My Annual Indie Bookstore Book Haul: 2023 Edition

I try to be strict with my book purchases these days because it's not super practical for me to move a library across states and various apartments or even take a thick hardback with me on my train commute. Also, with how much I read, if I bought every book, it would be super expensive. Still, I love getting to hold paper books in my hands and highlight my favorite lines and annotate them, so my willpower to avoid book buying dips a few times a year. Usually, though, I only buy a whole stack once a year. That time for 2023 came over my Fall Break. My mission was twofold with books over break. I wanted to spend my gift card from the Last Bookstore that I got last Christmas, and since my mom drove down and I had access to a car, I wanted to finally visit Book Soup to see another iconic LA bookstore. 

This time, I had a lot less restraint than I normally do because my mom offered to drive whatever books I bought home so I could read them over winter break. That means I can keep them on my bigger shelf at home and read them curled up by the fire watching the snow, not having to carry them around. With almost 2 months at home only a month away, I felt like I could pick up books to my heart's content instead of having to contend with the reality that I never reach for print books when I'm in LA. 

Another thing that let the books pile up was that Last Bookstore had almost every book in shop marked
down. While they didn't have any of the new releases I went in excited to pick up, the fact that hardcovers were generally marked down to $5-13 for fairly recent books more than made up for it. Under The Influence, which came out in August, was the only book I paid full price for there. That made my $50 gift card go a really long way. 

I didn't get to spend a super long time exploring Book Soup because parking is so tough in West Hollywood, but the glimpse I got stole my heart. They have a fantastic front table full of new releases and shop specific bestsellers. There was a clear staff picks shelf, and their fiction section was packed with every title you could possibly want even in a relatively small space. I wanted to walk out with a whole stack from there, but alas, full priced literary fiction is quite expensive, so I only bought 2 books. I narrowed down my purchases by choosing the two longest books on my to-read list that I'd been hesitant to read under the ticking clock of a library loan. I think I'll enjoy The Bee Sting and Wellness a lot more in a physical format where I can actually see my progress. I'm working hard on getting over my phobia of lengthy books now that I've well exceeded my reading goal for the year. 

So, without further ado, here's what I picked up over two trips to Last Bookstore and a stop in Book Soup to round out my book buying for the year. 

Book Soup

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray 

This is my first year paying any attention to the Booker Prize lists. This is due to a combination of factors including that this is the first year I've felt fully comfortable reading in the world of literary fiction, the fact that Jack Edwards is working with them so he's posted about their books a lot, and that I finally read If I Survive You, which made the list. My increased awareness has made me pay more attention to various bookstagrammers talking about the list, making their own shortlists, and reviewing the books. While I don't think I'll even attempt to read all of the shortlist, when I read the descriptions of the books, The Bee Sting caught my eye. It's a novel that seems to delve into the lives of one family and very focused on character, so while it's a hefty novel at 656 pages, I'm curious to read it.

Summary:

From the author of Skippy Dies comes Paul Murray's The Bee Sting , an irresistibly funny, wise, and thought-provoking tour de force about family, fortune, and the struggle to be a good person when the world is falling apart.

The Barnes family is in trouble. Dickie’s once-lucrative car business is going under―but rather than face the music, he’s spending his days in the woods, building an apocalypse-proof bunker with a renegade handyman. His wife Imelda is selling off her jewelry on eBay, while their teenage daughter Cass, formerly top of her class, seems determined to binge-drink her way through her final exams. And twelve-year-old PJ is putting the final touches to his grand plan to run away from home.

Where did it all go wrong? A patch of ice on the tarmac, a casual favor to a charming stranger, a bee caught beneath a bridal veil―can a single moment of bad luck change the direction of a life? And if the story has already been written―is there still time to find a happy ending?

Wellness by Nathan Hill

I'm not sure how Wellness first came on my radar, but I've been seeing its teal cover everywhere, and I've been convinced. I'm intrigued by the '90s Chicago art scene setting and the idea of following a relationship through a ton of phases and places. This one is also over 600 pages, and while that terrifies me, the amount of time those additional pages offer does intrigue me when telling these very interpersonally focused stories. I also noticed after I bought the book that it's a signed edition, which was a cool bonus.

Summary:

The New York Times best-selling author of The Nix is back with a poignant and witty novel about marriage, the often baffling pursuit of health and happiness, and the stories that bind us together. From the gritty '90s Chicago art scene to a suburbia of detox diets and home-renovation hysteria, Wellness reimagines the love story with a healthy dose of insight, irony, and heart.

