My Brand Is Despair Books
Hello darkness, my old friend.
So here are the top books I read this year that made it really difficult to get out of bed or made me cry so hard it ruined my makeup.
Guys, this poem hurt my heart so much. It’s about basketball and families and the way families can hurt each other. It’s about first love and loss and how jealousy can make us do ugly things.
My recommendation: Get the audiobook, turn the playback speed up to 1.5 times (aka “Hamilton” speed) and just be prepared to cry a lot. This poem made me late for work because I was ugly crying in my car.
“The Fifth Season” and “The Obelisk Gate” are the first two books in N.K. Jemisin’s “The Broken Earth” trilogy.
These books completely blew my mind. It was the science fiction I’d been yearning for. Women are at the heart of this story—and they are so well written, it makes reading books with poorly developed female characters impossible. Reading this book felt like coming home.
I don’t want to give too much away because these books are truly works of art, but: Apocalypses are a dime a dozen in this world. A group of oppressed people called orogenes are the key to staving them off—until suddenly they’re not.
These books don’t shy away from the ugly parts of human nature—racism, sexism, the ugly choice of sacrificing the few for the many. But there is beauty here, too, and humor.
Seriously, these books will be classics. Just read them, and plan on taking a week or two off life after you’re done.
Look, it wouldn’t be a very good despair list without Margaret Atwood on it. This was actually the very first book I read in 2016, and it is just so quietly devastating that it stuck with me the whole year.
It’s beautiful, of course, because Atwood. But it’s about a near future where things are so bad—lots of crime and unemployment—that a married couple, Stan and Charmaine, sign on for a social experiment where they spend half their time in prison and half their time with all their needs taken care of. Of course, it all goes to hell, again because Atwood. There’s sex and conformity and mistrust and guilt, and it’s just all so beautifully written.
When I was a child, I often dreamed of finding my way into a secret universe. I’d daydream about walking through the woods behind my best friend’s house and suddenly finding myself somewhere unfamiliar and magical.
“Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire tackles what happens to children who find the universe they’re meant to live in—but can’t get back there.
I read this book months ago, and I still get an ache in my chest whenever I think about it.
It’s a novella about seeking your place in the world, about trying to get back to that place where you fit in.
It also has a tremendous and amazing plot twist that turns everything on its head.
Trigger warning: There is abuse and harassment in this book.
“All the Birds in the Sky” by Charlie Jane Anders is so weird—but in the best possible way.
It’s a near-future dystopia with magic and climate change and childhood friends and a sentient AI. Guys, it mixes science and magic. I am so here for that. It deals with how things that happen in our childhoods shape who we are as adults. It has an unreliable narrator, y’all. It has birds that talk.
This book asks the question: Can love and friendship save the world? To find out, you’ll have to read the book. Bring tissues.
I love this book so much. Just read it, OK?
Whenever I try to explain Helen Macdonald’s “H Is for Hawk,” people look at me funny. It’s about the trials and tribulations of raising a goshawk and T.S. White’s truly terrible attempts at raising his own goshawk—and also about Macdonald and her grief after her beloved father dies unexpectedly.
Macdonald reads the audiobook herself, and I highly recommend it. She has this lovely, British speaking voice, and the emotion she brings to the work are heartrending. At times funny and heartbreaking, this is a truly lovely look at bereavement and the things we do to get through it.
Humongous, massive trigger warning: Childhood abuse.
What would you do to get what you want most?
That’s the central question at the heart of Kat Howard’s “Roses and Rot.”
Sisters Imogen, a writer, and Marin, a dancer, both get into an exclusive post-grad arts program that often catapults its graduates into the stratosphere of success.
But at what cost?
In Howard’s world, fairies are real, but they aren’t the sweet creates of Disney films. Instead, they are horrible and magnetic, and they exact a terrible price for their gifts.
This book destroyed me (and the abuse was really, really hard to read, so seriously, avoid this book if that’s triggering to you; I would have liked a warning), and it still makes me well up when I think about it. It’s beautiful and devastating.
I read this book in one go in the bathtub. I can’t say much without ruining it, but it’s about the friendships forged in fandoms. That’s all I’ve got. Read it, love it, bring a lot of tissues.
The first in the Prisoners of Peace series, “The Scorpion Rules” by Erin Bow is the aftermath of a world where an AI has taken over and demands that humans stop fighting each other. To ensure that this happens, it holds a child from the rulers of each nation hostage. If any nation instigates a war, the child is killed.
The book follows the lives of these children, who are trained to be prepared to die with dignity—and what happens to their orderly world when a child shows up who shows them just how brutal a system they live under.
Oh, and the AI is a sassy, sarcastic brat.
Highly, highly recommend this book.
Once you read this book, you’ll never look at the words, “Kiss me, Hardy!” the same way again. Just typing them made me tear up.
This book is about two women—a pilot and a spy—who fight on the side of the Allies in World War 2. When Maddie’s plane is shot down, Queenie (code name: Verity) parachutes out. Both survive—but Queenie is caught by the Nazis and interrogated.
The first half of the book is Queenie sharing information with the Nazis, writing the story of how she and Maddie met, became friends and trained. The second half is from Maddie’s perspective, what it was like being stuck in occupied France, living in a barn with a resistance family and trying to escape. This book is everything I love about fiction. Read this—just don’t have any plans to go anywhere after. You’ll be crying too hard to see.