1. Severance by Ling Ma
In Severance, Ling Ma creates an alternate recent past, in which most of humankind has been wiped out by Shen Fever. But Shen Fever doesn’t just kill — it renders those infected useless, slowly rotting away while trapped in an infinite, mindless loop of their most mundane activities. When Candace Chen finds herself among a small group of survivors, she comes to terms with the fact that her identity is tied up with her productivity, and her conception of freedom is tied to success in a system which has now collapsed. Ma’s prose is so efficient, but what is most remarkable is the gentleness with which Ma describes those working within the capital-S System. What does it mean if a person finds true comfort working as a “cog” in a system they disagree with? Is that comfort any less real?
Read Ling Ma’s essay “Working at Playboy Meant Hiding My Emotions.”
2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is an absolutely exhilarating debut, written from the perspectives of all the splintered selves that make up one young woman, Ada. These voices describe themselves as gods and spirits, remnants of the spiritual realm Ada never truly left when she was born. As Ada grows, and as she comes to hear and even love these voices within her, her sense of identity shifts in terrifying, empowering, and bewildering ways. It is a masterful exploration of being, blending psychological, philosophical, and spiritual concepts of existence, and it will leave you breathless.
Read Akwaeke Emezi’s essay “Writers of Color Are Making Their Own Canon.”
3. Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel
Rita Bullwinkel’s Belly Up is an astounding collection of short stories — stories about girls who want to be plants, or a living boy who grew up in a family of zombies, or a dying woman who sneaks out for a night swim with an ailing man. These stories exist in worlds just past reality, just slightly uncomfortable, familiar until, suddenly, they aren’t. And I didn’t just read these stories, each revealing at once the absolute absurdity and magnificence of being alive; I savored them. Bullwinkel’s writing and world-building demand space to reflect on it, react to it, and then, if you’re like me, shout about it to anyone who will listen.
Read a list of books that inspired Rita here.
4. There There by Tommy Orange
In There There — an intricate study of Native American life in Oakland, California — Tommy Orange pushes the boundaries of fiction to write this story as he wants to tell it. The result is a series of vignettes, moments in the lives of characters — each expertly rendered in voices completely distinct from one another — who are linked in ways that become clearer as the narrative progresses. A current of violence runs through these stories — even as these characters go about their daily lives, even as Orange successfully refutes the idea of a monolithic Native American identity — and it has to do with the violence done to them: historically, physically, systemically. The novel’s staggering opening makes it impossible to forget that this violence is its foundation.
Read Tommy Orange’s essay “How Native American Is Native American Enough?”
5. Circe by Madeline Miller
Madeline Miller’s Circe is a spellbinding reimagining of the immortal witch’s life. It’s a story of loss and longing — Circe is an outcast among the gods for her inability to match their ruthlessness; she is betrayed by the mortals she trusts; and even when she discovers her immense powers, those powers often serve to alienate her further. Miller’s world-building is lush and evocative, but it’s her handling of Circe’s isolation — written with such tenderness and abiding melancholy, exploring the ways in which a woman nurtures her own strength despite being punished for her power — that lingers in your brain long after finishing.
6. Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
There are no rules in Gina Apostol’s inventive, genre-bending novel Insurrecto. The book follows two women on a trip through the Philippines — one an American filmmaker researching a 1901 uprising of Filipino revolutionaries against American occupiers, the other a Filipino writer and translator, working on her own version of the same story. But piecing together historical events that have been long omitted or glossed over is tricky, and Apostol’s storytelling mirrors the disorientation such a task can create. Insurrecto comes together as a sort of collage — chapters are numbered but out of order, truth and fiction are blended, and the format varies. It’s that kind of magnificent book that begs for a second reading.
7. A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us is everything I love about family sagas. It traverses time and place, explores the conflicts between a parent’s expectation and a child’s desires, and, most importantly, introduces us to fully imagined, flawed characters whose relationships are deep, entangled, and rich in love. The story — which centers on an American Muslim family navigating the tension between tradition and autonomy — is told in fragments, jumping from one character to another, slowly adding layers to scenes by revisiting interactions from multiple perspectives. And Mirza renders this family with a gentle hand, lovingly, so that each character will make their way into your heart.
Read an excerpt here.
