Let Me Tell You What I Mean
In the dozen essays collected in this new volume from the much-beloved Joan Didion, readers will find themselves lured—as we so often are—into thinking the way Didion wants us to, seeing things from her perspective, maybe even having our minds changed. With an introduction by Hilton Als, the pieces in this book were penned from 1968 to 2000, and run the gamut from Didion’s reasons for writing (“to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means”) to her precise cultural critiques of imagined American staples like wealth, consumerism, and college. A perfect read.
Blythe Connor thinks we need to talk about Violet. Her baby daughter is beautiful, and her husband, Fox, adores her, but Blythe recognizes something sinister in the smaller version of her, much as she sees something sinister in herself: a version of her own mother, of her grandmother, of a line of women who struggled to love and parent. When Blythe’s son is born, she’s able to love him in ways she wasn’t able to feel for Violet, a reality that troubles her. When the unthinkable occurs, Blythe tries to understand why and wishes to warn Fox that it might happen again.
Robert Jones, Jr.
On a Mississippi plantation called Empty, Samuel and Isaiah keep each other as safe as they can and share an intimacy and human joy between them called love. That these two enslaved young men belong to one another throws a wrench into plantation owner Paul’s plans—for Paul is the kind of master who forces his property to couple and procreate so that he can have more property when their children are born. Another enslaved man, Solomon, cannot understand or accept the men’s love for each other and begins to preach its sinfulness. But in this glorious debut, queerness is a saving grace.
Emily Rapp Black
Grief is often treated as something that people get over, given enough time to experience new joys and moments of wonder. Emily Rapp Black, whose son died of Tay-Sachs disease when he was nearly three years old, tries to make space in her new book for grief’s continued existence. After her marriage to her son’s father dissolved, Rapp Black remarried and had a baby girl, but just because she was the mother of a living child did not mean she was not still a bereaved parent. Interrogating the meaning of loss, resilience, and strength, this book is an honest balm.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
George Saunders is mostly known for his genre-bending stories that take readers on humorous, often dark, and finally poignant emotional journeys. In this book, based on a class he’s often taught at Syracuse over the last 20-plus years of his tenure there, Saunders breaks down seven short stories by Russian authors, and reverently explores their inner workings. The stories are included in the book itself, alongside Saunders’ commentary, and are a wonderful master craft class of timing, efficiency, and the flaws that make writing feel uniquely itself. But fear not: this gem of a book is for readers as much as writers.
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed
In acclaimed Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez’s new collection, terror and mystery lie just under the surface of seemingly innocuous events: teenagers channel their hormonal energies into revenge; lost children reappear into a society bearing collective guilt; a woman visiting friends abroad discovers a neighborhood’s buried past; another is sexually drawn to the intricate organ of the human heart. Fans of Carmen Maria Machado and Amber Sparks will love this book, but even if you’ve never been into horror found in the mundane or the humor found in tragedy, this book is well worth your time.
Human beings are always talking, but not always aloud—most often, we’re having a conversation with ourselves. The running thoughts that come and go in our minds are probably the most robust conversations we have, and Ethan Kross, director of the University of Michigan’s Emotion & Self Control Laboratory, knows that there’s no quieting our internal chatter. However, this chatter can often turn negative: how many of us have cussed ourselves internally, or told ourselves off for failing in a task, a relationship, an exam? Kross shows here how we can harness our inner voices to be kinder, ultimately making us happier.
Reese is sleeping with married men, and she hates that she’s doing it, but she’s doing it anyway. She is, as some of us are, acutely aware of her self-destructive tendencies, but sometimes you just have to lean into them, you know? Meanwhile, her ex, Ames, has accidentally impregnated his new lover, Katrina. Even though his decision to return to living as a man after living and loving as a trans woman with Reese (who is also trans) imploded their relationship, Ames misses her. They’d always wanted a child. Will he be able to create the perfect alternative family?
The Charmed Wife
What happens after the happily-ever-after? For Cinderella, whose name in this retelling is Jane, 13 years of marriage to Roland, her Prince Charming, have been quite long enough. It’s not like she ever loved him—he was merely an escape hatch out of her floor-mopping duties at home. Jane, who lives on 5th Avenue in New York, finds a witch who sells potions and asks for one that will kill Roland. As the gears are set in motion, Jane ends up working as a cleaner (at least she’s paid this time), living as a single woman for the first time.
The Children's Blizzard
Have you ever heard of the Children’s Blizzard? We sure hadn’t, but Melanie Benjamin’s novel is based on that true event, a shocking sudden storm that came on the heels of a mild winter’s day, and that ended up killing 235 people in January 1888. Two sisters, daughters to Norwegian settlers, are schoolteachers at small prairie schools in different states, and each makes a different decision: one sends the children home even as the storm rages, while the other encourages her pupils to stick together, inside and with her. The outcomes of their choices ripple through their communities over time.
The Girls I've Been
It’s been five years since Nora escaped the clutches of her con-artist mother, and it’s still strange to her to just be Nora and not the many roles her mother made her play when conning rich men out of their money. Still, she’s adjusted as best she can. But the day after her ex-boyfriend Wes walks in on her and her new girlfriend, Iris, kissing, the three of them get caught in a sticky situation: the bank they’re in is being robbed, and everyone inside is taken hostage. Channeling the roles she’s played, Nora sets out to dupe the robbers.
