Books can be a little like romantic relationships. Stick with me here: You find a writer or a genre (or a human being) that gets your heart beating like crazy. You fall headlong into a passionate, obsessive love affair. You can’t get enough of this writer/genre/person: you admire his or her style; you want to understand everything you can; you want to inhabit that entire world.
But then, suddenly, you plateau. Those delicious turns of phrases that once set you swooning become, well, kinda rote. That adorable character’s endearing flaws become seriously irritating. And your excitement threshold for unexpected arcs drops to a negative.
Sometimes, the only way to get out of that funk is to call it quits for a bit, to graze greener pastures, to let your hidden freak flag fly over unchartered territories. (For clarification, I’m talking about books now — not encouraging you to break up with your SO, who I’m sure is just wonderful.) And what better time to break out of those old habits than the New Year?
Consider the turning of the calendar an opportunity to explore unfamiliar worlds. If you’ve been sitting on your literary mainstream laurels, why not meander over to science fiction territory? If hard-boiled crime is more your speed, how about softening up with a (truly) quality historical romance? These hand-picked genre favorites below are guaranteed to satisfy even the most hesitant literary explorers. Because each of these books are, above any technical generic definition, just good stories. Reinvigorate your lust for literature with these shiny new toys: all written, by the way, by stellar female writers.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Science fiction is, admittedly, a tough genre to penetrate if you’re not inherently inclined to those weird and wonderful alien worlds. But, if nothing else, Ursula K. Le Guin’s canonical 1969 novel is worth reading for its modern-classic status. And while The Left Hand of Darkness is rich in science fiction jargon — the story follows Genly Ai, a human ambassador sent to the alien planet Winter to aid in the peace-making process between the planet’s warring races — Le Guin’s gorgeous prose and insightful observations make this, above all, a piece of high-quality literature. You’ll be initially freaked out by Winter’s genderless race, but the sharp commentary on sexual prejudice makes this 45-year-old novel shockingly relevant to today.
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
Short stories are a perfect, bite-sized way to dip your toe into new generic waters. If you’re looking to add a little magic to your mainstream-literary routine, try picking up Kelly Link’s beloved 2005 short story collection, which earned the young writer comparisons to Karen Russell and Aimee Bender. Like the latter two writers, Kelly Link approaches the fantastical — from a handbag that houses a commune of faeries to planning for the (inevitable) zombie apocalypse — with a convincingly casual logic. These beautifully crafted stories are whimsical and moving, and may just inspire you to pull out the Ouija board gathering dust in your childhood closet.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
G. Willow Wilson’s debut novel Alif the Unseen was one of my favorite books of 2013 — and possibly of all time. A stunning mash-up of cyberpunk, Arabian Nights, wizardry, and political thriller, Alif the Unseen is an irreverent and unique addition to a canon of tech-savvy modern fantasy writers like Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow. Wilson, who converted to Islam as a college student, is also an accomplished comic book writer and journalist; and her privileged perspective on both Middle Eastern and Western culture, coupled with a whimsically graphic sensibility, merge to create this unusual, utterly breathtaking, work.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Before the flood of viral Disney princess re-imaginings — before artists used Cinderella’s battered face as a PSA against domestic violence; before the fervid mainstream backlash to “princess culture” — there was Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. The definitive anti-princess text, this exquisite collection of Gothic fairy tales snuffs out the happily-ever-after archetype, offering instead a harsh alternative. For instance, the title story, based on the Bluebeard fairytale, tracks the aftermath of an arranged union between a teenaged girl and a powerful French Marquis, in which the unwilling bride discovers her sadistic husband’s homicidal habits. The Bloody Chamber is required reading for feminist Goth chicks; but even if you’re still loyal to your frothy-pink Disney dreams (no shame there), you’ll swoon over Carter's lush prose and disturbingly beautiful imagery. These anti-heroines represent girl power at its most perverted — but also its most badass.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Romance fiction gets such a bad rap: "it’s sniveling saccharine drivel"; "it’s flimsy un-literature"; "it presents impossibly antiquated gender roles and unattainable relationship expectations". Granted, some romance novels may deserve those critiques. Not so with Jojo Moyes’ incredibly affecting, thought-provoking, and (seriously) realistic take on doomed modern love in her 2013 novel Me Before You. Without giving too much away, the story follows Lou Clark, a directionless 26-year-old small-town girl who, in an act of unemployed desperation, takes a job as a caretaker to the wealthy, mouthy paraplegic Will Traynor. What ensues is a compulsively readable story that’s totally treacle-free; it’s equal parts horribly depressing and hopefully redemptive, all shot through with Moyes’ dry British humor. Me Before You hits all the right notes, and I seriously admire Moyes' storytelling chops. Still don’t believe me? Read Liesl Schillinger’s rave review of the book in The New York Times .