8. The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina
The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish looks at the effects of a parent’s mental illness on their children, examining it from two perspectives — as experienced during childhood and as remembered during adulthood. In 1997, after 16-year-old Edith finds and saves her mother moments after she attempts suicide, she and her younger sister Mae are sent to New York to live with their father, a successful writer who abandoned them more than a decade earlier and who is now trying to revive their relationship (but, perhaps, for not-so-honorable reasons). Alongside this timeline, we see the period as recalled by Mae. The differences between the two accounts are illuminating — we see how alliances can be formed based on what we need for survival, how forgiveness is directly related to our sense of loss, and how our perceived role in a family differs from or aligns with the role our family has given us.
9. The Overstory by Richard Powers
Richard Powers’ latest novel is a breathtaking, wholehearted appeal for the protection and preservation of our natural world. Spanning centuries and continents, The Overstory follows a group of seeming strangers — a scientist, an artist, a Vietnam War vet, among others — who’ve each been deeply affected by a tree at some point in their life, and who are drawn eventually to the same place, a final stand for the last acres of virgin forest in the world. Powers writes with deep reverence for the banyan, chestnut, and other trees that guide the narratives, honoring their physical beauty and power, and lamenting the human ability to destroy them anyway. It is both an elegy and a paean, with a touch of magic, and will make the reader want to go out and, at the very least, hug the nearest tree.
10. The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
In The Incendiaries, R.O. Kwon circles three disastrous characters — lapsed evangelical Will, the highly suggestible, former piano prodigy Phoebe, whom Will loves, and John, the gulag prison escapee and cult leader who has successfully wooed Phoebe. Kwon draws the trio closer and closer to a climax hinted at from the beginning, but it isn’t suspense alone that drives this story forward. Kwon’s lyricism is enchanting, soothing even while describing the most disturbing details, and nearly impossible to break away from.
Read an excerpt here.
11. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
I swear I could feel my pulse slowing down as I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel about a young woman in New York determined to solve every problem in her privileged and disillusioned life by medicating herself into near oblivion for a year and coming back to the world refreshed. Hers is a protracted self-destruction, remarkable both for its mundanity (the unnamed protagonist narrates her days so that they almost seem like any lazy New Yorker’s, full of takeout and TV, and little alarm) and for the cluelessness of the few people who remain in her life — most significantly her (hilarious, terrifying) psychiatrist. It’s a timely and necessary skewering of “self-care” and its ends, and forces readers to contend with their expectations of happiness, wellness, and life in general.
12. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
I knew My Sister, the Serial Killer was going to be something really special from the first sentence: “Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him.” It only gets better from there. Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel is about a nurse who has found herself in a dangerous pattern of abetting her younger sister who can’t seem to stop killing men, and it’s a quick read. You can’t help flying through the pages, drawn in by the energy simmering right under the surface of the story, waiting for it to burst. But Braithwaite manages, too, to juxtapose this high-stakes story with the mundanity of daily life and its universal disappointments — the secret fantasies of a workplace crush, the pride in and resentment of carrying too many responsibilities, and the bitter pain of watching someone you love captivate everyone she meets when all you want is to be noticed and appreciated by just one person.
Read an excerpt here.
13. The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea
Beloved patriarch Miguel Angel de La Cruz — aka Big Angel — is dying, but the day before his final birthday party (slash living memorial) he has to attend his mother’s funeral. The House of Broken Angels sounds like it should be devastating; what’s remarkable is the joy that drives it. The sprawling de La Cruz family spend the weekend celebrating two lives — two larger-than-life people — while navigating thorny family dynamics. Luis Alberto Urrea writes each character with verve and sympathy, creating a collective history that will absolutely captivate you.
Read an excerpt here.
14. Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox is many things at once: It’s historical fiction — a romp through 18th-century London alongside legendary thief and gaol-breaker Jack Sheppard. It’s speculative fiction — Rosenberg takes Sheppard’s story and queers it, imagining the notorious criminal as trans in a time when he wouldn’t necessarily have (and, we see, would be constantly seeking) the language with which he could describe himself. It’s wildly erotic — I’ll say that reading this novel prompted my own hourslong research journey into the history of sex toys. And above all this, it is a meta-analysis of all these moving parts. The “confessions” are presented as a found manuscript, which we read along with literary scholar Dr. Voth. Dr. Voth — who, like Sheppard, is trans, and raging against the capitalist machine — peppers the text with personal footnotes, slowly revealing the parallels between both stories. In less capable hands, this conceit could be Too Much, but Rosenberg is as dexterous in storytelling as his protagonist is with locks; everything just fits.
