by Powell's Staff, June 21, 2019 9:58 AM
Let's face it: The world is in a weird place right now. This country is in a weird place right now. And the book industry is pretty much always in a weird place. With so much weirdness to contend with, thank goodness there are books — books that explain politics and relationships (or let us escape them entirely), books that explore art and science, books that dive into our history and others that imagine our future. The following are the best of the books we’ve read since January 1, 2019: We hope you read them too, and that they help to replace a little bit of that weird with a great deal more wonder.
by Max Porter
The stage is set: Author Max Porter is the Pied Piper, and you are being called. Lanny will play your heart like a flute, luring you into its song of childhood landscapes, extending nature forward into its wild, animated state. And when the tune is complete, it will have fulfilled all its promises of consequence and heartbreak, in an astounding encore of reverie.
– Aubrey W.
I Miss You When I Blink
by Mary Laura Philpott
This book found me at exactly the right time and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. With a mug of tea and these essays in hand, my experience with this book was that of having a no-holds-barred conversation with an old friend I knew would never judge me. Philpott explores what it means to miss yourself, what it means to feel like you need an escape hatch, what it means to live with and recognize the hundreds of yous you've been, and all the yous you've yet to become. I truly fell in love with this collection, and it reinforced the idea that we really do contain multitudes. I can't recommend it enough.
– Carrie K.
Leaving Richard's Valley
by Michael DeForge
DeForge's new collected edition of his web comic Leaving Richard's Valley may just be his most spectacular work to date. A haphazard crew of animals are kicked out of the valley they call home by Richard, their Fabio-esque quasi-cult leader, as a punishment for saving their friend's life without his permission. Shenanigans galore ensue, both in the valley and as we follow our protagonists on their quest to find a new home. A five-star read that's so good, it hurts.
– Haley B.
This Never Happened
by Liz Scott
This Never Happened is a memoir served in small bites. Liz Scott looks back over a lifetime with her narcissistic mother. She uncovers old documents, remembers stories of stories, and in all of it reconciles this difficult relationship. And Scott surprises with her candor and humor. This book is easy to read even as the subject is hard. It is humanity, and I find pieces of myself in this memoir.
– Doug C.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls
by T Kira Madden
T Kira Madden writes with kindness, even when the world hasn't been as kind to her. I finished Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls in a coffee shop by my house, promptly closing my eyes and sighing as I held the book to my chest. Cliché? Maybe. Do I care? Not really. This book is stunning, and is so much more than I could have ever hoped that it could be. I cried, I laughed, I imagined. Madden is spectacular.
– Katherine M.
by Colin Bell and Neil Slorance
Don't let Dungeon Fun fly under your radar! Colin Bell and Neil Slorance have created a truly delightful story. It is funny (so, so funny) and quirky, witty, and smart, a perfect book that is full of heart and is truly for all ages. What a joy.
– Lesley A.
by Samira Ahmed
Sometimes, most times, a revolution doesn't start big. It starts small. With one person, refusing to accept the status quo any longer. Internment shows us not only what a near future could look like with a Muslim ban in force, but what resistance often entails. Fear. Quiet resignation. Frustration. Anger. DEFIANCE. And sometimes, it's those with their entire future to lose that will lead the way.
– Beth C.
by Tim Johnston
I really loved Johnston's previous novel, Descent, so I mean it as an enormous compliment when I say that this book blows that one out of the water. The Current is a gorgeous, heartrending punch to the gut, and I loved every page.
– Emily F.
Red, White, and Royal Blue
by Casey McQuiston
This book is not only #relationshipgoals, it's also #governmentgoals. Sweet and vulnerable and so real, this book immediately made it to my top five. When the First Son and the Prince of England clash in an incident of international proportions, they are forced to make nice for the sake of both their countries. But what starts as a strained truce soon develops into a real friendship, and then grows into something more... I cried at the end of this book, and then immediately picked it up and read it again.
– Azalea M.
The Sol Majestic
by Ferrett Steinmetz
Picture a faraway space station, one with the most exclusive and imaginative restaurant in the universe. Mix together a flamboyant impresario and a starving young philosopher about to give up on life, and then give them the task of making the most exotic soup imaginable. Space Soup! I love a novel that makes me hungry.
