Ask a Book Critic: I want a captivating novel that won’t make me think too much

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Ask a Book Critic

Amanda Northrop/Vox

Vox’s book critic recommends books for your very specific mood.

Welcome to the latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now or how you’d like to be feeling instead.

We have somehow made it to May, beloveds, and by the traditional publishing calendar, that’s when the beach reads start to come out. This year, many of us probably won’t be spending time at the beach, but nevertheless, a variety of light and frothy books have begun landing on my desk. For that reason, I spent this week with Emma Straub’s family dramedy All Adults Here, and I can heartily recommend it if your current mood is wanting to feel like you run a bookshop in a cozy New England fishing town but also you solve murders on the side, and you want to read something to soothe your nerves because of your jam-packed crime-solving/book-selling schedule. (That is, I must confess, often my own mood.)

I’ve also been spending the week refreshing my memories of The Secret History, the May pick for the Vox Book Club. That book indulges my desire to be a dark and moody intellectual on a college campus, nursing a cup of black coffee (n.b. I do not drink coffee) in an ivy-covered building on a gray and rainy day while I ponder my Plato translation (n.b. I do not read Greek) and also the terrible crime I have been forced, due to circumstances beyond my control, to cover up (n.b. I do not commit crimes). If you would also like to spend some time feeling brilliant and tragic, join us!

But if you are in the mood for a completely different kind of book, that’s why this column exists. Tell me how you want to feel, and I will match you with a book to get you there.

The recommendation requests below, submitted to me via email and on Twitter, have been edited for length and clarity.

I am craving a good, captivating novel that won’t make me think too much

Try The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles. It’s about two sisters in Brazil in the 1930s. Both of them are great seamstresses, but one of them marries rich, and the other one becomes an outlaw. This book has, by and large, floated under the radar, but I’ve never met anyone who read it who didn’t end up loving it.

Since it looks like I won’t be traveling anytime soon, I would love a fun book about a road trip or a quest

Rainbow Rowell’s Wayward Son is a road trip-slash-quest fantasy, although it would probably help to start with the first book of this ongoing series, Carry On. They’re both fun light reads that riff off of Harry Potter fanfiction.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is also a super-absorbing road trip fantasy novel that makes a strong case that roadside attractions are America’s most holy places. And Flaming Iguanas by Erika Lopez is about two punk rock women driving motorcycles across America.

I do a lot of yoga and meditation, but it’s starting to feel incestuous. I’m getting stopped up. I need a book that will make me, let me, feel feelings. Drown me in language and love.

We talk a lot about books as an escape here, but you’re absolutely right that sometimes we need to stop escaping our feelings and just take a beat to feel them. And one of the things books can do is offer us a space to work out our feelings safely, especially when reality is so overwhelming and terrifying.

What I think you need is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which understands better than any book I know of that life is awful and unfair, but that we have no choice but to bear it. Back when one could do such things, I spent many an afternoon in a coffee shop with this book, blinking determinedly and trying to keep from crying in public.

If you’d like me to recommend a book for you, email me at constance.grady@vox.com with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!


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