The Great Believers
by Rebecca Makkai
Another ambitious change of pace for the versatile and accomplished Makkai, whose characters wrangle with the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic at its height and in its aftermath. In the first of two intertwined storylines, Yale and his partner, Charlie, attend an unofficial wake for a dead friend, Nico, held simultaneously with his funeral service because his Cuban-American family has made it clear they don't want any gay people there. It's 1985, and Makkai stingingly re-creates the atmosphere of fear, prejudice, and sanctimonious finger-pointing surrounding the mortally afflicted gay community, even in a big city like Chicago. Nico's younger sister, Fiona, has rejected their family and attached herself to his friends, with emotional consequences that become apparent in the second storyline, set 30 years later in Paris. As is often the case with paired stories, one of them initially seems more compelling, in this case Makkai's vivid chronicle of Yale's close-knit circle, of his fraught relationship with the obsessively jealous Charlie, and his pursuit of a potentially career-making donation for the university art gallery where he works in development. Fiona's opaque feelings of guilt and regret as she searches for her estranged daughter, Claire, aren't as engaging at first, but the 2015 narrative slowly unfolds to connect with the ordeals of Yale and his friends until we see that Fiona too is a traumatized survivor of the epidemic, bereft of her brother and so many other people she loved, to her lasting damage. As Makkai acknowledges in an author's note, when a heterosexual woman writes a novel about AIDS, some may feel she has crossed "the line between allyship and appropriation." On the contrary, her rich portraits of an array of big personalities and her affecting depiction of random, horrific death faced with varying degrees of gallantry make this tender, keening novel an impressive act of imaginative empathy. As compulsively readable as it is thoughtful and moving: an unbeatable fictional combination. - Kirkus reviews
Genre: Literary Fiction
Similar: A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara)
by Tommy Orange
Orange's debut novel offers a kaleidoscopic look at Native American life in Oakland, CA, through the experiences and perspectives of 12 characters. An aspiring documentary filmmaker, a young man who has taught himself traditional dance by watching YouTube, another lost in the bulk of his enormous body—these are just a few of the point-of-view characters in this astonishingly wide-ranging book, which culminates with an event called the Big Oakland Powwow. Orange, who grew up in the East Bay, knows the territory, but this is no work of social anthropology; rather, it is a deep dive into the fractured diaspora of a community that remains, in many ways, invisible to many outside of it. "We made powwows because we needed a place to be together," he writes. "Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum." The plot of the book is almost impossible to encapsulate, but that's part of its power. At the same time, the narrative moves forward with propulsive force. The stakes are high: For Jacquie Red Feather, on her way to meet her three grandsons for the first time, there is nothing as conditional as sobriety: "She was sober again," Orange tells us, "and ten days is the same as a year when you want to drink all the time." For Daniel Gonzales, creating plastic guns on a 3-D printer, the only lifeline is his dead brother, Manny, to whom he writes at a ghostly Gmail account. "People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them," James Baldwin wrote in a line Orange borrows as an epigraph to one of the book's sections; this is the inescapable fate of every individual here. In this vivid and moving book, Orange articulates the challenges and complexities not only of Native Americans, but also of America itself. - Kirkus Reviews
Genre: Literary Fiction; Contemporary Fiction
Similar: Love Medicine (Louise Erdrich)
The Library at Mount Char
by Scott Hawkins
A spellbinding story of world-altering power and revenge from debut novelist Hawkins. Carolyn's life changed forever when she was 8. That was the year her ordinary suburban subdivision was destroyed and the man she now calls Father took her and 11 other children to study in his very unusual Library. Carolyn studied languages – and not only human ones. The other children studied the ways of beasts, learned healing and resurrection, and wandered in the lands of the dead or in possible futures. Now they're all in their 30s, and Father is missing. Carolyn and the others are trying to find him but Carolyn has her own agenda and her own feelings about the most dangerous of her adopted siblings, David, who has spent years perfecting the arts of murder and war. Carolyn is an engaging heroine with a wry sense of humor, and Steve, the ordinary American ally she recruits, helps keep the book grounded in reality despite the ever growing strangeness that swirls around them. Like the Library itself, the book is bigger, darker, and more dangerous than it seems. The plot never flags, and it's never predictable. Hawkins has created a fascinating, unusual world in which ordinary people can learn to wield breathtaking power and he's also written a compelling story about love and revenge that never loses sight of the human emotions at its heart. A wholly original, engrossing, disturbing, and beautiful book. You've never read anything quite like this, and you won't soon forget it. - Kirkus Reviews