– Tracey T.
This is hands-down the best book I've read this year, and the best speculative fiction book I've read in a long, long time. Ever wonder what it would look like if Anthony Bourdain wrote sci-fi? This book answers that burning question with spot-on language that makes you feel like you are actually there in the kitchen with Kenna and his fellow ship-mates. You can smell the bay leaves, feel the steam, hear the superthrusters of the ship supporting the galaxy's best restaurant. If you're like me, you'll accidentally take long lunches and stay up way too late in an effort to savor just one more page. The Sol Majestic is the sci-fi food porn you didn't know you needed in your life.
– Deana R.
Dream of the Trenches
by Kate Colby
Part internal dialogue on the essence of language, part critical essay on everything from Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station to Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, and all framed by a single road trip, Dream of the Trenches somehow meshes that all together into what feels like a remake of William Carlos Williams’s "Spring and All" for the 21st century. In place of Williams’s strident manifesto, Colby gives us a charmingly obsessive, self-conscious deconstruction, an intellectual fun house of recurring and recursing ideas, a post-Postmodernist treatise on the idea of its own existence. But don’t worry — though you may give your brain a few extra wrinkles trying to understand it, Colby’s wit and whimsy ensure you’ll at least enjoy the experience.
– Jordan M.
by Sophia Shalmiyev
When I read it back in March, Mother Winter immediately popped to the top of my best books list for 2019. Portland author Sophia Shalmiyev tells her personal story of strength and perseverance with sharp honesty and vivid scenes. Any mother, feminist, artist, son or daughter, or immigrant will appreciate the gift Sophia has shared with us.
– Kim S.
Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev is a poetic collage of a memoir, more like a work of art. Honest and fascinating. Gorgeous, stunning prose. Exquisite execution. Shalmiyev swept me away with her imagery and deep probing insight. Loved this book!
– Adrienne C.
by Rory Frances and Jae Bearhat
I’m always on the lookout for stories about trans punks and art freaks, so imagine my delight when Little Teeth hit my desk. It’s funny, poignant, biting, and deeply loving. If the mark of a good book is feeling inspired to practice more compassion towards others and one’s self, then Little Teeth is among the best.
– Kyan F.
Storm of Locusts (Sixth World #2)
by Rebecca Roanhorse
No sophomore jinx here: Storm of Locusts is every bit the thrilling read that Trail of Lightning was. We get to see more of the Sixth World, meet some new characters who are alternately hilarious and terrifying, and go on an adrenaline-filled adventure with Maggie and company. Everything works smoothly here: world-building, plot, and characters, adding up to a humdinger of a sequel.
– Mary Jo S.
Sing to It
by Amy Hempel
Don't mistake Hempel's one-paragraph stories for gimmicks; they're powerful and precise enough to take my breath away with a devastating sentence casually dispensed. And oof, that novella at the end! Simmering with loss and tension, it has haunted me for weeks.
– Eva F.
In Sing to It, stories told in just a handful of spare paragraphs glint like small precious stones, while others fill page after page with uncommonly brilliant prose, throwing the lid back on the treasure chest. This remarkable collection — Hempel's first in over a decade — was every bit worth the wait.
– Tove H.
The Night Tiger
by Yangsze Choo
For sheer pleasure alone — of losing yourself in a striking time and place (colonial Malaya in the 1930s); in a love story between sharply drawn characters; and in a murder mystery involving ghost tigers, the Confucian virtues, an illicit trade in human fingers, and a train station that ferries the dead — nothing beats Choo’s evocative The Night Tiger. It threw me into that best of readerly conundrums: Racing through to see how it ends, and dreading the turn of that last fantastic page.
– Rhianna W.
There's Something About Sweetie
by Sandhya Menon
Full of heartfelt laughs and swoon-worthy banter, this book is a MUST! Sweetie is just such a force of nature. She accepts and embraces all of herself in a world that overly focuses on flaws that people have. Ashish and Sweetie are hopelessly adorable as they navigate their new relationship, standing up for what they need to succeed in their lives, both individually and as a couple. Sandhya Menon excels with stories that you just can't help but smile and gush over, both while reading and months later. Everyone needs to get on board for the "Sassy Sweetie Project"!
