Spending time in a bookstore is always its own kind of magic. What awaits you at your local indie is nothing short of wizardry! Books allow you to jump into different worlds and occupy other timelines. They let you walk around in someone else’s brain for a little while. And, of course, booksellers—masters of this domain—possess their own kind of sorcery. They always seem to know exactly what you need.
Big thanks to the indie booksellers at A Novel Idea (PA), Bedlam Book Cafe (MA), Copper Dog Books (MA), Point Reyes Books (CA), Timbre Books (CA), and Vroman’s (CA) for their generosity in offering these enchanting book recommendations.
Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red
If given the power, I would nominate Anne Carson for the Nobel Prize in Literature. I know this is a somewhat dramatic claim for someone like me to make, and I can see the skepticism in customers’ eyes whenever I tell them this, but I do mean it. Carson is a true maverick, after all, standing now on one of the most distinctive bodies of work I have encountered in my life as a reader. In addition to blurring the sometimes strict boundaries between poetry, fiction, essays, and translation, her rootedness in ancient history allows her to collapse time as if it were nothing at all, making the plight of, say, Hekabe, feel as real and pressing as a knock on the door in the middle of the night. There is no such thing as ancient grief, she seems to insist. There is simply grief. (Or joy, or envy, or sorrow.) Autobiography of Red, which tells of the romance between Herakles and Geryon, one of the monsters he kills in the foundational tale, is the obvious choice when it comes to Carson’s work, and for good reason. This book contains so much of what she does well: a disregard of genre conventions (the book is marketed as a novel-in-verse, and includes an introductory essay, appendices, and an exit interview with Stesichoros, the poet whose fragments Carson builds from), a story that has one foot in the mythopoetic past and one foot in the present age, and a style that feels entirely non-derivative, despite Carson’s clear allegiance to a centuries-long lineage of storytelling. This last point is one I always stress as I pass off the book. Carson is so deeply engaged with history that it seems everyone becomes her contemporary, from Euripides to Gertrude Stein, Emily Brontë to Samuel Beckett. The result, somewhat ironically, is work that is always fresh, always forward-thinking, and always mesmerizing. Deserving, I say, of a major international prize. And if not that, then at least an immediate read.
Agustina Bazterrica, tr. Sarah Moses, Tender Is the Flesh
Tender is the Flesh is one of the most chilling, unsettling books I’ve ever read, and also one of the best. It reflects upon themes of consumption, the government’s influence over its people, and humankind’s lack of humanity while making the reader question their own morals and role in the animal production industry. Tender is the Flesh is a train wreck that you just can’t stop watching. It glitters with beautiful prose, unfathomable grief, and a world that maybe isn’t too far off from our own.
–Christina Rosso-Schneider, A Novel Idea
Casey McQuiston, One Last Stop
For her whole life, August has never let herself grow attached to any place or anyone, preferring to study people rather than actually getting to know them. Until she meets Jane, an impossibly perfect girl on the subway who she’s inexplicably drawn to. A girl who inspires her to let people in again and cracks her wide open. There’s just one problem: Jane is from a different time.
With subway parties, drag shows, and a band of hilarious and sweet queer friends I would love to be adopted by, One Last Stop manages to provide laughs, queer history and love, a heist, time travel, and a feeling of belonging that is impossible to get from most other books. This book was a love letter to the magic of New York City and the heart that its people have. And also to the queer community. This rom-com is one that is tattooed permanently on my heart.
–Jess Holleran, Copper Dog Books
Tove Jansson, tr. Thomas Teal, The Summer Book
The Summer Book is twenty two vignettes threaded together by the quirky relationship between a grandmother and young granddaughter who spend the summer together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. At its core it is an examination of grief through the simple and sincere perspectives of both childhood innocence and the wisdom that comes with having lived a full life. The two roam the island and contemplate life, death, God, and love as they examine bugs, build boats, and weather storms. Reading this book is a reminder to look carefully at our surroundings —both the beauty and severe—with greater wonder.
–Megan Murai, Timbre Books
Emily M. Danforth, Plain Bad Heroines
This is one of the most interesting books I have read this year. Plain Bad Heroines sets the scene in a deeply haunted New England Boarding School for Girls. The book jumps back and forth in time so that readers can learn about the roots of the curse to the film crew who is trying to make an adaptation of the horrors that happened there. Danforth plays with the idea that terrible events leave a space sour and generations later people still have to pick up the pieces and deal with its history. The past never truly goes away, something is always left lingering there. It has fantastic characters and has several truly chilling moments that would make this a fascinating film adaptation. It is populated with fascinating, mostly queer heroines who you feel great empathy and love for by the end. Don’t be intimidated by the size it is a breeze to get through and almost impossible to put down. It also has gorgeous illustrations throughout the story, everything about this makes for a delightful reading experience.
