One of my favorite books this year!
Zen Cho's funny, thrilling, and surprisingly dark novel has a glorious cast of meddling family members and a divine, violent history at its heart.
For more contemporary Malay-Chinese ghost stories, check out her fantastic short story collection Spirits Abroad.
Rose's sudden death poses a handful of painful questions to her loving family: did she kill herself, or was she murdered? Why did she seek an abortion? What happened in the weeks after Rose left Manzanar alone? In the best tradition of mystery writing, by the end of the book you could string those same words together in exactly the same order but be asking an entirely different question. This is a brilliant book with a subtle, slippery mystery at its heart that reckons with the manifold harms of Japanese internment.
The stories in this debut collection are shot straight from the heart. Jones' magic is in her characters' emotional sincerity and determination to survive, at what feels like or is the end of the known world. Rich, humane, sympathetic, and complex, these are memorable stories that will follow you for a long time, like the best always do.
Hopeful utopian cottagecore from Becky Chambers, the queen of Space Optimism, that wrestles with the uniquely human obsessions of purpose and desire.
I loved Paul Mendez's debut novel about young writer and sex worker Jesse McCarthy, who pursues life with refreshing appetite. His efforts to find stability and joy make a sine wave of disappointment and hope through London and the Black Country, dance parties and hostels, that keep the reader sweetly hooked.
What if your worst deed caught up with you? This contemporary horror novel about four Blackfeet men who try, and fail, to escape a misdeed they committed ten years ago is full of breakneck fear, dry humor, love and redemption, and a truly thrilling basketball game. Even if you don't normally -- give this excellent book a try.
Stag-B and Rhino-B are best friends and live together in a giant mushroom. Open this book and come along as they find buried treasure, explore a glowing cave, go the library, and help each other through life's ups and downs. This is one of my favorite graphic novels for kids and adults alike!
In the Dream House will set you back on your feet from the moment you open the cover. Explosively imaginative, the essays inside each use a different literary trope (Mystical Pregnancy; Star-Crossed Lovers; Meet the Parents) to explore the many facets of trauma and self, seesawing between lively irony and inevitability. Machado's relentless sieving of memory and narrative for truth manages to be deeply beautiful, playful, and sharp all at once. I can't recommend it highly enough!
One of the best books I read this year. Brinkley can illuminate and expose seemingly any corner of humanity, with equal compassion and precision. His writing is so powerful and graceful at once that it feels balletic, with a dancer's way of making an incredible feat seem simple and easy.
Fred Riley has a problem: her girlfriend, Laura Dean? Terrible. A beautiful, terrible flake. Also, she keeps breaking up with Fred. But Fred loves Laura Dean because Laura Dean, impossibly, chose her. Fred struggles to balance the hurtful, manipulative things Laura Dean does with the depth of her love, knowing she's stuck in a vicious cycle but feeling powerless to break free. How can she ever stop loving Laura Dean? Valero-O'Connell's gorgeous, sherbet-colored art and Mariko Tamaki's writing, always true to the complex emotions of her characters, combine to make a beautiful queer coming of age story.
Reading Trust Exercises is like watching Susan Choi draw a perfect circle, freehand, over and over and over. She's drawing a ring around a set of circumstances and a set of questions and asking you to look, then look again, and then one more time to be sure. At an exclusive high school theater program, Sarah and David fall in love under the watchful gaze of their enigmatic instructor, who provokes his students to both endless vulnerability and competition. The adult reader will pick up immediately on the exploited, uneven power dynamics that Choi's characters are almost helpless to avoid. The twisted knots binding all of the students together get even more tangled when Sarah and David break up, and what follows is a spiral of events explored with incredible intelligence, nuance, and emotional depth.
In 2016, Albert Woodfox was released from prison after years of campaigning by activists, judges, politicians, and members of the Angola Three support network. Framed for the murder of a prison guard along with two other Black Panther Party members, he'd been kept in solitary confinement for over 40 years due to a system of falsified accusations and sabotaged appeals involving collusion at high levels of government and judiciary. Radicalized in prison, Woodfox drew immense strength and determination from the principles of the Black Panther Party; in every cell block, he worked to eradicate violence, materially improve conditions, practice liberation, and call for change. In these pages, his goal is not just to tell his incredible story, but to educate us about the many ways mass incarceration and police brutality are used as a weapon against Black communities.
