24 Must-Read New Books of Spring And Summer 2021

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Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

By day, Leah Rachel von Essen is the editor-in-chief of Chicago Booth Magazine at the University of Chicago. By night, she reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

Think about late summer evenings, humid and misty, a glass of wine in your hand, or cool summer mornings, drinking tea and looking out on the new day. Think about lying on the beach, the ocean waves crashing onto shore, or sunning out beside a pool. Think about a thunderstorm raging outside, about flowers blooming in the parks, about the cool rush of the AC or the sweeping gusts of the ceiling fan. There’s only one thing that will make every single one of these summer scenes a hundred times better, and it’s picturing yourself with a glossy, new hardcover in your hands.

Every year, it’s the same struggle. You wonder how you could have possibly missed that one exciting new romance release, or why you’re the last to read the best new thing in science fiction. Or you just go to your local bookstore or library and wander the shelves, and instead of it being a joyful experience of stacking books into your arms, you just feel kind of lost. What should you read next, you ask yourself? What new book of the piles of new books should I be reading at the beach this weekend?

Best New Books: 2021 Spring and Summer

Don’t worry — I am here to help. I’ve assembled a list of the best new books of Spring and Summer 2021 for your delight. Here are the best and the buzziest, from new books in translation to powerful contemporaries to twisting thrillers and romances to some incredible fantasy and sci fi. Get your wallets ready and your library holds list on standby: here are 24 books you’ll want to be first in line to read this summer.

Please note that while I took care to list content warnings when I knew of them, the content warnings listed are not comprehensive. Please do additional research on the recommended titles if needed.

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon (May 4)

Bold, impulsive Vern struggles to escape the grasp of cult compound Cainland and its rigidity and abuse. Vern tries to raise two newborns in the forest, all while plagued by the hallucinations that Cainland calls Hauntings. Solomon, author of An Unkindness of Ghosts and The Deep, has once again shown us their incredible inventiveness with this haunting, eerie novel. Solomon roots the core of their novel in Vern, in her struggle to accept her queer self and changing body, in her tentative desire to connect with and learn to trust others — going through all of this while she tries to simply survive while figuratively carrying generations of her people’s trauma on her back and literally carrying two sons through a dangerous world.

Content warnings for vivid violence and body horror, racism, suicide, cults, and sexual, domestic, and psychological abuse.

A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark (May 11)

In a steampunk, alt-historical Cairo, Fatma el-Sha’arawi is assigned to find out who murdered a brotherhood dedicated to gathering the possessions of the man who opened the portal that allowed djinn and magic to flood into the world, changing it completely. Fatma is ready to take on any challenge, her suits carefully tailored and her wit ready to go. With her new rookie partner, Hadia, and her lover, Siti, she’ll begin to unravel a case that will unfurl from a delicate mystery into a swirling inferno of a climax in which the very world may be at stake. Award-winning author Clark has written novellas and short stories that have already made him a fixture in the science fiction and fantasy community; this is his debut novel, and it is a fun, clockwork romp of a book.

The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado

The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado (May 11)

There is not nearly enough hype around Peynado’s debut collection, which readers of Carmen Maria Machado and Kelly Link will love. Peynado writes surreal tales of bird-like angels perched on rooftops, of children haunted by drowning or flight, of aliens, missing body parts, a coat that is a man, an insomniac dystopia where if you fall asleep, it may be forever. These stories highlight the acute pains of being alive and young today — of the pressures of never-ending productivity and its expectations, of the terrors of school shootings and adults’ futile focus on “thoughts and prayers” instead of action, of people left behind and teens who just want to enjoy their youth. Peynado’s eerie, surreal writing should be on every speculative fiction fan’s radar.

Content warnings for school shooting mention.

The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga (May 11)

The author of Other Words for Home is coming out with a powerful middle grade novel on gun violence, trauma, grief, and hope. Cora and Quinn haven’t spoken in a year — ever since Cora’s sister Mabel was shot and killed in a school shooting where Quinn’s brother Parker was the shooter. Can they even be friends again? In the midst of their grief, neither is sure. But then Quinn makes a decision: she’s going to open a wormhole and go back in time to stop Parker, and she wants Cora’s help. These two young girls grapple with their sorrows, their families, and their identities as they work together to try and travel back in time and stop the violence that changed their lives. In a world where school shootings are too common, Warga has written a book that takes heavy, delicate topics and makes them manageable for middle grade readers.