“A hilarious and moving exploration of a modern marriage that astounds in its breadth and intimacy.”—Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half

When Jack and Elizabeth meet as college students in the '90s, the two quickly join forces and hold on tight, each eager to claim a place in Chicago’s thriving underground art scene with an appreciative kindred spirit. Fast-forward twenty years to married life, and alongside the challenges of parenting, they encounter cults disguised as mindfulness support groups, polyamorous would-be suitors, Facebook wars, and something called Love Potion Number Nine.

For the first time, Jack and Elizabeth struggle to recognize each other, and the no-longer-youthful dreamers are forced to face their demons, from unfulfilled career ambitions to painful childhood memories of their own dysfunctional families. In the process, Jack and Elizabeth must undertake separate, personal excavations, or risk losing the best thing in their lives: each other.

Last Bookstore

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan 

On my first trip to Last, this is the only book I picked up. The bright pink cover was effective at catching my eye on the shelf. The summary of this book reminded me, with a slightly different twist, of Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid in that it's about a younger mother who has a tie with blogs/influencer culture intertwining her life with a college-aged girl. Since I really liked Such a Fun Age, I figured I'd give this one a try. 

Summary:

An insightful, hilarious, and compulsively readable novel about a complicated friendship between two women who are at two very different stages in life, from the best-selling author of Maine and Saints for All Occasions (named one of the Washington Post's Ten Best Books of the Year and a New York Times Critics' Pick).

Elisabeth, an accomplished journalist and new mother, is struggling to adjust to life in a small town after nearly twenty years in New York City. Alone in the house with her infant son all day (and awake with him much of the night), she feels uneasy, adrift. She neglects her work, losing untold hours to her Brooklyn moms' Facebook group, her "influencer" sister's Instagram feed, and text messages with the best friend she never sees anymore. 

Enter Sam, a senior at the local women's college, whom Elisabeth hires to babysit. Sam is struggling to decide between the path she's always planned on and a romantic entanglement that threatens her ambition. She's worried about student loan debt and what the future holds. In short order, they grow close. But when Sam finds an unlikely kindred spirit in Elisabeth's father-in-law, the true differences between the women's lives become starkly revealed and a betrayal has devastating consequences.

A masterful exploration of motherhood, power dynamics, and privilege in its many forms, Friends and Strangers reveals how a single year can shape the course of a life.

Under the Influence  by Noelle Crooks 

This book gets the honor of being the only book that I paid full price for at Last because I'm still 10 weeks away on my library hold, and I want to get to it sooner because I'm so excited about it. Also, the cover is gorgeous, so I'm not mad about having this one to sit on my shelf regardless of how I ultimately feel about the book. I love both novels and nonfiction that dig into the media or influencer worlds. While it's a hard subject to pull off flawlessly, I'm always excited to see authors try. In this book, the main character ditches the publishing world (another of my one-time career aspirations) to work for an influencer, and she's dunked into that reality. It sounds juicy, twisty, and perfect for a holiday break read. 

Summary:

The Devil Wears Prada meets The Assistants in this compulsively readable debut following a young woman who takes a job working for an enigmatic influencer and quickly discovers there’s a dark side to being a #girlboss.

After a series of go-nowhere jobs in the New York publishing world, Harper Cruz is broke, lonely, and desperate for a salary that won’t leave her scrambling to make rent each month. So when she stumbles across a job posting from an influencer offering triple her last paycheck, she automatically submits her résumé.

Harper may not be familiar with self-help guru Charlotte Green, but her relentless optimism and charismatic can-do spirit has created a cult-like following of women across the country. When she selects Harper among thousands of other applicants in less than twenty-four hours, it’s obvious she sees something she likes. Despite the pressure to accept the offer just as quickly as she’s been given it, Harper decides to take a leap of faith and become the newest member of The Greenhouse.

Accepting the job means a move to Nashville, and Harper is quickly dazzled by the glamorous world Charlotte has built in Music City. The Greenhouse is more than a workplace—it’s a family—and Harper soon finds herself swept into its inner circle. At first, she loves working in such an inspirational environment, where mandatory dance parties, daily intentions, and group bonding activities make up for long hours and Charlotte’s persistent demands for loyalty. But the deeper Harper is pulled into Charlotte’s world, the more she realizes that having it all and being it all comes with a price.

