8 Terrific Under-the-Radar Novels You May Have Missed Last Year

January 10 2023
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You know that feeling you get when you’ve read something so compelling that you want everyone else to be talking about it and appreciating it too? We all know there’s a plethora of options and not always enough reading time, and it’s no one’s fault when certain titles are inadvertently missed. For some, a new year may be a chance for a To Be Read list reset, or a chance to reflect on the most recent must-reads to arrive on the scene. Start your 2023 reading game off strong with this set of book picks that rounds up some of the great reads 2022 had to offer.

No Land to Light On
by Yara Zgheib

Take a tense breath for the severity of the situation, the gut-wrenching exchanges of confusion and fear, and then exhale for the beautiful language, the strength of love between a young Syrian couple about to become parents. Hadi and Sama are separated by Hadi’s unexplained detention at the Boston airport; his refugee papers were in order, permission to travel and return to America granted, and yet he’s unable to leave these dreary walls. In a sea of protestors, Sama goes into labor too early, too far away from Hadi. Told from multiple POVs, their story—and those of others trapped with them—make it impossible not to think deeply about their experiences, even beyond the last page. 

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No Land to Light On
Yara Zgheib

From the author of The Girls at 17 Swann Street comes a “masterful story of tragedy and redemption” (Hala Alyan, author of Salt Houses) “written in soul-searing prose” (BookPage, starred review) about a young Syrian couple in the throes of new love on the cusp of their bright future when a travel ban rips them apart on the eve of their son’s premature birth.

Sama and Hadi are a young Syrian couple in love, dreaming of their future in the country that brought them together. Sama came to Boston years before on a prestigious Harvard scholarship; Hadi landed there as a sponsored refugee from a bloody civil war. Now, they are giddily awaiting the birth of their son, a boy whose native language will be freedom and belonging.

When Sama is five months pregnant, Hadi’s father dies suddenly, and Hadi decides to fly back to Jordan for the funeral. He leaves America, promising his wife he’ll be gone only for a few days. On the date of his return, Sama waits for him at the arrivals gate, but he doesn’t appear. As the minutes and then hours pass, she becomes increasingly alarmed, unaware that Hadi has been stopped by US Customs and Border Protection, detained for questioning, and deported.

Achingly intimate yet poignantly universal, No Land to Light On is “a tense, moving novel about the meaning of home, the risks of exile, the power of nations, and the power of love” (Kirkus Reviews).

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Complicit
by Winnie M Li

I’ll admit that a book set in Brooklyn, with a prologue taking place on a subway car, is often enough to sell me. Especially when Sarah checks her email, reads a troublesome subject line, and is afraid enough not to read the rest. It appears her past is very different from her present, where she spends her time teaching Screenwriting 101 to college students despite her passion for a career in the film industry itself. Suddenly she’s agreeing to speak to a young New York Times journalist about a film producer and her time with him on set, experiences she’s deliberately put aside for a decade. I appreciated reading about Sarah’s journey into the industry—from her years working in her family’s Chinese restaurant in Flushing to her time sourcing screenings for college students and scouring bulletin boards for leads on jobs as a producer—just as much as her present-day interactions, retelling a story that may have limited time to come out.

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Complicit
Winnie M Li

After a long-buried, harrowing incident, a woman whose promising film career was derailed has an opportunity for revenge in this visceral and timely thriller about power, privilege, and justice.

A Hollywood has-been, Sarah Lai’s dreams of success behind the camera have been put to the wayside. Now a lecturer at an obscure college, this former producer wants nothing more than to forget those youthful ambitions and push aside any feelings of regret…or guilt.

But when a journalist reaches out to her to discuss her own experience working with the celebrated film producer Hugo North, Sarah can no longer keep silent. This is her last chance to tell her side of the story and maybe even exact belated vengeance.

As Sarah recounts the industry’s dark and sordid secrets, however, she begins to realize that she has a few sins of her own to confess. Now she must confront her choices and ask herself, just who was complicit?

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The Frederick Sisters Are Living the Dream
by Jeannie Zusy

There’s something about a sibling story that always gets to me, especially between sisters. Ginny, Maggie, and Betsy live vastly different lives, but when one sister is in crisis, there’s no question that someone must rise to the occasion. That someone is Maggie, recently separated from her husband with two sons to get through college, facing a myriad of loneliness and uncertainty on her plate. Yet here she is driving Ginny across state lines to a new rehab until she’s recovered enough to go back to the home she loves. Reflecting on stories of the sisters when they were growing up and intersecting with their relationships in the present day, THE FREDERICK SISTERS ARE LIVING THE DREAM is a lively, funny read with strong voice and character. 