Content warning for school shooting, death, grief.

We are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker (May 11)

If your child was the only one at school without a Pilot, a brain implant that enhances their productivity, would you let them get it? If you didn’t, would your child be left behind? These questions haunt Val and Julie, a lesbian couple raising two children in the midst of a swirl of new tech. David gets a Pilot; Sophie never can due to her seizures. As they grow, Pinsker twists in questions of the warped healthcare system and the multitude of ways that body enhancement technology risks exacerbating existing inequalities, and the ways that capitalism’s involvement in our schools, our bodies, can risk corruption. It’s a stunning sci fi novel that asks important questions about our future, all while rooted in the emotional core of this one loving family.

Content warnings for addiction, suicidal behavior.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd (May 25)

Mieko Kawakami is one of the most important authors of Japanese literature today, the author of international bestseller Breasts and Eggs. Her newest work to come out in English translation is about a young 14-year-old boy being relentlessly bullied for his lazy eye, and a similarly bullied and teased classmate who befriends him. In her novel, Kawakami confronts violence and its brutal realism, its upsetting cruelty, and the way that the two young teens struggle, the politics of power, and the significance of young friendship.

Content warnings for graphic violence, bullying, suicide mention, sexual content.

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris (June 1)

This debut novel from Harris is a novel about tension, privilege, and racism in the world of publishing. Editorial assistant Nella Rogers is the only Black employee at Wagner Books, and so she’s relieved when Hazel joins the team. Finally she has someone to connect with in this frustrating, isolating workspace full of microaggressions. But when strange things start happening, and threatening notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk, Hazel begins to become a central member of Wagner, while Nella begins to be overlooked. Atria Books describes Harris’s novel as Get Out meets The Stepford Wives.

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon (June 1)

Does that name sound familiar? It should. Nicola Yoon is the author of The Sun is Also a Star and Everything, Everything, both of which were YA bestsellers and adapted into films. Now, Yoon is bringing you an entertaining, romantic beach read. One afternoon, Evie Thomas sees a couple kiss and has a vision of how their romance started — and how it will end. Left cynical about romance by her visions, she finds herself learning to dance at La Brea Dance studio with a boy named X, an impulsive boy who says “yes” to everything in life. It’s a touching young adult book with a touch of magic.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston cover

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (June 1)

Speaking of romance, Casey McQuiston is coming out with a new book that features a sapphic romance — with a twist. August moves to New York City a cynic. All she wants is to find a place that sticks, that feels more like home. New York City may or may not be it, but it’s where she’s finishing her degree, and so she’s resigned herself to dealing with the trials of “big city” life, from waiting tables to a squadron of roommates to the problem-plagued subway. Except there’s one thing: a subway crush, on a girl who gives August her scarf on one very bad day, a girl who is always on the same Q train on the same car, a girl named Jane Su who looks like something out of an old-school 1970s punk rock scene. But Jane can’t really be from the 1970s…right?

Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir by Ashley C. Ford (June 1)

In this introspective memoir, Ashley C. Ford tells the story of her coming of age, about the complicated pain and joy of familial love. Ford’s father is in prison, but she knows she loves him; she struggles with her relationship with her mother, who is rough with her and often abusive. As Ashley grows, the people around her teach her how to police herself, her behavior, her body, and that internalized shame leads her to hold secrets and build barricades around herself. Ford’s writing holds vivid descriptions of anticipatory anxiety and depression and her sharp honesty about her thorny and twisting relationship with her mother. Somebody’s Daughter is sure to be one of the must-reads of 2021 — a powerful story about a child’s quest for love, about trauma and healing, from a distinctive, bold voice.

Content warnings for domestic, emotional, and physical abuse, rape, rape culture, victim-blaming, disordered eating, depression and anxiety.

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo (June 1)

Nghi Vo has written us the adaptation of The Great Gatsby that we deserve: a sparkling novel of excess and over-indulgence told from Jordan Baker’s point of view. Baker is a queer, Asian, adopted socialite in a world where the elite make deals with the devil and use magic for silly, glamorous showmanship at parties, or to decorate their mansions. Jordan once saved best friend Daisy Buchanan using some magnificent paper magic, and her charisma and boldness have gotten her out of scrapes before. But can any of that stop what is set into motion when Gatsby arrives in West Egg? Vo’s Gatsby is sexy, sumptuous, full of intemperance and sparkle — but a sinister darkness floats in its shadows, a mess of real consequences and grim dealings just beneath the surface.

