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.


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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.



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. 


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 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 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. 


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?

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee


2/5 Stars

Before I write this review I have to post a bit of a disclaimer: I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird since high school. When I read it, I didn’t love it. I’ve never held it—or its central hero—on a high pedestal, so I don’t have a strong attachment to it and it’s possible that I’m misremembering certain aspects of it. 

Spoilers ahead.

Wow, what a ride this was. I had so many thoughts while reading this book. Let me just put this out there first: As a standalone novel, Go Set a Watchman isn’t very good. Nothing really happens. The childhood flashbacks are, for the most part, wholly unnecessary. It’s didactic as anything I’ve ever read, yet Harper Lee fails to flesh out her most interesting themes. What was most interesting for me was reconciling it with To Kill a Mockingbird—which, I’ll fully admit, is a much better work of literature. What I’m about to say and then expand upon in this “review” is a very unpopular opinion: I think the evolution of Atticus Finch is sort of brilliant—whether or not Lee intended the kind of analysis that’s about to follow (and I don’t think she did). For

If To Kill a Mockingbird is the cushy, comfortable novel about well-meaning white people within the context of the long, dark history of racism in America, Go Set a Watchman is its woke older sister. Well, in theory, at least, though not so much in Lee’s execution.

In TKAM, Atticus is that classic white person who just wants everyone to get along. He preaches love and understanding of anyone, no matter what—even Hitler! Even the white racist who just tried to lynch a black man. Or, to use a more timely example: Even Donald Trump. Even his racist supporters. He doesn’t really want to dig deep into the realities of racism or challenge himself or those around him. He’s comfortable with white supremacy. He wants to feel good about himself—like he’s a virtuous person doing the right thing, even though he’s unwilling to rock the boat in any truly meaningful way. But for all intents and purposes he’s generally regarded by white readers to be a hero. The epitome of morality and goodness. He is the ultimate White Savior.

Needless to say, the revelation in Go Set a Watchman that Atticus is PRETTY FUCKING RACIST pissed off a lot of people. It shattered that long-held conception of a literary hero. But here’s the thing: when you think about it, even in the context of TKAM, it’s really not all that shocking.

In GSAW, it’s no longer the 1930s. Now it’s the 1960s and black people are actively trying to disrupt the status quo of white supremacy and racism in pursuit of equal rights. And Atticus isn’t down with this. In fact, he’s a regular at his local Citizens’ Councils meetings (a group of white supremacists), he loathes the NAACP, he opposes integration and he thinks black people are “still in their childhood as a people.”

I know a lot of white readers felt very cheated by this development. Atticus Finch is a “Good Person.” He’s a “Hero.” He can’t be a “Racist.” And yet, I can’t help but feel like this evolution of Atticus Finch makes total sense. It’s actually pretty consistent with his character, and it isn’t really such a stark diversion. Atticus was fine when he got to be the Good White Man defending an innocent black man in the 1930s (see: white paternalism), but now that it’s the 1960s and white supremacy is being challenged and he’s feeling threatened by that, we’re given insight into his deep-seated prejudices and his true self. And that’s just the thing: both of these versions of him (TKAM and GSAW) are his true self; it’s just that a lot of readers don’t like having to acknowledge that.

But I think we need to stop deluding ourselves: Atticus Finch was never the beacon of virtue and morality that we wanted him to be. He was a white savior who upheld, rather than resisted, elements of systemic racism and white supremacy. And his defending Tom Robinson in the pursuit of justice doesn’t change that. By today’s standards, he might be the person who celebrates a white-washed, sanitized version of MLK and doesn’t believe himself to be racist, yet denounces Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization.

In GSAW, Atticus is the same person he has always been. And the collective outrage regarding the so-called tarnishing of a white savior whom so many regarded as a literary hero may actually be more of a reflection of the outraged readers and their own self-imposed blinders and comfort zones than anything else.

It’s not easy facing difficult truths about people we have come to love. Jean Louise grapples with this in GSAW when she learns about her father’s racism. And we, as readers, must also confront this reality about our former hero. This feels especially timely right now given our current political climate, wherein many folks are struggling to reconcile the love they have for their family members and friends with the shocking reality that these people voted for a racist, misogynistic demagogue and may possess these unsavory qualities themselves.

Atticus is a reminder to us all that racism isn’t always relegated to the dregs of society. You can be a good father…and still be racist. You can do good in your life…and still be racist.

