2017 Literary Wrap-Up: Jessica’s Favorite Books of the Year

Well, another shitty year is behind us. Remember when we all thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse than 2016? Oh, to be that naive again. I did get married and travel to Norway this year, so it wasn’t all terrible. And at least I had my books.

I’m finishing out 2017 with 111 books under my belt—not quite as many as 2016, but hey, planning a wedding is time-consuming.

Like last year, I’m splitting my list of favorites into two categories, and picking a top 10 for each: Books Published in 2017 and Books Published Before 2017. The books featured in each category are listed in no particular order. As always, these are not necessarily the definitive “Best Books of the Year.” They simply happen to be the ones I loved the most.

BOOKS PUBLISHED IN 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I devoured this book in a frenzied state of awe, feeling grateful each moment to be experiencing something so beautiful. I’ve never read anything like it. It’s a dazzling and deeply moving work of speculative fiction that delicately confronts the most profound topics: death, grief, love, sorrow, loss of a child. It’s tender, humane, funny and wildly inventive, written in prose that flows like poetry. I ached for the characters and felt such deep compassion for them, as Saunders clearly did, too. I can’t think of a more beautiful and affecting meditation on love, life and death.

Read my full review. 

IDAHO BY EMILY RUSKOVICH

This gorgeous debut by Emily Ruskovich contains all the quiet, somber beauty of an Elizabeth Strout or Michael Cunningham novel. I was consistently stunned by the layers of complexity within—nearly brought to tears by a small but poignant revelation. Ruskovich’s insights into fundamental aspects of humanity—love, loss, guilt, forgiveness, memory—are incredible, and the compassion she feels for her characters allows us as readers to deeply sympathize with all of them.

Read my full review. 

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

This book is absolutely mesmerizing and unlike anything I’ve ever read. And yet it’s not the kind of book I would recommend to just anyone. Stephen is one of the strangest and most disturbing characters I’ve encountered in quite some time. He has just recently begun his senior season on the college wrestling team and he is obsessively focused on one thing and one thing only: winning. There’s a pervasive sense of menace throughout as Stephen loses his grip on reality—an uncanniness that Habash writes with perfect subtlety. I’m hesitant to recommend Stephen Florida to just anyone, but I imagine it will have a dedicated cult following among other weirdos like me who live for these kinds of characters.

Read my full review. 

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patti Yumi Cottrell

When Helen Moran learns of her adoptive brother’s suicide, she returns home to her adoptive parents for the first time in years and launches her own metaphysical investigation into his suicide. What you need to understand here is that Helen is one of the oddest characters you will ever meet. (Yes, she even gives Stephen Florida a run for his money.) No amount of explanation could properly convey just how strange and quirky she is. To be inside her brain for 263 pages is an experience—an experience that I happened to love.

Read my full review. 

THE ANIMATORS BY KAYLA RAE WHITAKER

Every now and then I read a book that really hits me deep in my gut, so hard that I can feel a physical ache. I never would have guessed that this would be one of those books. I had approximately 0 interest in reading about animators. I’m stunned that this is a debut novel. It’s not often that I feel this affected by a book. I have little in common with either of these characters on the surface, yet there was so much about them that felt familiar and comforting to me: the loneliness and yearning, the sarcasm and dark humor, the love and heartache—that constant ache to fill a void.

Read my full review. 

FUTURE HOME OF THE LIVING GOD BY LOUISE ERDRICH

One day, evolution stops. Twenty-six-year-old Cedar is a few months pregnant, putting her in constant danger. There’s something so realistic about how this book portrays the potential end of the world. Much of it is about Cedar trying to evade capture, but it’s also more simply about her relationship with her family (biological and adoptive) and the father of her baby. (One of my favorite side characters is Eddy, her biological mother’s husband, who is writing a 3,000-page book about why he hasn’t kill himself.)

Read my full review. 

NEW PEOPLE BY DANZY SENNA

This book was so strange, so compelling and so uncomfortable, I could have read another 200 pages and never grown tired of it. While a large part of this book is a dry social satire about race and identity, it’s also a deep dive into Marie’s psyche: her ambivalence about her upcoming marriage, her infatuation with a local poet, her dissertation on the Jonestown massacre, and her increasingly odd behavior as she faces the expectations of a seemingly perfect life she may not even want.

Read my full review. 

