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Our top 10 books of November 2023

This month’s top titles include career-best works from Jesmyn Ward, Alexis Hall and Naomi Alderman.
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Book jacket image for Nowhere Special by Matt Wallace

Author Matt Wallace excels at depicting realistic family scenarios, complex moral dilemmas, and good-hearted, but flawed, adults.

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The Space Between Here & Now is an intriguing mix of fantasy and realism that lures readers in with the promise of magic and keeps them engaged with emotionally resonant themes.

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Book jacket image for Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

We sometimes forget that the descent in Dante’s Divine Comedy is a journey toward God. Jesmyn Ward’s portrayal of slavery is the profound manifestation of that possibility.

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Book jacket image for The Future by Naomi Alderman

The Future is a daring, sexy, thrilling novel that may be the most wryly funny book about the end of civilization you’ll ever read.

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Book jacket image for When I'm Dead by Hannah Morrissey

Hannah Morrissey’s small-town murder mystery When I’m Dead is nigh-on impossible to put down.

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Book jacket image for I Must Be Dreaming by Roz Chast

Longtime New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chaste’s I Must Be Dreaming is an uproarious, touching and zany ride.

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Book jacket image for The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie

The Dictionary People—which chronicles the unsung heroes who contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary—is sheer delight.

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Book jacket image for Flight of the WASP by Michael Gross

Michael Gross’ delightful cultural history of WASPs illuminates the odd corners of the lives of our nation’s elite—and American history itself.

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Book jacket image for 10 Things That Never Happened by Alexis Hall

Alexis Hall’s new rom-com might have a zany setup—a guy fakes amnesia!—but its authentic emotion will win readers’ hearts.

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Book jacket image for The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

Beautiful and expertly executed, The Reformatory is a horror masterpiece that derives its power from both the magical and the mundane.

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Recent Reviews

This month’s top titles include career-best works from Jesmyn Ward, Alexis Hall and Naomi Alderman.
Review by

In 2016, Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, a radical vision of what could happen if women became the physically dominant sex, offered transformative ideas about gender and supremacy. Now, Alderman offers readers a plausible world-to-come in The Future, a daring, sexy, thrilling novel that may be the most wryly funny book about the end of civilization you’ll ever read.

As a teenager, Martha Einkorn left her father’s back-to-nature cult on the Northwest coast to become the personal assistant to a powerful social media entrepreneur. Lai Zhen survived the destruction of Hong Kong and a year in a refugee camp to become a survivalist influencer. When these two women meet, the attraction is immediate, but their romance is put on hold as news reports stream in of an impending apocalypse.

The Future is awash with tech billionaires, preppers and an anxious population easily swayed by algorithms. It follows executives Lenk Sketlish, founder of the social network Fantail; Zimri Nommik, who runs the largest online retailer Anvil; and Ellen Bywater, who heads Medlar, a leading PC company. These powerful techies have spared no expense to create safe havens for themselves and are ready to leave the rest of the world to face destruction.

The billionaires’ plan is thwarted by a band of rebels led by Martha and Zhen, including Ellen’s nonbinary child Badger Bywater and Zimri’s soon-to-be kicked to the curb wife Selah Nommik, who also happens to be a genius coder. With their combined expertise and shared conviction of bettering our world rather than manipulating it for their own ends, this group may just save civilization after all.

That Alderman keeps the plot moving forward despite constant shifts in perspective and time is a testament to her creative skills as a writer and a game developer. The novel never slides into parody, despite the three rather clever parallels to some of our real-life billionaires and tech leaders. Clearly, Alderman cares deeply about our future and believes that we already have the skills in place to course-correct. By the end of the novel, you might too.

The Future is a daring, sexy, thrilling novel that may be the most wryly funny book about the end of civilization you’ll ever read.
Review by

Marisa Crane’s debut novel is a remarkable feat of speculative fiction, its premise so strangely familiar that to call it speculative feels like a misnomer. I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is set in an off-kilter version of the United States, but the emotional truths it untangles are so sharp that its intricate world building feels less like fiction and more like an excavation of the country we already live in.

In a U.S. governed by the ominous Department of Balance, criminals are given an extra shadow instead of being incarcerated, which serves as a reminder to themselves and everyone they meet of what they’ve done. This system, enforced by state-run surveillance, creates a culture of pervasive public shame: Shadesters, as they’re called, are shunned wherever they go and have few civil rights.

Kris is a Shadester whose wife dies while giving birth to their daughter, who is immediately given a second shadow because of the death. Grieving and unprepared, Kris stumbles through motherhood in a daze. She worries and wonders and analyzes, observes her daughter, gets lost in her own brain. Her first-person narration is dreamy and frenetic, so intimate that it’s often difficult for the reader to bear, as well as nearly impossible to know how much time is passing. 

