Somehow it’s December already. With December comes the obligatory reminders to 1) start your holiday shopping and 2) support your local bookstore. I mean, if they don’t want books for the holidays, do they even deserve a present? And what about you? Dear reader, surely you are deserving of a little treat for getting through this past year! No better place to treat yourself than at an indie bookshop.
Kristen Radtke, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness
Kristen Radtke compellingly blends the deeply personal with an analytical look at the concept of loneliness in Seek You, which redefines graphic literature by mixing memoir with sociological and scientific research. This journey is framed by artwork that joins a tradition (painter Edward Hopper, graphic novelist Adriane Tomine, et al.) of stark but beautiful melancholy. It lingers with you, and you’ll find yourself returning to it, precisely when the author intended—in moments of solitude and quiet. Loneliness is deeply familiar to all of us, particularly after this year. Seek You builds a bridge into the void, as all great literature will do.
—Alex M., Harvard Book Store
Rachel Bloom, I Want to Be Where The Normal People Are
Me too, Rachel Bloom. Me too. My little Rachel Bloom obsessed preteen heart smiled very very wide at this novel. Reading it one could tell Bloom didn’t hold back, she laid out her authentic theater-obsessed, awkward teen, and nerdy self for all of us to resonate with on the page. I think anyone reading this can’t help but relate with Bloom, whether it be her past middle school self or shunned improv college student. I would also like to state for the record that yes, I did listen to the over five hour long Crazy Ex-Girlfriend playlist I made with my theater and fellow Bloom fan friend. Also who doesn’t love a musical written inside a memoir? By far my favorite part.
Frederik Backman, Anxious People
If you’re looking for a fun yet poignant read, look no further than Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. It begins with a first-time bank robber failing to rob a cashless bank, fleeing to a nearby apartment, and inadvertently taking eight hostages. It ends (this is not a spoiler) with everyone walking out alive, except the bank robber who has mysteriously disappeared. Told from the lens of the ensuing police investigation, Anxious People, weaves the individual stories of the robber and the hostages into an interlocking narrative. Filled with Backman’s humor and candid observations on life, the book will make you laugh and cry. If A Man Called Ove was about a man who wanted to die, Anxious People is about people who, in the face of everything, want to live.
Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019
Kendi and Blain have assembled a choir of voices each telling a small, detailed piece of the 400 year history of Black America from 80 different perspectives. This is one of the most comprehensive and beautifully written works on Black history to date.
—Maddie C. Harvard Book Store
Chris Offutt, The Killing Hills
A woman’s been murdered in deep, rural Kentucky. Mick Hardin, a military investigator home on leave to be with his pregnant wife—though he’s actually hiding out at a family cabin drinking himself stupid, for reasons that later become clear—gets tapped to help solve it by his sister, the newly-badged local sheriff. The investigation leads him through backwoods full of folks who’ve kept to themselves for generations, and managing his mixed insider/outsider status—born to a family with roots in the region, but gone himself now for many years—gives the story an extra element of negotiating identity; we tend to think of code-switching mostly in terms of race, but for Hardin here it’s about class and place. And for as much as I loved the character—Hardin’s got an almost Bourne-level situational calculus rubbing up against the hard emotions of family and home—the star here really is the land, the hollers, the killing hills. You may not remember the mystery for all that long, but there’s a sense of place you won’t forget.
–Greg, Downbound Books
Mona Awad, All’s Well
Mona Awad is an author to watch. Though this is only her second novel, her ability to craft compelling narrators ranks among the top tiers of contemporary writers. In All’s Well, the character Miranda is rich with complexities and contradictions that make her remarkably human. She’s at once petulant, vengeful, and naive, yet also tender, loving, and vulnerable. Her story is extreme, yet relatable; she’s a fallen actress stuck in an underperforming college theater program, dependent on a cocktail of opioids and alcohol to help her cope with the chronic pain of a career-ending stage accident. When Miranda is given the chance to escape her pitiable existence and reclaim the idyllic life she once had, she clings to the opportunity with wild desperation. Instead, her world transforms into modern versions of All’s Well That Ends Well, Macbeth, The Tempest, and more—complete with witches, magic, and tragic Shakespearean redemption.