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler

This one was a last minute impulse purchase that I picked up and put back 12 times. The blurb for the book is fascinating, but it also could go really wrong really fast. A part of me wonders if it will aesthetically fall in line with a book like I'm a Fan where it's extremely interior and a somewhat narrow exploration of a single character who exists almost entirely within the world of the internet. That's a kind of literary weirdness that I'm happy to wade through, so I figure I'll give it a shot. The book review I half read before I bought it from the New York Times seemed to like it, but now that I've looked at Goodreads, it seems like there's definitely some mixed feelings.

Summary: 

A woman in a post-election tailspin discovers that her boyfriend is an anonymous online conspiracy theorist in this provocative and subversive debut novel that examines social media, sex, feminism, and fiction, the connection they've all promised, and the lies they help us tell.

On the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration, a young woman snoops through her boyfriend's phone and makes a startling discovery: he's an anonymous internet conspiracy theorist, and a popular one at that. Already fluent in internet fakery, irony, and outrage, she's not exactly shocked by the revelation. Actually, she's relieved—he was always a little distant—and she plots to end their floundering relationship while on a trip to the Women's March in DC. But this is only the first in a series of bizarre twists that expose a world whose truths are shaped by online lies.

Suddenly left with no reason to stay in New York and increasingly alienated from her friends and colleagues, our unnamed narrator flees to Berlin, embarking on her own cycles of manipulation in the deceptive spaces of her daily life, from dating apps to expat meetups, open-plan offices to bureaucratic waiting rooms. She begins to think she can't trust anyone--shouldn't the feeling be mutual?

Narrated with seductive confidence and subversive wit, Fake Accounts challenges the way current conversations about the self and community, delusions and gaslighting, and fiction and reality play out in the internet age.

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave 

I picked this one up because I recognized the cover from when it was a big book a few years ago. It's a mystery with an ominous edge, which is something I normally shy away from, but maybe when I'm home and cozy it'll be easier to read something scary. I've always been curious to see what all the hype was about with this one, so I figure it's about time I figure it out. Sometimes it's fun to branch out a little. 

Summary:

A woman searching for the truth about her husband’s disappearance…at any cost.

Before Owen Michaels disappears, he manages to smuggle a note to his beloved wife of one year: Protect her. Despite her confusion and fear, Hannah Hall knows exactly to whom the note refers: Owen’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Bailey. Bailey, who lost her mother tragically as a child. Bailey, who wants absolutely nothing to do with her new stepmother.

As Hannah’s increasingly desperate calls to Owen go unanswered; as the FBI arrests Owen’s boss; as a US Marshal and FBI agents arrive at her Sausalito home unannounced, Hannah quickly realizes her husband isn’t who he said he was. And that Bailey just may hold the key to figuring out Owen’s true identity—and why he really disappeared.

Hannah and Bailey set out to discover the truth, together. But as they start putting together the pieces of Owen’s past, they soon realize they are also building a new future. One neither Hannah nor Bailey could have anticipated.

Nothing Special by Nicole Flattery 

This book has been on my radar from bookstagram for a while. I also realized after I bought it that I had a picture of it on my phone from when I ran into my hometown bookstore to pick up The Overstory in August because I wanted to remember to read it at some point. It felt serendipitous that I found it on the bottom shelf of a random sale cart. Since I've been a fan of Warhol's art since I was a kid and I'm curious about that world, this seemed like an obvious choice for the TBR. 

Summary: 

New York City, 1966. Seventeen-year-old Mae lives in a rundown apartment with her alcoholic mother and her mother's sometimes-boyfriend, Mikey. She is turned off by the petty girls at her high school and the sleazy men she typically meets. When she drops out, she is presented with a job offer that will remake her world: She is hired as a typist for the artist Andy Warhol.

Warhol is composing an unconventional novel by recording the conversations and experiences of his many famous and alluring friends. Tasked with transcribing these tapes alongside several other girls, Mae quickly befriends Shelley, and the two of them embark on a surreal adventure at the fringes of the counter-cultural movement. Going to parties together, exploring their womanhood and sexuality, this should be the most enlivening experience of Mae's life. But as she grows increasingly obsessed with the tapes and numb to her own reality, Mae must grapple with the thin line between art and voyeurism and determine how she can remain her own person as the tide of the sixties sweeps over her.

For readers of Ottessa Moshfegh and Mary Gaitskill, this blistering, mordantly funny debut novel brilliantly interrogates the nature of friendship and independence and the construction of art and identity. Nothing Special is a whip-smart coming-of-age story that brings to life the experience of young girls in this iconic and turbulent American moment. 

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

Glossy: nonfiction review

The Rachel Incident review

I'm a Fan review

Anna: nonfiction review

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