Well, here we are! I read 101 books in 2021 (just barely hitting my goal of 100 in the eleventh hour), and I’m… satisfied, if not overwhelmingly happy with, my reading year. Which isn’t meant to devalue any of the books on this list, which I am very excited to share with you all—I just wish I had more serious contenders to choose from. If I were to sum up my reading this year in a word, it would be “mild”. As I said in my Most Disappointing Books of the Year post, I’m used to having high highs and low lows, but this year was more steady than anything: a lot of 3- and 4-star reads, a lot of books that I enjoyed but which didn’t inspire a lot of passion in me. Which, to be fair, probably had more to do with my mental state this year than anything. But all of that said, I am really happy with this group of books I’ve selected. The top four in particular, could go in pretty much any order: they’re four of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
I do just want to acknowledge that statistically, this isn’t the most diverse of lists: I’m not proud of how white and how US/UK/Canada/Ireland-centric it is, and I don’t think it’s really indicative of the breadth of books I read this year, but when combing through my Goodreads just now, these are really what stuck out to me as the highlights, so here we are. I’m wondering if I should do a ‘best translated fiction of 2021’ list as well, because there are a lot that I think deserve to be spotlighted.
But anyway, without further ado…
10. Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
“They say the perfect is the enemy of the good, that if you strive for perfection you will overlook the good. But I did not agree. I didn’t like the good. The good was just mediocre. I wanted to go beyond mediocre. I wanted to be exceptional. I did not want to be medium-size. I wanted to be perfect. And by perfect, I meant less.”
I think this is the first time ever that I’m putting a book I rated 4 stars in my favorite books of the year list. But the fact of the matter is, while this book didn’t completely stick the landing for me, its highs were virtually unparalleled by anything else I read this year. If you think you have ‘disaster women’ fatigue, I’d really implore you to give Melissa Broder a try—her protagonists are inarguably disasters, but rather than taking the ‘generic millennial everywoman’ approach, Broder writes with such a sharp specificity that I still think about the narrator, Rachel, as though she were a real person. Downright uncomfortable to read at times, this book navigates the relationship between sex and our own bodies with searing insight.
9. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
“The fact is that the same sequence of days can arrange themselves into a number of different stories.”
A retelling of King Lear set on a twentieth century midwestern farm, A Thousand Acres is the best adaptation of my favorite play that I’ve read. I’m just going to quote my own review here: This is a bleak, stark, humorless work, which accesses the tragic inevitability of the original play and refocuses it. This isn’t the tragedy of Lear as much as it is the tragedy of Goneril, the long-suffering eldest daughter, and in turning this into Ginny’s story, part of the cosmic scale is lost, but the calamity and the creeping dread is recaptured on a smaller, more intimate scale. This is an engrossing, quietly devastating book that deftly examines power, corruption, and betrayal through a melancholic, reflective lens, and I found the result both beautiful and heart-rending.
8. Consent by Annabel Lyon
“I was her punishment, certainly, she thinks, taking the empty suitcase out from under the bed. As she was mine. But remind me again of our crime?”
This Canadian dark horse ended up being one of the unexpected highlights of this year’s Women’s Prize longlist for me. A literary thriller of sorts, Consent follows two sets of sisters, whose stories end up intersecting in a surprising way. It’s less of a mystery and more of a stark examination of guilt and obligation, and between its somewhat meandering pace, its unapologetically acerbic tone, and its refusal to fit neatly into a single genre, it’s undoubtedly a tough sell. But for the right reader—so, in this case: me—it’s an engrossing, intelligent, confident work that I couldn’t put down.
7. No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder
“Read any news story today about domestic violence homicide and you’re likely to see some version of the question why didn’t she leave? What you almost surely won’t see is why was he violent?”
In contrast, I feel like I did nothing but put this book down. It took me the better part of six months to listen to this audiobook, because it is so unrelenting to a point where it started to seriously affect me after a while. But that said, I could not recommend this book highly enough to anyone who can stomach it. In No Visible Bruises, journalist Rachel Louise Snyder investigates intimate partner violence through a panoply of lenses; debunking misconceptions, researching government-funded programs that address both prevention and rehabilitation, and proposing how exactly we move forward. It’s a harrowing and necessary read, brilliantly researched and structured.
6. Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
“We can’t conserve anything, and especially not social relations, without altering their nature, arresting some part of their interaction with time in an unnatural way.”
(The desire to forgo a blurb and just write out that TikTok audio “the girls who get it, get it; the girls who don’t, don’t” is strong.) Anyway, reading a new Rooney novel is always a treat: her sentence-by-sentence writing sings for me, and I think her character work is always exceptional. This ended up being my second favorite Rooney after the unbeatable Conversations With Friends—I found the way she addresses social and existential anxieties in this book particularly resonant. Her books and characters never feel like perfect distillations of my own life (which I think is a frankly absurd expectation for any author and I’m not sure why Rooney in particular bears so much weight in that regard), but they do always make me feel slightly less alone in the world, so, that’s something.
5. The Likeness by Tana French
“I had always felt that I was an observer, never a participant; that I was watching from behind a thick glass wall as people went about the business of living–and did it with such ease, with a skill that they took for granted and that I had never known.”
2021 is the year I finally started reading Tana French, and I could not be happier with that decision. Of the the three of her novels that I’ve read, The Likeness is far and away my favorite—this book elevates a downright absurd premise into something really special and entertaining as hell. I love Cassie as a protagonist and I thought French’s depiction of the insularity of academia was pitch-perfect, coming closer to The Secret History in that one specific regard than most other campus novels I’ve read.
4. Endless Night by Agatha Christie
“One doesn’t want to die young. Sometimes one has to.”
This was also the year that I rediscovered Agatha Christie and let me tell you, it’s one of the things that saved 2021 for me. Of the four of her books that I read this year, Endless Night blows the other three out of the water. From the very first page I was just obsessed with this dark, twisted Gothic tale, and the ending elevated it even higher than I thought possible in my estimation. I don’t want to give you unreasonable expectations about this book by reiterating that it dethroned And Then There Were None as my favorite Christie, as they’re such fundamentally distinct projects, but I do really want to implore you to give a try if you’re a Christie fan.
3. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
“In my mind are all the tides, their seasons, their ebbs and their flows. In my mind are all the halls, the endless procession of them, the intricate pathways. When this world becomes too much for me, when I grow tired of the noise and the dirt and the people, I close my eyes and I name a particular vestibule to myself; then I name a hall.”
Piranesi‘s setting may be the most beautifully-rendered thing I’ve ever seen in a novel, but it’s far from this book’s only strength. I wasn’t expecting to love this anywhere near as much as I did; its speculative elements didn’t seem suited to my tastes as a reader, and I thought it might be the sort of thing I force myself to read and then never think about again. But I fell hard for it, and what has really stuck with me is the potent depiction of loneliness that Clarke is able to achieve through this strange, offbeat tale. This book is just such an immersive pleasure and I’m already looking forward to revisiting it.
2. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
“But the memory lingered, the lesson I have never quite been able to shake: that I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.”
Though I’m thrilled with Piranesi‘s Women’s Prize win, this is the book I was rooting for. Transcendent Kingdom both floored me and wrecked me, and I think this is one of the most accomplished books I’ve read in a long time. Gyasi integrates a number of challenging themes and subjects into a single striking narrative so brilliantly that it’s a wonder she was able to accomplish it without sacrificing plot or character development. This book is a marvel.
1. Edie Richter is Not Alone by Rebecca Handler
“I love you. I forgive you. Please forgive me.”
What’s funny is that on the surface, this doesn’t seem like the most ‘me’ book in the world; it’s about a woman struggling through a failing marriage while coping with the recent death of her father. It feels trite to rise to its defense with the classic “but it’s so much more than that!”, and yet… it really, really is. This book plumbs the depths of whether it’s possible to ever know ourselves, let alone other people; it forces the reader to confront uncomfortable realities that live in the darkest corners of our minds; it asks us whether it’s possible to outrun guilt—but it does so with the lightest, deftest touch, and a character voice which is both acerbic and droll. I need more people to give this book a try both because it’s criminally underrated and because it’s challenging to explain what’s so special about it, but at only 192 pages, Edie Richter is Not Alone left the biggest impression on me of anything I’ve read this year.
What was your favorite book that you read in 2021?
It’s been an interesting reading year—not as many high highs and low lows as in years past, but surprisingly steady, given how terrible this year has been otherwise. So let’s go through and talk about some of my most disappointing* books of the year.
*word choice is deliberate. These are not necessarily worthy of making a ‘worst of year’ list, but these are all books that I had high expectations for, but which fell flat.
8. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
I tend to not love books that focus on mother/daughter relationships, so at the end of the day I accept that I just wasn’t the right reader for this book. But for some reason, perhaps because I’d heard so many times that this book was both dark and thematically rich, I still thought I might enjoy it. And I kind of did, at first—I just found this protagonist so deliberately antagonistic toward the reader that I just found myself shutting down, the more and more I read.
7. Kink, edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell
I gave this 3 stars at the time, which in hindsight feels overly generous, because looking back, my feelings are overwhelmingly negative. With the exception of Brandon Taylor, Carmen Maria Machado, and Larissa Pham’s stories, this collection just never delivered on its promise to break new ground and explore a variety of kinks through a literary lens. Cue story after forgettable story about BDSM—it got stale fast. I was just hoping that it would explore a more diverse range of kinks and make me think differently about erotica, but most of these stories ended up feeling like dollar store versions of much better sexy literary novels I’ve read.
6. Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone
This book almost didn’t make this list because it was forgettable to such a degree that I can’t even bring myself to be angry or upset about it. Mirrorland who? But the fact of the matter was that I had been looking forward to this book for over a year and it sucked, so, here we are. Purported to be both a thriller about identical twins and a commentary on childhood trauma, Mirrorland succeeds at neither objective—it fails to thrill and it fails to go deeper than surface level in its examination of abuse.
