This Week’s Biggest Books

Sometimes the list of biggest books is so varied and downright interesting you find your spirits lifted no matter what else is going on. After all, in a world where the latest Star Wars adventure shares shelf space with Yuval Noah Harari’s thoughtful look towards a possible future, where a James Patterson story about robotic overlords is right next to a creepy mystery about twin sisters and murder, things just can’t be that bad, because we’re still telling each other incredible stories, and making each other think. Here are the books doing both those things for us this week.

Empire’s End, by Checuk Wendig
Bridging the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, Wendig closes out his own trilogy of books set in the galaxy far, far away. An entity as huge and powerful as the Empire can’t be destroyed simply by blowing up a single superweapon and assassinating its Sith leaders. The remnants of the Empire still control fleets and worlds, and Grand Admiral Rae Sloane, working with the treacherous Gallius Rax, engineer a devastating counterstrike against the fledgling Republic. Veteran rebel pilot Norra Wexley is drafted by Leia Organa to pursue the war criminals, and she is more than glad to do so because of a personal connection to the Empire’s bloody attack. It all comes down to the barren planet of Jakku, where a final confrontation between the Republic and the old Empire looms—and where Wexley hopes to have her revenge.

Humans Bow Down, by James Patterson
Patterson brings his razor-sharp sense of pacing and drama to a sci-fi thriller unlike anything he’s done before—but still unmistakably Patterson. Along with frequent co-author Emily Raymond and the striking illustrations of Alexander Ovchinnikov, Patterson tells the story of Six, a young woman whose family was murdered in the early days of the Great War between humans and robots. The machines won, and humans are either enslaved or confined to a lawless waste known as the Reserve. The machines are gearing up for a final push to conquer the last survivors—and Six is gearing up for revenge, and the salvation of humanity itself. Fast and furious, this sci-fi action yarn is perfect even for those who don’t normally go for sci-fi.

Dead Letters, by Caite Dolan-Leach
In Dolan-Leach’s debut novel, Ava Antipova returns home to upstate New York when her twin sister, Zelda, dies in a barn fire. Ava arrives suspicious; the dramatic death is precisely what Zelda would have chosen for her demise. As Ava navigates her unhappy, alcoholic family and an old school flame, she discovers Zelda’s burner phone—and begins to receive emails and texts from her sister. What follows is a scavenger hunt and puzzle as Ava chases down clues, which is convenient because Ava’s field of study involves literary mysteries. As Ava creeps towards the solution, there are false starts and red herrings, but the picture that slowly coalesces is affecting and forces the reader to re-evaluate the assumptions they started with.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari
History normally looks back and attempts to say, with certainty, what did or didn’t happen. Harari takes a different approach: looking forward. While admitting that no one can accurately predict the future, he attempts to take all the information on hand and make bold predictions as to the most likely course of future human history—and his conclusions aren’t very reassuring. While he sees plenty of achievements in store for us, his theory is that humanity’s progress is inevitably making us insignificant, resulting in a future where we won’t be in control of our existence—if we’re even still around (the “post-human future” is certainly in the tea leaves.) It’s up to you to decide if Harari makes his case—but whether you agree or not, the time spent with this book is worthwhile.

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman
Working from the original Norse legends, Gaiman applies his novelist talents to craft the old myths into a cohesive narrative in which the gods emerge as characters with motivations and flaws, telling us the story of Odin, father of the gods, and his sons Thor and Loki from the beginning, but not quite like we’ve experienced it before, from how Asgard was built to how Thor came into possession of his famous hammer. Gaiman is true to the apocalyptic tone of the old myths, stories that cast the world as a place of struggle and violence, where dying in battle was probably your best option. If you’ve read American Gods, you know Gaiman has a gift for making old stories not just new, but unmistakably his own.

The Life I Live, by Rory Feek
Talented and successful singer-songwriter Feek pens a moving, insightful memoir detailing his poor upbringing in a rural community, his success in the country music industry writing songs for Blake Shelton and the Oak Ridge Boys, and his wife Joey’s cancer diagnosis and what Feek calls the “Long Goodbye.” In an alternately heartbreaking and optimistic style, Feek details the spiritual journey that led him to Joey, the woman who would inspire and comfort him, and how that foundation helped him make it through the worst time of his life. Feek makes clear his hopes that his story will help others find their way, just as his music has comforted and inspired millions.

