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The Best Books We Read Over Summer

The PRIMER team reveals its favourite new releases

By PRIMER writers

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

If two very clever co-workers had not suggested this book to me, independently of each another, I never would have read it. It is, in part, historical fiction, a genre I’m not generally enthused by. But these editors are whipsmart and have excellent taste; I bit the bullet.

The novel is concerned with Marian Graves, rescued from a cruise liner as a baby and who dreams of becoming an aviator like her hero, Amelia Earhart, and Hadley Baxter, a former child star who plays Marian in a contemporary biopic. The two stories sit seamlessly alongside each other until they intersect – and it’s masterful. In a few pages we’re taken from the Atlantic Ocean to early 20th century New York and then modern-day LA. I was in a complete rut prior to reading this, and it pulled me right out. Now I’ve handed it on to another very clever editor – and I’ve no doubt she’ll do likewise.

Taste by Stanley Tucci

OK, so even if you don’t know Stanley Tucci, I bet you know Stanley Tucci (he was Nigel in The Devil Wears Prada). So yes, Tucci is an actor, but he is, first and foremost, a food lover. This is not an acting memoir, it’s a memoir of his life through food. And it is glorious.

Starting with his childhood in New York and ending in present-day London (where he lives with his grown-up children from his first marriage and his wife Felicity Blunt – SISTER OF EMILY – and their children), Tucci is such a funny and clever storyteller. His voice is exactly what you’d imagine it to be – dry as a martini, razor-sharp, but also, warm and endearing. He riffs on everything from the correct shape of pasta to serve with particular sauces to his strange affection for a dish called timpano (shared by almost nobody else in his life) to the eye-gouging mundanity of cooking for children in quarantine. I adore Stanley Tucci and I adored this book.

Let’s Get Physical by Danielle Friedman

In my day job, I often syndicate features from other major newspapers for our readers; over the Christmas holidays, we ran a piece from The New York Times about this work of non-fiction and I knew I had to buy it.

Friedman is a journalist, and this book began life as a long read for The Cut, part of New York magazine, about the unusual and little-known history of barre classes. From there, she explored the ways women have both influenced the fitness industry (Jane Fonda!) and been impacted by it. Told through the personal stories of the women who built fitness businesses, defied cultural norms and created new ways for women to take up space and power in the world, it’s a fun and fast read, and one I learned a lot from. Warning: it will seriously make you want to do the Jane Fonda workout. Extra warning: I did it. It is seriously hard.

— PRIMER contributor Lauren Sams

Practising Simplicity by Jodi Wilson (Murdoch, $32.99)

Practicing Simplicity is part mission statement, part travelogue and part family album – albeit a beautiful photographed one. A writer, photographer and mother of four, Wilson documents how years of seeking a simpler life led her to travelling around Australia in a caravan with her family, and what she learned along the way. As she says, the book isn’t “here to nag you”; it’s more like a gentle reminder from a wise friend to reconsider what’s really necessary for a life well lived, plus plenty of pragmatism from someone who recognises the reality of life with little kids.

— PRIMER contributor Naomi Chrisoulakis

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller 

Set in Cape Cod in the present and the past (the author interweaves the two), The Paper Palace tells the story of mother-of-three Elle Bishop, her family and decades of secrets. It’s centred around one traumatic childhood event that forces her to choose between her much-loved husband Peter and the life she had always imagined she’d have with her childhood sweetheart, Jonas.

It’s funny, dark, emotional and raw, and utterly compelling. And it wasn’t until I’d finished reading that I learned that author Cowley Heller used to be Head of Drama at HBO (she developed shows like The Sopranos and The Wire) – so she knows a good story!).

If you liked Where The Crawdads Sing, you’ll love this, too.

— PRIMER beauty editor Lucy Adams

The Game: A Portrait Of Scott Morrison by Sean Kelly

“When I told people I was writing this book,” writes Sean Kelly, about 100 pages in, “the reaction I encountered most was pity for the task I was enduring.” Reading it over the summer holidays, I received a similar response from my family. But this is actually a fascinating, unexpectedly compelling biography of our Prime Minister and a particularly important read in this election year.

We all think we know a great deal about ScoMo, argues Kelly, from his fervent Christian beliefs and happy home life to his evangelical support of the Cronulla Sharks – far more, in fact, than I suspect most of us know about the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese. But when it comes to his political philosophy, what he really and truly believes in, Morrison proves evasive. Short of “you’ve got to have a go to get a go”, he’s a man without a mission, a politician who views leadership as just a game. Kelly dissects his subject with wryness and humour, but at the end of his book I wasn’t laughing.

Made In China by Anna Qu

Qu’s heart-breaking, beautiful memoir follows a narrative familiar to many immigrant families. Desperate to escape grinding poverty in China, Qu’s mother leaves her baby daughter with grandparents while she tries to build a life in New York. After a few years, she sends for Qu, but the little girl quickly discovers that her mother regards her as an unwelcome reminder of the past she has left behind.

So Qu becomes the household servant, forced to work in a garment factory and savagely beaten if she steps out of line. That is, until the day that child-welfare services are alerted, with profound consequences.

After the cruelty she inflicts on her daughter, it’s hard to feel any sympathy at all for Qu’s mother. But it is testament to the skill and nuance of Qu’s writing that you start to understand, if not forgive, the beliefs and experiences that drove her to such heartbreaking acts. Now an essayist and lecturer, Qu is never self-pitying but the longing she feels for her mother’s love settles like an ache in your heart.

— PRIMER co-founder Felicity Robinson

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

It’s been six years since Jonathan Franzen released a novel, and with Crossroads – a sprawling intergenerational saga – he’s back at what he does best: delving into the complexities of seemingly ordinary, suburban families.

Crossroads follows Russ Hildebrandt, a liberal pastor in a small Midwestern town, who – struggling with his own lack of relevance – attempts to embark on an affair with a member of his congregation. Meanwhile, his wife Marion is hiding her own dark secrets, and both his children are rapidly unravelling.

Billed as the first book in a trilogy, Crossroads explores the tension between freedom and duty, morality and egoism, and highlights the corrosive effects of drugs and mental illness. Here’s hoping the second instalment doesn’t take six years.

– PRIMER co-founder Anna Saunders

The Competition by Katherine Collette

Katherine Collette’s debut, The Helpline, was one of the most delightful novels I’d read in years. So, I was thrilled to pick up her latest, The Competition. It’s another sharp, insightful Australian  comedy with an unlikely rag-tag cast. Frances is a 21-year-old with not much going for her, other than her SpeechMasters membership and a shot at the $40,000 grand prize for the best speaker at their annual conference. She’s dumped her hapless mentor Keith, but she’s feeling good about her chances–until someone from her past appears in the crowd. This is the feel-good redemption story of the summer.

PRIMER contributor and Keeping Up With The Penguins author Sheree Strange 


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