These are 10* books** I love and will always recommend.
* not in order of preference ** list subject to change all the damn time
If I Fall, If I Die, by Michael Christie
This book is set in Thunder Bay, Ontario, which sets it apart from, well, most books. It is the story of Will, son of a loving, but agoraphobic mother. When the book opens, Will has never been outside of the house and has never met his father. His life changes dramatically when he bravely ventures out (wearing a helmet and padding because he has been raised to believe the outside world is full of danger) and makes a friend in Jonah, who offers to teach him how to skateboard. When a local child goes missing, Will and Jonah set out to solve the mystery, but become embroiled in a bigger mystery that may provide answers to Will about who his father is. Throughout, Thunder Bay landmarks define the setting and Will's slowly expanding world.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson
I will freely recommend any one of Winterson's books to you. She's a gorgeous writer, poetic, like Michael Ondaatje, but somehow even more spare. She can evoke beauty with the most minimal description, and build a character on a single adjective. This is her memoir. Adopted by a strict and domineering Pentecostal woman and her meek husband, Winterson, as an adult, begins a search for her birth mother. It is a story of the deep and human need for acceptance and love.
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
Smith has gone on to write many great books and essays since this, her first title, was published in 2000. But this is the place to begin your journey with her work. The story is multi-layered, full of nuanced and very human characters, compelling and politically astute. I just did a quick google search to determine this book's year of publication and discovered that it has been classified by critic and white guy James Wood as "hysterical realism". Please disregard that made up and clearly sexist critique and believe me when I tell you that you will not be able to put this book down and it will speak truths you never realized you needed to know.
George Saunders, Lincoln In the Bardo
Abraham Lincoln reportedly visited the crypt where his son Willie was laid to rest several times in a single night to be with Willie's dead body. On this true fact, Saunders bases a gloriously innovative story in which Lincoln's actions and grief are observed by spirits. One hundred and sixty-six of them, all occupying the space between death and reincarnation (this liminal space is the "bardo" of the title) The clarity with which Saunders develops each of those spirits' individual voices is a marvel. Listen to the audio book if you can.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home
In this gorgeous graphic novel and memoir, Bechdel recounts her life and relationship with her father, a closeted gay man, director of a funeral home and high school teacher. He died either intentionally or by accident when he was struck by a train while walking the tracks, and through this story Bechdel works through her complicated view of him. Her writing includes journals from her childhood as well as letters she and her parents exchanged while she was at college, which contribute to the overall authenticity of Bechdel's voice and storytelling. Like her, we are invited to wonder how her father's life might had been different had he been one generation younger, like Bechdel herself, and able come out of the closet and live as his true self.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse Five
As a younger reader I was a real fan of the hilarious Breakfast of Champions, and the aptly titled Slapstick, both funny funny books, indeed. But in my dotage I can see that Slaughterhouse Five is Vonnegut's magnum opus; it is the story he was meant to tell (and, you could argue, did tell over and over in many other books, never quite as well). Gorgeously tragic, heartbreaking, amazing. It holds up.
Lucy Ellman, Ducks Newburyport
Hey here's an idea: read a 900 page book that is all one sentence. Seriously. You won't regret it. The narrator of this book is an incredibly astute American citizen, trying not to resent her four children, trying to be nice to her annoying but maybe also dangerous? neighbour, trying to keep her baking business alive, trying to understand what has happened to her country since it elected Donald Trump. Her concerns are at once personal and global and as a result very very familiar. Compelling, hilarious and sharp, this book is like a comprehensible Ulyssess, .
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World and Me
This book is a letter Coates writes to his son with instructions on how to live in the world as a Black man. What does it mean to have a Black body in a world that is constructed to believe it owns Black bodies? Particularly now, as you make your way through the cornucopia of anti-racist literature that is currently available, I invite you to start here with this letter of love and fear. It is unforgettable.
Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, Skim
I'm going to overlook the deeply problematic relationship this book's main character develops with her art teacher in this story, because it is such a gorgeous representation of the state of being an arty, nerdy, teenaged outsider. Please read this and other titles by these authors, and remember that it is great not to be sixteen.
Esi Edugyan, Washington Black
The level of adventure in this story is pretty high, and that's not usually my thing. But Edugyan has created an epic tale set initially in Barbados about a young slave named Washington Black who is taken out of slavery and under the wing of an older white mentor and scientist, Christopher "Titch" Wilde. Titch teaches Wash to read, to participate in his scientific experiments, and to develop his artistic talent. While he is no longer a slave, as long as he is travelling with Titch, Washington Black is not exactly "free". The story feels so true that I was constantly imagining how much research went into its writing, and how I would never know for sure which events were historical and which were pure fiction. This is a gorgeous book.