Riot Roundup: The Best Books We Read In July-Sept 2020

We asked our contributors to share the best book they read July through September and as always they delivered with great reads so prepare your TBR. We’ve got mysteries, delightful fantasy with found family, picture books, literary fiction, essays, magic, gothic novels, and much, much more—there are book recommendations for everyone here! Some are old, some are new, and some aren’t even out yet.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I found myself holding my breath while reading An American Marriage, white knuckling the sides of the book as each page unraveled a gutwrenching love story set in the American South. A young married couple named Celestial and Roy find themselves catapulted into the criminal justice system after a rape accusation lands Roy in prison for a crime he did not commit. With Roy imprisoned in Louisiana, Celestial must navigate life in Atlanta without him and grapple with the life they could have led had Roy not been a “black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Full of complex emotions, unresolved conflict, and brutal descriptions of prison life, Roy and Celestial’s struggle in An American Marriage mirrors the heartbreaking reality of wrongful conviction and incarceration of Black men in the United States and the trauma of those left behind to pick up the pieces.

—Hope Corrigan

Bedtime Bonnet by Nancy Amanda Redd and Nneka Myers

Our protagonist watches the nighttime hair rituals of her family, each member of whom has a different way of caring for their hair, from durag to scarf. It is a minor crisis when the little girl realizes she can’t find her sleep bonnet, which she needs to keep her curls safe and beautiful until the morning. The illustrations are as diverse as the methods of haircare, with an array of skin tones and features in the family and loving smiles on every face as sis tries to locate the lost object. I’m a half-black transracial adoptee and my white mother did not know all of the hair secrets, so this book gave me a little pang for what might have been if I had learned to put my hair in a slap earlier than my mid-20s. Forget counting sheep or saying goodnight to inanimate objects; this is my new favorite bedtime story.

—Sarah Hannah Gómez

Behind The Scenes by Christina C. Jones

Pierre Perry III comes from a family of artists; his father a famed filmmaker and his mother an actress. He’s in the process of creating his first television show and Logan Byers, an executive concierge, is hired to help Pierre get from script to screen. These two have a magnetic bond, a chemistry that leaps off the page and understanding of one another that isn’t just a working relationship. It’s fluid, it’s easy and they both see the truth in each other. Logan and Pierre are really solid characters; so multi-layered and in tune with their zone of genius.

The title served two purposes for me. We got a behind the scenes look at what it takes to create a television show and staying true to its initial vision. But we also got to peek behind the curtain, and see behind the scenes of Pierre and Logan’s life; the strength it takes to follow your dreams despite distractors disagreeing or saying you won’t make it. The courage one displays when fighting certain demons from your past and making a conscious decision every day to move forward. Behind The Scenes is a story of legacy; the one we were born into and the one we create ourselves.

—Natalya Muncuff

Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew

Frankie’s friends are loud and proud about their sexual encounters with boys, but she’s more focused on her internship at the planetarium. Until one day after school when she’s hanging out with the mega-cute Benjamin and they get intimate…and Frankie’s period arrives at that exact moment. They both agree that it’s only blood and it’s no big deal. The next day at school, though, rumors are flying over what kind of girl gets fingered while she’s on her period. It’s not only rumors—it’s also horrendous memes swirling around social media slut shaming the mystery girl. Frankie is frantic and devastated, because only she and Benjamin know about what happened, but she trusts that he didn’t tell a soul. As her life crumbles around her, she wonders who she truly is and who she can trust. Lucy Cuthew’s Blood Moon is a powerful novel in verse about feminism, menstruation, and bullying that really captures what teen life is like today. 

—Ashley Holstrom

Clap When You Land cover

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

I’m always a sucker for books that talk about the messiness of family, and this is one that hurts so good when you read it. A plane crash, half-sisters that didn’t know the other existed, and family—I devoured this book in only a few sittings. Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel in verse is stunning and lyrical, the style just as heartbreaking and raw as the story. The writing in this is simply phenomenal. The sparseness and intention of every single word and the quality of the poetry amps up the emotion, which had me reaching for my tissues throughout the book. Told from two different perspectives, each feeling completely distinct and unique: Yahaira in New York and Camino in the Dominican Republic. The two half-sisters only discover the other after a tragic plane crash takes their father away. The characters felt so real, I wanted to wrap both Camino and Yahaira in a tight hug for the heartbreak they both face after the loss of their father. This book doesn’t pull back on hard topics like colorism, socio-economic differences, toxic masculinity, and more. This is one book that hurts so good.

