In 2023, I’ve tried to read new releases across a variety of genres, indulging in my long-held favorite genres and exploring new territories. This experience has been pleasantly surprising—I’ve found a deep connection with certain stories I thought wouldn’t resonate with me, and I’ve developed a fresh eye when reading books that I tend to pull off shelves. Like most things in life, I think there’s value in cultivating a diverse palette. Whether you want to cultivate a diverse palette yourself, or you simply want to find a comforting story that calls out your name, I’m confident there is a book in this article that will delight you.
At the start of this weird, brilliant, heartbreaking story, the unnamed protagonist (and narrator) is struggling to cope with the illnesses of both her father (in the ICU after a car accident) and her husband (chronically ill). She begins a journey into the desert in hopes that it will help her cope with her despair over the disintegrating connection with her father and husband, while also confronting the depths of her depression and inspiring her as she finishes writing her third novel. She goes to the desert alone, but her journey isn’t a solitary one. The narrator escapes into the body of a saguaro cactus, wherein she meets the child version of her father. I’m drawn to stories centered on women who are struggling with grief, chemical imbalance, or anything that weighs them down because I’ve been a version of them at some point in my life. I’ve read books featuring depressed women with little character or nuance, so I can say that it is pure magic when a writer construes a woman who is relatable, hilarious, sad, broken, and hopeful. That is why I treasure DEATH VALLEY. From scenes within the cool, calm body of a cactus, to breakfast at Best Westerns, to video chats with her dad in the hospital, this novel is totally captivating and endearing. Magical realism, depressed women finding their way, and gorgeous, poetic prose? Yes, please!
The most profound book yet from the visionary author of Milk Fed and The Pisces, a darkly funny novel about grief that becomes a desert survival story.
In Melissa Broder’s astounding new novel, a woman arrives alone at a Best Western seeking respite from an emptiness that plagues her. She has fled to the California high desert to escape a cloud of sorrow—for both her father in the ICU and a husband whose illness is worsening. What the motel provides, however, is not peace but a path, thanks to a receptionist who recommends a nearby hike.
Out on the sun-scorched trail, the woman encounters a towering cactus whose size and shape mean it should not exist in California. Yet the cactus is there, with a gash through its side that beckons like a familiar door. So she enters it. What awaits her inside this mystical succulent sets her on a journey at once desolate and rich, hilarious and poignant.
This is Melissa Broder at her most imaginative, most universal, and finest. This is Death Valley.
Adrienne Brodeur’s LITTLE MONSTERS is an absolutely irresistible read. I’m not always a speedy reader, but I couldn’t stop reading this one once I’d picked it up. In lush, luxurious Cape Cod, the Gardners—a picture-perfect family full of successful artists and scientists, feminists and chauvinists, socialites, and politicians—are struggling to stay together. (It doesn’t help that it’s 2016 and Trump is running for president.) Adam, his children Ken and Abby, and neighbor Steph all have secrets connecting them—and threatening to tear them apart. Brodeur somehow gives this book everything a good novel needs—a perfect blend of drama, intrigue, character development, and lush prose. I wish I could read it for the first time again, reveling in the excitement of every new plot development!
From the author of the bestselling memoir Wild Games comes a riveting novel about Cape Cod, complicated families, and long-buried secrets—for fans of the New York Times bestsellers The Paper Palace and Ask Again, Yes.
Ken and Abby Gardner lost their mother when they were small and they have been haunted by her absence ever since. Their father, Adam, a brilliant oceanographer, raised them mostly on his own in his remote home on Cape Cod, where the attachment between Ken and Abby deepened into something complicated—and as adults their relationship is strained. Now, years later, the siblings’ lives are still deeply entwined. Ken is a successful businessman with political ambitions and a picture-perfect family and Abby is a talented visual artist who depends on her brother’s goodwill, in part because he owns the studio where she lives and works.
As the novel opens, Adam is approaching his seventieth birthday, staring down his mortality and fading relevance. He has always managed his bipolar disorder with medication, but he’s determined to make one last scientific breakthrough and so he has secretly stopped taking his pills, which he knows will infuriate his children. Meanwhile, Abby and Ken are both harboring secrets of their own, and there is a new person on the periphery of the family—Steph, who doesn’t make her connection known. As Adam grows more attuned to the frequencies of the deep sea and less so to the people around him, Ken and Abby each plan the elaborate gifts they will present to their father on his birthday, jostling for primacy in this small family unit.
