Main photo / Getty Images; Inset images / Ensemble
Holidays mean catching up on all those great books you weren't able to read throughout the year. These come highly recommended from a few of our Ensemble friends, who promise us that they’ve actually read and finished them.
Bloody Woman by Lana Lopesi
Read and recommended by Litia Tuiburelevu, writer
Bloody Woman is the book I've been waiting to read for so, so long. Lana writes like a paintbrush - never trying to sledgehammer her point across the page, but rather artfully exploring the nuances of being a Moana woman in the contemporary diaspora. The essays are an incredible alchemy of the intellectual with the personal, capturing the specific whilst taking a wide-angle to issues ranging from feminism, representation, culture, class, abortion and more. I inhaled its 163 pages in a matter of hours only to re-read, underline, highlight and sticky-note it to death days after. There's so much power to write through the self, and Lana invites you - whether you're a Moana woman or not - to be more engaged, empathetic and curious about the world around you.
The Guest List by Lucy Foley
Read and recommended by Eli Matthewson, actor and comedian
Look, at the beach you want something fun and morish that you might be able to whisk straight through over one weekend trip. The Guest List is just that - a great little murder mystery, in a beautiful setting on a stormy Irish island, a great cast of characters and most importantly: short chapters, meaning you have plenty of opportunities to take a snack/drink/swim/goss break. It also levels up from your grandma's murder mystery because as it flicks back and forth through time you are not just trying to figure out who the murderer is, but who got murdered. My boyfriend and I read this at the same time as we did the Abel Tasman Walk last year and it got extremely competitive as we tried to finish it first and figure out the mystery first. It's a ripper!
Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly
Read and recommended by Kanoa Lloyd, broadcaster
I finished it months ago and I still think about it. I wanna be part of this fabulous, anxious, weird family so bad. They’re all beautiful and insane. It’s so exciting reading references to places I know around Auckland. It’s funny, sexy, sad and I cried in the last few chapters. A perfect summer read.
Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon
Read and recommended by Shaneel Lal, activist and RainbowYOUTH board member
Beyond the Gender Binary is about the gender binary, namely, why we need to destroy the binary and move past it. There is a scarce authentic representation of trans people, but there are plenty of trans people who are seeking to tell their truth. The most heart-wrenching part of this book is that it creates hope for a world that feels beyond the reach of trans people. Cisgender people’s lives revolve around gender, yet trans people are often defined by nothing but their transness. Beyond the Gender Binary explores the experience of being non-binary in a world that obsesses with the gender binary from the birth to the death of every human. It’s a short, easy-to-read, and digestible book. One book cannot teach people everything about trans people, but this book is a quick insight into the lives of trans people. The experiences of trans people are so diverse. It would be unimaginable to capture that in one book. Trans people need a break, so if you are an ally or an aspiring ally, Beyond the Gender Binary also advises tackling transphobic talking points.
Aroha by Dr Hinemoa Elder
Read and recommended by the founder of Instagram account @PoliticalEditing2
This book offers traditional Māori wisdom in the form of 52 whakataukī (Māori proverbs) that have been meticulously collated by none other than Hinemoa Elder.
It fills me with joy (and wisdom) as I lay out in my backyard on a summer's day rereading Aroha for the 100th time. It’s times like the last year where we could all use a breath of fresh air and wisdom that has been passed down by the generations that have come before us in order for us to remain grounded. The front cover reads Māori wisdom for a contented life lived in harmony with our planet, this is truly a testament to all that this book is about and how it can be so beneficial to us ~ the people who read it. It makes sense that it was put together by Hinemoa Elder, who is truly an inspirational wahine. Aroha for me is a place to seek comfort, encouragement and guidance and I truly do think that everyone can take something away from it so I recommend checking it out for yourself this summer (or any season as it is truly a versatile read).
Self Care by Leigh Stein
Read and recommended by Rebecca Wadey, Ensemble co-founder
This satirical story of wellness start-up ‘Richual’ - “the most inclusive online community platform for women to cultivate the practice of self-care and change the world by changing ourselves” - is an especially poignant read as we hurtle towards the inevitable ‘self-care’ as practiced by many in the ‘wellness’ community, vs care of community as necessitated by a global pandemic that disproportionately impacts lower socioeconomic groups. Biting, droll, and a viciously easy read for those of us who feel a little burnt by this billion dollar industry that purports to care.
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
Recommended by Jenna Todd, bookseller at Time Out Bookstore
Seven pages into this book, Franzen had me hooked. Book 1 to the Key to all Mythologies trilogy and starting in the 1970s, Crossroads follows the Hilderbrandt family - a family of six who are individually processing religion, philosophy, love & trauma. This is a rich study of complex characters and family relationships, it's compelling and intelligent and the perfect summer book to settle into without many breaks. It's also set at Christmas time and whilst we do not share the wintery weather of the Northern Hemisphere, the present buying and general family anxieties made for familiar reading. I already can't wait for the following titles to be released.
