My favorite book covers of 2018 (so far)

“Never judge a book by its cover” is an uber-cliché; in fact, it’s such a boring and trite cliché that it’s spawned a whole second cliché that’s the opposite: “yes, do judge a book by its cover.” But we all do both anyway, right? Judge and not judge? It’s enough to give you a headache.

As with most clichés, the truth is somewhere in between. I try not to let a bad cover put me off an otherwise good book, especially since writers don’t usually have a say in their design. But it’s also true that a spectacular cover will embed a book in my mind, making me more likely to seek it out and less likely to forget it when I’m done.

2018 has been a year of spectacular covers in publishing, with more beautiful books than I could possibly hope to read in 9 or so months. That’s why I’ve narrowed my list down to my 5 favorite covers of books I’ve read this year so far. Let’s dig in!

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | My Review

A flat image on a computer screen doesn’t do this cover justice–in person, it’s a glittering metallic–just like a book review can’t possibly do the novel justice. An American Marriage follows a Black couple, their relationship tumultuous but also passionate and strong, who are separated when the husband, Roy, is falsely accused and imprisoned for rape for years. His wife, Celestial, tries to pick up the pieces, and falls in love with her childhood friend, Andre. It’s a novel so star-crossed that it hurts to read, but it’s also vibrantly hopeful, full of vivid romantic and sensory detail that transported me completely into Roy, Celestial, and Andre’s world.

The cover design is simple but intriguing. The golden tree is beautiful, but the metallic finish makes it look a little like prison bars. Family is a major theme of the novel, so a tree on the cover is especially appropriate; its branches soar but there are no roots to speak of. The font, also, strikes me as looking a little bit like something you’d see in colonial America: perfect for a novel that speaks to the legacy of American slavery. All in all, that simple image belies a deeper meaning–just like the novel suggests that simple narratives aren’t always as they seem.

The Mars Room Cover

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | My Review

The woman on the cover of The Mars Room looks vulnerable and ready to fight, diminutive but with an outsize attitude. The Mars Room is a vicious, blistering book about a woman named Romy Hall who’s incarcerated for life for killing her stalker. It’s morally complex but also simple at the same time: it posits that Romy is neither good or bad, but shades of grey; it also seems to posit that no one, even if they were bad, deserves the brutal dehumanization of prison.

The cover is as dark, gritty, and somehow alight as the Tenderloin district of San Francisco (where much of the novel is set). It’s grim but captivating. You know the woman in that photograph won’t take any shit, except, of course, for the mountains of shit that have already been shoveled her way. Both cover and novel are unforgettable.

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayata Muraka

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | My Review

Convenience Store Woman is a charming short novel (almost novella-length) about Keiko Furukura, a woman in her 30s who devotes her entire life and self to working in a convenience store. Her friends and family are baffled as to why she chooses not to get married or get a “real” job, but for Keiko, the convenience store is all she needs. The novel is frank and observant, equal parts achingly sad and laugh-out-loud. It’s one of the best portrayals of an autistic character I’ve ever read. It’s sweet with sharp edges, never cloying or infantilizing.

I don’t have many deep things to say about this cover except that it’s completely adorable. The exquisite design of something as simple and ordinary as a rice  ball (a.k.a onigiri) seems to promise that the story within will be just as surprisingly lovely, and author Sayaka Murata delivers wholeheartedly.

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | My Review

Sometimes less is more. That’s both the philosophy of this cover and of My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘s unnamed heroine, who decides to drug herself to sleep for an entire year in her New York apartment in 2000. She’s disenchanted and rich and working with a psychiatrist so unbelievably unethical that it made me cringe; she doesn’t care about anything, which means, somehow, that she cares about everything. It’s a difficult book to read. For all its flat affect, it’s also extremely beautiful and emotional.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is historical fiction set in a very recent past–the held-breath-that-no-one-knew-they-were-holding before September 11th, 2001 in New York City–which makes its cover design all the more clever. The painting is clearly historical, but the woman’s sardonic facial expression and the bold, hot-pink font speak of more recent times. The novel’s protagonist is described as a waif-like blonde, but I couldn’t help picturing her like the cover. The image gets its hooks in your mind and stays there, just like the story does.