HISTORY OF WOLVES BY EMILY FRIDLUND

I’m in awe of this book. It’s ceaselessly enthralling from the opening sentence, like a puzzle that demands to be solved despite your knowing, deep down, that it’s not going to be pretty. There’s a relentless sense of foreboding throughout the entire thing. Something is wrong—but what? Who is predator, and who is prey? This is such a brilliant, thought-provoking, uncomfortable, deeply layered novel. Fridlund writes with precision and purpose, delivering a dark, gorgeous, beguiling debut.

Read my full review. 

A BOOK OF AMERICAN MARTYRS BY JOYCE CAROL OATES

This powerful, sprawling novel begins with the murder of an abortion doctor by a right-wing evangelical Christian, then goes on to provide an in-depth character study of the families on both sides, examining the legacy of “martyrdom” and the effect it has on those left behind. With a relentless pace that moves quickly in spite of the carefully detailed prose and 700+ pages, Oates delivers a profound, raw and achingly intimidate novel—a visceral and stunning portrait of grief and consequences amid the backdrop of a contentious social issue.

Read my full review. 

DIFFICULT WOMEN BY ROXANE GAY

These are stories about people (mostly women) seeking to fill their hollow spaces however they can. They’re gritty and direct and real and utterly devoid of sentimentality. Gay’s characters accept life for what it is—all its ugliness, all its complexity—and there’s something strangely refreshing and comforting about that. The subject matter is demanding and unrelenting; this is not a happy collection, though it’s by no means maudlin. Being human isn’t pretty, but there’s beauty in that. If that statement resonates with you, so too will these fierce, gutting stories.

Read my full review.

BOOKS PUBLISHED BEFORE 2017

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME BY ANDRE ACIMAN

This is as much a coming-of-age story about discovering one’s own identity as it is a beautiful and aching love story. Aciman’s prose is nothing short of exceptional. In the unforgettable Elio, he infuses such intellectual, emotional and sexual curiosity. Elio is both arrogant and precocious, playful and innocent. For all the eroticism in these pages, there’s just as much intellectualism; the balance between the two is exquisite and rewarding. Reading this book made me feel like I was part of Elio and Oliver—much like they were part of each other. I’m grateful to have experienced such a profound bond between two characters.

Read my full review. 

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (re-read)

On the front cover of my edition is a blurb from Harper Lee: “Catch-22 is the only war novel I’ve ever read that makes any sense.” I couldn’t agree more. The irony, of course, is that nothing in Catch-22 makes sense. Each character and each situation is rooted in profound absurdity—a satirical critique of the military, war, authority, capitalism, patriotism, bureaucracy, institutions, and above all the human condition.

Read my full review. 

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones is a brutal and beautiful novel about a family living in rural Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina is about to strike. This is a deeply visceral novel, written in the kind of prose that makes you feel like you can taste and smell and feel everything that 15-year-old Esch is experiencing. There’s violence and harshness within, but also beauty, loyalty and tenderness.

Read my full review. 

The PALE KING BY DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

David Foster Wallace’s final, incomplete novel is literally a book about boredom, dullness and the IRS. Why would anyone ever bother reading about that? Well, partly because Wallace had an knack for making anything transcendent. But the main reason, perhaps, is one that Wallace presents as one of the books main theses: there’s virtue in enduring dullness. If you’ve ever read or listened to Wallace’s commencement speech, “This Is Water,” it’s sort of a hyper-condensed version of the solution offered in The Pale King. We’re each tasked with constructing meaning out of experience and choosing what and how we pay attention to the world around us. What Wallace seems to be suggesting is that we must have the self-discipline to deliberately endure the inevitable tedium and dullness of day-to-day adult life without succumbing to endless distraction.

Read my full review. 

Tenth of December by George Saunders

This is a collection about the downtrodden. About people living on the fringes of life. Although Saunders’ settings are sometimes surreal or even dystopian, they’re always firmly rooted in reality—critiques of modern American life verging from hilarious to emotional to disturbing. His characters confront difficult situations, doing what they believe to be best for themselves and their loved ones, often to the point of absurdity. Because navigating happiness and prosperity in modern America is nothing if not absurd. A few of the stories juxtapose two characters, each in their own heads, whose lives overlap in striking ways. It’s a sobering reminder of the inherit loneliness of the individual human experience and the inevitable limits of our empathy. When it comes down to it, we’re all just bumbling around doing our best, and Saunders’ prose cuts to the heart of that reality.

