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2 August 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 7:18am

The best books for summer

The best reads in politics, science, biography and fiction for summer 2021.

By New Statesman

In a year marked by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the extreme weather resulting from climate change and global political uncertainty, you might find yourself reaching for comforting escapism this summer. But the landmark books released this year refuse to shy away from such issues. In fiction, science, politics and biography, the best writers confront our societal ills head on, in lucid and compelling prose. Here are the New Statesman’s pick of the best.

Politics

Seven Ways to Change the World by Gordon Brown

“In Seven Ways to Change the World, the former prime minister achieves a fluency in prose that he rarely managed in office,” writes Stephen Bush. “Despite its hefty subject matter, Brown’s book zips along as he maps out the world’s ‘ungoverned spaces’, a term that has traditionally meant ‘the unsafe, lawless zones in failing and fragile states where private warlords, bandits, pirates, terrorist insurgents, arms traders, illicit drug dealers and black marketers hold sway’.”

Read the New Statesman review by Stephen Bush

Snakes and Ladders: The Great British Social Mobility Myth by Selina Todd

“Todd’s self-set task is to illuminate the frequently empty claims at the heart of our nation’s century-long obsession with ‘social mobility’ and to show it has depended far less on personal effort than on larger forces, for good or for ill,” writes Melissa Benn. “The book is a trove of stories of human hope and disappointment. Todd quotes the wife of a working-class man in the postwar period who rose up to a ‘nice position’ of management. ‘I have a nice house and I can afford things… but deep down I have not had the happiness I expected.’ Feelings of existential loneliness, social discomfort and fear of falling were common to many who successfully ascended the class ladder.”

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Read the New Statesman review by Melissa Benn

M: Son of the Century by Antonio Scurati

“We know that the First World War left Europe smashed-up, and that, in its aftermath, in the broken soil of the combatant nations, a variety of strange and toxic political fruit flourished, but seldom has the growth of one of those regimes been so fully described,” writes Lucy Hughes-Hallett. “Panoptic and polyphonic, Scurati’s book gives us the experiences of the fearful and the feared, the rhetoric of both the revolutionaries and the reactionaries. Scurati writes with gusto. His style is that of a man unfamiliar with the adage ‘less is more’. His prose is as verbose and elaborate as his subjects’. He piles on ever more adjectives, more adverbs, more extravagantly protracted sentences. He says things three times over in slightly varying ways. It is as though his researches have left his mind saturated with a blend of d’Annunzio’s florid linguistic curlicues, Mussolini’s oratorical thunder and the fervour of communist rhetoric.” 

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Read the New Statesman review by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

The Plague Year by Lawrence Wright

“Wright’s deeply reported account of the pandemic vividly evokes the hopelessness and fear I and many other Americans felt for so much of 2020 – confirming suspicions that the people who were supposed to lead us had abandoned that responsibility, and that our attempts to care for one another weren’t enough,” writes Emily Tamkin. “Wright records the opportunities missed, from the critical initial delay in responding to outbreaks to the mess of early Covid testing, and the disregard of those in power for American lives. The Plague Year suggests it was even worse than we remembered or realised at the time.”

Read the New Statesman review by Emily Tamkin

Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain by Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones

“In Englishness, Henderson and Wyn Jones pay especial attention to the general election of 2015, an interlude between the Scottish referendum of 2014 and the Brexit referendum of 2016 which has not received the prominence it deserves,” writes Colin Kidd. “That election established a new pattern in British politics: it was the first in which a different party dominated in each of the four component parts of the United Kingdom: the Conservatives in England, the SNP in Scotland, Labour in Wales and the DUP in Northern Ireland. And it wasn’t a fluke. The 2017 and 2019 elections followed the same contours.”

Read the New Statesman review by Colin Kidd

Biography

Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by Frances Wilson

“Frances Wilson does not attempt to reconcile Lawrence’s contradictory extremes. Her solution is to divide Self One from Self Two,” writes Lyndall Gordon. “Self One could ‘inhabit’ women warmly and had a remarkable imaginative reach for what is non-human, whether it be the New Mexican desert or the difficulty of tortoises in mating. Self Two, sadly, was a megalomaniac, a ranting prophet, prone to crush Self One.”

Read the New Statesman review by Lyndall Gordon

Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves by John Sutherland

“Who would have thought that the life of Monica Jones, an unpublished and under-promoted lecturer in the English department at University College, Leicester, would prove to be such a page-turner?” writes Margaret Drabble. “This isn’t a dutiful feminist remake of an undervalued woman. It is a tribute to a real woman, who lived a real life.”

Read the New Statesman review by Margaret Drabble

The Golden Boy of Centre Court by Graham Denton

“Graham Denton recounts Borg’s Wimbledons, match by match, year by year, chapter by chapter,” writes Tim Pears. “This is quite a challenge – tennis is a simple game, after all, with a limited range of strokes. But if Denton is a modest prose stylist (though anyone who describes the American tennis legend Jimmy Connors as ‘a bundle of bustling aggression’ is no slouch), he has been a tireless, judicious miner in the archives of match reports, interviews and biographies. He is the stringer of other writers’ pearls.”