—Hannah Vanvels

a 3D-neon version of the NYC skyline with a blurb from Neil Gaiman across the top saying "A glorious fantasy"

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

“I sing the city.” So begins The City We Became, the first book in Jemisin’s Great Cities trilogy. It’s a fast-paced urban fantasy in which the diverse cast of characters become the literal embodiments of New York City and its various boroughs. However, something has gone wrong in the process of this becoming, and there isn’t much time for these new demigods to figure things out before the thing that’s hunting them finds them. Jemisin’s world-building is magnificent as always—a totally immersive experience that blends elements of fantasy and horror. The City We Became is not only an extremely good story filled with complex characters, it’s also a thoughtful exploration of gentrification, racism, belonging, and art. The narrative comes alive after just a few pages and manages to read like a love song to NYC in addition to a wild tale of living cities and otherworldly monsters.

—Anne Mai Yee Jansen

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

The title is pretty clear on this one, and it’s funny in English in a sweet, self-deprecating way. She describes how Americans react when they meet her French husband (adoration! croissants!) and then realize she is Iranian (hostages!). Dumas makes some clear-eyed observations about being a foreign visitor and an immigrant in America while still managing to keep the tone light. This is the perfect read for when you need a break from the whole “the world is going down the tubes” feeling of today.

—Summer Loomis

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

The House in the Cerulean Sea centers Linus Baker, a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He’s a straitlaced, by-the-book man whose life is just passing him by. But then one day he is summoned by Extremely Upper Management for a secret mission: to visit the Marsays Orphanage (AKA the house in the cerulean sea) and observe the six magical children who live there and their caretaker, Arthur Parnassus. After this absolute trash can of a year, The House in the Cerulean Sea is exactly the book we need. At its core, this is a book about acceptance of both self and others, and letting yourself be happy with that. If you need a reminder that there’s still good in the world, this book is your ticket.

—Kate Krug

How It All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi

How It All Blew Up follows gay Muslim Iranian teen Amir as he sits in an airport interrogation room, detailing exactly what led to him here. It deals with Amir grappling with what it means for him to be gay Muslim and Iranian. Deciding that there is no way his parents will continue to accept him when a classmate threatens to out him, Amir flees to Rome where a chance encounter with a gay Muslim Iranian man named Jahan allows Amir to finally explore what it can mean for him to be fully and freely him. As a queer Muslim, this is the kind of book I wish I had when I was a teen. It speaks so honestly and brilliantly about queer Muslim identity: the fear and anxiety queer teens live with when they believe their parents will not accept them for whatever reason, along with the absolute joy of being able to shed that fear and explore what it means to freely be yourself. 

—Adiba Jaigirdar

I Hope You’re Listening By Tom Ryan

How many boxes did this mystery check for me—let’s count, shall we? Past and present missing person mystery; a true crime podcast; armchair (laptop) detectives; a loving family; a girl on new-girl next door crush; a great MC voice from the start; and a kept-me-up-past-my-bedtime-intense-ending! Needless to say, I read this in two sittings. The plot—or shall I say hook—is that as young children Dee and Sibby walked into the woods to play and only Dee returned. Now at age 17 and still unable to deal with all the “what happened to Sibby” unanswered questions, Dee has a true crime podcast where she brings missing persons cases to the public for help. It’s anonymous, though: no one knows it’s her and she plans to keep it that way. But then another girl goes missing from the same neighborhood, a reporter decides to find out who is behind the podcast, and someone she knows is arrested…I know! It’s a super satisfying mystery!