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Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | My Review

In the nonfiction book Sharp, Michelle Dean documents the interlinking histories of “sharp” (i.e. brilliant, insightful, and sometimes caustic) women writers of the 20th century, including Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, and Dorothy Parker. It’s a book that feels both academic and dishy: it’s well-researched and -written enough for it to feel “classy,” but brings its claws out enough to be terrific fun to read. It makes you feel like you know the women Dean is writing about.

That’s why I think its cover is especially perfect. The illustrations are charming, done in their own distinctive style, but each woman is fully recognizable as herself. It encapsulates the work Dean has done to create a through-line between these talented and influential writers, and it certainly catches your eye on the shelf.


Did I include any of your favorites? What covers have made you swoon in 2018? I want to hear about them. Leave them in the comments (and feel free to link to your own blog posts!).

I’m obsessed with author bios, especially Shirley Jackson’s.

Today I ran across this charming piece about one of Shirley Jackson’s author bios over at Literary Hub. (Consider this another of my eternal plugs for signing up for their newsletter, which is great.)

TheRoadThroughTheWall CoverApparently the bio–to be included with Jackson’s 1948 novel The Road Through the Wall–was written by her husband, and it includes the following delightful details:

  • “She plays the guitar and sings five hundred folk songs…as well as playing the piano and the zither…”
  • “[She] is perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch…”
  • “She is passionately addicted to cats, and at the moment has six, all coal black…”
  • “She does not much like the sort of neurotic modern fiction she herself writes, the Joyce and Kafka schools…”

I’m a die-hard Shirley Jackson fan and would have loved the article no matter what, but while reading it I was especially struck by how much author bios affect my love of books no matter who the author in question is. Shirley Jackson’s witchy reputation made her career (even as it earned her plenty of angry letters from busybodies), and I’m sure that author bios have held uncanny power over many other authors’ careers, as well.

If an author has a long and quirky bio like Jackson’s, that tells you something about their fiction; Jeff VanderMeer has a particularly strange one included in the paperback edition of Annihilation, an extremely strange–and wonderful–book that definitely has whiffs of Jackson to it.

If their bio is barren of anything other than where they live and their previously published titles, that tells you something too: Rachel Kushner’s bio at the back of The Mars Room is no more than one dry sentence long, as if the publisher (and author) are asking you to view the book in a vacuum.

Bios rarely make me feel like I know the author better; rather, they add a particular flavor of mystery that, in its own strange way, can make or break my reading experience. They are an elaborate art form all their own. A long and flowery bio at the end of a book as harsh as The Mars Room would have felt tone-deaf in the extreme, but to be left with nothing at the end of Annihilation–or a Shirley Jackson novel–would be a missed opportunity.

Of course, fairly or unfairly, I put the author bios included in memoirs under even more scrutiny. I read Cheryl Strayed’s bio at the end of Wild over and over, trying to glean some extra mystery and meaning from a book that already offered plenty. I did the same to Leslie Jamison’s bio in The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, a harrowing memoir-slash-journalistic-deep-dive about alcoholism and addiction. I’m not sure what information I was trying to grasp: that she was okay? That she was writing from a place of healed authority? Either way, my expectations were unfair, but I tried to satisfy them anyway.

Such is the power of the author bio. I don’t understand them, but I can’t stop myself from poring over them.

You can read the rest of Shirley Jackson’s lengthy and mischievous bio, along with some other charming biographical details about her work, over at Literary Hub.

Restaurants, Retail, and Other Underutilized Settings in Literary Fiction

Sweetbitter CoverI recently jumped Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (Goodreads) to the top of my TBR queue because I was in desperate need of something not unnerving (e.g. The Hole, Future Home of the Living God) and not terribly sad (e.g. They Both Die at the End, All the Ever Afters).