Unfortunately, many of these important points that arise in Go Set A Watchman are ultimately addressed in an extremely disappointing way: Jean Louise’s uncle calls her a bigot for rejecting her father’s racist opinions (WHAT?!) and then she ultimately feels bad about the things she said to Atticus and concludes that maybe he’s not so bad after all. I hope that for those of us today who are confronting uncomfortable truths about the people in our lives, we don’t let them off the hook quite so easily.

In conclusion now that I’m at 1,000+ words here, as much as I found GSAW to be a mediocre standalone novel, I can’t help but love that it has made readers (myself included, of course) look back and re-evaluate a universally revered childhood book from a new—and yes, uncomfortable—perspective.


Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers


4/5 Stars.

Look, it’s didactic and heavy-handed, okay? And Eggers is sort of unabashedly prone to proselytizing. His protagonist is frustratingly meek. And maybe not all of his ideas are completely fresh. But none of this changes the fact that The Circle is a hell of a fun read. A serious page-turner. I didn’t want to put it down. It’s like an episode of Black Mirror—most notably Nosedive or The Entire History of You. I don’t even care about all the obvious flaws because I enjoyed it so much.

The Circle is the world’s largest internet company, and 24-year-old Mae is lucky enough to land an entry-level job there. If you’ve ever worked at a hip startup or a tech company, you’ll grin knowingly at Eggers’ satirical portrait of company culture: the ever-expanding number of computer screens per employee; the insistence that it’s not all about work, it’s also about community, but curiously enough, being part of the community starts to feel like work, too.

Working at the Circle feels like a dream come true for Mae, and she’s desperate to impress her peers—even as the constant demand for in-person socialization and online participation in the Circle’s social network begins to take over her life. Soon enough, Mae is sleeping at the Circle’s on-site dorms and spending all of her time in this cult-like environment in an effort to raise her personal participation score and improve her rank at the company. As one of her old friends eventually points out, she’s creating the illusion of living an interesting life, but she’s not really living.

At the Circle, everything is tracked and ultimate transparency is the utopian ideal. What if you could know everything? Wouldn’t it be nice to eliminate uncertainty? If we were all being watched, would it not result in a more moral way of life?

As Mae is deeper ingrained in the Circle, she inadvertently becomes a necessary component of the company’s more nefarious ambitions until she’s in completely over her head. In this fascinating, visionary novel, Eggers explores the notions of technology, information, privacy, surveillance and transparency. What’s eeriest of all is that the dystopian nightmare he has imagined doesn’t seem very far off from our current world.

Book Review: Zone One by Colson Whitehead


2.5/5 Stars.

As I learned from reading The Underground Railroad (one of my favorite books of 2016), Colson Whitehead is all about taking a genre that you think you know and turning it on its head. Zone One is a zombie novel, but it’s not what we’ve come to expect from this sub-genre: it’s a snarky satire that focuses its commentary more on modern society than innate humanity.

In Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic world, survival is re-branded by teams of overseers who recognized the importance of good marketing. Those who are still alive aren’t called survivors, they’re called “the American Phoenix.” The camps and safe zones have names like “Babbling Brooks” and “Happy Acres” that make them sound more like suburban condominiums.

Mark Spitz, the book’s protagonist, is a mediocre man who thrives in this new world where he notes that “intellect and ingenuity and talent [are] as equally meaningless as stubbornness, cowardice, and stupidity.” Here he has taken on the job of a “sweeper,” tasked with clearing the streets of Manhattan of zombies.

Even Whitehead’s zombies are interesting. There are two different categories: the skels are your typical modern zombies, making up 99% of the infected. But then there’s the remaining 1%, dubbed the stragglers, who become frozen in place repeating a mundane task until they’re put out of their misery.

There are so many cool ideas here, but unfortunately cool ideas don’t make for a compelling story. As much as I appreciated the cleverness of Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic world, I felt bored for the majority of this book. Not a lot happens. The tension is minimal. The prose is verbose.

Zone One would have made an excellent short story. Whitehead is great writer with an enviable imagination. But that wasn’t enough to carry this full-length novel.

Book Review: The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan


This powerful, epic work of macro fiction has all the makings of a classic novel. I’ll be honest: at first I could barely muster the interest to start reading it. A 550-page book about horse racing? Nah, not for me. But The Sport of Kings is so much more than it appears to be: beneath the surface, it’s a sweeping examination of racism and classism in America.