Set in the fraught summer of 2016, and drawing on the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, Little Monsters is an absorbing, sharply observed family story by a writer who knows Cape Cod inside and out—its Edenic lushness and its snakes.
Nothing about Cassie’s life seems out-of-this-world—she’s a thirty-something overworked employee at a tech startup in Silicon Valley— until you realize that she has a literal black hole following her around everywhere, all the time. RIPE is another novel that features a dynamic depressed woman, this one trying to survive an existence that is sucking the life out of her (literally and metaphorically). As Cassie moves, eats, sleeps, works, and repeats, the black hole shrinks and grows and makes its presence known. Sarah Rose Etter’s writing is musical and the form of the book is inventive (some chapters are presented in the form of dictionary definitions), making the story all the more engaging. RIPE contains reminders of the dangers of a workaholic society, sometimes hitting close to home. While reading this, I was completely absorbed by Cassie’s story—and it stuck with me long after I read the last sentence.
From an award-winning writer whose work Roxane Gay calls “utterly unique and remarkable” comes a surreal novel about a woman in Silicon Valley who must decide how much she’s willing to give up for success—for fans of My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Her Body and Other Parties.
A year into her dream job at a cutthroat Silicon Valley start-up, Cassie finds herself trapped in a corporate nightmare. Between the long hours, toxic bosses, and unethical projects, she also struggles to reconcile the glittering promise of a city where obscene wealth lives alongside abject poverty and suffering. Ivy League grads complain about the snack selection from a conference room with a view of houseless people bathing in the bay. Start-up burnouts leap into the paths of commuter trains, and men literally set themselves on fire in the streets.
Though isolated, Cassie is never alone. From her earliest memory, a miniature black hole has been her constant companion. It feeds on her depression and anxiety, growing or shrinking in relation to her distress. The black hole watches, but it also waits. Its relentless pull draws Cassie ever closer as the world around her unravels.
When her CEO’s demands cross an illegal threshold and she ends up unexpectedly pregnant, Cassie must decide whether the tempting fruits of Silicon Valley are really worth it. Sharp but vulnerable, funny yet unsettling, Ripe portrays one millennial woman’s journey through our late-capitalist hellscape and offers a brilliantly incisive look at the absurdities of modern life.
This book is a collection of essays, but it’s really a long, winding hallway with portals into the myriad worlds of poetry, motherhood, fairy tale, and enchantment. I was first introduced to Sabrina Orah Mark’s writing during a poetry workshop in college. I quickly came to realize that I would consciously carry her words with me throughout the rest of my life. HAPPILY is a lush, musical constellation of reflections on motherhood in the 21st century, interspersed with rewritten fairy tales from around the world. (Mark is the Jewish mother of two Black boys.) The stories Mark tells help to ground her on earth as a mother, daughter, and wife. As a reader, I came away from HAPPILY feeling both grounded and uplifted. Readers can approach this book as one long text, or they can read piece by piece as they choose—either way, Mark’s touch of magic is undeniable.
You’ve probably surmised, by this point, that I like intensity in books—vulnerability, catharsis, darkness (that makes the light more visible). But I promise you, I love a fun ride of a story as much as anyone else! Bring on the witty dialogue and romance, sparks and all. EVERYTHING IS FINE is sort of brilliant in that it dips into both of these realms. The subject material is critical, featuring dialogues with political and societal structures of today, and the characters and plot are absolutely delicious. Jess, the protagonist, is a bright, sassy young woman starting her career at Goldman Sachs who is determined to establish a glittering reputation for herself as a young Black woman working in finance. Rabess’s storytelling is energetic; it’s impossible not to feel all the feelings as Jess navigates the corporate world and a budding, complicated romance with Josh, a privileged young white colleague. It’s hard to ride the line between raising important conversations about race and rank while creating characters and scenarios that illicit giggles, swoons, and smiles. Needless to say, Cecilia Rabess knocked it out of the park.
“Extraordinarily brave...plain funny as hell, too.” —Zakiya Dalila Harris, New York Times bestselling author of The Other Black Girl
“A subtle, ironic, wise, state-of-the-nation novel, sharp enough to draw blood, hidden inside a moving, intimate, sincere and very real love story--or vice versa.” —Nick Hornby
When Jess lands a job as an analyst at Goldman Sachs, she’s less than thrilled to learn she’ll be on the same team as Josh, her preppy, white, conservative sparring partner from college. Josh loves playing the devil’s advocate and is just…the worst.
