Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.
Andrea Bartz’s thrillers draw from her own life—partying in Bushwick lofts as a newly transplanted twentysomething for The Lost Night, her first visit to women’s-only The Wing for The Herd, and hanging with a stranger while on vacation in Chile with a friend in the NYT-bestselling We Were Never Here (Ballantine), optioned by Molly Sims of Something Happy Productions and Greg Berlanti, Michael McGrath, and Sarah Schechter of Berlanti Productions in the works at Netflix and now out in paperback. And that’s pretty much where the similarities end, aka, there are no dead bodies in Bartz’s past.
The Milwaukee suburb-born and-raised, Brooklyn-based author has a journalism degree from Northwestern University; was the EIC of her high school newspaper; worked as a magazine editor; started her first book with NaNoWriMo; uses the Pomodoro Technique to write (she works for 20 minutes followed by a 5-minute break); has a cat named Mona; cofounded and coauthored the Tumblr and book Stuff Hipsters Hate; counts Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as her favorite movie; learned crocheting and embroidery as a pandemic hobby; and as a travel writer has gone nude at a public bathhouse in Taiwan, gorilla trekking in Uganda, and released baby turtles in Mexico. Likes: hiking, washi tape. Dislikes: deconstructed salads, WhatsApp. Good at: composting. Bad at: penmanship. Her next book, The Spare Room, is scheduled for summer 2023. Below, her reading recs for your spare time.
The Perfect Escape by Leah Konen. It’s a brilliant premise—when one of three new friends disappears during their girls’ getaway, her travel buddies are shocked to learn there’s no record of her existence—and Konen carves it into a dizzying, head-spinning psychological thriller with more zigzags than a white-water rafting trip.
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. Kim deftly weaves hot-button issues (autism treatment; immigration; consent) into a page-turning courtroom thriller with a conclusion so emotionally resonant, you can’t help but thrust the book into friends’ hands and beg them to discuss it with you.
How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. I’ve always been proud of the fact that I’m not a perfectionist—but reading this thoughtful, chewy, deeply researched meditation on hitting pause made me realize my whole perfect-is-the-enemy-of-done ethos was just my own way of opting into toxic grind culture. Mind: blown.
The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. I tore through the trilogy’s stunning sci-fi/fantasy opener, The Fifth Season, in awe of its fascinating world and rich characters…but it’s long, so when I finished I picked up something slimmer, and I absolutely need to dive back in. I’m putting it in writing—accountability!
In The Quick by Kate Hope Day. In the near-ish future, a brilliant young female astronaut has to figure shit out on a space station. This book has layers of puzzles, a moving love story, and the most cerebral, riveting accounts of life in space—it’s like a feminist The Martian, but with an elegance all its own.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby. Oh my God, I’m laughing just thinking about this collection of no-holds-barred essays about turning 40, relocating to the Midwest, and, um, certain unenviable physical discomforts.
Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett. It’s got “slick, witty limited series” written all over it: a Black reality TV star who’s found dead after a night of partying, a complex cast of larger-than-life characters, Instagram videos sprinkled with clues, and crackling scenes set all over New York City.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. It’s not even my favorite Didion novel (that would be Play It As It Lays), but damn, that title!
I’m pretty sure a better way to describe my relationship with Joe, the protagonist of Caroline Kepnes’s You series (even better than the Netflix adaptation, IMHO): I hate to love him. But I do—ohh, I do—and You Love Me, the latest installment, is Kepnes’s best yet.
I’m fascinated by the creepy New England island and claustrophobic estate at the heart of The Family Plot by Megan Collins. In it, a woman returns to “murder mansion,” her childhood home and, chillingly, a monument to bloody tragedies of the past, thanks to her true-crime-obsessed mother. The family reunites for her father’s funeral…and discovers there’s another body in his grave.
Good Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood. She’s best known for her novels, but I stumbled on this little compendium at a used bookstore in college—a potpourri of quirky parables, monologues, flash fiction, fairy tales turned on their head, and charming illustrations by Atwood herself. Each scrap of writing is potent and delicious and hits the spot, especially before bed.
Lakewood by Megan Giddings. It’s eerie and arresting but strangely beautiful (which is also all true of the story inside—a disturbing thriller about race, class, and the horrors inflicted on Black bodies in the pursuit of science).
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha. This timely, ambitious book was inspired by a real-life event: the 1991 shooting of an unarmed Black teen by a Korean grocer in L.A. Cha’s crime novel is an intricate, suspenseful exploration of race relations, trauma, and family secrets, the kind of empathy-stoking page-turner we could all stand to read.
Healthier Together by Liz Moody. My girlfriend and I have been working through the dinner recipes (quick, tasty, and healthy in a subtle, non-sacrificial way), but my favorite recipe therein is the Extra Crumbly Grain-Free Coffee Cake with Pecan-Cinnamon Streusel…drool.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s When Women Invented Television is jam-packed with fun stories about the pioneering midcentury women who took on the silver screen as stuffy white men were like, “Radio’s all that matters, but you do you.” Case in point: Ever wondered why soap operas have those hallmark long stares and over-the-top reaction shots? Creator Irna Phillips wrote scripts that came up a few minutes short—and when the director complained, she told him to just stretch out the material they had. She also liked to slow down the action so her housewife viewers could watch while doing housework.