Congratulations, my reader: another fantastic year in literature has passed us by. Whether you read like the wind this year or fell short of your objectives, the Christmas season usually motivates a return to reading. Fortunately, you can pack a year’s worth of literary delights in your bag. Whether you want to comprehend our current situation through rigorous nonfiction or escape it through alien narratives, 2022’s crop of publications has something for everyone. So far, our greatest novels of the year include a wide range of genres and topics, from epic fantasy to literary fiction. You’ve come to the correct place if you want to read about spaceships, talking pigs, or supervillains.
Best books for the year 2023
- Time Is a Mother, by Ocean Vuong
- Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
- Trust, by Hernan Diaz
- Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, by Kim Kelly
- Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta, by James Hannaham
- Young Mungo, by Douglas Stuart
- Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library, by Amanda Oliver
- Liarmouth, by John Waters
- Because Our Fathers Lied, by Craig McNamara
- A Ballet of Lepers, by Leonard Cohen
- Lost & Found, by Kathryn Schultz
- Fairy Tale, by Stephen King
- Less Is Lost, by Andrew Sean Greer
- Liberation Day, by George Saunders
- The Pink Hotel, by Liska Jacobs
- Nuclear Family, by Joseph Han
- Woman, Eating, by Claire Kohda
- Tracy Flick Can’t Win, by Tom Perrotta
- Cult Classic, by Sloane Crosley
- The Angel of Rome, by Jess Walter
- Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
- The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka
- Groundskeeping, by Lee Cole
- Trust the Plan, by Will Sommer
- How to Take Over the World, by Ryan North
- Ancestor Trouble, by Maud Newton
- The Immortal King Rao, by Vauhini Vara
- Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel
- Phasers On Stun!, by Ryan Britt
- Raising Lazarus, by Beth Macy
- Tracy Flick Can’t Win, by Tom Perrotta
- The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan
- Scoundrel, by Sarah Weinman
- True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us, by Danielle J. Lindemann
- Anthem, by Noah Hawley
- Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xochitl Gonzalez
- To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara
- How Civil Wars Start, by Barbara F. Walter
- How High We Go in the Dark, by Sequoia Nagamatsu
- Notes on an Execution, by Danya Kukafka
- South to America, by Imani Perry
- The Employees, by Olga Ravn
- Thank You, Mr. Nixon, by Gish Jen
- Moon Witch, Spider King, by Marlon James
- The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li
- After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz
- Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson
- Love Marriage by Monica Ali
- Tiepolo Blue by James Cahill
- Pure Colour by Sheila Heti
1. Time Is a Mother, Ocean Vuong
Vuong’s second poetry collection is a harrowing voyage through the sad aftermath of his mother’s death. Vuong pushes us to the white-hot extremes of his pain, writing with visionary zeal about love, agony, and time, like Orpheus descending into the underworld. Vuong must rebuild his worldview without his mother: what is identity when its basis is gone? What is a language without our elders’ cultural memory? Time Is A Mother, an aesthetically ambitious and fiercely creative film, questions these impossibilities. “Nobody is free unless they burst open,” Vuong says in one piercing poetry. He opens up and rebuilds himself here.
2. Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
Cushla, a young Catholic teacher in 1970s Belfast, encounters an older, married Protestant man in her family’s bar, an experience that affects both of their lives forever. As the two’s romance advances, the daily news of the Troubles unfolds, and tensions in the community rise. According to the Washington Post, formerly the author of short stories in Trespasses, “Kennedy has greater freedom to develop her characters and dramatize their situations. She does so expertly, persuading her reader of all that happens “. Meanwhile, according to The Spectator, “this wonderfully wrought love tale about ordinary lives destroyed by violence tugs at your heart without surrendering to sentimentality.” (LB)
3. Trust, by Hernan Diaz
Diaz came close to winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 with In the Distance, a penetrating western that was named a finalist; now, with Trust, he may finally take home the gold. The film Trust tells the story of a Wall Street tycoon and his clever wife, who become ridiculously wealthy in Prohibition-era New York. The mystery of their wealth becomes the topic of a book, a memoir, an unfinished manuscript, and, eventually, a journal in this puzzle box of stories-within-stories. Diaz’s gripping narrative of class, capitalism, and greed is built and recontextualized with each layer. The end effect is a captivating metafictional alchemy of epic proportions and even greater achievement.
4. Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, by Kim Kelly
There has never been a better time to study the history of the American labor movement, with a galvanizing surge of unionization attempts shaking mega-corporations like Amazon and Starbucks. Fight Like Hell will be your indispensable guide to organized labor’s past, present, and future. Rather than organizing this extensive history chronologically, Kelly divides it into chapter-sized descriptions of various labor sectors, such as sex workers, jailed laborers, and domestic workers. Each chapter provides brief biographies of working-class heroes, as well as a careful examination of individuals who were marginalized or ejected from the movement.
5. Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta, by James Hannaham
Hannaham’s peppy sophomore novel introduces us to the remarkable Carlotta Mercedes, an Afro-Latinx trans woman who served two decades in a men’s jail. When she returns home to Brooklyn, she finds a gentrified city that she doesn’t remember, as well as a slew of new pressures; life on the outside quickly entails a harsh parole procedure and a family that fights to accept her change. Carlotta falls into Brooklyn’s turbulent underbelly over the course of one wild Fourth of July weekend in search of her truth. Carlotta is a genuine survivor, angry, sassy, and cheerful, whose narrative throws a disinfectant light on our world’s injustices.
6. Young Mungo, by Douglas Stuart
Readers were eager to see what this remarkable debut author would achieve next after his Shuggie Bain won the Booker Prize in 2020. It’s no surprise that Stuart’s sophomore effort soars—and socks you right in the stomach. Young Mungo is the heartbreaking story of a hopeless and forbidden love between two young lads, one Catholic and the other Protestant, set in Glasgow’s tenements in the 1990s. Insecure, self-loathing Mungo is irrevocably altered by the soothing influence of tender-hearted James, but their relationship cannot be permitted to exist in a stratified society like this one. When the grownups in their lives step in, James and Mungo learn painful lessons about how boys grow into men. Young Mungo is both cruel and magnificent in a world where hope and misery coexist.
7. Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library, by Amanda Oliver
Library users have long struggled with the romanticized image of libraries as hallowed locations. In Overdue, a former librarian discusses the significance of expecting more from the things we care about. Oliver explains how libraries have historically been vectors for some of our most serious societal evils, from segregation to racism to inequality, via the prism of her experience as a librarian in one of Washington, D.C.’s most poor communities. Our overlapping mental healthcare and opioid crises are coming to a head in these venues as unhoused clients seek sanctuary in libraries and librarians are trained to administer Narcan. Overdue is both a love letter and a call to action, dispelling myths and demanding a better future. Libraries will never be the same again.
8. Liarmouth, by John Waters
Marsha “Liarmouth” Sprinkle, a con woman; caught up in a disastrous affair with Darryl, the depraved loser with whom she steals bags from airport luggage carousels, is Waters’ debut novel. Darryl had promised Marsha sex in exchange for his services after one year of work, but when she fails to pay up, Darryl is furious. Waters defines this work as “fictitious anarchy” in the acknowledgments. That’s a decent description for this campy, filthy, bizarre novel filled with ribald delights.
9. Because Our Fathers Lied, by Craig McNamara
How do we deal with our parents’ sins? That is the vexing dilemma at the heart of this compelling and brave biography written by the son of Robert S. McNamara, Kennedy’s architect of the Vietnam War. A multifaceted guy, as well as the “combination of love and wrath” at the heart of their relationship, come into close view in this torn son’s tale. The senior McNamara’s contentious statements about the war eventually separated him from his son, who protested by hanging Viet Cong flags in his boyhood bedroom. In search of life unlike his father’s, the younger McNamara dropped out of Stanford and rode his motorcycle around South America, eventually becoming a sustainable walnut farmer. McNamara illustrates an intergenerational conflict and a journey of moral identity via his tale of disappointment and despair.
10. A Ballet of Lepers, by Leonard Cohen
A Ballet of Lepers contains previously unseen early writings by Leonard Cohen, including short tales, a novel, and a radio drama. Cohen said the titular work was “probably a greater novel” than his acclaimed book The Favorite Game. These rediscovered jewels deal with topics that would always preoccupy their creators, such as guilt, desire, and longing. Cohen’s life and art have been studied for years, yet as this illuminating collection demonstrates, there are still fresh facets to find.