5. The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
I’m actually annoyed at the marketing on this book, because usually I can tell with one glance at the cover whether a thriller is going to be more psychological, or more of a silly domestic drama. I had pegged this book as the former (look at the UK cover!!! come on!!), but that assumption proved incorrect. The Hunting Party is about a group of friends on vacation at a remote hunting lodge in a snowstorm: one of them naturally turns up dead. Brilliant premise, abysmal execution. If you care deeply about which of these characters have had sexual fantasies about each other, and are concerned with whose marriage will survive this holiday from hell, by all means, go ahead and read this; otherwise skip. This was just a silly melodrama dressed up as a mystery.
4. Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder
The worst thing about this book is how much I liked it at first. I think Yoder is an accomplished, interesting writer on a stylistic level, and despite my antipathy toward ‘motherhood books,’ I actually found her commentary on the subject incisive enough that I was really on board to see where this was going to go. Unfortunately, the answer was pretty much ‘nowhere.’ This ended up recycling the same ideas over and over for several hundred pages, which annoyed me to no end as I thought this could have made for a brilliant short story.
3. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
It wouldn’t be a ‘most disappointing’ list without at least one Women’s Prize shortlister. I was actually really looking forward to this one, but nothing about it worked for me. I hated the writing style, I admired the potent social commentary but thought that the attempts to weave it into the narrative were clumsy at best; and it was so relentlessly bleak—without even the briefest moment of respite—that I never fully believed these characters or their stories, as they just felt like a vehicle for exploring trauma.
2. Emma by Jane Austen
I’m not going to sit here and try to convince anyone that Emma is a bad or unsuccessful novel; but my god, did I hate reading it. With nothing of more consequence than ‘will the poor little rich girl learn her lesson’ at stake, I just found this so tedious and unpleasant to spend time with. For me, this is solidly Austen’s least interesting work, and the one that I most struggle to find anything redemptive about.
1. Madam by Phoebe Wynne
It’s not always the case that a single book earns both the ‘worst’ and ‘most disappointing’ titles, but this year, Madam sure does. In fact, this is probably the worst book I’ve read in several years. Set in a fictional Scottish boarding school in the 1990s (written as though it were the 1890s), Madam is… an attempt at a subversive feminist campus novel thriller, and while I can only laud its aims, it satirizes the institution’s conservative ideology to such an extreme degree that the novel’s villains may as well be twirling their mustaches the entire time. Abuse is reduced to a cartoonish pantomime in this book. And beyond that—everything about this novel is clumsy, racist, amateurish, poorly written, and just laughably absurd. I was actually shocked by how objectively terrible this was on… every conceivable level.
Happy end of 2021! I’ll try to get my best books of the year post up tomorrow. In the meantime, what was the worst or most disappointing book you read this year?
I know I’ve been a sporadic blogger this year, at best, but this is always my favorite post to write, so let’s get into it! As of today I have read 16/38 of my Anticipated 2021 Releases — not an amazing ratio, but given the year I’ve had, I’m not unhappy with it. I’ve actually been distancing myself from new releases in recent months so I thought this post might end up shorter than usual, but we somehow wound up with a whopping 40+, so, there’s no time to waste…
These are in chronological order and all publishers/pub dates are US unless otherwise indicated. Blurbs are taken from Goodreads or publisher websites.
The Latinist by Mark Prins January 4 Norton
Tessa Templeton has thrived at Oxford University under the tutelage and praise of esteemed classics professor Christopher Eccles. And now, his support is the one thing she can rely on: her job search has yielded nothing, and her devotion to her work has just cost her her boyfriend, Ben. Yet shortly before her thesis defense, Tessa learns that Chris has sabotaged her career—and realizes their relationship is not at all what she believed.
Driven by what he mistakes as love for Tessa, Chris has ensured that no other institution will offer her a position, keeping her at Oxford with him. His tactics grow more invasive as he determines to prove he has her best interests at heart. Meanwhile, Tessa scrambles to undo the damage—and in the process makes a startling discovery about an obscure second-century Latin poet that could launch her into academic stardom, finally freeing her from Chris’s influence.
A contemporary reimagining of the Daphne and Apollo myth, The Latinist is a page-turning exploration of power, ambition, and the intertwining of love and obsession.
You know I’m always up for a Greek myth retelling and I love the academic setting here; this sounds like it could be very up my alley. Though — not to start off this post on a hesitant note — I’m a little nervous about this premise in the hands of a male author, but I’m definitely willing to give this a try.
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara January 11 Doubleday
In an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people may live and love whomever they please (or so it seems). The fragile young scion of a distinguished family resists betrothal to a worthy suitor, drawn to a charming music teacher of no means. In a 1993 Manhattan besieged by the AIDS epidemic, a young Hawaiian man lives with his much older, wealthier partner, hiding his troubled childhood and the fate of his father. And in 2093, in a world riven by plagues and governed by totalitarian rule, a powerful scientist’s damaged granddaughter tries to navigate life without him—and solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearances.
These three sections are joined in an enthralling and ingenious symphony, as recurring notes and themes deepen and enrich one another: A townhouse in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village; illness, and treatments that come at a terrible cost; wealth and squalor; the weak and the strong; race; the definition of family, and of nationhood; the dangerous righteousness of the powerful, and of revolutionaries; the longing to find a place in an earthly paradise, and the gradual realization that it can’t exist. What unites not just the characters, but these Americas, are their reckonings with the qualities that make us human: Fear. Love. Shame. Need. Loneliness.
Like any self-respecting A Little Life stan, this is obviously one of my most anticipated releases of the year.
The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang February 1 Norton
The residents of Haven, Wisconsin, have dined on the Fine Chao Restaurant’s delicious Americanized Chinese food for thirty-five years, happy to ignore any unsavory whispers about the family owners. But when brash, charismatic, and tyrannical patriarch Leo Chao is found dead—presumed murdered—his sons discover that they’ve drawn the exacting gaze of the entire town.
The ensuing trial brings to light potential motives for all three brothers: Dagou, the restaurant’s reckless head chef; Ming, financially successful but personally tortured; and the youngest, gentle but lost college student James. Brimming with heartbreak, comedy, and suspense, The Family Chao offers a kaleidoscopic, highly entertaining portrait of a Chinese American family grappling with the dark undercurrents of a seemingly pleasant small town.
This sounds sort of reminiscent of Number One Chinese Restaurant which unfortunately was a bit of a flop for me, but I did love that premise so I’m eager to try something similar. This looks like it’s being marketed as a thriller as well, or at least some kind of upmarket literary/thriller blend, which has my name written all over it.
Devotion by Hannah Kent February 3 Pan Macmillan (UK)
1836, Prussia. Hanne is nearly fifteen and the domestic world of womanhood is quickly closing in on her. A child of nature, she yearns instead for the rush of the river, the wind dancing around her. Hanne finds little comfort in the local girls and friendship doesn’t come easily, until she meets Thea and she finds in her a kindred spirit and finally, acceptance.
Hanne’s family are Old Lutherans, and in her small village hushed worship is done secretly – this is a community under threat. But when they are granted safe passage to Australia, the community rejoices: at last a place they can pray without fear, a permanent home. Freedom.
It’s a promise of freedom that will have devastating consequences for Hanne and Thea, but, on that long and brutal journey, their bond proves too strong for even nature to break . . .
I’ve actually still never read anything by Kent aside from Burial Rites, but as that remains one of my all-time favorite books, I’m really eager to start reading more by her, and I love the sound of this.
Yerba Buena by Nina LaCour February 8 Flatiron Books
When Sara Foster runs away from home at sixteen, she leaves behind not only the losses that have shattered her world but the girl she once was, capable of trust and intimacy. Years later, in Los Angeles, she is a sought-after bartender, renowned as much for her brilliant cocktails as for the mystery that clings to her. Across the city, Emilie Dubois is in a holding pattern. In her seventh year and fifth major as an undergraduate, she yearns for the beauty and community her Creole grandparents cultivated but is unable to commit. On a whim, she takes a job arranging flowers at the glamorous restaurant Yerba Buena and embarks on an affair with the married owner.
When Sara catches sight of Emilie one morning at Yerba Buena, their connection is immediate. But the damage both women carry, and the choices they have made, pulls them apart again and again. When Sara’s old life catches up to her, upending everything she thought she wanted just as Emilie has finally gained her own sense of purpose, they must decide if their love is more powerful than their pasts.
I really enjoyed LaCour’s We Are Okay and I’m looking forward to her first adult novel.
Blood Feast by Malika Moustadraf translated by Alice Guthrie February 8 Feminist Press
Malika Moustadraf (1969-2006) is a cult feminist icon in contemporary Moroccan literature, celebrated for her uncompromising, troubling depiction of life on the margins, as well as her stark interrogation of gender and sexuality in North Africa.
Blood Feast is the complete collection of Moustadraf’s short fiction: haunting, visceral stories by a master of the genre. A woman is groped during her suffocating commute; a teenage girl suffers through a dystopian rite of passage; two mothers scheme about how to ensure their daughters pass a virginity test. And the collection’s titular story paints a grim picture of dialysis patients in Casablanca–Moustadraf ultimately died of kidney disease at age thirty-seven, denied access to basic healthcare that could have saved her life.
Through brilliantly executed twists and rich slang, she takes an unflinching look at the female body, abuse and harassment, and double standards around desire. Blood Feast is a sharp provocation to patriarchal power, and a celebration of the life and genius of one of Morocco’s preeminent writers.
I’d actually never heard of this author but I love the sound of this short story collection and I’m eager to give her a try, especially as I don’t think I’ve read any Moroccan literature.
Don’t Look At Me Like That by Diana Athill February 8 NYRB
In England half a century ago, well-brought-up young women are meant to aspire to the respectable life. Some things are not to be spoken of; some are most certainly not to be done. There are rules, conventions. Meg Bailey obeys them. She progresses from Home Counties school to un-Bohemian art college with few outward signs of passion or frustration. Her personality is submerged in polite routines; even with her best friend, Roxane, what can’t be said looms far larger than what can.
But circumstances change. Meg gets a job and moves to London. Roxane gets married to a man picked out by her mother. And then Meg does something shocking – shocking not only by the standards of her time, but by our own.