Heartbreak Hotel, by Jonathan Kellerman
The 32nd Alex Delaware novel finds the renowned child psychologist summoned to the Aventura Hotel to meet with sweet, charming Thalia, who is just weeks from her 100th birthday. Intrigued, Delaware has a conversation with Thalia about current theories on the nature of guilt, but the old woman won’t explain her interest. When he returns the next day, Thalia has passed away—but paramedics who respond to the call find evidence pointing to her death not being from natural causes. Delaware must sift through a century’s worth of the past in order to figure out who would want to murder a sweet old lady, and finds himself enlisting an academic dream team in addition to his own psychological insights to get to the bottom of it all.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Saunders’ celebrated short stories have plenty of speculative elements to them, and his debut novel is markedly supernatural. The Lincoln of the title is, of course, Abraham Lincoln, and the setting is a graveyard in the 19th century. The book’s true protagonists are the ghosts who populate the graveyard where Lincoln’s son Willie—dead at 11 years old—has been interred. These spirits have chosen to remain in an in-between state of existence, avoiding judgment and retaining all of the prejudices and personalities of their living years. Lincoln’s presence energizes them, and they determine to save his son’s spirit from their own static fate. This novel, Saunders’ first, is delivered with the writer’s trademark wit, eye for delirious detail, and a prose style so absorbing you forget you’re reading and not hearing a story by the fire on a chilly winter’s night.

Echoes in Death, by J.D. Robb
Robb carries readers back to her imaginative and consistently entertaining future New York, as Lt. Eve Dallas and hubby Roarke come across a naked woman in the street, obviously the victim of an assault. She’s later determined to have been raped, and identified as the wife of a prominent surgeon—who is found murdered at their elegant home. Dallas uncovers similar cases, and the techs at Roarke’s company start putting together a pool of suspects. As is usual with Robb’s In Death series, just when you think Dallas has it all figured out, along comes a twist that’ll throw you for a loop.

Big Agenda: President Trump’s Plan to Save America, by David Horowitz
As the entire country scrambles to catch up with the fallout from the 2016 Presidential Election, even the most erudite of pundits finds themselves struggling. President Trump certainly means to govern like no chief executive before him, and to make sense of the early months of his administration is going to require a significant learning curve and a willingness to do some homework. That’s where Horowitz’s ambitious book comes in: in it, he lays out a likely course of action for the young administration in its early days—and a range of possible consequences to follow. It’s about as timely a book as you can find.

The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney
A high-tech, beautifully minimalist townhouse, designed by famed, enigmatic architect Edward Monkford, is available for rent—but there are stipulations. The rental application reads more like a psychological test, the house is fully automated (and not controlled by the tenant), and Monkford has hundreds of requirements, including no throw pillows, no pets, and no books. Emma is a girl in desperate need of order and safety, and so these limitations feel like security to her. Later, Jane flees a personal tragedy to move in, making Emma the titular “girl before.” That both Emma and Jane resemble Edward’s dead wife is the first clue things are going to get messy. Told in alternating chapters from the past and present, Jane and Emma’s life in the house take on disturbing parallels as Delaney crafts a near-perfect thriller for the 21st century.

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Not everyone knows that the word “computer” once referred to a human being who literally computed sums by hand. And not everyone knows the names Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine—or at least they didn’t until Shetterly’s book arrived, and the film version starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Kevin Costner hit theaters. These patriotic, courageous women were instrumental in making America’s early space program a success, despite the institutional racism and prejudice of the pre-Civil Rights Jim Crow era. Their story isn’t just one of incredible achievement, it’s also a lesson in how easily people can be erased from history when the system itself is bigoted.

Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission, by Bret Baier and Catherine Whitney
Eisenhower’s legendary final speech as President, in which he coined the phrase “military-industrial complex” and warned that the United States was in danger of becoming a “permanent war-based industry” is well-known. Not so well known are the busy last days of his Presidency, spent largely trying to prepare incoming President John F. Kennedy for what Eisenhower saw as a desperate struggle for the soul and future of the United States. Baier’s well-researched book brings an almost thriller-like tone that certainly reverberates as the country moves into a new Presidential era that is as unpredictable as any that have come before, making this essential reading for the New Year.