11. Lost & Found, by Kathryn Schultz
Schultz met the love of her life eighteen months before her father died following a lengthy fight with illness. This agonizing paradox serves as the foundation for Lost & Found, a moving story about how love and grief frequently coexist. Schultz creates a taxonomy of our losses that “encompasses both the trivial and the important, the abstract and the tangible, the just misplaced and the permanently gone” by weaving her own experiences with psychological, philosophical, and scientific understanding. But she also celebrates the act of discovery, from discovering what we’ve misplaced to falling in love for the first time. Lost & Found is a penetrating and insightful novel that explores the incredible joys and tragedies of everyday life.
12. Fairy Tale, by Stephen King
In this mesmerizing novel of seventeen-year-old Charlie Reade, a savvy adolescent who inherits the keys to a parallel realm, the maestro of horror turns his skills into coming-of-age fantasy. Charlie encounters Mr. Bowditch, a local hermit who lives in a creepy home with his adorable puppy. Mr. Bowditch dies, leaving Charlie the home, a vast gold hoard, and the keys to a locked shed housing a doorway to another planet. However, as Charlie quickly finds, that parallel realm is full of danger, dungeons, and time travel—and it has the potential to endanger our universe. Fairy Tale is pure King at his best, with beautiful flights of imagination and trademark sensitivity regarding infancy.
13. Less Is Lost, by Andrew Sean Greer
Greer earned the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for Less, a hilarious novel about elderly writer Arthur Less and his foreign mishaps. Less is back for more in this enthralling sequel, filled with just as much silliness, heartbreak, and belly-aching laughter as its predecessor. With nothing but a rusted camper van, a melancholy pug, and a zigzagging itinerary of literary engagements, Less starts across the American terrain, dogged by financial trouble and the loss of his former sweetheart. Our hapless hero causes a chain reaction of misfortunes, yet the more lost Less becomes, the closer he is to being discovered. Less is Lost is a life-affirming reminder of what fiction can accomplish and be.
14. Liberation Day, by George Saunders
Liberation Day, his first collection of short stories in a decade, finds the godfather of the contemporary short story back and better than ever. A grandpa describes how Americans lost their liberty via minor compromises to an authoritarian regime in one unforgettable narrative set in a near future police state. Another notable example is the brainwashing and reprogramming of vulnerable Americans as political activists, with their services accessible to the highest bidder. In the rollicking title novella, the impoverished are compelled to reenact incidents from American history to entertain the affluent. Saunders conjures a society in moral and spiritual decay in these stunning and observant stories, where acts of generosity shine through like beacons in the darkness.
15. The Pink Hotel, by Liska Jacobs
The Pink Hotel is the story of newlyweds Kit and Keith Collins and is set in the Beverly Hills Hotel, where the Rat Pack drank themselves under the table, and the Beatles crept in via the back for an after-hours swim. The general manager has asked Kit and Keith to spend their honeymoon at the hotel in the hopes of hiring Keith as his lieutenant. Meanwhile, hazardous wildfires, violent rioting, and rolling blackouts spread over Los Angeles. The Pink Hotel seals its doors to “outsiders,” confining the newlyweds amongst unhappy employees and ultra-rich eccentrics. As tensions build, the visitors’ boredom seeks new avenues. Jacobs aims at our frail class system and nails a death shot in this sparkling comedy about greed, luxury, and human stupidity.
16. Nuclear Family, by Joseph Han
We meet the Cho family in this exciting first novel: Mr. and Mrs. Cho owns a successful Korean plate lunch restaurant in Hawai’i, and they hope to expand it into a franchise that their adult children, Grace, and Jacob, will inherit eventually. On the other side of the Pacific, though, the danger is brewing: while teaching English in South Korea, Jacob makes worldwide news when he is detained for attempting to enter the Demilitarized Zone. Back in Hawai’i, rumor threatens the family’s riches. But the reality is weirder than anyone would imagine: Jacob has been possessed by the spirit of his grandpa, who is anxious to reunite with the family he abandoned in North Korea.
17. Woman, Eating, by Claire Kohda
In this lazy comedy about Lydia, a biracial Gen Z vampire going through an identity crisis, My Year of relaxation meets Milk Fed. Lydia, fresh out of art school and ready to start a new life in London, soon discovers that her gallery internship is unsatisfying, her crush is seeing someone else, and her supply of pig’s blood is running dangerously short. She becomes addicted to viewing #WhatIEatInADay videos, longing for the embodied connection to food and life that humans have. But self-acceptance will not come for this longing young vampire until she finds something (or someone) to eat. Woman, you are thoughtful and exciting. Eating serves up issues like cultural alienation, disordered eating, and adulthood’s growing pains.
