When a bestselling author pops up one too many times it can be a dangerous thing for us readers. We must let the hype compel us forward without getting too excited, lest we risk the dreaded misfortune of an overhyped reading experience. Fortunately, we’re reporting on the books and authors with hype that never went away even after reading. The books we’re recommending here run the gamut of reading experiences, from a reader who experienced Jesmyn Ward for the first time in her newest literary historical novel to a first-time Stephen King reader but are all tied together in that they vastly exceeded our already high expectations.
Heather’s Pick: It’s one thing to hear how beautiful an author’s writing is, and another to live in their poetic words yourself. My first time reading Jesmyn Ward is a perfect example; I knew before picking up LET US DESCEND that she’d won the National Book Award twice, among other prestigious awards, yet I still wasn’t fully prepared for the power of this novel. On one level, LET US DESCEND is the heartbreaking story of an enslaved woman named Annis who’s torn away from her mother and forced to march from one enslaver’s plantation to another. But on another, Ward chronicles the profound journey of a woman whose mother named her Arese (Annis is a nickname) and imparted to her daughter the strength and knowledge of their ancestors to help her survive . . . and hopefully forge a better life. This is a mother-daughter story brimming with love, grief, and hope in the face of one of the ugliest periods of American history, the years before the Civil War. I know I won’t be the only one deeply affected by lines like: “I always come for you. Beyond this time, into the next. Always.”
From Jesmyn Ward—the two-time National Book Award winner, youngest winner of the Library of Congress Prize for Fiction, and MacArthur Fellow—comes a haunting masterpiece, sure to be an instant classic, about an enslaved girl in the years before the Civil War.
“‘Let us descend,’ the poet now began, ‘and enter this blind world.’” —Inferno, Dante Alighieri
Let Us Descend is a reimagining of American slavery, as beautifully rendered as it is heart-wrenching. Searching, harrowing, replete with transcendent love, the novel is a journey from the rice fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans and into the fearsome heart of a Louisiana sugar plantation.
Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, is the reader’s guide through this hellscape. As she struggles through the miles-long march, Annis turns inward, seeking comfort from memories of her mother and stories of her African warrior grandmother. Throughout, she opens herself to a world beyond this world, one teeming with spirits: of earth and water, of myth and history; spirits who nurture and give, and those who manipulate and take. While Ward leads readers through the descent, this, her fourth novel, is ultimately a story of rebirth and reclamation.
From one of the most singularly brilliant and beloved writers of her generation, this miracle of a novel inscribes Black American grief and joy into the very land—the rich but unforgiving forests, swamps, and rivers of the American South. Let Us Descend is Jesmyn Ward’s most magnificent novel yet, a masterwork for the ages.
Laura says: As someone who loves horror, thriller, and suspense, it’s a surprise I haven’t been obsessing over all things Stephen King for years. THE INSTITUTE had been recommended to me by so many people that I decided it was time to check it out, and I’m so happy I did. THE INSTITUTE begins with Tim Jamieson looking for a change that he finds in a small town in South Carolina. As Tim begins to settle into his new life, the story suddenly shifts to twelve-year-old Luke Ellis, who is drugged and abducted from his home. When he wakes up, he’s in one of the many windowless rooms inside The Institute among a group of children from ages ten to sixteen with special talents, like telekinesis and telepathy. Like the others, he will be ruthlessly tested based on his skills. In such a horrible place full of brutal experiments and no end in sight, Luke decides it’s time to plan an escape—and Tim and Luke finally cross paths in a surprising and unusual way. With a talent for making ordinary, everyday life extraordinary—and terrifying—Stephen King had me glued to the page until the very end.
From #1 New York Times bestselling author Stephen King whose “storytelling transcends genre” (Newsday) comes “another winner: creepy and touching and horrifyingly believable” (The Boston Globe) about a group of kids confronting evil.
In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”
In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.
As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is “first-rate entertainment that has something important to say. We all need to listen” (The Washington Post).
Sharon’s Pick: BIG SWISS immediately intrigued me when I heard the book’s pitch during sales conference, and from there the hype continued to build. What encouraged me to finally pick up the book and give Jen Beagin’s writing a shot was seeing a number of book influencers I trust giving glowing reviews and continuously reviewing the book as darkly funny and unputdownable. Luckily for me, the book influencers were not lying; I found myself laughing out loud and gasping several times at Beagin’s quips and use of dark humor throughout the book.
BIG SWISS follows Greta, a recently divorced forty-five-year-old woman who moves to Hudson, New York, and becomes the transcriptionist for the town’s sex therapist. As Greta works from home in a bee-infested Dutch farmhouse, she develops feelings for one of the therapist’s clients, a married woman whom she affectionately calls Big Swiss. When Greta recognizes Big Swiss’s voice in town one day, the two are quickly drawn together, and Greta becomes determined to hold onto the relationship no matter what the cost.
A brilliantly original and funny novel about a sex therapist’s transcriptionist who falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions. When they accidentally meet in real life, an explosive affair ensues.
