7 Awe-Inspiring Reads That Transcend Genre

February 18 2021
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Genre-benders are the best kinds of books for a pick-me-up after a reading slump, or when you don’t know exactly what you’re in the mood for. They’re the types of books you go on to recommend to your friends, and the ones that float to the top in conversations with book lovers and strangers at parties. Stories you turn to when you don’t want to know what to expect, eager to be immersed and shocked and confronted. I hope these seven genre-bending reads stick with you as long as they have with me.

The Need
by Helen Phillips

THE NEED is one of those books that you replay over and over again in your head, letting all of the pieces adjust and fall, and reassemble. A paleobotanist and mother of two young children is confronted by someone in her own home—a stranger, and yet someone who knows too much—and suddenly other discoveries and behaviors, not nearly as odd on their own, come together to create an alarming web of inexplicable circumstances. You think you understand it all, and then you remember one detail that is misaligned, one that starts you off on a completely different path. It’s the type of book whose shifting perspectives and narratives bring out shifts in your own mind, reevaluating thoughts on motherhood, on desire, on grief, and on identity.

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The Need
Helen Phillips

***LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN FICTION***

“An extraordinary and dazzlingly original work from one of our most gifted and interesting writers” (Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Glass Hotel). The Need, which finds a mother of two young children grappling with the dualities of motherhood after confronting a masked intruder in her home, is “like nothing you’ve ever read before…in a good way” (People).

When Molly, home alone with her two young children, hears footsteps in the living room, she tries to convince herself it’s the sleep deprivation. She’s been hearing things these days. Startling at loud noises. Imagining the worst-case scenario. It’s what mothers do, she knows.

But then the footsteps come again, and she catches a glimpse of movement.

Suddenly Molly finds herself face-to-face with an intruder who knows far too much about her and her family. As she attempts to protect those she loves most, Molly must also acknowledge her own frailty. Molly slips down an existential rabbit hole where she must confront the dualities of motherhood: the ecstasy and the dread; the languor and the ferocity; the banality and the transcendence as the book hurtles toward a mind-bending conclusion.

In The Need, Helen Phillips has created a subversive, speculative thriller that comes to life through blazing, arresting prose and gorgeous, haunting imagery. “Brilliant” (Entertainment Weekly), “grotesque and lovely” (The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Choice), and “wildly captivating” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Need is a glorious celebration of the bizarre and beautiful nature of our everyday lives and “showcases an extraordinary writer at her electrifying best” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

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Mother Daughter Widow Wife
by Robin Wasserman

Any book about memory seems to pull me in, reminders of the precariousness of the essence we consider to be the self. This book goes one step further in contemplating mind and body: a woman becoming a subject at the Meadowlark Institute for Memory Research, with the hopes of breaking through her amnesia, is an asset to be studied and learned from. Lizzie, her doctor’s student, is extremely driven and ready to contemplate all sorts of existential questions and scientific conclusions that her presence inspires. And the woman’s own daughter, Alice, is a study in the trajectory of events and relationships and their effects on a person. The narrative jumps time, switches directions, and brings surprising conclusions and perspectives, unraveling complicated lives.

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Mother Daughter Widow Wife
Robin Wasserman

“[An] utterly enthralling piece of music, sharp and soulful and ferociously insightful all at once…This singular, spellbinding novel is…an exploration of identity itself.” —Leslie Jamison, author of The Recovering and Make It Scream, Make It Burn

“Wasserman has a unique gift for describing the turbulent intersection of love and need, hinting that the freedom we seek may only be the freedom to change.” —Liz Phair, author of Horror Stories

From the author of Girls on Fire comes a psychologically riveting novel centered around a woman with no memory, the scientists invested in studying her, and the daughter who longs to understand.

Who is Wendy Doe? The woman, found on a Peter Pan Bus to Philadelphia, has no money, no ID, and no memory of who she is, where she was going, or what she might have done. She’s assigned a name and diagnosis by the state: Dissociative fugue, a temporary amnesia that could lift at any moment—or never at all. When Dr. Benjamin Strauss invites her to submit herself for experimental observation at his Meadowlark Institute for Memory Research, she feels like she has no other choice.

To Dr. Strauss, Wendy is a female body, subject to his investigation and control. To Strauss’s ambitious student, Lizzie Epstein, she’s an object of fascination, a mirror of Lizzie’s own desires, and an invitation to wonder: once a woman is untethered from all past and present obligations of womanhood, who is she allowed to become?

To Alice, the daughter she left behind, Wendy Doe is an absence so present it threatens to tear Alice’s world apart. Through their attempts to untangle the mystery of Wendy’s identity—as well as Wendy’s own struggle to construct a new self—Wasserman has crafted a jaw-dropping, multi-voiced journey of discovery, reckoning, and reclamation.

Searing, propulsive, and compassionate, Mother Daughter Widow Wife is an ambitious exploration of selfhood from an expert and enthralling storyteller.