How does a person repent and forgive and reinvent? What kind of healing can only occur in community, and what kind of healing requires privacy? What happens when mistakes and misunderstandings are punished in the same way as abuse and deliberate violence? These are the turbulent, murky and unsolvable questions that roil inside of Kris, that define her life—but slowly, the kid grows up, and Kris is drawn back into the world. 

Ruptures and tension propel the plot forward, but there’s a deliberate, underlying slowness to the story, too. On the surface, it’s all explosive force; underneath, it’s introspective and intimate. And always, Crane’s prose is gorgeous. Short, searing sentences depict ordinary moments perfectly, while long, melancholy meanderings are broken up by bleak humor and inventive pop quizzes that speak to the impossibilities of living through grief.

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is an assured and surprising ode to queer family. It’s an untame story about motherhood and survival and the quiet, daily work of building a livable world. It’s about what humans can bear and what we can get used to, about the choices we make and that are made for us, about the worst things we do to each other and the most astonishing. Some books have the power to wake you up, shake you out of the old and push you toward something new and exciting and a little scary. This is one.

Some books have the power to wake you up, shake you out of the old and push you toward something new and exciting and a little scary. I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is one of those books.
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I’m Glad My Mom Died

I’m Glad My Mom Died is a celebrity memoir, but even if you (like me) have never heard of actor Jennette McCurdy or seen a single second of “iCarly” on Nickelodeon, getting sucked into this frankly told and deeply nuanced story of a troubled mother-daughter relationship is almost inevitable. McCurdy’s story kicks off when her mother, Debra, pins her own dashed dreams of Hollywood stardom onto her shy 6-year-old daughter. The pressure’s on, and things get worse from there. McCurdy writes from the perspective she had in the moment, creating tension for the reader, who can see the unhealthy dynamic between McCurdy and Debra long before McCurdy can name or understand it herself. After reading I’m Glad My Mom Died, it’s impossible to see Debra as a good mother, but McCurdy’s commitment to portraying her mother as she truly was still somehow feels like a tribute. 

—Trisha, Publisher

Tuesdays With Morrie

I first read Tuesdays With Morrie in my high school English class. Much like Mitch Albom’s teacher Morrie Schwartz, my teacher Mr. Baker longed for his students to understand what makes life worth living. As the book begins, Albom, a successful young columnist in Detroit, walks through life dead-alive, driven by the pursuit of fame and personal gain. He paints the plague of the modern world so poignantly—the slow and silent indoctrination of society, its swift corrosion of the soul. During his Tuesday visits with his old professor, Albom begins to realize that the dying man is more alive than he is. Tuesdays With Morrie is a book full of convincing triteness and truth. We all need Morrie’s reminders to dance with our eyes closed and reach down into the darkness for the sake of pulling up another. I still find myself in need of Morrie’s teachings—that love is all that stands at the end of time. For readers who share my appreciation of this book, be aware that Rob Schwartz, Morrie’s son, will publish his father’s writing posthumously in The Wisdom of Morrie later this month.

—Emma, Editorial Intern

Lessons in Chemistry

Humor must be just about the toughest thing to get right in fiction. It’s so subjective, first of all, and it’s tricky to balance lightheartedness with the serious bits. And then to be funny without being mean? Practically impossible. Bonnie Garmus’ delight of a debut novel made me laugh—often and loudly—while still honoring the hard road of its heroine. Elizabeth Zott is a female chemist and single mom in the 1960s, so obviously the world has it in for her, and this includes an assault early in the novel. But in the face of such cruelties, she is pragmatic and determined and wry, like a grown-up version of Roald Dahl’s indomitable Matilda. She ends up starring on her own cooking show and finds herself surrounded by a supporting cast that’s as endearing as can be. She also has a dog (named Six-Thirty) who’s enough of a lead character to tip the story into the fantastical. Like so many other readers, I absolutely loved it.

—Cat, Deputy Editor


Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is the type of fantasy novel that seems tailor-made for the exact type of crossover success it has achieved. It’s a seemingly simple story of a young peasant girl trying to save her friend from dark magic, and with its fairy tale-inspired setting, engaging characters and just the right amount of romance, it appeals to fantasy readers and nonfantasy readers alike. I am as intrigued by these types of books as I am leery of them. It’s easy for a story to rest on folklore references and well-known character types within an aesthetically pleasing world and and still never quite step out of the shadows of other works. But Novik didn’t set out to just retell a fairy tale: She wrote her own, and it’s so enthralling that it gave me the type of stay-up-all-night, can’t-put-it-down reading experience I had when I was a 13-year-old first discovering fantasy. I read it within days, its impossibly perfect ending made me cry, and I still think about it more than a year later.

