Every year I do a round up of the books I read that I think you might enjoy. I try to stick to books that I think don’t have as big an existing footprint, so some of the shortlisted books include Hunger, and Difficult Women, both by Roxane Gay, What We Lose, by Zinzi Clemmons, and The Liars Club, by Mary Karr. Those all have a pretty strong following so here are 13 books you might not already be familiar with.
The Conjoined, by Jen Sookfong Lee
A woman helping her father clean a few months after her mother’s death finds a body in the freeze. It’s been there for more than 30 years, and as the novel jumps between the past and present she tries to figure out some kind of truth or conclusion about her mother.
Romantic Outlaws, by Charlotte Gordon
A biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley with alternating chapters about their lives. Past writers have written about both separately because Wollstonecraft died when her daughter was a baby, so this is the first book to explore how Wollstonecraft influenced her daughter’s life. Well-written, with new research and insight into how both women influenced their husbands’ work, I can’t recommend this enough. Complementary read: Passionate Minds, by David Bodanis.
The Wangs vs The World, by Jade Chang
A wealthy and privileged family is suddenly broke. Their only option is to drive cross-country to where the eldest daughter owns a farmhouse. Complex, with multiple perspectives and some pretty pointed critiques of the world we live in, this is also a book about the people who are with you when you don’t have anything else. Complementary read: The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson.
Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach
What does it take for humans to survive in space? Lots of people have recommended Mary Roach to me and this was the first one I read. Funny, conversational, and packed full of the kind of facts that make me giddy, it’s like sitting down for a drink with an expert who’s full of crazy stories (appropriately referenced of course).
The Borrowed, by Chan ho-Kei
I read a lot of mystery novels this year and at some point figured there had to be mysteries that weren’t American, English, or Scandinavian out there. Set in Hong Kong over 50 years, it follows the career of a police detective through seven career-defining cases. Along the way you get insights into the politics of Hong Kong and the changes over the last decades. Plus just a bunch of really good mysteries.
The First Signs, by Genevieve von Petzinger
A lot of attention is paid to cave paintings of animals and people. We are understandably fascinated by this early art. However, the earliest human art is symbols – dots, squiggles, chevrons etc. – and this has received much less attention. Von Petzinger explores dozens of caves in Spain and France to put together a comprehensive “what we know so far” of this very early art, including a few theories of what it might mean.
The Break, by Katherena Vermette
Every year I read a book that I then hesitate to recommend because suggesting it is saying “Here – tear out your heart and rebuild it.” An Untamed Heart and Book of Dahlia both fit in this category and now The Break joins them. When a girl is attacked after a party, it affects everyone in her family, and the wider community. Beautifully written, and full of compassion, it will break your heart, but it’s worth it.
A bunch of books by Mohsin Hamid (Exit West, Discontent and Its Civilizations, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia)
Years ago I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which has stuck with me ever since, but I didn’t seek out more from Mohsin Hamid until his latest novel Exit West caught my eye. A timeless book about searching for safety and trying to find your place in the world (literally), this motivated me to read some more of his backlist. I’d recommend all of them. Having lived in Pakistan, the USA, and England, he brings that rich experience to his books, nimbly jumping between cities and cultures, with keen observation of the behaviour of others, and the internal life of his characters.
An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole
Romance novels are one of my go-to genres, especially when I’m stressed or anxious, but I rarely recommend them here because there is still a lot of snobbery and stigma around romance (#sexism). I’ve heard from a few people that would like recommendations of where to start. That might be a blog of it’s own soon, but to start you off this is one of the best I’ve read. About a free woman during the American Civil War who goes undercover as a slave to gather information for the North, holy shit this book was so good. Well-written, in an incredibly compelling setting, with characters who are complex and flawed and brave and inspiring.
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, by Kai Cheng Thom
There’s this category of Canadian book that I haven’t quite figured out but that I keep stumbling across by accident that might be categorized as something like “Dark Queer Fairytale”. There’s Lost Boi, by Sassafras Lowrey, Sub Rosa, by Amber Dawn, and now Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars. Let me know others if this rings a bell! About a young trans girl who runs away and finds a new family of trans women who help her blossom, but when one of them is murdered she turns to violence to try and protect their neighbourhood.
Blackass, by A. Igoni Barrett
Furo, a Nigerian man living in Lagos, wakes up one morning and is white (and a ginger, to make it even worse!) From existential questions – is he still the person he was? – to the logistical, like how to get ID that matches his new face, this is a very effective and moving satire.
The Long Tomorrow, by Leah Brackett
I kept looking at when this short novel was written because it felt like it could have come out yesterday, but it’s actually from the 1950s. In a post-apocalyptic world, the surviving population has returned to old ways of surviving and two young boys chafe under the restrictions from their Amish community. Over the next few years they travel to cities and eventually one finds a last bastion of education – but at what cost?