Greta lives with her friend Sabine in an ancient Dutch farmhouse in Hudson, New York. The house, built in 1737, is unrenovated, uninsulated, and full of bees. Greta spends her days transcribing therapy sessions for a sex coach who calls himself Om. She becomes infatuated with his newest client, a repressed married woman she affectionately refers to as Big Swiss, since she’s tall, stoic, and originally from Switzerland. Greta is fascinated by Big Swiss’s refreshing attitude toward trauma. They both have dark histories, but Big Swiss chooses to remain unattached to her suffering while Greta continues to be tortured by her past.
One day, Greta recognizes Big Swiss’s voice at the dog park. In a panic, she introduces herself with a fake name and they quickly become enmeshed. Although Big Swiss is unaware of Greta’s true identity, Greta has never been more herself with anyone. Her attraction to Big Swiss overrides her guilt, and she’ll do anything to sustain the relationship…
Bold, outlandish, and filled with irresistible characters, Big Swiss is both a love story and also a deft examination of infidelity, mental health, sexual stereotypes, and more—from an amazingly talented, one-of-a-kind voice in contemporary fiction.
Katya’s Pick: I was first introduced to Lisa Taddeo by book influencers on Instagram and YouTube. So many readers that I admired were captivated (and a bit flummoxed, in a good way) by Taddeo's bold writing. I loved hearing them talk about THREE WOMEN and ANIMAL as liberating narratives that they, as women, had been seeking for so long. My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to explore Taddeo's writing for myself by picking up THREE WOMEN first. This stunning work of journalism reads like a novel; it is completely riveting and unputdownable. In THREE WOMEN, we follow Lina, Maggie, and Sloane, as they come to understand their female desire and sexuality. In some ways, these stories are very different: Maggie sits through court hearings after having an intimate relationship with her high school teacher; Sloane makes love with men and women as her husband eagerly watches; and Lina strikes up an extramarital affair. But I quickly found that these women share many more commonalities than differences, particularly when it comes to desire, shame, and intimacy. Taddeo boldly delves into topics that haven't typically been covered, and women everywhere (myself now included) are reaping the benefits of her courage and genius.
The instant #1 New York Times bestseller and one of the most talked-about books of the year, Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is “the most in-depth look at the female sex drive that’s been published in decades” (New York) and a “groundbreaking...breathtaking…staggeringly intimate” (Entertainment Weekly) look at the sex lives of three real American women—based on nearly a decade of reporting.
Hailed as “a dazzling achievement” (Los Angeles Times) and “riveting page-turner that explores desire, heartbreak, and infatuation in all its messy, complicated nuance” (The Washington Post), Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women has captivated readers, booksellers, and critics—and topped bestseller lists—worldwide.
Declared “the best book of the year” by Elizabeth Gilbert and “a breathtaking and important book” by Cheryl Strayed, Three Women has won praise everywhere from Columbia Journalism Review (“deeply reported, elegantly written, almost uncomfortably intimate”) to Refinery29 (“the hype for Three Women is real; in fact, it’s insufficient”), from Esquire (“a heartbreaking, gripping, astonishing masterpiece”) to Time (“Three Women is a battle cry…For anyone who thinks they know what women want, this book is an alarm, and its volume is turned all the way up.”) In the words of The New Statesman, “This is an unusual, startling, and gripping debut. It feels to me like the kind of bold, timely, once-in-a-generation book that every house should have a copy of, and probably will before too long.”
In suburban Indiana we meet Lina, the homemaker and mother of two whose marriage, after a decade, has lost its passion. Starved for affection, Lina battles daily panic attacks and, after reconnecting with an old flame through social media, embarks on an affair that quickly becomes all-consuming. In North Dakota we meet Maggie, the seventeen-year-old high school student who allegedly has a clandestine physical relationship with her handsome, married English teacher; the ensuing criminal trial will turn their quiet community upside down. Finally, in the northeast we meet Sloane, the successful, refined restaurant owner whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with other men and women.
Based on years of immersive reporting and told with astonishing frankness and immediacy, Three Women is both a feat of journalism and a triumph of storytelling, brimming with nuance and empathy. “A work of deep observation, long conversations, and a kind of journalistic alchemy” (Kate Tuttle, NPR), Three Women introduces us to three unforgettable women—and one remarkable writer—whose experiences remind us that we are not alone.
Emily’s Pick: I’ve had this beautiful book on my shelf for a long time, and for some reason this summer, my curiosity got the best of me and made me completely disrupt my TBR in order to see if the inside matched the outside. It led to a truly magical reading moment. Inspired by Margaret Mead’s anthropological studies in New Guinea, and her relationships with fellow anthropologists, EUPHORIA ends up analyzing the many complicated layers of human behavior. The character descriptions of Nell (based on Mead) and how she riffs and flows with the other characters, were so life-like and curious that I felt like an anthropologist myself, studying these relationships, rituals, communications styles, and more to get the most of my time with this story. I was so amazed with the power of every line that I immediately went out and bought the rest of Lily King’s books, and now I highly recommend a TBR pile disruption every so often.
The engine that propels this juicy, smart novel is desire—sexual and intellectual, essential and existential.
Photo credit: iStock / DmitriiSimakov