Here is the list of everything that was “Raved” by all panelists via Booklist Reader, although I did notice not all of my titles made the list. But never fear, I was planning this detailed post today anyway. Each of the mini-reviews to follow are longer and more detailed than the quick talk I gave on the panel [I did 11 books in about 11 minutes, yes I went over by 1 minute but I figured that would happen], but everything I did say is also going to be included.
Please note though, my reviews are appeal based with very little plot detail. If you would like to see the cover copy plot synopsis, please click through on the linked titles to access the Goodreads record. Finally, I am also presenting this list as a booktalk script itself so I will include the conscious transitions I made between books. Not only did I choose these titles carefully from the thousands available at the conference, but I also made sure they were presented in an order that took you on a journey and told a story [just like I teach you all to do].
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark published by Tor.Com [August 2018]
I think it is fitting that I begin here with adventure, steampunk, airships and orisha [afro-caribbean witches] set in an alternate New Orleans where the south has not lost the Civil War, but rather they have achieved an armistice so that they can continue to use slave labor. While this is a fast paced and fun story it is the well developed, sympathetic characters [all black cast] and immersive world building which will be why you will love it. I have love for all of the Tor.com novellas. They are all speculative stories in a perfect sized and paced package. You should carry them all, and I would argue, despite their differences, all are readalikes for each other.
Three Words That Describe This Book: Afro-retroism, adventure, captivating
Readalikes: If you could combine River of Teeth, Dread Nation and Binti into one book that would be a good sense of what you get here. I would also add Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus as a great single book readalike.
Temper by Nicky Drayden published by Harper Voyager [August 2018]
While afro-retroism might me a new term in your vocabulary [it is in mine], you should be aware of what afro-furturism is by now as it is one of the biggest trends in all fiction. One of the things I love about this emerging speculative fiction sub-genre is that it is made up of parts of science fiction, fantasy and horror, the mix of how much of each is in a particular title varies, but all three are there. This title happens to be one of my recent favorites.
This is Drayden’s second novel after last year’s critically acclaimed and widely popular Prey of Gods. The setting is an alternate South African dystopia where your worth is judged by the virtues and vices you are marked with in childhood. Our story follows twins, one with many vice marks and one with many more virtue ones, as they battle demons, both literal and figurative. This story blends SF/F/H perfectly, with all the best of all three. Plus, did I mention the demons?
Three Words That Describe This Book: strong world building, dark humor, Afro-futurism
Readalikes: You should add this title to all your Black Panther and/or Afro-furturism readalike lists, but also don’t forget authors like Lauren Beukes and especially Neil Gaiman.
Ordinary People by Diana Evans published by Liveright [September 2018]
And now let’s say goodbye to supernatural demons and move onto the very real horrors of marital crisis. This novel is a debut by a British author. Set in England, during the time of Obama’s election, the story features two, 30 something, middle class couples who are good friends, but as they begin to age life changes start coming at them fast and furious: money issues, sex lives, death of parents, race, class, work, infidelity— all things that life throws at you and can rock even the strongest couples. This is a novel of domestic upheaval but not of the melodramatic kind. It is like many of these novels that has come before it, yet also clearly of today’s world and issues.
Three Words That Describe This Book: domestic upheaval, character centered, diverse
Readalikes: Celeste Ng, Zadie Smith, Tayari Jones, and even a classic like Revolutionary Road by Yates.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh published by Doubleday [January 2019]
One of the people who blurbed Ordinary People was Naomi Alderman, author of The Power and this next title reminded me of that novel. The marketing blurb helped: “a dystopian, feminist, revenge fantasy.” In The Water Cure we are in a world where women are in danger from the violence of men. A father has kept his three daughter isolated to keep them safe, but we as readers can see they are also trapped, literally behind barbed wire, on an inland surrounded by water. When the book opens “Father” has disappeared. The story takes place over the course of a week and is narrated by the sisters. It is extremely unsettling and eye opening for both the reader and the sisters. It is beautifully written, but also, ugly at the same time.
Three Words That Describe This Book: riveting, lyrical, powerful
Readalikes: Besides The Power, I felt like this is Gather the Daughters, meets The Handmaid’s Tale if written by Shirley Jackson.
Night Soil by Dale Peck publishers by Soho [August 2018]
From a few new voices I would like to now move on to two novelists with much critical acclaim who have never stopped writing, but haven’t had a new novel in about a decade.
First up is Dale Peck the groundbreaking author of what is considered the seminal novel of gay life during the AIDS plague years, Martin and John, who makes his return to fiction after years as a well known literary critic. In this genre defying story we follow Judas, a young man who is very shy due to a large birthmark that covers half of his face. He is also gay, but while he wants to experience relationships with his fellow schoolmates, he knows he can only pursue his sexual desires with random older men. His mother is an artist. She makes the most perfectly symmetrical bowls without a potter's wheel or any instruments [kinda creepy actually]. Judas is also looking into his ancestor who founded his prep school, a coal magnate from the 19th Century and is uncovering some unsettling and strange family secrets. This is Judas’ coming of age story of who he is, where he came from, and who he will become.