Sweetbitter is still kind of sad, as the name suggests. But I’m loving it so far regardless, and it’s reminding me that restaurants are criminally underused as a setting for fiction.

Sweetbitter follows a woman who moves alone from a small town to New York City, where she lands a job at a landmark restaurant as a backwaiter. She falls into a dizzying love triangle with Simone and Jake, two otherworldly-beautiful folks with secrets to keep, and tries to survive New York’s punishing restaurant scene.

Charmingly, the main character isn’t a writer or actress or any other cliché of the coming-to-New-York story: she’s just someone who wants to live in New York, and decides that working as a waitress is the best way to make that happen.

Danler writes beautifully about food, friends, sex, and relationships, and best of all, she perfectly captures the off-kilter, loss-of-innocence feeling that can happen when you work in a restaurant. I can’t wait to review this one next week, and it’s stirring up all kinds of feelings in me about what’s missing from today’s literary fiction.

Part of my intense connection to Sweetbitter comes from my own brief experience working in a restaurant-slash-ice-cream shop when I was 17. It was horrible. I barely lasted two months. The customers were punishing, I was always tired and sore, and the behind-the-scenes drama between kitchen staff, waitstaff, and ice cream scoopers was unbearable. (I remember one night around midnight, after close, when everyone decided to compare their favorite vibrator brands in graphic, uncomfortable detail, sexual harassment rules be damned.)

My experience felt extraordinary at the time, but in the scheme of things, it was actually a shockingly boring one for food service. My sister still works as a waitress, hostess, and bartender, and the stories she tells could curl anyone’s toes: ditto the stories of my other food-service-working friends and family. It’s amazing to me that this goldmine isn’t tapped by writers more often–or maybe it is being written, and just not published, which is another problem altogether.

I think literary fiction is having something of an identity crisis at the moment. On one hand, it’s still partially the white women’s book club genre that A Brief History of Seven Killings author Marlon James decried (rightly, I think) back in 2015: focused to a fault on “middle style prose and private ennui.”

On the other hand, literary fiction is also being cracked wide open by authors like Tayari Jones, Celeste Ng, Yaa Gyasi, Catherine Lacey, Rachel Kushner, and Rachel Khong, all of whom wrote books that explored massive topics like slavery and mass incarceration, aging parents and economic downturns, adoption and parenthood, online dating and changing technology in weird, bright, true, and beautiful ways.

That second type of literary fiction is the one that I hope persists–a fiction that reflects a wide swath of ordinary lives back at us with extraordinary empathy and extraordinary prose.

Don’t get me wrong: I know that Sweetbitter is only barely outside the literary norm. Danler’s protagonist is still young, thin, white, and beautiful, and getting a job at a world-class restaurant the second you arrive in New York City is about as realistic as the 1950 Disney Cinderella movie. But it’s given me a delicious taste of what can happen when literary fiction gives itself over to sensuality rather than ennui, to the tactile and real rather than the cerebral and detached. And I want more.


What settings would you like to see literary fiction explore more? Do you have any recommendations for novels set in restaurants, now that my appetite has been thoroughly whetted? Do you have any juicy food service or retail stories? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Book Review: THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room begins on a claustrophobic prison bus, but from there, it opens wide to a tableau of prison, poverty, gentrification, stripping, sex work, murder, and references to Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. It’s technically a novel about Romy Hall, a mother who’s facing two consecutive life sentences, but it’s full of other interlinking stories, too: some brutal, some hopeful, most sad. It’s a novel that’s unsettling as much as it is enthralling. It’s not often that I feel I encounter capital-L Literature: a book that will be read and analyzed and loved decades or centuries from now and not just in this year or next year. I think that The Mars Room is that kind of literature.

You can read my full review below.


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The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: May 1, 2018
  • length: 352 pages
  • cover price: $27.00

Do you ever notice that women can seem common while men never do? You won’t ever hear anyone describe a man’s appearance as common. The common man means the average man, a typical man, a decent hardworking person of modest dreams and resources. A common woman is a woman who looks cheap. A woman who looks cheap doesn’t have to be respected, and so she has a certain value, a certain cheap value.