15. The Wildlands by Abby Geni
Abby Geni’s The Wildlands looks at the McCloud family, aka the “saddest family in Mercy,” as they’re dubbed after a tornado destroys their home and leaves them orphaned. Sisters Cora, Jane, and Darlene are struggling to survive on their limited means, and after a local factory (which experimented on animals) is bombed, their luck gets even worse. The bomber is their estranged brother Tucker — who was radicalized by the tornado and is now a believer in the soon-to-come extinction of mankind — and he returns to home to kidnap 9-year-old Cora and bring her on the lam, stopping here and there to perform more acts of destruction in the name of his cause. What follows is Cora’s aching account of love, danger, and disillusionment, alongside Darlene’s frantic quest to rescue her. It is a moving exploration of humanity: not only the danger of our belief in our supremacy and our power to control our environment, but also the unique power of our love for each other.
16. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are all set up for what should be a nearly perfect future — great jobs, new house, deep love — until Roy is arrested and found guilty of a rape he didn’t commit, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Celestial remains dedicated to Roy, visiting him and writing letters, but as her life goes on — her career is taking off, and she’s finding new comfort in a childhood friend — tensions arise, and their relationship becomes much more complicated. An American Marriage is a both an incisive criticism of the racism built into our judicial system and a poignant examination of the long-lasting emotional and psychological effects it has on those oppressed by it.
Read an excerpt here.
17. Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Reading Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut short story collection Friday Black is like being shaken awake. These stories exist in a sort of hyperreality, ordinary characters living in the not-so-unbelievable, Black Mirror–esque future of a culture that doesn’t hesitate to commodify cruelty or monetize revolution. (See: “Zimmer Land,” the story about an amusement park that allows guests to play-act their most violent urges.) Adjei-Brenyah skewers the ways we brush past racism and injustice, making the absurdity of the rhetoric around both impossible to ignore.
18. Kudos by Rachel Cusk
In the finale to her groundbreaking trilogy, Rachel Cusk continues her investigation of the symbiotic relationship between identity and creativity, her exploration of that blurred line between existence and performance. Those who’ve read Outline or Transit will recall our narrator, Faye, who returns in Kudos remarried but surrounded by people long since disillusioned by love. The book veers into abstraction at times — the narrator’s meditations and discussions at a European literary festival can seem to exist outside of reality — but it also offers a profound, if bleak, interpretation of human relationships.
19. French Exit by Patrick DeWitt
When the very wealthy and eccentric widow Frances realizes she’s gone broke, she and her roommate/best friend/son Malcolm hightail it to Paris to avoid scandal — with their cat (who happens to be the vessel for Frances’s late husband's ghost) in tow. French Exit is a sharp romp and deceptively poignant romp, its laugh-out-loud pitch-black humor tempered by fleeting but powerful moments of heart.
20. Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala
When Niru comes out to his best friend Meredith, she downloads Tinder on his phone and convinces him to set up a date. When his father discovers these messages, though, he’s swiftly whisked away to their home country, Nigeria, for a spiritual cleansing. When he returns, he discovers things have changed with Meredith — whose side we hear years later, in her own section. Uzodinma Iweala delves into the lasting pain of being separated from society, family, and friends for being different, and the devastation of learning that love alone isn’t always enough to span those distances.
21. Mem by Bethany C. Morrow
In her debut novel, Mem, Bethany C. Morrow achieves the nearly impossible feat of creating truly new speculative fiction; reading it feels like discovery. The book takes place in 1925, in a Montreal of a different universe. Here, scientists have figured out how to extract memories from people who'd like to forget them, and these memories manifest as physical clones — human-appearing entities whose entire brief existence is a continual loop of the extracted memory, relived in the underground vault where they are kept and observed. But then there's Dolores Extract #1 — or, as she’s named herself, Elsie — who is something of a miracle, “born” conscious of her identity as a Mem and able to feel emotion. In her investigation of memory and other Mems, and in pushing the limits of her autonomy outside of the vault, Elsie confronts those big questions which underlie our existence: Who are we without our memories? And what defines our consciousness?
