I always couple a nonfiction book with a novel or collection of short stories. It’s a habit I picked up in childhood—mostly to appease my librarian’s insistence on reading more than The Babysitter’s Club, Sweet Valley High, and Matilda over and over again—and has followed me into adulthood. Though pairing books doubles my reading load, it also strangely balances it. While I can escape into other worlds—some romantic, some scary, and some historical—I can also ground myself in realities and expand my own thinking about real-life issues. We’ve already published our most-anticipated lists of nonfiction and young-adult books, but this one, featuring 27 adult novels, is special and I hope that these books rejuvenate your love for reading.
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There’s a dark side of social media, and if Megan Angelo’s Followers is any indication, we’re already living it. Angelo’s debut novel, which has earned starred reviews from four major trade publications, splits its time between 2015 and 2051. In 2015, readers follow the relationship between roommates Orla Cadden, a blogger and aspiring author, and Floss Natuzzi, a regular- schmegular woman who desperately wants to be famous. In 2051, meanwhile, we meet Marlow, a young woman who lives in a California town where celebrities are closely surveilled to provide entertainment in the form of reality television. In many ways, Followers is a contemplation of the mediated life already live and its impact on our psyches and relationships to one another and to ourselves.
You can (rarely) go wrong with Black historical fiction, and Rita Woods’s impressive debut is at the top of the list, joining contemporaries such as Colson Whitehead’s award-winning 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, Yaa Gyasi’s arresting 2017 debut Homegoing, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s bestselling 2019 book The Water Dancer. Remembrance traverses 200 years, beginning in modern-day Cleveland, Ohio, with Haitian nurse’s aide Gaelle before traveling backward to 1850s Louisiana and 1790s Haiti to explore the supernatural bonds tying generations of Black people together. Woods’s masterpiece isn’t just about adding a magical element to the journey many people took to escape slavery, but also about how communities of Black people all around the world survived oppression.
Black Sunday follows four siblings from Lagos, Nigeria, in 1996 after their mother loses her stable government job and their father evaporates their savings in a scheme concocted by a scamming pastor. Each of the siblings—twin sisters Bibike and Ariyike, and their brothers Andrew and Peter—have to fill the gap after their mother departs for New York, when they’re put in the care of their grandmother and forced to take odd jobs to make ends meet. The lives of Bibike and Ariyike both revolve around the Pentecostal church before taking very divergent paths—Ariyike becoming the wife of a pastor and Bibike living a more secular existence—while their brothers are trapped in an abusive boarding school intent on breaking them. Even as they face loads of trauma, including abandonment and rape, their familial bond keeps the siblings afloat.
Brandon Taylor, a staff writer at Literary Hub and a senior editor at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, has written some of last decade’s most memorable and moving essays and literary criticism about everything from Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018) to his relationship with his mother to loneliness. His debut novel showcases the same level of excellence in telling the story of Wallace, a biochemistry student at a Midwestern university who keeps his distance from everyone and everything. Introvertedness is a form of self-preservation for Wallace after a traumatic childhood in Alabama and the recent death of the father who failed to protect him, and he finds himself unable to really connect with his peers, many of whom are white and biased. One weekend, however, proves to be a turning point for Wallace, one that helps him better navigate a whole new world.
In 1956, the United States government passed the Indian Relocation Act, a law that encouraged Native Americans to leave their reservations and resettle in more populated urban areas. As a result, more than 700,000 Native Americans left their traditional lands for cities where they were discriminated against and forced into low-paying jobs while their reservations were dissolved by the federal government. Acclaimed author Louise Erdrich’s newest novel is set in 1953, and returns readers to North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation—a locale prominently featured in her 2006 novel The Beet Queen—as Thomas Wazhushk faces the possibility of the Indian Relocation Act’s passage in Congress. Wazhushk is the aforementioned watchman, a character based on Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau; he monitors the jewel-bearing plant on his reservation as he realizes the forthcoming act is going to do more harm than good. The Night Watchman is a book about resilience, about trauma, and about the foresight of a single man.
These Ghosts Are Family spans generations of a single Jamaican family that’s wound around a devastating secret: Abel Paisley, who emigrated to the United States, has for 35 years been living under the assumed identity of a fellow dockworker and friend who died in an accident. Once relocated, Paisley chooses to abandon his wife and two children; he remarries and oversees a Caribbean market. But when he decides to reconnect with the family he left behind, old wounds are opened and a cycle of trauma—one that began in the 1830s and has continued since—is laid bare for readers to parse. These Ghosts Are Family are about the secrets we harbor and the resilience needed to help a family heal.
