by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)
Happy New Year! As we head into the new year, I've enjoyed reflecting on my reading, and something I've thought about a lot is how I choose my books. Like many book lovers, my TBR shelves (both physical and virtual ones) are certainly overflowing, and I am never at a loss for something to read. However, I have found that despite being surrounded by book recommendations, I am often just randomly selecting my next book when it comes time to start a new one. While I’m not big on resolutions, I am taking this new year as a chance to think more intentionally about ways that I can select my books from the endless TBR stack.
In the last few years (since March 2020 especially!), I have tended to gravitate toward light, easy reads when it comes time to actually pick a book. But my recent reading of Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts, which I found deeply impactful, reminded me that while some books tear at our hearts (as they should), they are also moving and lasting and powerful in a way that stands apart from the lighter reads.
And while I've loved many of those books I’ve read recently, I also want to ensure that I’m incorporating some heavier, more impactful books (and more literary fiction!) into my reading selections. With that intention in mind, here are twelve books I’d love to read this year. Here are a few notes about this list.
The books are listed in alphabetical order by author's last name (not in chronological order). I did choose twelve for the twelve months but don't intend to necessarily read one per month as I've found that system doesn't work particularly well for me. I will say that as I write this, I have easy access to my Libro.fm ALC library (which is full of AMAZING books!), but my physical books are still packed up from our latest move, so this list is subject to change as I get those out and prioritize reading some of them. Finally, I wanted to include the publisher's synopsis in case you're interested in knowing more about them, but those synopses were clunky, so they are included and numbered below the first list.
Twelve TBR Goal Books for 2023
1. Octavia Butler's Kindred (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm): As soon as I heard Jen describe this one, which she shared about on a couple of episodes in 2022 (when she was reading it for her bookish check-in on episode 227, and again as part of her Unabridged Awards for 2022 on episode 243, I knew that I needed to read this right away! I have this one languishing in my Kindle library, so I plan to read it soon.
2. Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Woman of Light (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm): I've heard such great things about this recent release, and the audiobook sounds amazing. I've been wanting to read more historical fiction and am so interested in the description of the protagonist Luz, whose visions guide her toward her Indigenous homeland.
3. Jas Hammond’s We Deserve Monuments (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm): I needed (and wanted!) a YA lit pick on the list, and this recent release sounds phenomenal. This one promises to explore the complicated racial dynamics within the southern US, and the description as a mystery combined with a romance certainly piques my interest.
4. N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm): I am sad to admit that I haven't read any of Jemisin's work yet, and this year that must change! I am eager to read so much of Jemisin's collection, and I figure this one, which is the first in The Broken Earth series, is a good place to start.
5. R. F. Kuang’s Babel (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm): I haven't read ANY of R. F. Kuang's books yet, and I'm eager to read The Poppy Wars trilogy but am very intimidated by the combined length. I've heard so many great things about Babel and can't wait to dive into that one.
6. Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm): Thanks to Libro.fm's ALC program, I now have access to this book as well as the brand new companion Stella Maris, and I'm so eager to get back to McCarthy's work. I've loved everything I've read by him but still have books of his I haven't read yet, so I want to work my way through that backlist as well.
7. Chibundu Onuzo’s Sankofa (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm): I have wanted to read this one since I first saw it come across the pub date shout-out information. This story promises to explore the rich complexities of culture and heritage and the ways that shapes us as individuals, and I'm intrigued by all of that.
8. Dani Shapiro's Signal Fires (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm): I have yet to read any of Shapiro's books, and this one sounds like a great place to start. (Don't miss Jen's recent review of this one, which is the main thing that added it to my list!)
9. Clint Smith's Counting Descent (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm): Jen recommended this one to me, and I am eager to read it after hearing her describe it. I didn't read much poetry in 2022 and would like to rectify that in 2023. I haven't read How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America yet, which is also on my list, and I can't wait to dive into Clint Smith's work.
10. Miriam Toews' Women Talking (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm): This one has been on my physical shelf for far too long and has been quietly waiting a turn on my TBR stack. I've heard amazing things about this book and see that it isn't super long, so I'm ready to dive in to see for myself how it is.
11. Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm): Whitehead is another author I have not yet read but whose work am eager to start reading, and I have this one on my Kindle already, so it seems like a good place to start.
12. Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm): This one has been all over the book world, and most reviews say it's well worth all of the hype. I'm also a sucker for titles with allusions, so there's that as well. Jen talked about this one as one of her favorites of 2022 on this Bookish Fave, which made me even more intrigued.
Well, friends, that rounds out my list. I have been debating since I made it about others to include -- there are so many great contenders, and there are many I'm overlooking! -- but I'm going to start with these. As promised, I've included the publisher's blurbs in numerical order below. Be sure to let us know which books you're hoping to make time for this year in the comments below or on social media.
Publisher's Synopses of the Twelve Selections
1. Publisher's Synopsis of Octavia Butler's Kindred: “ 'I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.'
"Dana’s torment begins when she suddenly vanishes on her 26th birthday from California, 1976, and is dragged through time to antebellum Maryland to rescue a boy named Rufus, heir to a slaveowner’s plantation. She soon realizes the purpose of her summons to the past: protect Rufus to ensure his assault of her Black ancestor so that she may one day be born. As she endures the traumas of slavery and the soul-crushing normalization of savagery, Dana fights to keep her autonomy and return to the present.
"Blazing the trail for neo-slavery narratives like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer, Butler takes one of speculative fiction’s oldest tropes and infuses it with lasting depth and power. Dana not only experiences the cruelties of slavery on her skin but also grimly learns to accept it as a condition of her own existence in the present. 'Where stories about American slavery are often gratuitous, reducing its horror to explicit violence and brutality, Kindred is controlled and precise' (New York Times)."
2. Publisher's Synopsis of Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Woman of Light: "There is one every generation, a seer who keeps the stories.
"Luz 'Little Light' Lopez, a tea leaf reader and laundress, is left to fend for herself after her older brother, Diego, a snake charmer and factory worker, is run out of town by a violent white mob. As Luz navigates 1930s Denver, she begins to have visions that transport her to her Indigenous homeland in the nearby Lost Territory. Luz recollects her ancestors’ origins, how her family flourished, and how they were threatened. She bears witness to the sinister forces that have devastated her people and their homelands for generations. In the end, it is up to Luz to save her family stories from disappearing into oblivion.
"Written in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s singular voice, the wildly entertaining and complex lives of the Lopez family fill the pages of this multigenerational western saga. Woman of Light is a transfixing novel about survival, family secrets, and love—filled with an unforgettable cast of characters, all of whom are just as special, memorable, and complicated as our beloved heroine, Luz."
3. Publisher's Synopsis of We Deserve Monuments: "Family secrets, a swoon-worthy romance, and a slow-burn mystery collide in We Deserve Monuments, a YA debut from Jas Hammonds that explores how racial violence can ripple down through generations.
"What's more important: Knowing the truth or keeping the peace?
"Seventeen-year-old Avery Anderson is convinced her senior year is ruined when she's uprooted from her life in DC and forced into the hostile home of her terminally ill grandmother, Mama Letty. The tension between Avery's mom and Mama Letty makes for a frosty arrival and unearths past drama they refuse to talk about. Every time Avery tries to look deeper, she's turned away, leaving her desperate to learn the secrets that split her family in two.
"While tempers flare in her avoidant family, Avery finds friendship in unexpected places: in Simone Cole, her captivating next-door neighbor, and Jade Oliver, daughter of the town's most prominent family--whose mother's murder remains unsolved.
As the three girls grow closer--Avery and Simone's friendship blossoming into romance--the sharp-edged opinions of their small southern town begin to hint at something insidious underneath. The racist history of Bardell, Georgia is rooted in Avery's family in ways she can't even imagine. With Mama Letty's health dwindling every day, Avery must decide if digging for the truth is worth toppling the delicate relationships she's built in Bardell--or if some things are better left buried."
4. Publisher's Synopsis of N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season: "This is the way the world ends. . .for the last time.
"It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world's sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.
"This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy."
5. Publisher's Synopsis of R. F. Kuang’s Babel: "Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
"1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel.
"Babel is the world's center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.
"For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide…
"Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?"
6. Publisher's Synopsis of Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger: "1980, PASS CHRISTIAN, MISSISSIPPI: It is three in the morning when Bobby Western zips the jacket of his wet suit and plunges from the Coast Guard tender into darkness. His dive light illuminates the sunken jet, nine bodies still buckled in their seats, hair floating, eyes devoid of speculation. Missing from the crash site are the pilot’s flight bag, the plane’s black box, and the tenth passenger. But how? A collateral witness to machinations that can only bring him harm, Western is shadowed in body and spirit—by men with badges; by the ghost of his father, inventor of the bomb that melted glass and flesh in Hiroshima; and by his sister, the love and ruin of his soul.