—Jamie Canavés

Killer Kung Pao by Vivien Chien

I love a good cozy mystery, and this series is quickly becoming one of my favorites. In this installment, Lana Lee continues to run her family’s restaurant Ho-Lee Noodle House despite criticism from her sister and limited time to spend with her boyfriend. But when she witnesses the death of one of the grouchiest women in town at the hair salon, she can’t shake the feeling that what happened wasn’t an accident. I genuinely did not see the twist coming in this one and enjoyed spending more time in Lana’s world. If you’re looking for a fall read that is truly “cozy” in genre and just general feeling, I’d recommend this one.

—CJ Connor

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down is a treatise, set in narrative verse, on the cyclical nature of generational gang violence. It speaks to the obstacles that are set up for so many young men in the United States purely due to the color of their skin. In Long Way Down, Reynolds tells the story of Will, a 15-year-old boy who just lost his brother to gang violence. As he boards the elevator to seek retribution by killing the man who killed Shawn, he is approached by various people in his life who have been touched by the unforgiving “rules” of the street—no crying, no snitching, and always seek revenge. The staccato nature of Reynolds’s verse creates a harshness, almost reminiscent of gun shots. Will uses his time in the elevator to decide if he’s going to be yet another generation that will unquestioningly follow the rules or if he will break the last and most important rule of all.

—Elizabeth Allen

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

I admit: I went into this not fully knowing the story, just knowing that it was a fantasy novel billed as “a modern day classic on a classic legend and a lot of Southern Black girl magic” set at UNC. That alone sounded good to me, and as a Tar Heel, my interest was piqued. I ended up staying up until after 1:00 a.m. to finish this. After Bree’s mother dies in an accident, she enters a program for gifted high schoolers at UNC. Her first night there, she witnesses a magical attack and finds herself in a world of Legendborns and Merlins, not knowing how she fits into all of this—but also remembering that this magic was there in the hospital the night her mother died. Wanting to know more about how this all connects to her and her mother, Bree decides to infiltrate the Legendborns, finding magic of her own. When it turns out that a magical war is on the horizon, the stakes are higher than Bree ever imagined. A new twist on the legend of King Arthur, the story also explores grief and mourning, generational trauma, racism, ancestry, the bonds of family (blood and chosen) and finding one’s place in the world. The prose is evocative, and the world-building is detailed and luminous. This is a book that begs for a reread, immediately after finishing it, because it is that good.

—Jaime Herndon

Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman’s intense and gorgeously written prequel to her beloved 1995 bestseller, Practical Magic, is equal parts love story, history, and horror. Much like Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Magic Lessons takes inspiration from the well-documented persecution of women suspected of witchcraft in the 17th century. With that foundation, Hoffman spins a tale that is fiercely feminist in the most organic way. Both heartwrenching and heart-healing, the novel recounts the twisty path of Maria Owens from abandoned foundling in England to powerful matriarch of an illustrious clan in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It also traces the origin of a legendary family curse against love, because Maria is the progeny of a woman persecuted as a witch, a witch herself, and a woman who had an ill-fated affair with Salem’s most notorious witch-hunter. So, by the age of 19, she had witnessed ample evidence of love’s ruin, and knew it was best avoided altogether. The lessons and complications of that near fatal entanglement drive much of the narrative. I loved it all the way through, even in the most difficult parts.

—Carole V. Bell

Mexican Gothic book cover

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

It’s been a while since I enjoyed either a good horror novel or horror movie, and Mexican Gothic checks all the boxes for what I’m looking for. Silvia Moreno-Garcia weaves the perfect haunted house story. Noemí Taboada goes to the Mexican countryside to visit her newlywed cousin at the enigmatic house called High Place. There she meets her cousin’s English husband, the house’s caretakers, and the English husband’s leering patriarch who is obsessed with eugenics. Soon Noemi is caught in a web of lies and secrets, and nothing about the house or its occupants is what it seems. It’s psychological horror at its best. And the ending…the ENDING. It’s very hard to nail a good ending in any story—and I think it’s especially hard with horror—but Moreno-Garcia gives us an ending that is both haunting and balanced. There’s so much more I want to say, but I don’t want to give anything away. So trust me: Read this book. It’s the perfect nail-biting read for the Halloween season.