I love almost everything put out by Small Beer Press, and when I got a copy of Fire Logic in the mail, I read it and immediately blazed through the rest of the series. Fire Logic is the first in an epic fantasy series about a brutal civil war where every character and plot point pivots around history, philosophy, and the aftermath of violence. It's gentler, in later books, and slower than series like Erika Johansen's Tearling books or Ann Leckie's Radch series (though if you like Kalr 5 and her tea cups, you'll also love Garland and his ladle). The questions these books ask repeatedly are, what systems are working to narrow our choices? And what kind of radical thinking will allow us to see another path?
The Last Sun is a fun, expletive-filled and truly wild ride from start to finish. Rune is a moody fallen prince, Brand his foul-mouthed, angry bodyguard, and they're getting along just fine as mercenaries and criminal dogsbodies until a big pile of trouble falls into their laps. Rune and Brand pursue a missing persons case through the court intrigues of New Atlantis's noble houses. Sadly for Rune, anyone in the nobility could be responsible for the anonymous hit job that slaughtered his entire family. Sadly for Brand, the more they investigate, the more he suddenly has to protect Rune from the freshly risen dead. This noir-fantasy mashup, whose elaborate world building is based on the Tarot, is going to delight fans of Max Gladstone, Saladin Ahmed, Daniel Jose Older, and Becky Chambers.
I love this fascinating, totally mind-blowing book on the science and culture of pregnancy. Like A Mother's blend of essay, memoir, and reportage shows Seattle writer Angela Garbes' chops as a journalist as she interrogates cultural myths and picks apart the massive systemic issues that arise from treating pregnancy like an illness instead of "a superhuman power." Chapters range from placentas (my pick for #1 most underrated organ), breastmilk, miscarriages, and how to best care for pregnant addicts, to the violent, racist history of gynecology. Garbes' tone of curious wonder and emotional connection to her material will resonate with any reader - you don't need to have a uterus to get swept up in her enthusiasm.
When is a body a house, a trap, an experience, a burden, a book, a treasure, or a betrayal? When is a body yours alone, and when, in its history, has it belonged in fact or in feeling to others? Elissa Washuta's memoir is a powerful confrontation of the ways in which sexual trauma, mental illness, catholicism, law & order, Indigeneity, settler colonialism, history, and instant messaging have informed her identity and relationship to her body. It's a raw, visceral, unflinching book with a wide streak of dark humor.
Near Cleveland, Harit comes home from work every night and puts on his dead sister's clothing, pretending that she's still alive for his sick mother. Ranjana spends hours writing paranormal romance novels, trying to grapple with the thought that her husband might be cheating on her. As Ranjana and Harit's paths cross, they begin one of those weird, wonderful oddball friendships that upsets everything that once seemed impossible to change. This is a sweet novel that tells the story of how they each came to be so lonely, and how infinitely variable loneliness can be, and I loved Satyal's wry portrait of the selfishness and generous compassion that can coexist in relationships.
String quartet drama! Henry, Jana, Brit, and Daniel all have different reasons for not pursuing a more lucrative and rewarding solo career - they're drawn to something they can only find inside the tense, closed structure of the quartet. The behind the scenes look (Gabel was a professional cellist herself) into the ruthless world of high-level classical musicians and the physical toll of constant performance is fascinating for the curious reader, but as their relationships and careers grow and change over the years, The Ensemble's surprising focus is the amount of emotional work it takes to maintain a stable relationship between four people who, like all of us, are not always kind, good, or gracious. Compelling and intimate!
A beautiful, generous book of personal essays. As a writer, Chee is interested in the constructed self, how identity can be a mask that conceals and also reveals. His self-reflection on how his own identities have served, protected, and hindered him is also an persistent, gentle invitation to the reader to remember that "the ways you are human are not always visible to yourself." There's lots of germane advice for writers here, re: this book's title, but this book is for anyone with a brain and a heart.
I'm on a mystery kick these days and it's going swimmingly because, well, there's loads of great books out there I haven't read. You may be familiar with the feeling! Rachel Howzell Hall's Detective Elouise Norton series began in 2014 and now there's four books in the series, each an exciting addition to the pantheon of southern California noir. In Land of Shadows, the first book, Lou is paired with a new partner and begins investigating the murder of a young black girl that may be tied to the disappearance of her sister. Hall's books combine twisted plots, crisp social commentary, and a fully realized main character (with humor, actual friends, and real family commitments!)