Rangikura by Tayi Tibble
Read and recommended by Amanda Jane Robinson, bookseller at Time Out Bookstore
A stunning collection that expertly weaves doom and desire, heat and heart. If you enjoyed Tibble's stunning debut collection Poūkahangatus, this one is somehow even better. It's the perfect beach read in the sense that climate dread and sexiness coincide. As ever, Tibble understands the darkness inherent to beauty, and depicts both with expert craft and care.
100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell
Read and recommended by Salene & Grace of Long Distance Books (@long_distancebooks)
Every year we - embarrassingly - each write our own ‘top 10 books’ lists, making a big show of unveiling them to one another. In 2021 we had three books in common - 100 Boyfriends being both the most charming and the best suited for a lively covid-safe summer. We each sped through it so quickly neither of us can really remember much about it except that it is short (fits in your beach bag), horny, and near perfect. Brontez Purnell is a writer, musician, dancer, film maker, and performance artist based in Oakland - 100 Boyfriends is their second novel. If our list double-up doesn’t convince you to read it, our fave reviewer Parul Sehgal describing it in the NYT as a “hurricane of delirious, lonely, lewd tales” really should! While in the past we may have advocated bringing dense and/or depressing tomes to the beach, after this year we don’t want to see anyone crying over A Little Life at Herne Bay please. Read this and celebrate life for its chaos and messiness instead!
However, if you are in need of a lengthier book for a long journey or lazy Summer day - make it The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers - an incredibly riveting 815 pages.
My Body by Emily Ratajowski
Read and recommended by Zoe Walker Ahwa, Ensemble co-founder
Once again, it was not a great year of reading for me... But this from the model and actor was one of the very few books that I did manage to finish, devoured over a day on a weekend (always a sign of a good read). Through several essays and the lens of her own life and career, Emily explores some pretty big topics: body image, celebrity, identity, the media, image rights, power, feminism, ‘empowerment’ and more. She’s a good writer but it did challenge me to question some of my own assumptions around beauty, body image and self-empowerment.
Because I am a geek, whenever I finish a book (or really good TV series), I go away and do lots of extra reading and of course that was the case with this. There were a lot of think pieces about the book and what it did or didn’t achieve, but I particularly enjoyed Eva Wiseman’s review of it for the Observer.
Bit Rot by Douglas Coupland
Read and recommended by Becky Hemus, founder and editor of The Art Paper
When I'm at the beach I love to read something incisive. Douglas Coupland's Bit Rot is a book I come back to every year, and think about almost every day in some strangely referential way. It's a collection of short essays and stories, snapshots about things that make visible the absurdity of contemporary life. It's a little funny and very sad, or perhaps joyful if you take comfort in nihilism. It's also a great book to read, chapter-by-chapter, to someone you want to snuggle up to. Sexy and a little scary, but not too obvious.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
Read and recommended by Mandy Myles, owner of Bookety Book Books
This was my first read for 2021 and still holds the top spot for the year. This book left me with a hangover, and no, not the usual Sunday morning kind, but the kind that only a truly magnificent story can leave you with. The kind where you become so utterly engrossed with the characters, that they become real people, and you start to think of them as friends (I’m not the only one who does this right?). And we all know only a writer oozing with talent can achieve such a feat, and in that case, Meg Mason most definitely qualifies.
This novel starts with Martha, the narrator, having just left her fortieth birthday party that she never wanted, organised by her husband Patrick. Here we are immediately thrown into a relationship in turmoil, but with no answers as to why. After setting the scene, Martha takes us back through time, and we get to follow their story from their first meeting as family friends in their teens, to falling in love, and all that is in between. Including Martha’s desire to never have children.
Sorrow and Bliss is a coming of age novel of a woman turning forty, it is about relationships, love, motherhood, mental health and ultimately what makes us human.
Everything I know about love by Dolly Alderton
Read and recommended by Zeenat Wilkinson, founder of Sauce
The perfect beach read. Although I read this a couple of years ago, it’s one of those pass-around-your-friend-group books and I recommend it to anyone that wants something a bit lighthearted to take to the beach. Dolly makes you feel like you’ve known her forever, she makes you laugh OUT LOUD and the book truly encompasses all those complex emotions around friendship. I was living in London around the exact same time as the author (in Camden Town too) and this book makes me incredibly nostalgic of my student days in London. I feel like I am reliving some of those glory days.