One of the most meaningful things a person can say is simply “I’m here,” and this is the level of profound connection that Ethan Joella evokes without ever straying into cliche.
One of the most meaningful things a person can say is simply “I’m here,” and this is the level of profound connection that Ethan Joella evokes without ever straying into cliche.
In bringing Jacqueline Bouvier's transformative Paris interlude to the page, Ann Mah offers readers a lovely, immersive visit to a vanished city.
In bringing Jacqueline Bouvier's transformative Paris interlude to the page, Ann Mah offers readers a lovely, immersive visit to a vanished city.
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Babel by R.F. Kuang

Set in an alternate Victorian Britain, R.F. Kuang’s standalone historical fantasy is an unforgiving examination of the cost of power.

Babel

Everywhere With You by Carlie Sorosiak, illustrated by Devon Holzwarth

Carlie Sorosiak and Devon Holzwarth’s flawless picture book rings with a tender truth: When you are with the ones you love, everywhere you go is home.

Everywhere With You by Carlie Sorosiak and Devon Holzwarth

Honey and Spice by Bolu Babalola

This enemies-­to-lovers romance set on a British university campus hums with Bolu Babalola’s energetic, intelligent voice.

Honey and Spice jacket

An Immense World by Ed Yong

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ed Yong’s nonfiction study of animal senses is an immersive, page-turning reading experience.

An Immense World book cover

In Love by Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimacy in her fiction, but she has never gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her husband’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

In Love book jacket

Lolo’s Light by Liz Garton Scanlon

Liz Garton Scanlon’s compelling middle grade novel glows with empathy and understanding.

Lolo's Light by Liz Garton Scanlon book cover

Man o’ War by Cory McCarthy

This YA novel’s exploration of queer identity ferociously resists the idea that coming out is a simple or straightforward process.

Man O' War by Cory McCarthy

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

Despite its doomed Midwestern setting, Tess Gunty’s debut novel makes storytelling seem like the most fun a person can have.

The Rabbit Hutch book jacket

Trust by Hernan Diaz

Hernan Diaz’s second novel is a beautifully composed masterpiece that examines the insidious disparities between rich and poor, truth and fiction.

Trust book cover

Winter Work by Dan Fesperman

Dan Fesperman’s intense post-Cold War mystery savvily addresses both the personal and political pressures facing an East German spy.

Winter Work book cover

Discover more of BookPage’s Best Books of 2022.

2022 brought innumerable literary wonders, but as far as the year’s very best, we’ve narrowed it down to 10 outstanding titles.

Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah

The engrossing 10th novel from Nobel laureate Gurnah is filled with compassion and historical insight.

Afterlives book cover

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

Bitingly funny and sweetly earnest, Mathews’ debut is one of those rare novels that feels just like life.

All This Could Be Different

The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li

Not since Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend has a novel so deftly probed the magical and sometimes destructive friendships that can occur between two girls.

The Book of Goose

Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah

When your heritage and ancestry are the reasons for your oppression, to whom can you turn in order to survive, but to family? Hokeah’s exceptional debut novel follows a Native American man’s life through the many leaves of his family tree.

Calling for a Blanket Dance

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan

Egan’s empathetic interest in human behavior is what drives The Candy House, making her companion novel to A Visit From the Goon Squad more than a literary experiment.

The Candy House

The Consequences by Manuel Muñoz

In this story collection, Muñoz forges a new Latinx narrative, wherein all aspects of Latinx life are displayed with richness and complexity.

Book jacket image for The Consequences by Manuel Munoz

Either/Or by Elif Batuman

Selin, the hero of Batuman’s The Idiot, returns with a voice that is more mature, reflective and droll.

Either Or book jacket

The Furrows by Namwali Serpell

Serpell’s award-winning debut novel, The Old Drift, was a genre-defying epic about three generations of Zambian families, and her purposely disconcerting follow-up will reinforce readers’ appreciation of her daring experimentation and keen talent.

Book jacket image for The Furrows by Namwali Serpell

How It Went by Wendell Berry

Taken together, the 13 stories in Berry’s How It Went create a tale that gently unwinds and doubles back on itself, not so much like a river but more like a flowering vine.

Book jacket image for How It Went by Wendell Berry

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery

Escoffery’s connected stories offer an imaginative, fresh take on being a man and nonwhite immigrant in America.

If I Survive You book jacket

Lessons by Ian McEwan

This scathing, unsettling novel posits that knaves and heroes come in all guises.

