It’s that time of year, with summer beach read listicles aplenty. But have people compiling these lists actually read them? Or are inclusions based more off of chic book covers than the contents? Sometimes, we’re not so sure. So we asked a few Ensemble friends for their summer recommendations - books they’ve read, enjoyed, and finished this year.
What makes a beach read? In the stereotypical sense, it’s a page-turner; a light, easy read while your brain is in holiday mode. The concept of the beach read is also grossly gendered (light, fluffy = chick lit, women’s interest), and has an air of judgement. The New Yorker published a piece in 2019 exploring the invention of the beach read, writing, “Summer reading - so much expectation and anxiety and judgment is compressed within those two words!”
We have an aversion to rules and expectations, whether it’s around ageing, what you ‘should’ wear for the season, or what you should read over summer. Just as a ‘beach body’ is literally any type of body at the beach, a beach read is whatever you want it to be - high and lowbrow.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Read and recommended by Saraid de Silva, writer
“The most engrossing, absorbing, and interesting book I’ve read in a minute is Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. I recommend it almost aggressively. If I’m reading something at the beach, or at some bach I’ve managed to get an invite to, I need it to be a page-turner, a deep dive and with some super engrossing struggle or relationship in the middle of it. This has all of those things. Apparently, it is based on Sophocles’ play Antigone, which I’m not smart enough to know, but I love anything white reimagined for/by POC, this story is centred around a Pakistani family living in London. There are so many nuanced portrayals of assimilation and rebellion, and of why and how we try and hold onto our culture. The book spans multiple countries, explores first love, and has devastating moments. It’s truly a great read.”
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Read and recommended by Henry Cooke, chief political reporter for Stuff
“A book I absolutely adored this year is The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. This is a book that manages to be about everything but also to be about something very specific - a Ponzi scheme and the 2008 GFC. Mandel is Canadian and her deep-wilderness settings reminded me a lot of the isolation NZ has felt this year. It is set across many decades but mostly the ‘90s and ‘00s amongst the “kingdom of money” - the ultra rich - and everyone who has to serve them drinks.”
My Thoughts Exactly by Lily Allen
Read and recommended by Kara Rickard, broadcaster
“I love a good biography (I'm a bit stalkery like that) and devoured this in two days. Lily articulates the troubles she had with relationships, sex, drugs, and parenting (all while being hounded by the press) in a very raw, and captivating way. Reading it I felt like I could be sitting at the pub drinking beer with her while she rattles off all the crazy and awful things that have happened in her life. It's brutally honest, funny, insightful, and at times tragically sad.
I think the way she writes about sex will resonate with a lot of women. Stories about sleeping with the wrong people for the wrong reasons and learning too late in life ‘that guys fuck women for lots of reasons which sometimes include a genuine desire for intimacy and to connect on whatever level, but often dont’. An easy read that I’d recommend for anyone, even if you're not a Lily Allen fan.”
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil
Read and recommended by Kiekie Stanners, senior makeup artist M.A.C Cosmetics
“I picked up my copy of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk again this year in lockdown. I read this multiple times over one NZ summer when I was a teenager for some mid-70s NYC escapism and picked it up again probably for the same reasons. It can be hard to get into as it is completely anecdotal - gossip and memories from those that were actually there and living it, but if you’re like me and prefer to read about real life moments, it’s a trip back to a wild time that probably just couldn’t exist in this day and age.”
No Filter by Sarah Frier
Read and recommended by Duncan Greive, founder and managing editor of The Spinoff
“My favourite book of the year, chronicling Instagram’s rise.” (Read Duncan’s full review here)
Open Book by Jessica Simpson
Read and reviewed by Rebecca Wadey, co-founder of Ensemble
“In the dotcom bust of 2001 I lost my job as editor of a big online Australian magazine, took my payout, bought a backpack and 26 books and went to Thailand for a month. It was a tough scene, sweating my way along dusty roads and trying to wrangle myself on and off various longtail boats. So I was motivated to read as quickly as I could. That experience taught me that some books are better to read on holiday than others and that sticky weather is no time for snobbism or elitism. I quickly read and offloaded my books at various beachside backpackers and then started to take as well as to give. And that’s when I decided that romance novels are the ultimate summer read. My husband would argue that true crime is the ultimate summer genre but all my favourite beachside memories are romance. Lace, Hollywood Husbands, Flowers in the Attic (if incest can be considered romance) - these are all reminiscent of amazing times spent in the sun and the first things I will reach for in any bach or communal library. This year my favourite read has been Jessica Simpson’s Open Book.You’ll need plenty of sunblock and shade when you start this as it’s incredibly compelling, sad, dishes plenty of dirt, and is super-hard to put down. Other books I enjoyed this year include Girl, Woman, Other, and Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino. I’m not sure why I feel the need to tell you that, as if you may be judging me for recommending Jessica Simpson!”
The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox
Read and recommended by Noelle McCarthy, broadcaster
“The Absolute Book was my lockdown book this year, a fantasy thriller that helped me to see my world anew, even when that world was very small. It's a story about the moral consequences of violence, and also about fairies and demons and Gods and monsters, and sisterhood and trauma and ravens and libraries, and the power of books in general, and one book in particular. It's funny and sad, and comforting and disquieting and ambitious and audacious and strange and essential, and the perfect book to get lost in, wherever you are.”
