I know, I know. It’s end-of-year list season! There’s some good ones, too, like Isaac Fitzgerald’s round-up of fiction titles at BuzzFeed or Flavorwire’s 50 Best Independent Press Books of 2015, and I’m sure there’ll be more. If you enjoy this yearly wintertime proliferation of listicles and need help tracking the madness, LargeheartedBoy keeps tabs of all the lists every year, god bless him. There’s already more than 100 entries, and it’s only December 1st.
Instead of giving you a zillion reading suggestions all at once, I’ll post one here every day through Christmas (or maybe the end of December). As usual, I hope to point you toward books you may have overlooked or small press titles that would generally fly under the radar of the big end-of-year lists. Ready?
Kelly Link, Get in Trouble
Random House, 2015
If you haven’t read Kelly Link, now’s your chance and what on earth are you waiting for? Her latest collection, Get in Trouble, is hands-down one of my favorite books from this past year. Vampire boyfriends / creepy, life-size dolls who cause rifts in teenage friendships? Check. Fairies who live on the hill and control the fate of the family who cares for them? Check and check. Kelly’s work is dark and strange, funny and sinister, with meticulous, beautiful sentences. Buy multiple copies, so you can give them away to people who haven’t read her yet. Buy enough to hide copies in unexpected places. Spy on the future reader as they fall in love. Then steal the book back and do it all over again.
Recommended for: lovers of The Vampire Diaries, Karen Russell, and Angela Carter
2015 was the year of Ta-Nehisi Coates because we needed a book like Between the World and Me to help make sense of the everyday horrors faced by black people in America. The super-powered release of Coates’ book-length essay eclipsed other important books published this year, including cultural critic Margo Jefferson’s Negroland. A memoir of growing up privileged in Chicago, Negroland meditates on race, sex, and class during the Civil Rights era and the beginning of feminist action in the 60s. A great companion to Coates’ book, Gloria Steinem’s new memoir My Life on the Road, and any James Baldwin paperbacks you pulled off the shelf to help stave off the darkness of this ugly year.
Recommended for: readers who want to understand the complicated relationship between women and their mothers, between black and white feminism
This humdinger of a novel from Louisa Hall leaps between multiple narratives with all the confidence of Cloud Atlas. When the book opens, we’re deep in the “consciousness” of a robotic doll, confiscated from the future’s children for being too lifelike. How and why the dolls were made–and with what technology–becomes a central thread in a story that spans centuries. In turns, we also visit Mary Bradford, an Englishwoman from the 1600s headed to America with a husband she doesn’t love; Alan Turing’s letters to the mother of his best friend; and a transcript from a court case in the near future. As each narrative cycle progresses, we grow closer to unpacking the relationship between these disparate characters and their shared desire for connection.
Recommended for: fans of David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood
Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau
Random House, 2015
“Anna was a good wife, mostly,” begins Essbaum’s modern take on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Married to a Swiss banker, Anna begins having affairs to alleviate her boredom living in a small suburb of Zurich with her husband and three small children. Naturally, these affairs don’t go very well, but Hausfrau is no morality tale. In an interview with NPR, Essbaum confides, “I worked for a long time trying not to write a book that had a bony finger from the sky pointing down and saying, you know, ‘Don’t do bad things because if you do these, terrible things will happen to you’…You know, it’s not God, it’s Anna who says, ‘I have done this. I have caused these things to happen.'”
Recommended for: readers currently binge-watching The Affair
Constance Kopp is unusually tall and unafraid of bullies. When she and her sisters suffer a motor vehicle accident at the hands of a power-hungry factory owner, Constance decides to do something about it, even though she’s threatened physical harm. In the process, Constance scraps her way to the top of the police department and becomes the first female deputy sheriff in American history. Set in the first part of the twentieth century, Girl Waits with Gun is fast-paced, fun historical fiction. With guns.
Recommended for: readers who love Megan Abbott’s play on pulp novels
Megan Mayhew Bergman, Almost Famous Women
In her author’s note to this story collection, Megan Mayhew Bergman writes movingly about her decade-long obsession with women who sometimes had to pay the price “for living dangerously.” Here are thirteen tales about women who cross-dress, women who fly planes, women with famous siblings or parents, differently abled women. It’s a beautiful collection of work bound to get you excited about what women have been doing, even as they are overlooked or forgotten or shunned, throughout history.