Lessons cover

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Garmus’ devastating and funny debut novel blows the lid off simplistic myths about the 1950s.

Lessons in Chemistry book cover

Natural History by Andrea Barrett

The stories in Barrett’s dazzling collection demonstrate that while history distills events, fiction can bring messy humanity to life.

Natural History book cover

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

Ng is undoubtedly at the top of her game as she portrays an American society overcome by fear.

Our Missing Hearts book cover

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

Despite its doomed Midwestern setting, Gunty’s debut novel makes storytelling seem like the most fun a person can have.

The Rabbit Hutch book jacket

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

It’s impossible to predict how, exactly, you’ll fall in love with this novel, but it’s an eventuality you can’t escape.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow book cover

Trust by Hernan Diaz

Diaz’s second novel is a beautifully composed masterpiece that examines the insidious disparities between rich and poor, truth and fiction.

Trust book cover

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Stuart’s follow-up to Shuggie Bain is a marvelous feat of storytelling, a mix of tender emotion and grisly violence.

Young Mungo book cover

Discover more of BookPage’s Best Books of 2022.

The year’s best fiction included a remarkable number of groundbreaking story collections—some deeply interconnected like Oscar Hokeah’s and Jonathan Escoffery’s, others bound mostly by theme and setting, such as Manuel Muñoz’s. We also reveled in several major releases from well-established authors, including Celeste Ng, Ian McEwan, Yiyun Li and Gabrielle Zevin.

Sophomore novels from Hernan Diaz, Namwali Serpell, Douglas Stuart and Elif Batuman surpassed the high bars of their debuts, and first-timers Tess Gunty, Sarah Thankam Mathews and Bonnie Garmus made a hell of a splash.

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Great Short Books

Anyone who’s eternally time-strapped will treasure Kenneth C. Davis’ Great Short Books. This nifty volume highlights 58 works of fiction chosen by Davis for their size (small) and impact (enormous). Each brisk read weighs in at around 200 pages but has the oomph of an epic.  

“Short novels,” Davis writes in the book’s introduction, “have been shortchanged. They occupy the place of the neglected middle child of the literary world.” With its eclectic roster of authors (Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King, James Joyce, Nella Larsen—the list goes on), his volume challenges this perception.  

Davis’ picks include something for every reader. Classic selections such as James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway are spotlighted alongside contemporary offerings like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. The entry for each title consists of a plot summary, an author bio, suggestions on what to read next and—the perfect bait for hooking book lovers—the work’s first lines.  

Davis, the bestselling author of the Don’t Know Much About series, delivers readerly insights and plenty of literary trivia in this handy guide. Outside of extra time, it’s the perfect gift for busy bibliophiles. 

Reading the Stars

Readers in need of a little inspiration should try tapping into the power of the zodiac. That’s the premise behind Reading the Stars, the new release from the literary website Book Riot. 

This quirky title encourages readers to connect with their astrological signs as a way to deepen and enrich their relationships with books. Astrology, according to Book Riot, can “give you some hints about what kind of books you like to read, what books can help you grow as a person, and how you engage with the reading world.” 

The volume covers the basics of astrology and provides an intriguing profile of every sign in the chart, with details on the characteristics and reading styles of each. Aries readers, for instance, focus on meeting their reading goals, while Virgos read to destress and love getting lost in a good fantasy. Cancers savor extended story arcs and happily ever after endings. 

Filled with atmospheric illustrations, Reading the Stars offers sign-specific reading recommendations and reveals which signs are compatible with one another—from a literary standpoint. Sure to pique the interest of bibliophiles, this delightful title will give them a whole new way to think about books.

Marple

Here’s a merry surprise for mystery fans: Miss Jane Marple is back. Marple is a collection of new stories featuring Agatha Christie’s widely hailed detective written by some of today’s top thriller writers. Ruth Ware, Lucy Foley, Dreda Say Mitchell and Alyssa Cole are among the dozen authors who salute the sleuth in this spine-tingling anthology. 

Christie introduced Jane Marple in the 1927 story “The Tuesday Night Club.” An elderly spinster and first-rate cracker of crimes from the quiet village of St. Mary Mead, England, Miss Marple appeared in 12 Christie novels, becoming one of the most beloved figures in detective fiction.  

