Recommending books can be a tricky endeavor. If someone comes away from Wuthering Heights flush with enjoyment and looking for more, do you suggest a gothic romance? A Brontë biography? Or do you hand her a walking guide to the moors? (Honestly, that walking guide would probably be amazing, but we understand your concern.)
Many readers are voracious, and it suits them. But if you've ever liked one element of a book only to keep running up against recommendations that don't seem to spark quite the same interest, the idea of selecting something to read based on its individual components takes on a certain charm. This sort of detective work carries a particular urgency during the holidays; you know your friend liked H Is for Hawk, but the particular motive eludes you, and you have to choose between a literary memoir and an overview of medieval hunts posthaste. (Those are good choices; you're an awesome friend.)
We've collected several major book releases from this year and used them as a starting point to recommend titles that reflect some of their best elements. It's almost impossible to map all the overlapping tastes that converge in a single book, but it's the kind of game where everybody comes out a winner.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
This Penguin Classics edition is technically a reissue, but since it's one of the seminal fantasy collections of our age, it belongs on any list.
The collection is British author Carter at the top of her powers, both as a mythologist and a writer. These retold fairy tales are equal parts elegant and brutal, often taking apart the same story in several sequential iterations, like the gothiest jazz riff of all time. There are two very different takes on "Beauty and the Beast," and the unforgettable title story, as lushly reimagined a "Bluebeard" as you could wish for. And though we know the underlying spine of her stories, that does nothing to dispel the mounting sense of unease her prose conjures, until you begin to feel as restless and angry as any of her heroines.
It's the kind of creepiness you want more of; if this is your first Carter, it most likely won't be your last. (In her introduction, short story writer Kelly Link talks about the magic of revisiting Carter's work, and she is correct.) Carter's stories have informed the genre indelibly; if you haven't read her, it's time to find out how much.
Image credit: Penguin Classics
If you liked this, see also:
White as Snow by Tanith Lee
Fairy tales don't come much darker than this no-holds-barred version of "Snow White." Renowned for her horror-tinged fantasy, Lee delivers a masterpiece in White as Snow, in which Queen Arpazia, driven half-mad with hatred for her violent, rapist warlord husband, nurses her supernatural talents and tries to forget her daughter Coira — except, of course, fate has other plans. The myth of Demeter and Persephone as well as Arthurian tensions between paganism and encroaching religions intertwine in the roots of the "Snow White" tale we already know, for a story that's as dark as you feared it could be, and as fascinating as you could wish.
Image credit: Tor Books
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi is no stranger to cutting up fairy tales with the ruthlessness of Bluebeard, before reassembling them into something fascinating but never quite the same. Mr. Fox, itself obsessed with Bluebeard, is a story about stories, which then give birth to other stories. A writer, his wife, and his creation vie for space on the pages — both Oyeyemi's and one another's. She offers a range of tales that pluck at themes of power and freedom, love and death, and — in a world where the otherworldly can creep up on almost anyone — how much power stories really have.
Image credit: Riverhead Books
Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies, translated by Moss Roberts
If you want an excuse to collect gorgeously illustrated fairy tales that span nearly 2,000 years, the book's Folio Society edition is a vivid accompaniment to this literary tradition. These tales shift comfortably among principles of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, while delivering stories that range from the sublimely wry ("An Unofficial History of the Confucian Academy" takes an empire to task) to the briskly mundane (the parable of "The Golden Toothpick" kills a maid and serves the wife some cold comeuppance in just four paragraphs). The book is available in a less lavish paperback edition, as well.
Image credit: Pantheon
Once Upon a Time by Marina Warner
Magic is arbitrary, cautions Warner in this examination of the fairy tale. Though that may sound like a warning, it becomes a promise. Fittingly, Once Upon a Time is written with such learned familiarity that it feels less like a scholarly study than like sitting at the heels of a master storyteller on a cold dark night. There's plenty of trope deconstruction here, but some of the most interesting material is about cultural influences, including how tales are shaped by geography, by feminism, by subversion, by design. It's an indispensable history of something that's been molded to belong to no one and everyone — arbitrary, but magic, too.
Image credit: Oxford University Press
The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg
Sjöberg's literary memoir ostensibly chronicles his years living on a small Swedish island — trying to make sense of life, as one does, except with much more in the way of biological classification of hoverflies than most of us encounter.
Don't worry — you won't be slogging through pages of fly taxonomy, though there are plenty of fascinating and macabre asides about flies and how to capture them. This book is more concerned with the ways in which the small strangenesses of life overlap with one another in direct proportion to your willingness to become lost in them.