I always try to read a couple of new NYRB releases every year, and this one really caught my eye. I’ve never read anything by Athill but this sounds like it could be great.
Nightshift by Kiare Ladner February 8 Custom House
When twenty-three-year-old Meggie meets her distant and enigmatic new coworker Sabine, she recognizes in her the person she would like to be. Meggie is immediately drawn to worldly, beautiful, and uninhibited Sabine; and when Sabine announces she’s switching to the nightshift, Meggie impulsively decides to follow her. Giving up her daytime existence, her reliable boyfriend, and the trappings of a normal life, Meggie finds a liberating sense of freedom as she indulges her growing preoccupation with Sabine and plunges into another existence, immersing herself in the transient and uncertain world of the nightshift worker.
While the city sleeps, she passes the hours at work clipping crime stories from the next day’s newspapers. The liminal hours between night and day are spent haunting deserted bars and nightclubs with her eclectic coworkers and going on increasingly wild adventures with Sabine. Yet the closer she gets to Sabine, the more Sabine seems to push her away, leaving Meggie desperately trying to hold on to their intense friendship while doubting if she truly knows her friend at all.
A fresh twist on the coming of age story and a dark love letter to city life, Nightshift explores the thin line between self-invention and self-destruction, as Meggie’s sleep deprivation, drinking, and fixation with Sabine gain a momentum all their own. Vividly set in late-nineties London and framed by Meggie’s present-day reflections, Nightshift is a captivating and moving debut that asks profound questions about who we are and if we can truly escape ourselves.
Would it even be a list by me if there weren’t a few disaster women titles in here? I love books that explore obsession as a theme, so, yes yes yes.
Parallel Hells by Leon Craig February 17 Sceptre (UK)
In this deliciously strange debut collection, Leon Craig draws on folklore and gothic horror in refreshingly inventive ways to explore queer identity, love, power and the complicated nature of being human.
Some say that hell is other people and some say hell is loneliness . . .
In the thirteen darkly audacious stories of Parallel Hells we meet a golem, made of clay, learning that its powers far exceed its Creator’s expectations; a ruined mansion which grants the secret wishes of a group of revelers and a notorious murderer who discovers her Viking husband is not what he seems.
Asta is an ancient being who feasts on the shame of contemporary Londoners, who now, beyond anything, wishes only to fit in with a group of friends they will long outlive. An Oxford historian, in bitter competition with the rest of her faculty members, discovers an ancient tome whose sinister contents might solve her problems. Livia orchestrates a Satanic mass to distract herself from a recently remembered trauma and two lovers must resolve their differences in order to defy a lethal curse.
Kirsty Logan describes this as the “queer horror book of your dreams,” so this definitely sounds like a must-read.
The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews February 17 Raven Books
Norfolk, 1643. With civil war tearing England apart, reluctant soldier Thomas Treadwater is summoned home by his sister, who accuses a new servant of improper conduct with their widowed father. By the time Thomas returns home, his father is insensible, felled by a stroke, and their new servant is in prison, facing charges of witchcraft.
Thomas prides himself on being a rational, modern man, but as he unravels the mystery of what has happened, he uncovers not a tale of superstition but something dark and ancient, linked to a shipwreck years before.
First off, this is hands down my least favorite cover in this post, and I’m not sure why they had to do a book with such a good summary that dirty. But that aside, really looking forward to this one — historical mysteries are always right up my alley.
The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley February 22 William Morrow
Jess needs a fresh start. She’s broke and alone, and she’s just left her job under less than ideal circumstances. Her half-brother Ben didn’t sound thrilled when she asked if she could crash with him for a bit, but he didn’t say no, and surely everything will look better from Paris. Only when she shows up – to find a very nice apartment, could Ben really have afforded this? – he’s not there.
The longer Ben stays missing, the more Jess starts to dig into her brother’s situation, and the more questions she has. Ben’s neighbors are an eclectic bunch, and not particularly friendly. Jess may have come to Paris to escape her past, but it’s starting to look like it’s Ben’s future that’s in question.
I have to be honest: this is probably the book on here that I’m approaching with the least amount of good faith, because I hated Foley’s The Hunting Party, but what can I say, I’m intrigued by the premise and like a relatively mindless thriller every now and then, so I find it very likely that I end up picking this up. Hoping it exceeds expectations, though.
The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton March 8 Simon & Schuster
When shy, sensitive Laura Stearns arrives at St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine, she dreams that life there will echo her favorite novel, All Before Them, the sole surviving piece of writing by Byronic “prep school prophet” (and St. Dunstan’s alum) Sebastian Webster, who died at nineteen, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. She soon finds the intensity she is looking for among the insular, Webster-worshipping members of the school’s chapel choir, which is presided over by the charismatic, neurotic, overachiever Virginia Strauss. Virginia is as fanatical about her newfound Christian faith as she is about the miles she runs every morning before dawn. She expects nothing short of perfection from herself—and from the members of the choir.
Virginia inducts the besotted Laura into a world of transcendent music and arcane ritual, illicit cliff-diving and midnight crypt visits: a world that, like Webster’s novels, finally seems to Laura to be full of meaning. But when a new school chaplain challenges Virginia’s hold on the “family” she has created, and Virginia’s efforts to wield her power become increasingly dangerous, Laura must decide how far she will let her devotion to Virginia go.
I adored Burton’s Social Creature and have been eagerly awaiting her followup. This sounds like it has the potential to be near-perfect. I already have an ARC of this so it’s definitely going to be one of my first reads off this list.
Panpocalypse by Carley Moore March 8 Feminist Press
In COVID pandemic-era New York City, Orpheus manages to buy a bicycle just before they sell out across the city. She takes to the streets looking for Eurydice, the first woman she fell in love with, who also broke her heart. The city is largely closed and on lockdown, devoid of touch, connection, and community. But Orpheus hears of a mysterious underground bar Le Monocle, fashioned after the lesbian club of the same name in 1930s Paris.
Will Orpheus be able to find it? Will she ever be allowed to love again? Panpocalypse—first published as an online serial in spring of 2020—follows a lonely, disabled, poly hero in this novel about disease, decay, love, and revolution.
Have you guys started reading books about COVID yet? I have not, so this has the potential to be my first. Not sure how I feel about that yet but something about this premise makes me really excited to give it a try.
The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James March 15 Berkley
In 1977, Claire Lake, Oregon, was shaken by the Lady Killer Murders: Two men, seemingly randomly, were murdered with the same gun, with strange notes left behind. Beth Greer was the perfect suspect–a rich, eccentric twenty-three-year-old woman, seen fleeing one of the crimes. But she was acquitted, and she retreated to the isolation of her mansion.
Oregon, 2017. Shea Collins is a receptionist, but by night, she runs a true crime website, the Book of Cold Cases–a passion fueled by the attempted abduction she escaped as a child. When she meets Beth by chance, Shea asks her for an interview. To Shea’s surprise, Beth says yes.
They meet regularly at Beth’s mansion, though Shea is never comfortable there. Items move when she’s not looking, and she could swear she’s seen a girl outside the window. The allure of learning the truth about the case from the smart, charming Beth is too much to resist, but even as they grow closer, Shea senses something isn’t right. Is she making friends with a manipulative murderer, or are there other dangers lurking in the darkness of the Greer house?
St. James’s The Broken Girls was brilliant and I’ve been meaning to read more by her, and this sounds great.
Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou March 22 Penguin Press
29-year-old PhD student Ingrid Yang is desperate to finish her dissertation on the late canonical poet, Xiao-Wen Chou, and never read about “Chinese-y” things again. But after four years of painstaking research, she has nothing but anxiety and stomach pain to show for her efforts. When she accidentally stumbles upon a strange and curious note in the Chou archives, she convinces herself it’s her ticket out of academic hell.
But Ingrid’s in much deeper than she thinks. Her clumsy exploits to unravel the note’s message lead to an explosive discovery, one that upends her entire life and the lives of those around her. With her trusty friend Eunice Kim by her side and her rival Vivian Vo hot on her tail, together they set off a rollercoaster of mishaps and misadventures, from campus protests and OTC drug hallucinations, to book burnings and a movement that stinks of “Yellow Peril” propaganda.
In the aftermath, nothing looks quite the same to Ingrid—including her gentle and doting fiancé, Stephen Greene. When he embarks on a book tour with the “super kawaii” Japanese author he’s translated, doubts and insecurities creep in. At the same time, she finds herself drawn to the cool and aloof Alex Kim (even though she swears he’s not her type). As the events Ingrid instigated keep spiraling, she’ll have to confront her sticky relationship to white men and white institutions—and most of all, herself.
I’m really drawn to this book in spite of hardly being able to follow the summary — so, we’ll see! Really love this cover as well.
Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza translated by Thomas Bunstead March 22 Catapult
In the Buenos Aires art world, a master forger has achieved legendary status. Rumored to be a woman, she seems especially gifted at forging canvases by the painter Mariette Lydis, a portraitist of Argentine high society. But who is this absurdly gifted creator of counterfeits? What motivates her? And what is her link to the community of artists who congregate, night after night, in a strange establishment called the Hotel Melancólico?
On the trail of this mysterious forger is our narrator, an art critic and auction house employee through whose hands counterfeit works have passed. As she begins to take on the role of art-world detective, adopting her own methods of deception and manipulation, she warns us “not to proceed in expectation of names, numbers or dates . . . My techniques are those of the impressionist.”
Driven by obsession and full of subtle surprise, Portrait of an Unknown Lady is a highly seductive and enveloping meditation on what we mean by “authenticity” in art, and a captivating exploration of the gap between what is lived and what is told.
Speaking of great covers. Gainza’s Optic Nerve wasn’t my favorite — and was actually part of my own personal awakening about how much I dislike autofiction — but I had really enjoyed certain aspects of it, I’m obsessed with art history, and I’d love to read something a bit more plot-heavy by Gainza, so I definitely intend to give this one a try.
Voting Day by Clare O’Dea April 1 Fairlight Books
In February 1959, Switzerland held a referendum on women’s suffrage. The men voted ‘no’.