—Lyndsie Manusos

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

In her second work of fiction, Arundhati Roy unearths the ridiculous in the relentless tragedy that life is for some people. She also gleans for her readers moments of astonishing tenderness in the face of disaster, to construct an exquisitely beautiful, almost hopeful collage against the backdrop of political and social turmoil in modern-day India. She writes about causes that are close to her heart, and her passion is evident in her writing. The cast of characters is truly diverse, and brought to life with a lot of love and compassion. Especially Anjum, the adorably eccentric, supremely astute trans woman who carries the ancient wisdom of old Delhi within her, is bound to stay with you for a very long time. Above all, the book is impeccably written, the prose so hauntingly beautiful that even if you do not care for the author’s strong political opinions, you will sail right through it if you have a taste for the lyrical.

—Senjuti Patra

Never Look Back by Lilliam Rivera

This fantastical novel reads like if it were a soothing song, with gorgeous imagery and Hispanic musical references that you can hear and somewhat feel through the pages. The book features magical realism and romance in a tale of cultural identity, overcoming personal issues and falling in love when you least expect it. In the book, Eury comes to Bronx in New York from Puerto Rico haunted by memories of Hurricane Maria and the devastation that it left behind. Not only is she traumatized by that experience, but she is also haunted by an insistent and somewhat evil spirit called Ato. Yet, she sets fear aside and ends up thinking a whole lot and falling for Pheus, a bachata-singing boy that lures her with his charm and wants to save her from her own demons. What follows is a truly unique tale that was actually inspired by the Greek Myth Orpheus and Eurydice, and mixed in with Latino references that will have you yearning for home, wherever that may be based, and dancing along to its musical references while realizing that maybe we can overcome our own tragedies and hauntings after all.

—Aurora Lydia Dominguez

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

This novel begins like a typical contemporary fiction following one woman as she tries to kick-start her life by helping an old friend, who is now married to a wealthy politician, care for her stepkids. But soon it’s revealed that the kids spontaneously burst into flames when they’re angry. For what seems like a whimsical and weird twist in this novel, the book delivers punch after punch of what can happen when seemingly ~normal~ families try to bury secrets and put on a public front. It’s an incredibly important look at challenging decisions women, wives, mothers, and daughters have to make and what it means to be family.

—Cassie Gutman

Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest

I loved Kristina’s Forest’s debut I Wanna Be Where You Are, but her sophomore YA novel is even better. The unique plot follows Evie, a young Black actress about to become a big star. But in order for this to happen, she needs the cooperation of her movie star grandmother. Unfortunately, her usually reclusive grandmother has disappeared. With the help of handsome teenage musician Milo, who delivers her grandma’s groceries, Evie must find her. Together, they search through the neighborhoods of New York City for clues so Evie can find her grandmother and discover some buried truths about her family’s past. I sped through this YA romcom in one day and suspect this will become one of my most frequent books to reread.

—Alison Doherty

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous cover image

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Written in letters from a son to his mother, this novel has prose that reads like poetry. I had to pause multiple times to appreciate the sheer gorgeousness of the sentences. It explores a family whose history is rooted in Vietnam. It talks about the war and the experience of living in yellow skin in a foreign land. The letters capture snippets of memories portraying ideas of race, sexuality and torn identities. Reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous feels like taking a beautiful journey to reach difficult truths. I hope you pick it up and its earnestness moves you as much as it moved me.

—Yashvi Peeti

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

I was not prepared for how much I was going to love this book. I listened to it on audiobook and the narrator (Christopher Meyers) brought the gorgeous language to life. This futuristic narrative is unapologetic about the range of diverse identities represented. It doesn’t ask for your permission to feature a Black, trans, selectively mute protagonist. When a supporting character has three parents and one uses “they” pronouns, there is no explanation. I am so here for the way a wide range of identities are normalized in this text. But I digress because I need to tell you how beautiful the story is. Jam and her best friend Redemption are adolescents on the other side of the revolution happening in our country right now. There are no more monsters—no more racism, police brutality, school shootings, domestic violence, or child abuse. But when Jam accidentally awakens one of her mother’s paintings and it tells her it has come to hunt monsters, she learns that things are not as perfect as they seem. This book is a compelling picture of a possible future and a reminder that freedom work is never done.