–Victoria Potenza, A Novel Idea
Dex is a traveling tea monk, and although they love making people smile, they are still struggling to feel fulfilled. They seek solitude in the wilds, mysterious lands where robots were set free hundreds of years ago to roam. When Dex encounters Mosscap, a robot with a childlike sense of wonder for human behavior, and deadly insects, the last thing they want to do is embark on an adventure with it-after all, they are the first person to encounter a robot in two hundred years! However, Dex has no idea that Mosscap will actually be teaching Dex what it means to be human. Warm, lush and as cozy as a Studio Ghibli film, this book made me want to wander into the woods with my friends and build a yurt commune and never return. This book was the equivalent of talking to a friend about life over tea and feeling like the world may just end up ok in the end. Dex and Mosscap are the new friendly faces of hopeful sci-fi!
–Jess Holleran, Copper Dog Books
Marie Redonnet, Hôtel Splendid
I’m a little bit obsessed with Marie Redonnet’s Hôtel Splendid, the fable-like tale of a woman running an increasingly decrepit hotel on the edge of a swamp while caring for her newly arrived two sisters, the sickly Ada and the wannabe-actress Adel (basically my version of escapist literature). The narrator’s woes never seem to stop: the pipes leak, the roof needs repairs, toilets require constant unclogging, guests complain (though she sometimes prefers them to her sisters) and the swamp is swallowing up the graveyard, including Grandmother’s tombstone. But the eerie magic of this novel is all in the slyly hypnotic prose, marvelously translated by Jordan Stump. Redonnet has been compared to Samuel Beckett; the deep geometry of her writing also reminded me in certain ways of Italo Calvino. But Redonnet, along with her curiously persevering narrator, is really in a league all her own.
–Samantha Kimmey, Point Reyes Books
C Pam Zhang, How Much of These Hills is Gold
How Much of These Hills is Gold is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. Zhang immediately sweeps you up in the violent, unforgiving, dusty landscape of the American West during the gold rush. Orphaned siblings, Lucy and Sam, set out to bury their father and have their hopes set on finding a distant place they can live and be accepted as Chinese Americans. Zhang’s writing is poetic and vivid, and the story she has crafted illuminates the beautiful and often tragic reality of what it means to find belonging and hold on to family.
–Megan Murai, Timbre Books
Dino Buzzati, Catastrophe
It’s often the case that folks will come into the store looking for something light and fun. While I’ve steadily acquired a repertoire of recommendations along these lines, providing these recommendations almost feels like betraying myself. Who really enjoys a story without a healthy dose of conflict, failure, even abject misery? Clearly, not everyone takes the same perverse joy in the obscure works of twisted surrealism that make me giddy. But for those who really want to know, I’m happy to guide them to one of the finest and most overlooked writers of the 20th century: Dino Buzzati. While Buzzati is most known for his novel The Tartar Steppe, that title is somewhat difficult to track down. Thankfully, there’s a great entryway to his work in the form of the 1965 short story collection, Catastrophe, republished in 2018 as part of Ecco’s Art of the Story series in a new translation by Judith Landry. Contained within are a smattering of tales overflowing with existential dread, tantalizing and often inconclusive conceits, ironic narrative turns and claustrophobia-inducing atmospheres. The unique balance of wry humor and looming terror sets him apart from other authors working in the Kafkaesque mode, making him a voice perfectly suited to our times. Of particular interest is the Dante-inspired “The Seventh Floor”, the timely tale entitled “The Epidemic”, the brilliant modern take on “The Slaying of the Dragon”, and the chilling title story, in which the narrator looks out of a train window and finds people reacting in horror to something ahead, just out of view…
Joshua Henkin, Morningside Heights
This book blew me away. Henkin has devoted so much time and care to these characters, and I was as invested in their relationships as much as they were. A family drama without pettiness or insincerity, Morningside Heights reminded me that while we all cope with tragedy in different ways, we can still find connection through love (even when we misunderstand or disappoint each other) and through memory (even when it starts to fail). Henkin doesn’t shy away from portraying early-onset Alzheimer’s as a cruel disease, but he leaves plenty of space for joy and tenderness.
–Katie Formosi, Copper Dog Books
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
Is there an easier book to handsell? I doubt it. Whenever I’m asked for “a good read” or “a novel that’s not, you know, too heavy and dark” or for “something engaging,” I almost always start by asking “Do you know Love in the Time of Cholera by Márquez?” Mostly, folks don’t know it or at least haven’t read it. “Ah!” I say “then you are in for a real treat.” This is a love story like nothing you’ve ever read; it is sensuous, sinuous, gorgeous, flush with rich details, redolent of tropical aromas, alive with sounds. Of course the writing of García Márquez, he of the school of Magical Realism, is almost like magic itself in that, as you read it, you find yourself marveling again and again at the world he conjures with just words. But woven into this lush tapestry of sensory delights is a love story so beautiful, so surprising, so touching, that you may literally find yourself shedding a tear or two as you finish it. You may shake your head in wonder. And you may find yourself, as I have, returning to this extraordinary novel over and over again, so much do you want to be in the company once more of Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, and to be immersed in the world of their love.
