LitReactor Staff Picks: The Best Books of 2019 - Part III
Another year has come and gone. You know what that means, don't you? Time for a bunch of strangers to tell you what was good! And why should you care what the LitReactor staff thinks are the best books of the year? Trick question! You shouldn't. But what they have to say might interest you nonetheless, because they are good-looking and knowledgeable and they read like the wind. So for those who care, we submit for your approval/derision some of LitReactor's favorite reads of 2019 (part 3). Check out Part 1 and Part 2.
Not all of these books were published this year. We figured if someone read a book for the first time in 2019, they deserved the opportunity to crow about it.
Elle Nash — Instructor
"Porn Carnival" by Rachel Rabbit White
Rachel Rabbit White's debut poetry collection Porn Carnival explores the ragged movement of the heart in a world of self versus other, persona versus personhood, with verses like “Poetry gave me this sickness / I think the sky is mine / its pollution is mine, / I want to use my body for pain / to throw my hands in the air / the sky’s dazzling grief”.
This is a collection you want to speak aloud to yourself, in bed or in an empty room, just to hear Rachel's words echo back at you.
"Juliet the Maniac" by Juliet Escoria
Juliet The Maniac follows our fourteen year old narrator through a downward spiral of rebellious drug use, self-inflicted harm and familial conflict, in which she is eventually sent to a boarding school made for mentally ill teens. Escoria’s novel takes us through episodes of hurt, healing, experimentation, attempts at suicide, and making it out through the other side of of a teenage life shattered by emotional and mental distress.
"Disaster Horse: Smol Essays" by Nooks Krannie
Disaster Horse: Smol Essays by Nooks Krannie is an explosive little gem which will leave you feeling hollowed out by the glittering examination of our mundane, late-capitalist life. Krannie's prose is slaughtering while she takes the reader through the moments that make up a week: waiting for a lover to finish therapy, walks through the park, shopping at Kohl’s, meeting a girl at a cafe, nightlife. Whatever world Krannie lives in I want to be there.
"Death Wish" by Ben Fama
Drugs are glamorous because they evoke a sense of never having to be responsible for one’s actions and Ben Fama’s poetry collection, Death Wish, does this: pours a glass with something bitter and rich and makes you want to watch it overflow. The verses are filled with lilting decadence, verdant sexuality, glints of summer on the coasts, and moments when the only light of hope is your iPhone.
"Final Girl" / "You Can't Pick Your Genre" by Lauren Milici and Emily O'Neil
Lauren Milici’s Final Girl and Emily O’Neill’s You Can’t Pick Your Genre is a double-feature poetry collection which takes back the power of feminine movie tropes to express the horror and thrill of life: how one survives trauma, possesses their vulnerability, and recaptures a sense of bodily autonomy. These poems shine a spotlight on subtle and actualized oppression of women in society and how a person rebirths themselves out of this violence.
John Skipp — Instructor
"Unamerica" by Cody Goodfellow
All genres melt before Goodfellow's gaze, as demonstrated by his sprawling catalog of post-Lovecraftian cybersplat mindfuck crime sprees. But he really outdoes himself in this epic, psychedelic one-man one-book ILLUMINATUS trilogy about underground culture and the powers that bury us, use us as test monkeys to see how hard we get off, how much we can take, and how much they can get away with by manipulating us this way. Staggeringly brilliant. Decades in the making. And my favorite book of the year.
"Girl Like A Bomb" by Autumn Christian
Speaking of staggeringly brilliant, Autumn Christian's fourth book is a fractured, fucktastical fairy tale about a young woman who discovers she can save the world, one soulgasm at a time. Turns out that having sex with teenage Beverly Sykes is a one-way ticket to ultimate self-realization. And even the world's worst humans have something to learn from her seismic touch. So share this gorgeous, audacious, delightfully super-horny and periodically terrifying literary tryst with someone you love. You'll be a better person for it. I SWEAR!
"Scarstruck" by Violet LeVoit
Like Goodfellow and Christian, Violet LeVoit is a one-of-a-kind voice that makes most other writers look lazy, with the grinning intellectual ferocity of Laurie Anderson, the piercing soul-shriek of Diamanda Galas, and the punk poetic soul of Patti Smith. Here, she harnesses her genius to a tale of 50's Hollywood, where closeted gay leading man and kinkster-with-a-penchant-for-pain Ron Dash is forced to grow a gorgeous beard named Lana Arleaux, herself a reluctant movie star and closet Communist. But beyond the deliciously rendered tabloid chattermania, something deep and transformative happens. This book is both giddily fun and searingly painful, compulsively devourable and revelatory. Another absolute must-read.
"I'm From Nowhere" by Lindsey Lerman
And then comes Lindsey Lerman. While the three above roar with mad energy, Lerman's is the quiet, still voice in the eye of the hurricane, scrupulously chronicling the micro-apocalypse within. It's a grief-stricken slice in the life of Claire, and the emptiness left when her husband dies. With no job, no child, and no sense of hope or a center that holds in a world literally drying up from global warming, she is left to forensically dissect her life like a ghost still walking in her own bag of bones. But the insights are piercingly, breathtakingly honest and elegantly wrought. I was mesmerized and astounded. It made me taste my own ghosts. And I could not love or admire it more.
"Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth" by Rachel Maddow
We all know that regular old monsters pale in the face of the real-life horror story, already in progress here at the dawn of the 21st century. But if you want to connect the dots between the scandals wracking Washington, the overseas power plays behind it all, and the black gold that fuels it as the ice caps melt down, this is meticulously researched and zestfully-delivered one-stop shopping. Whatever your political inclinations, there's a whole lotta jaw-dropping "Holy fuck!"-ness herein. And we ignore the case she's making at our peril.