Just Kids by Patti Smith
I’ll just be the one to say it: if you still haven’t read Patti Smith’s inspiring, lyrical memoir Just Kids, you are seriously behind. In this critically acclaimed 2010 work, the undisputed Queen of the Achingly Cool recounts her boho-punk young adulthood as a starving artist in downtown New York. Above all, Just Kids is a eulogy to the late Robert Mapplethorpe, the brilliant photographer with whom Smith was inseparable. Their love affair was one for the ages: it was a communion that defied sex (Mapplethorpe was gay), that transcended the mundane (the pair lived and worked in the tiniest, shabbiest room in the infamous Chelsea Hotel), and that shaped each preternaturally gifted artist into the legendary cultural icons they each persist as today.
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Although Electric Literature named 2014 “The Year of the Essay,” it’s not too late to hop on the creative non-fiction bandwagon this year. Lest you believe all essay collections are the stuff of your senior thesis nightmares, many recently released collections — like Jamison’s 2014 book — are super-accessible and deeply fascinating. The Empathy Exams, in which Jamison explores how we experience pain through disparate circumstances, strikes a stunning balance between journalistic eloquence and personal pathos. You can read "The Devil's Bait," Jamison's intensely disturbing essay on Morgellons disease, at Harper's magazine. It might ruin your night's sleep (you’ll soon see why), but it’s worth the read.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s beloved debut novel is the campus novel gold standard. The Secret History is the perfect storm: it combines the Dionysian debauchery, Classicist pretension, and ivied brick of the best New England-college literature with the charismatic, bloody-handed narrator necessary to a convincing murder mystery. The stylish, reference-heavy book is as thrilling and relevant today as it was upon its buzzy release 33 years ago; it’s a bookshelf staple.
Perfume by Patrick Süskind
Perfume is, in my admittedly horror-averse opinion, the best kind of literary-quality horror novel: beyond its nightmarish narrative, Süskind offers a sublimely beautiful ode to scent, our most emotionally-charged, but perhaps most undervalued, sensory experience. Perfume has also given us one of the creepiest, most complex villains in literature: the pariah Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born in the slums of 18th-century Paris and utterly without a personal scent. It’s a deformity that renders him unlovable, and therefore shunned; but it also gives him, who becomes a genius perfumer, the freedom to develop the ultimate perfume. I’ll give you a hint: the scent involves something much more sinister than rose extract.
Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho
Cristina Moracho’s debut novel was, hands down, my favorite book of 2014. Moracho delivers the complexities of the mundane — a friendship that toes the line between platonic and romantic; the angst of not-quite-fitting-in; the struggles of being a teenaged girl in possession of all the same violent urges and lustful inclinations as a dude — in a way that’s so heartbreakingly authentic to the teenaged experience, but nuanced enough for non-teens to feel deeply. Plus, the pre-millenium setting indulges our collective ’90s nostalgia, delivering with it a heaping dose of vegan-punk, pre-gentrified-Brooklyn badassery. I can only wish to be as cool as the whip-smart 17-year-old title heroes.
If you: 1) struggle with a psychological disorder of any kind; 2) are mildly-to-extremely interested in psychology; 3) are a creative person in any artistic field; 4) are interested in creative people in various artistic fields; or 5) appreciate expressive, innovative imagery that seems to have sprung from the ethereal font of inspiration itself, you will likely enjoy Ellen Forney’s 2012 graphic memoir. Beginning with Forney’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder just before turning thirty, the story — so stunningly and authentically expressive of Forney’s variable mood swings: the bursts of Technicolored highs; the horrifically heavy lows — tracks the writer’s investigation into other “crazy artists,” like Vincent Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath. Forney's story sheds hard-earned truth on our romanticized notions of unstable artists: it’s a heavy-hitting topic, but Marbles is a true pleasure to read.
Image: Moyan Brenn/Flickr