In this powerful novella, Clare O’Dea explores that day through the eyes of four very different Swiss women. Vreni is a busy farmer’s wife, longing for a break from family life. Her grown-up daughter Margrit is carving out an independent life in Bern, but finds herself trapped in an alarming situation. Esther, a cleaner, is desperate to recover her son who has been taken into care. Beatrice, a hospital administrator, has been throwing herself into the ‘yes’ campaign. The four women’s paths intersect on a day that will leave its mark on all their lives.
I love these short offerings by Fairlight and this one grabbed my attention — love the sound of the summary and it’s Irish, so.
True Biz by Sara Nović April 5 Random House
True biz? The students at the River Valley School for the Deaf just want to hook up, pass their history final, and have doctors, politicians, and their parents stop telling them what to do with their bodies. This revelatory novel plunges readers into the halls of a residential school for the deaf, where they’ll meet Charlie, a rebellious transfer student who’s never met another deaf person before; Austin, the school’s golden boy, whose world is rocked when his baby sister is born hearing; and February, the headmistress, who is fighting to keep her school open and her marriage intact, but might not be able to do both. As a series of crises both personal and political threaten to unravel each of them, Charlie, Austin, and February find their lives inextricable from one another–and changed forever.
This is a story of sign language and lip-reading, cochlear implants and civil rights, isolation and injustice, first love and loss, and, above all, great persistence, daring, and joy. Absorbing and assured, idiosyncratic and relatable, this is an unforgettable journey into the Deaf community and a universal celebration of human connection.
I haven’t read anything from Nović yet but this seems like it could be brilliant.
Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li April 5 Dutton
History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now.
Will Chen plans to steal them back.
A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son that has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a shadowy Chinese corporation reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago.
His crew is every heist archetype one can imagine—or at least, the closest he can get. A conman: Irene Chen, Will’s sister and a public policy major at Duke, who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering student who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down.
Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they’ve dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted attempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.
I like a good heist story but dislike that so many of them are in the fantasy genre (just as a matter of personal preference), so this sounds like it could be perfect for me.
If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga April 5 Graywolf Press
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, an Egyptian American woman and a man from the village of Shobrakheit meet at a café in Cairo. He was a photographer of the revolution, but now finds himself unemployed and addicted to cocaine, living in a rooftop shack. She is a nostalgic daughter of immigrants “returning” to a country she’s never been to before, teaching English and living in a light-filled flat with balconies on all sides. They fall in love and he moves in. But soon their desire—for one another, for the selves they want to become through the other—takes a violent turn that neither of them expected.
A dark romance exposing the gaps in American identity politics, especially when exported overseas, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is at once ravishing and wry, scathing and tender. Told in alternating perspectives, Noor Naga’s experimental debut examines the ethics of fetishizing the homeland and punishing the beloved . . . and vice versa. In our globalized twenty-first-century world, what are the new faces (and races) of empire? When the revolution fails, how long can someone survive the disappointment? Who suffers and, more crucially, who gets to tell about it?
First off, amazing cover. Second, this sounds fantastic and I need to read more Egyptian fiction.
Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart April 5 Grove Press
Born under different stars, Protestant Mungo and Catholic James live in the hyper-masculine and violently sectarian world of Glasgow’s housing estates. They should be sworn enemies if they’re to be seen as men at all, and yet they become best friends as they find a sanctuary in the pigeon dovecote that James has built for his prize racing birds. As they find themselves falling in love, they dream of escaping the grey city, and Mungo works especially hard to hide his true self from all those around him, especially from his elder brother Hamish, a local gang leader with a brutal reputation to uphold.
But the threat of discovery is constant and the punishment unspeakable. When Mungo’s mother sends him on a fishing trip to a loch in Western Scotland with two strange men whose drunken banter belies murky pasts, he will need to summon all his inner strength and courage to get back to a place of safety, a place where he and James might still have a future.
I’m actually the last person on the planet who has yet to read Shuggie Bain, which is especially silly given how likely it seems that I will thoroughly enjoy that novel, so I suppose the inclusion of Young Mungo on here is a bit premature, as I do intend to read Shuggie Bain first. I really like the sound of both novels though so I’m hoping I do enjoy them.
None of This is Serious by Catherine Prasifka April 7 Canongate (UK)
Dublin student life is ending for Sophie and her friends. They’ve got everything figured out, and Sophie feels left behind as they all start to go their separate ways. She’s overshadowed by her best friend Grace. She’s been in love with Finn for as long as she’s known him. And she’s about to meet Rory, who’s suddenly available to her online.
At a party, what was already unstable completely falls apart and Sophie finds herself obsessively scrolling social media, waiting for something (anything) to happen.
None of This Is Serious is about the uncertainty and absurdity of being alive today. It’s about balancing the real world with the online, and the vulnerabilities in yourself, your relationships, your body. At its heart, this is a novel about the friendships strong enough to withstand anything.
The Sally Rooney of it all… This is also blurbed by Naoise Dolan, who’s the author of my favorite Sally Rooney novel not written by Sally Rooney, so, this seems extremely promising for me.
Violets by Kyung-sook Shin translated by Anton Hur April 14 Feminist Press
We join San in 1970s rural South Korea, a young girl ostracised from her community. She meets a girl called Namae, and they become friends until one afternoon changes everything. Following a moment of physical intimacy in a minari field, Namae violently rejects San, setting her on a troubling path of quashed desire and isolation.
We next meet San, aged twenty-two, as she starts a job in a flower shop. There, we are introduced to a colourful cast of characters, including the shop’s mute owner, the other florist Su-ae, and the customers that include a sexually aggressive businessman and a photographer, who San develops an obsession for. Throughout, San’s moment with Namae lingers in the back of her mind.
I’ve only read one Kyung-sook Shin novel (I’ll Be Right There) and didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected to, but I do enjoy Anton Hur’s translations and I love the sound of this one.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel April 15 Knopf
Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal–an experience that shocks him to his core.
Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She’s traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive’s bestselling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him.
When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: The exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe.
Honestly, this summary doesn’t sound like my sort of thing, but then again, neither did the summary for The Glass Hotel, which ended up being my favorite novel of the year in 2020. So I’m open to literally anything Emily St. John Mandel writes.
Auē by Becky Manawatu April 18 Scribe (Australia)
Taukiri was born into sorrow. Auē can be heard in the sound of the sea he loves and hates, and in the music he draws out of the guitar that was his father’s. It spills out of the gang violence that killed his father and sent his mother into hiding, and the shame he feels about abandoning his eight-year-old brother to a violent home.
But Taukiri’s brother, Arama, is braver than he looks, and he has a friend, and his friend has a dog, and the three of them together might just be strong enough to turn back the tide of sadness.
This is a book by a New Zealand author being published in Australia in 2022, so I’m not sure if I’ll want to order it or wait and hope for an American release, but I’ve heard incredible things about this.
there are more things by Yara Rodrigues Fowler April 28 Fleet
Born to a well-known political family in Olinda, Brazil, Catarina grows up in the shadow of her dead aunt, Laura. Melissa, a South London native, is brought up by her mum and a crew of rebellious grandmothers.
In January 2016, Melissa and Catarina meet for the first time, and, as political turmoil unfolds across Brazil and the UK, their friendship takes flight. Their story takes us across continents and generations – from the election of Lula to the London riots to the darkest years of Brazil’s military dictatorship.
there are more things builds on the unique voice of Yara’s debut to create a sweeping novel about history, revolution and love. In it we see sisterhood and queerness, and, perhaps, glimpse a better way to live.
I’m so looking forward to Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s followup to Stubborn Archivist, which I thought was fantastic. Also, we love a Shakespeare title.
Homesickness by Colin Barrett May 3 Grove Press
In these eight stories, Barrett takes us back to the barren backwaters of County Mayo, via Toronto, and illuminates the lives of outcasts, misfits and malcontents with an eye for the abrupt and absurd. A quiet night in the neighbourhood pub is shattered by the arrival of a sword wielding fugitive. A funeral party teeters on the edge of this world and the next, as ghosts won’t simply lay in wake. A shooting sees an everyday call-out lead a policewoman to confront the banality of her own existence.
Potentially my most anticipated book of the year?! Barrett’s Young Skins is one of my favorite short story collections of all time and I still frequently think about and revisit his novella Calm With Horses, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting his next book for years.
Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej May 3 Bloomsbury
When the unnamed narrator of Little Rabbit first meets the choreographer at an artists’ residency in Maine, it’s not a match. She finds him loud, conceited, domineering. He thinks her serious, guarded, always running away to write. But when he reappears in her life in Boston and invites her to his dance company’s performance, she’s compelled to attend. Their interaction at the show sets off a summer of expanding her own body’s boundaries: She follows the choreographer to his home in the Berkshires, to his apartment in New York, and into submission during sex. Her body learns to obediently follow his, and his desires quickly become inextricable from her pleasure. This must be happiness, right?
Back in Boston, her roommate Annie’s skepticism amplifies her own doubts about these heady weekend retreats. What does it mean for a queer young woman to partner with an older man, for a fledgling artist to partner with an established one? Is she following her own agency, or is she merely following him? Does falling in love mean eviscerating yourself?
Another disaster woman offering by a debut author that sounds like it could be amazing.
All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd May 3 Europa Editions
Fuyuko Irie is a freelance copy editor in her mid-thirties. Working and living alone in a city where it is not easy to form new relationships, she has little regular contact with anyone other than her editor, Hijiri, a woman of the same age but with a very different disposition. When Fuyoku stops one day on a Tokyo street and notices her reflection in a storefront window, what she sees is a drab, awkward, and spiritless woman who has lacked the strength to change her life and decides to do something about it.
As the long overdue change occurs, however, painful episodes from Fuyuko’s past surface and her behavior slips further and further beyond the pale. All the Lovers in the Night is acute and insightful, entertaining and engaging; it will make readers laugh, and it will make them cry, but it will also remind them, as only the best books do, that sometimes the pain is worth it.