Genre: Fiction; Fantasy
Similar: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan)
The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea: A Graphic Memoir of Modern Slavery
written and illustrated by Vannak Anan Prum
A harrowing graphic memoir by a Cambodian survivor of human trafficking. As a boy, Prum loved drawing and showed obvious talent. "One of my first memories is of drawing pictures of Bruce Lee in the dirt in front of our house," he writes, a memory captured in finely etched detail toward the beginning of his powerful memoir. As a teenager, he had run away from his boyhood home, determined to escape the brutalities of his stepfather. Since there was no money in drawing, Prum became a soldier and then a monk. Discovering that life in the monastery didn't suit him, and realizing art alone could not support him, he found work harvesting crops. There he met his wife, and soon she became pregnant, forcing the author to find more reliable work to support his family. He learned about a better-paying opportunity within the Thai fishing industry, but by the time he boarded his ship, he realized that instead of finding the higher pay the middle man had promised, he had been sold into slavery. He wouldn't see his wife or even his native Cambodia again for five years: "Three years and seven months on a boat, four months on the plantation, one month in the hospital, and eight months in Malaysian police stations and jails." On the boat, he witnessed a decapitation and other slaves thrown overboard when they were too sick to work. His escape to Malaysia led him to corrupt police who resold him to work on the plantation, where the owner was protected by the legal system. He was incarcerated "for illegal migration" before he agreed to lie to clear the plantation owner and returned home to a wife who didn't recognize or believe him—until he rendered this graphic account. "And so I drew my way back into my family home," he explains. Excellent drawing accompanies a remarkable story of persistence—and yet the artist still has trouble making a living in his native Cambodia, while human trafficking on land and sea continues to flourish. - Kirkus Reviews
Genre: Nonfiction; Graphic Memoir
Similar: The Hammer and the Anvil (Dwight Jon Zimmerman)
Biz Mackey, a Giant Behind the Plate
by Rich Westcott
National Baseball Hall of Fame catcher James Raleigh "Biz" Mackey's professional career spanned nearly three decades in the Negro Leagues and elsewhere. He distinguished himself as a defensive catcher who also had an impressive batting average and later worked as a manager of the Newark Eagles and the Baltimore Elite Giants. Using archival materials and interviews with former Negro League players, baseball historian Rich Westcott chronicles the catcher's life and remarkable career as well as providing an in-depth look at Philadelphia Negro League history. Westcott traces Mackey's childhood in Texas as the son of sharecroppers to his success on the baseball diamond where he displayed extraordinary defensive skills and an exceptional ability to hit and to handle pitchers. Mackey spent one third of his career playing in Philadelphia, winning championships with the Hilldale Daisies and the Philadelphia Stars. Mackey also mentored famed catcher Roy Campanella and had an unlikely role in the story of baseball's development in Japan. A celebrated ballplayer before African Americans were permitted to join Major League Baseball, Biz Mackey ranks as one of the top catchers ever to play the game.
Genre: Biography; Sports books
Similar: The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron (Howard Bryant)
by Homer; translated by Emily Wilson
In this fresh, authoritative version—the first English translation of The Odyssey by a woman—this stirring tale of shipwrecks, monsters, and magic comes alive in an entirely new way. Written in iambic pentameter verse and a vivid, contemporary idiom, this engrossing translation matches the number of lines in the Greek original, thus striding at Homer’s sprightly pace and singing with a voice that echoes Homer’s music. Wilson’s Odyssey captures the beauty and enchantment of this ancient poem as well as the suspense and drama of its narrative. Its characters are unforgettable, from the cunning goddess Athena, whose interventions guide and protect the hero, to the awkward teenage son, Telemachus, who struggles to achieve adulthood and find his father; from the cautious, clever, and miserable Penelope, who somehow keeps clamoring suitors at bay during her husband’s long absence, to the “complicated” hero himself, a man of many disguises, many tricks, and many moods, who emerges in this translation as a more fully rounded human being than ever before.