Robert's ex-wife Suzy left him abruptly two years ago. He doesn't know why, or why they married at all, only that he misses her like a lost tooth. When she goes missing and her new husband blackmails him into searching for her, Robert thinks he might finally get some answers. The path of his investigation, signposted with uneasy allies and glittering Vegas casinos, reveals that their shared past is thick with ghosts and roars with the echo of the Vietnam War. Dragonfish matches any of the best in the ranks of noir novels, and it's a spellbinding meditation on migration, loss, and love.
Ambition always has a price - and if you're Xifeng, who's heard over and over from her aunt's dark fortunetelling cards that one day, her incredible beauty will lead her to become Empress, you aren't sure it's a price you want to pay. So with her boyfriend Wei, she runs away from her fear and her aunt's cruelties towards the capital city. She's smart, determined, and to her surprise, she has a knack for getting ahead when others fail. But something inhuman, magical, and very, very old begins to whisper in Xifeng's ear. How far can she rise? And sacrifice - does she have to be the one to make it? Or...can someone else take her place? Julie Dao's book is a must-read for fans of Kendare Blake, Marie Lu, and Laini Taylor.
"I want to love myself. I want to understand my own experiences." Depressed and caught between social anxiety and loneliness, Nagabi Kata is trying to reorient herself by discovering her own desires and needs for the first time. At 28, she visits a sex worker from a lesbian escort agency for her first sexual experience. It goes totally awry, but it's one of many demonstrations of her immense bravery in this funny, moving graphic memoir. Her willingness to be vulnerable and her irrepressible sincerity make even her darkest moments brighter with hope.
Elliott is pretty sure magic land is awful: everyone appreciates sword fighting more than a witty comeback; his teachers at the Border School refuse to let him sensibly use a pencil instead of a quill; and even though elves, dwarves, mermaids, and harpies are real, they seem hellbent on fighting endless wars with each other. But it's better than home in the real world. And he has two best friends (if his constant rage and sarcasm don't drive them away): a warrior elf maiden, and a shy jock with a big secret. This is a smart, sweet, hilarious book that truly made me laugh out loud.
Sunja is the beloved only child of her parents, who live in a fishing village in South Korea. Koh Hansu is a ruthless gangster with strong ties to the Japanese occupation. They meet, have a short affair, and conceive a child together - changing the paths of their lives and their descendants forever. After Hansu refuses to marry her, Sunja decides to begin a new life in Japan. Lee's beautiful novel recontextualizes almost 70 years of the past century, from WWII to Japan's 1990s economic boom, through the bittersweet ups and downs of one family.
Jess and Angie are best friends, so when Angie comes out and starts dating Margot, a rich girl from a different high school, Jess tries to be supportive. Jess has secretly loved Angie for a long time - and she doesn't plan on losing their relationship to the shark-infested waters of Angie's new, cliquish social circle so easily. But then a girl goes missing after a wild house party, with Jess and Angie right in the middle of it. And both of them are lying. Spooky, contemporary queer YA packed with morally complex female characters!
After finding her husband dead at the bottom of the stairs, Tanya DuBois makes a break into the night, shedding the past ten years behind her in a flash. Tanya--not her real name--has been living under a stolen identity, trying to bury a secret that's worth her life. She's cool, collected, and quick with a bottle of hair dye or contact lenses. But living on the run and switching identities begins to grind away at her core sense of being and morality. Not even she knows what kind of choices she'll make, or where they'll lead her. Trying to figure it out will keep you up late.
We've all read books about the very real dangers of exploitation and radicalization online and in technology whose bottom line is an unrealistic neo-Luddism. Dexter Palmer's Version Control is antithesis of those books: it braids together surveillance capitalism, dating apps, time travel, and an intimate, often sad portrait of a marriage together into a powerful exploration of possibility and truth. It's funny and sharp, and I loved every page.
Pablo Holmberg's graphic novel is delightful and surprising and strange. It feels like discovering something precious you thought you'd lost, or seeing an old friend you never expected to meet again. Within each four-panel page's self-contained world, lovers meet, friends quarrel, and a lonely rabbit-eared king paces the hills with a star in his pocket. It's the perfect world to step into if you need something quiet and magical in your life right now.
