I like reading in all formats--audio books in my ears, ebooks on my Kindle, paperbacks and hardcovers from my bookshelf or from the library, it’s all good for me. All reading is good reading!

This time I have for you some of the great books I’ve read recently in hardcover. I’ve got queer historical crime fiction about a smuggling ring, a chef’s journey around the country in search of good home cooking, hot off the press literary fiction about family and incarceration, and a dual timeline story of families struggling to make a responsible living in a world that denies obvious truths.

The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco

And the award for most apt title goes to…! This book is seriously gritty, dark, bloody, at times disturbing, and after listing those descriptors I’m not sure I can articulate why I liked it so much. Maybe because, like its main character, it doesn’t apologize for how nasty it is. Alma Rosales, sometimes known as Jack Camp, is a former Pinkerton agent who is now working her way up the ladder in a smuggling ring headed by her beautiful onetime lover, Delphine. When she’s summoned from San Francisco to Port Townsend to infiltrate Delphine’s crew, sniffing out competitors on the outside and moles on the inside, Alma is sucked into a game so complex, I wasn’t sure until the very last page who was pulling the strings. And what a last page it is! I have a famously bad memory and most endings don’t stick with me, but I bet if you ask me a year from now how this book ended, I’ll be able to tell you. It’s one of those endings that somehow has both the feeling of total inevitability and total surprise—I had no idea which way it was going to go, but I felt like every word had led up to those few breathless seconds. The action takes place in 1887, and rarely has a book brought an era to such visceral life. You will be able to smell the sweat in the characters’ armpits. Whether that’s something you want in your reading or not, I’ll leave up to you. Would make a hell of a TV series.

Buttermilk Graffiti by Edward Lee

My husband and I discovered after bingeing all available seasons of The Great British Bakeoff that we really enjoy food-related television, and our fascination led us to Netflix shows like Cooked, Ugly Delicious, and Salt Fat Acid Heat. Buttermilk Graffiti is like those shows, but in book form. Chef Edward Lee traveled around America, eating in local restaurants and worming his way into as many kitchens as he could, because he wanted to learn about the kinds of cooking being done in different regions by different cultures. It didn’t always go well—he often followed whims rather than plans, tried to infiltrate some very insular communities, and his main MO was to walk up to strangers and start asking questions. He at one point purchased a raw chicken sort of against his will and then didn’t have a way to refrigerate it, so he tried to give it to his server at a chicken restaurant—an impulse born of good intentions, but clearly not one bound to be received well. Despite these and other false starts, Lee does some meaningful reflecting on ideas like authenticity, cultural gatekeeping, and appropriation, and it’s fun to go along for the ride with him (especially since you’re not actually there suffering the awkwardness in person).

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

I pre-ordered this book based on two factors: the comparisons to The Mothers and An American Marriage, and that cover. It was a risk worth taking because DANG is this book good, in a break your heart kind of way. Althea and her husband Proctor are successful business owners and pillars of the community until they’re arrested for fraud. Their public downfall forces Althea’s extended family together—and the proximity pushes long-simmering tensions into a boil. All of Althea’s siblings have demons they haven’t fully dealt with, and it becomes clear that in order to go on, they’re going to need to reckon with them—even if some of those demons turn out to be each other. This is a study on generational pain, how bad habits and character flaws and harmful choices get repeated from parent to child, from sibling to sibling, over and over again. If you’re into complicated family dynamics, this is your book of 2019.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is pretty much an automatic buy for me. I’ve loved her work since The Poisonwood Bible was an Oprah’s Book Club pick. She’s such a force for environmental ethics and social justice, I was eager to see what she’d do with this new novel set partly during the 2016 election. There are two timelines, each taking place at the same address in Vineland, New Jersey but over 100 years apart. In the modern timeline, baby boomers Willa and her husband Iano are in dire financial straits despite having worked steadily for years. Now they’re saddled with an infant grandson and an ailing family patriarch, their house is literally falling down around their ears, and they don’t have the funds for repairs. Over a century earlier, Thatcher Greenwood is a high school science teacher who’s being bullied out of teaching Darwinism by a closed-minded principal and a narcissistic town father. The parallels that develop between the two stories are both interesting and comforting--when conditions are scary politically, it can feel apocalyptic, but these two stories told together show that at least in some ways, we’ve been here before.