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The Frederick Sisters Are Living the Dream
Jeannie Zusy

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine meets Early Morning Riser with a dash of Where’d You Go, Bernadette in this very funny, occasionally romantic, and surprisingly moving novel about how one woman’s life is turned upside down when she becomes caregiver to her sister with special needs.

Every family has its fault lines, and when Maggie gets a call from the ER in Maryland where her older sister lives, the cracks start to appear. Ginny, her sugar-loving and diabetic older sister with intellectual disabilities, has overdosed on strawberry Jell-O.

Maggie knows Ginny really can’t live on her own, so she brings her sister and her occasionally vicious dog to live near her in upstate New York. Their other sister, Betsy, is against the idea but as a professional surfer, she is conveniently thousands of miles away.

Thus, Maggie’s life as a caretaker begins. It will take all of her dark humor and patience, already spread thin after a separation, raising two boys, freelancing, and starting a dating life, to deal with Ginny’s diapers, sugar addiction, porn habit, and refusal to cooperate. Add two devoted but feuding immigrant aides and a soon-to-be ex-husband who just won’t go away, and you’ve got a story that will leave you laughing through your tears as you wonder who is actually taking care of whom.

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A Ballad of Love and Glory
by Reyna Grande

If you listen to the audiobook, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to hear that the poem in the epigraph is set to music; there’s also a helpful author’s note on the Mexican-American War and the level of research that went into the book and Grande’s characters. Part l begins in the Gulf of Mexico in 1846; three steam ships arrive, confirming rumors of war. Ximena and her grandmother can treat wounded soldiers, but it seems nowhere is safe for them and their fellow villagers. Someone from the Army of Occupation of the USA tries to talk to them, but they flee. It’s easy to see why Grande shines in bringing historical stories to life, her writing tapping into emotions and complex political situations that make the stakes and implications feel just as real as if they were happening in front of you today. 

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A Ballad of Love and Glory
Reyna Grande

A Long Petal of the Sea meets Cold Mountain in this “epic and exquisitely wrought” (Patricia Engel, New York Times bestselling author) saga following a Mexican army nurse and an Irish soldier who must fight, at first for their survival and then for their love, amidst the atrocity of the Mexican-American War—from the author of The Distance Between Us.

A forgotten war. An unforgettable romance.

The year is 1846. After the controversial annexation of Texas, the US Army marches south to provoke war with México over the disputed Río Grande boundary.

Ximena Salomé is a gifted Mexican healer who dreams of building a family with the man she loves on the coveted land she calls home. But when Texas Rangers storm her ranch and shoot her husband dead, her dreams are burned to ashes. Vowing to honor her husband’s memory and defend her country, Ximena uses her healing skills as a nurse on the frontlines of the ravaging war.

Meanwhile, John Riley, an Irish immigrant in the Yankee army desperate to help his family escape the famine devastating his homeland, is sickened by the unjust war and the unspeakable atrocities against his countrymen by nativist officers. In a bold act of defiance, he swims across the Río Grande and joins the Mexican Army—a desertion punishable by execution. He forms the St. Patrick’s Battalion, a band of Irish soldiers willing to fight to the death for México’s freedom.

When Ximena and John meet, a dangerous attraction blooms between them. As the war intensifies, so does their passion. Swept up by forces with the power to change history, they fight not only for the fate of a nation but for their future together.

“A grand and soulful novel by a storyteller who has hit her full stride” (Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies), A Ballad of Love and Glory effortlessly illuminates a largely forgotten moment in history that impacts the US–México border to this day.

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The Evening Hero
by Marie Myung-Ok Lee

The book’s title refers to our protagonist’s name: Yungman, “yung” meaning “hero” in Korean and “man” meaning “evening.” To his patients, he’s Dr. Kwak, an obstetrician from Korea finding his footing in Horse’s Breath, Minnesota (in some of his toughest memories, he’s called “Dr. Quack”). His focus now is on his work, and he’s talented; yet his hospital has had budget cuts, layoffs, and a new supervisor shuttled in to supposedly assist with debts. Then there’s an unexpected team meeting, a terrible announcement, and a letter he’s been carrying around in his pocket with no intention of granting a reply. It’s impossible not to become quickly invested in Yungman and all those around him, willing them to succeed. 

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The Evening Hero
Marie Myung-Ok Lee

A sweeping, lyrical novel following a Korean immigrant pursuing the American dream who must confront the secrets of the past or risk watching the world he’s worked so hard to build come crumbling down.

Dr. Yungman Kwak is in the twilight of his life. Every day for the last fifty years, he has brushed his teeth, slipped on his shoes, and headed to Horse Breath’s General Hospital, where, as an obstetrician, he treats the women and babies of the small rural Minnesota town he chose to call home.