—Melissa S., Harvard Book Store
Tom Lin, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu
This book is so wonderful. A cross between Tombstone and Something Wicked This Way Comes, it blends a classic tale of the American West with eerily magical and mystical tales. The prose is gorgeous and, if you’re like me, you will be underlining many a phrase.
—Emily Lilley, The Book & Cover
Richard Powers, Bewilderment
The concept of ‘bewilderment’ summons notions of loss, perplexity, and confusion—but as readers step into the world of Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Powers’s latest masterpiece, Bewilderment, they may at first feel anything but. This new novel is deeply grounded in empathy and wonder, as a weary, widowed father and his sensitive, at-times emotionally volatile nine-year-old son stargaze with focused curiosity. They consider imagined life in other galaxies while cherishing a bond with each other and with the natural world. Yet strands of grief, uncertainty, rage, and confusion weave into their lives via Powers’s rich and sonorous prose. Hope becomes inseparable from despair, and wonder in the bigness of the world is perpetually in danger of being drowned out by overwhelm. All this, seen through the eyes of the troubled young protagonist, makes moments of euphoria all the more thrilling, and loss all the more devastating. Bewilderment is a book about all that makes us human—art, science, intellect—but it’s particularly about our wild and dizzying palette of emotions; sometimes we feel dozens of ways, all at once. It’s a bewildering array, as plentiful as the stars in the night sky.
—Alex M. Harvard Book Store
TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door
I fell in love with TJ Klune after Cerulean Sea and came into this story with high expectations. The story did not disappoint. Part The Good Place and part A Christmas Story (think Scrooge), Under the Whispering Door is a sweet story of redemption and what it means to love in life and beyond. The characters are lovable and fully fleshed out. This is a story that will fill you up with bittersweet joy and you will be sad that it ends.
—Blaes Green, The Book & Cover
Rick Riordan, Daughter of the Deep
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo, and an awfully amazing main character, Ana, who is smart and strong—all ingredients for an amazing ocean adventure. Rick Riordan knows how to write for middle graders and they will love this very scientific and mysterious new book!
Joe Posnanski, The Baseball 100
You can spend all night arguing about who’s ranked in front of which other guy. You can spend another night, if you so choose, being mad about Barry Bonds all over again. Or, you can dip in anywhere in this book and read a lovingly crafted profile of one of the 100 greatest ever to play the game. You’ll learn *everything* about some of them (Posnaski excels at bringing forgotten Deadballers and Negro Leaguers back into the light), and *something* about each one that you didn’t know before, no matter how often you saw him play. You can also skip right ahead to the Rickey Henderson anecdotes. No one will blame you.
—Michael F., Harvard Book Store
Tracey Lange, We Are The Brennans
Small town. Big Irish family. Irish pub owned and operated by said family. Secrets, love, rivalry and loyalty. These are the ingredients that make up the incredibly satisfying page turner We Are The Brennans. Denny, Sunday, Jackie and Shane are the four siblings around whom the story centers when Sunday returns home to face the family and love she abruptly left behind many years before. The story reminds us that love and family can conquer most and no matter how safely guarded, secrets always come out in the end… and maybe that’s just what it takes for a happily ever after ending.
Maggie Shipstead, Great Circle
Great Circle is pure literary magic. It is the story of Marian Graves, a pilot who disappears, along with her navigator, while attempting to fly around the world from north to south, through both poles—a great circle. It spans a century of her life and legacy, taking readers from a ship in the middle of the Atlantic to Montana, Alaska, wartime London, and beyond. Every page, every character, every digression in this extraordinary novel is part of a circle that will close by the final page, creating a mosaic of 20th-century American womanhood, ambition, desire, and the simple, powerful pull of the open sky.
—Rachel C., Harvard Book Store
Hanif Abdurraqib, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance
As informative as it is emotional, Hanif Abdurraqib’s collection of essays gives treatment of Merry Clayton, Soul Train, Josephine Baker, and more. Heart-wrenching & joyful—a National Book Award shortlist must read!
