Constance Grady is a culture writer for Vox.com. Previously at The Toast and the A.V. Club. She can be found on Twitter @constancegrady
Lady Cop Makes TroubleAmy Stewart
PositiveVoxConstance would be a kick even if she were purely fictional. She’s almost 6 feet tall, strong and stoic to a fault, a classic Sam Spade detective who doesn’t quite understand why the rest of the world won’t treat her as such ... Unfortunately, this brings us to the downside of relying heavily on a true story as the basis of a thriller: Reality can’t plot for shit. As Constance tracks her prey from her rural county prison to New York City and back again, the story starts to get a little less gripping ... Still, based on character and atmosphere alone, Lady Cop Makes Trouble is a keeper.
Night of the AnimalsBill Broun
RaveVoxThe book seamlessly transitions from dystopian satire to psychological melodrama to pure pulp (and back again) ... The Night of the Animals is a stunner of a book: thoughtful and elegiac, with long, lyrical sentences, and a tricky structure that will keep you guessing. It’s worth your time.
The Fire This Timeed. Jesmyn Ward
RaveVoxThe Fire This Time insists on the humanity and individuality of its subjects ... The Fire This Time shows that very little about our 'racial nightmare' has changed since Baldwin made that optimistic prediction. But it continues to argue that radical love can transform the world.
Losing ItEmma Rathbone
PositiveVoxJulia’s single-minded focus on sex would feel off-putting, and the book shallow, if Rathbone weren’t so clear-eyed about where that focus comes from: namely, a sense of emptiness and stuntedness ... [Rathbone] knows how to find the comedy in Julia’s neurotic obsessive fantasies, and the tragedy in her series of unendingly terrible adventures in online dating ... a story that’s well worth reading.
A Hundred Thousand WorldsBob Proehl
PositiveVox...[a] sweet, charming, and just a little overcrowded love letter to geek culture ... [the] mother/son bond is right on the border of co-dependent, so specific in its sweetness that it manages to avoid becoming saccharine ... It is a lot. A whole lot. And while it can be fun to watch these stories intersect and play off one another, the overall effect is overcrowded. Dropping one of A Hundred Thousand World’s storylines would have given the remaining characters much-needed room to breathe and develop ... The book is definitely one to read if you get misty-eyed over storytelling and geek culture makes your heart sing.
The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047Lionel Shriver
PanVoxThe book is a fairly straightforward conservative libertarian nightmare. And while I personally don’t agree with its politics, I might still consider The Mandibles to be a well-crafted book, if it didn’t seem to exist almost entirely to congratulate itself on its political views ... there are occasional gestures toward something else. Shriver is excellent at evoking the concrete physical discomfort created as the economy collapses...But those kinds of details are few and far between. Mostly, the characters of this book exist to have extended straw-man arguments about economic theory ... in other words, all the makings of our next Ayn Rand.
A Gentleman in MoscowAmor Towles
MixedVoxA Gentleman in Moscow is one of the year’s most relentlessly charming books. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing ... The count’s charm is so relentless, bordering on aggressive, that you occasionally find yourself on Ignatov’s side. Slow down a little, you want to say. You don’t have to turn every meal into a meditation on Tolstoy ... Further weighing down the count’s charm is A Gentleman in Moscow’s occasionally clunky voice ... Still, the bulk of Gentleman in Moscow is so much fun that its occasional synonym abuse is hardly noticeable.
PositiveVox...a really good adaptation, like Atwood’s, can do the same thing as a really good and inventive staging of a play: It can tease out nuances and resonances from its source material, so that you begin to see the original work in an entirely new light ... That’s not to say that Hag-Seed is perfect. Most troublingly, its title suggests that it’s all about Caliban, but the novel fails to live up to that promise in any compelling way. Still, Atwood’s thoughtfulness and playfulness keep Hag-Seed from ever getting boring ... All told, Hag-Seed is a marvelous and thoughtful adaptation ... Yet there’s a certain emptiness in Atwood’s novel where Caliban should be.
The ClaspSloane Crosley
PositiveVoxIn the midst of all this philosophizing, The Clasp manages to be a warm and funny romp. Crosley built her name on trenchant analysis of modern foibles, and she lives up to her reputation here. The parodies of Victor’s tech office, Nathaniel’s LA scenester life, and Kezia’s dilapidated-chic jewelry company are precise and pointed; the characterization is as tight as a drum ... At times it is an inelegant book by a very smart and talented writer. But this is a symptom of first-novel-itis, one that I fully expect to disappear in Crosley’s next novel.