Content warnings for anti-Asian sentiment, dialogue, and discrimination; racism; abortion; violence; homophobia.

What You Can See From Here by Mariana Leky, Translated by Tess Lewis (June 22)

Already an international bestseller, this novel from Mariana Leky is finally coming to the U.S. in English translation this June. When Selma dreams of an okapi, the entire village knows that someone is going to die. But what can they do with this information? Her granddaughter, Luisa, and best friend Martin, visit the people of their neighborhood, witnessing their confusion and fears. The novel is both funny and intensely moving, capturing the town’s memorable cast of characters, from superstitious Elsbeth to the lovesick, anxious optician. Leky’s novel is about the small phrases, moments, and memories that stick with us throughout our lives, and about finding despair, joy, and love in the smallest moments.

Content warnings for death, suicide.

Surive the Night by Riley Sager

Survive the Night by Riley Sager (July 6)

There’s nothing quite like reading a thriller in that bright summer sun, am I right? If you agree, Sager’s newest is perfect for you. Charlie’s relieved to be going home and get away from campus, where her best friend was recently the third victim of the Campus Killer. She decides to split the ride home to Ohio with student Josh Baxter, who she met at the campus ride board. But as the ride through the night continues, Charlie starts to get worried. There are holes in Josh’s story. He won’t let her look in the trunk. As the drive continues, with nowhere to run, Charlie has to decide whether she’s just letting her movie-obsessed mind run wild — or whether she really might be sharing a car with the Campus Killer.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers (July 13)

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a mug of warm, freshly brewed tea. The novella is set in a hopeful world called Panga, in which humans have a rich respect for ecology and for each other, and in which centuries ago, the robots gained consciousness and quietly left to do their own thing, and haven’t been heard from since. Now, nonbinary tea monk Dex is on a quest: they want to hear the crickets chirping. Why? They aren’t sure. But they know they aren’t settled, even traveling, even helping others. And their journey gets only more confusing when a robot arrives, wanting to know: What do humans need? Chambers has written a quiet, cozy story about depression, consciousness, death, and overall, what makes life what it is, what makes our journeys so meaningful.

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota (July 13)

Mehar is a new bride in 1920s India. Just a teenager, she’s struggling under the repressive weight of her mother-in-law’s expectations, all the while seeking the love of her husband — although it would help if she knew which of the three brothers was actually hers. Meanwhile, in 1999, a young man comes to Punjab hoping to escape the painful addiction that he succumbed to after experiencing and witnessing years of discrimination and violence against his family in a small town in the UK. Sahota writes about the impact of the sharp, racist and sexist, traditional outlooks of small towns on those who are still trying to find their place in the world, and the ways that these painful structures can weigh heavily on the life and livelihood of people who grew up carrying those burdens.

Content warnings for racist violence and drug addiction and withdrawal.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan (July 20)

There’s a lot of buzz around this epic historical fantasy that has been marketed as “a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.” When the story begins, it’s 1345, and China is under Mongol rule. The Zhu family’s eighth-born son Zhu Chongba has been given a fate of greatness. Their second daughter is given a fate of nothingness. But when her family is tragically killed, and Zhu Chongba dies soon after, the daughter claims his identity and enters a monastery, determined to avoid the future that was predicted for her — to forge a path of her own. Perhaps, even one of greatness.

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy (August 3)

McConaghy’s last novel, Migrations, made me both sad-cry and then happy-cry. So I was more than a little excited for McConaghy’s next novel. Inti Flynn faces judgment and anger when she arrives in the Scottish Highlands with the plan of reintroducing a population of wolves, all in order to restart the food chain, cutting down the deer population and allowing more trees to grow. She is dealing with many traumas of her own, including her struggle with mirror touch synesthesia, a condition that makes her feel what she can see happening to other people or animals, and that makes her feel utterly weak; meanwhile, she is taking care of her twin, Aggie, who has been silent for years, recovering from a deep trauma. It’s all too much — so when Inti finds a body, she is quick to hide it, trying to protect the wolves. But if the wolves didn’t kill him, who did? Once There Were Wolves is dark, strange thriller that begins in the strange, wild world of self-preservation, survival, and pain — but that ultimately urges us to take a lesson from the wolves, and learn to lean on one another.

Content warnings for self-harm, domestic abuse, trauma, mental illness/PTSD, violent rape and sexual assault, animal death and cruelty.