Three Words That Describe This Book: introspective, character centered, methodically paced
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken published by Harper [Februrary 2019]
More family secrets here with another author making a return after an absence. McCracken happens to be one of my person all time favorite authors; in fact, I suggest her often and the term I use to describe how she writes is “slightly askew.” That phrase fits here perfectly. The story follows three generation of an unconventional New England family who own and operate a candlepin bowling alley [you can look it up, but basically, thinner pins, 3 rolls per frame, and different scoring system]. It all begins at the turn of the Twentieth Century with the enigmatic Bertha, the family matriarch, and then goes forward through the century, incorporating all of the historical events of the 20th Century in this multi generational saga, always and forever grounded by the bowling alley.
Three Words That Describe This Book: family secrets, dark, sharp humor, slightly askew
Readalikes: This book is best described as if Karen Russell wrote The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay. Also the marketing copy compares it to Commonwealth by Patchett and I can see that too.
Hope Never Dies: A Obama-Biden mystery by Andrew Shaffer published by Quirk [July 2018]
I am a fan girl for McCracken, but fan fiction in general is alive and kicking. It appears the trendiest topic right now is the Obama-Biden bromance. Here the author of Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, from the only major publisher that proudly stakes their claim as the place for all things fan fiction and geek culture, gives you everything you would hope for from a book with this title. Joe is looking forward to a relaxing retirement, but when his beloved Amtrak Conductor is murdered, he calls up his out of work friend Barack and they go back to serving the public good, investigating the murder. While the entire book has its tongue planted firmly in cheek, it is not all silly fun here. The story does delve into serious issues like the opioid epidemic. It is touching and thoughtful, but the overall tone is a nice dose of uplifting fun.
Three Words That Describe This Book: fun, satire, nostalgic
Readalikes: This book is for fans of the Jobama bromance or anything else by Quirk. Also, coming in February 2019, Harper Collins is releasing a single volume bound edition of the graphic novel, The Adventures of Barry and Joe: Obama and Biden’s Bromantic Battle for the Soul of America. This is a trend you cannot ignore.
Vita Nostra by Sergiy and Maryna Shyrshova-Dyachenko published by Harper Collins [November 2018]
From a look at America in slightly less trying times now we move to 2 international bestsellers. The first title is the definitive english translation of a bestselling Russian dark fantasy masterpiece. I do need to disclose that I have a soft spot in my heart for contemporary Russian fantasy. In Vita Nostra, Sasha, is a young girl is on vacation when she meets a strange man. He asks her to pass some unusual tests which earns her a spot into the Institute of Special Technologies. It is a horrible and inscrutable school, yet for Sasha it is also confusingly perfect. Blending fantasy, adventure, magic, science and all that wonderful “Russian-ness,” this is a novel you need to experience.
Three Words That Describe This Book: unsettling, thought provoking, transformative
Readalikes: If you combined The Bear and the Nightingale with The Magicians you get a good sense of what to expect here. But I also thought of Lexicon by Max Barry a lot. My co-panelist Rel, also mentioned this title and compared it to House of Leaves which I think is very accurate.
The Bone Keeper by Luca Veste published by Sourcebooks Landmark [February 2019]
This international bestseller is not a translation, but it is just as dark, maybe even darker because it is not fantasy, it is a thriller with an urban legend frame. What if the local monster, the one who strikes fear into the heart of every child in town, what if that monster were real? There are serious chills here. This is not for the feint of heart.
Three Words That Describe This Book: terrifying, urban legends, twisty
Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife published by FSG [October 2018]
Finally enough with this fiction, it’s time for some nonfiction, but ones that read like fiction.
Four million people a year visit the Tower of London, many of them take the free Yeoman Warders tour, including myself. On the tour you visit the raven’s coop, you see the raven flying around, and you hear of their importance to the city itself because they tell you about the ominous prophecy saying that if a raven from the Tower leaves, the city will fall. In this unique memoir, Skaife, with a wonderful narrative voice tells us about the behind the scenes life at the Tower and how he cares for these birds [he feeds them biscuits soaked in animal blood, for instance]. But we also get the history of the place and the ravens’ importance in it. It is about the special relationship between the author and his charges, one that gives us insight into the animals as they truly are, while also giving us a peek behind the curtain of some of Western history’s most famous and terrible moments.
Three Words That Describe This Book: intimate, history from a different perspective, animal people relationships
Readalikes: All of your readers who love the Tudor time period will like this book, since much of that time period was centered around the Tower. Some may be specifically drawn to the human-bird relationship. They would also like H is for Hawk, but any animal-people relationship books or memoirs will appeal here.
[Don’t] Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health by Kelly Jensen published by Algonquin Young Readers [October 2018]
Finally a book that is being marketed as YA but is really for everyone. As the title says, this book is meant to be a conversation starter. Presented in a scrapbook style perfect for browsing over time, it features well known figures writing about mental health— not mental illness. It is about our brains and how they work, It is not a diagnostic tool, but rather a way to remove the stigma from all of our own eccentricities and just talk about them--openly and honestly. I also wanted to highlight this book because ARRT is sponsoring a book release party for this title with Jensen in conversation with librarian Jez Layman at the ILA Annual Conference in Peoria this October. Join us if you can.
Three Words That Describe This Book: conversation starter, informal, much needed
Readalikes: Jensen recently solicited a crowd sources lists of people’s favorite books featuring mental illness. You can find it here.
I would also highly suggest The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang.
That’s a wrap on this year’s Read ’N’ Rave. Back tomorrow with more ALA Annual reports