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Book Recommendations from Marlon James

Mark Seliger / Illustration by Yousra Attia

Welcome to Shelf Life,’s book column, where authors share their most memorable books. Whether you’re looking for a book to comfort you, touch you deeply, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’ve been here), love books holds. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours.

Moon Witch, Spider King (The Dark Star Trilogy)

Marlon James’ fifth novel, Moon Witch, Spider King (Riverhead), due out this week, is the second in his fantasy Dark Star trilogy after NYT bestselling National Book Award finalist Black Leopard, Red Wolf, of which Warner is the acquired film rights. Brittle. and Michael B. Jordan’s Outlier Society. James, whose novel A Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker Prize 2015, also writes and produces detective series Get Millie Black (his mother grew up from police officer to detective) for HBO. Not bad for someone whose first novel was rejected 78 times.

The Jamaican-born, New York-based author was first inspired to write after reading Laura Ingalls Wilder as a child; teaches creative writing at Macalester College; was on Time’s list of 100 Most Influential People (his entry was written by Salman Rushdie); has worked as a copywriter at an advertising agency, graphic designer for a Kingston record label and art director for musicians (as boss, he co-founded Talk Like a Pirate Day); and does a podcast with its editor, “Marlon & Jake Read Dead People.”

Likes: Prince (he was caught trying to break into Paisley Park); Cook; Grace Jones; Korean Zombie Movies, Comics, Roman Poet Lucan, Muji Pens. Dislikes: Silence. Here are some of his shout-outs.

The book that:

…made me miss a train stop:

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann. Considering that the narrator is a murderous sociopath with disturbing ideas about consent, that’s saying something.

… I recommend again and again:

The Time Of Our Singing by Richard Powers. It’s the last novel I’m rooted in for any character, and the last one that made me cry.

…I swear that one day I will end:

Middle March by George Elliot. Many people I admire consider this the best novel not written by a Russian male, but I can’t help but believe that this was assigned to me in high school for an exam I nearly failed to pass.

…I first bought:

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. I hated the first pages of Middlemarch so much that I went to the exam office and demanded the enlightened syllabus. Tom Jones topped the list.

…has the best opening line:

The journalist and murderer of Janet Malcolm. “Any journalist who isn’t too stupid or too full of himself to notice what’s going on knows that what he’s doing is morally indefensible.”

…is currently sitting on my bedside table:

Mordew by Alex Pheby. God is dead, and we literally live on his corpse. The future of fantasy starts here.

…has the best ending:

Sula by Toni Morrison. Morrison’s genius is in writing scenes that fill you with joy and sorrow at the same time, and this will give you a preemptive smile to counteract the tears that will inevitably come.

… my worldview formed:

Also Sula. And it was one line: “Show? To whom?” Sula says this in response to the question of what she had to show for this amazing life she claimed to have. It only took me one sentence to realize that I was the only person in this world to whom I had to answer take off.

… I read in one sitting; it was so good:

Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins. I finished that book at six in the morning, took my 13-year-old self to the mirror and said, “You’re an adult now.”

…has the best ending:

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls. It doesn’t end, but it doesn’t stop, with a gut punch of one last line: “But he never came.”

…has the best title:

Your Mouth Is Beautiful by Nancy Richler. Haven’t gotten around to reading it yet though. Also Even Cowgirls Get The Blues by Tom Robbins, but I haven’t read that one either.

…has a sex scene that makes you blush:

Dennis Cooper’s sluts. It also has a few sex scenes that will make you cringe in horror, or seriously think about the priesthood.

…I could only have discovered at the lamented Gotham Book Mart:

The Obscene Bird of the Night by Jose Doñoso. The kind of book you only own because a bookseller insisted you read it.

…which contains the recipe of a favorite dish:

The lime and coconut potato au gratin in Yotam Ottolenghi’s Ottolenghi Flavor. The puttanesca is also incredible.

…I’d like to become a Netflix show:

Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer Series. No other crime writer has delved deeper into our tormented psyche than Macdonald, and each novel is an eight-episode miniseries waiting to happen.

…Surprise me:

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deeshaw Philyaw. Because not only do I know every church lady in that book, but I’ve been to at least three.

…I recently bought:

Everything She Wore by Tiya Miles. A single object passed down through three generations of black women. It’s black history as an act of personal restoration.

Read James’ choice:

Like meat likes salt

The time of our singing

The time of our singing

Richard Powers

Mid March

Mid March

George Eliot


Tom Jones

Tom Jones

Henry Fielding

The Journalist and the Murderer

The Journalist and the Murderer



Alex Pheby



Hollywood women

Hollywood women

Jackie Collins


Mrs Caliban

Mrs Caliban

Rachel Ingalls

your mouth is beautiful

Even cowgirls get the blues

Even cowgirls get the blues

the sluts

the sluts

Dennis Cooper


The obscene bird of the night

The obscene bird of the night

Jose Donoso


Ottolenghi flavor

Ottolenghi flavor

Yotam Ottolenghi

The moving target

The moving target

Ross Macdonald


The secret life of church ladies

The secret life of church ladies

Deeshaw Philyaw

Everything she wore

Riza Cruz Riza Cruz is an editor and writer based in New York.

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