—Savanna, Associate Editor

The Testaments

One of the perks of working at BookPage is getting to read books before they are published, but occasionally a high-profile title gets embargoed, meaning advance copies aren’t sent to the press. If members of the media do receive a copy, they’re forbidden to share the review before the publication date. I’ll always remember the day I was opening mail at the office and unwrapped a finished copy of The Testaments, the long-awaited and heavily embargoed sequel to Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 bestseller, The Handmaid’s Tale. Set 15 years after the events of the dystopian classic, the suspenseful plot is driven by the narratives of three women whose fates converge just when their world’s authoritarian regime, Gilead, begins to crumble. The Testaments is the work of a writer at the top of her game; Atwood sticks the landing in a thrilling conclusion to an all too culturally significant tale. 

—Katherine, Subscriptions

Every once in a while, it feels like everyone in the world is reading the same book—and we can all admit that sometimes, that book isn’t very good. This month, we’re celebrating books that are extremely popular and are actually (believe it or not) as excellent as everyone says.
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Back in the 1980s, it was all “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” These days, not so much, with dystopian stories like The Hunger Games doing a much better job to capture the zeitgeist. Speaking of capturing, that’s one enterprise in which the United States still excels; about one out of every five incarcerated people worldwide occupy a jail cell here in America.

In his first novel, Chain-Gang All-Stars, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah mashes up “Orange Is the New Black,” The Running Man, Gladiator and mixed martial arts into a brutal prognostication of what could be next year’s worst “reality” show. It works like this: Prisoners whose sentences exceed 25 years are offered shots at freedom in exchange for three-year tours of duty as televised, weapon-wielding warriors. Much like in professional wrestling, there are storylines and factions and fan favorites, but “smackdown” in this ring means that only one “athlete” gets to leave alive.

Competing for-profit prison corporations provide teams called “chains” whose “links” vie against one another, either singly or in doubles matches. To ramp up the drama, individual links in a chain may occasionally turn on one another—many of them are murderers, after all—so the likelihood of living through the three-year tour is vanishingly small. 

The story centers on a pair of warriors, Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker, who are members of the same chain, occasional doubles partners and lovers. While they are both successful at their current day job—being killing machines—Adjei-Brenyah has imbued them with a notable degree of tenderness. They’re aware that most of the links are going to be “freed” via slaughter in the ring, and their immediate survival requires them to focus their violence on their opponents rather than toward each other. A chain, after all, is only as strong as its weakest link. 

The subtext here punches through like Anderson “The Spider” Silva delivering a knockout blow: The incarceration-industrial complex, hyped up on the steroid of private capital, encourages systematic racism and a rejection of any possibility of rehabilitation. So in Adjei-Brenyah’s brave new world, he recalls yet another notion perfectly articulated during the ’80s: “The Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.”

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah mashes up “Orange Is the New Black,” The Running Man, Gladiator and mixed martial arts into a brutal prognostication of what could be next year’s worst “reality” show.
Behind the Book by

People often ask, “When did you know you were going to be a writer? When did you decide?”

I have many answers to this question, because being a writer is a way of moving through the world, a way of seeing, of hearing and, I’ve learned, believing. When I was last asked this question, in relation to my novel, this is what came to mind:

There are bodies swaying. Air thick with exalting. An organ punches chords into the walls and into us. A pastor is conducting an energy that everyone in the space can feel, even me. He isn’t speaking English, but he is working with sound more than logic. There are women who wear handwoven cloth around their heads. They shake, electric with the Holy Spirit. I am with my mom. I am young enough that my head reaches her solar plexus. Soon I’ll be able to look down and see the crown of her head, but then and forever, I will look up to her. 

“We are all chaotic systems, like the weather, and any particular offering an artist presents is one of many possible storms.”

She begins to speak in Tongues. Syllables of a language that has no book sing from her. She is Ghanaian, and since I don’t speak Twi or Fante, this is yet another language she has access to that seems to have missed me. Something I can’t grasp, though not for trying. I watch as the language of God flows through her and the people around her. I feel the energy all around me. I see it lifting others from their folding chairs, compelling them to dance, to erupt with praise. 

Though I can feel the energy around me, I am siloed off. Somehow disconnected. I feel like a spectator in an Olympic arena. There is a great championship being won, but I am only watching. I want more than anything to believe in anything the way they all believe in that space. I want the spirit to fill me to language. I want to have a faith that can power me through all things. What I feel is proximity but very little of the thing itself. I want to be filled to the brim with what fills my mother, everyone in the space. What I am as I stand, the only still thing in the room, is lonely. 

There in that room of thriving souls is where I learned to want to believe in something totally, which is a way of saying “being a writer.”

