We are three months into 2020 and the world might seem pretty bleak at the moment, with spring still a couple weeks away in the Northern Hemisphere… Good thing your friendly neighborhood book DJ is back again to highlight five more amazing books that deserve equally amazing soundtracks.
There is nothing quite as soothing to the soul as good music paired with good literature, and this season has been an embarrassment of riches where great new books are concerned. Each one is more dazzling and inventive than the last and you are sure to lose a few hours of sleep if you make the mistake of starting these books before bedtime. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) There’s something for everyone here, everything from hair-raising cosmic horror to vigilante librarians and more!
Each of these new novels has a selection of songs handpicked by yours truly to match the energy of the book and keep the vibe of the story going long after you turn the final page. And, because I love you, there are seven songs per book this time instead of five. You’ve earned it and, frankly, each book is so overstuffed with awesome it couldn’t be contained to just five songs…
Time to queue up Spotify, put on your headphones, and dive into five of the best books to hit the shelves this winter.
Docile by K.M. Szpara — IAMX
Docile is a glittering, dangerous jewel of a novel, a Hope Diamond of a book imbued with beauty and tragedy. It’s heady and horrifying in equal measures. Underneath its colorful charm lies a dark world of abuse and violence. It’s an aesthetic joy that slides quietly into a bone-deep terror so seamlessly it will give you whiplash. This book knocked me dead, then placed me lovingly in a gorgeous coffin. I loved it so much that I immediately turned back to the first page after I got to the last and started reading again. The relationship between Elisha and Alexander is hotter than anything you’d find on AO3, poised on a knife’s edge that mortally wounds them both when everything begins to tumble down. The only music that could do this sexy, stunning debut novel justice is the exhausted excess and cold, lonely obsession-driven beats of synthpop, and IAMX is the gold standard of the genre. Chris Corner’s voice is a wounded angel’s cry against the sleaze of synths and the battering bass. This is music for a party that’s gone on too long, for tear-smeared mascara and the hollow left behind when the highs begin to turn to lows. Docile is the book version of an Instagram influencer in a $10,000 dress sobbing in a club bathroom—style and pain and vulnerability all blending into one masterpiece of a novel. This book is an expensive cocktail ringed with Pop Rocks, an explosive and intoxicating delight.
- “Sorrow” by IAMX
- “Days Before You Came” by Placebo
- “Make Me Feel” by Janelle Monáe
- “Dead Inside” by Younger Hunger
- “Style” by Foster the People
- “Dark Allies” by Light Asylum
- “America 2” by The Midnight
Stormsong by C.L. Polk — Sleater-Kinney
C.L. Polk’s stunning series started with the outstanding Witchmark and ratchets up the tension as Stormsong slips into the shoes of Miles’ sister, Dame Grace Hensley. What started as a beautiful, atmospheric, almost-fairytale of a book blooms into a sequel that’s more serious, drenched in danger but with a warm heart of romance burning under a thick crust of freshly fallen snow. The story takes everything you loved about the first novel and makes it even better, showing us more of the inventive, anachronistic world of Aeland that Polk has created. It’s everything I could have wished for and more. Grace is a formidable protagonist, and when she meets stylish reporter Avia Jessup the sparks begin to fly. I admit I went a little anachronistic here, because even though these books take place in a kind of alternative 1920s-era world, I couldn’t help pairing it with a soundtrack of fantastic ’90s-style girl bands. Grace has so much drive and resolve that I’m reminded of the grrrl power that drives the songs of take-charge punk groups like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney—bands with vision, passion, and the power to take over the world in a largely male-dominated rock music world. Grace and Avia would fit right in to that scene, and I love the idea of idyllic Aeland invaded by power chords and thrumming amp feedback.
- “How To Play Dead” by Sleater-Kinney
- “Glimmer” by Honeyblood
- “Moaning Lisa Smile” by Wolf Alice
- “Y Control” by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
- “Criminal” by Fiona Apple
- “The Cat’s Meow” by The Darts US
- “Rebel Girl’ by Bikini Kill
Beneath The Rising by Premee Mohamed — Bauhaus
What a thrilling, terrifying novel this is… Premee Mohamed holds nothing back as she dives into the darkness beyond the stars to bring us Beneath The Rising. It’s a globe-trotting whirlwind of a novel, a breathless ride that takes ultra-genius scientist Johnny and her best friend Nick all over the world to try and save humanity from a violent, eldritch evil just waiting for the right moment to strike. It’s a subversive and sublime twist on the best parts of classic Lovecraftian cosmic horror, taking only the existential dread and the cosmic, unknowable monsters and consigning the rest to the dustbins of history. Johnny and Nick are the heart of the novel and their bond of friendship is tested in this life-or-death race against time and sanity. It’s beautifully unsettling, imbued with a creeping dread that sits like a weight on your chest. That same sense of creeping dread is mirrored in the very best of Bauhaus, one of the very first goth bands from England. Bela Lugosi’s dead, and so are Nick and Johnny and everyone else if they can’t save the world in time. Bauhaus is the perfect soundtrack for this book: it’s sharp and rough and dripping with danger and dread. If Beneath the Rising was a person, they would be wearing one part of an ancient, tarnished BFF necklace and dancing themselves into a moody frenzy to the angular, unsettling harmonies of the very best in gothic music.