—Sarah Jackson, The Book & Cover
Kimi Cunningham Grant, These Silent Woods
Stunning! I was deeply moved by this beautiful story of a U.S. military veteran father, Cooper, and daughter, Finch, living in the wilderness of northern Appalachia. They are so isolated that they only have one visitor a year who arrives on the same date each December and brings supplies to last another year. Troubles arise when their friend does not come and Cooper and Finch’s precarious survival is threatened. I was so invested in their lives and had tears in my eyes when I had to say goodbye to these characters. This book is full of gorgeous nature writing, solitude, regret, hope, redemption, and quiet spiritual themes. These Silent Woods is vying for my favorite book of 2021.
—Elizabeth Barnhill, Fabled Bookshop and Cafe
Darcie Little Badger, Elatsoe
Elatsoe follows Ellie as she fights to solve the mystery of her cousin’s murder and learn how to manage the magical secrets passed down through her Lipan Apache family. Filled with beautiful prose, an incredibly unique magical system, and characters you can’t help but root for, it is a gripping, and uplifting story. Ellie is a witty and clever narrator, and I hope this isn’t the last book we get about her journey. This novel is perfect for anyone looking for a powerful but endlessly fun YA fantasy filled with ghost dogs, mysterious towns, and Lipan Apache lore.
Lauren Groff, Matrix
The joy of reading Lauren Groff is that no two of her books are the same, or even similar, but they’re all worth reading. Matrix is about female community, female pain, and female rage, and it is the most beautiful book I read this year.
—Rachel C., Harvard Book Store
Gayl Jones, Palmares
This novel left me spellbound. I’m awed Gayl Jones’ ability to recreate such a vibrant, vicious period of history in literary form. More than once I felt my heart breaking for Almeyda and the horrors that she and her family endured, only to be mesmerized moments later by her resiliency. The writing itself embodies the richness and mysticism of the story, set in 17th-century Brazil. It was a novel I was happy to take my time with, savoring every short chapter.
—Melissa S., Harvard Book Store
Myriam J.A. Chancy, What Storm, What Thunder
Each chapter of What Storm, What Thunder follows a different character whose life was affected by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, but the result is much more than a multi-faceted telling of a devastating event. It is also a portrait of a community, connected by ties both strong and fleeting, as it navigates the disaster and the terrible burden of standing up and beginning to rebuild. And it is an indictment of a world that watches current events like they are reality TV, forgetting the human beings still living, dying, and struggling when the cameras go off. It is devastating and it is beautiful.
—Rachel C., Harvard Book Store
Garrett Ryan, Naked Statues, Fat Gladiators, and War Elephants
A fun but very informative romp through things which you may or may not have known about daily life in the ancient world. I was completely won over by it from just a brief flip-through. For anyone who has enjoyed the novels of Madeline Miller, this may be an entertaining source of background information.
—Alan H., Harvard Book Store
Olivette Otele, African Europeans: An Untold History
In an era when many wish to whitewash and mythologize the history of Europe, Otele Olivette steps in to make a timely and significant contribution to the history of Black Europeans. This book shines a light on a whole portion of European history that even the most well-read history buff will have missed.
—Maddie C., Harvard Book Store
Katie Crouch, Embassy Wife
The idea of Embassy Wife came from the author’s own experience as an expat in Namibia. It’s a comical satire about 3 women who meet through their children and connection to the Namibia Embassy. There’s Amanda Evans, who gave up her Silicon Valley career to follow her husband for his Fulbright Scholarship, but we later learn he has ulterior motives to bringing their family here. There’s Persephone Wilder, who is a “professional embassy wife” and thinks she has it all figured out that her husband is really CIA while also camping out in the safari to save the rhinos. And Mila Shilongo, the wife of Namibia’s minister of transportation, whose ranch Persephone is camping out on for said rhinos despite their (somewhat) silent rivalry. My favorite book to hand sell for readers looking for something different, breezy and funny.
Kathi Appelt, Once Upon a Camel
What a precious story! It is the perfect gift book, family read aloud, or book club club choice; it has a very interesting historical story about how camels came to America told through senior camel, Zada, as she protects two tiny kestrel chicks who have been separated from their parents. It left me with an abundance of joy in my heart.