—Mikkaka Overstreet

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I have been waiting semi-patiently since 2006 for Susanna Clarke to release another book. I had resigned myself to the idea that a novel and a book of short stories was all we would get from the mind that brought us Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and I am delighted to have that idea disproved. Piranesi is just as weird, twisted, and magical as Clarke’s previous work. The puzzle of who Piranesi is, who the Other Human is, and what on earth is going on unfolds over a positively petite (for Clarke) 272 pages, and has left me thinking about it ever since I finished reading it, which is 2020 is high praise indeed. I, too, want to exist in a quiet world surrounded by statues and simply do my own thing—at least I think I do. Do yourself a favor and let the tides of Clarke’s haunting imagination wash over you. 

—Tika Viteri

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com, October 13)

I’ve found it difficult to read for much of this year. Even books I normally would enjoy have become mental slogs. That was not the case with Ring Shout, which legitimately put my jaw on the floor and kept it there. If you’re looking for a horror story that feels of-the-moment and appropriate for our terrifying reality, buy this book. Buy 12 copies. Give them to everyone you know. The premise is delicious and transports us to an early 20th century America where the Ku Klux Klan is made up of (literal) monsters and D.W. Griffith is a sorcerer. And the only thing that can stop the otherworldly apocalypse summoned by a screening of The Birth of a Nation is (again, literal) Black Girl Magic. This novella is horrifying—including some intense body horror—but it is also amazingly celebratory like the ritual from which it takes its title.

—Nicole Hill

The Roommate by Rosie Danan

This is one of those romances that I feel like I’ve been searching for my entire romance-reading life. Clara becomes the roommate to Josh, a stranger selected to fill the room of Clara’s rather crappy crush and friend. Like any sane person, Clara decides to google Josh’s name and discovers he’s an adult film star. Determined to forge her own path in life, away from her wealthy east coast family, Clara becomes inspired to launch a new business venture. With her capital and Josh’s experience, they embark on producing videos that center a woman’s pleasure and sexual education. It’s sex-positive, feminist, and one of the best romance debuts I’ve read in a while.

—Amanda Diehl

See No Stranger by Valarie Kaur

In See No Stranger, Kaur—a civil rights activist, lawyer, and filmmaker—writes of her journey as a brown girl growing up in the U.S. who is eventually radicalized by the murders of her fellow Sikhs after 9/11. Over the course of the ensuing years, as she attends law school and fights injustices in American prisons and works with communities who have fallen prey to hate crimes, she comes to believe that the true path to transformation lies in revolutionary love. I struggled with this but, by the end of Kaur’s book, I was sold. This book forced me to ask myself, “What is this story demanding of me? What will I do now that I know this?”

—Steph Auteri

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World by Tara Isabella Burton

Lately I’ve been drawn to books on contemporary religion and spirituality, and Burton’s is perhaps the best I’ve read so far. She offers an engaging, well-researched look into the spiritual lives of the religiously unaffiliated, who she refers to as the “Remixed.” Burton identifies the four main pillars of what religion has traditionally offered its followers—meaning, purpose, community, and ritual—then applies this framework to elements of contemporary culture that provide them to the Remixed in a sort of mix-and-match spirituality. Maybe you get your sense of meaning and purpose from political activism, but your sense of ritual and community comes from your yoga studio, for example. She dives deep into fan culture, the wellness/self-care industry, “woke capitalism,” witchcraft, and more, analyzing their historical basis and modern-day iterations. One of her most interesting observations is that the social justice movement can be treated as a kind of civil religion, complete with its own theology, worldview, and practices—but on the flip side, so can its “dark mirror” alt-right online counterpart based in atavism.

