Reading is probably the least sexy part of pop culture. If there is a ranking it would go: keeping up on Peak TV, catching the latest Oscar bait, and hearing the newest band before the rest of the world does. Yet literature is the longest, strongest pillar of culture, pop or not.

Here are 25 works of fiction – in alphabetical order – that made me laugh, cry, shiver, and think.

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Another Brooklyn – Jacqueline Woodson
A long lost friend triggers memories that weave together a coming-of-age journey about friendship, loss, and abuse. Woodson is an award-winning children’s book author who wrote this as her adult novel debut, but she writes like a seasoned literary writer. Her prose is very lyrical, which lifts the plot higher than most other authors could have.

The Association of Small Bombs – Karan Mahajan
Mahajan grew up near Dehli and he gives this story the realism it needs and deserves. It’s about the small scale bombing of a Dehli marketplace and the aftermath of it. The author follows a survivor as well as the family of a victim, but interestedly follows the terrorist who committed the act. Mahajan had a difficult time writing from that particular perspective.
You can read my interview with the author here.

Bucky F*cking Dent – David Duchovny
A lot of people might not know the dude who hunted down aliens on The X-Files studied literature at both Princeton and Yale. Duchovny says this isn’t a baseball book, but a story about fathers and sons, as well as a romance set against the hardball backdrop. The titular Dent is a real-life hero or villain, depending on if you’re a Yankees or Red Sox fan, in a tiebreaker game to get into the playoffs in 1978 (Spoiler alert: Dent crushes a homer, and all the hearts in New England, over the Green Monster.) But again, this is about more than baseball. He brilliantly tells this story in an earnest way.

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett
Spanning decades and generations, Patchett’s book is about more than just a family. It’s about what happens when their story isn’t owned by just them anymore. An affair leads to an author taking their secrets and turns them into a bestselling book. The author smartly looks at the blurred lines between private and public lives.

The Fortunes – Peter Ho Davies
The author challenges and examines racial and cultural identity through four unique stories – Gold, Silver, Jade, Pearl. It is deeply reflective and dives into nuanced history, which allows readers to become immersed in Chinese culture. Similar to Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. the WorldThe Fortunes asks what it means to be both Chinese and American. This one, however, does it more poignantly.

The Girls – Emma Cline
Cline’s book is heavily influenced by Charles Manson and the girls in his cult. A very similar situation is in the center of this debut novel. The author didn’t just rely on a basic plot to propel this to one of the most hyped books of the year. Cline also wrote with a punch and created well-rounded characters who could star both in an indie-thriller and a summer blockbuster.

Here Comes the Sun – Nicole Dennis-Benn
One of 2015’s most heralded books was A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, an in-depth look into Jamaican life through a very specific scope. Dennis-Benn’s debut views Jamaica through a different lens. Sexuality and freedom are central themes to the novel. It is a story that can be hard to read at time, but allows readers to learn about the disenfranchised lives some lead on the island.

High Dive – Jonathan Lee
Lee’s smartly written story about the 1984 assassination attempt of the British Prime Minister juggles multiple characters and threads in an inmate way. The pacing and dialogue are exceptional, which is obvious from the very beginning. While Wikipedia can tell you the basics of event; however, Lee adds depth through the perspective of numerous top-notch characters.
You can read my interview with the author here.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
Two sisters are separated and sent onto two drastically different paths. One is sold into slavery while the other is married off to a British slave owner. Gyasi’s breathtaking and eye-opening novel follows the sisters’ descendants through generations. The debut novel earned the author a spot on the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honorees in 2016.

The Lost Time Accidents – John Wray
This door-stopper (over 500 pages) blends sci-fi and family epic to tell the tale of two brothers in the early-20th century. The time shifts backward and forward to tell about the Austrian brothers’ lives as one becomes loyal to Adolf Hitler and the other becomes a writer. Wray is an imaginative writer that proves he knows how to have fun plotting itricate plots.

Moonglow – Michael Chabon
Presented as a memoir, Chabon’s latest novel explores similar themes he’s written about countless times before like family, history, truth, Judaism. It was inspired by a story his dying grandfather told him as a teenager and dovetails into a large exploration into dualities. Many characters conceal their true self within them.
You can read my interview with the author here.

The Mothers – Brit Bennett
Coming-of-age stories have a way to connect with readers the way other plots might not be able to. Even though not everyone is a black teenage girl whose mother commits suicide, Bennett’s story is deeply touching. The debut author also created a unique structure by allowing the girl to tell the story as well as a chorus of churchgoers. This collective voice is a divisive technique that can make or break a novel. It made this one.