Similar: The Iliad (Homer, Richmond Lattimore)
Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession
by Alice Bolin
In this engrossing debut collection of essays, Bolin looks at two things: America's cultural obsession with dead girls in works of literature and on TV and Los Angeles from the perspective of both a newcomer and a veteran. "Our refusal to address warning signs that are so common they have become cliché means we are not failing to prevent violence but choosing not to," writes the author. In fact, according to Bolin, Americans demonstrate a specific fascination with watching women die on screen, seeing them lose control over their lives to abusive husbands and societies, and, most crucially to her story, investigating the circumstances around their murders. To study these phenomena, the author explores shows like Twin Peaks, True Detectives, and Pretty Little Liars, among others. Interwoven with these analyses of pop culture is the story of the author's arrival in LA, broke, friendless, and with not much awareness of life under the sunny Californian sky. She drew many impressions of the city from the work of Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler, among others, who have painted a picture of a unique, bewildering city. Bolin's LA story becomes exemplary of her insights about female-obsession culture, from her wacky roommates to her boyfriends to her eventual private and public writing practices. The author's voice is eerily enthralling, systematically on point, and quite funny, though at times readers may not fully understand the motives behind their laughter. An illuminating study on the role women play in the media and in their own lives. - Kirkus Reviews
Genre: Nonfiction; Essay Collection
Similar: The Geek Feminist Revolution (Kameron Hurley)
The Tea Dragon Society
written and illustrated by Katie O'Neill
In this tale based on the imaginative webcomic, a young blacksmith finds herself welcomed into a society that cares for tea-leaf-producing minidragons.With perky black pigtails, pink horns, and brown skin, Greta is training to be a blacksmith like her mother. In their world, blacksmithing is dwindling in importance, although Greta's mom strives to preserve the art. One day, Greta happens across a darling, small green dragon. She learns the dragon belongs to a dignified-looking bespectacled llamalike creature named Hesekiel. Hesekiel, his wheelchair-using partner, Erik, and the enigmatic, hooved-and-antlered, cotton-candy-tressed Minette make up what is left of the Tea Dragon Society, a group that forms close bonds with the dragons and harvests the tea leaves the creatures grow. The relationship between dragon and owner, much like tea harvesting, is one that requires patience and an appreciation for craftsmanship; that general feeling is apparent as O'Neill's gentle offering languidly unfurls without much dramatic tension. O'Neill has composed a feel-good tale just right for middle-grade fantasy fans. In alluringly hued, manga-inspired illustrations, O'Neill's diverse characters distray an array of different skin colors, orientations, and abilities. Helping to add depth to the worldbuilding is an excerpt from a fictional tome that explains the history of tea dragons and their individual characteristics. Undeniably whimsical and extremely cute.
Genre: Graphic novel; Fantasy
Similar: The Prince and the Dressmaker (Jen Wang)
All We Ever Wanted
by Emily Giffin
The day after Nina Browning's son, Finch, is accepted to Princeton, he makes a terrible decision, and Nina's perfect life comes crashing down. Raised in the small town of Bristol, on the border of Tennessee and Virginia, Nina married well. Her husband, Kirk, and she have raised Finch among Nashville's privileged, well-manicured mansions, sending him to the prestigious Windsor Academy. Yet an alcohol-soaked party ends with Finch snapping compromising pictures of an unconscious young woman, Lyla Volpe, a sophomore on scholarship to Windsor. The photos spread like wildfire through the town, leaving Lyla devastated. Her father, Tom, a carpenter struggling to raise Lyla alone after her mother deserted them, is determined to exact justice from the school's Honor Council. Nina is dismayed to find Finch and Kirk blithely unconcerned about Lyla's feelings or Finch's crime. They are far more interested in using the Browning family wealth to convince the school and Tom to turn a blind eye—not to mention using Finch's sexual magnetism to manipulate Lyla's emotions. Distraught, Nina forges friendships with Tom and Lyla, which will expose the fault lines in her own family. The narrative shifts perspectives from chapter to chapter, giving voice to Lyla's teenage fears of social repercussions and Tom's efforts to balance his fierce protective streak with his desire to give his daughter her freedom. Yet it is Nina's chapters that ring most powerfully, as Giffin captures the complexity of Nina's emotions: Her maternal instincts to protect her son war against her feminist alliance with the wronged Lyla; her wistful memories of her beloved little boy wrestle with her outrage at his racist, sexist, and increasingly devious young adult behavior; and her carefully constructed sense of family fractures against her realization that Kirk may not be the husband, father, or man she thought he was. A compelling portrait of a woman facing the difficult limits of love.