18. Tracy Flick Can’t Win, by Tom Perrotta
Perrotta’s hyper-competent heroine reappears nearly 25 years after Election was published. Tracy Flick, now in her forties, is reflecting on the uncharted territory: the #MeToo movement has caused her to reconsider a long-ago sexual encounter with a teacher while caretaking responsibilities have dashed her law school ambitions and led her back to Green Meadow High School as the beleaguered assistant principal. Tracy appears to be a lock for the top job, with her boss poised to retire—but first, she must overcome the male stakeholders aiming to derail her elevation. Tracy’s second act gives scathing insight about disappointed ambition, told with Perrotta’s penetrating wit, wisdom, and acute insight into human foolishness.
19. Cult Classic, by Sloane Crosley
Crosley’s considerable talents as a satirist are on display in this enthralling story about Lola, a thirty-something with cold feet about her planned marriage which keeps stumbling into previous loves. But, as it turns out, these encounters are no coincidence: Lola is patient zero in a health cult’s goal to provide love closure on command. Cult Classic’s voyage through heartbreaks past delivers bittersweet realities about finding love by swiping, at once caustic and heartbreaking. It’s as good as a modern romantic treatise gets.
20. The Angel of Rome, by Jess Walter
One of our best short story writers returns with an exuberant second book. Fans of Walter’s groundbreaking Beautiful Ruins will swoon over the title story, in which a Nebraska co-ed studying Latin in Rome meets the Italian bombshell of his youthful fantasies. A middle-aged divorcee goes to extreme lengths to locate a place for his elderly father, a “horny alcoholic toddler” unsuited for regular assisted care, in another darkly humorous masterpiece. In another story, a cancer patient seeks out her stoner ex—the one person who can make her feel better about dying. These anecdotes, wise, sad, and giving in spirit, remind us that Walter is a national treasure.
21. Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
This dystopian novel, from the author of 2017 hit Little Fires Everywhere, is set in the post-crisis US of surveillance and book-banning, where children are forcefully separated from their parents and individuals – notably Asian-Americans – are penalized for “un-American” actions. Bird, twelve, lives with his father, a gifted linguistics professor forced to stack books at a library, while his mother, a distinguished Chinese-American poet, vanished three years ago. Bird’s search for her takes him to an underground network of librarian resistance fighters and the fate of the kidnapped children. “Ng’s brilliant presentation of this narrative of official cruelty and the shadow armies of ordinary individuals who both enable and oppose is its own finest testimonial to the unpredictability of storytelling,” says NPR.
22. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which was nominated for the Booker Prize, relates the amazing narrative of a war photographer who wakes up dead, supposedly in a celestial passport office. He has seven moons in the hereafter, surrounded by ghouls, to contact the man and woman he loves the most. The novel “fizzes with energy, images, and ideas against a vast, fantastical view of Sri Lankan civil warfare,” according to the Booker judges. The work “recalls the mordant humor and surrealism of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls or Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita… Karunatilaka has done creative justice to a horrific moment in his country’s history,” according to The Guardian.
23. Groundskeeping, by Lee Cole
Who doesn’t like a good college novel? Groundskeeping is a lovely story of exact delights that is a brilliant contribution to the canon. Two young authors encounter at Kentucky’s Ashby College: Owen, a local ne’er-do-well who works as a groundskeeper in return for free creative writing lessons, and Alma, a prominent writer in residence. Alma, the loyal daughter of Bosnian immigrants chasing her own American Dream, is perplexed by Owen’s ambivalence about his Trump-supporting relatives. Owen and Alma must manage both the vagaries of love and the growing pains of their becomings as a hidden relationship blooms between them. Groundskeeping shines finest in the muddy in-betweens since it is both a heartbreaking coming-of-age narrative and a charming romance.
24. Trust the Plan, by Will Sommer
Do you want to learn more about QAnon but aren’t sure where to begin? In Trust, the Plan, a journalist who has written on the organization for years (and been targeted by it), tells everything there is to know about this extremist far-right movement, from its beginnings as a fringe internet conspiracy to the tragic day its members destroyed the Capitol. Sommer unpacks the history and looks ahead to the frightening future in sobering and thorough journalism, saying that the increasing danger of Q must be halted before it’s too late.