Read my full review.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a totalitarian theocracy where men rule everything. (Sound familiar?) In this new version of America, Offred, the story’s protagonist, is a slave with one purpose and one purpose alone: she must bear children for the Commanders. Throughout the novel, which Offred narrates in first-person, we gradually learn about her own personal past and some of the circumstances that led to this new society. Atwood’s prose, as always, is impeccable. She writes with urgency, purpose, and humanity—and delivers an ending more brilliant and deliberate than I ever could have imagined. (Seriously…THAT ENDING.)

Read my full review. 

1984 by George Orwell

Remember the days of yore when dystopian fiction didn’t feel like real life? That was nice. I fully understand why this book is experiencing a resurgence: the parallels are chilling. Orwell is a phenomenal writer with a brilliant mind. This book would’ve disturbed the hell out of me even if didn’t so ominously reflect our present.

Read my full review. 

THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT BY GEORGE STEINBECK

The Winter of Our Discontent is a brutally pessimistic commentary on the American Dream and the lengths to which one must go to attain success. Ethan Hawley, a small-town grocery store clerk, is known for being a decent man of virtue. Under pressure from his family and those around him to gain wealth and status, he convinces himself to take a brief hiatus from his morals. Through Ethan, Steinbeck makes a deeply cynical case for moral consequentialism, suggesting that man must inevitably “tromp on each other” to get ahead and that ultimately it’s worthwhile since western society values strength and success over virtue and decency.

Read my full review.

UNDER THE SKIN BY MICHAEL FABER

Under the Skin is a grotesque, disturbing, surreal, and unusual novel that bends genres. Equal parts satire and allegory, speculative fiction and horror, it raises thought-provoking moral questions about speciesism, classism and sexism, challenging us to reevaluate what it means to be human.

Read my full review. 

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD BY JENNIFER EGAN

This book was so much different than what I expected. I certainly wasn’t expecting a narrative told in separate connected stories (think: Olive Kitteridge, The Tsar of Love and Techno), that’s for sure. It’s a bold approach, and it works. With captivating characters and intellectually stimulating prose, Egan kept me fully engaged and eager to read each succeeding story. She even plays around with form in an exhilarating way; one story (one of my favorites) is told as a sort of PowerPoint presentation from the perspective of a young girl.

Read my full review. 

What were you favorite books you read this year? Did any of these make your list?

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2017 Literary Wrap-Up: 17 Diverse Fiction Novels to Add to Your List

I believe in the power of diverse books. Having spent most of my life reading white authors, I committed myself a couple years ago to seeking out books by authors of color. This has proven to be an edifying experiment, one that I plan to continue throughout the rest of my life.

It’s often non-fiction that we turn to when we want to learn something new, but I’ve found that there’s so much to be learned from fiction as well. Fiction increases our empathy. It places us into the minds and hearts of its characters. It allows us to understand cultures and perspectives that are different from our own. If you’re reading this right now, I challenge you to add more  diversity to your reading list. Here are some diverse books I enjoyed  in 2017 that you might like, too:

1. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

When Helen Moran learns of her adoptive brother’s suicide, she returns home to her adoptive parents for the first time in years and launches her own metaphysical investigation into his suicide. What you need to understand here is that Helen is one of the oddest characters you will ever encounter. No amount of explanation could properly convey just how strange and quirky she is. To be inside her brain for 263 pages is an experience—an experience that I happened to love.

2. Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

One day, evolution stops. Twenty-six-year-old Cedar is a few months pregnant, putting her in constant danger. Cedar’s narration is bleak, funny, bizarre and relatable. It’s rare to find a book that’s so emotionally and intellectually stimulating. This was both. If you like literary dystopian fiction, don’t miss it.

3. Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

These are stories about people (mostly women) seeking to fill their hollow spaces however they can. They’re gritty and direct and real and utterly devoid of sentimentality. Gay’s characters accept life for what it is—all its ugliness, all its complexity—and there’s something strangely refreshing and comforting about that. The subject matter is demanding and unrelenting; this is not a happy collection, though it’s by no means maudlin. Being human isn’t pretty, but there’s beauty in that. If that statement resonates with you, so too will these fierce, gutting stories.

