Another year of reading has ended, and despite being perhaps the longest-running industry of all time, literature continues to evolve with the help of BookTok, influencers, and a steadily growing percentage of young people willing to pick up a novel. As a result, writers improve their craft and offer readers and journalists more to pore over, more to analyze, more to enjoy. In case it’s your upcoming new year’s resolution or you just want to revisit this year in reading, we’ve compiled the top 12 books of the year.
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s highly anticipated debut novel is high concept, but startlingly down to earth. Prisoners in a near-future America have the option to participate in the CAPE program, a three-year circuit around the country that promises freedom if they survive back-to-back death battles. Sounds brutal, but the highly publicized event draws in viewers who root for their favorite teams and prisoners, discussing them as if they’re pieces of reality TV. Part fiction, part exposé, Adjei-Brenyah also includes footnotes about real injustices and horrors the prison industrial system has allowed for a chilling effect. A sharp, thoughtful satire on where America is heading mixed with realizations of where it is now with the comic timing and social commentary of George Saunders, Chain-Gang is a punch to the head, heart, and gut.
Ripe by Sarah Rose Etter
The Book of X’s author Sarah Rose Etter uses her time in Ripe, her second novel, to create a tense, vivid dystopian view of a capitalist America. An employee at a well-paying but soul-sucking job at Silicon Valley company VOYAGER, she indirectly but knowingly takes advantage of people while the city’s problems buzz all around her — the climate crisis, the homeless crisis, the ‘being alive’ crisis. On her shoulder rests a black hole that grows and diminishes in scale to Cassie’s anxiety, a surreal element that could turn over-wrought quickly in the hands of a less powerful writer. Etter follows Cassie through her apprehensiveness towards her job, to the point where it might be too much to handle: her past threatens to come back at any moment and upend her career and livelihood. A searing satire of corporate culture and how we deal with the world around us when it feels like it’s burning, Ripe is a continuation of Etter’s thoughtful and necessary writing.
The Book of Ayn by Lexi Freiman
The ridiculously funny Lexi Freiman starts her newest novel with a cancellation — Anna’s newest novel, a satire on the opioid crisis, was deemed “classist” by the New York Times. On a walk in New York, she stumbles upon an Ayn Rand walking tour, where she finds herself drawn to the philosophy of the provocateur: endless self-centeredness if it means self-actualization. With her new muse, Anna travels to Los Angeles to write a TV show about Rand, but can’t quite get there and instead travels to the island commune of Lesvos in order to kill her ego. Once there Anna realizes that the task of a writer is incongruous with enlightenment: one will always cede to the other. Freiman is a cutting and ruthless satirist when it comes to the dual comedy of New York and Los Angeles: the micro-influencers, the socialist literary gatherings, the relationship malfunctions, it all makes for a beautiful mess recognizable to anyone today that strives to see the humor in living. In thoughtful, razor-sharp turns of phrase that makes you reach for your phone to take photos of every page, Freiman pulls no punches — it’s the funniest book of the year.
Confidence by Rafael Frumkin
Two longtime friends con the world with their ever-expanding reach in this funny and absurd novel that relies on the ridiculous but alluring health trends of now. Orson Ortman and Ezra Green meet at Last Chance Camp, where they sell sneakers in their first business venture as partners, later get into Cryptocurrency and accompany lonely wives of senators, but their magnum opus is a highly believable (if you’re that desperate) wellness trick to relieve suffering that Orson regularly performs. The two may or may not be in love, but to keep up with the act Orson shows the world, he begins to date a movie star, much to Ezra’s refusal. Eventually expanding into the fictional island country of Urmau, Orson and Ezra’s company begins to cause geopolitical tensions and a national uprising as they begin to play in dangerous territory — something that may or may not have always been in the cards from the start.
Read our interview with Rafael Frumkin here.
Wellness by Nathan Hill
Nathan Hill’s long-waited second novel Wellness is, like his debut The Nix, a series of clever tricks. Wellness is built on the relationship between Jack and Elizabeth, who are attracted to each other during the arts era of 90’s Chicago, only to be repelled from each other in adulthood while taking care of their son. A ridiculously intelligent meditation and dissection of a relationship that was built on false premises, Hill also analyzes faux wellness trends that constantly promise self-rejuvenation under the guise of capitalism. Elizabeth, an employee at a health science lab, transforms her company from an investigative, science-backed output to a sham that gives people placebos and promises results, with the help of Love Potion Number Nine. Manifestation, delusion, photography, marriage, parenting, Minecraft, gentrification, scamming: there’s hardly a topic Hill’s dazzling and hilarious satire doesn’t handle with a keen eye. This one’s built on backstory, which makes for a lengthy read, but Wellness never overstays its welcome — when you’re in the hands of a writer as talented as Hill, you’ll be fine with him leading you wherever he goes.
The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde
Climate fiction can sour with didacticism all too quickly, but the fifteen stories in Allegra Hyde’s new collection never once veer into territory that even resembles corniness. An impressive feat in and of itself, but Hyde writes about the world’s future with such delicate care and grace that a collection about the planet’s demise is enjoyable. The Last Catastrophe is filled with creativity and unshakeable wit, from its tales of plant extinction, mobile RV caravans, galactic proms, Amazon over-delivery, tech rehab — Hyde brings the same speculation and imagination that made Black Mirror an inventive, culture-shifting moment. Can a catastrophe be funny? Allegra Hyde thinks so, and as we march towards climate collapse, one of the only solutions is to laugh at what we can.