"Traversing the American South, from the garrulous barrooms of New Orleans to an abandoned oil rig off the Florida coast, The Passenger is a breathtaking novel of morality and science, the legacy of sin, and the madness that is human consciousness."
7. Publisher's Synopsis of Chibundu Onuzo’s Sankofa: "Anna is at a stage of her life when she's beginning to wonder who she really is. In her 40s, she has separated from her husband, her daughter is all grown up, and her mother—the only parent who raised her—is dead.
"Searching through her mother's belongings one day, Anna finds clues about the African father she never knew. His student diaries chronicle his involvement in radical politics in 1970s London. Anna discovers that he eventually became the president—some would say dictator—of a small nation in West Africa. And he is still alive...
"When Anna decides to track her father down, a journey begins that is disarmingly moving, funny, and fascinating. Like the metaphorical bird that gives the novel its name, Sankofa expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present to address universal questions of race and belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for a family's hidden roots.
"Examining freedom, prejudice, and personal and public inheritance, Sankofa is a story for anyone who has ever gone looking for a clear identity or home, and found something more complex in its place."
8. Publisher's Synopsis of Dani Shapiro's Signal Fires: "Signal Fires opens on a summer night in 1985. Three teenagers have been drinking. One of them gets behind the wheel of a car, and, in an instant, everything on Division Street changes. Each of their lives, and that of Ben Wilf, a young doctor who arrives on the scene, is shattered. For the Wilf family, the circumstances of that fatal accident will become the deepest kind of secret, one so dangerous it can never be spoken.
"On Division Street, time has moved on. When the Shenkmans arrive—a young couple expecting a baby boy—it is as if the accident never happened. But when Waldo, the Shenkmans’ brilliant, lonely son who marvels at the beauty of the world and has a native ability to find connections in everything, befriends Dr. Wilf, now retired and struggling with his wife’s decline, past events come hurtling back in ways no one could ever have foreseen.
"In Dani Shapiro’s first work of fiction in fifteen years, she returns to the form that launched her career, with a riveting, deeply felt novel that examines the ties that bind families together—and the secrets that can break them apart. Signal Fires is a work of haunting beauty by a masterly storyteller."
9. Publisher's Synopsis of Clint Smith's Counting Descent: "Clint Smith's debut poetry collection, Counting Descent, is a coming of age story that seeks to complicate our conception of lineage and tradition.
'Do you know what it means for your existence to be defined by someone else's intentions?'
"Smith explores the cognitive dissonance that results from belonging to a community that unapologetically celebrates black humanity while living in a world that often renders blackness a caricature of fear. His poems move fluidly across personal and political histories, all the while reflecting on the social construction of our lived experiences. Smith brings the reader on a powerful journey forcing us to reflect on all that we learn growing up, and all that we seek to unlearn moving forward."
10. Publisher's Synopsis of Miriam Toews' Women Talking: "One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.
"While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women-all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in-have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they've ever known or should they dare to escape?
"Based on real events and told through the 'minutes' of the women's all-female symposium, Toews's masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of women claiming their own power to decide."
11. Publisher's Synopsis of Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys: "When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.
"Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers and 'should further cement Whitehead as one of his generation's best' (Entertainment Weekly)."
12. Publisher's Synopsis of Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow: "On a bitter-cold day, in the December of his junior year at Harvard, Sam Masur exits a subway car and sees, amid the hordes of people waiting on the platform, Sadie Green. He calls her name. For a moment, she pretends she hasn’t heard him, but then, she turns, and a game begins: a legendary collaboration that will launch them to stardom. These friends, intimates since childhood, borrow money, beg favors, and, before even graduating college, they have created their first blockbuster, Ichigo. Overnight, the world is theirs. Not even twenty-five years old, Sam and Sadie are brilliant, successful, and rich, but these qualities won’t protect them from their own creative ambitions or the betrayals of their hearts.
"Spanning thirty years, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Venice Beach, California, and lands in between and far beyond, Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a dazzling and intricately imagined novel that examines the multifarious nature of identity, disability, failure, the redemptive possibilities in play, and above all, our need to connect: to be loved and to love. Yes, it is a love story, but it is not one you have read before."
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