It’s been an incredible year for books! With fantastic work from debut authors like Haley Jakobson, J.K. Chukwu, Matthew Desmond, and Liv Little, readers have had a sweet, diverse, and rich selection to choose from. With the New Year afoot, I gift my literary year in review with the top 10 books I’ve read so far! And though we may be starting the Jewish New Year early, I am sure there will be more illuminating books to come by the time the ball drops in 2024.
Endpapers by Jennifer Savran Kelly
Endpapers is a great reminder that not every protagonist needs to be likeable for the book to be good. The story takes place in 2003 and follows Dawn, a bookbinder, who is struggling with her gender identity and relationship. When Dawn finds a hidden lesbian love letter at work, she goes on a journey to find the author and in the process explores queer history, Judaism, and the history of bookbinding. The best thing this book does, outside of a beautiful dvar Torah, which echoes through the story, is show the importance of learning from our ancestors and preserving queer Jewish history.
A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them by Timothy Egan
For any non-fiction fans, this historical look at the rise and fall of the KKK in Indiana during the early 20th century is a must-read. As leaders of the movement became more powerful—with allies in politics, the judicial system, and police departments across the country—one woman’s horrible assault by a key leader became the testimony that took him down. There are moments in this book that are eerily similar to events occurring in today’s social and political climates, making the text a critical read. Well-researched and compelling, this is a story that deserves to be remembered.
The Postcard by Anne Berest, translated by Tina Kover
This autofiction novel is based on the true story of Berest’s family, who received a postcard in 2003 with the names of their family members killed during the Holocaust. At the time, Berest was not very connected to her Jewish background but this postcard becomes a mystery that she sets out to solve with her mother. Along the way, she reevaluates her relationship with her Jewish identity, while also giving insight into what it’s like to be a Jew in modern France. A sweeping, tragic, but ultimately hopeful look at a family, their secrets, and the things we shouldn’t keep buried.
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
A must read for anyone who is vaguely interested in the complexities of the prison industrial complex in the United States. This book takes place in a near-future America where prisoners are given the option to fight to the death in a stadium on a chain gang in exchange for release after three years, but only if they survive. For those who are in solitary confinement, have been tortured, or have become suicidal, this is a horrible but attractive deal. The story follows several different prisoners as they fight their way to freedom, a promise that never seems attainable. The way the prisoners are reduced to objects for entertainment is painted with an honesty and rawness that will make you rethink the ethics of incarceration and the way we consume media and viral content.
We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America by Roxanna Asgarian
In March 2018, a white lesbian couple, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, drove their SUV off a cliff in Mendocino County, California, causing the deaths of both parents as well as their six adopted Black children. A lot has been said about the terrible story of the Hart family and their fatal car crash, including a popular podcast highlighting the family leading up to the accident. However, Asgarian’s book focuses less on Jennifer and Sarah, and more on the children they adopted, as well as the birth families of those children. Asgarian highlights the corruption and neglect throughout the child welfare system, particularly in Texas, the children’s birth state. A scathing indictment of an institution resistant to facing its discriminatory practices.
All-Night Pharmacy by Ruth Madievsky
This book explores the beautiful journey of a queer Jewish woman finding herself despite intergenerational trauma, toxic family dynamics, and addiction. We follow an unnamed narrator as she spends her nights with her sister, Debbie, at a dive bar in Los Angeles. They buys and sells pills, and take increasingly concerning risks, such as drive around town with strange intoxicated men they met while high at the dive bar. Their relationship is compounded by addiction and their respective traumas. When Debbie disappears one night, our narrator decides it’s time to break away and try to create her own life. This becomes a poignant tale of how to start fresh in the face of trauma and gather the courage to become your own person outside of family or societal expectations.
Warrior Girl Unearthed by Angeline Boulley
This is a much-anticipated follow-up to Boulley’s first book, Firekeeper’s Daughter, and thankfully, it lives up to the hype. Warrior Girl Unearthed follows Perry Firekeeper-Birch, a biracial girl living on Sugar Island with her parents and twin sister, Pauline. When Perry is forced to get an internship with the Ojibwe Tribe, she discovers the dark history of Indigenous anthropology, stolen artifacts, and the biased nature of the laws supposedly instituted to repatriate items to their tribes. Along the way, we see the impact of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two Spirit (MMIWG2S) crisis, something that ends up hitting Perry very personally. This young adult novel ends with a nicely wrapped up plot (almost too nicely), but it has more than enough complexity to appeal to any adult reader interested in learning more about the theft and repatriation of Indigenous artifacts and bodies.
Every Drop is a Man’s Nightmare by Megan Kamalei Kakimoto
Short story collections can be hit or miss for me, but this one was a hit. Kakimoto has written a singular collection of diverse stories illustrating the lives of Hawaiian women and girls of different backgrounds. These tales are speculative and occasionally grotesque, including graphic descriptions of bodily functions and mythical creatures emerging from dark crevices, but always sympathetic toward the characters. The main thread between several stories are the cultural and religious traditions of the Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians). Kakimoto also shows how these traditions have become common among locals that are not Kānaka Maoli. This collection is a beautifully written and insightful look at what it means to be a Hawaiian local, with an emphasis on the female experience.
Death Valley by Melissa Broder (Out October 3, 2023)
Broder is one of my all-time favourite authors, and I was eagerly awaiting her newest novel, Death Valley. More than any of her other works, the unnamed protagonist of Death Valley seems most similar to Broder. Broder recently lost her father and the protagonist’s father is ill. The fictional character is also an author whose husband is chronically ill. Struggling with grief and stress, she takes a road trip to the desert and is suddenly thrust into a vaguely psychedelic survival story when she gets lost in the wilderness on a hike. While trying to survive, she ruminates on mortality, life after death, chronic illness, and the relationship of a parent to child, with Torah references speckled throughout. Another delightfully weird and so very Jewish book from Melissa Broder.
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
For any historical fiction fans, this new novel by National Book Award-winning McBride is set in mid-century Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in a neighbourhood called Chicken Hill. The residents are predominantly Black and Jewish and they don’t trust each other or socialize much across community lines, with the exception of Chona and her husband, Moshe, who open their store and theatre to both communities. But when the state tries to institutionalize a young Deaf Black boy, the town mobilizes to protect him, finding common ground as they go. This story feels like a cozy night in with loved ones and leaves you with a promise that the world can be a better and kinder place than we give it credit for.
Canadian Authors Highlight:
We Meant Well by Erum Shazia Hasan
This debut novel from Hasan delves into her employment in international aid work and all the conflicts and hypocrisies that come with being a westerner in developing communities. Maya, our American protagonist, is called back to Likanni, a fictional town in an unnamed country that was a former French colony. Hasan has managed to capture the tension of being a foreigner in a developing country, ostensibly to “help,” but quickly realizes that the systems in place prevent anyone from affecting real change. With a flawed protagonist stuck in a privileged, western viewpoint, this makes an otherwise simple concept more complex at every turn.
The Fake by Zoe Whittall
As much of the media in the past couple of years has shown, we all love a scam story (such as Inventing Anna about Anna Delvey and The Dropout about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos), and Whittall’s short book is a nuanced look at an industrious scammer. Set in Canada, this fast paced read shows us how easily a scammer can infiltrate someone’s life, especially when they’re fragile. It’s based on the author’s own relationship with a scammer, so she clearly has empathy for the situation; no judgment here.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.
Kelsey Grashoff (she/her) is a freelance writer and book reviewer based in Washington, D.C. She spends most of her free time reading, eating vegan Laotian food, and hoarding houseplants.