Oh, January—a great time for a clean slate, no matter what that means for you. In the books on this list, examples range from a woman rebuilding her life post-zombie-apocalypse to a group of spa-goers looking for easy enlightenment. They’re often heartfelt, always entertaining reads—and great beginning-of-the-year picks, even if what you need at the moment might be an example of what not to do.
Severance by Ling Ma
Sometimes survival means convincing yourself everything is just fine when it is decidedly not. Candace Chen, who ignores a mysterious virus sweeping the globe to attend work on the 32nd floor of a New York skyscraper where she manages the production of specialty bibles, has no interest in changing her routine. But as Shen Fever spreads through her city, turning colleagues, ex-lovers, and retail workers alike into strange approximations of themselves, she’s left with little choice but to set out for new territory in a commandeered taxi cab. The changes she’s forced to make bring a whole new set of problems, but forging a new path under frightening (and frequently funny) circumstances delivers something better and more promising than comfort: hope.
The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healey
Nothing says “fresh start” like a new false identity, but it’s hard to find one that’s as detached from the past as one might hope. At least, that’s Mary Chase’s experience as she tries to escape from the debts left to her and her younger sister Hannah (nicknamed Bunny) in the wake of their mother’s death. Each time Mary and Bunny try to start over—in Florida, in Rhode Island, in small towns across the Midwest—old secrets sneak up on them in new, shocking ways. Fiercely devoted to one another, they and their future are constantly in peril, but it’s a thrill to watch them try to build it all the same.
Start Where You Are by Meera Patel
The simple but effective conceit of this “journal for self-exploration” is that Meera Patel pairs her lovely illustrations of literary quotes with doable creative prompts for readers. For example, she pairs a drawing of the Harper Lee gem “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what,” with a blank page inviting you to “list four times you continued to try even though the odds were stacked against you.” Patel offers a well-balanced mixture of classic wisdom and self-reflection, freedom and structure, and she’ll give you just the push you need to embrace the new and uncharted.
Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett
“Mom always said we needed a cake to mark every new beginning, whether it was a birthday or a first day of school or a new moon, rabbits mean good luck to a new start,” 12-year-old Elvis Babbitt explains on the first page of this undersung debut novel. Her mother has recently died—she drowned while “sleepswimming”—which Elvis concedes is a new beginning of its own, but “it just wasn’t a happy one.” Elvis and her father and sister are forced to reshape their family and all its habits and rhythms around an absence. Charming and blunt, she’s a pitch-perfect narrator of grief and of the way re-assembling the pieces of something broken sometimes yields something that, even if it’s imperfect and cracked, might be even stronger.
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
Each of the nine delightfully drawn characters referenced in the title of Liane Moriarty’s latest come to Tranquillum House, a posh spa where guests embark on wellness journeys, because they’re seeking real change. Just not the kind they have to work too hard for. Unfortunately for them, Masha, the spa’s director, is more interested in the kind of transformation that comes from true struggle than the kind of relaxing renewal they signed on for. Moriarty specializes in gentle satire; she sketches the outlines of caricature and then fills it in with fully realized human details it’s difficult not to see both the best of and worst of yourself in. Her nine perfect strangers will restore your faith, if not in humanity, then at least in the potential that the people who make you cringe most have basically good hearts in there somewhere.