The Nickel Boys
In 1960s Florida, Elwood Curtis is ready to go to college, but he needs to hitch a ride there. Raised by his grandmother to follow the rules, Elwood is seemingly punished for his ambition when he finds himself thrown into the Nickel Academy after accepting a ride from a car thief. The prison-like reformatory for so-called delinquent boys is a pit of brutality and despair, where the guards beat and sexually abuse the youth in their care. When Elwood befriends Turner, a boy with radically different survival strategies, their shared destiny begins to form.
The Water Dancer (Oprah's Book Club)
In this mythological yet deeply realistic novel, Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to white people in the pre-Civil War South “the Quality” and Black people “the Tasked,” names that evoke continued systemic inequalities. Hiram Walker is a teenager in that 19th-century landscape when he discovers he has a powerful magic that can whisk him along bodies of water. Leaving his enslavers—as well as his beloveds—behind, he takes a journey north, where he prepares to return and free the ones he had to leave. Rooted in horrendous realities, this novel is powerfully imaginative.
The Unwinding of the Miracle
When Julie Yip-Williams was diagnosed with colon cancer at 37 years old, she was a lawyer, married, and had two young children at home. Looking back at her life, she realized it was miraculous, in some ways, that she’d made it even this far. When she was born with cataracts and mostly blind, she was almost killed by her own grandmother as a failed scion. Protected by other family, she was taken on a harrowing journey to flee Vietnam, and eventually immigrated to the U.S. Writing her way from and toward death, Yip-Williams ultimately celebrates life.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf
In this first volume of the Dark Star Trilogy, Marlon James brings linguistic beauty and vivid imagination to his world-building and characters, both of which draw on various mythological strands. On the vast continent of Africa, Tracker, a man known for a nose that’s able to sniff out anyone in hiding, is paid to find a boy who, it appears, is not only lost but being deliberately kept that way. Tracker meets shapeshifter Leopard—who is on his own quest—and others along the way. As various journey narratives play out, you’ll want the sequel already.
Daisy Jones & The Six
Taylor Jenkins Reid
Remember when a band you loved broke up and it felt like you yourself had just been dumped? Well, it was like that for countless fans when Daisy Jones and The Six had their final, dramatic concert and never played together again. In the interviews that make up this novel, we learn about the early days of both Daisy Jones as a solo singer and her meet-up with The Six, as well as the many ways in which the band changed forever once she joined them on the road. By book’s end, you’ll wish the band wasn’t fictional.
Remember that comic strip that went viral a few years ago about the mental load that women so often carry in heterosexual marriages and families? This handy new book deals with the same issue and takes a practical approach, perfect for life-hackers and people who are just tired of doing all the work in the household along with project managing what everyone else does. With a list of over 100 household tasks, a simple-to-follow system that includes only four rules, and a guided way to discuss them with your partner, Fair Play is here to save the day.
Orange World and Other Stories
In Karen Russel’s newest collection, the past, present, and future collide through uncanny dangers that have been with us for ages and continue to exist. Whether it’s a ghost story about gold diggers haunted by men who died attempting to do their jobs, a tale of horror in which a mother begins breastfeeding the devil in order to protect her human baby, or a charming if impossible love story about a young man falling in love with an ancient mummified girl who’s been preserved by a swamp for a couple millennia, these stories are astute, moving, and meaningful.
When Dani Shapiro and her husband sent out their DNA to be tested, they weren’t expecting any bombshells that would affect their lives. But when Shapiro received her results, they pointed to several relatives she didn’t know—and somehow didn’t relate her to her half-sister at all. Over the course of this memoir, Shapiro must take in that the Jewish father—whose long Jewish history she always took comfort in—was not in fact her biological father. Untangling nature, nurture, and how we love, Shapiro’s story is nuanced and deeply felt.
Great storytelling yanks you along almost despite yourself. It’s especially fun when nonfiction storytelling succeeds in this, and investigative journalist Casey Cep’s first book does so in spades. Taking us through the riveting history of a reverend and serial killer who kept getting away with murder and the vigilante who killed him, to the story of the lawyer who represented both men at different times, and finally, Harper Lee’s attendance at the vigilante’s trial, you’ll read Furious Hours at a furious pace.
City of Girls
When looking back at her life, Vivian Morris can recognize that she’s had a pretty interesting life, all things considered. That’s an understatement, of course, as she unfurls her tale and we can’t help but be as mesmerized. Distracted and a little silly, 19-year-old Vivian is kicked out of Vassar in 1940 and begins living with her theater-owning aunt in Manhattan. Showgirls, men, the fast and loose bohemian world she lands in—it all adds up to a wonderfully alternative education.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
How do we learn to connect with parents when our lived experiences are so drastically different? Where do we find points of connection and familiarity within shared aches we have not chosen? In Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, a son addresses a book-length letter to his mother, who can’t read the words he’s sharing with her. These words—about trauma and how it’s passed on, queerness and its socially required secrecy, the dreadful ways we ask masculinity to be performed—are also the narrator’s attempts to understand how he came to be, and how to keep being.