Read an excerpt here.
22. She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore
In She Would Be King, debut novelist Wayétu Moore reimagines Liberia’s past, building a world so clear and evocative you would swear you were in it. This version is seen from the perspectives of three characters, each blessed with (or burdened by) a supernatural gift: There’s seemingly immortal Gbessa, named a witch and exiled from her home; June Dey, the product of a miraculous birth and holding otherworldly strength; and Norman Aragon, the son of a black mother and the white man who enslaved her, who can disappear. Each is drawn to Monrovia — where Africans, both indigenous tribes and those emancipated from enslavement — maintain autonomy. Connecting them all is a mysterious, omniscient spirit, who pushes them toward each other and their destination with gusts of wind. Reading She Would Be King is like being carried by that wind, too, and whisked into a darkly magical world.
23. The Pisces by Melissa Broder
Melissa Broder’s The Pisces is going to surprise you — I’d put money on it. I could tell you that it’s about a woman falling in love with a merman, that it’s deeply and at times grotesquely erotic, that it’s one of the most astute and unflinching examinations of depression I’ve ever read, and still you’d just have to read it to understand. Broder is a generous and affecting writer, brilliant in her ability to tie all of these threads together (oh, I forgot to mention it’s also about the disillusionment of academia and creative endeavors) in a way that feels truly new.
Read an excerpt here.
24. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
When a writer loses her best friend and mentor to suicide, her shock is augmented by the fact that he’s left her Apollo, his great Dane. Though she’s at first reluctant — she’s not really a dog person, and her building doesn’t even allow dogs — the two end up forming an unlikely bond in their shared grief, and falling into their own kind of love. It is as much an exploration of human–animal relationships as it is about mentor–student relationships, and Sigrid Nunez’s keen emotional fluency allows the reader to feel a sense of healing and catharsis alongside her protagonist.
25. A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man is, at its core, an exploration of black masculinity. These stories follow boys and young men from New York — a boy from the Bronx whose imagination turns his day camp trip to the suburbs into something much more magical; two college students navigating a late-night party — who are all confronting their ideas of what it means to be a black man, and questioning where those ideas come from. Brinkley writes with vulnerability and clarity, and he’s the master of that particular kind of gut-punching last sentence.
26. Milkman by Anna Burns
Milkman is a dreamy novel, untethered to specifics; the narrator and location are never named, though Belfast is implied. The 18-year-old protagonist — “middle sister” as she refers to herself — is ethereal, too, narrating her life in long sentences that almost bleed into each other, spending her days walking around town while reading 19th-century literature. When she catches the attention of a 41-year-old paramilitary officer nicknamed the milkman, she’s too intimidated by him to reject his advances, and she finds herself in an affair she isn’t keen on, gaining notoriety she feels ambivalent about. Anna Burns’ prose is delectable, and Milkman reads like an ethnography that just so happens to be about anywhere.
27. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Reading Convenience Store Woman — a spare, quietly brilliant novel about an offbeat woman whose life revolves around the convenience store she works at — is like being lulled into a soft calm. The book’s narrator, Keiko Furukura, leads a simple life and wants nothing more. At 36 years old, she’s worked at her local convenience store for exactly half her life, and it is the nucleus of her existence; as a lifelong outsider who has difficulty understanding human interactions, she eats, converses with, and observes the people around her at the shop so she can best mimic and exist among them. And though she feels like the odd one out, it’s her frank appraisal of the systems of the world that reveals the absurdity of everyone else. Why has society at large agreed to live by these arbitrary rules? And why does everyone else treat Keiko’s rejection of these rules like a threat?
Read an excerpt here.
28. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers looks at the AIDS epidemic as experienced in one group of friends, connecting characters across two timelines —1985 in Chicago, where the tight-knit artists and creatives try to make sense of the disease and its devastation; and 2015 in Paris, where Fiona, whose brother died in the 1980s, finds herself chasing her runaway daughter, who doesn't want to be found. It's a gut-wrenching story of loss and survival.