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Similar: Testimony (Anita Shreve)
by Mick Kitson
Sal is not a spur-of-the-moment runaway. With her 10-year-old sister, Peppa, in tow, 13-year-old Sal prepared for this day, when they would start living in the Scottish wilderness armed with some supplies she secretly bought online and the knowledge she gained from YouTube videos and the SAS Survival Handbook. Pressed by the immediate concerns of finding food, shelter, and warmth, the intrepid teenager slowly reveals the circumstances that led them here. She knew she had to run to save her sister from Robert, their mother’s live-in boyfriend, because Peppa was about the age Sal had been when Robert started abusing her. And now Robert is dead. As the days turn into weeks, the girls meet another resident of the woods who once was a doctor in West Germany and vows to keep their secret safe. Startling in its simplicity and immediacy, told from Sal’s undeniably practical perspective, this remarkable debut novel is a story of courage, lost innocence, and freedom. Sal memorably unpacks the skills needed for survival, of all kinds.
Genre: Fiction; Coming-of-age stories
Similar: My Absolute Darling (Gabriel Tallent)
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century
by Jessica Bruder
What do you do when your mortgage is underwater, when a divorce or medical catastrophe depletes your savings, or when your anticipated retirement becomes financially impossible? A growing number of Americans address these crushing challenges by taking to the road, with an RV, van, or even a small car as their permanent home. Journalist Bruder joined these contemporary nomads, known as van-dwellers or "workampers." She closely follows Linda, in her mid-60s and traveling between jobs at an Amazon warehouse and a park campground. Linda and her growing "vanily" (van-dweller family) run the gamut of ages and backstories, though there is a preponderance of older people who are unable to retire and work physically strenuous, low-wage jobs to get by. Bruder touches on the deep social stigma of homelessness (van-dwellers fiercely reject that description), the surprisingly short history of the concept of retirement, the rarity of van-dwellers of color, and strategies for docking in plain sight in urban areas and finding a safe haven in rural areas. The people she meets exhibit pride, grit, resourcefulness, resilience, and, profoundly, the elation of freedom mingled with the terror of being one mechanical breakdown away from ruin. A must-read that is simultaneously hopeless and uplifting and certainly unforgettable. - Janet Ingraham Dwyer for Library Journal
Genre: Nonfiction; Society and Culture
Similar: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Matthew Desmond)
by China Miéville
Miéville returns to the world of Perdido Street Station, a fantasy London where anything is possible and where something threatens to end the world and burn the city out of existence. Billy Harrow is a dedicated scientist who never imagined being caught up in intrigue, but after he successfully preserves a giant squid, he comes to the attention of the Krakenists, an obscure cult that worships squids. When the giant squid mysteriously disappears from the museum in the middle of the day, Billy is drawn into the world of cults, magic, and Armageddon. He is arrested by the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime unit (with a young witch as their tough-talking cop) and then escapes with Dane, a warrior in the Kraken church. Miéville’s fantasy is a rich literary work, full of wordplay and imagery that will appeal to literary-fiction fans as much as to fantasy readers. - Jessica Moyer for Booklist
Genre: Literary Fiction; Urban Fantasy
Similar: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
A Sand County Almanac
by Aldo Leopold
First published in 1949 and praised in The New York Times Book Review as "a trenchant book, full of vigor and bite," A Sand County Almanac combines some of the finest nature writing since Thoreau with an outspoken and highly ethical regard for America's relationship to the land. As the forerunner to such important books as Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and Robert Finch's The Primal Place, this classic work remains as relevant today as it was nearly sixty years ago.
Genre: Essays; Nature Writing; Nonfiction
Similar: Woodswoman II: Beyond Black Bear Lake (Anne LaBastille)
The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror
by Daniel Mallory Ortberg
Unlike most modern versions of fairy tales, Ortberg’s sly, scathing renditions avoid clichés and self-referential edginess, and instead strike directly at the heart. In the sheer inhumanity of Ortberg’s Little Mermaid’s outlook in the cheerfully corrosive “The Daughter Cells” and the Kenneth Grahame–meets-Barthelme gaslighting of “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad,” Ortberg’s voice echoes the standard pragmatic pedagogy of the oral-tradition fairy tale narrator in a charming, bitingly ironic way. Throughout, gender roles blur and dissolve to reemerge in unexpected shapes. The book brings the shock of the new and the shock of recognition into play at the same time; it’s a tour de force of skill, daring, and hard-earned bravura.