Read the New Statesman review by Tim Pears

Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said by Timothy Brennan

“In Places of Mind, Said emerges as an intensely restless figure; a rushed, even sloppy stylist, capable of preening vanity, pettiness, even intellectual facileness,” writes Thomas Meaney. “But, as Brennan shows, much of this was compensated for by altogether rarer qualities: political courage and stamina (Said’s FBI file ran to 238 pages), unflinchingness about power, quick humour, an autonomous aesthetic dimension, playful curiosity, and an ability to see and make connections about larger patterns of thought that left most of his ­specialist colleagues in the dust.”

Read the New Statesman review by Thomas Meaney

Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel by Rachel Holmes

“For Holmes, Pankhurst is a heroine: a seminal figure in a long line of formidable socialist feminists,” writes Melissa Benn. “This impressive and unabashedly partisan biography shows that we should all be grateful to this doughty, irrepressible woman who battled so hard and sacrificed so much to make the world a tangibly better place.”

Read the New Statesman review by Melissa Benn

Science and nature

The Brilliant Abyss by Helen Scales

“Our expansion of knowledge about the deep sea is so voluminous it’s hard to keep up,” writes Tim Flannery. “An excellent way to do so is to read Helen Scales’s The Brilliant Abyss. Written by a highly articulate expert in the field, it’s so comprehensive and insightful that it will be a long time before it’s surpassed.”

Read the New Statesman review by Tim Flannery

How to Love Animals in a Human-Shaped World by Henry Mance

“The uplifting message of Mance’s book is that the individual decisions we make can have an impact, that individual action is often a precursor to collective change,” writes Sophie McBain. “I am not fully vegan yet, but after reading this thoughtful and galvanising book, I’ve realised that it’s better to keep trying to live in a way that shows compassion and respect for animals, and to sometimes fail, than to give up altogether.”

Read the New Statesman review by Sophie McBain

The Disappearance of Butterflies by Josef H Reichholf

The Disappearance of Butterflies is in many ways the fulfilment of Reichholf’s entire 50-year career,” writes Mark Cocker. “He has been obsessively collecting population data on butterflies and moths found in his Bavarian home region since the 1950s. It is the depth of this research that gives his conclusions weight.”

Read the New Statesman review by Mark Cocker

Bad Men by David M Buss

“David M Buss is one of those rare people who is able to look Darwin straight in the eye without flinching,” writes Louise Perry. “Bad Men is a popular-science book, rich with lively detail, but it can also be read as a self-help book informed by evolutionary research. Plenty of Buss’s insights will be useful to anyone attempting to navigate the modern dating landscape… while this might not seem an obvious choice of feminist reading matter, I would press this book into the hands of any teenage girl.”

Read the New Statesman review by Louise Perry

This Is Your Mind On Plants by Michael Pollan

“It is no coincidence that caffeine and the minute-hand on clocks arrived at around the same historical moment, the acclaimed food and nature writer Michael Pollan argues in his latest book, This is Your Mind on Plants,” writes Sophie McBain. “Both spread across Europe as labourers began leaving the fields, where work is organised around the sun, for the factories, where shift-workers could no longer adhere to their natural patterns of sleep and wakefulness. Would capitalism even have been possible without caffeine?”

Read the New Statesman review by Sophie McBain

Fiction

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

No One Is Talking About This is about what happens when you are returned to that physical reality,” writes Johanna Thomas-Corr. “It’s also – and I should probably get this out right now – a flat-out masterpiece and certainly the best novel I’ve ever read about the internet.”

Read the New Statesman review by Johanna Thomas-Corr

An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura

“In her thirties, having lived in the US for more than half her life, Mizumura decided to return to Japan to become a Japanese-language novelist. As one might infer from its title – Shishōsetsu is the name of a cherished genre of confessional fiction in Japan – it is an autobiographical novel about her decision,” writes Lola Seaton. “It is not just a how-I-became-a-writer story; it is also a how-I-became-a-Japanese-writer story.”

Read the New Statesman review by Lola Seaton

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

“Cusk’s latest novel is a psychodrama filtered through the anguished confession of a middle-aged woman known as M,” writes Johanna Thomas-Corr. “With its unity of time, place and theme, Second Place has the feel of a well-made play, or a classic country-house novel, in which a group dynamic is disrupted by a mysterious stranger. Relationships are tested. Characters experience emotional and sexual awakenings. Tensions reach boiling point.”

Read the New Statesman review by Johanna Thomas-Corr

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun is concerned with forging the new from the old, and Ishiguro exhibits his own Frankenstein-ish impulses, aspiring to cross-breed Brontë’s Villette with Dostoevsky’s The Idiot,” writes Leo Robson. “This a sort of tone poem that, like most of Ishiguro’s fiction, recalls the title of one of his surrealist film scripts: The Saddest Music in the World.”

Read the New Statesman review by Leo Robson

Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic

“Sudjic writes with cool detachment,” writes Ellen Peirson-Hagger. “She doesn’t use speech marks but her dialogue remains sharp, and she portrays Anya’s fractured mindset intensely but not in a way that becomes overbearing. She is a writer finely attuned to the nuance and doubleness of language.”

Read the New Statesman review by Ellen Peirson-Hagger