If you know the day you’re going to die, do you still have free will? Does the knowledge give you the freedom to make any choices you want to make, or does it constrain you with anxiety and doubt? These are questions the Gold siblings must grapple with. Back in 1969, in New York City, a traveling mystic told each of them the date of their death—but the siblings, whether they believe her or not, each deal with the knowledge in an entirely different way. Simon heads off to San Francisco, Klara ends up in Las Vegas with a magician act all her own, Daniel grows up on the straight and narrow and becomes a doctor, and Varya also launches herself into the certainty of science with her research on primates. As the dates of their potential deaths grow nearer, they must figure out how and whether to acknowledge or deal with them. A magical journey through life with the twist of fate being that they already know their fate.
Everything Here Is Beautiful
Mira T. Lee
Miranda remembers the flight from China to the United States with her mother; Lucia was only a bump in their mother’s belly at the time. Miranda’s used to being responsible, almost a second mother to Lucia, but once they’re both grownups and their mother has passed away, the sisters have no one but each other. When Lucia, who’s always been eccentric, starts to hear voices, Miranda tries to convince Lucia that she’s mentally ill, in the hopes of getting her the care she needs. But as the novel goes on, we see both of their perspectives, and Lucia’s life isn’t always as out of control as it seems. Her logic and needs are different than Miranda’s—Lucia is carefree and fun-loving, adventurous yet able to find joy and happiness in simplicity. Over the years, as the sisters’ lives grow apart and back together, they must figure out how to love one another despite all their painful differences.
The Wedding Date
Jasmine Guillory’s 2018 debut (she has a second novel published already, so check it out too!) was a heartwarming romance that we totally fell for. Alexa Monroe is the Berkeley mayor’s chief of staff, and she doesn’t really have time for relationships right now. But one night in San Francisco, she gets stuck in an elevator with a charming man named Drew, who’s been invited to his ex’s wedding and is pretty sore about going without a date—so he convinces Alexa to be his plus-one. After a night that’s way more fun than Alexa ever expected the little adventure to be, they have to say goodbye. Alexa has work, and so does Drew, back in LA, a long way down the coast. But as time goes by, what started as a casual night of fun between two hardworking grownups who needed to blow off steam seems to become, well, more than that. Will they? Won’t they? You’ll have to read to find out.
Into her teens, Tara Westover was ignorant of certain things many of us assume are common knowledge: the Holocaust, the existence of the World Trade Center towers and the attack that felled them. But Westover was raised in a strictly religious and survivalist family, was never sent to school, and was kept away from popular culture. Still, she was a reader, and she wanted to see more of the world. So when one of her brothers went to Brigham Young University, Westover knew it was possible to get out, and she followed his lead, escaping her other brother and his cruelties. From Brigham Young, Westover kept going—on to Cambridge and Harvard, all the way to her doctoral degree. She never entirely let go of her family, though, and in trying to understand her future, she re-examines her past.
When Pearl was born, her mother Margot picked up and left everything she knew to create a new and independent life for herself and her child. Living in a car in a Florida trailer park, Margot has certainly changed her environment, but she hasn’t given up on teaching her daughter certain things that indicate a bygone life of more security: Margot teaches Pearl, for example, how to make a bed, though they don’t have one, and she practices memorized piano scales on the dashboard of the car. Pearl is resilient when we meet her at fourteen, but she’s about to be tested as she watches a newcomer to the trailer park make moves on her mother. Meanwhile, the gun-running pastor in their midst is getting everyone into trouble and putting them all in danger. But Pearl’s not the type to give up when the going gets tough—it’s been tough all her life, after all.