“We as a society can do better than making those who do harm suffer.”

More recently, when asked how I came to be the writer of this book, Chain-Gang All-Stars, I thought of another time, a time with my father.

In his life he was a lawyer. Again, as a Ghanaian, there were many people whom I called Uncle or Aunti who knew him as “Lawyer.” It was a title, a position. More than a job. When I imagine him, he is wearing a suit. 

I was barely tall enough to look straight at my father’s waist without craning my neck when he came home to our apartment at this time. That day he’d begun in earnest to prepare a trial he’d been thinking about for a while. He was a defense attorney, something I’d known, though it was rare that he’d speak about the specifics of any one case. That day he was talkative. I viewed him as a paragon of Truth and Power, and so I was excited, elated to listen. He said he had a difficult case and that his client had committed murder. I remember how he looked, looking at me. Searching, close. I sunk further into our couch. I remember knowing even then to hide the colossal disappointment I felt. Murder equaled “bad guy,” and so by my child logic, my father was a villain or, at best, an accessory to one. A henchman. 

I said how I felt in the nicest way I could summon. “Why are you helping somebody bad? Someone that would do that.”  

And he said, “It is not that simple.” He said more after that, but there was a world-reframing kind of truth in just those few words. And this new novel is a direct extension of that reframing. He said to me as a child that “it is not that simple,” and our justice system currently is genocidal in its simplicity. This book calls to question that approach. In that moment when my father told me who he was defending and began to tell me why, he gifted me a curiosity toward nuance, which is another way of saying “being a writer.”

Chain-Gang All-Stars is my “debut” novel, but it’s a debut in the sense that it is the first novel-length story I am presenting to the world with the force of the publishing industry behind it. But when I think about how it came to be, and when I’m asked, “When did you know you could write a novel?” I think about my actual first novel. A book that will never come out. A book I wrote over 10 years ago, working daily through the summer on a Lenovo netbook in an apartment we would soon be evicted from. I thought that book would change my family’s life. I thought by force of will I’d be able to create something special. I thought it would heal the sicknesses that ailed my parents in swells over the years, I thought it would remove the pressures that had rendered such difficulty into their lives. I worked on it with the focus of someone fighting for their life. It was not good. And though that book will never come out, it was then that I learned to weave a great energy into a practice. Taking massive desire and placing it into actions with consistency is discipline. Nothing physical came of the book. We still got evicted. Maladies would still reign over us. But also everything came of it. It taught me what it felt like to finish a project. It taught me what it was to nurture discipline over days and months and years. And that, being a careful nurturer of discipline, is another way of saying “being a writer.”

“What if compassion were the rule that governed us above all things?”

It has been many years (seven) in the making, this new “debut” novel, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what people have asked me and what I ask myself. What do I think makes someone a writer? What do I think allowed me to write this new novel and why? I think we all have our own answer because art is born of each of our particular essences. We are all chaotic systems, like the weather, and any particular offering an artist presents is one of many possible storms. But for me, when I think about Chain-Gang All-Stars, I think about what happens when I write toward faith. I started the book hoping I was an abolitionist, believing deeply that we as a society can do better than making those who do harm suffer. Now that the book is done, now that I’ve done the research, now that I’ve considered the question of what it means to be a compassionate society, I know I am an abolitionist. It was a trust fall into faith. It required me to allow my curiosity and desire for nuance to move me through the world. The idea that “it is not that simple” is a simple lighthouse I am still following. Because it’s not that simple, but also it could be. What if compassion were the rule that governed us above all things? 

When I think about how this book came to be, I think about the other books that have already come and those yet to come. I think about what can be forged from a willingness to excavate those questions that linger in my chest. I think of how finding the discipline to do that work, to accept that questions may be answered by more questions, is my answer. I’ve discovered myself writing this book. Learning more about the world through it has given me something real to believe in. And someone with something real to believe in is another way of saying “being a writer.”

Photo of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah by Alex M. Philip.

Read more: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is one of our 2023 Writers to Watch.

With his 2018 story collection, Friday Black, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah set the world of literary fiction alight. His first novel, a bold evisceration of America’s for-profit prison system, stokes the flames.

Our top 10 books of October 2023

October’s Top 10 list includes Alix E. Harrow’s best book yet, plus the long-awaited second novel from Ayana Mathis, a pitch-perfect romance from KJ Charles and a breathtaking debut memoir.
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Book jacket image for Remember Us by Jacqueline Woodson

Remember Us

Jacqueline Woodson flawlessly intersperses explosive moments—and games of basketball—among quiet, reflective scenes while responding to her protagonist’s weighty fears with reassurance about the permeance of loving memories.

