Every two months, I’ll wrangle up ten of my favorite books that I’ve come across to recommend to friends and family (plus random internet strangers). These might range from books I think are the “best” to ones that just surprised me to authors I interviewed. Here are ten from January and February in the order that they were released.

A lot of people have been viewing all of pop culture – including literature – through the political lens of 2017. While it’s important to make these connections, it’s not always necessary. Remember, books are written years in advance. They’re purchased by publishers who pick a date in the future that they feel will be the best for sales. Some of the books on this list are easy targets when making connections to the new President Administration. Others are not. However, they all have something in common even if they don’t seem similar at all.

Some explore the past. The future. Some look at the fringe aspects of society. Some take place in America. Some don’t. All of the books explore the beautiful, as well as haunting, aspects of humanity. They all stand on their own and will still be seminal reading experiences they’re read during a more stable period.

January-February 2017

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

It’s easy for a psychological thriller to get lost in its own mystery. Some writers push plot twists down readers’ throats without worrying about much else. However, Emily Ruskovich’s debut is a high literary affair with lyrical prose and shifting perspectives that will leave a lasting impression on its readers. Idaho is set in…well, Idaho. It explores a family torn apart by the murder of a child while another disappears. Fans of Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek will experience a similar haunting feeling as these characters fall into the depths of despair. While the plot is extremely riveting, it is Ruskovich’s dedication to making her words leap off the page in a beautiful way that stands out. The juxtaposition of the horrors you’re reading and how breathtaking the prose makes this an early frontrunner for a future “Best Novels of 2017” list.

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

The new novel by Man Booker Prize-winner Aravind Adiga, is the perfect novel for the post-2016 Election world our new President has created. Instead of shunning diversity, we should be embracing it. Agida’s novel takes place in his native Mumbai and explores a young boy’s life and how it is consumed by cricket (a sport we Americans know nearly nothing about). It’s not a sports novel by any means, but instead a witty social commentary on a corner of the world that has often been perceived in a cartoonish way by Westerners. The fascinating realism the writer provides for the setting makes this coming-of-age novel a richness that readers should welcome with open arms.

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Read my interview with the author. 

The majority of fiction set in Maine is dominated by Stephen King. Every now and then an author chooses to set their writing in the vast wilderness of the Pine Tree State and truly captures the essence of the area. Erica Ferencik has done just that. Her new novel, The River at Night is a thriller about four women on a rafting trip that quickly turns into a nightmarish fight for survival. Ferencik’s writing moves as swiftly as the river the women find themselves on. The novel manages the kind of character development and probing of motivations that most books in the genre miss out on.

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead by Chanelle Benz

Read my interview with the author.

Finding a distinct voice is the first benchmark any great writer must accomplish. Chanelle Benz, author of The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead, has created more than just a voice to stand out from the crowd. She’s created ten.

The stories in Benz’ debut collection are told from perspectives ranging from an eighteenth-century slave to a baroque-style piece told in the collective We. The book begins with a non-traditional western that grabs the reader in close, then follows up with a contemporary story of family and violence that is just as gripping. It’s not just the wide-ranging eras and plots that make each story stand out; it’s the carefully-crafted voices. Benz is a trained actress who learned presentation is everything when it comes to captivating an audience and translated that skill into her writing.

Homesick for Another World by Otessa Moshfegh

Eileen, Otessa Moshfegh’s debut novel, was one of the best books from 2015. Even though this collection was highly anticipated, it somehow snuck up and surprised me. It’s filled with 14 bleak stories about offbeat loners, liars, and less-than-perfect people. The writer grip on these unsteady characters is stellar; she never makes a farce of their desires. Instead, she focuses on their deep desires and insecurities. Even though she pushes the boundaries with expectations, the’ fringeness of Moshfegh’s stories are reeled back in by the protagonists. Expect the unexpected, as cliche as that sounds.

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

Read my interview with the author. 

Kevin Wilson’s breakout novel, The Family Fang, earned him recognition in the literary world and also landed a film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman. Not bad for a second book. But it does add some pressure to the follow-up. Wilson spent years writing a story about a different kind of family. In Perfect Little World, he brought his sharp literary prose to a story with a plot that sounds like sci-fi: a commune where you live with your children, but they don’t know who their parents are. It’s clear that the author’s obsession with family is something he’ll continue to explore. Perfect Little World feels fresh every step of the way, at once breezy and thought-provoking.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Readers of John Darnielle’s first book, Wolf in White Van, know how… unique… Darnielle’s mind is. His ideas wander toward the fantastically weird. Universal Harvester is a horror novel set in rural Iowa. A video store employee starts finding peculiar footage on some of the VHS tapes. It feels like a story arc from the best season of The X-Files while feeling completely modern at the same time. There’s a challenge in explaining this book the same way it was difficult to sum up Wolf. The musician/author has a capability to turn off readers in the same sentence as enticing them three words later. He’s off-putting in the best way possible.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Talk about the book we need in Trump’s America. Nguyen’s stories focus on mostly Vietnamese refugees that take place from the 1970s through present day. Some stories take place in Vietnam; however, most of the stories take place in America. Nguyen taps into the daunting reality refugees faced in America, but balances the haunting trauma with the beautiful humanity extremely well.

None of the stories are necessarily autobiographical. They were influences by Nguyen’s own experiences as well as what happened to his friends and family. This is important because it is vital to remember whee refugees in American came from and what they accomplished. This is one of the most vital books released so far in 2017.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Read my interview with the author. 

George Saunders is already one of the most prolific writers of this generation. His short stories have captivated the world for two decades, since the release of his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, in 1996. In the years since, Saunders has published numerous books of prose, including the 2013 critical darling Tenth of December, but this year, we finally have his first full-length novel — Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s the type of book only a master craftsman like Saunders could pull off.

The story, which tracks President Abraham Lincoln on a visit to the grave of his recently deceased son, is narrated largely by ghosts in the cemetery. At 60,000 words, this isn’t a traditional novel by any means. Expect to be tested by the writer’s prose and style.

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

Read my interview with the author. 

Enriquez’ stories are vibrant depictions of her native Argentina, mostly Buenos Aires, as well as some ventures to surrounding countries. She fills the dozen stories with compelling characters in haunting stories that evaluate inequality, violence, and corruption. Characters range from social workers to street dwellers and even venture into dark magic users. With those characters, the author explores tourists in Argentina, the rich visiting the slums, plus so many more dynamic areas of her home country.

In December 2016, The New Yorker [http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/12/19/spiderweb] published “Spiderweb,” a story about a bad relationship growing more difficult. The story is a prime example of who Enriquez explores political themes as well as her penchant to focus on the horrors of life.

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