Afia Atakora’s debut novel is a masterpiece of historical fiction: The book follows Rue, the enslaved daughter of her small community’s resident healing woman, who has inherited her mother’s ability to cure sickness, birth healthy babies, and ward off foxes and other dangers. After the Civil War—when the Big House on the plantation land is burned down and all the enslaved people are free—Rue finds herself at a crossroads when a charismatic preacher arrives in town and is soon condemning her ancient practices and peddling Christianity instead. Conjure Women follows Rue through childhood and adulthood as she hides a bevy of secrets to keep herself and her community safe.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy—now known as Induced Illness by Carers (IIBC)—became national news in 2016 when BuzzFeed published a sprawling longform piece about Gypsy Rose Blanchard, a young woman who killed her mother, Dee Dee, after years of being purposely sickened by her. The Act, 2019’s Hulu series loosely based on Gypsy and Dee Dee’s twisted story, and HBO’s miniseries adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2006 novel Sharp Objects are among the recent dramatizations of IIBC; Stephanie Wrobel’s debut novel joins them in the growing pop culture canon of mothers who so want to be needed and admired that they harm their own children. Darling Rose Gold follows Patty Watts, recently released from prison after serving a five-year sentence for purposely sickening her daughter, Rose Gold, for 18 years. Rose Gold decides to take her mother in, with the expectation that Patty will try to hurt her again. But this time, she’s ready.
Angelina Moltisanti never planned to return home to Baltimore after graduating college, but a devastating car crash upends her plans, leaving her with a shattered left hand and wrist and her dreams of being an artist in limbo. Not much has changed in the time Angelina has been gone: Her father, Jack, is still abusive; her mother, Marie, is still being overpowered by his violence; and their family dynamic is still detrimental to her mental and emotional health. Meeting Janet, one of Marie’s coworkers, is the bright spot in an otherwise horrid situation, but even the prospect of new love isn’t enough for Angelina to tolerate the violence that’s always threatening to spill over from her mother to her. Don’t You Know I Love You is a devastating book about the toll of domestic violence on those being hurt—and those doing the hurting.
Photojournalist Alexa Wú has dissociative identity disorder, a condition that looms over her life. Alexa’s best friend, Ella, who has recently decided to begin working in a gentleman’s club named Electra, is one of the trusted few who knows about her mental illness and supports her as she seeks help. But when Ella discovers that Electra’s owner, Navid, is a criminal using the club as a cover for seedier activity, she enlists Alexa to help her take him down. The Eighth Girl is the perfect thriller for those who love the genre, with a killer twist you’ll never see coming.
Sonya Lalli is among a crop of Indian writers in North America publishing romance novels that center around their cultural traditions and dating customs. After 2019’s The Matchmaker’s List, which follows an Indian woman in Canada whose grandmother is intent on marrying her off, Lalli is back with Grown-Up Pose, which offers an entirely different premise. Its protagonist, Anu Desai, has always followed the rules her loving but strict parents set: She married her first love, Neil, and wasn’t intimate with him until their wedding night; she pursued a career in nursing because it provided stability; and she’s obliged the will of the elders in her family, including her parents and her mother-in-law. Five years into her marriage, however, she decides to separate from Neil to date other men and is considering leaving nursing to open a yoga studio. Grown-Up Pose is a mediation on women who want to follow their own path for their own life.
By now, many of us are familiar with the story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancer cells were harvested and used for decades after her death by scientists who never sought consent or compensated her family. Lakewood builds on this story in fictional form: After her grandmother dies, Lena Johnson is forced to leave college to take care of her ailing mother. She has no job prospects until she’s invited to participate in the Lakewood Project, an insidious research study that will conveniently pay enough to cover the costs of her mother’s treatment. Johnson is moved to Lakewood, Michigan, and put through a battery of invasive and odd tests by a team of white “observers” who haven’t revealed the purpose of the study or what her data will be used for. Lakewood is a terrifying read for anyone concerned about the harvesting of DNA without a clear purpose.
