An interview with Magdalena Ball, managing editor of Compulsive Readers

For our 2024 blog series, we’re highlighting industry professionals to find out more about their time in the book world. Follow along for insight on what catches a reviewer’s interest, things to avoid when pitching a media outlet, what librarians are searching for and more. 

Today, we’re chatting with Magdalena Ball, a novelist, poet, reviewer, interviewer, vice president of Flying Island Books, and managing editor of Compulsive Reader. Her stories, editorials, poetry, reviews and interviews have appeared in a wide number of journals and anthologies, and have won local and international awards. She is the author of several novels and poetry books, most recently, Bobish, a verse-memoir published by Puncher & Wattmann in 2023.

  1. As someone who hears about A LOT of books, what makes one stand out to you?   

I’m always surprised at how many wonderful books keep coming my way. You’d think there’d be a limited way of saying things but that has not been my experience. There’s always something fresh and new that makes a book stand out — something unique and yet recognisable — as if the author were reaching into my own unnamed experiences and finding something I’ve not yet been able to name and sharing it with me. When this happens it’s visceral and immediate — that recognition. 

  1. What’s the worst thing an author (or publicist!) can do in telling you about a book they’d like you to consider for coverage?  

I don’t know if this is the worst, but here are two things I get far too much and they’re usually enough to get a quick rejection. The first is sending a link or .pdf with nothing more — no note or information. I won’t click or open anything so best to just write. The second, which will come from authors — usually new ones — is hyperbole about their book, eg “this is the best thing you’ll ever read,” “this is a game-changer for poetry,” etc. 

  1. What makes your job easier?  

Compulsive Reader is a passion project. I do it for all sorts of reasons but not to make a living; I have a day job for that and, of course, we’re all in the midst of life with its many priorities. This is the same for my whole reviewing team. We don’t take a lot of books. Publicists and authors who understand that will often send me reviews, ready to use interviews (including recordings), giveaways and other assets I can use straight away, written and formatted in a way that fits the site standard; this won’t necessarily guarantee something will be used, but if it’s well-done and in line with what I do, that not only makes my job easier it means I can do more to support authors which is why I do this.  

  1. What’s the most memorable (or maybe funniest) pitch that’s ever come your way?  

There is this Irish author who I won’t name here but he sent such a funny, charming, slightly over-the-top pitch full of linguistic brogue that I really couldn’t resist.  

  1. Did you always know you wanted to be involved in the book world? 

I’ve been reading and writing since I was very young (and even before I could read and write I was pretending to do those things until my pretense became reality). So I think, yes, this is my world and it feels very natural to me to be reading deeply, writing about books, facilitating that for others, and of course creating my own works too. 

  1. What is your most recommended book and why? 

I get asked for recommendations all the time, but I don’t think I can limit myself to one recommended book as I try to tailor my recommendations to people’s tastes. There are a few books, however, which have remained on my “best of the best” and while it might depend on the person, I think that Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a book I’ve loved since I was 1 or 2 years old and I still love it today — it still rewards my reading out loud to others or to myself.

For something a bit older, I continue to recommend Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum as a challenging and beautiful book that can be read multiple times with something fresh and fascinating every single time. Just one more and that’s Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, which remains, to my mind, an innovative (different coloured ink for example) masterpiece that combines magic realism and historical fiction, and is just such a great read. It’s probably time for me to re-read it.  

  1. What is a book that surprised you recently?  

I struggled for a while with Valerie Werder’s Thieves. It came to me very highly recommended but my attention has been lower than usual for a variety of reasons (I suspect I’m not alone in this) and I kept starting and stopping. When I finally got into the flow and narrative voice of the book, I realized what an incredible feat it was — how ambitious in scope for a first novel but also how cleverly Valerie has engaged with her big and powerful themes and how the unusual structure and language is really the only way this could be done. I continue to think about the book.  

  1. What is your favorite part about working in the book community? 

We all live such busy lives with so many competing demands but I feel there is something counter to that — a kind of slow engagement process at heart when it comes to books. I know this isn’t really the reality of the publishing industry but even there, beyond the day-to-day market, there is this core where the ultimate end “product”’ is a reader and a book and a profound connection that is really beautiful.