In the new volume, fresh mysteries take Miss Marple to far-flung locales. A cruise ship headed for Hong Kong is the setting for Jean Kwok’s “The Jade Empress,” which finds Miss Marple investigating the death of a fellow passenger. In Alyssa Cole’s “Miss Marple Takes Manhattan,” sinister events plague a Broadway rehearsal, where the lady detective is providentially in attendance.  

Miss Marple logs many a mile in these new adventures, and fans will be elated to find that she remains a redoubtable force when faced with a case. The new stories are suspenseful and—of course—deliciously cozy. What’s not to love about more Miss Marple?  

Revenge of the Librarians

Bibliophiles will find a kindred spirit in cartoonist Tom Gauld, whose clever new collection, Revenge of the Librarians, is all about books and the literary life. 

The setting of the volume’s opening strip is a world taken over by librarians—a what-if tale of terrific proportions compactly recounted in five panels. “With superior organizational skills, they quickly seized power,” Gauld writes. “Opponents were mercilessly shushed. Every building was converted into a library.” 

Gauld’s perfectly pithy cartoons feature soft background colors and emphatic silhouettes. Arch humor abounds as he drops amusing author allusions, spoofs the literary establishment and plays with writer stereotypes. Ardent memoirist and precious poet, tormented novelist and cutthroat critic—none are exempt from his pen. Gauld also lampoons hallowed literary traditions. The titles in the cartoon “Summer Reading for Conspiracy Theorists” include Slaughterhouse 5G and The Old Man and the CIA. In “Waiting for Godot to Join the Zoom Meeting,” Vladimir and Estragon sit expectantly before their computers, but alas: “Nobody comes. Nobody goes.” 

Gauld, whose work has appeared in The Believer and the New York Times, gets up to all manner of literary mischief in this quick-witted, must-have collection for book buffs.

If you’re shopping for someone who always has books on the brain, we’ve got your gift needs all wrapped up.
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In Lauren Groff’s Matrix, 17-year-old Marie de France becomes prioress of a run-down abbey in 12th-century England. Ill-suited to a life of privation, Marie struggles in her new role, but she forms strong bonds with the women in her charge, and the abbey begins to flourish. When tensions rise between the abbey and the outside world, Marie’s work and leadership are challenged. Fans of historical fiction will savor this gripping, atmospheric novel, which poses questions related to faith and female desire that will inspire great discussion among readers.

Anthony Doerr’s ambitious, sweeping Cloud Cuckoo Land follows a group of characters across the centuries, all of whom endure transformational events and share a love for an ancient tale called “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” Doerr tells the stories of Anna and Omeir, two youngsters in Constantinople in the 1400s; Zeno, an octogenarian librarian in modern-day Idaho; and Konstance, a teenage girl traveling on a spacecraft in the 22nd century. Inventive and accomplished, Doerr’s novel is an unforgettable tribute to the power of stories and the endurance of the human spirit.

Set in the 1970s in Illinois, Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads chronicles the lives of the Hildebrandts, a suburban family going through a period of change. Russ Hildebrandt, an associate pastor and church leader, has decided to split from his wife, Marion. Their daughter, Becky, and son Perry are dabbling in drugs and a more radical lifestyle, and Clem, the oldest son, makes a drastic choice that shocks the family. Franzen’s wonderfully detailed, emotionally intimate novel is satisfying on every level, with marriage, morality and religion among the book’s many talking points.

Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young Black woman, delves into her disturbing family history in Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. Brought up in a family of formidable women in Georgia, Ailey takes inspiration from the great activist W.E.B. Du Bois while wrestling with her heritage and selfhood. As she learns the truth about her family tree and the impact of slavery on her forebears, Ailey draws closer to self-acceptance. Jeffers explores issues of race, history and female relationships through this luminous story of a woman coming into her own.

Tackle some of the most acclaimed blockbuster novels of recent years with your book club.
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Louise Kennedy, chef of nearly 30 years and author of the short story collection The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac, emerges with a debut novel that will fill every historical fiction fan with gratitude. Trespasses exposes the crushing realities of Northern Ireland during the “troubles” while paying respect to the people who found their way through the destruction. 

The novel centers on Cushla Lavery, a Catholic teacher living near Belfast who also works part time in her family’s pub. The sectarian violence between Republicans (largely Catholics) and loyalists (largely Protestants) has become overwhelmingly ingrained in society. The school’s headmaster even insists that Cushla’s 7- and 8-year-old students devote time each morning to reporting and commenting on the day’s most horrific news, from bombings to internments.