After spending the last 15 years writing young-adult novels, Julia Alvarez’s back in the adult market with Afterlife, a book about grief, love, and friendship filled with many of the trademarks that have made her beloved by readers. Afterlife follows Antonia Vega, an English professor who retires a few short years before her husband, Sam, unexpectedly dies from an aneurysm and her sister, Izzy, disappears without a trace. Vega’s life is further upended when she discovers an undocumented, pregnant teenage girl hiding out in her garage, and finds herself forced to confront her own values as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. Afterlife is a short but stunning book about what we hold dear and how we can put our values into action in ways that benefit others.
Not too long ago, HIV/AIDS was considered a death sentence, and those diagnosed with the disease were stigmatized and ostracized by family and strangers alike. Cartel Sickels’s touching novel recalls that time via protagonist Brian, a 24-year-old gay man in the late stages of the disease who decides to return to his hometown of Chester, Ohio, to be with his family. Though Brian’s parents welcome him home, they also decide to keep his illness a secret, isolating him and making sure he only uses certain silverware and bedsheets. Gossip outside their home leads to outright ostracization: town residents force Brian to leave the neighborhood pool, shoot a hole through his father’s car window, and even harass his family over the phone. The Prettiest Star examines a time that many of us have forgotten or have pretended never happened, offering a stark clarity about the cost of intolerance.
Piano prodigy Claire Alalay has been spiraling emotionally since her father’s death, leaning into music as a way to escape grief but failing to really move forward in her life. Alalay knows she needs a music scholarship to afford college, so she decides to audition for Paul Avon, an elite piano teacher who has helped other talented pianists reach their potential. Avon immediately recognizes Alalay’s talent and agrees to become her teacher, but a combination of unending grief and vulnerability allows him to go further than just being her guide in piano. Private Lessons is a good book for our time because it thoughtfully grapples with the limits of consent in an uneven power dynamic between a student and a teacher.
Dorian, Julianna, Essie, Marella, and Anneke seemingly have nothing in common aside from living in West Adams, a gentrifying community in South Los Angeles where some of them are perceived as more of a nuisance than anything else. There is one thing that connects them, however: a lurking danger that none of them can prepare for. In some ways, These Women feels like a true-crime episode come to life; in other ways, it feels solemn; after all, we already know that serial killers like the one hovering throughout this book often operate in communities where they know no one will care about the victims. Ivy Pochoda has spun a skilled, affecting tale about women on the margins.
Maggie Krause has long had a complicated relationship with her mother, Iris, a woman who believed it was her right to openly express her disapproval about Krause’s sexuality. When Iris is killed in a car accident, Krause is forced to return to California to plan her mother’s funeral and shivah, see out her will, and finally confront their tenuous relationship. Part of Krause’s duties as an unofficial executor of the estate involves delivering five letters to five men she’s never heard of, and it is through these interactions that Krause discovers there’s more to her mother than she ever could have realized. All My Mother’s Lovers is an absolutely beautiful novel from Ilana Masad (a Bitch contributor) about a journey many of us will eventually embark on—realizing our parents are just as complicated and complex as we are.
Brit Bennett’s bestselling 2017 debut, The Mothers, focused on the interior lives of two Black teen girls living in a religious Southern California community where purity is valued above all else. The Vanishing Half promises to be as riveting and fraught as Bennett’s first effort: It introduces us to the Vignes sisters, identical twins whose lives diverge dramatically after they run away from their small Black Southern community at the age of 16. One twin has returned to their town and is raising a daughter while the other twin has decided to pass for white and is living with a white husband who has no idea she’s actually Black. The Vanishing Half not only follows these twins but also traces the paths of their descendants as this one critical decision—to pass—completely changes the trajectory of their bloodline.
When our protagonist is 12, she decides to expose her bare legs in Bethlehem, Palestine, an act that’s forbidden and brings swift rebuke from the men of her community. It isn’t the first time she will defy the rules: Eventually, she comes into her own, realizes she’s queer, and leaves Jerusalem for a life as a DJ and writer in New York. For all those who’ve colored outside the lines, as this narrator does, Zaina Arafat offers comfort in the form of a book: It’s okay to “exist too much,” even as a number of different obstacles—parents, a lowkey conversion camp, religion—try to rein you in.