Book jacket image for Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang

Land of Milk and Honey

C Pam Zhang’s sentences are visceral and heated. She writes about food and bodies with frenzied truthfulness. There is nothing pretty in Zhang’s second novel, but there is outrageous beauty.

Book jacket image for The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis

The Unsettled

In The Unsettled’s short but perfectly paced chapters, Toussaint, Ava and Dutchess tell of not only their disappointment and despair but also their dreams, crafting a heartbreaking tale about Reagan’s America that deftly weaves the past and present into the possibility of a bright, if still-unfolding, future.

Book jacket image for The Cost of Free Land by Rebecca Clarren

The Cost of Free Land

Drawing on Jewish traditions of reconciliation, Rebecca Clarren seeks to find a path for meaningful reconciliation and reparation for the harm done to Native American people.

Book jacket image for A Man of Two Faces by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A Man of Two Faces

In his memoir, award-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen “re members” and “dis remembers,” excavating and reassembling memories as if working on his family’s portrait.

Book jacket image for How to Say Babylon by Safiya Sinclair

How to Say Babylon

Safiya Sinclair’s memoir should be savored like the final sip of an expensive wine—with deference, realizing that a story of this magnitude comes along all too infrequently.

Book jacket image for Starling House by Alix E. Harrow

Starling House

Alix E. Harrow’s Starling House is a riveting Southern gothic fantasy with gorgeous prose and excellent social commentary.

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Recent Features

Recent Reviews

October's Top 10 list includes Alix E. Harrow's best book yet, plus the long-awaited second novel from Ayana Mathis, a pitch-perfect romance from KJ Charles and a breathtaking debut memoir.
Review by

C Pam Zhang’s sophomore novel has the same striking prose that made her debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold (2020), so remarkable, but the similarities end there. Land of Milk and Honey is much stranger and perhaps even more beautiful. It’s a dystopian novel about food, pleasure, power, monstrosity and womanhood. It’s about the threads that keep us rooted to ourselves and each other, and about what happens when those threads fray and dissolve. The sheer range of Zhang’s imagination is striking.

A gray smog has spread across the world, causing catastrophic food shortages and global famine. A struggling chef, adrift, alone and stranded in Europe when the U.S. borders close, takes a job for a billionaire, preparing meals for his elite research community on a mountaintop in Italy. There, she cooks extravagant meals with ingredients that have disappeared from the rest of the world—aged cheeses, fresh meat, delicate greens, strawberries. Slowly, she cooks her way back to herself, finding pleasures she thought she’d lost forever. But she’s also forced to confront the reality of what her mysterious employer and his genius daughter are doing in this strange paradise—and the narrator’s own complicity in it.

Zhang’s sentences are visceral and heated. She writes about food and bodies with frenzied truthfulness. There is nothing pretty in this novel, but there is outrageous beauty. There is nothing nice in the way she describes the act of cooking, elaborate meals, butter or honey dissolving on the tongue, sex, bodily pleasure. Instead, Zhang’s prose is sensual, lavish, violent, incredibly close, without restraint. The narrator describes events from a distance of many years, but this only makes the heady details she recalls even more remarkable. For the narrator, and thus, for the readers, that old cliche “it feels like it happened yesterday” is undeniably true.

Land of Milk and Honey casts the kind of spell that readers can spend a lifetime hungering for. To read this book is to know yourself as a being made of skin and touch, a being made of other bodies. The impact is powerful and immediate. This is an astonishingly accomplished work, a deceptively simple dystopian vision that lays bare the heartbreaking complexities of seeking and giving pleasure, of wanting and loving in a world that is fundamentally shattered and forever shattering anew. It is the kind of uncomfortably honest art that disturbs and unsettles. It is also a generous and wildly celebratory ode to what keeps humans striving for something beyond mere survival: art, connection, taste, the sublime and fleeting pleasures of the body.

Read C Pam Zhang’s essay on Land of Milk and Honey.

C Pam Zhang’s sentences are visceral and heated. She writes about food and bodies with frenzied truthfulness. There is nothing pretty in Zhang’s second novel, but there is outrageous beauty.
Behind the Book by

The two institutions in which I spent the most time as a child in Lexington, Kentucky, were the library and the church. The library was a small local branch at which, every Saturday, I’d check out my limit of 20 books. These I devoured alongside bags of misshapen apples on sale at the store. The church offered free childcare in the form of Bible School. Sessions began with the Old Testament and ended with the Pringles I wasn’t allowed at home.

Both spaces fed the same fundamental need. I have always been a glutton for wonder. On the page, in the pew, I would sometimes experience a glorious expansion of my self beyond my body. I was equally moved to tears by the scene of a mouse warrior sacrificing himself in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series and a hymn about God so loving the little children that he gave up his only son. Both experiences ignited a physical charge: a tingling, a surge of heat and awe. I felt it in my body.