Recommended for: fans of exquisite short stories and kick-ass ladies
Laura van den Berg, Find Me
Books published at the beginning of the year always lose a little steam by the time everyone’s writing their holiday round-ups fatigued by increased turkey intake and the damp. Find Me is the debut novel from Laura van den Berg, who has two exquisite story collections under her belt (What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and Isle of Youth). A post-apocalyptic tale, Find Me begins after a mysterious sickness destroys almost everyone in its path. Joy, a former foster child who fights depression with cough syrup, turns out to be mysteriously immune. Much of the novel takes place in a hospital in rural Kansas, where other immune “patients” undergo questionable experiments. Once Joy escapes, she has to learn how to live in an America changed by tragedy. The world of this book stayed with me for a long, long time.
Recommended for: fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s trilogy, The Southern Reach
Maybe you’re tired of the Brontë sisters and their Gothic tendencies. But if you’re looking for a literary biography that will put you in touch with the material, day-to-day lives of the three fascinating and famous sisters, then The Brontë Cabinet will do the trick. There’s a whole chapter on the “tiny books” Emily, Anne, and Charlotte used to make; one from Charlotte sold for £690,000 in 2011. Other highlights include letters, writing desks, and Victorian hair jewelry. I’m all about it.
Recommended for: the friend who thinks Kate Beaton’s Wuthering Heights comics are hilarious but loves the famous trio regardless
Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account
Vintage Books, 2015
Cheating again! Partly because I am in awe of Laila Lalami’s recent and beautiful essay about what it means to be Muslim in America today, confronted with prejudice on a day-to-day basis. And partly because I think this book–about a slave of the Spanish conquistadors–didn’t get talked about as widely as it should have, even though it was a finalist for the Pulitzer. It came out in paperback in late summer and has the grand sweep of a Dickens novel–but puts the voice of a POC front and center.
Recommended for: readers who want to sit by the fireside, contemplating colonialism
Ali Smith, How to Be Both
Anchor Books, 2015
Technically this is cheating. How to Be Both came out in 2014, but it’s paperback release was in 2015! A finalist for the Man Booker, How to Be Both tells its story by following two characters who, on the surface, couldn’t be more different: a Renaissance artist from the 1460s and a teenage girl mourning her mother’s death while also trying to pass her Cambridge tutorials. Smith works wonders through compression: time folds over itself, showing how these two characters are connected through art and loss. What’s more, Smith, who loves playing with structure, published the novel in two different versions: one features the narrative of the painter first; the other, the narrative of the teenage girl. Chance dictates which copy you’ll get. If you still haven’t read Smith’s masterful Artful, go do that, too.
Recommended for: readers who fantasize about Life After Life, The Folded Clock, and The Goldfinch having a weirder, cooler older sister (I don’t know. The Folded Clock is pretty amazing; you should just read that one full stop.)
Monica Fambrough, Softcover ($14)
Lesley Yalen, The Hearts of Vikings ($12)
Natural History Press, 2015
Natural History Press put out two firecracker collections with the help of a fundraising campaign in late 2014. The first title, Lesley Yalen’s The Hearts of Vikings, wrestles with origins and creation myths, helping strangers and helping yourself. “Now I keep an eye on the break-down lane / For people who may need my help specifically / But the edge of the world is speeding,” Yalen writes. And in Monica Fambrough’s Softcover, you’ll find how deceptively simple language begins to fracture even the most common experiences. With a humorous allegiance to truth-telling, Fambrough gives us a “Poem Against Facts,” where you can find lines like “I would be lying / if I told you that TV / isn’t important to me” nestled against “Life becomes a fact / when it stops moving. / A loss you learn / to live around.” Each collection offers surprising and moving language from two women to watch.
Recommended for: readers who enjoy a good laugh-cry
Margaret Lazarus Dean, Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of Space Flight
Graywolf Press, 2015
In this winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Dean chronicles the end of NASA’s space shuttle program after more than 50 years of exploration and innovation. Though NASA has only ever taken up the tiniest percentage of government funds, the agency was beleaguered by public skepticism of post-recession government spending, a fact Lee Billings points out in her New York Times review of the book. Here you’ll find evocative details of Kennedy Space Center and moving interviews with the engineers, pilots, and administrators who made space travel possible.