Another year, another Mieko Kawakami book on my most anticipated list despite the fact that I still haven’t read anything by her. 2022 will be her year though, I am determined.
Elektra by Jennifer Saint May 10 Flatiron Books
The House of Atreus is cursed. A bloodline tainted by a generational cycle of violence and vengeance. This is the story of three women, their fates inextricably tied to this curse, and the fickle nature of men and gods.
Clytemnestra The sister of Helen, wife of Agamemnon – her hopes of averting the curse are dashed when her sister is taken to Troy by the feckless Paris. Her husband raises a great army against them, and determines to win, whatever the cost.
Cassandra Princess of Troy, and cursed by Apollo to see the future but never to be believed when she speaks of it. She is powerless in her knowledge that the city will fall.
Elektra The youngest daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Elektra is horrified by the bloodletting of her kin. But, can she escape the curse, or is her own destiny also bound by violence?
I enjoyed Saint’s Ariadne — not a new favorite, but I liked it enough that I’m curious about the author’s next project, and The House of Atreus is extremely my shit when it comes to Greek mythology.
Bitter Orange Tree by Jokha Alharthi translated by Marilyn Booth May 10 Catapult
The eagerly awaiting new novel by the winner of the Man Booker International Prize, Bitter Orange Tree is an extraordinary exploration of social status, wealth, desire, and female agency. In prose that is at once restless and profound, it presents a mosaic portrait of one young woman’s attempt to understand the roots she has grown from, and to envisage an adulthood in which her own power and happiness might find the freedom necessary to bear fruit and flourish.
Bitter Orange Tree tells the story of Zuhur, an Omani student at a British university who is caught between the past and the present. As she attempts to form friendships and assimilate in Britain, she reflects on the relationships that have been central to her life. Most prominent is her bond with Bint Amir, a woman she has always thought of as her grandmother, who passed away just after Zuhur left the Arabian Peninsula. Bint Amir was not, we learn, related to Zuhur by blood, but by an emotional connection far stronger.
As the historical narrative of Bint Amir’s challenged circumstances unfurls in captivating fragments, so too does Zuhur’s isolated and unfulfilled present, one narrative segueing into another as time slips, and dreams mingle with memories.
I actually haven’t read Celestial Bodies yet, but this summary appeals to me a bit more, so perhaps I’ll read this first and then go back and read Alharthi’s International Booker winner if I enjoy this.
Holding Her Breath by Eimear Ryan May 17 Mariner Books
When Beth Crowe starts university, she is shadowed by the ghost of her potential as a competitive swimmer. Free to create a fresh identity for herself, she finds herself among people who adore the poetry of her grandfather, Benjamin Crowe, who died tragically before she was born. She embarks on a secret relationship – and on a quest to discover the truth about Benjamin and his widow, her beloved grandmother Lydia. The quest brings her into an archive that no scholar has ever seen, and to a person who knows things about her family that nobody else knows.
I’m so intrigued by the combination of Marian Keyes and Roddy Doyle blurbs on the cover and can’t quite figure out whether this is being marketed as literary fiction or commercial/’women’s’ fiction, but something about the summary is grabbing me, so, only one way to find out.
Either/Or by Elif Batuman May 24 Penguin Press
Selin is the luckiest person in her family: the only one who was born in America and got to go to Harvard. Now it’s sophomore year, 1996, and Selin knows she has to make it count. The first order of business: to figure out the meaning of everything that happened over the summer. Why did Selin’s elusive crush, Ivan, find her that job in the Hungarian countryside? What was up with all those other people in the Hungarian countryside? Why is Ivan’s weird ex-girlfriend now trying to get in touch with Selin? On the plus side, it feels like the plot of an exciting novel. On the other hand, why do so many novels have crazy abandoned women in them? How does one live a life as interesting as a novel–a life worthy of becoming a novel–without becoming a crazy abandoned woman oneself?
Guided by her literature syllabus and by her more worldly and confident peers, Selin reaches certain conclusions about the universal importance of parties, alcohol, and sex, and resolves to execute them in practice–no matter what the cost. Next on the list: international travel.
Unfolding with the propulsive logic and intensity of youth, Either/Or is a landmark novel by one of our most brilliant writers. Hilarious, revelatory, and unforgettable, its gripping narrative will confront you with searching questions that persist long after the last page.
My other most anticipated release of the year, tied with Homesickness. At first I didn’t know how to feel about the fact that The Idiot, one of my favorite novels of the past decade, is getting a sequel when I’m very opposed to sequels on principle, especially for works that were conceived as stand-alones. However, the opportunity to spend more time with Selin’s voice is so enticing that I was quickly won over.
Exalted by Anna Dorn June 7 Unnamed Press
Emily Forrest runs the hottest astrology account on Instagram, @Exalted, but astrology is on the outs, and her finances are dwindling. Emily doesn’t even really believe in astrology, despite her gift for deciphering the moons and signs, until she comes across a birth-chart that could potentially change her mind. Beau Rubidoux’s chart has all the planets in their right places—it is exalted.
She decides that Beau could potentially be the love of her life and begins following him around Los Angeles in hopes of getting close to him and catching his eye.
Meanwhile, in Riverside, CA, Dawn Webster has been dumped once again. At 48, she is forced to return to the diner where she started waiting tables at 18. With no girlfriend, no career, and her only son gone to Hollywood, the once-vivacious Dawn is aimless and alone. Persona non-grata at the local lesbian bar, she guzzles cheap champagne and peruses @Exalted to feel seen. When Dawn spots her son’s estranged father one day during a work break, she decides to track him down and reshape the flailing course of her life.
Told from Emily and Dawn’s alternating points of view, Exalted is a deliciously dark novel that explores desire, the projection of love, and what we’re really searching for when we keep scrolling. Anna Dorn’s signature wit and biting social commentary takes readers across Southern California until Emily and Dawn’s shocking connection is finally revealed.
I love astrology and I love books set in LA so this sounds very me.
The House Across the Lake by Riley Sager June 8 Dutton
It looks like a familiar story: A woman reeling from a great loss with too much time on her hands and too much booze in her glass watches her neighbors, sees things she shouldn’t see, and starts to suspect the worst. But looks can be deceiving. . . .
Casey Fletcher, a recently widowed actress trying to escape a streak of bad press, has retreated to her family’s lake house in Vermont. Armed with a pair of binoculars and several bottles of liquor, she passes the time watching Tom and Katherine Royce, the glamorous couple living in the house across the lake.
Everything about the Royces seems perfect. Their marriage. Their house. The bucolic lake it sits beside. But when Katherine suddenly vanishes, Casey becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her. In the process, she discovers the darker truths lurking just beneath the surface of the Royces’ picture-perfect marriage. Truths no suspicious voyeur could begin to imagine–even with a few drinks under her belt.
Like Casey, you’ll think you know where this story is headed.
Because once you open the door to obsession, you never know what you might find on the other side.
My guilty pleasure author (that I don’t actually feel guilty about enjoying as much as I do, because life is too short). Funnily enough I’m kind of irritated that he’s revisiting Vermont as a setting, because his other Vermont-set book (Home Before Dark) was one of my least favorites, in part due to how unconvincing I found the setting, but, odds are I’ll enjoy this one anyway.
The Men by Sandra Newman June 14 Grove Press
Deep in the California woods on an evening in late August, Jane Pearson is camping with her husband Leo and their five-year-old son Benjamin. As dusk sets in, she drifts softly to sleep in a hammock strung outside the tent where Leo and Benjamin are preparing for bed. At that moment, every single person with a Y chromosome vanishes around the world, disappearing from operating theaters mid-surgery, from behind the wheels of cars, from arguments and acts of love. Children, adults, even fetuses are gone in an instant. Leo and Benjamin are gone. No one knows why, how, or where.
After the Disappearance, Jane forces herself to enter a world she barely recognizes, one where women must create new ways of living while coping with devastating grief. As people come together to rebuild depopulated industries and distribute scarce resources, Jane focuses on reuniting with an old college girlfriend, Evangelyne Moreau, leader of the Commensalist Party of America, a rising political force in this new world. Meanwhile, strange video footage called “The Men” is being broadcast online showing images of the vanished men marching through barren, otherworldly landscapes. Is this just a hoax, or could it hold the key to the Disappearance?
I cannot resist an ‘imagine the world with no men,’ premise, and Newman is brilliant.
Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh June 22 Penguin Press
Little Marek, the abused and delusional son of the village shepherd, never knew his mother; his father told him she died in childbirth. One of life’s few consolations for Marek is his enduring bond with the blind village midwife, Ina, who suckled him as a baby, as she did so many of the village’s children. Ina’s gifts extend beyond childcare: she possesses a unique ability to communicate with the natural world. Her gift often brings her the transmission of sacred knowledge on levels far beyond those available to other villagers, however religious they might be. For some people, Ina’s home in the woods outside of the village is a place to fear and to avoid, a godless place.
Among their number is Father Barnabas, the town priest and lackey for the depraved lord and governor, Villiam, whose hilltop manor contains a secret embarrassment of riches. The people’s desperate need to believe that there are powers that be who have their best interests at heart is put to a cruel test by Villiam and the priest, especially in this year of record drought and famine. But when fate brings Marek into violent proximity to the lord’s family, new and occult forces upset the old order. By year’s end, the veil between blindness and sight, life and death, the natural world and the spirit world, civility and savagery, will prove to be very thin indeed.
Ottessa Moshfegh has written two books that I love more than anything (My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen), and two I heartily dislike (Homesick for Another World and Death In Her Hands). So, the stakes are high for Lapvona, but this summary sounds incredible, so I’m cautiously optimistic.
Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels, and Crooks by Patrick Radden Keefe June 28 Doubleday
Patrick Radden Keefe has garnered prizes ranging from the National Magazine Award to the Orwell Prize to the National Book Critics Circle Award for his meticulously-reported, hypnotically-engaging work on the many ways people behave badly. ROGUES brings together a dozen of his most celebrated articles from The New Yorker. As Keefe says in his preface “They reflect on some of my abiding preoccupations: crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial.”