A deep dive into Japanese police hierarchy and newspaper journalism. Mikami, a highly respected detective, has unexpectedly been thrust into a position in Media Relations, where he feels torn between his old loyalty to Criminal Investigations and his duty to his current administrative position. Things at home are even worse: his teenage daughter is missing and his wife is suffering deeply. When he discovers evidence of a secret document vitally important to a 14-year old kidnapping case that still holds sway over the present, he doesn't hesitate to throw himself into the fray over his convictions - but he's way over his head. Almost airless with tension and bared-teeth interoffice-tactical assaults between members of a very unfriendly "fraternity".
This bitingly funny, stark book of feminist essays is like watching a patient, skilled boxer making a relentless assault in the ring. Moore's target is the intersection of capitalism and misogyny and its effects on women's bodies, from labor rights and healthcare to high fashion modeling. Her work is rooted in research and cultural criticism, and draws on her experiences as a journalist, disabled person, and comics anthologist. I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but lately I'm craving work like Moore's, which has no interest in sugarcoating anything but confronts the complexity of oppressive systems with blunt humor and equally complex analysis. My favorite essays in Body Horror? The patent history of tampon disposal boxes (trust me!), and the 19th century railroad magnate-origins of standardized time in North America.
When Starr Carter sees her friend Khalil murdered by the police, she is forced to choose between staying silent and protecting her family, or speaking up and fighting for Khalil's memory. All of the difficult questions that come up in this book are carefully considered, with love, hope, humor, and courage. If you're feeling understandably discouraged by our ongoing nightmare political reality, pick up this book and let Starr and her family, friends, and community remind you of the the stakes of both winning and losing.
This is a sort of 'best of' collection from Kashua's decade plus of weekly columns for Israeli newspaper Haaretz: short, satirical pieces on life in Israel usually featuring Kashua and his family. Kashua comes off as a Kramer-esque neurotic bumbler with all the comic failures of a sitcom character. Some of his mishaps are his own fault, and some are due to existing in a world where someone else is writing the rules. Kashua's essays present his writerly daydreaming and hopes for his family, as well as the painful difficulties of life as an Arab living in Jerusalem, with miserable hilarity. You can dip in and read a few pages here or there or go straight through; the columns are presented in chronological order and make it easy to track the rise and fall of Kashua's optimism, which he reveals with disarming honesty. Recommended: Without Parents; The Court!; The Stories I Don't Dare Tell; Kashua's Complaint.
This a comprehensive survey of the history of Asian immigration to the Americas, the growth of Asian American communities, and the complex entanglement of American immigration policies and American identity. Lee's book is broad in scope but it also dives into all the detail a serious scholar is capable of when illuminating a lesser-known facet of history. It's really readable and will be very useful to anyone looking to better understand our country's long record of exclusionary, racist immigration policy, and the centrality of Asians to American history.
Rabih Alameddine is the author of An Unnecessary Woman, a staff favorite here and a 2014 National Book Award finalist. If that book was blackly funny and melancholic, this (his newest) is as angry and beautiful as a lit match. Flirtatious, ribald Satan and severe Death try to sway Jacob, a gay Yemeni-born poet who's tormented by memories, to their respective rhetorical positions over the course of one night spent in a San Francisco psychiatric clinic. Satan wants Jacob to remember every painful moment from his life, and Death thinks Jacob should forget them. As Jacob revisits his past while considering each argument's merits, the novel brings its intense focus to bear on political and social issues--the 80s AIDS crisis, tech industry-fueled gentrification, the ongoing US-armed Saudi Arabian bombings in Yemen--that are urgently relevant to the present. It's ambitious, spellbinding, and related in a lyrical style that's easy to sink into.
A Hugo- and Nebula-nominated medieval fantasy adventure set in a fantastical Middle East. Swashbuckling isn't one of my favorite words, but this is an awesome swashbuckling adventure that's also observant and smart. A lovable and unlikely trio unites to fight what they think is a slightly larger than usual demon that turns out to be just the start of their problems. Escape the holidays, read this book.
This book is from 1997, but the continuing relevance of its themes -- displacement, refugee crises, time, memory, and the ability of art to address situations affecting millions--make reading it feel painfully fresh. Every joy that Barghouti feels during his return to his home in Palestine, the first visit in 30 years, is paired with an equal measure of disorientation and loss. A tangled web of thoughts and memories sprouts with every step he takes. I re-read every sentence in this book at least twice, amazed and transported, feeling lucky to have such an affecting glimpse into a rich and complex life.