Recommended for: fans of The Martian (the book or the movie, but I prefer the book–sorry/not sorry, Matt Damon)
Daniel José Older, Shadowshaper
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015
At this point I can’t separate my love for Shadowshaper from my love for Daniel José Older, an urban fantasy writer based in Brooklyn who literally has no fear and gives no fucks. Here is a Brooklyn that looks and feels like the real thing, even though very unreal things are happening to Sierra Santiago, a young muralist who discovers she has powerful gifts. Rife with magic, danger, and adventure Shadowshaper is the YA debut from Older that I’m hoping signals many more books to come.
Recommended for: readers who love Saga or Sorcerer to the Crown
I can’t really think of any writer with a wit sharper or wryer than Lydia Millet’s–George Saunders, maybe, but comparably Millet’s work is infused with a joy I never found in The Tenth of December. Lest you think Millet is all sunshine and rainbows, she balances a fine-tuned irony with a probing intelligence about the pitfalls of contemporary life. Her three linked novels How the Dead Dream, Ghost Lights, and Magnificence blew me away with their lyrical exploration of capitalism, identity, and humanity, so I was thrilled to have Mermaids in Paradise so soon on their heels. For starters, the mermaids are real. Deb and Chip’s honeymoon at an island resort is interrupted with the discovery of mythological creatures as, predictably, everyone rushes to capitalize on them first. Millet gives us an unlikable narrator with an unlikable husband in a deplorable situation–and it’s still somehow hilarious.
Recommended for: readers who want to cross the gene pool of Kelly Link and Karen Russell with George Saunders and Don DeLillo
Noelle Stevenson, Nimona
Harper Teen, 2015
Shapeshifter Nimona apprentices herself as a sidekick to the evil Lord Blackheart in this adorable adventure comic from Noelle Stevenson. Cheeky, subversive, and fun–Nimona is the perfect alternative to damsel-in-distress narratives. I can’t wait to see what Stevenson does next.
Recommended for: readers who zipped through Kate Beaton’s Step Aside, Pops and are looking for more
(Recently I joked about adding a token male to this list. Well, here he is.) Ander Monson’s obsessive meditation on ephemera found in libraries is a visual treat as much as a literary one. With essays on everything from defacement to inscriptions, card catalogs to marginalia, this book serves as an ode to our shared, public resources and the readers who use them. No one but Monson could take an entry about the Braille edition of Playboy and transform it into hybrid poem-essay about irony, sight and sightlessness, the body, and pain. Letter to a Future Lover is a love letter to everyone who loves books, whatever time they may find themselves in.
Recommended for: lovers of indices, archives, and circulation desks
Any time there’s a list of young British writers you should pay attention to, Sarah Hall is almost always on it (along with my other fave, Helen Oyeyemi). For some reason, her novels are never heralded here as much as they probably deserve to be. Hall’s precision with language imbues the interiority of her characters’ lives with small, gorgeous details. Her plots vary so wildly between books that you never know what you’re going to get with a new Sarah Hall novel. You could wind up in a Bildungsroman about a wunderkind tattoo artist making his way in Coney Island between the wars (The Electric Michaelangelo) or find yourself in a dystopian future where a small rebel army of women aims to overthrow a repressive government from the Scottish Highlands (Daughters of the North). Hall’s latest, The Wolf Border, is both quieter and longer than her usual work. Set between Nez Pierce, Idaho and Northern England, The Wolf Border follows zoologist Rachel Caine as she contemplates an intriguing offer from the Earl of Annerdale to re-introduce wild wolves to England–which may or may not be possible. Over at LitHub, Tobias Carroll writes wonderfully about the importance of place in this novel. Fair warning: the book is slow and deliberate, but oh-so worth it.
Recommended for: readers who like to luxuriate in sentences
Patricia Park, Re Jane: A Novel
I’m still a little surprised this book didn’t receive more attention, but maybe everyone’s bandwidth for re-tellings of old stories was taken up by Hamilton. (I know I was definitely preoccupied.) In this pithy debut, Patricia Park revisits the plot of Jane Eyre in a tale that moves from modern-day Queens to Seoul and back again. Orphan Jane Re toils in her uncle’s Korean supermarket in Flushing, determined to build a better life for herself. Once she becomes a nanny for two English professors in Brooklyn, Jane’s life starts to open up. Her burgeoning affair with Ed Farley is cut short by a family death that sends her to Korea, where she struggles to fit in and find her way. Park examines what it is to live between cultures with grace and wit and a healthy dollop of literary allusion.