This was the life he longed for. The so-called American dream. He immigrated from Korea after the Korean War, forced to leave his family, ancestors, village, and all that he knew behind. But his life is built on a lie. And one day, a letter arrives that threatens to expose it.

Yungman’s life is thrown into chaos—the hospital abruptly closes, his wife refuses to spend time with him, and his son is busy investing in a struggling health start-up. Yungman faces a choice—he must choose to hide his secret from his family and friends or confess and potentially lose all he’s built. He begins to question the very assumptions on which his life is built—the so-called American dream, with the abject failure of its healthcare system, patient and neighbors who perpetuate racism, a town flawed with infrastructure, and a history that doesn’t see him in it.

Toggling between the past and the present, Korea and America, Evening Hero is a sweeping, moving, darkly comic novel about a man looking back at his life and asking big questions about what is lost and what is gained when immigrants leave home for new shores.

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The Fortunes of Jaded Women
by Carolyn Huynh

This novel revolving around predictions of a pregnancy, a marriage, and a funeral for an estranged family is made all the more exciting by chapters of alternating perspectives. The first chapter introduces an ex–mother-in-law in Vietnam who curses her ex–daughter-in-law’s entire family line; the second, a proud mother of three daughters who is no longer speaking to her own mother and sisters but is encouraged by a psychic in Hawaii to make peace; the third, the oldest of the three daughters, whose outward success may not be the equivalent of a full life. The book continues to weave in other family members’ stories in this emotional roller coaster of relationships and choices, loss and reunion. Given the characters’ complexity and the gripping early scenes, it was no surprise to read in a Q&A with the author that the psychic in the novel, Auntie Hua, was based on a person Huynh met in real life.

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The Fortunes of Jaded Women
Carolyn Huynh

For fans of Jonathan Tropper, KJ Dell’Antonia, and Kevin Kwan, this “sharp, smart, and gloriously extra” (Nancy Jooyoun Kim, The Last Story of Mina Lee) debut follows a family of estranged Vietnamese women—cursed to never know love or happiness—as they reunite when a psychic makes a startling prediction.

Everyone in Orange County’s Little Saigon knew that the Duong sisters were cursed.

It started with their ancestor, Oanh, who dared to leave her marriage for true love—so a fearsome Vietnamese witch cursed Oanh and her descendants so that they would never find love or happiness, and the Duong women would give birth to daughters, never sons.​

Oanh’s current descendant Mai Nguyen knows this curse well. She’s divorced, and after an explosive disagreement a decade ago, she’s estranged from her younger sisters, Minh Pham (the middle and the mediator) and Khuyen Lam (the youngest who swears she just runs humble coffee shops and nail salons, not Little Saigon’s underground). Though Mai’s three adult daughters, Priscilla, Thuy, and Thao, are successful in their careers (one of them is John Cho’s dermatologist!), the same can’t be said for their love lives. Mai is convinced they might drive her to an early grave.

Desperate for guidance, she consults Auntie Hua, her trusted psychic in Hawaii, who delivers an unexpected prediction: this year, her family will witness a marriage, a funeral, and the birth of a son. This prophecy will reunite estranged mothers, daughters, aunts, and cousins—for better or for worse.

A multi-narrative novel brimming with levity and candor, The Fortunes of Jaded Women is about mourning, meddling, celebrating, and healing together as a family. It shows how Vietnamese women emerge victorious, even if the world is against them.

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The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On
by Franny Choi

I don’t always find myself reading as many poetry collections as I’d like, and I’m thrilled I picked this one up after a recommendation from a friend. The language is lyrical and beautiful, with stories straddling apocalyptic and generational, personal and historical. The topics are powerful, conversational, timely, introspective, communal, and surprising. Time is fluid, predictions and examinations of a future yet to come are already here, with the past encroaching on the present. A favorite poem that hit hard was about Korean War refugees using bomb containers as cooking fuel. This was my first time reading a Choi collection, and it definitely will not be my last.

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The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On
Franny Choi

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The Once and Future Witches
by Alix E. Harrow

Outside my typical genre, this last book may have been published towards the end of 2021 but sadly didn’t come onto my radar until 2022. It was such an engaging and immersive read that I felt inclined to include it here. Even if you aren’t usually drawn to books about witches, read this. Especially if you like strong female characters, women’s history, and historical fiction, read this. After years apart, three sisters arrive in the same town square just in time to witness a strange scene in the sky. It’s 1893, and witches have long been persecuted and suppressed, denied an existence. Yet now, the sisters realize, is the time to reclaim power for women by merging the women’s movement with the witches’ movement, devising covert ways to recruit supporters and suffragists while rebuilding their own relationships with one another.

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The Once and Future Witches
Alix E. Harrow

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Photo credit: iStock / Avosb

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