The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang (August 3)

If you swooned over The Kiss Quotient, take heart: there’s a new Helen Hoang novel headed your way, just in time for the end of the summer. Quan Diep is a playboy and CEO who has girls falling over themselves to score the biggest “catch” of the year. But Anna Sun is different. Maybe it’s because she knows Quan still likes her sister, Camilla, who is newly engaged. Anna decides there’s only one course of action: she’ll bury her own anxieties and OCD to seduce Quan, so that he can’t ruin Camilla’s engagement. But will they, perhaps, catch feelings? I’m guessing, yes. Hoang’s novel is sure to be as sizzling and emotional as her previous work, which will make it the perfect read to dig into on those hot August nights.

The President and the Frog by Carolina de Robertis (August 3)

The former president of an unnamed Latin American country has stories that are infused with legend. Before he was a man talking about his legacy and the state of democracy, he was known as the Poorest President in the World, and before that, he was a guerrilla imprisoned for helping to start revolution. But now, as he tells these often-retold stories to a journalist, he just might reveal the secret of how he survived the solitary confinement of his imprisonment — by having long, philosophical conversations with a frog. De Robertis, the author of Cantoras and The Gods of Tango, has crafted a tale of resilience, of the power of the human spirit to survive—a story set in a jail cell and rooted in the fantastic.

Content warnings for incarceration, violence, torture, homophobia, rape, mass shooting.

Velvet was the Night by Silvia MorenoGarcia

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (August 17)

Close out this summer right by picking up Moreno-Garcia’s newest noir, with its breath-taking cover and fascinating premise. It’s 1970s Mexico City, and student protests and unrest are rushing outside, but Maite is focused on escaping into her reading and day-dreaming enviously about the life of her next door neighbor, glamorous art student Leonora. But when Leonora disappears, Maite decides to look for her — accidentally embedding herself into a dangerous world of political activism and violence. Alongside her searches Elvis, a music-loving criminal following his shadowy boss’s orders. One year after Mexican Gothic hit bookshelves, Moreno-Garcia is pulling us once again into her world of dark, psychological noir.

After the Dragons by Cynthia Zhang (August 19)

Lovers of soft fantasy with low stakes should already have After the Dragons on their radar. The climate is falling apart. A strange illness called “burnt lung” is spreading. Kai tries to avoid the truth of his terminal diagnosis by preoccupying himself with the eastern dragons; Eli is a medical researcher drawn back to Beijing after the death of his grandmother. They’re brought together by their interest in these soft dragons, and their romance slowly, delicately, begins to blossom. This is a fantastic read for people who love climate fiction and fantasy but who need to just lose themselves in a gentle story now and then.

Content warnings for animal cruelty, chronic illness, suicidal ideation, and loss of a family member.

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins (August 31)

Yes, you heard that right thriller fans: Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water, is back with a new novel to close out August. Lay out in a comfortable chair on a cool summer evening and read about a gruesome murder of a young man in London — and the three women who knew him. Aunt Carla, distrustful, desperate for answers. Laura, who left his home last of anyone — and with blood on her clothes. Miriam, the neighbor who isn’t telling the whole truth. All three of the women have secrets — but how far will they go to protect them? And what damage will their secrets inflict? This new Hawkins novel is the perfect way to spend an eerie summer day. Just make sure you have a comforting blanket to pull close afterwards.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (September 7)

The author of Normal People and Conversations with Friends is back with a new book about four young people coping with their day-to-day lives in Ireland. Novelist Alice asks warehouse worker Felix to go to Rome with her; Eileen is smarting after a break-up and falls into a rebound with childhood friend Simon. They revolve around one another, mark one another, hurt one another, and generally get tangled in a mess of emotion and racing thoughts. They’re millennials racing towards a painfully uncertain future, not sure about the future of their careers, of the economy, of the politics that surround them. They fret about the world that they’ll face in their futures, and about each other, in the center of it.

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Matrix by Lauren Groff (September 7)

Lauren Groff’s last novel, Fates and Furies, left me heartbroken and breathless; her collection of short stories, Florida, was full of haunting stories of motherhood and wilderness. Now Groff is taking her lyrical writing and sharp mind to the life of Marie de France, a young woman cast of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, sent to be a prioress of a struggling abbey in England where the nuns are literally starving. Matrix promises to be a fascinating novel about a passionate woman, her faith, and her determination to carve a life out for herself and for her new sisters. Read it before summer slips from your fingers.

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