I see this deep reverence for engagement translated into face to face sessions at writers conferences and whenever I interview someone; it’s a kind of shared love that is resistant to the commercial enterprise that is built around it. Also you know, I love reading and talking about books — it’s really my favorite thing to do — and having a mandate to do that is just a wonderful privilege. 

Books that feature fascinating sibling relationships for National Siblings Day April 10

Is there any relationship quite as complicated as the one between siblings? As we celebrate National Siblings Day this April 10, we’re looking at some of the novels we love that highlight that special connection.

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

Marilyn and David have four radically different daughters, each in a state of unrest. With the unexpected arrival of young Jonah Bendt — a child placed for adoption by one of the daughters fifteen years before — the Sorensons will be forced to reckon with the rich and varied tapestry of their past. As they grapple with years marred by adolescent angst, infidelity, and resentment, they also find the transcendent moments of joy that make everything else worthwhile.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

In 1893, the Eastwood sisters join the suffragists of New Salem, and they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote ― and perhaps not even to live ― the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

At first, Jude and her twin brother are NoahandJude; inseparable. Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude wears red-red lipstick, cliff-dives, and does all the talking for both of them. Years later, they are barely speaking. The early years are Noah’s to tell; the later years are Jude’s. But they each have only half the story, and if they can only find their way back to one another, they’ll have a chance to remake their world.

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

As an Indian wedding gathers a family back together, parents must reckon with the choices their children have made. There is Hadia: their headstrong, eldest daughter, whose marriage is a match of love and not tradition. Huda, the middle child, determined to follow in her sister’s footsteps. And lastly, their estranged son, Amar, who returns to the family fold for the first time in three years to take his place as brother of the bride. What secrets and betrayals have caused this close-knit family to fracture? 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Cyril Conroy’s investment propels his family from poverty to enormous wealth, and when he buys the Dutch House, a lavish estate, it sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves. The story is told by Cyril’s son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into poverty and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakeable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures.

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin

It begins in a free and feral summer in a middle-class Connecticut town. Caught between the predictable life they once led and an uncertain future, the Skinner siblings — fierce Renee, sensitive Caroline, golden boy Joe and watchful Fiona — emerge staunchly loyal and deeply connected. Two decades later, the siblings find themselves once again confronted with a family crisis that tests the strength of these bonds and forces them to question the life choices they’ve made and ask what, exactly, they will do for love.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people. In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash. Separated by distance — and Papi’s secrets — the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered. And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

In 1969, the Gold children — four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness — sneak out to hear their fortunes from a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

The death of Judd Foxman’s father marks the first time that the entire Foxman clan has congregated in years. There is, however, one conspicuous absence: Judd’s wife, Jen, whose affair with his boss has recently become painfully public. Simultaneously mourning the demise of his father and his marriage, Judd joins his dysfunctional family as they reluctantly sit shiva and spend seven days and nights under the same roof. Longstanding grudges resurface, secrets are revealed and old passions are reawakened. Then Jen delivers the clincher: She’s pregnant.


Hug a Newsperson Day — or read a book featuring a journalist

Here at Books Forward, we’re big fans of journalists — in fact, lots of us used to work as reporters, and even met at various newspapers. So we’re celebrating Hug a Newsperson Day, officially celebrated April 4, by reading some of our favorite books featuring people in the industry.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman who works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle class peers. After a messy break up, Queenie careens from one questionable decision to another, and she finds herself wondering, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be?”

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, reporter Camille Preaker must return to her tiny hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls. For years, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows. Now, Camille must unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past if she wants to get the story — and survive this homecoming.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Quoyle, a third-rate newspaperman, is wrenched violently out of his workaday life when his two-timing wife meets her just deserts. He retreats with his two daughters to his ancestral home on the starkly beautiful Newfoundland coast, where a rich cast of local characters all play a part in Quoyle’s struggle to reclaim his life. He confronts his private demons and begins to see the possibility of love without pain or misery.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

On an island of rugged, spectacular beauty in Puget Sound, a Japanese-American fisherman stands trial, charged with coldblooded murder. Ishmael Chambers, who lost an arm in the Pacific war and now runs the island newspaper, is among the journalists covering the trial — a trial that brings him close, once again, to Hatsue Miyomoto, the wife of the accused man and Ishmael’s never-forgotten boyhood love. 