Leza Cantoral — Columnist
‘The Book of X’ by Sarah Rose Etter
Sarah Rose Etter’s language is like meat in your mouth— bloody, salty, sweet. Visions like fever dreams. Imagine being in the body of a woman with a knot in her stomach, as she grapples with the physical and emotional pain that it causes her. The Book of X is a primal scream. It reverberates in your skull long after you read it.
‘Juliet the Maniac’ by Juliet Escoria
A raw unflinching look at mental illness and teenage angst, as told through a series of vignettes, doctor’s notes, personal notes, and recollections. Juliet Escoria describes dissociative, manic, depressive states, panic attacks and suicide attempts with an impassive knife-like clarity that brings you in with her. The loneliness and the terror are palpable atmospheres.
‘Becoming Dangerous: Witchy Femmes, Queer Conjurers, and Magical Rebels’ Edited by Katie West and Jasmine Elliott with Foreword by Kristen J. Sollée
Books like this collection of personal essays about witchcraft as a tool for self-healing and empowerment humanize the witch archetype in a way that is hugely necessary right now. If you are handicapped, struggling with mental illness, queer or trans, and especially if you are not—this book is for you.
‘Magic for Liars’ by Sarah Gailey
Witchcraft, booze and dark family secrets. This is Jessica Jones with a magical edge. This noir murder mystery is deliciously dark and layered.
‘The Editor’ by Steven Rowley
This hit all my writer/editor G spots. It is an intimate journey within the psyche of a queer writer as well as a rare inside look into the relationship between writer and editor, and the editor just happens to be Jackie Kennedy Onassis! The challenge of unearthing one’s past, the process of facing personal demons to break writer’s block in order to move forward, makes The Editor something much more than simply Jackie O fan fic.
Emma Clark — Assistant Class Director
‘Fire & Blood’ by George R. R. Martin
It’s dry, historical, lengthy in the way that only Martin can make things, and the names all run together because there are only so many ways one can stick “ae” into something. If you’re—like me—the kind of person who joyfully read the appendices in The Lord of the Rings, you’ll enjoy every word of this Targaryen family history immensely.
‘La Belle Sauvage’ and ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ by Philip Pullman
I stumbled upon La Belle Sauvage having somehow missed the groundbreaking news that there was a second trilogy in the works from everyone’s favorite atheist children’s author. I instantly fell in love with the stalwart duo of protagonist Malcolm and his eponymous little boat in the first book, full of the white-knuckled, children-in-danger scenes we’ve come to expect from Pullman. He continues to outdo himself in The Secret Commonwealth, where an older Lyra and Malcolm are again tossed together by the turns of the alethiometer. Reading these books made me feel giddy in a way I haven’t since I first read His Dark Materials. Screw Harry Potter; Philip Pullman is a real wizard.
‘The Grand Dark’ by Richard Kadrey
Kadrey’s books are always a master class in world-building, and The Grand Dark takes it to the next level. Despite the array of supplemental bric-a-brac scattered between the main chapters, details on society, its mechanical citizenry, and “The War” remain tantalizingly out of reach, reminiscent of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. This gritty tale with a heart of gold is a little bit Blade Runner, a little bit dieselpunk, wholly original, and utterly unputdownable.
‘The City in the Middle of the Night’ by Charlie Jane Anders
How can you top a jaw-dropping debut like All the Birds in the Sky? This is how. Anders’ writing is lyrical, mesmerizing. Novel, technical words and descriptions which can so often bog down prose in sci-fi instead feel organic to the point I’m starting to use words like “Timekeeping” in daily parlance. It’s writing like this that makes me throw down my pen and say “OK, she’s got this, we can all go home now.” A beautiful, human story full of humans that are monsters and monsters that are humans, set against a backdrop of environmental collapse. Breathtaking.
Joshua Chaplinsky — Managing Editor
"Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen" by Dexter Palmer
Based on the fascinating "true" story of an 18th Century peasant who gave birth to 17 dismembered rabbits. Part horror, part historical fiction, Palmer's latest is ultimately a rumination on belief in the miraculous, no matter how frightening.
"House of Leaves" Episodes 1-3 by Mark Z. Danielewski
A year ago Danielewski shared an unproduced pilot script he wrote for a potential House of Leaves TV series. It was an inventive riff on the source material, updated for the internet age. This year, he revised and expanded on it, offering three scripts via his Patreon page. A whole new story with the familiar house at its core. Layers upon layers of mystery that would make for riveting television.
"The Archive of Alternate Endings" by Lindsey Drager
A story about the evolution and dissemination of story, specifically Hansel and Gretel, as it rides the tail of Halley's Comet, from past to present, all the way into the future. A hugely ambitious work in a slim package that leaves the mind reeling.
"The Ice Cream Man and Other Stories" by Sam Pink
I want to hate Sam Pink's characters, but sometimes I can't help loving them. Maybe it's the unrealized slacker in me, but there's something identifiable in the mid-life malaise of just trying to get by. There's a sweetness to some of these bums, an almost childlike quality that makes their antics palatable. Human, even.
"Triangulum" by Masande Ntshanga
Another inventive mind-bender, this one taking place in post apartheid South Africa, mere decades before the end of the world. I'm a sucker for the found manuscript/recording conceit, especially when paired with an unreliable narrator, and Triangulum did not disappoint. Smart science-fiction that comments on the race relations, ecology, and economics of a fascinating part of the world, all while maintaining allegiance to the characters at its core.
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