The Lose Your Belly Fat Diet, by Travis Stork
Stork argues that getting rid of that annoying and unhealthy belly fat isn’t just a matter of reducing your food intake, but one of recognizing that we’re in a symbiotic relationship with the microbes that live in our guts, and our diet should be designed to help us both. Basing his program on cutting-edge research into the flora of our digestive system, most of which is beneficial and even necessary to our digestion and overall health, Stork offers up a plan to make our intestinal bacteria strong and healthy, which in turn has immense benefits for our health in general. As one of the new breed of diet books that look at more than just calories and fat, the benefits of following Stork’s lead include more than just losing a few pounds—and might include adding a few years to your life.

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams
Everyone experiences hardship and tragedy, and everyone struggles, sometimes, to find joy in their lives. When things are going poorly, staying happy and positive is often an impossibility—or is it? Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama are two spiritual men who have endured hardship beyond most of our imaginations—and yet it’s not an exaggeration to describe them as the two most joyful men in the world. In 2015, Tutu traveled to India to meet with the Dalai Lama on his 80th birthday, and to reflect on their lives in search of lessons for others on how to find happiness and joy no matter what else is going on. The result is captured in this remarkable book, filled with wisdom, humor, and the sort of lessons that take lifetimes to understand.

Killing the Rising Sun, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
O’Reilly and historian Dugard are back with the latest in the mega-successful Killing series. This time, instead of an individual, O’Reilly casts the Empire of Japan in the role of victim, exploring the final days of the war when Japan seemed destined to fight a brutal, bloody last stand that would cost millions of lives. As General Douglas MacArthur planned the invasion of Japan, the Manhattan Project was finishing work on what would become the biggest game-changer in terms of geopolitics and warfare ever: the Atomic Bomb. When FDR died in office, his Vice President Harry Truman suddenly found himself forced to make the most fateful decision of the war: invade Japan and pay the butcher’s bill, or drop the bomb and change the world. As always, O’Reilly sets the table with a deft eye for drama and clarifies the issues surrounding this complicated and momentous event.

Milk and Honey, by Rupi Kaur
This collection from the “Instapoet” Kaur was originally self-published, and has been a sales juggernaut ever since. With raw, powerful poetry on subjects ranging from abuse, violence, and what it’s like to be a woman in the modern world, Kaur has engaged people all over the world—including people who would never normally be interested in poetry. But the power and dynamism of Kaur’s poems can’t be denied, and anyone who reads them comes away with a slightly larger understanding of the world around them. This sort of transmittable epiphany is the whole point of poetry, and explains the runaway success of one of our fastest-rising writing stars.

The Magnolia Story, by Chip Gaines, Joanna Gaines, and Mark Dagostino
Fans of home renovation and so-called “property porn” shows on HGTV and similar networks might have tuned into Chip and Joanna Gaines’ show Fixer Upper for the real estate—but they stayed for the charm. Now hosting one of the most popular shows in their lane, the Gaines family has enjoyed a quickly-growing fan base that want to know how in the world such nice, fun, and good-hearted people built their own little television and renovation empire. In this charming book, Chip and Joanna recount their early years, the beginnings of their relationship, and the lucky day a television producer happened to stumble on a blog post Joanna wrote. Along the way are a lot of hilarious and heartwarming stories as the Gaines’ prove to be just as nice, smart, and grounded as they appear to be on the show.

Two by Two, by Nicholas Sparks
Nicholas Sparks is the master of the emotionally wrenching, ultimately rewarding story that celebrates life and its wonders without ignoring the dark side of things. In his hotly-anticipated new novel, successful advertising executive Russell Green finds himself living the dream at 32: married to the beautiful Vivian, living in a beautiful house, father to a beautiful daughter. Then life takes one of those sharp left turns and he finds himself jobless, without his wife, and in charge of their daughter as a single parent. In the struggle that ensures, Russell discovers hidden reserves of strength inside himself as he learns the true meaning—and cost—of unconditional love.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance
It’s the rare memoir that aspires to do more than tell the author’s story, but Vance does just that in this remarkable book. Simultaneously the life story of this self-described “hillbilly” and an examination of the societal forces in operation throughout his existence that helped him rise up and graduate Yale Law School, Vance takes a refreshingly honest and objective view of his family, seeing their many strengths as well as their various flaws, and offers a complex and moving worldview that sees the power of a close-knit community and a tightly bonded family as the most important factors in his own success. If you’ve never known anyone who referred to themselves in all seriousness as a hillbilly, this book will be both a revelation and an education.

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