Quicker than she can make sense of, Cushla forms new relationships that drive her personal life into the public eye. There’s Michael Agnew, an older, married Protestant barrister with whom Cushla begins a surreptitious affair. There’s also Davy McGeown, a child in Cushla’s class whose father is brutally beaten. Disaster soon becomes inevitable, but no matter how close Cushla’s life comes to collapse, Kennedy’s unyielding narrative voice exhibits heart-wrenching impassivity, forcing readers to grapple with their own prejudices and morals.

The novel’s brilliance lies in Kennedy’s commitment to nuance. Simple definitions of “right” and “wrong” are nonexistent in Cushla’s world, as Kennedy is more concerned with contextual authenticity: How do our choices affect our environments, and conversely, how do those environments shape the choices we make? Reading Trespasses is an exercise in trust, in letting oneself accept the transient failures of an individual while holding fast to their implicit humanity. 

Impeccably written, Trespasses is a story that every reader will internalize differently. In only 304 pages, it achieves the complexity of a multigenerational saga without sacrificing the striking intricacies of its central protagonist’s story.

Reading Trespasses is an exercise in trust, in letting oneself accept the transient failures of an individual while holding fast to their implicit humanity.
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The nine short stories in George Saunders’ Liberation Day (7 hours) prowl a spectrum of dystopian premises and fall into two categories: tales about families, co-workers and neighbors navigating their relationships amid troubling current events; and stories about future humans who are reprogrammed as automatons (with the robotic voices to match) under other people’s command.

In these disorienting worlds, downtrodden people who have become petty and grotesque find not revenge but poetic justice. After writing an essay that inspires a crime, the titular mother of “Mom of Bold Action” runs through a list of good deeds she would be likely to do, such as step into slush on someone else’s behalf. In “Ghoul,” an employee at an underground Hell-themed amusement park realizes that he’s in love and ready to die for his beloved. 

And yet, understated goodness shines through, and we witness victories both quotidian and experimental. Stories are narrated by Saunders and an all-star cast of comedians and actors: Tina Fey, Stephen Root, Michael McKean, Edi Patterson, Jenny Slate, Jack McBrayer and Melora Hardin. Saunders’ biting, clipped writing style, paired with these narrators’ parodying voices, results in a dark comedy triumph with a satirical yet redemptive twist.


Read our starred review of the print edition of Liberation Day.

George Saunders’ short story collection, narrated by an all-star cast of comedians and actors, is a dark comedy triumph with a satirical yet redemptive twist.

We All Want Impossible Things is ostensibly a novel about death—but it pulses with life.

Ash is a food writer who is separated from her husband, Honey. Their relationship is basically over, but they’ve been too lazy and cheap to file for divorce. Even so, Honey often visits, offering food and emotional support in equal measure. Their eldest daughter is away at MIT and mostly communicates via emoji-laden text messages. Their younger daughter often skips school to watch HGTV and has, on more than one occasion, caught Ash in the midst of a romantic encounter. 

Ash is surrounded by people; they wend their way through her world much like the cats that circle her feet. And Ash needs all of them, because her best friend, Edi, is dying. 

Edi and Ash have been in each other’s lives since nursery school. They love each other well, quickly forgiving sanctimonious moments but just as easily calling each other on their bull. For three years, Edi has had ovarian cancer, and now her doctors are predicting that she will die in a week or two. Every hospice in New York City has a waitlist, so Ash recommends an option near her home in western Massachusetts, and Edi’s husband reluctantly agrees.

But death doesn’t come quickly. Instead, We All Want Impossible Things is full of moments both mundane and painful, hilarious and heartbreaking, as Ash waits for life after Edi. The complications of love, parenting and saying goodbye all mingle together in rich detail as Ash, who is nonreligious, seeks some sort of divine kindness in the face of death.

Catherine Newman, who has previously authored two memoirs and several books for children, drew from her experience of caring for her dying best friend (which she wrote about in the essay “Mothering My Dying Friend,” published in the New York Times in 2015) to craft her first novel for adult readers, and she fills it with heart-rending, lovely moments.

We All Want Impossible Things is full of moments both mundane and painful, hilarious and heartbreaking.
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After inviting readers into a small world of everyday people with his first novel, A Little Hope, Ethan Joella sets his second novel in a similar ​community​, one full of folks whose uniquely challenging lives eventually intertwine. 

