Books that are better together

Books that are better together

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

We Are Each Other’s Harvest by Natalie Baszile
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Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile
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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?

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
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Passing by Nella Larsen
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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

Sparks Like Stars by Nadia Hashimi
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I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon
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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

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
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Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald
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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

While Justice Sleeps by Stacey Abrams
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Dr. Strange Beard (Winston Brothers Book 5) by Penny Reid
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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

Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian
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The Good House by Ann Leary
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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.

Song of Achilles- Miller

Realistic retellings

Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood
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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
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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
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A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson
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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.

Books that are better together

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43 comments | Comment

43 comments

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  1. Donna Hampton says:

    I am so excited for these pairings. I have been so wrapped up in the 2021 SRG but a little part of me feels guilty about all the books waiting in my home library. This list will help me join my two goals of enjoying the SRG but not ignoring my pre-owned TBR books. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Serene says:

    As you go birding, I highly recommend Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald—a beautifully written group of essays linkinking the world of birds with our own.

  3. Allison says:

    I’ve read “I Was Anastasia” and it was a remarkable book. I loved Lawhorn’s structure. Thank you for suggesting Hashimi’s “Sparks Like Stars.” It sounds like the perfect companion book. It’s going on my TBR list!

  4. Jennifer says:

    I just finished Sparks Like Stars. It was a wonderful book! I Was Anastasia has been on my list for awhile. So many good books to read.

  5. Ooh, thank you for these suggested pairings, Anne!

    Having just read the Iliad, I’m looking forward to a Greek mythology mini-course which will include The Song of Achilles, Daughters of Sparta, The Odyssey, Circe, This Tender Land, and Olympus, Texas… Other suggestions welcome!

  6. Kim Imbrigiotta says:

    Two that I recently randomly read back to back that paired so nicely were Firekeeper’s Daughter and Braiding Sweetgrass

    • Kelly Hails says:

      Oh I read Braiding Sweetgrass this year and it was one of the most gorgeous reading experiences I’ve ever had. And I just purchased Firekeeper’s Daughter after listening to The Currently Reading podcast, so I’m excited to read that now that you mentioned that pairing. They also recommended The Seed Keeper as a good pairing also, so of course I bought that but haven’t read it yet. SO MANY good books!

  7. Trisha says:

    A recent book flight that I did (and loved!) was The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd and Lamb by Christopher Moore. They are drastically different in tone but both feature a fictional telling of what Jesus’s early life could have looked like; his first 30 years largely missing from the Bible. It was so much fun to read these back to back!

  8. Maria Ontiveros says:

    The Passion According to Carmella and Next Year in Havana we’re a great pairing about the Cuban Revolution. In Passion, the female lead becomes a revolutionary rather than falling in love with one. Both explore the disenchantment with post-revolution Cuba.

  9. Terrill says:

    Looking forward to Hour of the Witch and The Good House. I like the idea of pairing books as I usually try not too read too much from one area one right after the other.

  10. Eileen Sullivan says:

    The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. They both take place in NYC, one century apart, and each focuses on the downfall of the main character for very different reasons. Both books are very representational of their time and place.

  11. Breanne says:

    I just read Spark Like Stars and loved it. I was very much reminded of I Was Anastasia and thought they would make a great book flight and then book club discussion.

  12. Julia Petal says:

    My two favorites go really well together: Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Both explore how children vs adults experience and think about magic, both of them have a crucial but tiny body of water, and both of them changed my life.

    • Elisabeth says:

      I just listened to The Ocean at the End of the Lane and adored it. Thanks for suggesting Pond; it sounds very good!

  13. Brenda says:

    I have suggested to patrons that they read both the fictional AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins and the nonfiction, A LINE BECOMES A RIVER by Francisco Cantu.

  14. Tracey says:

    I happened to read two books recently that were about (among other things) fandoms for fictional TV series and thought how cool it was that they were an accidental book flight for me. The genres and writing styles were wonderfully different and I think other readers might enjoy this pairing too:
    -Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante
    -Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade

  15. Mary Hunt says:

    I am working on the Minimalist Book List for the summer. So, I have already chosen to read, The Other Black Girl. I have read Passing (twice) and continue to think about it. Also Sparks in the Stars. Loving good mysteries, I added While Justice Was Sleeping and Dr Strange Beard. Looking forward to exploring these stories

  16. Grace Casteel says:

    I recently read several Agatha Christie novels, and then read the recent novel about her life, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict. Fun experience!!