–Patrick Warner, Bedlam Book Cafe
Christopher Buehlman, The Blacktongue Thief
Read this when you miss your Renaissance Faire. With wicked craft, creative cursing, a richly developed world and a plot that’s more episodic than complicated, this is an absolute treat. The Blacktongue Thief depicts a world that takes pleasure in the oddities, from stag-sized ravens to blind cat spies. It’s an excellent addition to the world of fantasy, and a must-read for fantasy readers. You won’t read it, you’ll devour it.
–Lizy Coale, Copper Dog Books
Wendy Trusler and Carol Deve, The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: A Polar Journey
What a deliciously quirky book! This has SO much to offer — travel adventure, science, oddball characters, food, recipes, powerful women, eccentric authors, and all of it packaged in a handsome, slightly oversized hardback with terrific color photographs. Oh, did I mention food? Yes, you cookbook people, you need this title! Wendy Trusler, one of the authors, is an artist and, yes, a chef, and she guides you through her cooking adventures on this Antarctic expedition to extract garbage waste from research stations. Yup, that’s right, that’s the “cleaning” aspect of the title — the trip, from 1995, was one of the first of its kind organized to begin removing tons of debris that have accumulated at the research stations over the decade. You can read this book almost like a novel (if you want), or you can dip in and peruse the recipes and photographs haphazardly. Or you can read it as a bit of eccentric science reporting with some on-the-side culinary diversions. Finally, I should point out, for memoir enthusiasts, much of the text comes in the form of journal entries so in addition to the food & recipe writing, you’re brought into the intimate world of Wendy Trusler. And that world is fun to inhabit; after undertaking this adventure with Wendy Trusler as a companion, you will want to seek her out and join her next adventure, wherever she might be going.
–Patrick Warner, Bedlam Book Cafe
Gina Nutt, Night Rooms
This slow burn mosaic memoir brims with horror movie references seamlessly integrated into a meditation on life. Nutt shifts from reality to film and back again, contextualizing her struggle with grief and survival in a vulnerable and relatable way. A cinematic kaleidoscope of honesty and self-examination weave this collection into a spotlight shining into the dark corners of Nutt’s mind.
–Alexander Schneider, A Novel Idea
Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Ace of Spades
Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl meet Get Out in this riveting debut about the only two Black students in their elite prep school who are targeted by an anonymous bully. Perfectly blending teen drama, heart-pounding suspense, and queer romance with a thought-provoking exploration of systemic racism, classism, and oppression, Ace of Spades is this summer’s must-read YA thriller!
–Alyssa Raymond, Copper Dog Books
Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States
There are several reasons I love to hand-sell this book. First, I’m not what you’d call a history reader. I’ve always found dates and names and linear timelines of events rather tedious to read. But this book defies the typical “dry” recounting of historical events, and thus if people are like me, I like to think that I can turn folks on to something they normally wouldn’t contemplate reading. Second, at nearly 1,000 pages, I love to challenge folks with something weighty to read. And in the skilled hands of Jill Lepore, it’s a surprisingly entertaining and engaging read that sustains the whole way through. Her writing is excellent and scholarly, while also being very accessible. And third, I believe it’s more important than ever, after the last few years of political chaos and societal strife, to grapple with the history of this nation in a manner that’s inclusive of all the people that make up America. I founded Bedlam Book Cafe in part because of this political chaos, and the assertion of “alternative facts,” a notion I find absolutely ridiculous. Jill Lepore’s scholarship in this book wrestles with all the messy truths and facts of America’s lineage in a way that I never learned when I was in school. She’s not writing so much about the dates and timelines of events (although those are certainly present), but about the soul of the nation, people’s consciousness, and the driving forces of the birth of a nation. In fact, this book helped me come to some semblance of peace (while also boosting my resolve to fight for the America I believe we can be) about the deep divisions currently roiling this country. This book seems like it should be required reading for not just gleaning a closer truth of the history of this country, but for coming to terms with how we found ourselves suddenly in these deep divisions that we lost family and friends over.
–Nicole, Bedlam Book Cafe
Emily Austin, Everyone in This Room will Soon be Dead
Meet Gilda. She’s a morbidly anxious 27-year-old atheist lesbian, who haphazardly becomes a receptionist at a Catholic Church. Emily Austin’s darkly funny, irreverent, and charming debut is just what we need right now.
–Alyssa Raymond, Copper Dog Books