Recommended for: readers who’ve been burning a hole through their Lin-Manuel Miranda playlists or bonnet-clad Mia Wasikowska re-watches
Suzanne Scanlon, Her 37th Year: An Index
Noemi Press, 2015
I had the pleasure and privilege of reading with Suzanne at AWP last year. Unfortunately, it was one of those readings with a zillion writers on the docket where everyone reads too long and attention spans are shot to smithereens. Suzanne read last. She kicked so much ass. What she read from Her 37th Year was haunting and beautiful and lit a thousand fires that I hope other people had the good sense to pay attention to. Her publisher, Noemi, describes the book this way: “a collage of excerpted conversations, letters, quotations, moments, and dreams” from a woman whose marriage is falling apart. Do yourself a favor and pick it up from Noemi Press, or buy the e-book from Emily Books.
Recommended for: readers who might be jonesing for something in the vein of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation
Maureen Gibbon, Paris Red
W.W. Norton & Co., 2015
I feel lucky to have even found out about this book; without its champion blurbers Maud Newton and Elizabeth McCracken (two of my all-time favorite writers), I might never have picked it up. In short, lyrical bursts, Gibbon describes the artistic and sexual relationship between Edouard Manet and his most famous model, Victorine Meurent. In Victorine, I found a narrator unafraid of her own body and her creativity–refreshing for 2015, if not for Paris in the 1860s. Gibbon’s Manet is playful, rakish even, which makes for an entertaining meditation on art, the working class, and desire.
Recommended for: readers who feel like a little sexy time travel
Naomi Jackon’s debut novel, about two sisters sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados while their mother attempts to recover from depression, hooked me early. The prose in Star Side is delicious, and Jackson captures the complexity of young girlhood in bold, deft strokes. Dionne, sixteen, and her younger sister Phaedra, ten, have to navigate everything from religion to boys, all while unpacking what it means to be an American with roots in the Caribbean. Neither girl quite knows how to manage their grandmother, Hyacinth, a force-of-nature midwife determined to give her granddaughters the structure they lack. How each girl comes to terms with their grandmother’s love–and their mother’s absence–makes this a tender, lovely, and surprisingly funny book you don’t want to miss.
Recommended for: readers looking for a new author to get up and cheer for
Jessica Hopper, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
featherproof books, 2015
For most indie music fans, Jessica Hopper’s name will already be familiar–she’s a senior editor at Pitchfork and writes for SPIN and The Village Voice. She’s one of the loudest and best voices advocating for women in rock music today, so it’s no surprise that Hopper also contributes to Rookie, one of my all-time favorite online spaces for girls and women. The First Collection showcases Hopper’s signature breed of personal essay-cum-music review, her unwillingness to put up with bullshit, her fearlessness, her love for her work. There are interviews with Hole and with Jim DeRogatis, the music journalist caught up in the child pornography allegations against R. Kelly; and, of course, there are stand-up album reviews of St. Vincent and Lana del Ray, M.I.A. and Kendrick Lamar. The book itself is slim but feels hefty, a bad-ass feminist mix tape with gold-leaf pages. If I could turn the volume up on a book, I would use this one to blow out my speakers.
Recommended for: ladies who rawk / men who need to remember women are awesome / men you want to make cry.
Jennifer Tseng, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness
Europa Editions, 2015
Set on an island off the coast of New England, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness could have been a scandalous novel about an older woman–Mayumi, a lonely, 41-year-old librarian–seducing a younger (like, way younger) man. But Tseng’s lovely prose and thoughtful plotting make this book a little more The Giant’s House and a little less Tampa. What an intriguing combination, though!
Recommended for: readers who aren’t afraid to curl up with a little taboo by the fireside
Emily Hunt, Dark Green
The Song Cave, 2015
Emily Hunt is the most exciting, most expansive poet I know who writes in a style that is polar opposite from the way her writing makes me feel: quiet, spare, wry. Her debut showcases what kind of range hides in a two-line poem. Or, for that matter, a nine-line poem like FOR FLOWERS: “how pretty / how exact is nothing / how booming and direct are the fields // and the flowers, fearless / stare happily out from a surface // how mine, that rubber heart / speeding, vicious, how known / is the sky, still here / and reaching for flowers of flowers.” She will occasionally make you want to cry, but she will make you feel good about crying. Mostly she’ll make you want to shout for joy once you see how much can be accomplished in the deceptively small spaces of her poems. This paragraph doesn’t begin to do the book justice. Read some of Emily’s poems here, here, and here to get a taste of what you’re missing.
Recommended for: readers who want to feel good about contemporary poetry / writers who want to get excited about writing in three stanzas or less