Keefe brilliantly explores the intricacies of forging $150,000 vintage wines, examines whether a whistleblower who dared to expose money laundering at a Swiss bank is a hero or a fabulist, spends time in Vietnam with Anthony Bourdain, chronicles the quest to bring down a cheerful international black market arms merchant, and profiles a passionate death penalty attorney who represents the “worst of the worst,” among other bravura works of literary journalism.
I actually haven’t gotten around to reading Empire of Pain yet, but Say Nothing is one of my favorite books of all time, so I’ll read anything Radden Keefe writes.
Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen July 5 William Morrow
Money can’t buy happiness… but it can buy a decent fake.
Ava Wong has always played it safe. As a strait-laced, rule-abiding Chinese American lawyer with a successful surgeon as a husband, a young son, and a beautiful home–she’s built the perfect life. But beneath this facade, Ava’s world is crumbling: her marriage is falling apart, her expensive law degree hasn’t been used in years, and her toddler’s tantrums are pushing her to the breaking point.
Enter Winnie Fang, Ava’s enigmatic college roommate from Mainland China, who abruptly dropped out under mysterious circumstances. Now, twenty years later, Winnie is looking to reconnect with her old friend. But the shy, awkward girl Ava once knew has been replaced with a confident woman of the world, dripping in luxury goods, including a coveted Birkin in classic orange. The secret to her success? Winnie has developed an ingenious counterfeit scheme that involves importing near-exact replicas of luxury handbags and now she needs someone with a U.S. passport to help manage her business–someone who’d never be suspected of wrongdoing, someone like Ava. But when their spectacular success is threatened and Winnie vanishes once again, Ava is left to face the consequences.
I adored Chen’s novel Bury What We Cannot Take and have been looking forward to her followup, so I’m very excited about this one — the summary sounds brilliant.
Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty July 5 Tin House
Set in a Native community in Maine, Night of the Living Rez is a riveting debut collection about what it means to be Penobscot in the twenty-first century and what it means to live, to survive, and to persevere after tragedy.
In twelve striking, luminescent stories, author Morgan Talty—with searing humor, abiding compassion, and deep insight—breathes life into tales of family and community bonds as they struggle with a painful past and an uncertain future. A boy unearths a jar that holds an old curse, which sets into motion his family’s unraveling; a man, while trying to swindle some pot from a dealer, discovers a friend passed out in the woods, his hair frozen into the snow; a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s projects the past onto her grandson, and thinks he is her dead brother come back to life; and two friends, inspired by Antiques Roadshow, attempt to rob the tribal museum for valuable root clubs.
A short story collection by an Indigenous debut author that I think could be brilliant.
Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori July 5 Grove Press
In these twelve stories, Murata mixes an unusual cocktail of humor and horror to portray both the loners and outcasts as well as turning the norms and traditions of society on their head to better question them. Whether the stories take place in modern-day Japan, the future, or an alternate reality is left to the reader’s interpretation, as the characters often seem strange in their normality in a frighteningly abnormal world. In “A First-Rate Material”, Nana and Naoki are happily engaged, but Naoki can’t stand the conventional use of deceased people’s bodies for clothing, accessories, and furniture, and a disagreement around this threatens to derail their perfect wedding day. “Lovers on the Breeze” is told from the perspective of a curtain in a child’s bedroom that jealously watches the young girl Naoko as she has her first kiss with a boy from her class and does its best to stop her. “Eating the City” explores the strange norms around food and foraging, while “Hatchling” closes the collection with an extraordinary depiction of the fractured personality of someone who tries too hard to fit in.
More short stories, this time by the author of Convenience Store Woman, which I adored. I have still yet to read Earthlings, but I’d like to soon, ahead of this.
Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield July 5 William Morrow
Leah is changed. Months earlier, she left for a routine expedition, only this time her submarine sank to the sea floor. When she finally surfaces and returns home, her wife Miri knows that something is wrong. Barely eating and lost in her thoughts, Leah rotates between rooms in their apartment, running the taps morning and night.
As Miri searches for answers, desperate to understand what happened below the water, she must face the possibility that the woman she loves is slipping from her grasp.
First off, not sure why Flatiron is doing this book so dirty when the UK cover is so stunning, but either way, this summary sounds incredible.
Enjoy Me among My Ruins by Juniper Fitzgerald July 12 Feminist Press
Combining feminist theories, X-Files fandom, and personal memoir, Enjoy Me among My Ruins draws together a kaleidoscopic archive of Juniper Fitzgerald’s experiences as a queer sex-working mother. Plumbing the major events that shaped her life, and interspersing her childhood letters written to cult icon Gillian Anderson, this experimental manifesto contends with dominant narratives placed upon marginalized bodies and ultimately rejects a capitalist system that demands our purity and submission over our survival.
I’ve never actually seen the X-Files, but I’m really drawn to memoirs that explore fandom, as well as sex work, so this sounds like it could be fantastic.
Mothers Don’t by Katiza Agirre translated by Katie Whittemore July 12 Open Letter Press
A mother kills her twins. Another woman, the narrator of this story, is about to give birth. She is a writer, and she realizes that she knows the woman who committed the infanticide. An obsession is born. She takes an extended leave, not for child-rearing, but to write. To research and write about the hidden truth behind the crime.
Mothers don’t write. Mothers give life. How could a woman be capable of neglecting her children? How could she kill them? Is motherhood a prison? Complete with elements of a traditional thriller, this a groundbreaking novel in which the chronicle and the essay converge. Katixa Agirre reflects on the relationship between motherhood and creativity, in dialogue with writers such as Sylvia Plath and Doris Lessing. Mothers Don’t plumbs the depths of childhood and the lack of protection children face before the law. The result is a disturbing, original novel in which the author does not offer answers, but plants contradictions and discoveries.
Leave it to me to dislike all ‘motherhood books,’ except the one with the most fucked up sounding premise ever, but what can I say, I’m really drawn to how twisted this sounds.
Paul by Daisy Lafarge August 16 Riverhead
When personal scandal forces her to leave Paris, Frances, a young British graduate student, travels to southern France one summer to volunteer on a farm. Almost as soon as she arrives, she is pulled into a relationship with the farm’s enigmatic owner, Paul, a well-traveled older artist. Alone in a foreign country, drawn into his orbit, and eventually tangled up in his sheets, Frances starts to lose herself in Paul’s easy, experienced charm. Yet over the course of three intense weeks, as she discovers more about Paul and the people surrounding him, she realizes that she’s caught in an emotional battle of wills that threatens to stifle her voice and crush her autonomy. Coming to terms with what’s happening to her and wresting control from an older man with dark secrets of his own are at the heart of this compelling, unsettling novel.
By turns the story of how a modern woman finds the inner strength to regain her sense of self and a fascinating exploration of the power dynamics between men and women, Paul is a deeply human novel that holds a mirror up to many of the issues that people confront today.
Potentially another disaster woman novel, with an intriguing setting. Really curious about this one.
Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang August 23 Harper Voyager
1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel.
Babel is the world’s center of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel’s research in foreign languages serves the Empire’s quest to colonize everything it encounters.
Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?
Babel — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.
Absolutely everything about this sounds perfect for me, and I loved Kuang’s writing in The Poppy War trilogy (at least in the first two… I have still yet to finish that). I’m very excited to see her going in such a different direction after that series as well.
Blood of Troy by Claire M. Andrews PUB DATE TK Little, Brown and Co.
In this sequel to Daughter of Sparta, Daphne and Apollo are thrust into the middle of the Trojan War.
Daughter of Sparta was an extremely fun YA romp through Ancient Greece, and I’m so excited about the sequel being set in Troy, my favorite of all Greek myth settings.
Heretic by Jeanna Kadlec PUB DATE TK Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
“… a memoir in essays on life after leaving the evangelical church, queerness, and what faith looks like in the face of millennial loneliness and desire for community and meaning — all in light of the hold evangelicalism has on American politics, power structures, and pop culture…”
Hannah found this one and she always finds the best memoirs. I don’t think this is out until the fall, but I’m really looking forward to it.
So there you have it, my not-so-brief list of books I’m looking forward to in the new year. I am under no illusions that I will possibly read all of these books, but I’m excited about the sheer volume to choose from.
Which 2022 releases are you most looking forward to? Comment and let me know!
To round out the recent Jane Austen coverage on my blog, I thought I’d go through and rank all* of her books from my least favorite to favorite**.
*I have only read her six completed full-length novels! I have not read her complete works and at this point in my life I do not intend to, but never say never.
**Please note that my word choice is deliberate: this is not a ranking of her novels from worst to best. That list would look very different and is not the aim of this blog post, before you get mad at me. Respectful disagreement about my personal ranking is, of course, more than welcome.
I’d also like to take a moment to talk generally about this experience of reading through her novels. Before this year, the only Jane Austen novel I’d read was Northanger Abbey, which had such a negligible impact on my life that my Goodreads review in its entirety was, and I quote: “This was the single most inoffensive reading experience of my life. I didn’t like this book. I didn’t dislike this book. I have no opinion on this book and I have absolutely nothing else to say.”
That said, I always knew that Northanger Abbey was a somewhat ridiculous place to start, and I always intended to give her a proper chance at some point. That opportunity presented itself in January of this year when a group of friends and I decided that we would read through her novels together in a book club, meeting on the final Sunday of each month to talk about them.
Reading them in this context was a good choice for me, because it really helped keep my momentum up throughout this project. What I very, very quickly discovered was: Jane Austen is not for me. And that is okay! I fully acknowledge the merit of her works while also acknowledging that her stories and characters have very little impact on me. I don’t love her prose, I don’t enjoy immersing myself in her stories, and I never feel like picking her books back up when I put them down.
But I’m glad I tried. Reading through Austen’s novels was always a very long-term bucket list goal of mine, so I’m glad I just went ahead and plowed through them all in six months. I also enjoyed reading them roughly in the order they were written, and seeing the change in her style over time.
My recommended reading order, if you were thinking of doing this: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion.