The Invisible Husband of Frick Island by Colleen Oakley

When Piper Parrish’s darling husband capsized while fishing, she carried on as if he was right there beside her. Meanwhile, Anders Caldwell, a young ambitious journalist, had rather hoped he’d be a national award-winning podcaster by now, rather than writing for a small town newspaper. When he gets an assignment to travel to Frick Island and cover a fundraiser, he stumbles upon a fascinating tale: an entire town pretending to see and interact with a man who does not actually exist. 

The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

When Grace Harrington lands a job at a Hearst newspaper in 1896, a story emerging from Cuba will change her life. Unjustly imprisoned, eighteen-year-old Evangelina Cisneros dreams of a Cuba free from Spanish oppression. When Hearst splashes her image on the front page of his paper, she becomes a rallying cry for American intervention in the battle for Cuban independence. With the help of Marina Perez, a courier secretly working for Cuban revolutionaries, Grace and Hearst’s staff attempt to free Evangelina. 

Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce

Emmeline Lake dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent, and when she spots a job advertisement in the newspaper she seizes her chance. But she finds herself typing letters for the formidable Henrietta Bird, renowned advice columnist of Woman’s Friend magazine. Mrs. Bird is very clear: letters containing any Unpleasantness must go straight into the bin. But as Emmy reads desperate pleas from women, she begins to secretly write back to the readers who have poured out their troubles.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families disappeared over forty years ago. All these years later, her aged uncle hires Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pierced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Together they tap into a vein of unfathomable iniquity and astonishing corruption.

The List by Yomi Adegoke

Ola Olajide, a celebrated magazine journalist, is young, beautiful, and successful — she and her fiancé Michael seem to have it all. Until one morning when they both wake up to “The List.” It began as a collection of names and morphed into an anonymous account posting allegations on social media. Ola would usually support such a list — she’d retweet it, call for the men to be fired, write article after article. Except this time, Michael’s name is on it.

Black Girls Must Die Exhausted by Jayne Allen

Tabitha Walker is a black woman with a plan to “have it all.” With a position as a local news reporter, a “paper-perfect” boyfriend, and even a standing appointment with a reliable hairstylist, everything seems to be falling into place. Then Tabby receives an unexpected diagnosis that jeopardizes the keystone she took for granted: having children. Suddenly she is faced with an impossible choice between her career, her dream home, and a family of her own. 

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Beautiful young Ashley Cordova’s death is ruled a suicide, but veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath encounters the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova. The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time he might lose even more.

The Mad Girls of New York by Maya Rodale

In 1887 New York City, Nellie Bly has ambitions beyond writing for the ladies pages, but all the editors on Newspaper Row think women are too emotional, respectable and delicate to do the job. But then she gets a new assignment: go undercover as a patient at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for women. For months, rumors have been swirling about deplorable conditions at Blackwell’s. Once inside, Nellie befriends her fellow patients who help her uncover shocking truths about the asylum.

The Ex-Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Shay Goldstein has been a producer at her Seattle public radio station for nearly a decade, but lately it’s been a constant clash between her and her newest colleague, Dominic Yun, who’s fresh off a journalism master’s program and convinced he knows everything. When the struggling station needs a new concept, Shay proposes The Ex Talk, where two exes will deliver relationship advice live, on air. Their boss decides Shay and Dominic are the perfect co-hosts, given how much they already despise each other. Their audience gets invested fast, and it’s not long before The Ex Talk becomes a must-listen in Seattle. As the show gets bigger, so does their deception, especially when Shay and Dominic start to fall for each other.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Kirby is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper Curtis is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a House in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times. Harper inserts himself into their lives, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He vanishes without a trace into another time after each murder — until one of his victims survives. Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins the Chicago Sun-Times to work with the reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on an impossible truth…


Funny horror books you’ll love if you’re excited for Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

I’m new to the horror genre, and when I started to dip my toe in, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that a good number of the books I was picking up were really funny (in addition to being gruesome)! I asked around, and apparently it’s not uncommon for these writers to have an excellent sense of humor — which explains why the new Ghostbusters movie made me laugh and jump out of my seat. Check out these books if you wanna see what I’m talking about.

