Best Debuts: My debut novel was released this year, so I read a ton of debuts, mostly to reassure myself that all great debuts — like all great novels, really — are promising and flawed. As a reader, I look for debuts that excite me and make me anticipate the author’s next book, so some of my favorites this year were Desert Boys by Chris McCormick, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn.
Favorite Overall Reads: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a brilliant reinvention of the slave narrative genre, a story with huge personal and historical stakes. We’ll be reading this one for a while. I also loved Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, which is inventive and lyrical and meditative, a coming-of-age story driven forward by the beauty of its language, not plot.
Couldn’t Put It Down: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I love books that reset their terms partway through the story, and this book does so in dramatic fashion. What begins as a historical queer romance becomes a crime thriller and the entire world of the novel resets in a fascinating way.
Best Post-Olympics Read: You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. A creepy, unsettling page-turner, both a domestic thriller and exploration of the darker aspects of women’s gymnastics: the toll that intense competition takes on young girls and the punishing brutality of a beautiful sport.
Obligatory Maggie Nelson Post: I’m late to the Maggie Nelson party, but I read The Argonauts and The Red Parts this year, two books that made me think and feel deeply. I love her ability to always write with expanding empathy, as she delves into the personal and the political, invoking theory and pop culture and literature.
Best Conversation Starter: Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, because everyone I’ve talked to seems convinced that he could fake his own death even though, as Elizabeth Greenwood proves, death fraud is extremely difficult to pull off. This book is a fun exploration into a bizarre topic, but it also speaks to deeper existential desires. In a world of constant connection, who hasn’t wanted to disappear and start over?
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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.
Between the World and Me
A Little Life
Go Set a Watchman
Book of Numbers
Fates and Furies
City on Fire
The Heart Goes Last
A Brief History of Seven Killings
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book about de-cluttering and organizing, just became the 102nd title to join our ever-more-cluttered Hall of Fame, which feels appropriate. Meanwhile, two titles – Satin Island and The Paying Guests – fell out of this month’s Top Ten, despite strong showings for the past four months.
As a result, three spots have opened up for newcomers, so let’s take a look at these fresh new faces:
This month’s seventh spot belongs to David Mitchell’s latest project, Slade House, which got its start as a Twitter-based short story last year. (We published the story in full.) Now expanded into a 256-page book, Slade House, spans across five decades, focusing on a mysterious residence down the road from a British pub, and the people who live within – or are invited to.
Next on the list is Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City on Fire, which is surely familiar by now to anyone who a) reads this site, and b) doesn’t live beneath a rock. (Psssst! You can read its opening lines over here.) At 944 pages, this doorstop provides a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the lives of its closely-observed subjects. As Brian Ted Jones remarked in his review for The Rumpus:
It’s not a big novel about the human condition. It’s a novel that word by word reaches out to capture the smallness of life, the minute particularity that stacks up until—whoa, baby—you’ve got a whole universe on your hands, but a universe that flies away like a pile of dirt in a strong wind.
And that level of observation does not come easily, as Hallberg himself noted in his interview with our own Lydia Kiesling:
Writing is definitely not what we typically think of as “easy” or “natural” for the person doing it. You know this as a writer — it’s mostly torture. You have those days when you kind of light up inside like a pinball machine or something, and all of a sudden everything is feeding back 10 times as much as it did the previous day, and you have this sense of joy and you walk out of the house and run into someone you know, or your spouse comes home and says “How was your day,” and you say, “This was a great day! The writing went well!” And then if you actually paused and walked back through the writing hour by hour you would realize, “No, it was still mostly torture, but it was a kind of exquisite and joyous torture on this day, as opposed to the gray horrible torture that it is on most days.”
Man, that must’ve been a fun way to feel for the five years it took to write the book, huh?
Finally, this month we also welcome newly-minted Booker Award winner Marlon James to our Top Ten. His third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, concerns Jamaica at a pivotal moment in its history, and really the history of its relationship with the United States as well, but also it’s about so much more: Bob Marley, CIA machinations, international drug dealers, race, family, friendship, journalism, and art. To call this novel ambitious is to undersell it. If I can be bold for a moment, allow me to say this: James’s novel is the best book I’ve read in years. Heck, even our resident video-bloggers, Michael Schaub and Janet Potter, were rendered speechless by it.