But when Jess finds herself the sole Black woman on the floor, overlooked and underestimated, it’s Josh who shows up for her in surprising—if imperfect—ways. Before long, an unlikely friendship—one tinged with undeniable chemistry—forms between the two. A friendship that gradually, and then suddenly, turns into an electrifying romance that shocks them both.
Despite their differences, the force of their attraction propels the relationship forwards, and Jess begins to question whether it’s more important to be happy than right. But then it’s 2016, and the cultural and political landscape shifts underneath them. And Jess, who is just beginning to discover who she is and who she has the right to be, is forced to ask herself what she’s willing to compromise for love and whether, in fact, everything’s fine.
A stunning debut that introduces Cecilia Rabess as a blazing new talent, Everything’s Fine is a painfully funny, poignant, heartfelt novel that doesn’t just ask will they, but…should they?
“Ew, he’s a creep.” I’m sure you’ve said it, or at least thought it at one point or another. I certainly have, when considering the actions and attitudes of certain people prone to cat-calling and lurking on dark street corners, even certain political figures and people in positions of power. I wasn’t wrong—those people could be creeps—but the word envelops much more than I’d realized. In brazen, whip-smart, even humorous prose, Myriam Gurba’s CREEP dissects and analyzes the dark characters (serial killers, xenophobes, homophobes, even literary figures) that lurk in the shadows—and sometimes in the broad daylight—of our lives. What are your thoughts on Joan Didion, the Beatniks, and Latinx-Americans, and are you prepared to have those thoughts challenged? If so, pick up this book. If not, gather some pluck and, yes, pick up this book. I have a great deal of admiration for Gurba’s blend of ferocity and grace, and I suspect this book will be considered essential twenty-first–century American reading for years to come.
A ruthless and razor-sharp essay collection that tackles the pervasive, creeping oppression and toxicity that has wormed its way into society—in our books, schools, and homes, as well as the systems that perpetuate them—from the acclaimed author of Mean, and one of our fiercest, foremost explorers of intersectional Latinx identity.
A creep can be a singular figure, a villain who makes things go bump in the night. Yet creep is also what the fog does—it lurks into place to do its dirty work, muffling screams, obscuring the truth, and providing cover for those prowling within it.
Creep is Myriam Gurba’s informal sociology of creeps, a deep dive into the dark recesses of the toxic traditions that plague the United States and create the abusers who haunt our books, schools, and homes. Through cultural criticism disguised as personal essay, Gurba studies the ways in which oppression is collectively enacted, sustaining ecosystems that unfairly distribute suffering and premature death to our most vulnerable. Yet identifying individual creeps, creepy social groups, and creepy cultures is only half of this book’s project—the other half is examining how we as individuals, communities, and institutions can challenge creeps and rid ourselves of the fog that seeks to blind us.
With her ruthless mind, wry humor, and adventurous style, Gurba implicates everyone from Joan Didion to her former abuser, everything from Mexican stereotypes to the carceral state. Braiding her own history and identity throughout, she argues for a new way of conceptualizing oppression, and she does it with her signature blend of bravado and humility.
Safiya Sinclair’s childhood was a tense one—she grew up in Jamaica as part of a strict Rastafarian family run by her dominant and overbearing father. This tension lends itself to poetry, to oceanic ebbs and flows of tone and emotion, which is fitting for Sinclair, an award-winning poet. Before she obtained her MFA in poetry, Sinclair had to escape from under the oppressive thumb of her father’s religion and abuse. HOW TO SAY BABYLON documents this escape and shares pieces of colonial family history that ultimately led her father to the god-like position he obtained. Her father’s religion is a rebellion against the colonial oppression of Black Jamaicans, and Sinclair’s memoir is a rebellion against a misogynistic worldview and a reminder of the way that courage and words can cultivate freedom and give voice to the silenced.
With echoes of Educated and Born a Crime, How to Say Babylon is the stunning story of the author’s struggle to break free of her rigid Rastafarian upbringing, ruled by her father’s strict patriarchal views and repressive control of her childhood, to find her own voice as a woman and poet.
Throughout her childhood, Safiya Sinclair’s father, a volatile reggae musician and militant adherent to a strict sect of Rastafari, became obsessed with her purity, in particular, with the threat of what Rastas call Babylon, the immoral and corrupting influences of the Western world outside their home. He worried that womanhood would make Safiya and her sisters morally weak and impure, and believed a woman’s highest virtue was her obedience.