Genre: Short Stories, Horror
Similar: Red Clocks (Leni Zumas)
Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America
by Gregory Pardlo
Gregory Pardlo's father was a brilliant and charismatic man - a leading labor organizer who presided over a happy suburban family of four. But when he loses his job following the famous air traffic controllers' strike of 1981, he succumbs to addiction and exhausts the family's money on more and more ostentatious whims. Air Traffic follows Gregory as he builds a life that honors his history without allowing it to define his future. Slowly, he embraces the challenges of being a poet, a son, and a father as he enters recovery for alcoholism and tends to his family. In this memoir, written in lyrical and sparkling prose, Gregory tries to free himself from the overwhelming expectations of race and class, and from the tempting yet ruinous legacy of American masculinity.
Genre: Nonfiction; Biography
Similar: Dreams From My Father (Barack Obama)
by Stephanie Danler
Newly arrived in New York City, twenty-two-year-old Tess lands a job as a "backwaiter" at a celebrated downtown Manhattan restaurant. What follows is the story of her education: in champagne and cocaine, love and lust, dive bars and fine dining rooms, as she learns to navigate the chaotic, enchanting, punishing life she has chosen. As her appetites awaken—for food and wine, but also for knowledge, experience, and belonging—Tess finds herself helplessly drawn into a darkly alluring love triangle. Now a STARZ Original Series.
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Coming-of-age stories
Similar: Delicious! (Ruth Reichl)
by Carly Usdin, illustrated by Nina Vakueva
Starry-eyed Chris has just started the dream job every outcast kid in town wants: working at Vinyl Mayhem. It's as rad as she imagined; her boss is BOSS, her co-workers spend their time arguing over music, pushing against the patriarchy, and endlessly trying to form a band. When Rosie Riot, the staff's favorite singer, mysteriously vanishes the night before her band’s show, Chris discovers her co-workers are doing more than just sorting vinyl . . . Her local indie record store is also a front for a teen girl vigilante fight club!
Genre: Graphic Novel
Similar: Paper Girls (Brian K. Vaughan)
by Lily Tuck
Tuck's unnamed narrator lives with her new husband, his two teenagers, and the presence of his first wife - known only as she. Obsessed, our narrator moves through her days presided over by the all-too-real ghost of the first marriage, fantasizing about how the first wife lives her life. Will the narrator ever equal she intellectually, or ever forget the betrayal that lies between them? And what of the secrets between her husband and she, from which the narrator is excluded? The daring and precise build up to an eerily wonderful denouement is a triumph of subtlety and surprise.
Genre: Literary Fiction; Psychological Fiction
Similar: The Woman Upstairs (Claire Messud)
Blood Water Paint
by Joy McCullough
A debut novel based on the true story of the iconic painter, Artemisia Gentileschi. Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father's paint. She chose paint. By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome's most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.
Genre: Historical Fiction; Poetry
Similar: A Great and Terrible Beauty (Libba Bray)
by Jeff Lemire, illustrated by Dustin Nguyen
Young Robot boy TIM-21 and his companions struggle to stay alive in a universe where all androids have been outlawed and bounty hunters lurk on every planet. Written by award-winning creator, Jeff Lemire, Descender is a rip-roaring and heart-felt cosmic odyssey. Lemire pits humanity against machine, and world against world, to create a sprawling epic.
Similar: Saga (Brian K. Vaughan)
by Christine Mangan
Obsession intersects two love triangles in this tale of devotion gone wrong. Twisted passion, perceived betrayal, and a fight for survival are written into the exotic, colorful, and dangerous backdrop of 1950s Tangier, Morocco. Alice Shipley and Lucy Mason are introverted college roommates who quickly become best friends. But when Alice finds romance with Tom, odd things happen, ending with a car accident that tears their lives apart. Trying to forget Lucy and their tainted past, Alice marries a man she hardly knows and moves to Tangier. Amid her misery in Tangier, Alice is shocked to find Lucy on her doorstep, an unwanted visitor from the past.
Genre: Thriller; Historical Fiction
Similar: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Patricia Highsmith)
Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father
by Alysia Abbott
After his wife dies in a car accident, bisexual writer and activist Steve Abbott moves with his two-year-old daughter to San Francisco. There they discover a city in the midst of revolution, bustling with gay men in search of liberation—few of whom are raising a child. Reconstructing their life together from a remarkable cache of her father’s journals, letters, and writings, Alysia Abbott gives us an unforgettable portrait of a tumultuous, historic time in San Francisco as well as an exquisitely moving account of a father’s legacy and a daughter’s love.
Genre: Nonfiction; Biography
Similar: Fun Home (Alison Bechdel)