The early impression Sjöberg presents is a self-aware, self-effacing curmudgeon of the old school. (Who could possibly be interested in an obsessive, selfish pursuit like entomology? "No sensible person ... or anyway no woman.") But within this spare prose rests unsparing observation: on the guilty pleasures of collecting animals; on the tug of the ego between people one despises and people one envies; on the breakdown of pride in the face of nature's indifference. Topics appear and recede, styled like returning waves on the shoreline. Malaise the flytrap builder becomes by turns a hero, an object of pity, and a partner in crime. And, of course, darting through the periphery of it all is the ultimate object of desire: the flies.
Image credit: Pantheon
If you liked this, see also:
Empire of the Ants by Bernard Werber
This pulpy science fiction novel is decidedly more interested in its ants than in its gormless, fragile humans — but given that the people in Empire of the Ants exist largely to prove a point about how unequipped we are for life compared with insect tenacity, that's probably on purpose. Screw the bipeds: This novel's heart is firmly in ant territory, which is rendered in the labyrinth of tunnels and some scientific underpinnings underneath the positively Dune-esque intrigue of the ant colony. And as the humans lurch through the barest understanding of the threats against them, the ants prepare for battle on a space-opera scale.
Image credit: Bantam
The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness by Kyung-sook Shin
Shin's dreamlike prose hides the sting in a sentence until it's too late. That skill is everywhere in her best-seller Please Look After Mom, which dwells on family members in the wake of a matriarch's disappearance. The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness similarly pulls no punches, deconstructing class and youth as ruthlessly as Please Look After Mom tackled motherhood. In the story within a story, the author of a novel very much like The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, who spent time as a factory worker and student, tries to reconcile a single pivotal loss in her past with a present that's left her equally adrift.
Image credit: Pegasus
Hayy Ibn Yaqzān by Ibn Tufayl
Paul Brönnle's introduction for the 1910 edition of this poetic story (released as part of an eyebrow-raising Wisdom of the East series of volumes) touts it as the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, but this 12th-century Arabic novel stands alone — just like its shipwrecked protagonist. A contemplative study of human nature, young Hayy constructs his own moral code, calculates the worth of animals, and determines the natural principles that govern heaven and earth; by the time he meets Asal and begins his journey among men, Ibn Tufayl has constructed such a primer of introspection that the rest of the world just seems to get in the way.
Image credit: University of Chicago Press
I Await the Devil's Coming by Mary MacLane
Every so often, a memoir's unvarnished immediacy feels as if it were handed to you in secret. Such is I Await the Devil's Coming, the remembrances of a teenage girl in Butte, Montana: well-read, self-aware, and intense. Too intense for some; it was retitled "The Story of Mary MacLane" by a publisher worried that lusting for the devil was a deterrent to sales. No need; the book catapulted MacLane to stardom after its 1902 publication. Her bisexuality, violent impulses, discontent, and devil pining made for a piece of gothic eroticism deeply tied to a teenage girl's desire for freedom. An electrifying read, then and now.
Image credit: Neversink
The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher
David Jaher's account of Scientific American's search for a genuine medium reads like a thriller and has the bibliographic weight of a Ken Burns documentary. He deftly reconstructs the post–World War I cultural landscape that made America and Europe ripe for spiritualism — a divisive psuedo-religion that included the ability to pass through the veil and contact the dead. Detractors shouted down spiritualism for being exploitative, but for families devastated by war, spiritualism was enticing. It even gathered marquee advocates like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who kept claiming magician Harry Houdini had supernatural powers amid Houdini's increasingly hilarious insistence that he didn't.
With the optimistic skepticism of the times, Scientific American agreed that if a medium could pass its rigorous scientific tests, the publication would accept it as scientific proof of an afterlife. Jaher starts plucking at the tale's uneasy strings when he introduces Mina Crandon, a Boston society wife, and describes the shockingly powerful séances that eventually drew the interest of the magazine — and, at last, superskeptic Houdini himself.
Tackling issues of class and cultural prejudice with a flair for dread, Jaher offers a snapshot of the cultural pressures behind the showdown, with enough style to leave a few unsettling questions unanswered.
Image credit: Crown
If you liked this, see also:
Angels & Insects by A.S. Byatt
The two novellas in this volume are only thinly connected by plot, but they're thematic mirrors, each obsessed with the Victorians' obsessions. In addition to the text-within-a-text that subtly comments on the Victorians' stylistic (and moralistic) tendencies, Angels & Insects focuses on extremes of the 19th-century cultural spectrum: biological sciences on one end, spiritualism on the other. Byatt's prose holds the overripe-fruit feeling of Victorian excess, undercut with sharp beats of dark humor. The mystery is saved all for the novella "Morpho Eugenia," but the séance at the center of "The Conjugal Angel" is as charming a fraud as you're likely to find.