Mr. Splitfoot – Samantha Hunt
Hunt believes every story is a ghost story in one way or another. This gothic novel presents two different timelines that deal with ghosts, secrets, and hidden treasure. Years ago, Ruth survives a horrendous foster home where she meets Nat. They become best friends, and eventually they hustle people by claiming to be mediums who can talk to dead loved ones. Eventually, Ruth shows back up and locates her long-lost niece Cora. She’s mute now, but convinces her adult niece to walk across upstate New York on a life-altering course where fact and fiction blends and the ghosts of haunted past come crashing back to reality.
You can listen to my Internal Review podcast episode with the author here. You can read my interview with the author here.

News of the World – Paulette Jiles
A historical novel that tells a tried and true story that also avoids cliches is a hard novel to produce. Jiles does it in this post-Civil War tale about a war veteran, a freed slave, and a young orphan. Fans of True Grit will connect with the novel by Jiles, but will never be bored reading about these deeply developed characters who produce great empathy.

Nicotine – Nell Zink
The German-based author’s third novel is about a straight-laced business school graduate from a family of rebels. Circumstances find her in her family’s old home, which has been renamed “Nicotine” by a friendly group of anarchists. The book features Zink’s tremendous prose and sharp wit. It’s beautifully funny and poignant.
You can read my interview with the author here.

The Nix – Nathan Hill
When a presidential nominee gets attacked by his mother, a writer with writer’s block begins a journey of exploration and discovery. Hill’s sprawling debut has been likened to Johnathan Franzen based on its length (600+ pages) and content (family, politics, etc). His ambition is strong, and this novel is a good jumping off point for someone who clearly wants to be the next Great American Novelist.

The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan
This historically rich novel about an important thoroughbred family isn’t just a terrific sports novel. It transcends beyond a horse racing story and touches on themes ranging from racism and class status. Morgan’s lengthy novel offers multiple threads that are all strong by themselves but become a formidable novel once they intertwine.

Swing Time – Zadie Smith
A lot of readers have the opinion that Smith’s prose is polarizing. Some have said, “it’s a good novel, but don’t make it your first Zadie Smith.”  The thing to know about this writer is that she is working on so many different levels that you almost need to read her work twice to fully consume it. This novel is told from the perspective of an unnamed character and her friend Tracey and spans Smith’s native Northwest London to West Africa.

The Throwback Special – Chris Bachelder
Every autumn, 22 men get together to recreate the infamous NFL play where Lawrence Taylor snapped JoeTheismann’s leg in half. You’d be foolish to think this book is just about football, though. Bachelder’s sharp take on modern manhood. There is an undeniable comic charm to the writing in this National Book Award finalist that even anti-sports readers will enjoy.

Tuesday Nights in 1980 – Molly Prentiss
It’s about a three people – an artist, a critic, and a young woman new to New York City – in 1980. Each of the chapters takes place on a Tuesday night, but it doesn’t feel gimmicky at all. Her prose elevates Tuesday Nights incredibly so. That coupled with how interesting she presents the novel is why you need to read this book now.
You can read my interview with the author here.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
This winner of the National Book Award for Fiction is gruesome at times. Heartbreaking at others. Above all, it is moving and eye-opening. It’s a historical novel, but with reimagined facts. Most notably: an actual railroad. The functional metaphor drives two characters from slavery in the South to the hopeful freedom in the North. Whitehead’s novel was the most anticipated novel of the year, and it refused to relish title of “the best of” ever since it was published.

You Will Know Me – Megan Abbott
Abbott’s most recent effort proves that thrillers do not need to rely on outlandish twists and turns. The well-plotted story of a gymnast on the verge of stardom before tragedy strikes. It is a murder-mystery that is more than a whodunnit. You Will Know Me is, above all else, a story about a family. Readers of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You will enjoy this one, but should expect a darker plot.

What Belongs to You – Garth Greenwell
The first (of three) parts of this novel was a novella that Greenwell wanted to expand on. It’s about sex, passion, and what it means to be queer today. The book is a beautifully and erotic story about an American teacher in Bulgaria who meets and have a sex with a younger man in a bathroom. The most important thing about this book is how Greenwell writes about such a “taboo” topic. Even though it really shouldn’t be taboo anymore.
You can read my interview with the author here

What is Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi
Though this is the only collection of stories on this list filled with novels, it is no less impactful as any of the others comprising the list. Oyeyemi’s stories cross multiple eras and settings as they tease boundaries between coexisting realities. Keys and locks are a central theme that connect these transcendent stories.

Why We Came to the City – Kristopher Jansma
The author’s sister was diagnosed with cancer in the prime of her life and was taken rapidly and cruelly from the world. Jansma wrote a beautiful book loosely based on his experiences with that. He explores friendship, growing up, and dealing with death all too soon in this sophomore effort. Jansma’s book earnestly reveals how cancer truly affects friends and family and honors those who have been touched by this tragic malady.
You can read my interview with the author here

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