At the center of this ambitious novel is the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. As a young boy in the middle of the 20th century, Henry Forge is taught by his father that “man is the measure of all things” and that “real knowledge begins with knowing your place in the world.” Much to his father’s chagrin, Henry is intent on altering his family’s legacy. He has greater ambitions than growing corn; instead, he becomes obsessed with breeding the next Secretariat, and years later he enlists his daughter, Henrietta, to help.

Henry and Henrietta are each given entire sections of the book—and they’re fascinating characters. But there’s another key person at the heart of their story: Allmon Shaughnessy, the biracial groom Henrietta hires (without consulting her father) to help them with their horses. While the Forges have a deep history of wealth and racism, Allmon carries with him the wounds of being a poor black man in a country that seems hellbent on tearing him down. Inevitably, they converge in a myriad of complex ways that build to a tragic denouement.

This isn’t a quick, easy read. It’s dense and it’s demanding and it requires a significant investment—and yet it’s ceaselessly compelling. Morgan is smarter than most of us—and to the delight of a reader like myself who enjoys being challenged intellectually and emotionally, she isn’t afraid to show it. She quotes Darwin and Protagoras. She doesn’t give us easy answers or tidy resolutions.

Although it takes place in modern times, we learn about the Forge’s history as slaveowners and the tragic story of Allmon’s great-great-great-grandfather, an escaped slave. And through all of this is a sense that the characters have fixed destinies—a fatalism from which they are each desperate to liberate themselves. Horse racing is about lineage, and so, too, is the story beneath the surface in The Sport of Kings. But people aren’t animals, and their lineage is more than just biology and genetics; it’s history and circumstance, both familial and sociological.

Book Review: Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey


4/5 Stars.

I’ve never read Eat, Pray, Love (and have no desire to), but I get the feeling this book is sort of the antithesis of it and other feel-good books about women finding themselves.

Without telling anyone, Elyria abruptly leaves her husband and her normal Manhattan life behind, traveling across the world to New Zealand to escape and isolate herself from the monotony and melancholy she has grown to resent, as well as her unresolved grief following her sister’s suicide.

In New Zealand, she engages in a series of reckless behaviors: hitchhiking with strangers, sleeping in abandoned sheds in the middle of nowhere, and ultimately landing herself under psychiatric evaluation.

Consumed by feelings of dread, anxiety and apathy, Elyria self-consciously exposes the darkness that lies deep inside of her, meditating on her own innate wildness. There’s this sense throughout that she wants to want the decent, normal life from which she has estranged herself, but knows ultimately the futility of this. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all though is seeing her come to terms with the fact that no matter how far she slips away from her old life, she will never escape herself.

Told in first-person stream-of-consciousness prose, Nobody Is Ever Missing is a haunting, surreal portrait of a woman in the midst of a personal crisis. Lacey’s writing is lyrical and poetic; I found myself dog-earring multiple breathtaking passages and lingering on her stunning, powerful writing.

Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers


3/5 Stars.

The opening chapter of this (sort-of) memoir blew me away: Eggers’ mother is dying of cancer, and the way he describes it is messy and sad and, yes, funny. Both of his parents die within weeks of each other and it’s so tragic it’s almost unfathomable. I was into it, and then the rest of the book happened…and I just didn’t really care about anything that was happening anymore: Eggers, the legal guardian of his young brother, living life as a listless twenty-something in San Francisco in the 90s.

Full disclosure: I was worried going into this that my love for David Foster Wallace would taint my enjoyment of it. That Eggers would inevitably come across to me as the lesser of the two PoMo Daves. Maybe I would have appreciated it more otherwise, but so much of it felt derivative, and I kept thinking to myself that I wish I was reading DFW.

I actually really enjoyed Eggers’ postmodern gimmicks: the notes and acknowledgements at the beginning of the book, people breaking character in the middle of a conversation to provide meta literary analysis (via Eggers) of what’s currently happening. That sense of clever self-awareness is prevalent throughout, and it’s smart and it’s interesting: it provides a worthy commentary of memoirs as a literary art form, and is a bold achievement of brutally honest self-analysis. These were my favorite parts of the book aside from the first chapter.