In Sally Rooney’s second novel, two classmates of very different socioeconomic classes find themselves repeatedly drawn to and repelled from one another over several years. Connell’s mom cleans Marianne’s house in their small Irish town, but where Marianne is certainly privileged, she’s also considered the weirdo at school—whereas Connell is somehow good at everything and also super nice. When they both end up at Trinity College, it’s Connell who feels out of his element, and Marianne who dominates the social scene. Eventually, they’ll have to figure out what (and how much) they mean to one another.
The Most Fun We Ever Had
In a Chicago suburb, an ideal couple, Marilyn and David, raised their four daughters under the umbrella of marital bliss and money. Now adults, the daughters aren’t quite able to capture for themselves their parents’ perfect relationship, and that is, honestly, the least of their problems. There’s Violet, married and keeping a huge secret that’s about to be revealed by Wendy, who’s good at leaving her scent in men’s rooms; Liza is accidentally pregnant by a man she’s not really into; and Grace, the youngest, has her own scary truth. Drama, of course, ensues.
The Giver of Stars
Marrying Bennett was supposed to be Alice’s ticket out of a stifling, boring life, but when the Englishwoman arrives in Kentucky with her American husband and they settle in with her father-in-law, she realizes she’s exchanged one bad situation for another. But Kentucky does have one unexpected allure for Alice: work. She joins a women’s team of horseback riders hired to serve as a traveling library for the far-flung and remote rural towns that don’t have easy access to books. Alice finds freedom and friendship with the women as well as in books.
Fleishman Is in Trouble
When Toby Fleishman’s wife, Rachel, leaves him, it’s not great, but you know, there’s dating apps for that, full of mature, no-BS women who are as eager for a fling as they are to toss Toby away when the deed is done. But when Rachel drops the kids off with Toby and takes off, things get tricky. No longer an unburdened man in his bachelor pad, Toby has to juggle childcare, doctoring, and attempts at dating while also trying to figure out where—and why—Rachel went. Funny and immersive, with an unreliable narrator, it’s a book to sink your teeth into.
Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
When Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey set out to write about Harvey Weinstein, they knew it would be difficult: the producer had an army of lawyers, more money than they could dream of, and a successful record of making such pesky journalistic questions go away. When, eventually, Kantor and Twohey published the piece that gained them a Pulitzer, they were unprepared for quite how many people would come forward to finally share their experiences of abuse at Weinstein’s hands. In this inside look at their work, Kantor and Twohey urge us to keep fighting for justice.
While you don’t have to have read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to engage with this followup, we highly recommend you do anyway, if only to let the horror of that first book permeate into this one. In the highly patriarchal Republic of Gilead in a conceivable North American future, the gears of government keep turning even as some of its denizens are reaching a boiling point: Agnes, who believes in the nation and her god; Daisy, newly 16, who learns a devastating truth; and Aunt Lydia, an…educator, of sorts. Will Gilead survive or die?
The Beautiful Ones
Just three months before he died, Prince started working with Dan Piepenbring, who succeeds here in bringing forth Prince’s vision, though tragically cut short. The book begins with the legendary artist’s own writing—the pages Prince was working on about his childhood in Minnesota. Next, we see Prince’s scrapbook photos from the time before his first album came out, and then Piepenbring pieces together the next stage in Prince’s creative efforts through annotations and the musician’s own doodles, before arriving at his original, handwritten treatment for Purple Rain. A poetic, emotional journey toward a genius’s mind.
Award-winning favorites and entirely new pieces share space in Ted Chiang’s gorgeous second collection. The title story, “Exhalation,” speaks to our perpetual desire to advance as a scientist of a now-extinct species gives us a dire warning, as well as a blessing that invites us to appreciate and marvel at the wonders all around us. In other stories, Chiang explores how machines might rear human children, how a single human will work to secretly keep a sentient machine alive for years, and how time travel’s allure is both universal and universally unable to live up to our wishes.
Red at the Bone
Melody is 16 at the start of this gorgeous, lyrical novel by Jacqueline Woodson, and she’s 16 at its end, but in between, we get to see how she became and who loved her into being. Her mother, Iris, abandoned her early on and yearned for another woman at Oberlin College; her father, Aubrey, raised her in those early years. Their own parents also get a turn at the narrative wheel. Legacy, family, who makes and unmakes children—and how each person’s past affects their choices and desires—are only some of the heady but deeply embodied themes here.
Mira Jacobs wasn’t sure what to say to her son when he first started asking questions about what it means to be a brown boy, a Jewish boy, a boy born to an interracial couple in the United States. In this graphic memoir, Jacobs replays a series of difficult and honest conversations with him, which lead her into the conversations she has, by necessity or choice, with others around her. In a deeply divided political landscape, Jacobs explores how love often exists—painfully—right alongside prejudice, racism, and ignorance. We should all be having such good—and extremely important—talks.