By keeping its focus tight on its four main characters and their lives in contemporary San Francisco, Private Citizens gets closer to an accurate depiction of the lives of certain subset of the Millennial generation than any other book I've read. If you're a tech worker, aspiring activist, writer, or self-identified failure, you'll wince in uncomfortable recognition. Tulathimutte takes every aspect of Bay Area culture that's ripe for think-piece coverage--personal brands; social media; the (corporate, commercial) non-profit industry--to its goriest depths. It's hilarious, bleak, ambitious, and thrilling.
NK Jemisin is a master worldbuilder and an amazing stylist. The hype is real! Read this book!
Ivoe Williams is one of the most driven characters you'll ever rmeet. As a journalist and newspaperwoman in the time of Jim Crow, she has to be. Her struggles, achievements, and loves come about in a pervading atmosphere of oppression that is catastrophic and banal. But Ivoe's story is is also about incredible strength and joy, animated by vibrant prose and a truly rewarding depth of historical detail that lifts up the work of early African American newspapers. A wonderful, compelling novel.
I couldn't shut up about this book while I was reading it, and you can ask my coworkers for proof. Too much verisimilitude can harm historical fiction, but here you crave any detail that might let you shine a light around the next dark, sharp curve of the plot. Chee is an assured, masterful writer whose novel will stay with you the way a dream does.
Maia is the forgotten, exiled heir to the throne who ascends to power as the emperor after the sudden death of everyone ahead of him in succession. Among the baroque court intrigue, politics, and meditations on the deformations of power and empire is a compelling, lovely character study of someone learning to trust and be trustworthy.
Zami is an achingly beautiful autobiography that explores poet, essayist, and activist Audre Lorde's childhood and early adulthood, growing up as a Black lesbian poet in New York City in the 30s and finishing before her rise to fame in the 60s. Her language is sensual and frank as she writes of the smell of pounding garlic in her mother's mortar and pestle, the sound of her sisters whispering stories to each other late at night, the taste of the apricot brandy passed among friends at a New Years' Eve party in a cold-water walk-up. Lorde's experiences in the Greenwich Village lesbian bars of the 1950s are fascinating, as is reading about how relentlessly many of the women in even those spaces try to define her by whatever part of her identity is most comfortable for them. Ultimately, the book is a tender and unflinching homage to the women who've shaped Lorde's life.
Four women (a solider, a scholar, a poet, and a socialite) relate their experiences of a civil war and its aftermath. Every page is haunted by invented historical texts, whole schools of literature, oral traditions, and the complexities of storytelling. Each woman's narrative plumbs the depths of their individual and cultural memories; and surprisingly the ending - where Samatar ties off a wonderful multitude of threads - was so brilliant, such a dark surprise, it was nearly my favorite part. I love this book and found its upending of my expectations in every direction totally revelatory.
This beautiful book, the story of an impoverished, naive young artist in 1930s London, totally took me by surprise. At first the mishaps of newly-married Sophia and her husband Charles are funny and awkward--everything Sophia cooks tastes like soap; they paint all of their furniture sea-green; they live in terror of Charles' forbidding relatives; and they're always hard up for money. But through a masterful technique of Comyns, Sophia's wondering attitude slowly reveals as much about her (and her unconscious attempts to deflect the emotional impact of constant disappointments) as it does those around her, who benefit from exploiting her optimism and self-doubt. Some moments of the book approach psychological horror, and the happy ones (they exist!) come as a great relief.
If you're looking for weeknight-friendly, plant-based meals with a comfort-food vibe, pick up Isa Does It!. If you're new to vegan cooking this is the one to grab. The recipes are funny, fresh, delicious, and no-nonsense. There are beautiful, helpful photographs for almost every recipe and the funny headnotes are not to be missed.
The PERFECT fall read. Samatar's elegant prose will make the glittering landscapes of the world inside these pages as feverishly real to you as to the novel's haunted protagonist. This is a book for bibliophiles, for people that read closely and dream widely: love for literature and how it influences our perceptions of the world (for better or for worse) is one of many themes subtly and intriguingly addressed here. Samatar is an incredible writer and the plot of a naive young man drawn into matters over his head will speak to anyone whose travels have made them both sick with excitement and the longing to go home. If Ursula K. LeGuin or Cathrynne Valente are favorites of yours, you will love this book.
Who Fears Death is the story of Onyesonwu, a girl and powerful sorceress born into a terrible legacy in near-future dystopian Africa. Onyesonwu undertakes a quest for revenge that turns into something much more complex; along the way, she must fight for acceptance, equality, friendship, and to make peace with her fate.