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.
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Now let’s get started.
I’m 19 years old and I’m lost. Like totally lost. I lost the love of my life a year ago and still can’t get over that. I’m lost, confused, don’t know what to do with myself. Everything is falling apart. I need a way out, I’m tired of being like this. Please suggest me a book that can help me through this rough time.
I think you need a book that brings joy to your life, so I’m going to recommend P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories. They’re early 20th-century novels about a hapless young man about town who is constantly getting rescued by his valet, and they’re some of the funniest books ever written. I hope they help you feel better!
I’m a newly minted public defender and I’m wondering if you have any recommendations for work about humans navigating the criminal justice system or just generally the population I work with. I’m looking for narrative-driven books that are still nuanced and well-observed, basically not sensational or bang-you-over-the-head preachy in style. Fiction or nonfiction welcome.
Congrats on your new job! American Prison by Shane Bauer is probably a good option for you in the nonfiction spectrum — it’s by an investigative reporter who got an entry-level job as a guard in a private prison, with lots of history of how the for-profit prison industry came together.
For fiction, you might try American Marriage by Tayari Jones. It’s about a young Black couple who find themselves upended when the husband is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, and the story traces how what comes next ends up shaping their lives. It’s a really nuanced and thoughtful book that won a million awards when it came out in 2018, and it’s especially trenchant on the responsibilities forced on to the families of incarcerated people.
My friend and I are looking for some books to read that are not new, as we get them from the library. We are looking for books that take place in the summer that are light and fun. My friend puts it as “something with a Wonder Years feel.”
Last summer’s release We’re All Adults Here is a really lovely and nostalgic summer read that takes place in a small village on the Hudson, and I think it has the vibe you’re looking for. For something a little older, an undying summer classic is Judy Blume’s adult novel Summer Sisters. It’s about two girls who are best friends as teens and then start to grow apart as they grow up, and reading it just feels like you’re sitting in a beach house rental that has kind of a weird smell (Judy Blume is committed to the physical reality of adolescence, odors and all), you just ate lunch, and you’re counting down the minutes until you can go jump in the water again.
I’m a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro, especially The Remains of the Day. The storyline is important, but it is the ambience that is so entrancing, sort of like an impressionist painting. Any recommendations?
Love an Ishiguro request! I think you might like Helen Oyeyemi. She writes very beautiful, very eerie novels, often built out of a mishmash of references that come together to create a fragmented portrait of a mind. Her latest, Peaces, is so bizarre that as I came out of it I thought, “Oh, I think she’s hit her Unconsoled phase.” Which means we’re just 10 years out from her Never Let Me Go phase!
I’m looking for a book like The Secret History by Donna Tartt. It’s one of my favorite books of all time — everyone I know who has read it loves it as well. So I want to read something that’s in a similar mold: really well-written, intriguing, mysterious, centered on young people, maybe (but not necessarily) with a death or murder.
Ha, this is one of my most frequent requests. Here are a few different directions you can go:
- Basically The Secret History but the serial numbers are filed off: If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio; The Likeness by Tana French. If you only read one of these make it The Likeness: French has her own murder mystery style going on, but If We Were Villains is so close to The Secret History that it can feel a little disorienting, like, why am I not just reading The Secret History?
- Still dark academia with a similar vibe, but also there is magic: Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. Tam Lin is a little bit nerdier, Ninth House a little bit sexier.
- In general for gothics with young people and beautiful writing, go forth and seek out Joyce Carol Oates (bad at Twitter, good at novels), Gillian Flynn (more than just Gone Girl!), and Shirley Jackson.
If you’d like me to recommend a book for you, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!