The Female Persuasion
Greer Kadetsky (who has one of the best literary last names we’ve ever read) is a freshman at a second-rate school she didn’t intend to go to. But her parents screwed up on her financial aid forms and so her dream school is out of reach. But Ryland College isn’t so bad once she makes some friends, and once she sees the superstar second-wave feminist Faith Frank speak on campus. Swayed to the cause and plight of women everywhere, Greer is never the same again. Over the next decade, we watch as she learns how to move through the world of changing politics, as third-wave feminist ideals poke holes in some second-wave ideas. Her best friend and boyfriend feature prominently as well, their own narratives complex and all their own. As the three characters move through one another’s lives, they have to figure out how to grow up and reckon with past mistakes and the things they have no control over.
You Think It, I'll Say It
When writers address the current political and social moment, things can get dicey, because it’s a hard thing to do well. Curtis Sittenfeld, though, is a master of her craft, so of course she manages to pull of this wonderful collection that’s full of both timeless and timely themes of dissatisfaction, unease, and dashed expectations. From stories of parenthood and how overwhelming it can be, especially during a time of seeing people’s apparent ease through their social media accounts, to stories about married couples’ expectations of one another and the disappointments accrued over time, these wryly observed and sharp narratives hit close to home for many of us, even if we’re not middle-class suburbanites like many of the protagonists. Known as a novelist before this collection, Sittenfeld more than delivers in the short form.
Lucy is a PhD student working on her dissertation—still. It’s been nine years. She thinks she may be finally getting somewhere, but when she and her boyfriend break up almost on a whim, everything seems to go downhill for Lucy. Her sister finally manages to get Lucy to take a vacation in LA and chill out in her huge beachfront house and take care of her sweet dog. Lucy, single for the first time in years, tries the dating game to disappointing results, but one night she meets a mysterious swimmer in the water, a man who seems too good to be true… and he just might be. Because he might not be a man, exactly. Throughout, Broder plumbs the depths of depression and its strange and enthralling logic, while also commenting on the ways we handle contemporary sexuality and dating. A brilliant, tragicomic novel.
The Van Ness Quartet is made up of Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry: four friends who work together in the cutthroat world of classical music. Jana and Henry have known each other since their days at music school in Philadelphia, but only once they meet Daniel and Brit is their quartet of complicated friendship complete. Isolated in a world few understand, they need one another—but mixing work and friendship is a tricky business no matter what industry you’re in, and the tension runs high. Jana sleeps with a judge on the night before the quartet’s competition for a fellowship that could make or break them, an action that causes internal strife among the friends. But here’s the thing: despite their mistakes and temper tantrums (and there are plenty), the four musicians can’t make it without one another, and wouldn’t want to if they could. This is a book about friendship, chosen family, and the love of something as impossible to describe as the power of music.
Grappling with the population so often ignored and erased by the weight of false historical narratives, Tommy Orange’s There There deserves to be our newest American classic. Revolving around the lives of twelve Native Americans, whom Orange dubs Urban Indians, in and around Oakland, California, the story builds to the culminating event of the year, the Big Oakland Powwow. The characters are of all stripes: there’s Orvil, a young man who’s been teaching himself his tribe’s traditional dances through YouTube videos, and his aunt Opal who comes to watch him; Daniel Gonzales, who’s been writing emails to his dead brother, Manny; Jacqui Red Feather, who’s never met her grandchildren but is about to due to her newfound (and hard-won) sobriety; and more, whose struggles are never uniform, and who refuse to be stereotyped or shallowly read. A gorgeous novel and a mark of a new American voice.
A Place for Us
Fatima Farheen Mirza
What better time to bring a family together than a wedding? Let’s be honest—that can be the worst time, with tensions running high and everyone on edge. Nevertheless, Hadia wants her brother Amar at her wedding, and she made sure he got the message. Now that he’s here, though, he’s remembering the romance that made him leave in the first place: Amira, daughter of another prominent family, is at the wedding, too. But this gorgeous debut novel isn’t only about the family’s youngest generation: it’s also about Hadia and Amir and their sister Huda’s parents, Layla and Rafiq. As we move back and forth in time, we learn this family’s history and hardship, their joys and fears as immigrants and first-generation Americans in a United States so often hostile to them. We learn about what has ripped them apart—and, too, what binds them back together.