The thing that’s lacking, though (and the thing that DFW really nailed) is sincerity. Eggers may be authentic, sure, but he maintains a comfortable distance from emotion and sincerity. In fact, he’s actually pretty insufferable and obnoxious. His own sense of self-importance and self-obsession is on full display. And look, I understand and appreciate that his solipsism is a method of coping with the close proximity he feels to death. I get that he thinks that if he shares his suffering, he may succeed in diluting it and proving to himself that he suffered for a reason. After all, this whole thing is, of course, his attempt at coping with the tragedy of his parents’ death.

The thing is…I don’t really believe any of it. I don’t believe him. And so AHWOSG never really transcended for me. It sort of just felt like an exercise in postmodernism for the sake of it, and it’s hard as a reader not to feel cheated by that.

And honestly, maybe this is what he was going for: maybe we should feel cheated by memoirs.

There’s a sense of mania throughout, and a strong undercurrent of anger. I appreciate that anger, I even appreciate the stoicism and flippancy. I get it. I just craved some sincerity. Ultimately there wasn’t enough here to justify all the time spend enduring his ego.

Book Review: Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss Jr.


4/5 Stars.

This is a book about failed investments. Not just one couple’s doomed investment in a suburban California home, but the different ways that we become invested in the various aspects of our lives—whether it’s a marriage or a career—and the ease with which it can all fall apart.

Carousel Court is a scathing, brutal account of the modern American Dream. At its center is a couple who loathe each other to a truly vicious degree. It sort of has a Bret Easton Ellis vibe to it: in McGinniss’s world of contemporary suburban America, everyone is selfish and horrible, everyone lies and cheats, excess and depravity are rampant. It’s an extreme level of cynicism and nihilism that isn’t entirely realistic, but it works as a caricature of the most degenerate people and scenarios.

Everything about it is just downright nasty and vile, from the savage dialogue between Phoebe and Nick to the tiny details: juicy cicadas everywhere, always; dead animals; green sludge accumulating in the in-ground pool. The vibe is dark and ominous: nothing can possibly end well for these two.

Most of us have, at one point of another, experienced the letdown of failing to realize our ambitions, desires and expectations. And that’s what makes Carousel Court so uncomfortable: it reminds us that any of us could ostensibly become Phoebe and Nick, spiraling on a collision course into relentless despair.

Yeah. It’s not a happy book by any means. It’s raw and it’s vicious, save for a glimmer of hope for redemption. Like a trainwreck, you want to look away, but you can’t.

Book Review: The Fall Guy by James Lasdun


4/5 Stars.

This was a fast, engrossing read with better writing than I expect from a book like this.

Matthew, stagnant and inadequate in his own life, observes the lives of those around him with envy, projecting his own desires onto others. His main focus is his successful cousin, Charlie, with whom he shares a complicated history. When Charlie and his wife Chloe invite Matthew to spend the summer with them at their mansion in the mountains, tensions slowly rise and things take a turn for the ominous.

Matthew is a classic unreliable narrator, so convincing in his certitude that it’s genuinely hard to distinguish whether he’s a delusional creep or just a strange, lonely guy who was a dealt a bad hand. He operates with a sense of moral passivity—as if he has no control over the things he does and the decisions he makes.

The Fall Guy blurs the lines between victim and perpetrator, right and wrong. It’s a surprisingly smart, stimulating read—right down to the Cioran and Pascal references within. If you need an absorbing page-turner, it certainly does the trick.

Book Review: Arcadia by Lauren Groff


3/5 Stars.

Oh, Lauren Groff. Your purple prose. Your absence of quotation marks. Your writing is actually quite beautiful, but that isn’t good enough for you, apparently. What does it mean for a girl to have a “sweet cupcake face” anyway?

I went back and forth between feeling like this book was a total slog and finding it utterly compelling. This is my second Lauren Groff book. With Fates and Furies, I loathed the first half and loved the second half. With Arcadia, my emotions didn’t reach such extremes, but my experience was the exact opposite: I enjoyed the second half much more than the first half.

Arcadia presents us with the life of Bit, born in an idyllic commune in the middle of the woods in the 1970s. It follows him from childhood through adulthood, as he is eventually forced to assimilate in the outside world.

He falls in love, experiences life-altering tragedy, has a child of his own and ultimately finds himself returning to the commune years later, as if it were part of his destiny.

Arcadia is about a utopian dream—at its best, its worst and everything in between. It’s about life, and what matters most within it: family, love, community. It’s a complete, fulfilling story with remarkable beauty and depth if you’re willing to endure Groff’s ostentatious prose.