Welcome to the latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now, or how you’d like to be feeling instead.
I’ve been slowly easing myself back into work reading, which is always fun, but it also means I rarely get to choose my book by mood. These are the downsides of getting to read for a living: You might be craving something about complicated female friendships but instead find yourself frantically binge-reading a political thriller about a pandemic.
But you, gentle reader, are under no such obligation. You can choose to read whatever you see fit. And I’m here to make sure you find your way to the book that suits you best. Let’s go.
The recommendation requests below, submitted to me via email and on Twitter, have been edited for length and clarity.
I’m looking for a book about an adventure at sea, preferably something sci-fi or fantasy. It would be awesome if it’s queer as well, but it doesn’t have to be.
The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee is just what you need — pirates, magic, ace heroine exploring the question of whether she might be homoromantic, lots of adventure, and discussion of different modes of femininity. It’s technically a sequel, but it can stand on its own, and the banter is so much fun.
Since I can’t travel right now, I want to experience the world through my reading. In particular, I want a book that opens my eyes and changes the way I see the world.
Try Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, a semi-autobiographical debut novel from a genderqueer Nigerian author. The main character, Ada, is ogbanje, the term in Igbo cosmology for a child who holds an evil spirit in her body and is born to plague her mother by dying. The ogbanje narrates most of the book as Ada struggles with depression and her gender identity experience, and the voice Emezi creates for them is just electric.
I have found myself revisiting some of my old favorites from Dickens. I’d love an author that can introduce me to characters (dare I call them friends?) in our own age.
Donna Tartt is the author people usually call our modern-day Dickens, but I don’t know if she’s what you’re looking for; her characters are a little darker than Dickens’s usually are. Instead, you might like Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. It’s a multi-generational novel about a Korean family that immigrates to Japan just before World War II, and it heavily references both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. It’s a very rich book, with beautifully drawn and specific characters.
If I were looking for a crossroads of Kelly Link’s uncanny slipstream wit, Angela Carter’s delicious diction, and Boccaccio’s layered narratives, where would I turn?
Ooh, a tall order! You might like Helen Oyeyemi, who writes very elegant and twisty stories that often riff off folklore. I’d start with Mr. Fox for her, and then move to either Boy Snow Bird or the short stories in What Is Yours Is Not Yours. Also check out Carmen Maria Machado’s story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, which is very modern-day Angela Carter. Finally, try Mary Toft; Or, the Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer. It’s based on a true story about a woman in 18th-century England said to have given birth to a rabbit, and Kelly Link gave it a nice blurb.
Because life is so strange right now, I’ve found myself drawn to books in which ridiculous things happen, but the author tells it straight. I’m looking for books with manic, maybe delusional but nonetheless weirdly life-affirming energy, rather than the dark grimness we usually associate with absurdism.
Fun and tricky! Okay, let’s see what we can do here.
I think Nell Zink might be your girl, maybe starting with Nicotine. Zink has an extremely deadpan voice, and when ridiculous things happen in her books, she always tells it straight. Lincoln in the Bardo is not exactly absurdist, but it has elements of absurdism (a ghost with a permanent erection), and it’s got a lovely affirmational ending.
If you’d like me to recommend a book for you, email me at email@example.com with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!