Rosalie Wright has wanted to be a pilot since she was 10, but just when she’s about to get her pilot’s license, World War II breaks out. Undeterred, Rosalie applies to join a women’s division that ferries planes back and forth for the Royal Air Force—the UK’s aerial warfare force. It’s not easy, but she’s eventually accepted and begins flying to several airfields a day, ignoring the men’s sneers and making friends with her fellow women pilots. With tensions running high and stakes rising as the war continues, it’s no surprise that love and lust are in the air too… But will they ruin her nascent career?
The titular trio of this hilarious and touching novel are Elfrida, Talbot, and Anny, who are all in Brighton, England in 1968 for a film shoot. Elfrida is a novelist, and really only there because she’s married to the director. She also hasn’t written a book in a long time and drinks too much. Talbot is the film’s frustrated producer—frustrated because of the rising cost of the film and the closeted and unhappy marriage he’s in. Anny is the film’s American star, drugging herself with pills and sleeping with her co-star. Hijinks ensue, of course, but so does tenderness.
The Liar's Dictionary
At the end of the 19th century, Peter Winceworth, a young lexicographer, is working for a dictionary publisher, Swansby’s, and finding ways to insert his own personality into the volume he’s painstakingly working through. In the 21st century, Mallory is an intern for the same company, Swansby’s, although its star has fallen, and her work consists of a kind of fact-checking: combing through the dictionary for “mountweazels”—deliberately fake entries. As the intern, she’s also answering the phones, which means she’s fielding the death threats. Who could hate Swansby’s so much? And does it have anything to do with Winceworth?
Saskia and Jenny are twins with very different lives. Sara and Mattie are sisters whose existence also seems miles apart. But when a car accident leaves Jenny in a coma, Saskia becomes her caretaker. When Sara’s mother dies, she has to put a stop to her extravagant traveling lifestyle and take care of Mattie, who is intellectually disabled. For both Saskia and Sara, caretaking is not easy, nor is what they learn about their sisters in the process. When these two plotlines intertwine, Saskia and Sara immediately understand each other’s grief, love, and guilt. But is understanding enough?
The Forever Sea
Joshua Phillip Johnson
Kindred Greyreach is the hearthfire keeper for a ship that sails the Forever Sea: endless prairie grasses that stretch as far as anyone can imagine. When her grandmother disappears—walking off into the dangerous grasses as if to find something—Kindred decides to go after her. On the way, she and her crew find themselves embroiled in political intrigue in the Once-City, a mythical but oh-so-real pirate city whose denizens are both complicated and far more dangerous than expected. What lies beneath the sea? This is the first book in a new series, so keep your eyes peeled for what’s to come.
That Old Country Music
In acclaimed author Kevin Barry’s vivid and stirring short story collection, love and whitethorn (a species of hawthorn) abound in the warm Irish settings he peoples. In one story, a collector of the titular old country music discovers a rather bawdy song. In another, a man learns he is incredibly seductive in the cottage he inherited but nowhere else is he noticed. In a third, a girl home from boarding school decides to lose her virginity to a particular man, while in a fourth, a man cannot fathom why anyone would want to be with him in the first place.
Before She Disappeared
When Haitian teenager Angelique Lovelie Badeau disappears from her high school, the Boston Police Department does little to help. Enter Frankie Elkin, an average, middle-aged, white woman, as well as a recovering alcoholic with an angry cat. Frankie has made it her mission to search for those that others—especially institutions of power—have stopped looking for. Arriving in Boston, she begins to poke around Angelique’s tight-knit community, the BPD, and anyone else who might help her find leads. Everywhere she turns, it seems someone is hiding something. But Frankie, whose alcoholic restlessness needs to be channeled into something, cannot and will not give up.
Delilah Rollins is your average run-of-the-mill teenager with one big exception: she’s just gone viral. When she’s invited by child-star and current influencer Jasmine Walters-Diaz to a party in LA, Delilah jumps on the opportunity. She soon meets other internet personalities like Fiona Jacobs and Scarlet Leigh. Everyone seems perfect, glamorous, overwhelmingly aware of precisely who they are—at least, they appear that way online. In real life, though? There’s more than one hot-mess express. When a murder occurs, Delilah decides to play hero again (after all, saving a puppy from a burning shed made her a star) and figure out whodunnit. Think of this as a murder mystery set in a TikTok Hype House.
No Heaven for Good Boys
Ibrahimah is only six years old when Marabout Ahmed, who lives in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, comes to Ibrahimah’s village. The marabout convinces Ibrahimah’s parents to allow the child to join his cousin, Étienne, in Dakar, where the marabout will teach them both the intricacies of the Koran. Instead, Ibrahimah finds himself joining Étienne in another endeavor: Ahmed sends the boys out to beg for money in the street along with all the other talibés who do the same. Surviving the abuse they suffer under Marabout Ahmed is difficult enough, but Étienne has a bigger goal: escaping and saving his young cousin.
Out with the old year and in with the new! We can’t know that 2021 will be a better year, but we can work toward bettering it together. And you know what the best fuel is for imagining your way into hope and change? That’s right: books. Books that remind us we’re not alone and help us escape from our isolation when we feel it. In this month’s crop of favorites, we’ve got a whole lot of fiction to sustain you, some nonfiction for your mind and soul, and some delicious YA and mystery to top it all off. These are the best new books of January 2021.