14 June 2021

Lockdown Lit: Five Books for Your 2021 Summer Reading List

 1. The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris*

I was looking forward to reading Zakiya Dalila Harris's debut novel for many weeks, and I raced through it in a couple of evenings. In the novel, Nella is a 26-year-old editorial assistant working at a New York publishing house. She works hard, gets on well with her editor and hopes she is on track for a promotion in the not-too-distant future. She is also the only Black employee...until Hazel starts as a new editorial assistant. At first, Nella is pleased; she feels that some of her efforts to encourage the company to take diversity, equity and inclusion more seriously are finally paying off. But when Hazel makes in-roads with the editor Nella works for, and then their CEO, Nella begins to wonder if she should in fact feel threatened by her fellow editorial assistant. 

Part insightful social commentary about racism and bias within the publishing industry and beyond, part thriller, The Other Black Girl is sharp, darkly comic and gripping. I worked in publishing for 14 years, albeit in academic journals, and a lot of Harris's descriptions of the company and the industry resonated with me. Change for the better, and more equitable, is starting to happen, but there's still a long, long way to go. It comes as no surprise that Harris was an editorial assistant before leaving to write The Other Black Girl.

2. Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews

I read a lot of books, and a lot of thrillers, so it is to be expected that occasionally I will read two books in a row that share some similarities. The protagonist of Alexandra Andrews' novel is Florence Darrow, a 26-year-old editorial assistant working at a New York publishing house. Sound familiar? Florence works hard and is desperate for her work to be recognised by her editor. She wants to be promoted, but really, she wants to write and to further dispense with her past life in Florida. And when an opportunity comes up for her to become the assistant for the acclaimed and secretive pseudonymous novelist Maud Dixon, Florence jumps at the chance, despite all the caveats — moving to upstate New York and maintaining total secrecy about the job and Maud's real identity, for the most part. 

Florence enjoys working for Helen, the real-life Maud, and quickly takes on all of the admin necessary to ensure the smooth running of Helen's life while the novelist works on the new Maud Dixon book. Florence obtains her first passport and the pair travel to Morocco, but then a car crash changes everything. To say more would venture into spoiler territory, but Who Is Maud Dixon? is a thrilling ride, dark, twisty and Mr Ripley-esque. Sometimes, I find unlikeable characters to be offputting, but even as Andrews' novel ventures off into surely not territory, I was invested in finding out what would happen to them.

3. Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi

There are no editorial assistants in Yolk, although most of the drama does unfold in New York. Jayne is a Korean American fashion student who feels stuck. She has an eating disorder and is frustrated with the wastrel man with whom she lives in a grotty Brooklyn sublet — once a friend-with-benefits, who seems to have moved on. Meanwhile, her relationships with her mother, back in Texas, and her older sister June, a high-achieving Columbia graduate who works in finance and has a fancy Manhattan apartment. The sisters aren't close, until June is diagnosed with uterine cancer — and is receiving treatment using Jayne's health insurance. Yolk covers a lot of ground and deals with a variety of issues. It's not your typical heartwarming tale, thanks to Jayne's cynical and critical — often self-critical — outlook, but is an enjoyable family drama, with keenly observed characters and convincing vignettes of New York life.

4. The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth 

This year, I have read several good books about the relationship between sisters (Oyinkan Braithwaite's darkly funny My Sister, the Serial Killer is another), and in the case of Sally Hepworth, the two sisters are also twins. Fern and Rose have very little in common, except for the shared trouble and sadness in their past, and the fact that each needs something from the other, or so they think. Fern enjoys her well-organised life and is good at her job at the local library. She is neurodiverse and has come to rely on Rose to keep her on track when Rose says she has forgotten something or is even endangering herself and others. Rose seems to have it all — a great career and a loving husband — but needs Fern's help to have a baby. But when Fern meets someone new, she sets out on a journey that neither twin expected. Narrated with increasingly divergent perspectives from Fern and Rose, Hepworth poses questions of truth and memory, love and betrayal — and what it really means to be a good sister. A family drama with plenty of heart, The Good Sister was a compelling read.

5. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Regular readers will know that Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is one of my all-time favourite novels (see here and here) and if I'm honest, I still haven't really got over the ending or Ishiguro's slow drip feed of information that gradually reveals to the reader the awfulness of the reality he has created. I've read his other novels, but nothing stuck with me as much as Never Let Me Go, so when I heard that it shared several key themes with his latest, Klara and the Sun, I was intrigued and excited.

The titular Klara is a solar-powered Artificial Friend (AF), a robotic companion designed to support children, who in this dystopian Universe seem isolated and, in some cases, frail, for reasons that eventually become slightly clearer. Klara gets her turn in the window of the shop she inhabits and meets Josie, a teenage girl who decides that is the perfect AF for her, even though she isn't the latest model. She goes to live with Josie, her mother and their housekeeper, Melania, before long proving to be essential for Josie's wellbeing and even health. As is usual for Ishiguro novels, the reader only gradually finds out the details of the world he has created, how it works and how it came to be that way. But this is mirrored by Klara's gradual discoveries of the new world in which she finds herself — Josie's house — and the limitations of her programmed vocabulary (she describes tablets or smartphones as 'oblongs', for example). Ishiguro has a particular talent for the uncanny and Klara and the Sun is uncomfortable in places, sometimes funny and often sad. Humanity is at the novel's heart, and, of course, the central question of the novel is what it even means to be human. The ending is gentler than Never Let Me Go, but you're made of sterner stuff than me if you don't shed a tear.

* Disclaimer: I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

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