Now, without further ado:
Coming in strong with my most controversial opinion: I hated Emma. We’re off to a good start though in illustrating that my personal taste does not align with what I necessarily believe is the ‘correct’ ranking. Do I think this is Austen’s worst novel, not at all. But spending 500 pages with a character I couldn’t stand while the plot effectively went nowhere felt like a tremendous waste of my time and I actually flung this book across the room when I finished; the reading experience was that agonizing for me.
That this was Austen’s first published novel shows — the characters aren’t particularly convincing, the structure is odd and unbalanced, and it’s much too long for what it is. I also found the resolution almost comically unsatisfying and I have to conclude that if Austen had written this book later in her career, Elinor would have ended up with a different love interest. The whole ‘meeting of two minds’ thing that’s so characteristic of most of her romantic pairings is conspicuously absent here, and the whole project falls a bit flat because of it.
Though it was only published two years later, Pride and Prejudice is a much tighter and more cohesive work than Sense and Sensibility, and it’s not difficult to discern why this is largely considered Austen’s masterpiece. Not a single word is wasted in this novel, the character development is sublime, and there is of course a reason that Lizzy and Darcy are the couple of hers that have most endured in our cultural consciousness. Ironically, all of this novel’s assets are also its faults for me — it’s almost too good, it’s almost too neat and tidy. I read it, agreed that ‘yes, that was indeed excellent,’ and I honestly haven’t thought about it since.
Slots 3 and 4 on my list was where the tension between ‘best’ and ‘favorite’ was at its strongest when I was trying to figure out where to place these. I don’t think there is a single argument to be made for Northanger Abbey being a better book than Pride and Prejudice, because it simply isn’t. But I can’t deny that I had a lot more fun reading this one. It’s weird, it’s messy, it’s unapologetically absurd, and I enjoyed it all the more for those things. I’m very glad I ended up rereading this one, because I do think I underestimated it the first time I read it. Major points, however, are docked from how much I despise Cathy and Henry’s relationship — never has the Worldly Man and Naive Ingenue pairing rubbed me the wrong way as much as it does here.
There’s a huge jump between slots 3 and 2 on this list; Northanger Abbey was merely enjoyable; Persuasion was utterly brilliant. A surprisingly melancholy work, Persuasion marks a real departure for Austen, and one that I’m sure I would have enjoyed following, had she lived longer and been able to write more. I love this novel’s subtlety and maturity; that it’s less ‘witty’ than its predecessors wasn’t exactly a downside for me, as I don’t find the Austenian wit a huge draw to begin with.
It’s only right that this list is bookended with my two most controversial opinions — 9 out of 10 times on ‘Jane Austen ranked’ lists, you’ll see these two flipped. While Emma is largely regarded to be one of her best novels, Mansfield Park is generally accepted to be her worst; it’s quieter, less romantic, less humorous, and darker than her other works; its heroine is timid and passive. It doesn’t invite the reader to indulge in a fantasy of Regency England — it’s a bit more like Jane Eyre, fusing a bildungsroman structure with stark social commentary. I absolutely adored this book for all of these reasons and more.
That’s right, #ARCsofshame is back for the third year running!
If you are not familiar with #ARCsofshame, it is a readathon that Hannah and I host for 2 weeks every September. When I say readathon… Hannah and I are usually the only people who participate. There are no prompts except “read your damn ARCs already.” But you are all more than welcome to join us! Don’t listen to Hannah, there IS a hashtag, #ARCsofshame, which I think Laura Frey coined? Not totally sure on that. But yeah, this is more us publicly holding ourselves accountable than anything, so feel free to join in if that sounds fun to you! We will be doing this the first 2 weeks of September this year.
I made a TBR for this project in 2019 and 2020. To be fair to me, I was never intending to read every book off those lists in a single two week period. But now it’s been… a hot second, so, let’s see how I’ve done.
I have read 9 books off my 2019 list, and 5 books off my 2020 list.
So one of my goals for this year is to read one of the unread books off my 2019 list, and one off my 2020 list. From 2019 I’m eyeing The Glass Woman and from 2020 I’m eyeing The Majesties and It is Wood, It is Stone, but I’m not totally settled on any of those.
Otherwise, here’s what I’ve acquired since that I have yet to read:
I’m not reading Cathedral for this as I think it’s over 600 pages, and I will 100% be reading The Women of Troy as I intend to review that for BookBrowse with a mid-September deadline, but otherwise, I’m totally open.
I’m back… I think. Sort of. TBD. I have been in such a rut with reading and reviewing and blogging lately–I haven’t read any of your posts in a couple of months and I feel terrible about that–and I think waiting until I’m 100% back on my feet is a fool’s errand at this point so I’m just going to kind of ease back into this.
And I do this tag every year and the thought of letting it pass me by made me sad so I’m doing this a month late and not counting anything I’ve read post-June 30.
Question 1 – The best book you’ve read so far in 2021
I haven’t had the most amazing reading year but these were the three huge standouts: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, and Edie Richter is Not Alone by Rebecca Handler.
Question 2 – Your favorite sequel of the year
I’ve only read one but luckily I loved it–The Lost Fairytales by Anna James.
Question 3 – A new release that you haven’t read but really want to
Klara and the Sun by my favorite author. I honestly haven’t been in the mood to pick this up and I don’t want to force it when I don’t feel like reading it, but I’m definitely hoping to get to it by the end of the year.
Question 4 – Most anticipated release for the second half of the year
Would you guys even recognize me if I didn’t say the new Sally Rooney? (No, I didn’t get an ARC. I don’t want to talk about it.)
Question 5 – Your biggest disappointment
Absolutely hated this–hands down the weakest title on the Women’s Prize shortlist, imo. Review (and more Women’s Prize coverage) to come.
Question 6 – Biggest surprise of the year
Hands down. Why do you all hate this book?! Review to come, again.
Question 7 – Favourite new to you or debut author
This book just ticked so many boxes for me. I’ll be reading anything Rebecca Handler writes.
Question 8 – Your new fictional crush
Question 9 – New favourite character
Question 10 – A book that made you cry
Wow, pass again!
Question 11 – A book that made you happy
A very fun romp through Ancient Greece written by a friend. Review–you guessed it–to come.
Question 12 – Your favourite book to movie adaptation that you’ve seen this year
The 2021 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet starring Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor absolutely blew me away. My expectations were honestly low going in (I’m not a purist when it comes to Shakespeare adaptations but I also didn’t see how trimming a 3-hour long play down to an hour and a half without losing anything was going to work) but this is honestly one of the best Shakespeare adaptations I have ever seen, and also one of the most timely pieces of media, as I felt so much of it served as an allegory for life under the pandemic.
Question 13 – Favourite book post you’ve done this year
Question 14 – The most beautiful book you have bought/received this year
This one is very striking in person.
Question 15 – What are some books you need to read by the end of the year
I’m in a book club where our next three books are Wide Sargasso Sea, Rebecca, and The Little Stranger. I’ve already read Rebecca but I’d love to re-read it if possible, and I do need to read the other two.
While we’re here, can I solicit some advice on which book to review next? I need motivation. Let me know what you’d like to see me review:
I haven’t done a non-review post in ages but this seemed like too much fun to pass up.
I got this idea from Ally, Sarah, and Naty, make sure to go check out their posts.
Here’s Ally’s explanation of how this works:
So on Goodreads, you can compare your books to someone else’s books. Essentially, Goodreads will look at the books on both of your shelves and compare them for similarities. I’m not entirely sure how it works, but it’s a general look at how similar your reading is.
So, I thought it would be fun to compare my reading tastes to those of some of my friends to see who I read most similarly to.
I’m only including friends who have a blog and who I’m also friends with on Goodreads. But please note that I follow a lot of blogs and have 1,173 Goodreads friends, so I think it’s inevitable that some people get left off; let me know if I should do a part 2!
Pretty big disclaimer here that Laura hardly uses Goodreads, but still, I couldn’t resist checking, could I! Anyway, I think this data is too inaccurate to be taken seriously. Laura and I agree much more often than not.
Books We Both Loved:
In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Young Skins by Colin Barrett, which Laura hasn’t even logged because she’s a fake fan
Books We Disagree On:
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton: to be fair, I haven’t read this book since I was 15, but 15-year-old me hated it
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: Laura loves, I do not
Moby Dick by Herman Melville: basically the only books we disagree on are WH and a bunch of books I hated in high school, not too bad
Laura was just a tad lower than I expected her to be; she’s another one where we have some random wild card disagreements but where our tastes mostly align.
Books We Both Loved:
A Natural by Ross Raisin
Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
Books We Disagree On:
Disobedience by Naomi Alderman: 2 stars from me, 4 from Laura
Sight by Jessie Greengrass: Laura loved it, I had mixed feelings
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: again, Laura loved it, I had an almost incomprehensibly negative reaction to it (as in: I kind of want to read it again because I still can’t make sense of why I disliked it so much–but I doubt reading the audiobook helped, it’s not a great format for me with fiction)
I really thought Callum was going to win it all, tbh. SO CLOSE.
Books We Both Loved:
A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore
All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
Books We Disagree On:
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: 5 stars from Callum, 2 from me; I don’t get on with Gaiman’s writing at all
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins: LOL I KNOW but I literally can’t find a single contemporary literary book on our lists that we differ on beyond a 1-star difference?! Anyway, 4 from Callum, 2 from me on Mockingjay. To which I say… EXCUSE ME, CALLUM? 4 STARS?
The Pearl by John Steinbeck: this list is legitimately hysterical. I don’t even remember reading this book though I have a VAGUE recollection of having done so in middle school. 2 stars from me, 4 from Callum. I hope our friendship will survive this.
And — drumroll — the person I read the most similarly to:
I admired but didn’t particularly like this book. I’ve talked before about how I don’t really get on with books about motherhood, and sometimes the reverse is true too, I don’t always love books about daughterhood, especially when it’s the book’s main focus. (Something like Transcendent Kingdom is the exception, where the mother/daughter relationship is one thread among many.)