A Quiet Life is indeed quiet, in that there’s no cross-country adventure or mysterious plot, just a snowy Pennsylvania winter and endless ruminations. It is quiet in the way of ordinary life, yet even this small domestic sphere contains shocking moments of tragedy and chaos. A dead wife, a missing little girl, a murdered father—difficult losses and sudden fractures swiftly disrupt previously enjoyable ​lives. But in the time it takes to have a few drinks at a bar or stop at a gas station, love can be found, friendships discovered and hope renewed. 

Once again, Joella’s characters are as real as they come. With an observant eye and poetic sensitivity, Joella captures poignant moments and intense feelings, leaving the reader with a sense of recognition and comfort. There’s widower Chuck, who receives daily visits from his well-meaning friend Sal. Grieving 20-something Kirsten might be falling for both her divorced boss and handsome co-worker, and distraught mother Ella waits in agony for any news after her ex-husband took their daughter and disappeared. 

As these stories come together, Joella extols what is common to all of humanity: We need each other, both in celebration and in mourning. One of the most meaningful things a person can say is simply “I’m here,” and this is the level of profound connection that Joella evokes without ever straying into cliche.

A Quiet Life reminds readers that all of us are “victorious in a small way for having lived.” 

One of the most meaningful things a person can say is simply “I’m here,” and this is the level of profound connection that Ethan Joella evokes without ever straying into cliche.
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These six outstanding volumes of verse will remind readers of the magic of language and the marvels to be found in everyday moments.


A gift to celebrate growing older: Woman Without Shame by Sandra Cisneros

Book jacket image for Woman Without Shame by Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Without Shame is an inspiring celebration of the self. The book’s 50-plus pieces are alive with wit and wordplay, as Cisneros takes stock of the past, reflects on her Mexican American identity and ruminates on the experience of growing older. “I am Venetian, decaying splendidly. / Am magnificent beyond measure,” she writes in “At Fifty I Am Startled to Find I Am in My Splendor.”

Despite the passing years, Cisneros, now 67, displays an attitude of proud defiance. In “Canto for Women of a Certain Llanto,” she bemoans the humdrum undergarments designed for older women: “Rage, rage. Do not go into that good night / wearing sensible white or beige.” Ignited by flashes of humor, the poems in this buoyant collection find Cisneros accentuating the positive, living without regret and setting an example for us all.


A gift to provide comfort and encouragement: And Yet by Kate Baer

Book jacket image for And Yet by Kate Baer

Kate Baer shares dispatches from the domestic front in her accessible, inviting collection And Yet. In poems that explore gender dynamics and the day-to-day grind of family life, Baer’s voice is that of an intimate, confiding friend.

Across the collection, she takes her own measure as a parent and a wife, toggling between self-acceptance and self-loathing, triumphs and trials. “The weeks are long, and all my son / wants is a new skateboard and a different / mother,” she writes in “Late Summer in a Global Pandemic.” Baer rounds up snippets from horrifying headlines in “Daily Planet”: “Return to school deemed not safe for / Un-vaccinated protests rise as / Hospital beds at capacity in these seven.” To flustered mothers, the internet-weary and anyone bewildered by contemporary life, Baer’s collection will be a balm.


A gift to illuminate the poetry-writing process: Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light by Joy Harjo

Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: Fifty Poems for Fifty Years is a splendid survey of the career of three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Harjo draws from a rich well of family stories and myths in poems that explore the Native American experience and emphasize the importance of place.

In many of her poems, the landscape emits a kind of language, such as in “Are You Still There?”: “hello / is a gentle motion of a western wind / cradling tiny purple flowers.” In “Somewhere,” she writes, “Our roads aren’t nice lines with numbers; they wind like bloodlines / through gossip and stories of the holy in the winds.” Notes on the genesis of each poem can be found at the end of the book.

For Harjo, “history is / everywhere,” and the past is always present. Her vision and versatility are on full display in this majestic retrospective.


A gift to spark new ways of looking at our pasts: Golden Ax by Rio Cortez

The poems in Rio Cortez’s bold new book, Golden Ax, center on a foundational concept—what the author calls “Afropioneerism” or “Afrofrontierism,” in reference to her ancestral connections to Utah and the ways in which Black people have shaped and were shaped by the region.