The Unseen WorldLiz Moore
RaveVoxThe Unseen World has one of the most delicate and lovely voices of any book I’ve read this year. Every action and emotion is rendered so precisely and so cleanly that even the simplest sentences bring enormous pleasure. Combined with a wistfully melancholy coming-of-age story and a tricky artificial intelligence puzzle, it makes for a gem of a novel ... a slow-building coming-of-age story that is as heartbreaking as it is lovely, tragic without ever becoming sentimental, grounded but still compellingly shaded with a touch of American gothic here, a touch of speculative fiction there. And it’s all the more impressive for how lightly it wears its accomplishments.
Swing TimeZadie Smith
RaveVoxIn Smith’s lovely, elegant voice, all of the different elements she’s playing with interweave themselves seamlessly into a deceptively simple whole. The result is as intricate and beautiful as a ballet ... Smith has preserved her uncannily precise eye for the subtle distinctions of class and race that preoccupy her characters, and for the way those distinctions shift across communities; that skill is on full display here ... The result is a terrific book from one of our greatest novelists.
Here I AmJonathan Safran Foer
MixedVoxThere’s pleasure in watching Foer wrestle with those questions in rich, sprawling sentences, but it’s also wearying. Foer’s characters analyze everything so much, so compulsively, throughout Here I Am’s 600 pages, that they begin to feel like nothing more than over-articulate, disembodied brains. The solipsism inherent to the book’s structure is more than a little grating, and Foer’s unabashed sentimentality doesn’t always land ... it begins to feel dismissive to reduce [Israel] to a symbolic supporting player in the portrait of a yuppie marriage ... All the same — despite the claustrophobia and the solipsism and the Freud — there is an undeniable joy to be had in reading Foer’s textured, playful prose ... Here I Am is not perfect, but damn it, it tries. It swings for the fences. It’s ambitious, and if nothing else, its ambition makes it exciting to read.
The Most Dangerous Place on EarthLindsey Lee Johnson
RaveVoxThe earnest, intimate immediacy of the typical YA voice is completely absent: This book might be about teenagers, but it’s written for adults. And it begins, like all great novels about adolescence do, with trauma ... Out of these overlapping character studies emerges a portrait of the class itself, this seething group of high-strung, privileged teenagers, as an organism that seems to have a mind of its own ... What’s exciting about The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is the way Johnson manages to find the individuality in each figure within this class full of traditional high school archetypes, without sacrificing the amorphous horror of the class itself. The book works as both a series of psychological portraits and as a social portrait.
The MothersBrit Bennett
PositiveVox...Brit Bennett’s debut is searing and ferocious ... The plot that connects all these ambivalent mother figures is not supremely original or interesting. There’s an affair, there’s guilt and recriminations, there’s a return home, and everyone is more or less the same person at the end of the book as they were at the beginning. Beat for beat, the structure of The Mothers is a little pedestrian ... What elevates the book are the emotional underpinnings of each character, and Bennett’s lively, precise voice.
A Gambler's AnatomyJonathan Lethem
PositiveVoxIn A Gambler’s Anatomy, things get pretty close to pitch black — but that doesn’t stop them from being a hell of a lot of fun ... The ensuing surgery is the novel’s most stunning and elaborate set piece ... What stays consistent across the novel’s three acts — the glamorous high-stakes gambling world, the harrowing surgery, the anarchic Berkeley section — is Lethem’s assured, unshowy prose. He’s working in a noir style here, smoky and disaffected, and while his language rarely calls attention to itself, his imagery is precise and vivid.
Difficult WomenRoxane Gay
PositiveVoxNot all of Gay’s difficult women are as compelling at the rest...but every short story collection has highs and lows. And the highs in Difficult Women are pretty damn high. Taken together, the stories celebrate the condition of being difficult in the face of a world that is determined to hurt you. Because it is only the dead girls, Gay concludes in the title story, who are never called difficult.
Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of DistractionDerek Thompson
PositiveVoxIt’s a fascinating story, and it’s backed up with plenty of evidence, both psychological and historical. While Thompson occasionally gets tangled up in questions of causality — did this make this object famous, or was it that? — he develops a compelling lens to analyze the weird, borderline inexplicable phenomenon that is mass popularity ... Thompson’s project is to synthesize the findings of these different disciplines into a single analytic lens, and he does so relentlessly. The downside of that project is that it can lead to pat simplifications, but the upside is that its scope is impressive, and the insight it offers is compelling ... Hit Makers is thoughtful and thorough, a compelling book — and one that knows why it is compelling.