Florida, the famed Sunshine State, is ridiculed as often as it’s praised by those who love it, or who at least know it well enough to be allowed to have conflicting feelings about it—but it’s nothing short of a fully fleshed out character in this collection by Lauren Groff. In eleven stories that take place over a vast range of time and place, the state’s landscape, climate, and creeping sense that something alive and deadly is always around the corner is constantly evident. But the characters peopling these stories are just as fascinating as their backdrop. From the recurring mother-of-two figure who appears in several of the stories to the lonely boy who’s now a grown-up to the abandoned sisters who make their way through life resiliently, these folks will stick in your mind just like your shirt sticks to you in Florida’s humidity. Warm up with this collection over winter, and discover Groff’s storytelling prowess.
When Katie Met Cassidy
A queer love story for all of you out there who need it, Camille Perri’s newest novel is also about coming to terms with yourself and figuring out your life as an adult in this bizarre time. Katie has just been dumped by her fiancé, and now she’s single, 28, and sitting across a table from the most handsome woman she’s ever seen, who’s wearing a men’s suit and carrying herself with confidence and aplomb. Cassidy, she of the extremely attractive attire, sees something in Katie too, but it’s not what she’s used to. A romantic comedy full of heart and depth, you’ll watch these two women circle each other and learn to reconcile everything they thought they knew and understood in the past with their present circumstances and surprising feelings.
The Great Believers
In 1985, AIDS was killing people so quickly, with such devastating effects on born-into and chosen families and communities, that it was impossible to reckon with. But the epidemic isn’t isolated to the past—the effects are felt to this day. In the first thread of this novel, amidst some of the worst days of the crisis in Chicago, Yale Tishman’s success at work is only matched by his grief outside of it as he watches his friends dying. Attending a funeral for a good friend, Nico, he meets Nico’s niece, Fiona, who’s the only person from Nico’s family attending. Years later, Fiona’s in Paris trying to find her daughter who’s joined a cult, and she stays with an old friend who photographed much of that terrible period in Chicago. As her memory of the past and her present crisis overlap, Fiona must reckon with everything she and her loved ones lost. A gorgeous tribute and memorial to a still oft-silenced time in our country.
The Book of Essie
Meghan MacLean Weir
In a reality TV-obsessed world (we all love at least some of it, let’s be honest), it’s pretty hard to keep secrets, but Esther Ann Hicks, known as Essie to the fans of the reality TV show her family has been part of for years, has managed it. Somehow, she’s pregnant, which in this strictly religious family seems impossible. As her mother confers with the show’s producers to try to figure out a way to either get Essie out of this bind or use it for better ratings (a wedding would definitely be an event), Essie herself is making different plans. With her new ally, Essie spins her own love story for the media, but all the while she’s considering how to come clean about the dark underbelly of her family’s life—the parts no one ever gets to see.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
The narrator of Moshfegh’s newest book is done with the world of the living. That is, she’s done with participating in it actively. Grieving her dead parents, lonely and bored in New York City, she quits her job and decides to do just what the title suggests: take a year of rest and relaxation. She does so with the aid of a peculiar and deeply unethical psychiatrist who’s pressing a new drug on everyone, a drug that causes days-long blackouts. The narrator of this novel isn’t entirely sure what she does during those blackouts, and that’s kind of the point—rest and relaxation, after all, can come from lack of consciousness, right? As the narrator moves tepidly and tiredly through her year of naps and few outings, with a boyfriend who only comes around when he’s rebounding and a friend who’s really only there when it’s convenient, existential questions regarding the very nature of living are raised and examined with acerbic wit.