Throughout this ambitious collection, Cortez tangles with themes of genealogy and religion while evoking the otherworldly landscape of the American West. In “Covered Wagon as Spaceship,” she wonders “whether it’s aliens / that brought Black folks to the canyons . . . how do you come / to be where there are no others, except / science fiction?”

Through poems that probe the often painful connections between past and present, Cortez finds new ways of moving forward.


A gift to stoke a fire: The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On by Franny Choi

Book cover for The World Keeps Ending, the World Goes On

A marked attentiveness to craftsmanship and the niceties of language enlivens the poems in Franny Choi’s urgent, stirring The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On. A fearless shifter of form, Choi switches moods and modes to tackle such topics as social unrest, climate change and her Korean heritage. In “Toward Grace,” she laments the digital landscape: “Online, blondes chirp tips, spin fidgets, get follows. / Old story: unequal distribution of grace.” Formidable themes like the nature of tragedy and the human capacity for renewal lend a timelessness to her work.

Choi’s collection will awaken and inspire readers. “I want a storm I can dance in. / I want an excuse to change my life,” she writes, and her attitude is contagious.


A gift to transform darkness into light: Balladz by Sharon Olds

Book jacket image for Balladz by Sharon Olds

“Who says the forms of art require joy?” Sharon Olds asks in Balladz. While joy does feature prominently in these poems, Olds’ mood is one of unease and ire as she explores national upheaval, life during quarantine and the need for intimacy. As the collection’s title implies, the ballad is her favored form, a vessel for contemplating the past and celebrating everyday pleasures.

“Amherst Ballad 6” shows the precision of her poetic vision: “The Sill Imbued with Dust – Gave Up / A Maple Wing – of Brussels Lace.” In “Grandmother, with Parakeet,” elderly women have hair “fixed in / small breaking combers, battleship / curls like works of art.” Again and again, Olds surveys the world and, through the filter of her poems, renews it for the reader. Filled with sustaining moments of recognition, Balladz is revelatory.


For a fresh way to spread glad tidings this holiday season, we suggest a collection of poetry.

As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, we turn to all things cozy—and we can think of nothing more heartwarming than an unexpected friendship. Here are the platonic pairings that made the BookPage editors feel all snuggly inside.

The Secret Place

In Tana French’s The Secret Place, Detective Stephen Moran gets his chance to join the Murder Squad when 16-year-old Holly Mackey brings him new evidence in an investigation into a murder that took place on the grounds of her boarding school. Stephen heads to Holly’s school to investigate alongside Antoinette Conway, the original detective assigned to the case. Their first interactions are anything but promising, given their diametrically opposed approaches to their work. Stephen masks his ambition behind a friendly, unassuming persona, but Antoinette, who is biracial, has long since given up on playing nice with people determined to hate her due to her gender, racial background or both. As they interrogate Holly and her friends over the course of one long day, a tentative respect begins to grow between the two of them, thanks to their mutual intellect and their common experience of clawing their way up the ranks from working-class backgrounds. It could be the start of a beautiful partnership, and French makes readers as invested in Stephen and Antoinette’s burgeoning friendship as they are in the mystery’s solution.

—Savanna, Associate Editor

Frank and the Bad Surprise

I’m going to cut to the chase here. The titular character in Martha Brockenbrough and Jon Lau’s Frank and the Bad Surprise is a cat who lives a good life with his humans, and the bad surprise is a new puppy. The puppy interrupts Frank’s naps, has gross puppy breath and eats Frank’s food, so Frank decides it’s time to move on. “Good luck with that puppy,” he writes in a note to his humans. “You will need it.” There’s so much to love about this illustrated chapter book, from the way Brockenbrough’s wry prose perfectly captures Frank’s feline perspective to the way Lau’s paintings bring Frank’s personality to life. In several images, you’ll swear you can almost hear Frank purring. But the best part is the way Brockenbrough engineers a moving reconciliation between the two former enemies, neatly sidestepping schlock and sentiment and going straight for understated emotional truth. It’s positively the cat’s pajamas.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Lolly Willowes

In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel, an aging woman breaks away from her grating London family and has a go at independent life in the countryside. After keeping house for her father and brother for over 40 years, Laura Willowes feels liberated in Buckinghamshire—finally free to take long walks in nature and enjoy her own company. Until her nephew visits. Suddenly she is reduced to her old Aunt Lolly self again—put upon and bedeviled—and she becomes so desperate that she calls out for help. Luckily Satan answers, and the novel transforms into a fantastical tale of Lolly’s burgeoning talents as a witch. Along the way, the devil turns out to be a chummy pal: giving Lolly the power to hex her nephew, listening to her complaints about society’s treatment of women. (Satan, as it turns out, is a compassionate and attentive listener.) It’s a darkly humorous novel of a middle-aged woman who is so desperate for autonomy that she’s willing to make a deal—or at least make friends—with the devil.