25. How to Take Over the World, by Ryan North
Fans of comic books will love this hilariously silly primer to super-villainy from an award-winning Marvel Comics writer. After a career spent concocting “increasingly believable world-domination plots,” no one is more qualified than North to provide this practical guide to inventing death rays, building a hidden subterranean base, and employing trustworthy henchmen, among other musts. North takes the bizarre seriously, explaining the physics behind even the most ridiculous movements. But this gimlet-eyed Trojan horse of a book has a surprise up its sleeve: what if supervillain ideas like extending our lives and manipulating the environment may rescue the world? How to Take Over the World is exuberant, cheerful, and just plain entertaining.
26. Ancestor Trouble, by Maud Newton
Who are our forefathers, and what can they teach us about ourselves? Newton spelunks through her challenging and fascinating family tree in this compelling memoir in pursuit of answers to these issues. Her family tree overflows with stories that consume and appall, from an accused witch to a thirteen-times-married guy, but taxonomizing her family history doesn’t fulfill Newton’s yearning for meaning. What can the facts of a person’s life teach us about who they are and where they came from, and what can our personal history tell us about our national past? Newton expertly blends biography and cultural critique to investigate the cultural, scientific, and spiritual components of lineage, arguing for the transformative potential of confronting our ancestors.
27. The Immortal King Rao, by Vauhini Vara
Why should television have all the fun with Big Technology? Vara connects the ethical concerns of our day to speculative fiction in this exciting narrative about capitalism, awareness, and the connections that bind. Athena Rao is suspected of murdering her father, the famed tech magnate King Rao, in the not-too-distant future. To establish her innocence to the planet’s ruling Board of Corporations, she’ll have to utilize The Harmonica, a gadget King placed in her brain that gives her access to all of his memories. Athena’s defense traces her father’s tragic upbringing in India to his spectacular ascent and final collapse. Vara’s twisted world of runaway techno-capitalism is wonderfully depicted, but it’s the novel’s pulsing heart will win you over. “What if we could collect our stories and save them for safekeeping?” Vara inquires. “Wouldn’t that be our greatest shot at showing to the cosmos that we existed once?”
28. Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel
Mandel’s stunning sixth novel, Sea of Tranquility, delivers the great joys of puzzle box planning and high-flying imagination. The novel, as committed readers have come to anticipate from her literature, weaves together a vast cast of individuals, uncovering the startling connections between their varied lives. A high-society exile is spooked by an out-of-body experience in the Canadian wilderness in 1912; in 2203, a novelist endures the agonies and ecstasies of “the last book tour on Earth” while yearning for her home in a lunar colony; and in 2401, a shiftless thirty-something becomes entangled with the secretive Time Institute. One unexplained common experience connects them all: an overlapping instant, disconnected from linear time, that puts into question the basic basis of our existence. This visionary novel, masterfully structured and powerfully touching, bends back on itself like a hall of mirrors to investigate what binds us to one another and how many exceptional events lead us to each ordinary day of our life.
29. Phasers On Stun!, by Ryan Britt
Whether you’re a seasoned Trekkie or a newcomer hooked on Strange New Worlds, this vibrant cultural history of Star Trek has something for every science fiction fan. Britt takes us inside the franchise’s nearly sixty-year history, from its effect on diversifying the space program to its ground-breaking accomplishments for LGBTQIA+ representation. Phasers On Stun! shocks, informs and entertains by featuring interviews with many generations of cast members and creatives. Esquire has an exclusive excerpt regarding Star Trek’s efforts to diversify television.
30. Raising Lazarus, by Beth Macy
In Macy’s compelling sequel to the mega-bestselling Dopesick, she returns to a familiar setting: the frontlines of the opioid crisis, where she embeds with healthcare workers, politicians, and activists working to save lives and heal communities. Whereas Dopesick centered on addicts and their families, Raising Lazarus shifts the focus to the battle for justice, from the Sackler family’s trial to the reformers pioneering breakthrough therapies for the addicted. It’s an illuminating and detailed look into greed, as well as a heartwarming tribute to the power of community organizing.
31. Auē by Becky Manawatu
Au narrates the narrative of the Mori siblings who have lost their parents, with each sibling sharing their story and then their mother, Aroha, giving hers from the dead. The novel has already received two prizes in New Zealand and is receiving widespread attention. The storyline reveals are “masterful,” according to The Guardian. “Au has done well because it is beautifully produced, but it also has something indefinable: it is captivating, confusing, riveting, familiar, but strange.”