– Mecca A.
I am officially obsessed with Sandhya Menon! Featuring Indian American main characters, Menon writes contemporary YA romances that make me want to stand up and cheer. Her fundamental respect for her teen characters clearly shows in her sensitive depictions of their struggles and triumphs. There's Something About Sweetie is a companion novel to the New York Times bestselling When Dimple Met Rishi, but also completely stands on its own. It's the story of Ashish, a handsome charmer whose confidence has been rocked by heartbreak, and Sweetie, an insightful track star who struggles to make her mom understand that for Sweetie "fat" isn't a bad word. A stellar example of what the genre can be: empathetic, joyful love stories dealing with real issues and starring diverse protagonists.
– Christine R.
by Ma Jian
China Dream depicts the episodic efforts of Ma Daode, an aging apparatchik in the Chinese government intent on wallpapering over the violence of the Cultural Revolution with a REM-hijacking microchip that replaces dreams with nationalistic propaganda. While juggling a full schedule of political jockeying and wanton philandering, the beleaguered pencil pusher dodges his own visions of the past while becoming increasingly detached from reality. A masterwork-level bureaucratic satire about the need to remember and the desire to forget.
– Justin W.
No One Man Should Have All That Power
by Amos Barshad
Amos Barshad is fascinated with Rasputins — shadowy advisers who manipulate those in power for their own ends. He pursues this archetype across an impressive variety of contexts with style and wit. I didn’t know I wanted this book until it mysteriously appeared, completely capturing my attention and earning my hopeless devotion.
– Keith M.
by Jennifer Donnelly
By the time Isabelle cuts off her toes to squeeze her foot into the glass slipper, she’s already spent years slicing parts of herself away to better fit in a world that insists only a certain type of girl is worthy: demure, charming, and — most importantly — pretty. To build a future past the end of the fairy tale, Isabelle must toe the line between Fate and Chance, rectifying her mistakes and reclaiming the pieces she’s left behind to become the woman she’s meant to be. Not perfect, not pretty, but fully and entirely herself.
– Madeline S.
by Robert Macfarlane
With poetic command of language, keen observational gifts, and worldly perspective, Robert Macfarlane seamlessly blends scientific inquiry, nature writing, travelogue, adventure tale, reportage, history, and requiem for our Anthropocenic age. Perceptive, reflective, and educative, Underland is unequivocally one of the year's must-read books; it is a masterful, magnificent work.
– Jeremy G.
The Night Swimmers
by Peter Rock
Peter Rock's gorgeous exploration of his young adulthood in Wisconsin in the summer of 1994 is perfectly realized in his autobiographical novel, The Night Swimmers. The narrator strikes up a companionable friendship with a widow who lives up the road from his parents’ house as they share a love of night swimming. Rock so expertly depicts the confused unease of a young person trying to navigate relationships, it's excruciating in its awkwardness, but also beautiful in its humanness. While their relationship strikes him as odd, it becomes odder still when the widow disappears. Twenty years later, looking back on this part of his life, the narrator tries to untangle the mystery tied up with this woman and this summer; yet all the emotions, nostalgia, and childhood memories just serve to cloud his understanding. Rock is fearless in exposing his character's failings, but better yet is the way he tells the story of the transformation from hesitant, wary youth to open, honest adult, while the road between is littered with the twin dangers of pain and rejection. Beautifully done, The Night Swimmers is a complex, layered coming-of-age tale that digs deep to deliver its hard-fought wisdom. Brilliant.
– Dianah H.
The New Me
by Halle Butler
Like a millennial Ignatius J. Reilly, Millie is brilliant, indolent, and chronically misanthropic. She wastes her days underperforming at a soulless temp job and loses her nights to fruitless plans for self-improvement. Not much happens in this nihilistic vortex of a novel, but it doesn’t even matter. It is incredibly enjoyable to lose oneself in Halle Butler’s vitriolic stream of consciousness as she rails against complacency, mindless consumption, and the impossibility and inadequacy of the American Dream, along with innumerable infuriating trivialities. She is an artist and her medium is spiteful dissatisfaction. The New Me is the seething satire we desperately need right now!
