to safety. Flash forward 30 years, and Sitara has buried that long-ago trauma and built a life for herself in NYC. But then that same guard shows up in her hospital—and his presence awakens her desire for the answers she never got about what happened back then.
In I Was Anastasia, Lawhon imagines Anastasia’s future after her escape from the Russian palace, and how she moves on from tragedy. While Hashimi takes a memoir-like linear storytelling approach, Lawhon employs an unusual structure to tell the story of Anna Anderson, who claims to be the Russian princess (going backwards in time, from 1970, as she waits the court’s final ruling on her identity) and that of Anastasia Romanov (beginning in 1917, when her family is imprisoned, and moving forward in time). When the two stories converge, all is revealed. Both books explore the tenuous nature of memory, history, and staying connected to the past.
Love in unexpected places
In Casey McQuiston’s latest queer rom-com, two girls fall in love on NYC’s subway—and one of them can’t leave the train. Adrift and lonely, 23-year-old August moved to New York City with hopes of leaving her disappointing past behind and building a new life for herself. One day she bumps into Jane (literally) on the Q line, developing a serious crush on the attractive girl with the retro punk rock look. August is terrified she’ll never see Jane again, but then she does—on the Q line. It turns out Jane is always on the Q line, and if August and Jane are to get their happy ending, Jane needs to figure out how to get her unstuck—with the help of her friends, of course.
Pair this with Grunwald’s 2019 Summer Reading Guide selection that transports readers to Grand Central Station in 1937, where Joe meets Nora, a beautiful woman who appears out of nowhere in the concourse of Grand Central Terminal. They’re both smitten, but there’s just one problem: when Joe tries to walk Nora home, she vanishes, seemingly into thin air. And when he calls the number she gave him, well—that’s when things get really strange. Like One Last Stop, this novel inventively combines history, mystery, and a seemingly impossible love story to great effect.
A very unusual memory
In Stacey Abrams’ debut mystery, law clerk Avery Keene must rely on her eidetic memory and strong chess game to decode clues left behind by her employer, Supreme Court Justice Howard Wynn. After he falls into a coma, Avery is surprised to learn the judge named her as the legal guardian tasked with handling his affairs. Even more shocking: before falling ill, the judge was investigating a global conspiracy with the potential to rock the very core of American politics—and now it’s up to Avery to use her skills to finish the job.
I recall only one other character in fiction whose eidetic memory plays a significant role in the story, so when I encountered Avery I was immediately reminded of Roscoe Winston, a character from Penny Reid’s Winston Brothers series. Roscoe vividly recalls past memories: to him, every detail of every moment and conversation is as clear as daylight—and it’s both fascinating and heartbreaking to see how that affects his relationships.
Trouble in New England
Bohjalian’s Puritan-era historical thriller transports you to 1662 Boston, where accusations fly and “it was always possible that the Devil was present.” Desperate to escape her abusive husband, Mary Deerfield seeks a rare divorce from the town council—but it’s a precarious time to pursue independence as a woman. Mary is soon accused of far worse than being a rebellious wife, and realizes a separation from her husband won’t be enough to save her from his escalating cruelty. Relying on intricate plotting and a large cast of well-developed characters, Bohjalian skillfully ratchets up the tension all the way through the exceptional ending.
Pair this with a contemporary domestic suspense set in the small town of Wendover, Massachusetts—a town where the past sometimes feels unwelcomely present, and everybody knows everybody’s business. Hildy Good is 60 years old and unhappily divorced, though she is a successful realtor. And she drinks—a lot. As Hildy’s life spirals out of control, Hildy’s secrets are slowly revealed. A quiet drama with terrific, fleshed-out characters and an entertaining and thoroughly untrustworthy narrator.
Heywood’s fresh, feminist reimagining of the Trojan War’s origins, told from the perspective of two Spartan women was a fun surprise. In this realistic retelling, Heywood imagines the inner lives of two Spartan princesses as they come of age, marry powerful men to better Sparta’s future, and become mothers. She paints the sisters as dear to each other and shows how, though they had little control over the significant choices that shaped their lives, they faced them with admirable tenacity.
I found myself similarly enthralled by Madeline Miller’s reimagining of the Trojan War in The Song of Achilles. Both authors emphasize the humanity of oft-mythologized characters, bringing these larger-than-life figures down to earth. You can enjoy this pairing whether you’re a fan of mythology or not; the expert prose and compelling stories will pull you in either way.
Let’s go birding
Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder: A Memoir by Julia Zarankin
Click here to buy on Amazon | Bookshop
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson
Click here to buy on Amazon | Bookshop
Lit professor Zarankin, who describes herself as a serial enthusiast and novice naturalist, was as surprised as anyone when she fell head-over-heels for birdwatching at the age of 35—years before the hobby zoomed to popularity during the coronavirus pandemic. In her memoir, she interweaves stories of the birds she’s logged with tales from her childhood in the Soviet Union, her subsequent moves to Paris and the U.S., and current Toronto-based birdwatching community, which becomes her surrogate family.
Drayson’s quiet novel about birding and romance is the perfect fictional counterpart to Zarankin’s memoir. Mr. Malik has just gathered enough courage to ask Rose Mbikwa to the Nairobi Hunt Club Ball when his intellectual rival arrives and immediately—and inconveniently—falls for Rose himself. Since Rose leads the East African Ornithological Society, the two men agree to a bird-identifying competition in order to determine who will ask her to the ball. Hijinks ensue.
Which pairing are you most excited to read? Can you think of any great match-ups to add to this list? Please tell us all about them in comments!
P.S. Check out 15 backlist pairings for last year’s buzziest books or find the perfect book flight for your book club.