What it’s about: Tyranny and actions you can take to prevent it.
What made me pick it up: I was looking for new downloadable audiobooks and this one was quite short (less than two hours).
My favorite things: Give to charities, join organizations of shared interests, travel, read. This book has many good, and somewhat unexpected, lessons and suggestions on how to keep your country (any country, although specifically aimed at Americans) from devolving into a tyrannical, fascist state. It leans heavily on examples from pre-WWII Europe, especially Nazi Germany, which can be hard to stomach for the simple fact that it feels so familiar and we know how atrocious it ended up being. This is less political than you might expect, but it does spend some time pointing out behaviors in current American leadership that mimic those that led to disastrous consequences in other countries in the past. It’s short enough and generalized enough to make it worth dipping into by readers on both sides of the aisle.
Who it’s great for: Anyone who feels like we are far too polarized for our own good. Fans of history, politics, current affairs, or international relations
My favorite things: While this doesn’t dip into the supernatural they way that Sing did, it still traces similar themes that I was hoping to find. Each character experiences specific manifestations of systemic racism unique to their era but undeniably tied to those of the other generations. The lines between each are clear, with the desperation escalating in younger characters. The people missing from each character’s life have almost as much of an impact on their stories as do those who are present.
Who it’s great for: Fans of family histories that trace multiple generations. Readers looking for writers telling complex stories of the African-American family; fans of Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, and Angela Flournoy.
What it’s about: A teen sees his older brother shot to death on the basketball court and how he deals with his grief.
What made me pick it up: I’ve read two of Reynolds’ other books and this one was getting really good reviews.
My favorite parts: This novel is in verse, which always amazes me that as much story can be told in few words and some authors need many. The best part for me was the beautiful language the author uses — describing the sidewalk as “the pavement galaxy of bubble gum stars” and so many other great turns of phrase. I also liked the dilemma he gave his character. On the one hand he’d like to avenge his brother’s death, but on the other that would dramatically change his life. I can’t say too much about the premise without giving away the wonderful structure Reynolds used to tell his story, but it invokes the best of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol but with a delectably ambiguous ending.
Who it’s great for: Teens, especially urban ones who may have to deal with gangs, violence, and less than stable living conditions in their daily lives. Anyone who has wondered if revenge was worth it.
What it’s about: Baldwin writing a letter to his young nephew, telling him how it is to be a black man in America.
What made me pick it up: Abby mentioned it was very short, and I’d been meaning to read it so I checked it out. We both finished it in one sitting.
My favorite things: This really reminded me of Between the World and Me (as it should, since that is structured similarly and inspired by this) — beautiful writing, and unfortunately timeless observations about the treatment of black people in this country. I wish this weren’t still so resonant, but that is not the case. Baldwin talks about the difficulties of maintaining relationships with people of all colors during the distrust of the black power movement and his hopes for a more equal standing for African Americans in future America. I also learned a fair amount about the Nation of Islam and the empowering effect the Muslim religion had on African Americans in the 60s.
Who it’s great for: Anyone reading voraciously on the themes of racial justice.
What’s it about: The story of two friends, partners in art and life, creating animated works that bring them a sort of fame while also forcing them to confront difficult truths and traumas in their lives that other people would like to leave in the past.
What made me pick it up: I needed an audiobook to listen to and this one was available, has gotten a lot of good press, and has a cover that makes me want to read it.
My favorite things: Whitaker treats characters suffering addictions almost without judgment in a way that is refreshingly humane. She takes the time to develop every character’s layers and the complexity of their relationships.
Who it’s great for: Readers looking for complex relationships between characters or an exploration of identity.
Originally published in: 2016 (North American edition 2017)
What’s it about: This reads like a thought experiment gone very, very right.What would happen in a world where women developed a physical power that men couldn’t match?
What made me pick it up: I think I put this on hold because there was a blurb from Margaret Atwood on the cover. But I’m also just a sucker for speculative work that is (post)apocalyptic and/or dystopian.