R. O. Kwon
In R. O. Kwon’s explosive debut, explosives take a front seat in the drama. Will met Phoebe Lin in their first month at college, and he fell for her, hard. Phoebe was a type-A girl all her life, a pianist of the first order, but she quit after her mother’s sudden death, and now she’s experimenting with letting her hair down and having fun—or is she really self-flagellating? As Phoebe becomes involved in the work of a strange spiritual journey led by a charismatic man who seems to know all about her in ways he couldn’t possibly, Will tries to both hold her back and follow her to where she seems to be headed. There are no black and white certainties in this meticulous book, and no morals are left uncompromised as the characters move around one another, silencing and giving voice to each other’s realities.
Clara is a young artist in 1928, teaching at the small but well-respected art school that resides in Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Though she has aspirations of making a living as an artist, not just as a teacher of artists, the fact is that women are rarely given such work. The Great Depression is looming ahead of her, too, and she doesn’t even know it. Almost fifty years later, another woman, Virginia, begins working in GCT’s information booth to support herself and her daughter. While exploring the building one day, she finds the abandoned rooms of what was once the art school, and her eyes focus in on the gorgeous watercolor painting that lies in the dust, unsigned. Who painted it? And can Virginia bring Clara’s story into the light?
Where the Crawdads Sing
In 1969, a man’s body is discovered in the marshes of Barkley Cove, and the cops are pretty sure who did it: the Marsh Girl, a young woman known as Kya Clark. But Kya’s not a violent person. Growing up in Barkley Cove’s marshes during the 1950s and ’60s wasn’t exactly her first choice, but when her mother left the family to escape the beatings, and Kya’s siblings slowly disappeared, she was left to essentially raise herself in the wilds with the skills she learned from her father. And Kya loves the wilds—she loves the land around her and the animals that frequent it and the plants and waterways that nourish her. But Kya’s human, and she experiences lust and desire, and the murdered man was her lover. As Kya is arrested and must stand trial for murder, she needs to get past the stigma that colors how she’s seen and convince a jury of her innocence.
The Kiss Quotient
In this incredibly fun and sexy debut, our main character is Stella Lane, a 30-year-old who hasn’t really had time for dating over the past, well, ever. Stella’s incredibly driven, a math genius who’s put her skills to extremely lucrative use. Predicting customer purchases with her algorithms has made her quite wealthy, and she’s decided it’s time to spend some of that money. Hiring an expert to teach her everything regarding the arts of love, romance, and sex makes sense to Stella, who’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s and is pretty grossed out by the idea of French kissing. But with the gorgeous Michael Phan, a professional escort, she learns that kissing—and a lot of other things—can be pretty fun if done well. But what happens when a strictly professional relationship begins to get a bit more complicated?
How to Love a Jamaican
In this gorgeous exploration of place and the meaning of home, Alexia Arthurs gives us eleven short stories that take place in the U.S. and Jamaica, and the unsettling feelings of characters who don’t quite belong in either place. From new immigrants to the U.S. to American citizens sent back to Jamaica to get straightened out—or who choose to return in order to recapture the comfort of childhood—the people in these stories are all in some kind of transit, whether physical or emotional. In one story, two young Jamaican women in college befriend one another, though only one has the privileged upbringing that allows her to ignore the realities of American racism; in another story, an athlete at Iowa College is being haunted by a murdered student; in another, a young man runs into his twin after years apart, leading him to remember their past. Arthurs’s stories are full of feeling, but never saccharine.
You're on an Airplane
Imagine being on an airplane next to Parker Posey, the actress who’s starred in mockumentaries like Best in Show and a mess of indie films such as House of Yes, The Daytrippers, and many more. Now, imagine that instead of putting your headphones on and zoning out, you actually have a conversation with Posey. That’s what she wants you to imagine in this book, which she sets up like a friendly conversation full of titillating, hilarious, and often irreverent anecdotes regarding Hollywood, the indie film scene, and art. Posey has always been more than just an actress—her art extends to pottery, sewing, collage, and cooking. And in this utterly delightful memoir, she proves herself a good writer, too.