Mayflies by Andrew O'Hagan
Read and recommended by Dan Ahwa, creative director of Viva magazine
“One of the best books I've read this year. Set in Scotland, the book centres around a guy called Tully and his group of rambunctious friends in the summer of 1986, who head to Manchester for the weekend for music, drugs and alcohol. They make a pact between themselves to go about life differently and to never conform. The second part of the book explores their disparate lives 30 years later, when Tully discovers he is dying from incurable cancer. It's a poignant read and one that offers up plenty of perspective on life and the stuff that actually matters.”
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing
Read and recommended by Imogen Temm, graphic designer
“Controversial I know but I don’t love the beach. Sand is annoying and there is nowhere to hide my easily sizzled skin. Hence why to me a ‘beach read’ is something I can enjoy on my couch in an empty Auckland City while everyone else has ‘fun in the sun’ or whatever it’s called.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone is an essay collection that is part memoir, part art history 101 textbook and not at all ‘self-helpy’ like the title makes it sound. Normally, I find non-fiction books that cover the art realm to be far too esoteric with authors constantly using wanky words like ‘esoteric’. Thankfully, Laing’s writing is accessible, poetic and enjoyable as she weaves her own musing on what it means to be lonely with thoroughly researched essays covering the lives and work of artists such as David Wojnarowicz, Edward Hopper and Henry Darger. If you’re having a crappy time this book reminds you that it can be endured and you never know what you might make/do/think as a result of adversity, without romanticising Hard Times (my pet hate) or being preachy.
So if you’re a bit of a fun sponge like me when it comes to the beach, lean into being lonely and totally ~CrEaTiVe~ with this book.”
Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth
Read and recommended by Mandy Myles from Bookety Book Books
“This is the perfect beach read as it’s funny, highly addictive and utterly relatable, the perfect recipe for switching off. Jenny the main character is a social media addict whose life is unravelling which forms the basis for this ‘satire on our age of self promotion’ to explore the effects social media can have on us in times of high stress and anxiety. I am in no way surprised this laugh out loud book is being adapted for TV. Unsworth is a genius.”
The Light Between Us by Laura Lynne Jackson
Read and recommended by Lucy Slight, writer
“If you’ve watched The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow on Netflix or listened to the Goop podcast episode ‘Are We All Psychic?’ then you’ll be familiar with psychic medium Laura Lynne Jackson. The American school teacher and mother of three has had the ability to connect with ‘the other side’ since she was a child and the stories she has to tell in her book The Light Between Us are so beautiful, wild and unwaveringly legitimate that you just can't help but believe that she’s the real deal. I would love a skeptic to read this and prove me otherwise! I completely understand that this is a strange topic for some - in fact, I’ve loaned this book to a few people and I don’t think any of them have actually read it, probably because thinking that there’s more to life than life itself can be such an uncomfortable concept. But if you’re at all curious about mediums, the afterlife or the legitimacy of psychic abilities, I highly recommend adding this to your summer reading list. In what has been a very strange and topsy-turvy year, this is just the book to make you feel like there’s a purpose behind every little thing that happens in life.”
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Read and recommended by Anjali Burnett of Twenty-seven Names
“A Booker Prize winner wouldn't usually be my choice for a beach read, but my favourite book I've read this year has been Girl, Woman, Other. Bernardine Evaristo is phenomenal. I was so swept away by her storytelling; I adored it. This past week I listened to her wax lyrical on Desert Island discs (a BBC podcast - which makes me sound fancier than I truly am) but all the same, the way Bernadine summed up this year - I dare you to find someone more eloquent yet humble. 5 Stars.”
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Read and recommended by Guy Coombes, photographer
“I haven’t read a lot this year, which is bad. But I did manage to get through Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I enjoy Atwood’s writing style, and I’m a fan of the original The Handmaid's Tale and the series. The different narratives in this book combine to tell more of the back story of the shit show that is Gilead and its characters, which makes for a compelling read.”
Sons for the Return Home by Albert Wendt
Read and recommended by Zoe Walker Ahwa, editorial director and co-founder of Ensemble
“Sons for the Return Home was one of the few books I I finished this year - while on holiday in Fiji, in the 'before times', devoured poolside in two days. A literal summer pool read. Originally published in 1973, it follows the romance of an NZ-raised Samoan and middle class palagi in the '60s while exploring cultural identity, colonialism, racism and a ‘new New Zealand’. I too am a middle class palagi married to an NZ-raised Samoan - so talofa - so I had a certain connection to the story (although that’s where the similarities end). But wow… I vaguely recall looking up after finishing the final page and saying to my husband, ‘THAT WAS SO GOOD I FEEL LIKE CRYING’. Then I felt bad for having not read any of Wendt’s works before. If you haven’t either, I’d highly recommend this; a seminal piece of Pacific literature that still feels relevant today.
For something very different, Uncanny Valley was released in January and is utterly brilliant. A memoir following Anna Wiener’s time in Silicon Valley and the technology industry, it’s so of the moment - and a little depressing, given how much technology has shaped and permeated every aspect of our lives in 2020. It will remind you to get off your phone and log off Instagram/Facebook/TikTok/whatever your app of choice, for an actual summer break.”