A few years later, I lost religion. I continued to reread the Old Testament long after giving up prayer. By then my family had moved to California. Under that terrifying expanse of Western sky, I anchored myself in the old story of the world as a place infused with meaning, wonder, flashes of justice and grace. The syntax of the King James translation is brutal and beautiful; I suspect that it moves beneath my prose, invisible yet substantial, bones beneath the skin.

Having lost God, I kept reading. I was still young enough to do so indiscriminately, omnivorously. John Steinbeck’s California, with its sweeping timescales and pitiless cycles of good and evil, strummed a chord of near-Biblical majesty. The Animorphs series’ interstellar battles writ large the dilemma of being a moral creature on Earth. Of course I read C.S. Lewis’ fantasy series, the Chronicles of Narnia, after which I wandered into Lewis’s little-known Christian space novel, Out of the Silent Planet. In a brilliant formal move, Lewis sidelines his scientists to secondary characters, an excuse to skip the trivia of how lightspeed engines operate. It is an awestruck Christian philologist—as in, he is literally stunned and kidnapped—who walks the alien planet with the wonder of an innocent in Eden.

“We dug our forks into a braised short rib with peanut butter and shrimp paste, prepared with such ardor that it brought us, forcefully, to our mouths and hands at the table.”

Perhaps this smacks of sacrilege, but just as I saw little distinction between the emotions at the core of religion and science fiction, so I failed to see the boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, literary realism, magical realism and pulp. Say a child steps through a wardrobe to find a vast, snowy forest; say a band of outcasts wanders for 40 years in the desert before discovering their land of milk and honey; say a teenager traces the orbit of two moons in an alien sky; say a refugee from Oklahoma beholds the fertile swells of California: each is the story of the ordinary world as an aperture to wonder.


A decade later, I was stopped by this sentence in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:

But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.

I was 20 years old by the time I read these words. I lived in the heart of a gray city: Cambridge, England, where I studied at the famous university and dreamed of being a writer. Because my admission into this rarefied space had involved an aesthetic as well as intellectual education, I did not mention the other books that Waugh reminded me of; they were not serious literature. Certain texts were “guilty pleasures.” Certain consumptions were not spoken of.


Another decade passed. It was 2020. Under the gray skies of Washington state, I lived in isolation during a pandemic that seemed to close off every possibility of wonder. In the face of national and global crises—protests, elections, the fate of family and friends—I became impatient with my body. It was an annoyance, if not an outright embarrassment. Every so often it would clamor for a lavish meal, or a drink with a friend, or a trip. I cut these desires out when they surfaced, reminding myself that I had my health and a roof over my head. I pared my life down to survival.

“There is nothing small about the story of one woman rediscovering the wellspring of her own pleasure. I have come to believe that there is nothing more universal.”

I was also trying to survive the publication of my first novel. I had not prepared for the vast sense of loss that swept in when writing, once my private refuge, became public. The vulnerability of this event is usually balanced by the consolation of community, but in the isolation of 2020, I had no chance to meet readers face to face, or share rooms with booksellers and writers. I never saw my book in the physical world. I had only my loss. Writing seemed void of its original meaning. And then, in the spring of 2021, I ate a meal, and I wrote a book.


My second novel, Land of Milk and Honey, concerns a chef who faces, in the starkest way, the quandary of seeking pleasure in a dying world. The novel asks, where do you go when what you love loses meaning? How do you contend with the immensity of that grief? Is it possible to find a source of meaning again, deep within yourself?

To answer these questions, I had to write into the body.

My own body came alive again in 2021, on the evening of my first meal out with a friend. We gathered in the courtyard of a Filipino restaurant in Seattle. Stiff after long isolation, we moved through the necessaries: health, work, hardship, loss. And then the food arrived. A pause; the air shifted. We dug our forks into a braised short rib with peanut butter and shrimp paste, prepared with such ardor that it brought us, forcefully, to our mouths and hands at the table. For a few moments, there was nothing else to think about. No way to be but human.

My first novel ended with a girl, denied and sacrificed, who finally dares to ask what she wants. Land of Milk and Honey begins with this question, which I reencountered at that restaurant in Seattle. To eat that night was to look beyond survival, to believe that the world was capable of offering more. What I had dismissed as shameful and selfish in myself changed form at that shared table.


I am increasingly interested in the body as an instrument of meaning. My love for church resided in the physical thrill of liturgy: the transcendence of a single body expanding to join a shared search for meaning. I now seek that connection in literature, in art, in music—and yes, in food.