In her newest collection of essays, Zadie Smith gathers both new and previously published work that muses on everything from art to real life to social media and the future of our planet with her trademark precise and inviting prose. Often using critique of visual art, music, literature, and dance as a way into ideas more broadly related to our time—identity, race, class, family, and more—Smith manages to convey a kind of portrait of modern life, complete with joys and woes alike. Mentioning a whole host of familiar names, from Key & Peele to Joni Mitchell, Smith is a cultural connoisseur who’s able to see the reflection of the personal in broader trends to great effect.
There Will Be No Miracles Here
Casey Gerald’s nuanced memoir of a life lived through circumstance rejects the American pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. Which isn’t to say that Gerald didn’t do the work—he did, and he worked hard, but circumstances seem to be the one thing he can’t escape. And maybe, he posits, none of us really can. When he passed his twelfth year without incident, despite his grandfather’s belief that the end of the world was coming with the new millennium, Gerald knew there would be no miracles. So he picked up football, like his father before him, and was recruited to play for Yale—a big change for a poor boy who grew up in Dallas. From there, he kept growing and moving up in the world, discovering his sexuality, going to Harvard business school, working on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C. But this isn’t a success memoir, nor an empty “inspirational” one—it asks hard questions, and it asks them well.
A River of Stars
In Vanessa Hua’s debut novel, Scarlett Chen, who works in a factory in China, discovers she’s pregnant with her boss’s baby—which isn’t all that bad, it would seem, since the child is a boy, and her boss has three girls with his wife. He sends Scarlett to LA, to get pampered along with other pregnant Chinese women, but it isn’t long before things change for Scarlett and she wants nothing more to do with him. So she runs away, with pregnant teenager Daisy, to Chinatown in San Francisco, where the two of them try to make the best of it among a community of strangers and Scarlett’s constant fear of deportation or discovery. Scarlett’s life isn’t easy, but she’s long had to fend for herself, and she knows a thing or two about keeping her newborn child—and Daisy’s—safe. As Scarlett’s boss gets closer to tracking her down, she must buckle down and figure out how to stay with her child and the new life she’s building.
Wash—full name George Washington Black—is not yet a teenager when his life changes forever. A plantation slave in the Caribbean in 1830, he’s used to hard labor and the cruelties of white men, so when his master’s brother, Christopher, decides to take Wash on as his personal assistant and valet, Wash doesn’t trust him. But it turns out that Christopher is an abolitionist, a scientist, and a pretty interesting man, and it isn’t long before the pair escape in order to prevent Wash being wrongfully accused of a murder that’s actually a suicide. Thus begins a global adventure for Wash, who learns everything he can from Christopher as they arrive in the U.S. and move on to Canada and beyond, all the way to the Arctic. Wash is a resourceful kid and grows up ever more so, with his mind swimming with scientific knowledge and a need to keep running in order to stay safe.
My Sister, the Serial Killer
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut is not for the easily offended—after all, it’s a comedic take on the common revenge fantasy many women have of killing their terrible boyfriends. Ayoola is gorgeous and vibrant and, well, murderous: her relationships, as her sister Korede delicately says, tend to end badly. So badly, in fact, that Korede, who’s always been the responsible sister in the family, helps clean up the mess, dispose of the body, and get rid of the evidence. She even reminds Ayoola not to be too flippant on social media while she’s meant to be mourning. There have been three dead boyfriends so far, and while Korede isn’t thrilled about this, she’s willing to help her sister out. But when Ayoola begins dating Korede’s crush, things get tricky—not only does Korede wish he was interested in her rather than attention-getting Ayoola, but Korede’s also concerned about his very life. A gothic tale of murder, sibling rivalry, love, and delicious revenge.