The Mars Room, page 25

Romy Hall’s life is over. Convicted of murdering her stalker, she’s been separated from her 7-year-old son and prickly German mother in order to serve two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a women’s prison. After thirty-seven years, she will see the parole board that will determine if she can start serving the second sentence–requisite on good behavior, of course.

But what motivation possibly exists for good behavior when you know you’re going to be behind bars forever either way? Not much, I imagine, and The Mars Room tells the sometimes sordid, always riveting story of Romy’s bad behaviors past and present, inside and outside the prison.

There are other linked characters whose stories we experience, too, including a former leg model on death row, a dirty L.A. cop with an intriguing moral code, and a well-meaning G.E.D. teacher who gets in over his head with the women at the prison.

The Mars Room excels at casting light on the absurdities, hypocrisies, and desperations that exist in the American criminal justice system (and in our society at large). Its characters seem to exist perpetually at the end of a rope, and in a less-good novel, I might have pitied them. This novel, however, evokes feelings that are much more complex: I wanted to scold, wanted to yell, wanted to embrace, wanted to weep. It’s an emotional symphony that’s unbearably loud but also impossible to walk away from.

Kushner writes characters who are as frustrating as they are compelling. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and fatphobia are intense and constant presences here, and slurs and vicious acts are perpetrated by every character. At first I found it too upsetting to handle and set the book aside. I’m glad I went back, though: Kushner seems to truly understand what people tick, and that includes bigotry. It doesn’t feel like it’s there for shock value; it isn’t malevolent so much as mundane, and somehow that mundanity is even more chilling than a clear-cut villain would be.

The literary community has been buzzing with talk of “unlikeable” female characters lately (most recently in this excellent interview with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects fame), and I think that The Mars Room digs deeper into that idea than any novel I’ve ever read before, and here’s why:

There’s a world of difference between an “unlikeable” protagonist like Amy Dunne of Gone Girl–a wealthy white woman who speaks truth to a power that she also, sort of, possesses–and an unlikeable protagonist like Romy, a sex worker who lives in a hotel in the Tenderloin, who leaves her son with random babysitters, who steals and does drugs and manipulates men into giving her what she wants, whose own lawyer won’t let her take the stand because he knows the jury will hate her.

One kind of unlikeable woman has a go, grrl! cachet (like alleged scammer Anna Delvey, though as far as we know Delvey isn’t a sociopathic murderer like Dunne), and one gets sent to prison for life with no friends, no family, no lovers, and no advocates, like tens of thousands of real women nationwide.

Its virtuoso character development aside, The Mars Room also features some damn good settings. Kushner paints a portrait of a seedy-but-rapidly-gentrifying San Francisco in word-pictures as neon and memorable as strip club lights. The Mars Room is set in the early 2000s, around the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the claustrophobic jingoism of that moment adds immeasurably to the novel. We don’t hear so much about the inside of the prison as we do about the polluted valley where it’s located: a smart decision, I think, since most readers have an ample idea of what a prison looks like. A poisoned, isolated scrap of California eucalyptus and redwood forest was much more frightening and interesting to me than cinderblock walls.

Lastly, Kushner’s prose is simply magic. I can’t decide whether there’s a lot happening in The Mars Room or barely anything; it’s told mostly in flashbacks which are usually a tension-killer for me. Yet in Kushner’s skilled hands, stories that should be foregone conclusions (prisoners facing life, prisoners facing the death penalty) are as gripping as an action movie. Kushner takes the world we see every day and clarifies it into something eerie and hyper-real, something that literally kept me up at night while I was reading.

The Mars Room is a triumph: a novel that is at once sharp and declarative, fuzzy and gray. I could argue a million different things about it and I’m sure you could argue ten million back at me. It’s unforgettable. Don’t miss it. ★★★★★


My copy of The Mars Room came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.