- “A God In An Alcove” by Bauhaus
- “Why Can’t I Be You?” by The Cure
- “A Rock and a Hard Place” by The Sisters of Mercy
- “She Sells Sanctuary” by The Cult
- “Like Calling Up Thunder” by The Gun Club
- “Shadowplay” by Joy Division
- “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” by The Smiths
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey — Orville Peck
2020 is going to be huge for Southern Gothic, both in terms of literature and music. There’s an up-and-coming slice of that musical subgenre, one that’s obsessed with murder and rebellion, called “Blackgrass” or “Murder Folk.” Imagine the vibe of folky bluegrass music gone dark and feral…that’s Sarah Gailey’s explosive new novel in a nutshell as well. It’s a good ol’ fashioned horse opera-style Western turned sideways. It’s queer, it’s revolutionary, and it’s deeply awesome. It’s what a modern take on an old western pulp novel should be, grabbing the very best tropes from the genre and forging them into something new and shiny, like two coins laid over a dead man’s eyes. This book has gunslinging librarians, people!!! You can’t get cooler than that. Every good Western needs a matching soundtrack full of acoustic guitars and songs about vigilantes, crime, and death. That’s where queer, masked cowboy singer Orville Peck comes in. He burst onto the music scene with his debut album last year and his deep voice and dreamy lyrics make him seem like a Canadian answer to Hozier, with a sound more reminiscent of a cornfield or prairie than the Irish cliffs and bogs. His mythic, larger-than-life persona and throwback country sound provide the perfect backdrop to the sunbaked Southwest of Gailey’s latest page-turner.
- “Winds Change” by Orville Peck
- “Bottom of the River” by Delta Rae
- “Hell And You” by Amigo the Devil
- “Foxglove” by Murder By Death
- “Fingers To The Bone” by Brown Bird
- “Gallows Pole” by Willie Watson
- “Sons & Daughters” by The American Spirit
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin — The New York Dolls
Listen, I can’t say I’m impartial here. I love books about New York City. I was born and raised there, my father’s entire family comes from Queens, and I haven’t fully shaken my accent even though I’ve been away for years. Finding science fiction and fantasies stories about the Big Apple is always a delight and N.K. Jemisin’s latest book is nothing short of glorious. Calling it a love letter to the city just doesn’t do it justice. It’s an impressive feat of storytelling, giving each borough its own unique character and voice that feels incredibly authentic and lived in. The book is a mouthwatering everything bagel offering hope, terror, and sharp social commentary. Jemisin understands exactly how special the city is and I think that her work deserves to be accompanied by the very best in New York music. I could think of no band better than the New York Dolls to exemplify what a bizarre, wonderful, stark raving mad place New York truly is. The Dolls were on the forefront of glam and punk rock, inventing their own proto-punk style before Sid Vicious ever thought about hanging a padlocked chain around his neck. They set the tone for music for decades to come and influenced everyone from The Ramones to The Smiths. The City We Became and the New York Dolls, like the city they chronicle and celebrate, are true originals.
- “Personality Crisis” by The New York Dolls
- “Rockaway Beach” by The Ramones
- “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys
- “Run Run Run” by The Velvet Underground
- “My My Metrocard” by Le Tigre
- “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” by LCD Soundsystem
- “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” by The Beastie Boys
These are by no means the official soundtracks to each book, but rather my own subjective pairings, and I would love to hear what songs you would pair with each title. There is no greater feeling than finishing a fantastic book and realizing how well it meshes with one of your favorite albums or playlists. Perhaps the main character’s name is the same one in the title of a song you love (how many songs use the name Jack, for example? Hundreds!), or maybe the book and your favorite band explore similar moods and themes (I’m just saying, if you like books involving murder, have you considered listening of ALL OF Nick Cave?). Share your suggestions in the comments below and tell me what other books you’re looking forward to this year and what music you plan to pair them with! Until next time, it’s your favorite book DJ signing off—over and out.
Meghan Ball is a writer who enjoys playing guitar and spending way too much time on Twitter. You can find her there at @EldritchGirl. She currently lives in a weird part of New Jersey.