– Lauren P.
Machines Like Me
by Ian McEwan
Had this been written by any other author I would have thought, Not for me, and moved on. Because it's written by McEwan, I had to try it, and like most of his novels, I loved it. Machines Like Me not only has science fiction, with one of the main characters being a new robotic person, but it also has a great alternative history set during the Falklands War of 1982. Things go differently for England in this history, but at least the Beatles have released their first album in 12 years. Definitely different from other McEwan novels, but definitely worth it as well.
– Jeffrey J.
Dear God, I'm a Faggot
by Timothy Arliss O'Brien
This collection of poetry and creative short prose is destined to be one of my favorite reads of 2019 and probably of all time. This book is uplifting, yet dark, whimsical, yet hard-hitting. O'Brien uses a variety of written forms, like poetry, essay, lists, prayers, daydreams, even a recipe, to tell his story as an LGBTQ+ individual working through his struggles with Christian faith, his trauma from conversion therapy, and his own battles with depression and rejection. With an honest and revealing tone, this book can be quite serious, but it's certainly not overly depressing, and it's witty, entertaining, and quite often funny. Overall, this is an inventive, moving, and unforgettable collection I've read numerous times with delight.
– Nicholas Y.
by Un-su Kim
Set in a fictional Korea, The Plotters tells the story of Reseng, a young assassin whose familiar, brutal world is slowly disintegrating in the shadow of a looming power struggle. When Reseng finds himself on the receiving end of an unorthodox assassination attempt, he plunges down the rabbit hole and finds far more than he was prepared for, including a soul-shattering change of heart. Reseng is clever, confident, and fatalistic; his keen and at times odd observations on the human condition can be laugh-out-loud funny or make you pause and reflect somberly on your own situation. Fast-paced, gritty, full of vivid language and fleshed-out characters, this book was an immersive journey I didn’t want to end.
– Steph C.
Kiss Number 8
by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw
Amanda (aka Mads) enjoys normal teenage stuff: hanging out with her best friends Cat and Amanda and attending minor league baseball games with her dad. After her eighth kiss, her entire life gets turned upside down. While confronting her own sexuality, she learns of a big family secret that alters everything she's ever known. The story is engaging and the art compliments it perfectly. It made me cry in all the best ways.
– Jen H.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton
by Sara Collins
This searing debut is packed tight with historical references, racial exploration, and mystery. The suspense of The Confessions of Frannie Langton is expertly built on Sara Collins's use of metaphors and similes, and although this topic has been explored before, Frannie Langton's story will be forever impressed on your soul. You won't be able to put this book down, nor will you be able to ignore the lessons Langton has to impart.
– Alex Y.
The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown
by Mac Barnett and Sarah Jacoby
First thing on my Monday, my coworker placed this book in my hand and implored me to read it. I did. I then immediately flipped to the beginning and read it a second time as it is simply that brilliant. This book is not only a biography of an important literary figure, but it is also so much more, in both how the writing begs to be read aloud and the way its themes honor the inherent intelligence and worth of its target audience — children. This book, like the ones it references throughout, deserves to become a classic in its own right. I understand why my coworker handed me this book so reverently, and I too want to place it in the hands of everyone I meet. Simply stunning.
– Jackie O.
Pulver Maar: Poems 2014-2018
by Zachary Schomburg
In the past several years, Zach Schomburg has become a singular voice in American poetry with work that seems both clear-headed and surreal. Even his recent forays into visual art, collages, and his debut novel, Mammother, have been startling and unique. Pulver Maar collects poems from various projects (weird kids' fables, small chapbooks, writing for performance) and delivers them in a wonderful package. A reminder that there are still one-of-a-kind voices out there and that your brain can still be sparked by words that elicit joy and discovery.