32. The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan
One of our great American storytellers returns with an unusual literary sequel of the highest caliber. A Visit From the Goon Squad is expanded in The Candy House not just by revisiting its iconic characters. But also by doubling down on its stylistic conceits, with numerous chapters written in texts and emails. Own Your Unconsciousness, a popular platform where memories are saved on the cloud and available to any user, has irrevocably transformed the world into this other reality. As Egan weaves her way through the intertwined stories of shared experiences, she raises important concerns about the natural human need for connection and the cost of giving up our privacy. The Candy House is the best of the numerous novels that have attempted to make sense of the social media world.
33. Scoundrel, by Sarah Weinman
One of our best true crime writers returns with the harrowing story of Edgar Smith, a convicted killer who was released from Death Row thanks to his ties with different prominent individuals, including National Review founder William F. Buckley. Smith’s deceptions got him free and rocketed him to literary renown, but in the end, he nearly killed another innocent woman, putting blood on Buckley’s and his other supporters’ hands. Scoundrel demonstrates how the legal system is readily manipulated and frequently fails vulnerable women. It is exhaustively recorded and compassionately told. Scoundrel, like The Real Lolita before it, demonstrates that Weinman is a current master of the genre.
34. True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us, by Danielle J. Lindemann
Have you ever gotten into trouble for watching Survivor or The Bachelor? Get this ultimate sociological guide to reality television, and the next time someone makes fun of your “guilty pleasure,” you’ll know just what to say. Lindemann demonstrates how reality television simultaneously reflects and produces us. While also codifying our underlying conservatism and fragile power systems in chapters ranging from COPS to Honey Boo Boo. “Reality television tells us how the categories and meanings we use to organize our surroundings are constructed on shaky foundations,” Lindemann claims. True Story is like witnessing the matrix—you’ll never watch Bravo the same way again after reading it.
35. Anthem, by Noah Hawley
In Anthem, the world as we know it is coming to an end, and only teens can see the big picture. This epic literary thriller takes place in a not-too-distant future in which the country is irreparably divided; the political system is destroyed. And the environment is on the verge of irreversible calamity. (Does this sound familiar?) High students, crippled with fear about the sorrowful world they will inherit, respond with a frightening protest movement: mass suicide, “an act of collective submission.” Three unexpected teenage heroes fight back against the movement and go to the American West, where flames burn through the redwoods. And homegrown terrorists incite terrible bloodshed. They go on an epic mission to save a buddy from the Wizard, a Jeffrey Epstein-like monster; in the end, they can save the planet. Anthem is a Great American Novel for these turbulent times—a thought-provoking work of fiction that gets to the heart of the matter, cuts through the noise, and asks, “How can we change before it’s too late?”
36. Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xochitl Gonzalez
We meet Olga and Prieto Acevedo, two Brooklyn-born offspring of Puerto Rican revolutionaries who now live wealthy but dangerous lives in their gentrifying neighborhood, in this Technicolor novel from an astonishing new voice. Olga, a wedding designer who works with wealthy Manhattan clients, worries whether she’ll ever discover her love story; meanwhile, popular Congressman Prieto battles for the siblings’ Latinx neighborhood while disguising his sexuality. Blanca, their demanding and absent mother, decided to fight for Puerto Rican independence over her children a long time ago. But as Hurricane Maria blows her back into their life, Olga and Prieto must confront the scars of the past. “The personal is political,” as the adage goes, and Olga Dies Dreaming illustrates that. The novel, which is filled with vividly conceived characters and lively writing, examines how we might live meaningful lives in an inequitable society. (An adaptation for Hulu starring Aubrey Plaza is already in the works, so get in while you can.)
37. To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara
Yanagihara creates a symphony from three separate stories, each set in an alternate America, in this large and sweeping novel, her first since the critically acclaimed A Little Life in 2015. In 1893, the scion of a wealthy family challenges an arranged marriage to fall in love with a penniless music teacher. In 1993, a young Hawaiian paralegal conceals his past from his much-older lover. And finally, in 2093, a woman in a totalitarian, pandemic-ridden New York unearths the mysteries of the men she’s loved. Themes of family, fate, and national identity resound across these stories, which are linked by a Greenwich Village townhouse. To Paradise is another masterpiece from a visionary writer who never ceases to amaze and delight.