One project of this novel was to depict how the urges of an individual body may be no different than the feeling in a church pew. It took rigor and deliberation to render pleasure seriously, especially a woman’s pleasure. Too often female pleasure is dismissed as frivolous, selfish, small. As spectacle, or as a base instinct to master. But as Paul D says to Sethe at the end of Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “You your best thing.” This novel is a love letter to food and pleasure as sacred, instrumental arts that our bodies are born capable of making.

This art can be found anywhere, in any form. If my novel is realism, then it is realism in the vein of Brideshead Revisited or the strange stories of Nicole Krauss, works alert to the epiphany in the daily. If my novel is speculative or science fiction, then it is the kind that blurs the spaces between the equal miracles of science, religion and magic. I am tired of constructing false boundaries: between my desires and my needs, between genres, between the high and the low. The chef in my novel grew up placing French-inflected Western fine dining on an altar. She learns to consider the other forms in which glory may also appear: in street food, in a meal of frozen peas cooked by an overtaxed parent, in a bag of Doritos.

There is nothing small about the story of one woman rediscovering the wellspring of her own pleasure. I have come to believe that there is nothing more universal. Consider the first fig I ate in the spring of 2021 in which I came back to life. My favorite fruit seller cut the fruit on his bare palm and offered me a taste. I was masked and wary, leaving the house only for what we called essentials; to accept the fig was to acknowledge a deeper form of nourishment. We spoke of the sweetness of figs, and asparagus, and the artichokes that would arrive next week, and the cherries promised next season, and all the seasons and meals and years ahead. Like many in the market, we peered through the narrow aperture of that year and chose to look toward abundance.

Read our starred review of Land of Milk and Honey.

Author photo by Clayton Cubitt.

C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, came out in the spring of 2020—a tremendously difficult time to be a first-time novelist. Yet her astounding voice and originality completely redefined the Western genre. Her second novel, Land of Milk and Honey, is a true work of art, rooted deeply in pleasure, wonder and food.
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U.S. Army veteran Zac Topping’s debut novel, Wake of War, is a fast-paced military thriller set in the year 2037, a time when the United States is collapsing under decades of public unrest due to partisan divisions and a malfunctioning economy.

A new rebel faction is gaining traction in Salt Lake City under the leadership of the charismatic Joseph Graham. A ragtag team of men and women, the Revolutionist Front has proven to be a haven for all those who are hellbent on justice and revenge. This includes Sam Cross, who at 14 saw government soldiers gun down her family as she ran for her life. Now 19, she’s become a deadly sniper.

Fighting for the other side is James Trent, who joined the U.S. Army not out of moral conviction but rather to earn a military scholarship for college. During his three years in the service, he has managed to be placed in noncombat administrative missions, but now an involuntary reassignment sends him to the bloodiest and most dangerous rebel territory in Salt Lake City, dropping him and his platoon directly in the line of fire from Sam and the Revolutionist Front.

Most stories of war have a clear indication of the good side and the bad, but Topping has other intentions, as the conflict unfolds in chapters that alternate between Sam’s and James’ perspectives. Through their stories, Topping grapples with the wonder and worry that many of us feel regarding the current state of our nation. 

Topping, who has served two tours in Iraq, does a phenomenal job of using dialogue and scene details to impart the raw and dangerous wartime conditions that surround his characters. He focuses on the impact that unrelenting pain and helplessness have on the human soul—and how the thirst for power can corrupt the best of intentions. Wake of War will resonate with all readers who enjoy thrillers that reflect real-world crises.

In his fast-paced debut novel, Zac Topping, who has served two tours in Iraq, focuses on the impact that unrelenting pain and helplessness have on the human soul—and how the thirst for power can corrupt the best of intentions.
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Albert Einstein is frequently—falsely—attributed with having said, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” It’s quite the line, but it does beg the question: How do you tell how smart a fish is? 

That’s the problem facing animal cognition scientist Karin Resaint in Venomous Lumpsucker, the fifth novel from award-winning British novelist Ned Beauman. In the novel’s dystopian near-future, Earth’s climate is in free fall, and species are disappearing faster than beers at a frat party. When Chiu Chiu, the final giant panda, chomps on his last tiny bamboo shoot, the outrage is so great that 197 nations, “acting basically at economic gunpoint, [sign] up to the newly formed World Commission on Species Extinction.”

“The giant panda will be the last species ever driven to extinction by human activity,” proclaims a Chinese official at the WCSE’s founding. Of course, that’s not what happens; instead comes the extinction industry.

Everybody in the free market world knows that if you want to make an economic omelet, you’ll have to break a few environmental eggs. In this future culture, extinct animals’ DNA is digitally stored in biobanks, and the disappearance of a species is treated like carbon emissions, with taxes offsetting the habitat destruction that goes hand-in-wallet with surging profits. 