Norse MythologyNeil Gaiman
PositiveVox...determinedly a collection of stories with narrative arcs and conclusions, peopled with characters who have consistent, coherent psychologies. Gaiman’s voice is not so much heightened and lyrical as it is grounded and calm, with a wry, ironic sense of humor that spills over into the characters’ dialogue ... Loki is the star here: His love of chaos is the narrative engine that sets each story in motion, and watching him lie his way out of trouble and then back into it again is one of the chief pleasures of this book ... fresh, vital, and compelling.
How to Murder Your LifeCat Marnell
MixedVoxHow to Murder Your Life, has the quality of a dispatch from five years ago: Wow, Cat Marnell is still out there! And…still doing pretty much the same thing, I guess? ... The fact that this unrepentant party girl believes so deeply in working hard and paying your dues is profoundly endearing: You can feel how much she loves her work and how badly she wants to succeed ... How to Murder Your Life is honest, but it is not thoughtful and introspective. It’s actually a little bit boring. That intimate, slightly manic, I-am-probably-on-speed-right-now-as-I-write voice Marnell cultivated at xoJane worked brilliantly for a 500-word beauty blog post, but it cannot sustain itself for a 375-page book ... Marnell’s descriptions of her patterns — periods of manic productivity followed by periods of numbness — are realistic, but they are also exhausting, and they just keep going.
Behold the DreamersImbolo Mbue
PositiveVox...lush and lovely ... It’s not all grotesque suffering, though. Mbue finds room in Behold the Dreamers to highlight moments of intense joy in the Jongas’ life.
PositiveVox...an insidiously creepy little book, modern in its understanding of psychology but purely Victorian gothic in its atmosphere ... Green’s naive voice — frank and straightforward even as she describes horrors — is heavily reminiscent of the child narrator of Emma Donoghue’s Room, but the setting, with its rotting house full of secrets and a shadowy and threatening woman flitting through it, is straight out of Shirley Jackson ... It’s not for the faint of heart, but it will stay with you.
Fever DreamSamantha Schweblin
RaveVoxIt’s rare for a book to do exactly what its title says it will do without any caveats or reservations. It’s even more rare for a book to achieve the kind of woozy, elliptical, intimate horror implied by a title like Fever Dream. But this debut novel by Argentinian short story writer Samanta Schweblin does exactly that. Fever Dream operates on the level of pure atmosphere. Its action is minimal ... The result is astonishingly and profoundly unsettling, in a way that few books ever quite achieve. Fever Dream is a novel stripped down to its barest elements, all dialogue and atmosphere, and working with only those elements, it manages to create an authentic nightmare. 'Authentic nightmare' is not the experience everyone wants to get out of a book (I confess it’s not my ideal read, personally), and if it sounds deeply unpleasant to you, then Fever Dream is not your book. But if you’re after creeping, insidious, psychologically compelling horror, then you won’t do better.
The CorrespondenceJ.D. Daniels
PositiveVoxJ.D. Daniels’s debut essay and short story collection, The Correspondence, is so good, so clean and incisive, with such taut, muscular prose, that I’m already dreading the number of terrible imitations it will undoubtedly generate in MFA programs across America in the coming year ... Daniels’s prose [is] paced and structured with precise deliberation; it suggests roughness, but at the same time it’s been polished to diamond sharpness ... But the thoughtfulness that elevates his essays is not as fully realized in Daniels’s short stories. 'Letter from Devil’s Tower,' about a married van driver having a last affair with an old girlfriend, is so flat that it dies on the page ... The Correspondence clocks in at a slim 126 pages long, and 'Letter from Devil’s Tower' takes up 14 of those pages. That’s more than 10 percent of the book spent on a dud of piece — but the remaining 89 percent is so smart and elegantly written that it’s still well worth your time.
Exit WestMohsin Hamid
RaveVox...a thoughtful, beautifully crafted work that emphasizes above all the ordinariness and humanity of people who become refugees ... Exit West is by turns fantastical and all too real, and always thoughtful and gripping. It’s a novel about ideas that also cares deeply about the pleasures of language, and a novel of disconcerting timeliness that does not depend upon its historical context to be compelling. Its language and ideas might have a particular resonance today, but they would be worth reading at any time.
Women Who WorkIvanka Trump
PanVoxInsofar as she has one, Trump’s signature move is to find a name that signifies cosmopolitan prestige — that tells readers that she is educated and polished and thoughtful — and then sand away any undesirable thoughts or attitudes that might accompany those names ... To the extent that Trump’s ideology translates to policy, it appears to be a policy designed to help those who don’t need all that much help. It’s for those who have already succeeded, because, after all, they chose to win. But little of that policy appears in the book. Mostly, Women Who Work stays committed to its aesthetic of pleasant vagueness.
Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders
PositiveVoxThis sweet-natured longform work is a new direction for Saunders, the satirical short-story writer — but it’s a fruitful one ... It takes a few pages to ease into the rapidfire transition from voice to voice, but eventually the momentum of the piece takes over and you can sink into it. Always, the monologues are stylized and compelling, and periodically, they launch into ecstatic lyrical arias ... a thoughtful, readable, and beautifully constructed novel.
PositiveVoxLockwood has an eye for the precise details that capture a family’s neuroses, and the exact turn of phrase that will leave readers snickering and then scrambling to explain to horrified friends why the idea of a priest in transparent boxers is so funny. She mines incredible humor out of the tension between her lapsed-Catholic, feminist adult self and her right-wing, God-fearing parents. But Priestdaddy is not just a collection of funny essays: It’s also something weirder and twistier and sadder than that. ... What emerges from Priestdaddy in the end is an immensely tender, loving, and melancholy portrait of a family, just as funny and dirty as the title suggests but with an unexpected heart.
The Schooldays of JesusJ. M. Coetzee
MixedVoxSchooldays is not a realistic novel. I would hesitate to call it a novel at all: It’s closer to a Socratic dialogue on the relationship between reason and passion that is structured around a small child for reasons that are frankly beyond me. It aggressively disdains the idea of story in favor of the idea of thought ... Schooldays is the kind of book that will appeal if you think Brecht’s teaching plays aren’t quite didactic enough, or if you look at Lacan and think, 'Why couldn’t this be more obscure, though?' As a book that is ostensibly supposed to be a novel, it is as dry as sawdust. As what it is, it is probably brilliant.
The Idiot.Elif Batuman
PositiveVox...the atmosphere at the heart of The Idiot is one of linguistic alienation, when the distance between what words say and what they mean seems insurmountable ... All of this distance and alienation keeps the reader at a certain remove from Selin, as well; her deadpan voice is endearing, but it holds you at arm’s length. The Idiot is not a book that wants you to get wrapped up in its characters when you could be reveling in all of its linguistic games instead.
The Essex SerpentSarah Perry
RaveVoxPerry’s prose is rich, textured, and intricate. You may recognize a bit of A.S. Byatt in the way Perry leaps into her characters’ philosophical debates, but she is at her lushest and most original when she can describe the natural world — not lyrically, but in a gothic mode, all rotting and fecund vegetation and marshy ground. Perry’s landscape is almost painfully alive, and that makes it redemptive: Her characters are only able to be completely honest with each other when they are outdoors. The Essex Serpent is a phenomenon in the UK, where it won the British Book Award and has sold more than 200,000 copies. Its reception in the US has been slightly quieter, but it deserves all the praise it’s won across the pond. It’s a thoughtful and elegant book about the human need for knowledge and love, and about the fears and desires we bury.
Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly WomanAnne Helen Petersen
PositiveVoxBy analyzing her 10 subjects, Petersen is able to make the invisible boundaries of femininity visible and legible ... Petersen gives her subjects all due credit for maintaining their unruliness in the face of public pressure, but Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is not a hagiography. Petersen is a nuanced enough writer to explore, for instance, the transphobia Caitlyn Jenner ('too queer') has faced as one of the most famous trans women in America, and to acknowledge that Jenner transitioned from a place of enormous privilege and has consistently championed policies that hurt the rest of the trans community. Petersen recognizes that all your faves are problematic, but that doesn’t stop her from analyzing what makes them your faves in the first place. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is the best kind of celebrity gossip book: it’s a book that shows us what celebrity gossip says about us.
The LocalsJonathan Dee
RaveVoxIn Jonathan Dee’s thoughtful and witty new novel The Locals, set in the years between 9/11 and Occupy Wall Street, dozens of the trends and ideologies that make up our current American moment come to insistent, demanding life … The most enduring idea running through the book, the one that is perhaps most vital to the America of 2017, is the deep and profound belief held by most of the characters in The Locals that they have been conned. Somebody has screwed them out of what they deserve … Crucially, Dee’s characters aren’t just vague avatars of rage or allegories for American political movements: All of them are rich psychological portraits, carefully grounded in their cranky small-town life. They’re all so well-defined that it’s a pleasure to watch Dee weaving in and out of their heads.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) BodyRoxane Gay
RaveVoxHunger, is a radical book. It challenges readers to recognize and reassess cultural norms through the lens of personal experience. It is a book that insists that human bodies are worthy of respect regardless of their size, and that although our culture moralizes and pathologizes bodies that are fat, the presence or absence of fat has no bearing on a body’s essential value ... Hunger is an intimate and vulnerable memoir, one that takes its readers into dark and uncomfortable places. Gay examines wells of trauma and horror, not sparing her own self-loathing from her forthright analytic eye. But all the while, she insists on her right to be treated with dignity.