In an effort to keep Babylon outside the gate, he forbade almost everything. In place of pants, the women in her family were made to wear long skirts and dresses to cover their arms and legs, head wraps to cover their hair, no make-up, no jewelry, no opinions, no friends. Safiya’s mother, while loyal to her father, nonetheless gave Safiya and her siblings the gift of books, including poetry, to which Safiya latched on for dear life. And as Safiya watched her mother struggle voicelessly for years under housework and the rigidity of her father’s beliefs, she increasingly used her education as a sharp tool with which to find her voice and break free. Inevitably, with her rebellion comes clashes with her father, whose rage and paranoia explodes in increasing violence. As Safiya’s voice grows, lyrically and poetically, a collision course is set between them.
How to Say Babylon is Sinclair’s reckoning with the culture that initially nourished but ultimately sought to silence her; it is her reckoning with patriarchy and tradition, and the legacy of colonialism in Jamaica. Rich in lyricism and language only a poet could evoke, How to Say Babylon is both a universal story of a woman finding her own power and a unique glimpse into a rarefied world we may know how to name, Rastafari, but one we know little about.
A family in South India carries a relentless curse—one person in every generation will drown. Spanning several years, THE COVENANT OF WATER details the lives of this family—all characters that garner empathy and fascination, their relationship with the water, and the ways in which they lead full lives despite the threat of a dark, damp fate. This epic novel contains something for everyone—romance, religion, nature, and science, all peppered with dynamic dialogue and gorgeous imagery. I often hesitate to pick up books that are longer than 400 pages, concerned that I won’t have the discipline or interest to read cover to cover, but I ripped right through this one without a single regret.
PULLING THE CHARIOT OF THE SUN is a moving, heartbreaking exploration of the author’s childhood—in which he was kidnapped from his Black father by his white maternal grandparents. While this is a deeply personal memoir, McCrae’s quest to understand his own past mirrors our nation’s struggle to acknowledge and heal from a convoluted history marked by racial inequality and violence. Between recollections, McCrae masterfully crafts rhetorical questions and long, wandering sentences to imitate the unreliability of memory and history. This book is compelling, rife with metaphor, compassion, and an honest desire to know the truth.
An unforgettable memoir by an award-winning poet about being kidnapped from his Black father and raised by his white supremacist grandparents.
When Shane McCrae was three years old, his grandparents kidnapped him and took him to suburban Texas. His mom was white and his dad was Black, and to hide his Blackness from him, his maternal grandparents stole him from his father. In the years that followed, they manipulated and controlled him, refusing to acknowledge his heritage—all the while believing they were doing what was best for him.
For their own safety and to ensure the kidnapping remained a success, Shane’s grandparents had to make sure that he never knew the full story, so he was raised to participate in his own disappearance. But despite elaborate fabrications and unreliable memories, Shane begins to reconstruct his own story and to forge his own identity. Gradually, the truth unveils itself, and with the truth, comes a path to reuniting with his father and finding his own place in the world.
A revelatory account of a singularly American childhood that hauntingly echoes the larger story of race in our country, Pulling the Chariot of the Sun is written with the virtuosity and heart of one of the finest poets writing today. And it is also a powerful reflection on what is broken in America—but also what might heal and make it whole again.
Anybody who read Patricia Engel’s novel INFINITE COUNTRY, a Reese’s Book Club pick, knows that Engel’s writing is not to be missed. This time, Engel takes on the short story. THE FARAWAY WORLD is a compilation of ten stories that follow Latinx characters in the United States, Cuba, and Colombia, each in a different difficult situation. One character robs bones from a grave, another requests a mail-order bride, and still another finds herself helping to execute a drug detail. In all these stories, the power of love and the vibrancy of life found across a variety of Latinx communities absolutely shimmer. Reading these stories may just spark a bit of empathy, love, and hope within you too.
From Patricia Engel, whose novel Infinite Country was a New York Times bestseller and a Reese’s Book Club pick, comes an exquisite collection of ten haunting, award-winning short stories set across the Americas and linked by themes of migration, sacrifice, and moral compromise.
Two Colombian expats meet as strangers on the rainy streets of New York City, both burdened with traumatic pasts. In Cuba, a woman discovers her deceased brother’s bones have been stolen, and the love of her life returns from Ecuador for a one-night visit. A cash-strapped couple hustles in Miami, to life-altering ends.
The Faraway World is a collection of arresting stories from the New York Times bestselling author of Infinite Country, Patricia Engel, “a gifted storyteller whose writing shines even in the darkest corners” (The Washington Post). Intimate and panoramic, these stories bring to life the liminality of regret, the vibrancy of community, and the epic deeds and quiet moments of love.
Photo credit: iStock / Serbogachuk