  17. Jayda Justus says:

    I love pairing books with what my children are reading or studying. For instance, the Magic Treehouse book, Civil War on Sunday, pairs well with A Woman of Valor, a biography about Clara Barton. I like reading along with my children or about the same subjects so we can discuss!

  18. Laura says:

    I’m most interested in the flight that includes the Stacey Abrams book because I’ve been intrigued by that one already! I make book flights for myself all the time. I’ve enjoyed reading some of the Hogarth Shakespeare series books along with the play on which they’re based: The Taming of the Shrew & Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler, for example. Or, I’m inspired by a TV show or movie to read something. We’ve been watching The Crown and I was interested in the fact that Winston Churchill was a prolific painter. I borrowed a tiny book from the library that wrote about this hobby.

  19. Emily says:

    Am trying to catch up on the blog but holy flashing ads, it’s difficult! I understand you need ads but do they have to be quite this intrusive? I’ve been reading this blog for years and am really disappointed with the new layout.

    • Anne says:

      I’m sorry, this happened to be the day we’re finally rearranging things on the blog and the ads were appearing in erratic ways for a few hours.

  20. Liz says:

    I just read Black Buck, a satire of the tech start up world, followed by Billion Dollar Loser, a nonfiction book about the very real antics of the founder of WeWork. I loved both books. After Black Buck, I wondered if the satire was a bit broad or far fetched but having read a nonfiction account of a similar world, I realized that the reality of this particular start up world of the 2010s IS far fetched. I didn’t mean to read them as a pair (Libby just happened to deliver them to me one after the other) but they worked really well together.

  21. Ann says:

    I am not familiar with “book flights.” Yikes, I better get with the program.

    The Anastasia book looks good. I can go down a rabbit hole on that topic.

    The Witch book and Good House make a nice pair.

    Sorry, I am being lazy with the titles. Up till 1 a.m. and still need to actually get to my reading.

    I just started When The Stars Go Dark.

    I have so many books TBR, but always love these suggestions & the idea of pairing is so fun!

    • Anne says:

      Don’t worry about book flights! It’s a term I coined here on Modern Mrs Darcy, not a larger cultural phenomenon you’re behind on. 🙂

  22. Betsy says:

    I just picked up Hour of the Witch from the library and am looking forward to digging in to this thriller! I’ve heard of the book you’ve paired with it (The Good House), so I’m excited to read it as a pairing.

  23. Jennifer O. says:

    Another book with a character with an eidetic memory is An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole, a an interracial Civil War romance between two spies working for the Union in Richmond (the Black woman has the eidetic memory).

    I also think it’s important to point out that Time After Time is a love story, not a romance novel. It’s an important distinction if a reader is expecting a romance and all it promises.

    Is there a way to make the font size of the comments larger? It’s very hard to read in your new design (which is otherwise delightful).

    • Anne says:

      I completely forgot about the eidetic memory in Alyssa Cole’s novel! (Which is ironic, given that Elle would NEVER forget such a thing.)

      And noted on the comments font—we’re currently tinkering and ironing things out. I’ll add that to our list of tweaks.

    • Jaime Lynn says:

      I love how you made the distinction between a romance novel and a love story! I hadn’t considered that before, but it’s so true. I think would often prefer a love story over a romance novel, although I do enjoy a good rom-com!

  24. Ellen says:

    I have a couple of these on my holds list from the library, so added the pair to go along with it! I just finished “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” yesterday and I found so many parallels with “The Four Winds” which I read a couple weeks ago. Both take place at the same time in American history, during the Great Depression, but in vastly different parts of the country, and both center on female characters who feel a deep sense of duty and responsibility towards their parents as well as making life better for the next generation. I’m on to “Before We Were Yours” and the flashbacks take place in a similar time, as well!

  25. Jaime Lynn says:

    This is great! The two books from this list that I really want to read are Queen Sugar and Time After Time – which I’ve now added to my TBR list in Goodreads. I love seeing the correlations between the themes and stories. Thanks!

  26. Catharine Shirley says:

    I LOVE this concept!
    Years ago, I read Geraldine Brook’s March and Edward P Jones’ The Known World in succession without any plan. And they were both so complementary!
    Please think about this as a subject of an episode of WSIRN.

  27. Dolores Jackson says:

    A friend recommended Passing by Nella Larsen to me, but paired with Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. I found that pairing to be so perfect.

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