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

In 1977, four teenagers and a dog solved the mystery of Sleepy Lake. The trail of an amphibian monster terrorizing the quiet town of Blyton Hills leads the gang to spend a night in Deboën Mansion and apprehend a familiar culprit: a bitter old man in a mask. In 1990, the man they apprehended makes parole, and Andy tracks him down to confirm what she’s always known— they got the wrong guy. Now she’ll need to get the gang back together and return to Blyton Hills to find out what really happened.

How To Sell A Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

When Louise finds out her parents have died, she dreads going home. She doesn’t want to deal with her brother, Mark, who never left their hometown, gets fired from one job after another, and resents her success. Unfortunately, she’ll need his help to get the house ready for sale because it’ll take more than some new paint on the walls and clearing out a lifetime of memories to get this place on the market. But some houses don’t want to be sold, and their home has other plans for both of them.

A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

Charlie Asher is a pretty normal guy with a normal life, married to a bright and pretty woman who actually loves him for his normalcy. They’re even about to have their first child. Yes, Charlie’s doing okay— until people start dropping dead around him, and everywhere he goes a dark presence whispers to him from under the streets. Charlie Asher, it seems, has been recruited for a new position: as Death.

The Twisted Ones by T Kingfisher

When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. But Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. Then Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors — because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you.

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

Jamie Gray’s old acquaintance, Tom, works at what he calls “an animal rights organization” and needs a last-minute grunt to handle things on their next field visit. What Tom doesn’t tell Jamie is that the animals his team cares for are not here on Earth. In an alternate dimension, massive dinosaur-like creatures named Kaiju roam a warm, human-free world. They’re the universe’s largest and most dangerous pandas and they’re in trouble. Others have found their way to the alternate world. And their carelessness could cause millions back on our Earth to die.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Korede’s sister Ayoola is many things: the favorite child, the beautiful one, possibly sociopathic. And now Ayoola’s third boyfriend in a row is dead, stabbed through the heart with Ayoola’s knife. Korede knows the best solutions for cleaning blood (bleach, bleach, and more bleach), the best way to move a body (wrap it in sheets like a mummy), and she keeps Ayoola from posting pictures to Instagram when she should be mourning her “missing” boyfriend. But when a kind, handsome doctor at the hospital where Korede works asks for Ayoola’s phone number, she must reckon with what her sister has become and how far she’s willing to go to protect her.

My Heart Is A Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

Jade Daniels is an angry, half-Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She lives in her own world, a world in which protection comes from an unusual source: horror movies…especially the ones where a masked killer seeks revenge on a world that wronged them. But when blood actually starts to spill into the waters of Indian Lake, she pulls us into her dizzying, encyclopedic mind of blood and masked murderers, and predicts exactly how the plot will unfold.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Brought up by unfriendly nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She prepares to launch her daring escape, but her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service. Harrowhark Nonagesimus, bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but she has no chance without Gideon.

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

S.T., a domesticated crow, is a bird of simple pleasures: hanging out with his owner Big Jim, trading insults with Seattle’s wild crows, and enjoying the finest food humankind has to offer: Cheetos. But when Big Jim’s eyeball falls out of his head, S.T. is left with no choice but to abandon his old life and venture out into a wild and frightening new world with his trusty steed Dennis, where he discovers that the neighbors are devouring one another. Humanity’s extinction has seemingly arrived, and the only one determined to save it is a cowardly crow whose only knowledge of the world comes from TV.


Spring cleaning: Novels that give characters fresh starts

Springtime has rushed in again, and maybe this year we’ll finally get around to spring cleaning (but probably not). The characters in these books cleaned house metaphorically, starting their lives over to get a fresh perspective! Try one of them out if you’re in the mood for something new.

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

How many married people have daydreamed about walking out to find a different life? Britt-Marie actually does it, and follows her heart right into a small town full of quirky misfits.

XOXO by Axie Oh

When Jenny moves to Seoul and runs into the boy she spent a dreamy L.A. evening with, it seems like fate. But he happens to be a K-pop superstar, and a relationship is simply off the table for both of them.

