From Victorian London horrors to magical realism, here are a few books from Steven Johnson, Shaun Tan, Aimee Bender, Vivian Shaw, Alexander Dumas, Megan Whalen Turner, and Tara Westover that I think are unmissable.
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
In the summer of 1854, a devastating cholera outbreak seizes London just as it is emerging as a modern city: more than 2 million people packed into a ten-mile circumference, a hub of travel and commerce, teeming with people from all over the world, continually pushing the limits of infrastructure that’s outdated as soon as it’s updated. Dr. John Snow-whose ideas about contagion had been dismissed by the scientific community-is spurred to intense action when the people in his neighborhood begin dying.
With enthralling suspense, Johnson chronicles Snow’s day-by-day efforts, as he risks his own life to prove how the epidemic is being spread. When he creates the map that traces the pattern of outbreak back to its source, Dr. Snow didn’t just solve the most pressing medical riddle of his time. He ultimately established a precedent for the way modern city-dwellers, city planners, physicians, and public officials think about the spread of disease and the development of the modern urban environment.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
In this wordless graphic novel, a man leaves his homeland and sets off for a new country, where he must build a new life for himself and his family.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother—her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother—tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.
The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.
Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw
Greta Helsing inherited her family’s highly specialized and highly peculiar medical practice. In her consulting rooms, Dr. Helsing treats the undead for a host of ills: vocal strain in banshees, arthritis in barrow-wights, and entropy in mummies. Although she barely makes ends meet, this is just the quiet, supernatural-adjacent life Greta’s been groomed for since childhood.
Until a sect of murderous monks emerges, killing human and undead
Londoners alike. As terror takes hold of the city, Greta must use her unusual skills to stop the cult if she hopes to save her practice and her life.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
A popular bestseller since its publication in 1844, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the great page-turning thrillers of all time. Set against the tumultuous years of the post-Napoleonic era, Alexandre Dumas’s grand historical romance recounts the swashbuckling adventures of Edmond Dantès, a dashing young sailor falsely accused of treason. The story of his long imprisonment, dramatic escape, and carefully wrought revenge offers up a vision of France that has become immortal. As Robert Louis Stevenson declared, “I do not believe there is another volume extant where you can breathe the same unmingled atmosphere of romance.”
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
Eugenides, the queen’s thief, can steal anything-or so he says. When his boasting lands him in prison and the king’s magus invites him on a quest to steal a legendary object, he’s in no position to refuse. The magus thinks he has the right tool for the job, but Gen has plans of his own.
Educated by Tara Westover
Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Her family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent. When another brother got himself into college, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.