—Emily Polson

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

The second book in Hibbert’s Brown Sisters series is just as delightful as—if just not slightly more than—Get a Life, Chloe Brown. Zaf and Dani find themselves in a fake dating situation when a recording of Zaf carrying her out of the university building they work in goes viral. It doesn’t matter that it was only a drill; social media goes wild for #DrRugbae. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement as it shines light Zaf’s charity rugby program for boys that also works on emotional maturity as well as sends Dani what she believes to be her ordained “friend with benefits.” This is a bit of a slow burn, but what I really love about it is Dani’s journey and that she has closed herself off emotionally for one bad apple. While she keeps expecting Zaf to get annoyed by how she works and that she doesn’t have to change who she is for him. He accepts flaws and all. And she is fiercely protective of Zaf’s program and encouraging him to keep at it since she knows it’s important to him. This story is a combination of a few tropes, and is one of the best friends to lovers/fake dating books I have read in a long time.

—PN Hinton

That Can Be Arranged: A Muslim Love Story by Huda Fahmy

Sometimes you just need a sweet, funny pick-me-up when the world’s doing its best to kick you in the teeth. That Can Be Arranged: A Muslim Love Story worked perfectly to get me laughing again after a hard few weeks. It’s a romantic retelling of the author’s courtship with her husband that highlights some of the difficulties—and some of the hilarities—commonly found on the path to love and marriage for many Muslim women. Arranged marriage is still a significant part of culture and religion for many Muslim people and it was refreshing to read something that doesn’t lump the concepts of arranged and forced marriage together as though they’re one but rather recognizes that there’s more than one healthy, consensual way to begin a relationship. I found it relatable and loved the illustrations. Bonus points were given for the Pride and Prejudice references.

—Neymat Raboobee

These Ghosts Are Family

These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card

This dazzling novel spans several centuries and continents as it explores the long history of a Jamaican family. Like Cloud Atlas, each section’s protagonist has a distinct voice, from the rebellious adoptive daughter of a slaveowner to a home health aide growing frustrated with her demanding client. Please do yourself a favor and listen to the audiobook read by Karl O’Brian Williams. It’s the most astonishing audiobook performance I’ve ever heard, as Williams channels varied speech patterns without ever losing the emotional threads that make the book so moving. (I also recommend this Paris Review essay by author Maisy Card, on grappling with history’s tendency to prize individual heroes over the collective struggles that ultimately accomplish more.)

—Christine Ro

Ties That Tether by Jane Igharo

I was first drawn to this book because the cover is absolutely gorgeous. I’m not the first to read a romance novel, but sometimes I indulge if I think the story will be fun. In Ties That Tether, Azere is a first generation Nigerian living in Canada and tradition is important to her family. When she was just 12 years old, her father made her promise to never date a man who isn’t Nigerian. After her father dies, her mother makes it her business to ensure that she only dates men that she approves of. Time after time again, Azere has to go on awful dates and be in relationships she doesn’t want to be in to please her mom. One night, Azere finds herself at a bar drinking and flirting with a man who would not be approved at all. The two have a one-night stand and Azere continues to appease her mother by dating men she can barely tolerate. However, her tall, white, one-night stand is slowly turning into a serious relationship and Azere remains undecided if she should follow her heart or keep her promise to her family. I enjoyed the book because it really shines a realistic light on one of the ways immigrant families want to preserve their culture through their children.

—Erika Hardison

Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno

In this beautifully intimate collection of essays, Melissa Faliveno thoughtfully explores her relationship to the Midwest, where she grew up, as well as the complexities of home, gender identity, chosen family, and so much more. She writes about both desire and place with such clearsightedness and openness. In so many of these essays, she intertwines geography and life experience, contemplating how they each contribute to how we exist in the world. Her writing about the intricacies of queer identity, and particularly bisexuality, is especially poignant. Every essay in this book blew me away. Faliveno takes all the normative, mainstream ideas of about queerness, and about what queer lives are “supposed” to look like, and turns them on their heads. It’s a heart-opening book that I’ll be returning to many, many times.