(Note: I read a lot of Roxane Gay this year. I also highly recommend her memoir, Hunger. )

4. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

In an unnamed war-torn country, Saaed and Nadia meet and begin a relationship, while the city around them is crumbling. They begin hearing rumors of mysterious doors appearing out of nowhere—doors that, when entered, will take them somewhere new. This is, first and foremost, a modern love story—or rather, a story about love.  There’s a distinct universality about Nadia and Saaed’s relationship, its ebbs and its flows, that reminds us of our shared humanity at a time when it’s especially important to humanize the struggles of others. The arc of their relationship could be any ours.

5. Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

Delicious Foods begins with Eddie, a young man with freshly severed hands, frantically trying to steer a stolen car from Louisiana to Minnesota. It’s a gripping first chapter that sets the stage for the rest of the novel. What exactly is Eddie escaping? How did he lose his hands? Delicious Foods is a southern gothic cultural satire with a distinctly surreal bent to it. Perhaps the most brilliant thing about this book is that some of the chapters are narrated by crack cocaine (nicknamed Scotty). It’s a strange narrative device, but it totally works—and it really drives home the hold that drug addiction has over people’s humanity.

6. Human Acts by Han Kang

Dong-ho is only 15 years old when he’s violently killed during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea. In a series of interconnected stories, Han Kang tells the story of Dong-ho and the people around him whose lives were taken or forever changed. There’s such immense, unflinching brutality in these page. This is a book about oppression, torture, violence, cruelty, trauma and death, and Kang isn’t in the business of sugarcoating any of it. It’s upsetting to confront the reality that this is all part of humanity—and has been all along. Kang reminds us that we’re all bodies and those bodies can be destroyed in an instant, without a second thought. And yet there’s also beauty in these pages. Because humanity is more than just its worst parts. And those bodies are more than just flesh and blood.

7. The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Abandoned by his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, at the age of 11, Deming is then adopted by a well-meaning older American couple who change his name to Daniel and lay out clear expectations about the path his life will follow. When Deming finds a lead on his mother’s whereabouts, it disrupts his life. Told from the perspectives of Deming and his mother, The Leavers is a complex book about flawed people who hurt each other and make bad decisions, yet are each deserving of empathy.

8. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body and Other Parties is a powerful short story collection that blends realism and surrealism, horror and comedy. These are wild and primal stories about women on the verge—of pleasure, despair, sanity. There’s a nightmarish fairytale element to them, a creeping sense of foreboding that takes the fears and anxieties of womanhood and molds them into something palpable—and often terrifying. I loved almost every one of them, and highly recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys strange fiction.

9. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

In the upper-middle class suburban community of Shaker Heights Ohio, Elena Richardson lives a comfortable and orderly life with her husband and four teenage children. That is, until Mia Warren and her teen daughter Pearl move into town. Little Fires Everywhere is an intimate story about motherhood and community that raises lots of interesting questions with no easy answers. Ng reminds us that there are two sides to every story, and that the assumptions we make about others sometimes reveal the most about ourselves.

10. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer is above all an examination of duality. The narrator is a man of two minds—a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist double agent who arrives in America as a refugee following the Vietnam War. Here, he is torn between these competing parts of his own identity: communist and anti-communist, French and Vietnamese, foreign refugee and American. While America has striven to own the history of the Vietnam War in a myriad of ways—in our books, in our movies—The Sympathizer, importantly, shifts the perspective, giving a voice to the Vietnamese people.

11. Fever Dream Samanta Schweblin

Fans of Jesse Ball and Helen Phillips won’t want to miss this latest piece of surreal literature that blends such themes as eco-horror and the bizarre terror of motherhood. Be warned, though: only read this if you’re okay with not knowing what the hell you just read.

12. New People by Danzy Senna

It’s the 1990s and Maria and her fiancé Khalil are, as the documentary they’re starring in puts it, “new people.” Born in the late 60s to early 70s, new people are “the progeny of the Renaissance of Interracial Unions.” As a light-skinned biracial woman, Maria struggles with the challenge of not fitting in with either race. While a large part of this book is a dry social satire about race and identity, it’s also a deep dive into Marie’s psyche: her ambivalence about her upcoming marriage, her infatuation with a local poet, her dissertation on the Jonestown massacre, and her increasingly odd behavior as she faces the expectations of a seemingly perfect life she may not even want.