Image credit: Vintage
The Perfect Medium, Metropolitan Museum of Art
This book is slightly oddball; in 2005, the Met Museum held an exhibit of spirit photography from the 1850s through the 1920s, and this is the catalog you can take with you as evidence that you can always find someone gullible enough to believe anything you want. (Insert your own Photoshop joke here). But this art-heavy book doesn't shy away from the melancholy beneath what now seem like quaint novelties no one could ever have taken seriously. Families in the wake of war and disease were desperately looking for closure; this book is evidence of a yearning that captured the public imagination for decades.
Image credit: Yale University Press
The Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell
You might assume there's serious gossip in a book that introduces Houdini as "the prince among professional deceivers." But J.C. Cannell loves his subject, combining a posthumous stage biography with Houdini's catalog of tricks — debunked with a thoroughness that suggests he had inside knowledge (a mystery of its own, since the book was published in 1926). If you're worried about pulling back the veil, don't be; having Houdini's escapes and tricks explained does nothing to dull their sparkle. Whether it's handcuff tricks, conjuring ghosts, or making elephants disappear, this trove of secrets reveals the fascinating work behind the magic.
Image credit: Dover Publications
Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician by John Patrick Deveney
Sometimes a book is just what it says on the tin. This exhaustive biography painstakingly reveals Randolph as a fascinating figure. He was a world traveler who borrowed liberally from foreign traditions in building his occult vocabulary. He once claimed he could have overcome paralysis except for the hardship of emotional agita with a "woman at the bottom of it." And he was a cutting orator who decried the hypocrisy of Northern racism, academic institutions, and "free love" advocates whose only interest was "buxom damsels." It's a glimpse at an obscure historical figure you'll probably want to start telling people about.
Image credit: State University of New York Press
Crimson Peak: The Art of Darkness by Mark Salisbury
Crimson Peak — a gothic romance so earnestly in love with its genre that audiences didn't know what to make of it — is one of the best-looking movies of the year, and rejuvenated the evergreen genre with director Guillermo del Toro's signature subversive stamp. And given the level of production design in the film, the biggest crime of Crimson Peak: The Art of Darkness is that it isn't longer.
Full of sketches and interviews with designers and actors, it's a loving behind-the-scenes glimpse of Crimson Peak's lush production design and painstaking character work that will deepen your appreciation of the texture in every frame. (Sadly, those interviews won't give you much insight beyond the thought that del Toro's sets seem like playgrounds for those on them.)
There are even occasional interactive afterthoughts, almost Victorian in their excess. A detachable copy of the main character's father's business card to carry with you? Sure! Hand it to the mysterious impoverished gentry in your life.
Image credit: Insight Editions
If you liked this, see also:
Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
This modern gothic presents the obligatory house of secrets nestled amid unknowable natural (perhaps even supernatural) forces, scraping alongside the distinctly modern invention of a band taking over the whole estate to wring out an album. Wylding Hall's dread builds within the reminiscences of the band and those who came into their orbit that golden summer, with nostalgia itself a supernatural force. But with hidden tunnels, strange sounds at the windows, and a song that no one can explain, the house — as we surely know — is bound to win. Brisk and unsettling, with a format and a cast of characters that are movie-ready (just saying).
Image credit: PS Publishing
Sense and Sensibility: The Screenplay and Diaries by Emma Thompson
Emma Thompson's diary of filming 1995's Sense and Sensibility (for which her screenplay won an Oscar) feels like the sort of thing that got published before anyone realized what they had done — which means it's as illuminating as you could hope. (All you may ever need to know about actress Harriet Walter, for instance, is that when Thompson stumbled home drunk and self-pitying, Walter's advice was to throw up.) Thompson's account — by turns acerbic and loving — reads like the best possible combination of a DVD commentary and a really drunk lunch, and gives more of the flavor of actually making a movie than any book of circumspect essays could.
Image credit: Newmarket Press
Eiko on Stage by Eiko Ishioka
Eiko Ishioka is a visionary costume designer whose work straddles the line between character shortcuts and movable art. Over the top and intricate, her designs for everything from opera to the Olympics have become iconic. She even won an Oscar for her work on Bram Stoker's Dracula. Eiko on Stage delivers some of her early greatest hits of film and theater, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the creative process spaced between breathtaking shots of the finished product. As it was published in 2000, it's unfortunately incomplete — some of her most amazing work was for director Tarsem Singh and the 2008 Olympics — but if you're looking for costume genius, here's a start.
Image credit: Callaway
Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities by Guillermo del Toro (with Marc Zicree)
Cabinet of Curiosities' third-person sections can, at times, read like someone vociferously assuring you that you are just going to love their cool collector friend. But as it turns out, you kind of do when the collection is this impressive. This compilation of Guillermo del Toro's sketchbooks also offers glimpses into his often macabre, seemingly endless collection of oddities and pop culture memorabilia. It's notable as much for its openness as for the truly fascinating specifics inside. Del Toro's boundless enthusiasm is perfectly captured in pages that overflow with sketches and notes; the book even includes a look at his projects that haven't been made.