38. How Civil Wars Start, by Barbara F. Walter
The number of ongoing civil wars across the world has more than quadrupled in the last two decades, and a top political scientist believes we are on an approach of our own. Walter unveils the warning signals of civil upheaval in this essential guide on how governments fall apart at the seams, saying that the United States is becoming an “anocracy,” midway between a democracy and an authoritarian state. Walter contends that if we are to recover from the edge of collapse, we must strengthen the American experiment by, among other things, safeguarding voting rights, changing campaign financing rules, and controlling extremism on social media. How Civil Wars Start is a powerful wake-up call, meticulously researched and lucidly explained.
39. How High We Go in the Dark, by Sequoia Nagamatsu
Perhaps you’ve gotten your fill of pandemic books by now, but hear us out: How High We Go in the Dark is the white-hot message of hope, humanity, and compassion you’re looking for. This explosive tale begins in 2030 when an archaeological dig in the Arctic Circle releases an ancient virus that will restructure life on Earth for future generations. Nagamatsu imagines how life continues through a stylistically stunning novel-in-stories format. Each narrative is a work of imagination in and of itself: in this plague-ridden society, there are euthanasia theme parks for terminally sick children, talking pigs kept for organ farming, and robot dogs implanted with the memories of the dead. You’ll be long entranced by the time humanity goes to the skies in pursuit of a new, plague-free home. This is a magnificent work about bereavement, resilience, and how the human spirit persists, rich in scale and vision, with one nested tale brilliantly cascading over others.
40. Notes on an Execution, by Danya Kukafka
“Average guys become intriguing when they begin to damage women,” says Kukafka in the foreword to this enthralling novel, which is expected to be one of the year’s most appreciated. “I’m sick of looking at Ted Bundy’s face. This is a book for the survivors.” Notes on an Execution counts down serial murderer Ansel Packer’s final twelve hours on Death Row through reminiscences from the women who survived knowing and loving him, also those who didn’t. Ansel is introduced through characters like the adolescent mother who abandoned him and the relentless investigator who brought him to justice, but so are we, the crime-hound readers, indicted in the funhouse mirror of our dark obsessions. Why do we look for purpose in the lives of violent men while ignoring the lives of women who pay the ultimate sacrifice? Notes on an Execution, at once rife with righteous rage and profound empathy, is destined to become a modern masterpiece.
41. South to America, by Imani Perry
The American South is frequently portrayed as a backwater relative who is out of line with American ideals. Perry argues in this crucial cultural history that the South is, in fact, America’s founding heartland, an indisputable fulcrum around which our riches and politics have always revolved. Perry weaves Southern history with lively encounters with modern-day Southerners from all walks of life, fusing memoirs, reporting, and travels. South to America is a love letter to “a nation of enormous hopes and larger lies” and a rallying cry for change. It will shift your perspective on America’s past, present, and future.
42. The Employees, by Olga Ravn
Even though it is only 136 pages long, The Employees is one of the year’s most memorable novels. It is both transporting and fleeting. Humans and humanoids labor together under a harsh hierarchy aboard a ship hurtling into deep space, pitted against one another by an unnamed organization. On the planet New Discovery, crew members recover unusual artifacts that have an odd influence over both man and machine, waking dreams, memories, and desires. Humans lament the loss of their ties on Earth, hundreds of light years away, while their humanoid counterparts crave relationships they’ve never known. The Employees is a remarkable novel on the mental costs of labor under capitalism, constructed as a series of witness accounts from the employees assembled when tensions with their repressive employer boil over. It also delves further into science fiction’s animating questions, such as what makes humans human. Which of us, person or robot, is more human? Is it possible to live a synthetic life? The Employees is a dreamlike and seductive film that should not be missed.
43. Thank You, Mr. Nixon, by Gish Jen
Thank You, Mr. Nixon, a spiky anthology condensing five decades of Chinese-American life into eleven outstanding short tales, is the return of one of our best practitioners of the short story form. In the title tale, a Chinese girl in heaven writes a cheery thank you card to “poor Mr. Nixon,” which is addressed to his address in hell’s ninth circle. A stunning young woman’s infatuation with an older Chinese-American guy is smothered by his watchful mother, to humorous effect, in another highlight. These big-hearted stories of immigration, identity, and exile linger, wry and wise.