As in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, though, some animals are more equal than others. It costs a lot more under this scheme to snuff out a sentient species, so Karin has been charged with evaluating the intelligence of the venomous lumpsucker, and she’s feeling pressure from Brahmasamudram Mining, who’s funding the analysis. When a mid-level executive shows up aboard Karin’s research vessel with a special plea, the stakes suddenly leapfrog into the stratosphere and set the two on a frantic hunt for the last living lumpsucker. 

If all this sounds heavy for a summer read, not to worry. Beauman’s acerbic outlook breezes through what could otherwise be a portentous plot; think Smilla’s Sense of Snow as percolated through an Andy Borowitz filter, a mid-apocalyptic comic thriller ideally suited for a post-pandemic audience.

The fifth novel from award-winning British novelist Ned Beauman is a mid-apocalyptic comic thriller ideally suited for a post-pandemic audience.
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At its heart, Vauhini Vara’s twisty, thoughtful debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, is a fascinating alternate history and eerily plausible imagined future of the internet—and the tech corporations that have shaped it. With a sureness to her prose and a sharp eye for the tiny details that shape human lives, Vara, who has worked as a Wall Street Journal technology reporter and as a business editor for The New Yorker, combines three distinct storylines into a genre-bending, kaleidoscopic spiral of a tale.

Though the entire novel is narrated by Athena, the 17-year-old daughter of the most successful tech genius the world has ever seen, it shifts among three timelines. In a small village in 1950s India, King Rao, who will eventually become the most powerful man in the world, longs for a sense of belonging while growing up on his Dalit family’s sprawling coconut plantation. In 1970s Seattle, newly arrived in the U.S. for graduate school, King invents the device that will change the world forever: the Coconut computer. And in some unspecified near-future, a single corporation holds sway over the world’s citizens, who are referred to as Shareholders, and an all-powerful Board of Directors has expanded to replace all world governments. Within this imagined future, Athena recounts the events that led to her being imprisoned for her father’s murder.

This future is effortlessly believable, with irreversible global warming known as “Hothouse Earth,” capitalism running rampant, an unstoppable megacorp similar to an Apple-Google hybrid, and a mysterious computer algorithm controlling all aspects of public and private life. Yet for all its brilliant scope, The Immortal King Rao is also an intimate character study, offering an unflinching, close-up look at the complicated bonds of families.

There are no simple relationships in this book, and few moral absolutes. King is a ruthless, larger-than-life genius, but he’s also a scared, confused kid, a doting father and a lonely 20-something adrift in an unfamiliar world. As Athena pores over her memories of King—and parses through his memoirs, gifted directly to her brain through his final invention—she begins to understand all of these interlocking and sometimes contradictory pieces of him. What emerges is a remarkably tender and continually unpredictable story about familial and romantic love, ambition and greed, alienation and revolution, and one man’s unquenchable desire to leave a lasting mark on the world.

Satirical and heartbreaking, packed with historical detail and flawless dystopian world building, The Immortal King Rao is a striking multigenerational epic that tackles—and offers a surprising answer to—that age-old question: What are we here for?

In her striking multigenerational epic, Vauhini Vara combines three distinct stories into a genre-bending, kaleidoscopic spiral of a tale.
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There is no shortage of parenting books about how to be a good mother. Jessamine Chan’s first novel, The School for Good Mothers, will make you want to throw them all out the window.

Chan’s protagonist, 39-year-old Frida Liu, is kind, smart, hardworking and beautiful. She is also divorced from a cheating husband and the mother of 1-year-old Harriet, who is her world. Overworked, overwhelmed and unsupported, Frida has a very bad day that changes the course of her entire life.

This single moment of poor parenting lands Frida in a type of detention center, housed on a former university campus. Imagine The Breakfast Club, only it’s 365 days long, cut off from the rest of the world and filled with mothers who have been penalized by the government for making questionable choices. Right away, we wonder if the punishment fits the crime.

The plot thickens when the reform school starts seeming more and more like a prison. The guards, the uniforms, the rigorous daily classes on mothering, the therapy sessions, the robots (yes, robots)—it all seems so preposterous, so over-the-top. Maybe even humorous. That is, until you realize that it’s all grounded in our culture’s absurd expectations that mothers should be superheroes.

Throughout Frida’s story, Chan intertwines supporting characters who are just as interesting, thrilling and desperate as she is. You will catch yourself laughing one minute and shaking your fist the next, demanding that we change the narrative of contemporary motherhood.

If good writing, gripping plot and provocative questions about the world we live in are your priorities, then The School for Good Mothers needs to be on your reading list, whether or not you are a parent, or someday want to be.

There is no shortage of parenting books on how to be a good mother. Jessamine Chan’s first novel will make you want to throw them all out the window.

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