—Christy, Associate Editor

Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders’ first (and so far, only) novel brings together some odd characters. In Lincoln in the Bardo, a group of ghosts works together to save Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, from a place between life and death. Here in the bardo, the ghosts know all of one another’s quirks and faults and dreams and regrets. They’ve come to love one another, and as a reader, I found it easy to love them too. The most unlikely best friendship in the bardo is between middle-aged, carnally frustrated Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, a heartbroken young man who took his own life and now bursts involuntarily into poetry about the beauty of the world he left behind. One of Saunders’ most remarkable gifts is his ability to make even unpleasant characters deeply befriendable. He outdoes himself with this book, crafting 166 distinct, compelling voices and interspersing them with excerpts from real and invented historical sources. He fantastically spins a moment in American history into a philosophical exploration of how grief can either isolate or unite us.

—Phoebe Farrell-Sherman, Subscriptions

The Kindest Lie

People aren’t all that different, even though it often feels that way, and therein lies one of the key superpowers of the “unlikely friendship” trope: bridging polarized experiences to discover where people actually overlap, where one person’s hand fits snugly into another’s. Nancy Johnson’s debut, The Kindest Lie, is one of the novels that most successfully encompasses both the political optimism of 2008 and the insidious racial divisions that were worsened by the economic stress of the Great Recession. Johnson’s protagonist, Ruth, is a Black chemical engineer who returns to her Rust Belt hometown to seek out the child she placed for adoption when she was 17. Upon her return, Ruth bonds with Midnight, an 11-year-old white boy who is mostly being raised by his grandmother but still hopes for connection with his neglectful, bigoted father. Ruth’s and Midnight’s experiences of race, class and privilege are very different, but they’re both lonely, lost and understandably flawed people, and together they find something akin to belonging in a heartbreaking world.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

You’ve got a friend in me! These books feature platonic pairings that made us feel all warm and snuggly inside.
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The folks in How It Went, whom Wendell Berry writes about so beautifully, may remind readers of hobbits. They are neither small nor hairy footed, but they are kind and hardworking, and their Shire, the land around Port William, Kentucky, is part of them and they are part of the land. They have names like Jayber Crow, Fatty Moneyworth and Art and Mart Rowanberry. There’s even a couple of ne’er-do-wells called Dingus and Les, but they’re more out of a Paul Henning sitcom than J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium.

Berry’s book is divided into 13 lovingly written chapters. Some are short stories that have previously appeared in such publications as The Sewanee Review, while others are more like vignettes. Together, they create a tale that gently unwinds and doubles back on itself, not so much like a river but more like a flowering vine. 

The protagonist and sometimes narrator is Andy Catlett. Though we learn that he’s looking back on a long life, the book begins on the day World War II ends, when he has just turned 11. Over the course of the book, we see him as a teenager, then an old man, then a boy again and then a young man. 

Berry’s prose—in How It Went and just about everything else he’s written over his long career—is imbued with compassion. People have their dark sides. Men drink too much or harbor long resentments. Some people, like Andy’s grandma, may be unhappy, but discord is never dwelled upon. Even the loss of Andy’s hand in a harvesting machine is handled with Berry’s customary sensitivity: Another writer might’ve cast this incident as gruesome, but Berry focuses less on the accident than on how it affects Andy’s family and his self-image, which is bound up in his ability to work.

For the folks in Port William, work is everything, whether it’s making hay, handling a team of mules or building a barbed wire fence. Work is not only noble and necessary but also beautiful. Berry shares Tolkien’s disdain for industries that despoil the earth. In a hilarious scene, somebody dares to drive a motorized tractor through Andy’s grandfather’s property, and the old man nearly attacks it with his cane.

A book full of such gentleness, wisdom and humility seems preposterous in this day and age. It’s also something of a miracle. We are lucky, in such times, to still have a writer like Wendell Berry.

Taken together, the 13 chapters in Wendell Berry’s How It Went create a tale that gently unwinds and doubles back on itself, not so much like a river but more like a flowering vine.

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