I was finding something salvageable in the first half of Burnt Sugar, but the second half just lost me. While I tend to enjoy ‘unlikable’ protagonists, Antara was often too much for me–I found her to be deliberately belligerent toward the reader in a way that I didn’t think was particularly interesting or well-executed. I think this book does have a lot going for it in terms of its chilly depiction of a strained mother/daughter relationship, but Antara herself staunchly refused to do any of the heavy lifting to earn my investment. I just didn’t find her believable or her actions comprehensible; this book is written in the first person and still I struggled to discern some of Antara’s motivations (this isn’t helped by the book’s awkward structure, flitting between the past and the present in a way that was occasionally challenging to follow and which I didn’t think ultimately did it any favors).
Avni Doshi’s prose also failed to impress me, but, like most of my criticisms here, I feel that might just be a matter of personal taste. I do see why this book has been so critically well-received, it just really wasn’t for me.
Thank you to Netgalley and Abrams for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
You didn’t think I was done posting about Shakespeare, did you?!
Roughly one year ago, Project Shakespeare was formed, and as a group we’re celebrating our anniversary tomorrow, by performing snippets of different scenes and each performing a monologue that we’ve done at some point over the past year. Everyone in the group voted for which monologue everybody was going to do, and I was voted to do Edmund in King Lear, because of course I was.
But this whole thing, preparing for the Anniversary Extravaganza and looking through monologues I’ve done over the past year, led me to compiling this list of my favorite Shakespeare monologues because damn, are there some good ones. One thing about Shakespeare is that he invented very few of his stories; the reason we still value his works isn’t for their artistic innovation so much as for their language, so that’s what I really wanted to celebrate in this post by going through a few of my favorites. I say ‘a few’ — it’s my top 15. Let’s do this.
Also, this order is kind of arbitrary. I saved my favorite one for last but otherwise I’m grouping plays together where there are multiples from the same play for contextual consistency. Also including some video links when there’s a good video version or one I particularly like.
15. Macbeth in Macbeth 2.1, “Is this a dagger”
Context: Macbeth has just resolved to kill the king Duncan in order to crown himself.
This one’s not that deep (my reasoning for it making this list, that is, not the monologue itself) — I’ve had it memorized for years so it’s the one Macbeth monologue I still gravitate toward the most, although there are plenty of great ones to choose from.
14. Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1.1, “How happy some o’er other some can be”
Context: Helena is in love with Demetrius, who’s in love with Hermia, who’s in love (mutually) with Lysander; those two are about to run off into the woods together. Demetrius used to love Helena and here she’s lamenting that his affections turned to Hermia, and she decides that she’s going to tell Demetrius that Hermia and Lysander are running off together, thinking it will bring Demetrius closer to her. Helena’s a mess, basically.
I think this is the only monologue from a comedy that made this list. I’m not so adamantly anti-comedy as I was at the beginning of my Shakespeare journey, but it is true that they tend to not hit me quite as hard. This Helena monologue isn’t even that special, objectively; I’d simply wanted to play Helena since I was 11, so I rehearsed the heck out of this monologue when I finally got the chance last month and it’s one of the ones that I most enjoyed spending time with. (Helena is incidentally also the character I’d most like to play on stage, so if you’re casting Midsummer in Vermont post-pandemic… call me.)
13. Constance in King John 3.4, “Thou art not holy to belie me so”
Context: Constance’s son Arthur, a claimant to the throne and a threat to King John, has been captured by John’s forces. Here Constance mourns Arthur’s death and dies of grief herself shortly after, though interestingly, Arthur hasn’t actually yet died in the play when Constance gives these speeches — it’s one of those weird Shakespearean puzzles.
Slightly less famous than a different monologue that follows (“Grief fills the room up of my absent child”), but if I had to choose just one for Constance, this wins hands down. I LOVE the language in this one: I love the visual imagery Shakespeare weaves in of Constance tearing her hair down while she’s giving this speech about grief and sanity, and “Preach some philosophy to make me mad,/ And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal” is one of my favorite lines full stop.
12. Lady Percy in Henry IV Part 2 2.3, “O, yet, for God’s sake, go not to these wars!”
Context: Kate Percy’s father in law, Northumberland, is talking about bringing his troops into battle. Kate reprimands him and reminds him that his son Hotspur needed backup from his father, which he neglected to send, resulting in Hotspur’s death at the hands of Prince Hal (here referred to as Monmouth), and now that Hotspur’s dead there’s no point in going back into the war now. Northumberland agrees.
Video: random talented YouTuber named Elin Alexander (I ended up playing this character with a British accent because I watched this girl’s video so many times while preparing this monologue)
THE POWER OF THIS MONOLOGUE, I mean, imo the second best piece of rhetoric in all of Shakespeare?! Northumberland being STRUCK DOWN by his daughter in law and changing his military tactic because she just spends two minutes roasting his ass… incredible.
11. Hamlet in Hamlet 2.2, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I”
Context: Hamlet was told by his father’s ghost that his uncle Claudius is guilty of his father’s murder, and here he resolves to set a trap for Claudius by putting on a play which mirrors Hamlet’s father’s murder, hoping to evoke a reaction in Claudius that will confirm his guilt.
I mean… it’s famous for a reason and I’m not sure what I can possibly say about it. This whole monologue is a ride from start to finish and the simple admission of weakness in “Am I a coward?” just GETS ME.
10. Claudius in Hamlet 3.3, “O my offense is rank”
Context: After the play has been performed, Claudius storms off and confesses in this monologue that he’s plagued with guilt over his brother’s murder, and he attempts to pray but is unable to.
Such a moment of vulnerability from such a detestable character — that Shakespeare goes to such lengths to humanize even terrible people is one of my favorite things about his works; you’re never spoon-fed a moral as you never see a conflict from only one side. We spend most of this play inside Hamlet’s head and still we get this tender, intimate moment of grief and guilt from the chief antagonist; it’s brilliant.
9. Romeo in Romeo & Juliet 3.3, “‘Tis torture, and not mercy”
Context: Immediately after his marriage to Juliet, Romeo murders Tybalt Capulet while avenging his friend Mercutio’s death. He finds out here that his punishment is banishment from Verona.
One of my most unpopular Shakespeare opinions is that I am far more drawn to Romeo than to Juliet — reconciling his passion and his tender heart with the violence he’s forced to commit is just devastating and that comes to a head in this monologue, full of both gentle and violent imagery. The only thing I can fault the Zeffirelli film for is cutting this.
8. Romeo in Romeo & Juliet 5.3, “In faith, I will”
Context: Romeo has just killed Paris in Juliet’s tomb, and Paris’s final words were pleading that Romeo buries him with Juliet, which he promises to do here before killing himself.
This monologue is just so unbearably sad and weighty and lovely; after I read this for the first time I decided that I would die if I couldn’t play Romeo, I just wanted the excuse to sit with these words.
7. Edmund in King Lear 1.2, “Thou, Nature, art my goddess”
Context: Edmund is the bastard son of Gloucester, and here he’s lamenting that his bastardy prevents him from receiving his full inheritance, so he’s coming up with a plan to frame his brother Edgar to cheat him out of his inheritance.
MY BOY. This is the one I’m doing in PS tomorrow, which I haven’t practiced, lol, but I have it memorized so… that should get the job done. Anyway this is just SO GOOD, Edmund raging against the social customs that prevent him from inheriting, and then the terrible turn it takes when he decides to frame his unwitting brother. “Now, gods, stand up for bastards” is a god tier villain mantra.
6. Edmund in King Lear 1.2, “This is the excellent foppery of the world”
Context: Edmund thinks astrology is bullshit.
Basically I adore every single word out of Edmund’s mouth and this deliciously sarcastic soliloquy about human nature is just hard to beat.
5. Cleopatra in Antony & Cleopatra 5.2, “Give me my robe, put on my crown”
Context: Antony has been defeated and Cleopatra has been captured by Octavian; she kills herself and her maids to spare them being paraded before Rome as a part of Caesar’s victory.
“Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have/ Immortal longings in me” is like… almost too good of a line to be real. This whole thing is just exceptional. She’s such a vibrant character meeting such a hollow end, it’s devastating.
4. Queen Margaret in Henry VI Part 3 1.4, “Brave warriors, Clifford and Northumberland”
Context: We’re in the Wars of the Roses now — Richard, Duke of York has been captured by the Lancastrian Queen Margaret and here she mocks him before having him executed, offering him a handkerchief with his dead son’s blood to dry his tears and putting a paper crown on his head.
Pretty much the most savage scene in all of Shakespeare. The way most people stan Lady Macbeth, I stan Margaret of Anjou.
3. Richard in Richard II 3.2, “No matter where; of comfort no man speak”
Context: Richard has just received word that his army has deserted him and that the people have accepted Bolingbroke (his successor, Henry IV) as ruler and he kind of has a breakdown about it.
Richard II is the gorgeous writing play and that’s best encapsulated here. “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;/ Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes/ Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,” “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings,” “I live with bread like you, feel want/ Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus/ How can you say to me, I am a king” yes I’m just quoting the entire thing but COME ON!!! This monologue is one of the best pieces of writing ever penned in the English language.
2. Brutus in Julius Caesar 3.2, “Be patient till the last.”
Context: Brutus and the other conspirators have just killed Caesar; Brutus delivers this speech at Caesar’s funeral saying that they killed Caesar for the good of the Roman republic, and that Antony, who is about to speak, will corroborate this.
I played Brutus in PS, and when I was rehearsing, reading the lines alone in my room, I was more drawn to his soliloquies (namely 2.1, “It must be by his death”), but while I was in the moment, this is the speech that really stuck with me. Brutus is just such a brilliantly crafted character; one of the most notorious traitors in history defined here by honor is just navigated with such finesse throughout the play; I love the passion and sincerity here, especially contrasted with what’s about to follow.
Mark Antony in Julius Caesar 3.2, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”
Context: And then Antony takes the stage and things do not go to plan.
How fucking cliché for this to be your favorite Shakespeare monologue, but unfortunately it can’t be beat. Just an absolute masterclass in rhetoric and manipulation while still being able to withstand performances that vary wildly in their degree of sincerity. I just love everything about this speech.