– Kevin S.
by Elizabeth Goldring
Elizabethan miniatures are a thing of beauty and Nicholas Hilliard can be credited for raising them to their very heights. This is not just an art history book with beautiful jeweled illustrations of Hilliard's work, it is also a very fascinating biography of a man who rose from poverty to become Elizabeth I's decorated painter (and possible spy), but who ultimately ended up imprisoned for debt at the end of his life. A very engrossing read.
– Sheila N.
Waking the Witch
by Pam Grossman
In this must-read for anyone interested in feminism or witchcraft, acclaimed podcast host Pam Grossman illuminates a history of female power and persecution, and eloquently analyzes why witches are so relevant today. By exploring the figure of the witch across culture, Grossman explains her theory about why the newest wave of feminism just might be "The Witch Wave," and why millions of women now draw upon the magic of the witch to reclaim a sense of power amidst uncertain times. Part memoir and part historical survey, this book is jam-packed full of information, yet a surprisingly quick read. Get ready to be inspired; this witchy offering might make you want to start casting spells yourself!
– Ariel K.
by Jasper Fforde
Sometimes when you wait for a new book from a favorite author and it takes years... the built-up expectations can leave you a little let down. But in this case, Early Riser by Jasper Fforde did not disappoint! Like his previous work, Fforde creates a strange and wonderful cast of characters and builds a unique and fascinating world around them. This amazing standalone novel was worth the wait and I'm excited for whatever Fforde dreams up next.
– Janelle M.
Girl Like a Bomb
by Autumn Christian
This is a story of sex worker as superhero and saint, and of sex as both superpower and sacrament. Girl Like a Bomb follows Beverly Sykes — a teenage girl bursting with desire who finds everyone she has slept with profoundly changed for the better — and her journey takes us everywhere from church orgies with depressed housewives to covert missions to sleep with a terrorist. Here, Autumn Christian has woven together an unapologetic fairy tale of female desire that really sings.
– Cosima C.
Orange World and Other Stories
by Karen Russell
Karen Russell has always had a knack for creating intricate, somewhat fantastic scenarios grounded by a seasoned respect for her characters and the worlds they occupy. Each story in her new collection showcases these talents spectacularly. Darkly funny and quietly moving, Orange World is as rewarding as it is fun to read.
– Renee P.
To Night Owl From Dogfish
by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer
There is so much I love about this book — a thoroughly charming reverse parent trap. It comes from a powerhouse author duo, the main characters are hilarious and lovable, there are two summer camps (each deliciously terrible in their own ways), it features one of the best middle reader covers I've seen in ages, and most of all, it includes a powerful message about what it means to create and be a family.
– Sarah R.
by Adrienne Maree Brown
Adrienne Maree Brown believes that all activism is science fiction — writing into being a reality that hasn't existed before. That's an exciting idea, but the work of changing the world is also exhausting, and often leaves me focused on suffering, not to mention struggling with all the puritanism our culture is steeped in. But in Pleasure Activism, Brown facilitates a lush feminist conversation centered on black and queer voices that thrills with the possibilities of a reality where the most marginalized members of society live in sensual and spiritual abundance. My heart fairly burst with excitement as I read about how we might live from our internal orgasmic yes: at home in our sensual bodies, sharing love and communion with each other, and deeply engaged in pleasure and play. This book is truly a cold drink of water for the thirsty soul!
– Leanna M.
Out of the Shadows
by Walt Odets
Out of the Shadows is part memoir, part casebook, and part self-help guide. In it, Walt Odets uses his more than 30 years of experience as a psychologist to help guide gay men on a path to overcome shame and stigmatization, and develop healthy relationships, paying particular attention to addressing the generational trauma of the continuing AIDS epidemic. People of all genders and sexual orientations will learn much from this moving book.
– Adam P.
The Word for Woman Is Wilderness
by Abi Andrews
Erin, a young British woman, is inspired by Into The Wild to make her own journey to the Alaskan wilderness while filming a feminist documentary. This isn't your usual travelogue or wilderness survival story. It's fresh and funny, yet deeply philosophical, while drawing inspiration from Ted Kaczynski, Rachel Carson, and the history of the space race. I was personally inspired by the story to be more adventurous.
– Amy W.