One Day in December
One day in December, as the title suggests, Laurie sees the man she knows she should spend the rest of her life with. It’s love at first sight, and it’s eerie. It isn’t until a year later that she sees him again and learns that his name is Jack, and he’s dating her best friend, Sarah. Laurie does what many a best friend would do: she keeps her mouth shut and decides to simply not love Jack. But over the next ten years, as Laurie has to deal with Jack being in Sarah’s life and thus in hers, it becomes clear that Jack feels the same connection and pull that Laurie does, only he’s unable to leave the seemingly perfect Sarah in order to figure things out. Laurie keeps trying to fall out of love with him and build a good life for herself, but he keeps getting in the way. Will they make it to true love or settle for the next best thing?
Those Who Knew
Idra Novey’s incredible new novel is a whirlwind of art, protest, and a deep critique of the patriarchal structures that keep violent men in power. On an unnamed island, Lena discovers the sweater of a dead woman and is certain she knows exactly who killed the woman—but can she speak about it? Her friend and weed dealer, a bookstore owner named Olga, thinks Lena is overreacting, and besides, she has no proof there’s been a murder. So Lena lets it go, has an affair with a woefully ignorant if good-hearted foreigner, and tries to make her life move on. But she can’t quite forget the trauma of a long-ago ex-boyfriend almost killing her, and that same man is now gaining more political power on her beloved island home. The man’s brother, meanwhile, sees a streak of violence in him as well, but he’s been so well-trained to maintain sibling loyalty that he can’t bear to criticize the man even in his art. In the end, of course, it’s impossible to forget or unsee violence, though many of us allow it to go on without a word. But what if, Novey seems to ask, we spoke up?
We’re pretty sure you’re well aware of Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. An immediate runaway bestseller, the former First Lady is far more than just that. Sharing her journey from a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago to the prestigious Princeton and then Harvard Law School, Obama’s resilience, strength, and monumental intelligence are clear. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t hardships along the way, nor that life became easy with her now-famous husband. Candid and frank, Obama shares the difficulties of being the wife of such an ambitious politician as well as moving to a house where she couldn’t control the goings-on, and where she had to fight to maintain a normal childhood for her daughters. A lovely memoir from one of our truly best women.
An American Marriage
Roy and Celestial are a beautiful couple getting ready to buy a bigger house and start a family together, the epitome of what the American Dream has taught us to strive for. But the American Dream is most often reserved for white people and rich people. When Roy is arrested, tried, and convicted for a crime he didn’t commit and has absolutely nothing to do with, Celestial finds herself the wife of a convicted and imprisoned man. They write letters to one another over the years, all the way until his abrupt release when his conviction is overturned, but Celestial’s life had to move on, and as Roy returns he discovers a new closeness between his wife and her best friend Andre. A heart-wrenching and extremely human look at the cost of a flawed justice system, and the terrible human tragedy of love and distance.
In looking back to some of our oldest stories, we often find things that are relevant still, and so it is with Madeline Miller’s Circe, in which the witch who turned Odysseus’s crew of men into pigs in Homer’s The Odyssey becomes the narrator. Circe is born to Helios, the sun god, and his alluring nymph wife, but she’s neither a goddess nor exactly a nymph. She’s something else, and her curiosity regarding mortals is only the first of many things that get her in trouble. Exiled once her father discovers her powers of witchcraft and sorcery—powers he doesn’t understand and is afraid of—she hones her skills to a fine point, learning everything she can from the wildlife around her. A powerful figure, a woman with a thirst for human emotion and life, and a fascination with the subtle plays of power, she’s an old-made-new feminist icon.
Well, well, well—we made it! Give yourself a round of applause, please. Another year, another set of challenges to face and overcome, as well as laughter, joy, and good books. In our year-end roundup, we share our favorites from 2018, and let us tell you, this was a difficult list to pare down. If you’ve been following along with our monthly favorites, you know just how many incredible books came out this year, from poetry to fiction to essay collections and memoirs. For our absolute favorites of the year, we’ve put together the eclectic mix below (we love a bit of everything!), which is perfect for last-minute gift ideas for friends and family. Even better, these books are perfect gifts to give yourself as you settle into the wintry holiday season. Read on, dear friends, and see you in the new year!