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Bree Matthews is running away from her memories after her mother dies in a tragic accident, and thankfully she has been accepted to a program for high schoolers at UNC. But when she discovers a secret society full of magical secrets, her life is only going to get more complicated. 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cora, a young outcast, escapes a slave plantation in Georgia through a literal underground railroad, searching for a route to make a life for herself.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

An unexpected friendship between a recently widowed Evvie and Dean, a pitcher with the yips, will lead to uncovered secrets, new relationships, and a hopeful future.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

After her mother’s death and the dissolution of her marriage, Cheryl Strayed took to the Pacific Crest Trail to rediscover herself.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

After fleeing their home in the Dominican Republic, the four Garcia girls adjust to an overwhelming New York City as their parents try to hold on to old traditions.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

A.J. Fikry lives alone, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and his prized possession, a rare collection of Edgar Allen Poe poems, has been stolen. But a mysterious package gives Fikry the chance to make his life over.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Roser, a pregnant young widow, must marry Victor, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love, as well as flee a Spanish civil war. Though neither of them wants the marriage, they are united in their hope of returning home.

The Switch by Beth O’Leary

Overachiever Leena Cotton is ordered to take a sabbatical, so she escapes to her grandmother Eileen’s house. Eileen is newly single and about to turn 80. Her tiny Yorkshire village doesn’t offer many eligible gentlemen, so she and Leena decide to try a two-month swap.


An Interview with Max Bowen, host and founder of Citywide Blackout

For our 2024 blog series, we’re highlighting industry professionals to find out more about their time in the book world. Follow along for insight on what catches a reviewer’s interest, things to avoid when pitching a media outlet, what librarians are searching for and more. 

Today, we’re chatting with Max Bowen, a podcast/radio host, public speaker, reporter and writer, and voiceover talent. He is the host and founder of Citywide Blackout, a podcast focused on the heart and soul of the story behind the story, featuring guests who create works we love — from music, the arts, books, films and much more. 

With roots on radio at Boston’s WEMF Internet station, the show began in April 2009 as a platform to highlight the stories of musicians in the region. Later, it expanded to include authors, comic book creators, filmmakers and other guests around the world. 

In addition to his work in radio and podcasting, Max has voiced and produced three audiobooks in the genres of true crime and science fiction. 

As someone who hears about A LOT of books, what makes one stand out to you?

Hearing a personal connection between the author and the story. Knowing that they’ve put some of their own story into the book means a lot.

What’s the worst thing an author (or publicist!) can do in telling you about book they’d like you to consider for coverage?

Telling me that it’s “unlike anything I’ve read before.”

What makes your job easier?

Getting all the information I need: website, socials, hi-res photos. It saves me a lot of time hunting these down.

What’s the most memorable (or maybe funniest) pitch that’s ever come your way?

A pitch for Michael Eon. It really spoke to me and made me excited to read the book.

Did you always know you wanted to be involved in the book world?

Yes. Ever since I was in high school I wanted to be a writer.

What is your most recommended book and why?

Ghost Road Blues” by Jonathan Maberry. One of my favorite horror stories.

What is your favorite part about working in the book community?

Getting to meet the authors. They have such wonderful stories to share.

8 Epic Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books to Read If You’re Ready for Dune: Part Two

Dune: Part Two is here! It’s time for Timmy C. and Zendaya to throw on their billowing robes and head back to the sands of Arrakis for more epic adventures. I was surprised that the first installment made such an impression on me – it’s so hard to get epic SFF books right, but I thought they did really well. But of course, you might want to dive into more hard sci-fi/fantasy novels with the same epic scope and political intrigue, and that’s what I’m here for.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

A secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. 

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

Intense and thought-provoking, this post-apocalyptic narrative explores the adaptability of humanity after an alien race “rescues” them from themselves, and a dying Earth.  

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

In the near future, where rivers are drying up, detective, assassin, and spy Angel Velasquez is sent south. There, he encounters Lucy Monroe, a hardened journalist with her own agenda, and Maria Villarosa, a young Texas migrant, who dreams of escaping north. The three find themselves pawns in a game far bigger and more corrupt than they could have imagined, and when water is more valuable than gold, alliances shift like sand.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester. This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Years ago, Breq was Justice of Toren — a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose — to revenge herself on the many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Set within a system of decaying world-ships traveling through deep space, this novel follows a pair of sisters who must wrest control of their war-torn legion of worlds — and may have to destroy everything they know in order to survive.