Know My Name
In 2016, a statement by a sexual assault victim known only as Emily Doe went viral. Survivors of assault and rape saw in her words a truth they recognized and knew only too well. Unfortunately, they also saw in her trial’s outcome the reality of many of their own experiences: Brock Turner, the perpetrator, received a short sentence, which was halved in practice. In Know My Name, Chanel Miller—Doe no longer—uses the voice that already captivated so many to tell us more of her story, from the year of silence and secrecy following the assault to uncaging her rage.
The Starless Sea
Many readers will recognize a version of Zachary Ezra Rawlins in themselves: an introverted millennial who prefers gaming, reading, and drinking cocktails when he’s not busy with grad school responsibilities. It isn’t until Zachary finds himself eerily reflected in the pages of an old book from his university’s library that he’s kicked out of his comfortable ways and propelled into an adventure he could never have imagined. Following a series of clues to a private club in New York, and from there to a vast underground repository of books, stories, and even other worlds, Zachary discovers true magic.
How to Be an Antiracist
Ibram X. Kendi
Ibram X. Kendi, professor, Atlantic columnist, and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, wasn’t always so well-versed in racism and antiracism. In this book, Kendi examines the many facets of racism—from junk science biology to the construction of power within systems—as well as how he internalized so many false anti-Black and other racist ideas that permeate our culture in the U.S. Going further, Kendi explains how antiracism must work: backed up by antiracist ideas, policies must be created and passed in order to lead to racial equity. An essential read.
In 1893, two very different people talk to the dead in the Arizona Territory. Nora, a frontierswoman living in a drought-stricken land, speaks to the daughter, who died as an infant, but whom Nora’s been imagining aging into a young woman over the years. Lurie, a young outlaw traveling with a camel, has seen and spoken to ghosts since he was a boy and listened to their requests of him. As Nora finds herself alone after her husband and sons have left, and Lurie travels ever closer, their strange, riveting journeys finally intersect.
Once More We Saw Stars
We call children who have lost their parents “orphans,” and people who have lost their spouses “widows” and “widowers,” but we have no word for a parent who has lost a child. Jayson Greene and his wife, Stacy, certainly never expected to need a word like this when they left their 2-year-old daughter with her grandmother, but when a freak accident killed the little girl, they found themselves facing an aching chasm of loss. In this riveting and painful—though carefully hopeful—book, Greene examines guilt, grief, and questions of how on earth to move on.
Zadie Smith, author of much lauded novels and essay collections, released her debut collection of short fiction into the world, after teasing us for a couple years with stories published in The New Yorker, Granta, and The Paris Review. With 11 new stories along with those previously published, Smith ranges far and wide with her signature wit, warmth, and delectable social observations. Whether it’s a dystopian piece about an augmented-reality military game and the very real crying girl who interrupts it, or a convenient meeting between a woman and her dead mother at a restaurant, the stories sing.
Olive, Again (Oprah's Book Club)
Readers fell in love with Elizabeth Strout’s title character Olive Kitteridge a decade ago, and in Olive, Again, they’ll fall, again. Prickly, difficult, opinionated, and wry, Olive is so real on the page and in the lives of Crosby, Maine’s residents that you almost expect to run into her while you’re out shopping. In the interweaving stories of this book, which take place over 10 years of Olive’s life, she finds herself attempting to become a slightly better person, inching her way into unexpected kindness. Whatever Olive judges about herself, the fact is that others are drawn to her.
The Secrets We Kept
Early in the Cold War, two secretaries at the Agency—a fledgling CIA—are earmarked for other work: Sally, an already-experienced spy, and Irina, who was hired even though she’s a slow typist because, as she learns to her surprise, she’s to be trained as a spy as well. The two women are meant to do what spies do—that is, extract a secret. This secret isn’t information but an actual object, a novel suppressed by the Soviet government. Based on the real story of how Doctor Zhivago got published in the West, this novel is a sweeping wonder.
More Than Enough
Elaine Welteroth always wanted an impressive career, but in high school, she wasn’t sure she’d succeed, especially as she began to recognize how being biracial meant she’d never have the easy acceptance allowed of white peers, nor could she always count on being welcomed by the few Black ones. As she learned to embrace her own Blackness, found mentorship, and impressed one boss after another, she began to reshape the very systems in which she worked. Inspirational but never fitting a cookie-cutter mold, this memoir is for those forging their own paths.
We’re all stressed about things, from politics to the planet, but we at RIF want to pause, take a breath, and acknowledge what a year it’s been for books. We’re thankful for the incredible writers who keep inspiring us, riveting us, and reminding us to reach out to one another and within ourselves. With novels, memoirs, and short story collections galore, our list of the year’s favorites is jam-packed with reads that we hope will remind you of the resilience, courage, and love we’re all capable of.
Featured image: Robert Driscoll