I have procrastinated my Seasonal Book post hard this year, my apologies. So instead of just being Winter books this is gonna be Winter/Spring combo and a double-long list. Hope the wait was worth it. All links are Amazon affiliate links, if you purchase through them I may get a small commission from the sale that helps the blog stay running. Books are listed from lightest to heaviest.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. The hook of this book is so solid that I probably don’t need to tell you much more than Civil War + Zombies. Before the end of the Civil War, a zombie uprising sets history on a different course. Instead of slavery there is now a caste system where society depends on Negro and Natives trained to kill zombies. Jane has the opportunity to move up in the world as a personal bodyguard for well-off white women, but the threat of zombies doesn’t seem quite as horrible as the threat of the white people she’s supposed to protect. There is so much meat to dive into here, it’s cultural-commentary-as-thrill-ride. Oh, and it’s a young adult novel you can give to your teenagers.
The Merry Spinster by Mallory (Daniel) Ortberg. If you were a reader of The Toast you don’t need me to tell you how delightful Ortberg’s writing is. But even as someone who isn’t always interested in twists on fairy tales, I was charmed and intrigued by these stories. This is more than just playing with tropes or taking a modern view on an old story, this book has a cheeky glint in its eye… and very sharp teeth.
Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith. Equal parts romance and grief, this book follows new mother Evi, her husband Eamon, and Eamon’s best friend Dalton who has been tasked with taking care of Evi after Eamon’s unexpected death. Moving back and forth through time, we get to see Evi’s love story with her husband and her attempts to find love again with Dalton. It’s a sad book but it’s also warm and full of real emotions and characters. A good pick for a book club or a beach.
Force of Nature by Jane Harper. This has been one of my go-to recommendations this year for readers who like crime novels. It’s such a big crowdpleasing, satisfying book, I have no doubt that pretty much all readers can enjoy it. I liked Harper’s first novel, The Dry, but I felt like she had some unused potential. Here she took it up a notch and I’m so pleased. (You don’t really need to read the first book, while the same detective is at the center of both books, his story isn’t the center.) Set in the Australian forest, a group of executives go on a retreat where they hike together through the woods. But when they return they’re missing one hiker. Great use of flashbacks, strong characters, such a solid book.
Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck. I encountered Tidbeck for the first time last year with her novel Amatka. She’s not a new writer, she’s been writing in Sweden for years and we’re just catching up. (She translated this book herself!) This story collection reminded me a lot of Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado but with a distinctly Scandinavian feel. They’re fantastic, surrealist, and surprising.
Sunburn by Laura Lippman. I have read a lot of Lippman’s crime novels but I think this may be the best one she’s written. This is old school noir with a feminist twist, with a twisty plot peppered with reveals and a heaping helping of character to add some real depth. There isn’t one puzzle here, but three. What happened, what happens now, and who are these characters really? A great pick for fans of the unlikable female protagonist (you know I’m one of them!), shades of Gone Girl without the plot twist whiplash.
The Pisces by Melissa Broder. This is one that I loved, but it’s going to be a divisive one. Not just because our protagonist Lucy is stuck in a self-destructive spiral that’s painful to watch, but I expect a lot of people won’t like the very frank, very detailed sex scenes. (Both of these are big pluses for me.) But we haven’t even gotten to the central story yet: of a woman who recovers from a bad breakup by falling for a merman. (I would say it’s a spoiler, but the cover gives it away.) This book is prickly and unique and stuck in its own head and it was a delight.
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani. Another divisive book! I saw this on bookshelves for months but had to wait to get it on hold from the library. I was expecting a twisty thriller and that is not what I got. Instead this is a book about a woman who commits a truly horrible crime against the children she’s paid to care for (in the very first chapter, so don’t pick this up if you’re not up for it) that then wonders how such a thing could possibly happen. Instead of feeling ripped from the headlines, it feels meditative and thoughtful, taking all the tricky things about wealthy people hiring poor people to watch their children and not looking away.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. You’ve probably heard about this book already, but if you haven’t gotten it to it yet, I encourage you to move it to the front of the line. If you have a book club, this is such a perfect choice: not too long, a quick read, full of interesting characters, and complex emotional issues you can pick apart for hours. I highly encourage avoiding even the most basic synopsis on this one, even the jacket copy spoils some of the major plot elements that are best approached cold. Just take my word for it on this one. And if you won’t take mine, take Oprah’s.
This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins. I don’t often read books of essays but I’m starting to get into them more when they’re by authors I already enjoy. I’ve read a few of Jerkins’ essays before this book and I was intrigued. In the collection, Jerkins shows a willingness to interrogate herself and her experiences that I rarely see in writers of personal essays and memoir. What was most noteworthy to me about this book is its efforts to center black women as its audience. As a white reader I’m used to being the default reader and it’s refreshing to go outside of that experience and understand Morgan and her point of view as a black woman better.
Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala. Iweala rose to fame as the author of Beasts of No Nation and he goes in a very different direction with his new novel. Niru is a star student and athlete in his senior year of high school near DC, the son of successful Nigerian immigrants. When Niru realizes he’s gay, he knows his very religious parents will reject him and he’s desperate to keep his sexual orientation a secret until he can get away to college. His secret will become bigger than Niru could have possibly anticipated. We still don’t have many novels about queer characters, and most of the ones we have are about cis gay white men, so stories like this are still vitally important.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. If you, like me, actually are writing a semi-autobiographical novel, then this is a run-do-not-walk situation. If you’re any kind of a writer, especially one who writes personal essays, then same. In these essays, Chee explores the writing of his own autobiographical novel Edinburgh, his training in writing, and pushes his own limits of identity (in particular with respect to family, race, and gender). It is the kind of writing that makes you kind of hate the writer for being this good. (No really, how is it allowed?)
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This is one of the most exciting debuts of the year, hands down. Emezi uses Igbo mythology and religious traditions to bring a new lens to existing in the modern world. The protagonist, Ada, is an ogbanje, a person with several selves/spirits in their body. But to me, Emezi didn’t feel like she was creating magical realism, instead it felt very literal. She is able to use these several selves to understand how people react to trauma, how we protect parts of ourselves, and how we build new selves. It’s challenging and utterly singular.
Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao. This is at the very bottom of the darkness scale, and please believe me when I say that this book is harrowing. It is not for the weak hearted. But it has many rewards for the reader who is willing to get to the end. Poornima and Savitha meet as girls in India and instantly become connected in the kind of way that is more than friendship, something more akin to romantic love. They are soulmates. But in the strict system they live in, they don’t have power over their destinies. When they are separated, Poornima leaves everything behind on a years-long journey to find her friend.
What are your favorite books of 2018 so far?