(Note: I also highly recommend Danzy’s Senna’s book Caucasia.)

13. A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

This brief multi-generational novel follow the story of one black family in New Orleans, as told through three of its members: Evelyn, her daughter Jackie, and Jackie’s son T.C. Amid the uncertainty, Evelyn, Jackie and T.C. do the best they can with what they have—which is really all we can do sometimes. They strive for progress and success, even when both appear insurmountable. As a reader, we root for them in spite of their flaws.

14. The Border of Paradise by Esme Weijun Wang

This dark and disturbing book examines the way that mental illness can impact an entire family. It starts with David, a neurotic young boy who inherits his family fortune. As a young adult, David travels to Taiwan and meets a woman at a brothel whom he marries and takes back to America to start a family. What transpires is nothing short of disturbing, with an underlying sense that everyone involved is doomed to tragedy.

15. Chemistry by Weike Wang

Three years into a graduate program for chemistry, the unnamed narrator finds herself having a bit of an internal crisis. Her academic life and her relationship have both grown stagnant, and she approaches both with an air of indifference and flippancy. Pressured by the expectations of those around her, she finally begins to think about what she might actually want out of life. I often find myself underwhelmed by books about colleges students trying to find themselves, but the narrator’s voice was so odd and compelling that I was captivated by her utter strangeness and constant analysis.

16. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing isn’t a ghost story, but a story about ghosts: the haunting legacies of troubled pasts, both personal and collective. It’s a portrait of a broken family as its members reckon with addiction, death, grief, love and forgiveness. Ward’s writing is achingly lyrical, visceral and intimate—her characters pulse off the pages as if they’re real.  In this powerful novel, she evokes both the personal pain of one family, and the much larger collective pain brought on by generations of systemic racism and injustice. This is the kind of book that hurts, but for everything that it strips you of, it replenishes with hope and love.

(Note: Jesmyn Ward’s book Salvage the Bones is also incredible.)

17. Shelter by Jung YuN

Kyung is a young father living beyond his means, and the financial burden is finally starting to catch up with him and his wife, Gillian. In the midst of this anxiety, Kyung learns that his semi-estranged parents Jin and Mae have fallen victim to a shocking act of violence. Now, he and Gillian have no choice but to take Jin and Mae into their home while they recover. This complex family drama unfolds like a domino-effect of grief, guilt, and violence—each event snowballing into the next with a sense of doomed fatalism.

Book Review: The Answers by Catherine Lacey

4.5/5 Stars.

Wow, I loved this book. I knew from the opening page that I would. Sometimes you find writers who seem to get you or speak to you on a level that just makes sense, and that’s how I feel about Catherine Lacey. The Answers is my ideal kind of novel: quirky, witty, intellectually stimulating and deeply character-driven—yet there’s still an actual plot carrying it forward.

Is it possible to achieve a prolonged state of limerence—the physiological and psychological stage of a body as it falls in love? Does there exist a person who will meet one’s every needs? Is there such thing as a perfect relationship? Mary Parsons has been selected to participate in an experiment that seeks to answer these questions. She—along with several other women—will each play a separate girlfriend role for the wealthy actor funding the experiment. And Mary’s role is arguably most important of all: Emotional Girlfriend.

For Mary, whose life is in a state of stagnant listlessness as she falls further into debt paying for strange new methods to treat her chronic pain condition, the Girlfriend Experiment (as its aptly named) is an opportunity to make some easy money. The irony of it all is that Mary is actually a rather emotionally detached person, and most of the novel is spent inside her analytical mind.

The Answers could have easily become trite, as many novels that explore the issue of love inevitably do, but in Lacey’s capable hands, this one transcends the predictable cliches. It implores readers to question more than just the how of making love last, but the very reasons why we seek romantic connections in the first place—and what that might tell us about who we are.

We may never be able to completely know another person, but we’ll always have ourselves. If we can learn to be okay with that, and if we’re willing to accept the uncertainty of human relationships and the gaps and distances that will always exist between two people, maybe we’ll come to find that that’s enough.

Fans of Miranda July, Alexandra Kleeman and Lydia Millet will likely enjoy this one as much as I did.

Book Review: White Fur by Jardine Libaire

1.5/5 Stars.

Fewer than 70 pages into this book I made the decision to continue hate-reading. It is so painfully shallow it reads like bad YA. If the characters were any more one-dimensional and under-developed they wouldn’t even exist.