Another BrooklynJacqueline Woodson
RaveVoxIts prose is so delicate, its structure so gauzy, that it feels as if the whole thing will disappear if you look directly at it. Which is not to say the book is insubstantial — only that its power lies in what it leaves unsaid. Describing it means either translating Woodson’s elegant, poetic elisions into prose, or leaving gaping holes in the narration ... an elegant fever dream of a book, one that will haunt you after you finish it.
Home FireKamila Shamsie
RaveVoxAs Home Fire telescopes out to accommodate Antigone’s structure, it loses some of what made the first half so compelling. The careful portrait of this specific family unravels so that Shamsie can shift her focus to enemy states. Clever, practical Isma all but disappears (her analogue in Antigone is a very minor character), and she is so clearly Shamsie’s best invention that her absence leaves a noticeable void in the story. And Parvaiz’s slow brainwashing by ISIS, and subsequent struggle against his brainwashing, only narrowly avoids becoming a wholesale cliché. What stays constant is Shamsie’s careful, lovely prose. She will deftly break your heart ... in the book’s final scene, the intimacy of the first half unites with the scope of the second half in a single, transcendent moment that will leave you breathless.
My Absolute DarlingGabriel Tallent
RaveVoxMy Absolute Darling is told in a tight third person, locked in on Turtle’s thoughts, and it is appropriately oppressive to be inside her mind ... What’s most impressive about My Absolute Darling is how carefully it handles its bleakness. Many abuse narratives are ostensibly about how terrible abuse is, but at the same time they invite their readers to wallow, to luxuriate in the idea of a young girl’s broken and violated body. My Absolute Darling is aware of what’s happening to Turtle’s body, but it remains firmly interior, focusing its attention on her warped and damaged psyche. The result is that it feels less exploitative than it does honest. And as Turtle gradually comes to terms with her secret hatred for Martin, and begins to take steps to separate herself from him forever, the outcome feels earned — and cathartic and spine-tingling as hell.
Autumn.Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Ingvild Burkey
RaveVoxThe most surprising thing about Autumn, the latest book from Norwegian literary superstar Karl Ove Knausgaard, is how tender it is ...in contrast, is relatively slim, coming in at 224 pages and containing no particularly shocking revelations. It doesn’t even have a narrative or barely any characters ...book takes the form of a letter to Knausgaard’s unborn daughter ...is a series of lyrical sketches that are invested in making even cruder topics like piss as worthy of aesthetic examination as the sun ... The spirit of that love animates this gentle, thoughtful book: love both for Knausgaard’s unborn daughter and for finding elements of the transcendent in the mundane. It’s tender, intimate, and lovely.
Sing Unburied SingJesmyn Ward
RaveVoxSome reviews have suggested that it’s poor craftsmanship on Ward’s part to give Leonie, who is such a cold mother with such a blinkered worldview, an inner monologue as poetic as warm and loving Jojo’s. But part of Ward’s project as a writer — as she’s described it in interviews and in essays — is to achieve a radical empathy and love for her subjects, regardless of their apparent moral failings. And in Ward’s books, empathy is a function of beautiful prose: the one leads inevitably to the other. So while Leonie may be a terrible mother, Ward can still find beauty in her thoughts. And that beauty turns her into a character who is worthy of the reader’s empathy —even when it’s very painful to empathize with her.
Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng
RaveVox...a claustrophobic and compelling novel ... All of these betrayals and rejections are going down in Ng’s precisely rendered perfect suburb: Shaker Heights, a 'planned community' of immaculate lawns and strict aesthetic rules, in which houses must be either Tudor, English, or French style, and may be painted only one of three permitted colors. It’s a thoroughly domesticated town. The only thing that could possibly disturb such a place would be the enormous emotional heat of a mother/child relationship going wrong.
What is Not Yours is Not YoursHelen Oyeyemi
RaveVox...is her first collection of short stories, and it is astonishingly beautiful. Every line shimmers; every image is as precise and well-placed as though it were cut from glass. This book is so exquisite, so perfectly made...collection are all loosely connected, with characters weaving in and out of the narrative as it suits them ...what really unites the book is the repeated image of a key in a lock, and the question of whether it is better to unlock a mystery or to leave it unresolved ...What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a singularly beautiful collection of stories, filled with ideas and images that will linger in your mind for a long time to come.