Image credit: Harper Design
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
The hardcover came out in 2014, but based on the gangbuster sales of 2015's paperback edition, the world just can't get enough Wonder Woman1.
Wonder Woman is a DC Comics character, though Secret History is not published by DC. I have written DC's Catwoman title and am currently working on its Batman Eternal.
Even her brief, wordless appearance in the Batman v. Superman trailer was the runaway hit on social media — impressive in a trailer that features Batman breaking character to tote a gun.
That only reinforces how iconic a character she's become. And in Lepore's meticulously researched history, which delves into the life of creator William Moulton Marston, we handily understand that this sort of ubiquity is just what Marston would have wanted. Marston was a self-proclaimed feminist who lived in an unconventional relationship with two women — a household dynamic that Lepore suggests was fairly rocky. He designed Wonder Woman specifically as a symbol of women's capacity to rule, breaking the chains of the patriarchy (which hovered somewhere between bondage fantasy and thankless job, given how often she got tied up).
But any ambivalence from Lepore is bolstered by research on the shape of the title both during his tenure and in the increasingly commercial time after. Wonder Woman is a figure for the ages; Secret History is a fascinating account of the family that made her, the corporate politics that shaped her, and the feminism that's both altered and defined her.
Image credit: Vintage
If you liked this, see also:
Red Girls by Kazuki Sakuraba
Were you looking for a novel about three generations of women that involves supernatural powers, murder, girl gangs, and manga? You probably are now. Award-winning author Sakuraba laces Red Girls with crisp prose (translated by Jocelyne Allen) and pop culture touchstones — the clairvoyant matriarch whose visions in a postwar Japan are both empowering and terrifying; her daughter, consumed with drawing a manga that echoes her biker-gang youth. The mysteries they suggest and the emotional wounds they leave behind fall to a young girl named Toko to sort out, though the past is always biting the heels of the future2.
I contributed a story to Hanzai Japan, an anthology from Red Girls publisher Haikasoru.
Image credit: Haikasoru
Nelvana of the Northern Lights by Adrian Dingle
Nelvana, an Inuit superheroine, first appeared in 1941 — just before Wonder Woman — and this compilation is proof of the importance of preserving comics: Their pop culture impact and legacy are endlessly compelling. Nelvana has several problems of its time (Japanese troops reach Captain America–level racial caricature, and Nelvana's own people regress to stereotypes at a moment's notice), but there's also depth to her pulp adventures; the Inuit try to operate within racist strictures, Canada's at the front lines of war, and Nelvana's a fierce warrior whose alter ego is a spy. Of its time in awkward ways? You bet. Fun? Definitely.
Image credit: IDW Publishing
The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders
It might seem strange, even macabre, to claim murder as a pop culture obsession. Then again, the crime drama is one of the most popular dramatic formats going, in comics and everywhere else; it's a story we instantly understand. Flanders shows us how we got here by tracking the rise of the modern murder among the Victorians. She's careful not to let irony tip into callousness as she charts their endless appetite for the sickly fascinating: sensational journalism, urbanization, cheap thrills, xenophobia, the development of forensic science, and the increasing organization of the police force. It leached into Victorian literature in a way pop culture never shook, and if you feel yourself captivated by the details of these long-ago, formative crimes — well, that's a little Victorian, too.
Image credit: St. Martin's Griffin
Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes by Adilifu Nama
From Green Lantern to Blade, Nama offers up an academic study of comic book cultural history and its portrayal of black characters, reflecting contemporary politics and pop culture. To no one's surprise, there's plenty to criticize, and Nama points out that even well-meaning portrayals can hit problems with tokenism in the absence of varied representations — symbolism before personhood. But this thoughtful breakdown is a keen reminder of the power of comics to tell complex stories, complete with white superheroes facing their own racism, superpowered metaphors about prejudiced institutions, and faceted characters that have entered their own pop culture pantheon.
Image credit: University of Texas Press
Genevieve Valentine's most recent novel is Persona. She also writes for the DC Comics title Batman Eternal. Her work has also appeared in NPR, The AV Club, and io9.
In moments like this — as people grapple to understand variants and vaccines, and kids head back to school — many outlets take their paywalls down. Vox’s content is always free, in part because of financial support from our readers. We’ve been covering the Covid-19 pandemic for more than a year and a half. From the beginning, our goal was to bring clarity to chaos. To empower people with the information they needed to stay safe. And we’re not stopping.
To our delight, you, our readers, helped us hit our goal of adding 2,500 financial contributions in September in just 9 days. So we’re setting a new goal: to add 4,500 contributions by the end of the month. Reader support helps keep our coverage free, and is a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. Will you help us reach our goal by making a contribution to Vox with as little as $3?