As we approach the halfway mark of the year, we’re happy to report our resolve to read voraciously and widely has not wavered. We’ve overcome reading ruts, we’ve dodged spoilers, conquered library waiting lists, and withstood the aching anticipation of approaching publication dates. And here were are—ready for more awesome reads and eagerly sharing our thoughts with you! In case you missed it, here are some of the best books we’ve read so far this year.
There’s something about this book that is horrifically satisfying. It doesn’t pull its punches. It tells the story as it has to be told. Sure, people beg for the alternate ending, but that’s not how these characters were ever going to act, and that’s not how this story was ever going to end.
As a lover of history and historical fiction, I dove into Armando Lucas Correa’s THE GERMAN GIRL on a recommendation and was eager to read about Hannah, a Jewish girl who lives in Berlin in 1939. It was different from other books I’d read in this genre, and stood apart in its quest to weave together two tales of loss and family and to carefully examine what it means to be a survivor.”
Once every several years I get hit in the face and heart and soul with a book that overrides the electrical circuiting in my brain. HEAVY: AN AMERICAN MEMOIR by Kiese Laymon is that cerebrum hijacker. It is one of the most vital pieces of nonfiction I’ve encountered, full of the productive personal and political truth telling we seek out in stories. Whenever I think of the bravery, sincerity, and honesty living in these pages, my heart walls swell and cave under the pressure as my mind yells Now you! I will preface this review by saying that reading HEAVY is not easy. It is hard work dealing with hard subjects and hard truths. It is a challenging exercise in confrontation and discomfort, but rewarding in its goodness. It leaves you happy/sad, all-around tender, and wanting to hug your loved ones.
*Named a Best Book of 2018 by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, NPR, Broadly, Buzzfeed (Nonfiction), The Undefeated, Library Journal (Biography/Memoirs), The Washington Post (Nonfiction), Southern Living (Southern), Entertainment Weekly, and The New York Times Critics*
In this powerful, provocative, and universally lauded memoir—winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal and finalist for the Kirkus Prize—genre-bending essayist and novelist Kiese Laymon “provocatively meditates on his trauma growing up as a black man, and in turn crafts an essential polemic against American moral rot” (Entertainment Weekly).
In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to time in New York as a college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. Heavy is a “gorgeous, gutting…generous” (The New York Times) memoir that combines personal stories with piercing intellect to reflect both on the strife of American society and on Laymon’s experiences with abuse. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, he asks us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.
“A book for people who appreciated Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), Heavy is defiant yet vulnerable, an insightful, often comical exploration of weight, identity, art, friendship, and family through years of haunting implosions and long reverberations. “You won’t be able to put [this memoir] down…It is packed with reminders of how black dreams get skewed and deferred, yet are also pregnant with the possibility that a kind of redemption may lie in intimate grappling with black realities” (The Atlantic).
I get book recommendations from a lot of places, but until recently I’d never had a novel recommended to me. . . by a novel. I was reading PRETEND I’M DEAD by Jen Beagin, and someone is trying to convince the protagonist, Mona, to read THE ODYSSEY, but she says she’s busy reading “a Victorian homoerotic thriller called The Fingersmith. . . I can’t put it down.” I’d had FINGERSMITH by Sarah Waters on my shelf for years and never gotten around to it, but suddenly I had to start it immediately. Mona was right—I couldn’t put it down. It’s broken into my lineup of top ten favorite books of all time, which is quite a feat. The novel is like Charles Dickens meets Gillian Flynn, mixed with a romance I still can’t stop thinking about months later, honestly.
Read an LGBTQ+ Romance Novel
Orphan Sue Trinder is raised amongst “fingersmiths”—transient petty thieves. When a fingersmith known as Gentleman asks Sue to help him con a wealthy woman out of her inheritance, she never expects to pity her helpless mark, let alone come to care for her. But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals.
At first glance, THE CHOICE seems like a Holocaust memoir. Edith Eger was only 16 when the Nazis took her and her family to Auschwitz—when she saw her parents led into the gas chambers, when she had to dance in front of Mengele to prove her worth. She suffered through unspeakable tragedy, even after being liberated from her third concentration camp. She found love and had to sacrifice everything else to keep love in her life, and it was only when she landed in Georgia that she was allowed to feel any sort of safety.
As one expects from Stephen King, the horrifying parts of this story are deeply scary. But more than anything, this book is a meditation on death—how different people think about it, grapple with its inevitability, and deal with the grief when it occurs. Louis is a doctor who grew up helping in a family mortuary, so he has always seen death as a natural part of life. But even for a person like Louis, when death strikes close to home unexpectedly, prematurely, it can seem as cruel and unnatural as ever.
This is probably the most frightening novel Stephen King has ever written. When the Creeds move into a beautiful old house in rural Maine, it all seems too good to be true: physician father, beautiful wife, charming little daughter, adorable infant son and now an idyllic home. As a family, they've got it all...right down to the friendly cat. But the nearby woods hide a blood-chilling truth, more terrifying than death itself, and hideously more powerful.The Creeds are going to learn that sometimes dead is better.
My cousin, perhaps a bigger bookworm than I, his mere book pusher—once picked up an advanced reader’s copy of AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE from my shelf before I even had a chance to dig in. When he flipped to a random page, he was instantly taken with one sentence. One. “Love is the enemy of sound judgment, and occasionally this is in service of the good.” During conversations, he’d awaken from a googly-eyed trance to tell me he was still thinking about that one line. When I finally sat down and read AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE, I saw more of what he saw.
Sometimes, it’s okay to judge a book by its cover. I picked up Jen Beagin’s debut novel, PRETEND I’M DEAD, because the combination of that title and the rubber-gloved hand holding a cigarette on the jacket drew me in. After reading the back cover and learning that the book involved a love interest named Mr. Disgusting, I knew I had to read it. Judging by those things, I figured I was in for a truly unique, offbeat, and probably sharply funny story. It is all of those things and so much more.