Marketed as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet (which, honestly should have been warning enough), White Fur is the story of Jamey, a WASP-y heir to an investment bank fortune, and Elise, a half-white half-Puerto Rican who grew up in public housing on the “wrong side of the tracks” or whatever. I hate myself for describing them in such cliches, but I’m just taking what I was given.

Jamey and Elise meet and fall in love…though I honestly have no idea why because there’s no character development or insight into anything that happens. They basically just really like having sex with each other and then one day they’re in love and Jamey decides he needs to relinquish the fortune he was supposed to inherit so he can distance himself from his predictably shitty family. Oh, and it takes place in the 1980s in New York City for whatever reason.

Then…things get really weird. Like, I wouldn’t even be able to explain what happens without it sounding so silly and out of left field, which is exactly what it is even though it’s supposed to be really sad and tragic or something.

I don’t know, you guys. I was originally drawn to this because I thought maybe it would explore class issues in an intriguing way, but it brings almost nothing to the table and what it does bring is predictable and cliche.

Book Review: Hunger by Roxane Gay

 

4.5/5 Stars.

“I often tell my students that fiction is about desire in one way or another. The older I get, the more I understand that life is generally the pursuit of desires. We want and want and oh how we want. We hunger.”

This is a book about hunger—but not the kind of hunger that first comes to mind when you learn that it’s a book about being overweight. It’s about hunger for many things: escape, solace, acceptance, safety, understanding.

Roxane Gay is one of the most brilliant, sharp, witty and insightful writers of our time. In this deeply personal memoir, she candidly tells the story of her body, and what it’s like to live in a world that doesn’t create space (neither physical nor emotional) for people with bodies like hers.

As Roxane writes in her opening chapter, this isn’t your typical motivational memoir about triumph, and as someone who loathes those kinds of books, for that I am grateful. I wouldn’t expect anything else from Roxane, whom I’ve long admired for her brazen realness and no-bullshit personality. Roxane lays bare the traumatic event that marked a turning point in her life, and the “after” that followed—during which she turned to eating as a means of coping in various ways.

While Hunger is very much Roxane’s story about her own body, there’s a universality to it: she has a way with words that cuts to the core of what it means to be human. We each hunger in our own ways.

It’s impossible for me to put into words how much I adore Roxane Gay, and how grateful I am for her powerful, beautiful writing. Hunger is a memoir that shouldn’t be missed.

Book Review: Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

4.5/5 Stars.

After reading several lackluster books recently about college-age protagonists meandering through life, I’ve come to the conclusion that I only really enjoy these kinds of stories when the characters have a truly distinct voice.

In walks Stephen Florida.

This book is absolutely mesmerizing and unlike anything I’ve ever read. And yet it’s not the kind of book I would recommend to just anyone. Stephen is one of the strangest and most disturbing characters I’ve encountered in quite some time. He has just recently begun his senior season on the college wrestling team and he is obsessively focused on one thing and one thing only: winning.

As his season progresses and he pursues his quest for greatness, Stephen’s mind spirals further off the deep end and his narration becomes more unreliable. This is a guy who’s a bit of a sociopath to begin with, so that’s saying something. Stephen’s the kind of character who says things like: “Sometimes I wonder, if I were a character in a book, would I be sympathetic? Would I make a good good guy?”

The answer is, he is strangely sympathetic in spite of himself. Beneath Stephen’s singular focus on wrestling is an undercurrent of grief and a desperate longing for control and meaning by any means necessary.

There’s a pervasive sense of menace throughout as Stephen loses his grip on reality—an uncanniness that Habash writes with perfect subtlety.

Nothing I write here will adequately convey just how bizarre and unsettling this debut novel is. At times I was reminded of the strange protagonist in Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry for Disrupting the Peace and the vague sense of foreboding in Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

I’m hesitant to recommend Stephen Florida to just anyone, but I imagine it will have a dedicated cult following among other weirdos like me who live for these kinds of characters.

Book Review: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

4/5 Stars.

“Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days.”

Finding one’s place in the world is hard enough for anyone, but it’s especially challenging for Deming. Abandoned by his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, at the age of 11, Deming is then adopted by a well-meaning older American couple who change his name to Daniel and lay out clear expectations about the path his life will follow.