When Ruby King’s mother is murdered in their home on the South Side of Chicago, she’s sent to live with her father, who’s abusive, violent, and incapable of protecting her. King’s mother’s murder is also unsolved, thanks to a dismissive police department who credits her death to the neighborhood she lives in, and there’s no one looking out for her only child. When Layla, Ruby’s friend and only support system, is forced by her father to stay away from Ruby, it leaves her even more vulnerable. Saving Ruby King is about Layla’s secret quest to help her friend get into an environment where she’s loved, taken care of, and supported—and where King’s mother’s death isn’t just another crime unworthy of being investigated.
Wendy Doe’s origins are unknown. When she’s discovered on a bus heading to Philadelphia, she has no idea who she is, so she’s taken into the care of one Dr. Benjamin Strauss, who runs the Meadowlark Institute for Memory Research. Wendy Doe is diagnosed with dissociative fatigue, a form of temporary amnesia without a clear treatment plan, and as she struggles to regain her memory, those she encounters all see her differently than she sees herself. Robin Wasserman’s engrossing second novel is told through the perspective of multiple characters who are all trying to piece together the story of an unknown woman with no idea how she came to lose herself.
It is safe to say that Jasmine Guillory is one of the most prolific romance novels in the business: Since her wildly popular 2018 debut The Wedding Date, Guillory has released The Proposal, The Wedding Party, Royal Holiday, and now, Party of Two. All of Guillory’s books feature unforgettable, dynamic characters who fall in love in impossible ways—during a Christmas vacation with the royal family, for instance, or after a failed proposal at a baseball game goes viral—that make many of us believe that love is possible for us as well. Party of Two fits right in with Guillory’s burgeoning canon: Olivia Monroe has no intention of dating when she relocates to Los Angeles to start her own law firm, but when she meets Senator Max Powell at a hotel bar, she realizes that love may have found her and she is powerless to stop it from overtaking her completely.
“Self-care” is a buzz phrase that’s now so divorced from its roots that its watered-down definition is now primarily the linchpin for corporations selling products for women. Leigh Stein’s fourth book offers a comprehensive look at the commodification of self-care: Maren Gelb and Devin Avery are best friends who co-own Richual (get it?) “the most inclusive online community platform for women to cultivate the practice of self-care and change the world by changing ourselves.” After Maren tweets something that puts the company in the hot seat and their employees’ less-than-feminist secrets become news, Richual’s future as a wellness company becomes uncertain and unclear. Self Care pulls back the curtain on the idea that we can buy ourselves habits that preserve our emotional, mental, and physical health.
Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, the dynamic duo behind the popular celebrity fashion blog Go Fug Yourself, took fan fiction to the next level with The Royal We, their bestselling 2015 novel inspired by the whirlwind romance of Prince William and Kate Middleton. In the entertaining predecessor to this novel, Bex Porter moves from the United States to London to attend Oxford, where she falls in love with Nick, her dormmate—and the heir to the British throne. The Royal We follows their relationship through its ups and downs, from breakups and reconciliations to an engagement and a wedding that’s threatened by a devastating secret. The Heir Affair picks up where The Royal We left off, following Bex and Nick as she adjusts to life in the public eye as a scandal threatens to unravel their union.
In March 2019, Kelli Jo Ford won the Plimpton Prize for Fiction, an award given by the Paris Review to emerging writers who had published a piece in their previous four issues. Almost a year later, we’re getting her debut novel, the story of Justine, a Native American teenager growing up in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in the 1970s. After Justine gives birth to her daughter, Reney, the book follows her to Texas, where she tries to figure out who she is when she’s not under the purview of her religious-fanatic mother and the community she was raised in.
Akwaeke Emezi is on a roll that few writers ever experience: After releasing their critically acclaimed debut novel, Freshwater, in 2018, Emezi ventured into the young-adult space with 2019’s National Book Award–nominated Pet, and is now back with their sophomore adult novel. The Death of Vivek Oji book opens with the death of its titular character, discovered at his mother’s doorstep; it then moves backward, walking readers through his life, from experiencing blackouts as a child to developing a close bond with his cousin Osita to helping us understand what has happened in his life to lead to his death.
In 2017, novelist Yaa Gyasi published Homegoing, an incredible and award-winning book that follows the descendants of two sisters—one married to a wealthy Englishman, the other sold into slavery and transported across the Atlantic Ocean—through generations of heartache, triumph, trauma, and victory. Now, Gyasi returns with Transcendent Kingdom, a novel about a family of Ghanaian immigrants who are grappling with addiction, loss, and religion in a time of sorrow and misunderstanding. This book is sure to be another testament to Gyasi’s greatness as a writer.
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