My favorite things: Somehow this book is both a very heavy-handed critique of global patriarchy and an electrifying story. The novel is bookended by letters between two writers, Naomi and Neil, whose gendered interactions flip the script in a way that will entertain anyone tired of mansplaining.
Who it’s great for: Fan’s of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Readers looking for unapologetically feminist read that doesn’t sacrifice story for politics.
What’s it about: A variety of writers reflect on specific lines or verses that they find to be particularly profound or informative and discuss how those lines impact their writing processes or the way they approach writing.
My favorite things: This is such an interesting insight into the minds and processes of so many favorite contemporary authors. I would never have connected some of these writers to the pieces that inspire them. There are more than forty contributing authors and each essay is relatively short, which makes this an easy book to dip in and out of as you need inspiration or have the time to pick it up.
Who it’s great for: WriMos in need of a little inspiration through the second half of NaNoWriMo. Anyone interested in reading about the writing that highly regarded contemporary writers find inspirational and formative.
What’s it about: Clayton Byrd loves nothing more than playing his blues harp with grandfather – Cool Papa Byrd. When Cool Papa Byrd passes suddenly Clayton struggles to adjust. He leaves home hoping to catch up with Cool Papa’s band of Bluesmen and finds an unexpected adventure on the way.
My favorite things: There’s a reason why Rita Williams-Garcia has won so many awards – she’s a masterful writer who never shies away from difficult topics. She takes a tale of love, loss, and grief and makes it thrilling but relatable. She weaves music throughout the story, making Clayton’s world come alive. No character is two dimensional, rather, she writes everyone as a full and complex person.
Who it’s great for: Middle-grade readers looking for a story that treats black boys as real people and not as stereotypes. Fans of Williams-Garcia’s other work. Readers interested in the roles music can play in life.
What’s it about: A visual biographical encyclopedia of innovative individuals throughout history.
What made me pick it up: I was intrigued when I stumbled across it while browsing an ebook and downloadable audiobook collection curated to inspire writers during NaNoWriMo.
My favorite things: Hancock believes that the objects and people that individuals surround themselves with can be very revealing. He enhances the understanding of notable historical figures by focusing on these aspects of their lives, rather than simply on their achievements. Hancock’s cartoonish drawings are an engaging jumble of small images that help to paint a picture of each subject’s life.
Who it’s great for: Readers intrigued by the daily lives of famous artists and thinkers. Fans of graphic biographies.
What it’s about: A sixteen-year-old girl who has extreme anxiety which leads to thought spirals that can only be controlled through compulsive, self-harming actions and how she deals with her mental illness while she continues to also be just a normal teen with crushes on boys, a best friend, and straight As in school.
What made me pick it up: John Green is a phenomenal writer who structures his stories so the blows come at you hard and fast at the end and leave you happy/sad and bawling. He just gets teens and how to write them and when I found out he had incorporated aspects of his struggle with mental health into this book I admired him all the more.
My favorite things: My favorite thing is also the thing I hated the most and what made me keep getting exasperated and putting the book down and walking away. Green writes so honestly and in such a raw way about this character’s experience of thought spirals and the compulsive behaviors they lead to which she feels will help that it was hard to read about her suffering. I needed frequent breaks because staying in the fictional situation for too long made me uncomfortable for her and sad for her and in pain for her. It is masterful, but it may be a trigger to some individuals, and it is certainly overwhelming to read if you have any amount of empathy at all. I like how he portrayed it as a struggle by a normal person who has a normal life and only ever aspires to be her authentic, balanced self able to do normal things. Most of all I was brought to tears by the honest depiction of the process of treating and managing a mental illness and the very hard-earned hope that can come from continuing to try.
Who it’s great for: Anyone who has struggled with or known someone who struggled with mental illness. Readers who need hope.
Pick this up in your local library or get a copy online somewhere like Amazon (affiliate link).