Once Deming reaches young adulthood, he’s understandably plagued by the circumstances of his life. Not only does he lack a true sense of identity and purpose, but he can’t let go of the memories of his mother and why she left him.

After getting in touch with an old friend, Deming finds a lead on his mother’s whereabouts, and this further disrupts his aimless life.

The Leavers is told from the perspective of both Deming and his mother, Polly, giving the reader the opportunity to understand both of these characters. Gradually, we learn the truth about why Polly left Deming—and it turns out it’s more complicated than it originally appeared.

One of the things I appreciate most about this novel is that there are no easy judgments or convictions to be reached about the characters. They are flawed, they make bad decisions, they hurt each other. And yet they are each deserving of empathy. Life is complicated, and not everything can be neatly categorized as right or wrong. Sometimes things just are what they are, and we do what we can to keep moving forward.

This is, for the most part, a compelling character-driven novel that ranks somewhere in the middle of the immigration literature from the past few years. There are times when the dialogue is stilted, the pacing off, and the transitions from Deming’s to Polly’s perspective too abrupt, but the themes of belonging and reckoning with one’s past are handled with the complexity they deserve.

Book Review: Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

2.5/5 Stars.

As far as genre thrillers go, Dennis Lehane is one of the better storytellers out there; nevertheless, this one was all over the place and had some pretty ridiculous plot twists.

Rachel Childs meets private investigator Brian Delacroix when she hires him to help her find her biological father. The two keep in touch over the next decade or so, during which Rachel’s life takes a turn for the worse.

When Rachel reunites with Brian years later, she’s recently divorced, her career is over and she’s suffering from debilitating panic attacks. Brian seems like the ideal guy: he’s funny, kind, successful and endlessly patient with Rachel as she battles her agoraphobia.

So why is Rachel suddenly suspicious of him?

Since We Fell is exactly what you expect it to be: an entertaining page-turner packed with plot twists. It’s also incredibly uneven and weirdly paced. The initial storyline of Rachel trying to find her father takes up so much time in the beginning of the novel, and then abruptly shifts to a different kind of story entirely, almost as if you’re reading two different books. The twists and turns, when they arrive, are lazy, and the characters (Rachel in particular) proceed to act in ways that are unbelievable given what we know about them.

It’s a bummer that the story is so lacking, because Lehane is a decent writer—especially for his genre. If you’re looking for a mindless beach read this will suffice, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing.

Book Review: The Border of Paradise by Esme Weijun Wang

4/5 Stars

This dark and disturbing book examines the way that mental illness can impact an entire family.

It starts with David, a neurotic young boy who inherits his family fortune. As a young adult, David travels to Taiwan and meets a woman at a brothel whom he marries and takes back to America to start a family.

We know from the opening chapter that David commits suicide when his children are still young, and this sets the gothic tone for everything that follows. The effect this has on the rest of their lives is staggering. Left with a mother who suffers from her own form of madness, David’s children, William and Gillian, are kept isolated from the world in their rural California home.

In this multi-generational story, we are given alternating first-person sections for each member of the family—plus one of David’s old lovers who is also swept into their orbit. What transpires is nothing short of disturbing, with an underlying sense that they are all doomed to tragedy.

It’s a potent, complex and exciting debut. After a slow start, it becomes relentlessly gripping once the focus shifts to William and Gillian, culminating in a deeply haunting final section.

Book Review: Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic

3.5/5 Stars.

This debut novel makes me really excited for what Sudjic will write next. There were parts of it that didn’t work for me, but others that deeply resonated.

Twenty-three year old Alice Hare moves from London to New York City to stay with an old relative and seek necessary change in her empty life. While there, she becomes infatuated with an older woman named Mizuko, whom she stalks online until ultimately arranging an encounter. Alice gradually works her way into Mizuko’s life and the lives of the people around her, desperate for a connection that may not actually be there.

Sudjic’s voice is extremely clever, brimming with dry humor and smart insights. Her characters are compelling, her dialogue is excellent. Where I struggled was with the pacing and the narrative. In fact, I think this would have worked better as a leaner novel with more focus.

Thematically, Sudjic has a lot of interesting things to say about a modern culture in which everything about anyone is available at our fingertips. How does this affect intimacy and connection? Does it help fill the void or merely deepen it?

Lots of exciting stuff here. With better editing, it could have been truly great.