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Captain Jim Holden and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship and find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for. Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Those Beyond the Wall by Micaiah Johnson

Scales is a respected member of the Emperor’s crew and keeps things running smoothly. But the fragile peace Scales helps to maintain is fractured when a woman is mangled and killed before her eyes. Even more incomprehensible: There doesn’t seem to be a murderer. When more bodies start to turn up, Scales is tasked with finding the cause — and putting an end to it by any means necessary. 


Books to read on Leap Day

I know what “science” says, but I choose to believe that Leap Day is a gift given to me as a chance to read an extra book every four years. I put together a list of short and sweet books that you can absolutely get through in a day, leaving you with a warm glow going into March.

Heartstopper Vol. 5 by Alice Oseman

I assume you’ve all read Vols. 1-4, correct? If not, you should catch up and then read the newest installment (honestly since they’re graphic novels, you could probably tackle them all in a day), in which Charlie and Nick have to deal with a lot of changes in their lives and their relationship.

How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Do you like sci-fi? Enemies-to-lovers romance stories? Action and adventure?! Epistolary relationship building? Then this is the book for you, all wrapped up in a tiny, tight little package.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

A lovely, heartwarming, and at times lonely little story about fitting in, and the societal rules we conform to in order to be seen as “normal,” for better or for worse.

A Psalm for the Wild Built by Becky Chambers

What if you wandered a post-apocalyptic utopia, searching for meaning in your life, and ran into a robot with some of the same musings? You’d get the first Monk and Robot book in the Monk. Hopeful, humorous and thought-provoking.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

A deeply intimate examination of motherhood — what it takes from us, how it sheds light on our families and how it affects our place in our communities.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

I’m a lot more likely to read a classic if I know it’s short, and this one, set as a man facing a great fish foe (it works really well as a metaphor) is worth your time. 

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

Whew, you might want to prepare yourself for this one, as it does get grisly, but the story of KKK members turning into demons set to end the world is as gripping as it is imaginative.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

It was assigned reading in school for a reason! A beautifully told coming-of-age story that will teach you something and give you memories to relate to at the same time.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

A tiny book that boils down all of the trials and intimacies of a marriage, and yet never feels lacking. Anyone who has been in a long-term romantic relationship will relate to this gorgeously written reflection.

10 books to read with your besties to celebrate Galentine’s Day

As a female-founded and female-owned company, of course we love Galentine’s Day, and the idea behind it. Female friendships keep us going through the good times and the bad, and these books do a great job celebrating that special bond!

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

The first novel in the four-book series covers the meeting of fiery and unforgettable Lila and the bookish narrator, Elena, at the start of their complex friendship. 

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Two girls dream of being dancers and share a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early 20s, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

For 30 years, Tully and Kate buoy each other through life, weathering the storms of friendship — jealousy, anger, hurt, resentment. They think they’ve survived it all until a single act of betrayal tears them apart and puts their courage and friendship to the ultimate test.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Frances is a cool headed and darkly observant young woman studying in Dublin. Her best friend is the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi. When the girls are gradually drawn into the world of a well-known photographer and her handsome husband, it will alter the course of their relationship.

Wahala by Nikki May

When a lethally glamorous woman infiltrates a group of three Anglo-Nigerian best friends, she sows chaos, and the friendships begin to crack.

The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe

Best friends despite their differences, Mia is reckless and proudly hard-hearted and Lorrie Ann is kind, serenely beautiful, and seemingly immune to teenage mistakes. But when Lorrie Ann stops being so good, Mia must question how well she ever really knew her in the first place.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Agnieszka is afraid. She knows that the Dragon protecting her village will take her best friend Kasia as a sacrifice, and there is no way to save her. But when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho

Fiona Lin and Jane Shen explore Los Angeles together through their teenage years, surviving unfulfilling romantic encounters, and carrying with them the scars of their families’ tumultuous pasts. But even when the women later float in and out of each other’s lives, their friendship is both a beacon of home and a reminder of all they’ve lost.

Sula by Toni Morrison

Nel and Sula’s devotion is fierce enough to withstand bullies and the burden of a dreadful secret. It endures even after Nel has grown up to be a pillar of the Black community and Sula has become a pariah. But their friendship ends in an unforgivable betrayal — or does it?   

Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett and the late Lucy Grealy met in college in 1981, and began a friendship that would be as defining to both of their lives as their work. This is a portrait of unwavering commitment that spans 20 years. Through love, fame, drugs, and despair, this is what it means to be part of two lives that are intertwined, and what happens when one is left behind.

An Interview with Big Al, of IndieView and Books and Pals

For our 2024 blog series, we’re highlighting industry professionals to find out more about their time in the book world. Follow along for insight on what catches a reviewer’s interest, things to avoid when pitching a media outlet, what librarians are searching for and more. 

Today, we’re chatting with BigAl (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna). He spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for his website BigAl’s Books and Pals as well as running The IndieView, a website intended as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

As someone who hears about A LOT of books, what makes one stand out to you?

In some ways I’m lucky in that I don’t have to consider the same things that a book publicist or a publisher or many in the book business do. The IndieView and my review blog, BigAl’s Books and Pals, are both things I do as a hobby to help out my fellow readers as well as authors.

Being in a different position than a publicist, agent, or publisher, all I have to look for in a book is whether it appeals to me personally. I don’t need to take into account whether it is likely to appeal to a broad audience, only whether it has an audience. In the case of choosing a book to read for review, the only audience it has to appeal to is me. I think the evolution of publishing over the last dozen years or so has made it possible for some of those stories with appeal that isn’t broad to get out there and find their audience.

I’m starting the third paragraph and I still haven’t given an answer to the question. Maybe I need a better editor. For me personally, I have always enjoyed thrillers and suspense and mysteries, whether detective mysteries or a normal person trying to figure out what is going on. Throw in a little humor, and you’re even more likely to pull me in. Those who are old enough to have read Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder series or Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series in the prior century will know what I was reading many years ago. I also find that I like books, fiction or nonfiction, that help me experience something vicariously, whether a travel book or a book with characters who live a life very much unlike mine. At a high level there are only so many stories and they’ve already been told many times. The specifics are what makes a story unique, so it has to be something in the specifics – whether it is the characters or a unique twist of some kind to make a book stand out. If a book seems to have that, it will draw me in.

What’s the worst thing an author (or publicist!) can do in telling you about a book they’d like you to consider for coverage?

I’ve got a couple things. 

First, familiarize yourself with the venue and possibly tweak your boilerplate email to reflect what you find. The IndieView does two things an author or publicist looking for coverage might benefit from. One of these is providing a list of book review sites that meet certain requirements, and doesn’t require anything other than to check out the list to use it. (Then follow the link to the independent sites in the list that appeal and follow their directions.) The other is interviews (or IndieViews, since that is the name of the site). If you ask for a review, don’t contact the site. You haven’t done your homework and I won’t bother to respond.

The second thing is to follow instructions. At Books and Pals I have a page that explains what to do to be considered for review and instructions to submit a book for consideration. One of those things is to send an ebook in one of a few eBook formats as part of your submission email. It’s amazing how many authors and publicists manage to find the email to send their request, but don’t follow the instructions on the same page and prior to the only place the email is listed. When I receive those I have a “nope, not bothering with this one” file that those emails go to.

Neither of these things are really what I think your question is aimed at, but the reality is that what I get “told” in the email telling me about the book isn’t going to matter if you get excluded before I reach the point of considering the book. 

What makes your job easier?

I could answer that for me this isn’t a job, it’s a hobby. I’d be right, in that if I was doing it for financial reasons I never would have started and certainly would have quit long ago. But it is a job in that it involves work keeping things going. What makes it easier is publicists and authors who do (or don’t do for some of them) the things I talk about in the last question. Plus, reading or helping publicize that good book is a reward in itself that makes it all easier. 

Did you always know you wanted to be involved in the book world?

Yes and no. I’ve always been an avid reader beginning in second grade (many, many decades ago) when I won a class contest for reading the most books that year. I suspect if we’d been keeping track that I’ve beaten all of my classmates by that metric every year since. But in other ways, running these websites, writing a bit myself as a reviewer or for a while writing for yet another website aimed at authors, was something I kind of fell into and found I enjoyed. I’m a bit surprised it happened.

What is your favorite part about working in the book community?

I enjoy helping connect my fellow readers with books and authors they might not find otherwise. I’ve also made a lot of friends among avid readers as well as authors from around the world that I wouldn’t have otherwise.