Read our interview with Allegra Hyde here.
Pay As You Go by Eskor David Johnson
This insanely original and startlingly funny 500-page journey centers around Slide, a recent migrant to the city of Polis, a city swirling from inspirations in New York and Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago’s capital. A hero’s journey from start to finish, he begins a search for the perfect apartment while making a living as a barber, only for a massive flood to disrupt his process. Eventually landing on the top of Polis’ peak where he earns his keep providing cuts to survival-based civilization filled with huge men, he roams with the pack until his feet land on the ground, only to then be swept up in a viral moment where his rant on capitalism and falling behind turns him into an overnight celebrity. There’s no telling where this novel turns next, and Johnson uses every bit of his runtime to craft a warm and thoughtful tale. Fantastic, absurd, and deeply enjoyable, Pay As You Go marks the arrival of a massive literary talent.
Read our interview with Eskor David Johnson here.
The Vegan by Andrew Lipstein
Andrew Lipstein’s lucid, stream-of-consciousness second novel opens with hedge fund analyst Herschel Caine planning a disastrous trick — a chatty friend of his wife’s is sucking all the air out of a labored-over dinner party, and he has to make sure she leaves as quick as he can. After serving her a glass of ZzzQuil, the party continues, but the unwelcome guest ends up in a coma, to Herschel and his wife Franny’s dismay. They deal with the trauma in completely different ways: while Franny worries herself sick with medical research, Herschel channels his anxiety into veganism as an attempt to feel better, even throwing a shawarma outside of a cab window after it causes immediate disgust. The Vegan is fluid, a river of dialogue and scenery that goes hand-in-hand with Herschel’s desperate, deluded state, where he has an all-nighter helped with podcasts, then classical music, purchases an entire habitat for some anoles he houses at work, and in the middle of the night, has a spiritual awakening while standing naked in front of the zoo’s red panda. Both a warning of AI’s looming control over a corporate setting and an unraveling of an already delicate mind, The Vegan is another entry from Lipstein, a talented novelist willing to dissect masculinity, American culture, and morality in fascinating ways.
Read our interview with Andrew Lipstein here.
Do You Remember Being Born? by Sean Michaels
Thoughtful, speculative, and human, Do You Remember Being Born? expounds upon the AI craze (or fear) that dominated 2023, despite being written quite a few years before now. Marian Ffarmer, a poet that gains the prestige of a minor celebrity, perhaps a D-list pop star, travels to San Francisco in order to complete a project billed as the collaboration between human and machine — to produce a poem with artificial intelligence. Marian and Charlotte, the bot, enter a friendly collaborative space with delightful conversations where Charlotte learns about humans, but with only a week to write the poem that the world is waiting for, she starts to second-guess whether or not the project is worth completing or possible. With a technological twist created by Michaels himself, the Scotiabank Giller prize-winner’s third novel is an insightful and optimistic deep-dive into a sector of innovation that’s sure to remain relevant for years to come.
Read our interview with Sean Michaels here.
Ordinary Human Failings by Megan Nolan
Megan Nolan’s 180-degree turnaround from her feverish, wildly entertaining first novel Acts of Desperation is her second, Ordinary Human Failings, a family story that’s handled with just as much grace. Whereas her first had an unnamed narrator moving through life, Ordinary Human Failings centers around the Greens, an Irish family new to England and already under scrutiny in their small town. After a mishap on the playground turns into a much larger controversy, tabloid journalist Tom Hargreaves jumps at the chance to get the scoop, and make the situation much, much worse. Trapping them in a hotel with false pretenses of safety with unlimited supplies of alcohol, Tom coaxes out each of the Greens’ individual stories, from the father’s depressing past, the son’s previous fall-out with friends, and the daughter’s bitterness when it comes to motherhood. Nolan is a strong, intelligent storyteller, and her second novel is a heartfelt, deeply impressive examination of humans who only desire to be better.
Read our interview with Megan Nolan here.
The Parenthood Dilemma by Gina Rushton
Thoughtful, skilled, and heartbreaking, Gina Rushton’s The Parenthood Dilemma is the best nonfiction book I’ve read this year — not packed with data or statistics but real, human experiences that show the horror, weight, and reckoning with having a child when the world ahead might not have the space to include them. Rushton, a gender violence and reproductive rights reporter, uses her knowledge to collect stories from people apprehensive about the child-rearing process, whether due to past medical racism, the option to choose being taken away from them, or little-discussed topics like genetics, emotional work, and legacy. An uneasy but necessary read, Rushton’s reporting reveals the stark exasperation many feel when considering becoming a parent, a notion that society pushes us towards yet doesn’t provide the necessary tools to help. There’s still a long way to go.
Read our interview with Gina Rushton here.
Users by Colin Winnette
A speculative marvel as well as a work of entertaining fiction, Colin Winnette’s fourth novel features Miles, a father and husband who has been recently receiving death threats due to his work at a virtual reality gameplay company. Overthinkers in the game took offense to his newest development, The Ghost Lover, which has alleged issues with consent, to which players can create more frustrating situations from. As the threats continue and Miles worries more and more about his place at the company (to no reassurance to his wife and children, who start to move farther and farther away), he creates a last-minute add-on called ‘The Egg,’ hoping to blur the lines between fiction and reality even more. After a horrendous visualization inside the machine shakes Miles to his core, he’s unsure if the technology has done what he set out to do, and if it might be too late. Haunting, real, and at times funny, Users is a downwards comedy of errors of disastrous proportions.
Read our interview with Colin Winnette here.