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The Only Good Indians
by Stephen Graham Jones

I’ve recommended this book to so many people; I’ve never read anything quite like it before. A combination of suspense, horror, and magical realism create such vivid imagery that I can still picture many scenes as if I’d only read them yesterday. Four American Indian men who thought they’d escaped a teenage deer-hunting incident on their reservation are suddenly at the mercy of someone or something out to even the score. A look at cultural traditions, humans’ relationships with animals, and of the pervasiveness of the past, THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS is a wonderfully fast-paced, eerie read.

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The Only Good Indians
Stephen Graham Jones

A USA TODAY BESTSELLER
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year

In this latest novel from Stephen Graham Jones comes a “heartbreakingly beautiful story” (Library Journal, starred review) of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition.

Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians is “a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, warm, and heartbreaking in the best way” (Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts). This novel follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in violent, vengeful ways. Labeled “one of 2020’s buzziest horror novels” (Entertainment Weekly), this is a remarkable horror story “will give you nightmares—the good kind of course” (BuzzFeed).

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Her Body and Other Parties
by Carmen Maria Machado

HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES is a mash-up of the best dimensions, defying categories, spilling into psychological, parody, absurdity, exposé, and everything in between. Perfect for book clubs and starting strange and topical conversations, this story collection plays with form and setting, relationships with self and society and family and food. There’s a writer’s deterioration against the backdrop of a mountain retreat, a controlling husband whose wife won’t unwrap a ribbon from her neck. There are discussions of violence: the perpetrators, the forms, the outcomes. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit fans especially will enjoy an exaggerated reimagining of the show, with a novella that follows an array of characters and narratives. Here, no layers are shied away from, no angle left unexplored.

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Her Body and Other Parties
Carmen Maria Machado

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Interior Chinatown
by Charles Yu

This National Book Award winner is structured like a play, following a protagonist actor with one goal: to transform from Generic Asian Man to play Kung Fu Guy. It’s tricky to describe without giving too much away, as it’s an immediately immersive experience that should be read in one sitting. With the unraveling of characters and the plot, and the steadying grip of the parameters of the world Yu has thrown his readers into, the novel quickly becomes a uniquely thought-provoking commentary on the limitations placed on the Asian American community through how the protagonist fits himself into those expectations. With witty scenes, extended metaphors, and plenty of memorable characters, it’s a book that will stay with me for its creativity and much needed messages.

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Interior Chinatown
Charles Yu

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White Ivy
by Susie Yang

This debut literary thriller is memorable both in setting and in character. Ivy is not always what she appears to be, her manners hiding secret thieving—until she’s caught and sent from her home outside of Boston to live in China. When she returns, she finds herself drawn once again to Gideon, a boy who’d once caught her attention and now gives her a chance to attend fancy get-togethers and weekends away. A study of choices and perceptions, magnetism and manipulation, WHITE IVY is a coming-of-age tale that has you rooting for Ivy with all of her flaws and glories.

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White Ivy
Susie Yang

***LONGLISTED FOR THE CENTER FOR FICTION’S FIRST NOVEL PRIZE***

From prizewinning Chinese American author Susie Yang, this dazzling coming-of-age novel about a young woman’s dark obsession with her privileged classmate offers sharp insights into the immigrant experience.

Ivy Lin is a thief and a liar—but you’d never know it by looking at her.

Raised outside of Boston, Ivy’s immigrant grandmother relies on Ivy’s mild appearance for cover as she teaches her granddaughter how to pilfer items from yard sales and second-hand shops. Thieving allows Ivy to accumulate the trappings of a suburban teen—and, most importantly, to attract the attention of Gideon Speyer, the golden boy of a wealthy political family. But when Ivy’s mother discovers her trespasses, punishment is swift and Ivy is sent to China, and her dream instantly evaporates.

Years later, Ivy has grown into a poised yet restless young woman, haunted by her conflicting feelings about her upbringing and her family. Back in Boston, when Ivy bumps into Sylvia Speyer, Gideon’s sister, a reconnection with Gideon seems not only inevitable—it feels like fate.

Slowly, Ivy sinks her claws into Gideon and the entire Speyer clan by attending fancy dinners, and weekend getaways to the cape. But just as Ivy is about to have everything she’s ever wanted, a ghost from her past resurfaces, threatening the nearly perfect life she’s worked so hard to build.

Filled with surprising twists and a nuanced exploration of class and race, White Ivy is a glimpse into the dark side of a woman who yearns for success at any cost.

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Fun Home
by Alison Bechdel

My roommate loved this book and recommended it to me. FUN HOME is a graphic novel memoir that gets its name from the family-owned funeral home—to give an indication of the book’s narrative and tone. Alison Bechdel unearths layers of family and self as she tries to learn more about her father, his death, and the revelation that her father is gay while she, herself, is coming out. Another book that can easily be read all at once, the illustrations tell multiple stories—new details emerging with every look. The divisions of chapters and themes add to the nuances of Alison’s voice and compelling observations, with reoccurring moments standing out to a greater degree each time. There is so much to think about, both for writers and readers.

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Fun Home
Alison Bechdel

In this groundbreaking graphic memoir and inspiration for the recent Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father, the director of a small town funeral home, until she came out as a lesbian in college and discovered that he was also gay.

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