—Laura Sackton

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

It was very kind of Yaa to put “transcendent” right into the title so I don’t have to stretch my brain finding the right word to describe it. “Surpassing the ordinary”; “exceptional”; “beyond or above the range of normal human experience”—all definitions of transcendent and all accurate descriptions of this novel. The story follows Gifty, a neuroscientist born in Ghana and raised in Alabama, who is grappling with all sorts of big life issues. Lost faith, addiction, suicide, love—it’s all here. I love a lot of books, but this is the kind of novel that does not come around every year, or decade, or ever. When Roxane Gay said in her review, “I am quite angry this is so good,” I don’t know that I’ve ever agreed with her so wholly (and I generally agree with Gay very wholly).

—Tracy Shapley

Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots by Morgan Jerkins

Part history and part memoir, Jerkins’s new book explores how the Great Migration displaced generations of Black people throughout the U.S. It’s a deeply personal and moving exploration, as she recreates the journeys her own ancestors took across the country, from Georgia to Oklahoma to California and beyond. I am completely in awe of this book. Jerkins’s travels, research, and personal family history are perfectly blended, and her narrative voice is incredible. The essays were captivating, moving, and thought-provoking. This needs to be made into a documentary immediately!

—Susie Dumond

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates book cover

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I have been a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates for a long time. He’s one of my favorite nonfiction writers. So, when I found out he was writing another book, and a book in my favorite genre (magical realism), I was sold. And I was utterly blown away. This book is transportational, in more ways than one. Usually, I get wary of books that take a look at historical events and characters and then add magic, but it was handled so beautifully in this book. The characters feel so authentically human, and are written so gracefully. The settings feel tangible and concrete, oftentimes I could have sworn I was right there myself. It would take me a long time to find a single bad thing to say about this book. I love The Water Dancer dearly, and can’t wait to revisit it again and again.

—Mara Franzen

We Could Be Heroes by Mike Chen (MIRA, January 26, 2021)

Jamie and Zoe are strangers who wake up one day in separate apartments they don’t remember renting. The bad news: they have no memory of who they are or how they got there. The good news: they have superpowers. As they go about their lives, Jamie decides to use his powers for evil, erasing people’s minds to pull off bank heists. Zoe becomes a heroic vigilante, catching criminals in the city, which is how she and Jamie first cross paths. A second encounter at a support group for people with memory loss leads them to realize they have a lot in common: they may both be part of some unknown plan. Together, they seek the truth of their pasts, while becoming besties along the way. I love this book so much that I actually talked about it for almost ten minutes to a friend before I realized I hadn’t even mentioned that Jamie and Zoe had powers. There’s just so many great parts to mention! It’s a funny, refreshing take on superpower origin stories, full of adventure, but it’s not very violent or mean-spirited. It’s also queer and diverse, and bonus: there’s no romance! All these things add up to one of the most exciting novels headed our way next year. Put it at the top of your list now!

—Liberty Hardy

best books to read in hospital

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

This book is a flawless collection of short stories that begs to be read out loud. Oyeyemi has a delightful way of describing the details that give life to her stories, be them buildings in Barcelona or wooden puppets brimming with life. All nine stories in the collection are different—even though some characters appear more than once—but they all have keys to something more (some are doors, but others aren’t). At its heart, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is magical and most of all, human. From the very first sentence it hooked me in and it never let me go.

—Rey Rowland

Who Put This Song On? By Morgan Parker

I absolutely loved this book (especially the audiobook narration)! Loosely based on the author’s own teenage diaries, the story follows Black teen Morgan Parker as she navigates her junior year of high school in 2008. This happens to be the same year I was a junior in high school, so the early 2000’s nostalgia and music references hit me hard in the best possible way. Listening to the audiobook gave me all the feels of listening to one of my old mixed CDs from high school. Morgan as protagonist won me over from page 1. Morgan has a hilarious sense of humor, distinct fashion sense, and penchant for punk music. Morgan also has depression, and I found her honest reflections on coping with her depression incredibly moving. As Morgan navigates therapy, family, new friends, and crushes, she begins to find her way and takes strength from her support network. She has a really great group of friends, and I loved reading the notes they left each other interspersed throughout the story. I would highly recommend this book to everyone, but especially if you’re looking for a relatable read if you or someone you know has depression. CW: depression, mention of suicidal ideation

—Megan Mabee

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