44. Moon Witch, Spider King, by Marlon James
James skillfully twists the first episode of his epic Dark Star Trilogy on its head in the second book. Sogolon the Moon Witch, Tracker’s famous foe in the quest for a missing kid in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, now takes center stage in Moon Witch, Spider King. Sogolon recounts her version of what happened to the kid, as well as her century-long battle with Aesi, the king’s terrible chancellor. James brings the myth to life through Sogolon’s roaming adventures across geographies and decades. Pick up this epic tale of empire, adventure, and power to discover why the trilogy has been dubbed “the African Game of Thrones.”
45. The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li
According to the New York Times, The Book of Goose is “the most propulsively fascinating of Li’s books.” It is the author’s fifth novel. It’s a “very odd” story about two adolescent girls in rural, post-war France who invent a literary fake and briefly become a publishing phenomenon, according to The Observer. The Observer praises “the fascinating intricacy of The Book of Goose’s link with the creative urge.” While The New York Times considers it “an existential tale that exposes the knot of causes driving our creation of stories.”
46. After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz
After Sappho, told in vignettes, reimagines the lives of a variety of historical feminists, artists, and authors. Colette, Josephine Baker, Virginia Woolf, and Sarah Bernhardt are among them, each experiencing challenges and fighting for emancipation and justice. After Sappho “delivers on its promise with considerable aesthetic strength and vigor,” according to the Irish Times. “[With] words crisply flat yet blowing readily into magnificent poetry… [After Sappho] is a novel that’s utterly captivated by seduction and seduces in turn,” writes The Guardian.
47. Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson
Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson’s debut novel earned the Whitbread (later Costa) medal in 1995. She has since authored numerous books, two of which were also Costa Prize winners, including the celebrated Life After Life (2013), which was recently made into a BBC TV series. Shrines of Gaiety is a sex, intrigue, and vice-filled film set among the dancers, drinkers, and gangsters of “Roaring” 1920s London. It revolves around the character of Nellie Coker, an infamous entrepreneur who presides over a string of Soho nightclubs. According to The New York Times, Shrines of Gaiety is “a concoction of sparkle and sadness, liberally poured.” whereas Atkinson is “a deeply empathetic observer of human flaws, one who can draw a character in one quicksilver line” The novel is described as “a wonder of plate-spinning narrative knowhow” by The Observer.
48. Love Marriage by Monica Ali
Love Marriage is a tragicomic novel about Yasmin, a junior doctor and obedient daughter who, as her wedding day approaches, begins to question her own beliefs about the people around her. Secrets, deceit, and infidelity are unraveling in both her and her fiance’s families, and Yasmin must question what a “love marriage” truly means. Monica Ali’s 2003 novel Brick Lane was a Booker Prize finalist, and this is her most lauded work since then. It is “Her fifth, and arguably her greatest, novel – rich, sensitive, and fabulously amusing,” says the TLS, and “juggles so many questions and story threads that we keep expecting one of them to break away and become separate… Despite this, everything stays completely cohesive and persuasive.” The novel is also praised by The Spectator, which says it “dares to be purposefully humorous” and is “simply brilliant… truly affecting.”
49. Tiepolo Blue by James Cahill
Don Lamb is a repressed 40-something Cambridge art historian working on a monograph on the eponymous 18th-century Venetian master’s works. It’s 1994, the contemporary art world is fast changing, and Lamb is transferred from Cambridge to run a South London gallery, where he meets Ben, a young artist who introduces him to the capital’s hedonistic nightlife and forces him to confront his sexuality. Tiepolo Blue blends “formal elegance with captivating storytelling,” according to the Financial Times. “[Its] delectable uneasiness and omnipresent menace provide wonderful distinctiveness and a kind of gothic edge to this polished debut novel,” comments Michael Donkor in The Guardian.
50. Pure Colour by Sheila Heti
Pure Colour, Sheila Heti’s follow-up to her 2018 novel Motherhood, is advertised as “a book on the structure of life, from beginning to end” and merges the real with the abstract and bizarre in the narrative of Mira. As an aspiring art critic, she meets and falls in love with Annie, who uses her immense power to open Mira’s chest to a gateway. Mira changes into a leaf for a long time when her father dies. Pure Color is “simultaneously intelligent and ridiculous, emotional and incomprehensible,” writes Lily Meyer for NPR. “Trance apocalypse, a sleepwalker’s song about the end of all things… Pure Color is a unique book that conveys something new in these trying times “, writes Anne Enright for The Guardian.