Amazon's best books of September

Erin Kodicek on September 02, 2020
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Amazon's best books of September

We've never had such a long run of extending our typical top ten to twelve, but 2020 has at least been a boon in one wayturning-out so many great reads we're going to have an especially tough time when we sit down to select the Best Books of the Year. And that's how we like it. This month offers an addictive debut, a powerful memoir that examines the ways in which institutionalized racism permeates our judicial system, the latest from Louise Penny's beloved Chief Inspector Gamache series, and more.

Learn more about these and all of our picks for the Best Books of the Month.


Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie

Set in post WWII Japan, Fifty Words for Rain follows Noriko Kamiza, the love child of her married, aristocratic mother and an African American soldier. Left with her scandalized grandparents and kept out of sight in an attic, “Nori” succumbs to her sorry lot—which involves beatings and excruciating chemical baths to lighten her skin—until the unexpected arrival of her half-brother. Akira manages to crack Nori’s world open just enough to give her hope, triggering a nail-biting chain of events as her grandparents conspire to close it yet again. Depressing much? Actually no. You will root for Nori, her resilient spirit, and her determination to assert her own identity and live life on her own terms. Asha Lemmie has written a rousing and addictive debut you won’t want to miss. —Erin Kodicek


A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom by Brittany K. Barnett

As a child of a mother who did jail time, Brittany K. Barnett understands the grave implications of a parent lost to “the striped Looney Toons suit.” As she writes in A Knock at Midnight: “There’s something about seeing your childhood hero, your guiding star, fallen. It rocks you to your core.” In this deeply personal memoir, Barnett shares how as a young Black girl she was surrounded by drugs growing up in the south—her mother, a nurse, at times was addicted to crack, and her boyfriend dealt drugs—how her family fueled her, why she pursued law, and became dedicated to defending those unfairly incarcerated for minor drug crimes. As she learned, inequality lurked everywhere: “The discrepancy in sentencing blew my mind. I began to wonder whether America’s harsh drug sentences were tied to the drugs in a man’s hand or the melanin in his skin.” While A Knock at Midnight is a brilliant memoir of Barnett’s own journey, it also chronicles the stories of three of her clients. Their lives—including their crimes, their families, and their jail time—are rendered with such care and compassion that it is impossible to put this book down. It is also impossible not to root for Barnett and her clients as she fights to get them the justice they deserve, and never had. A Knock at Midnight is a profoundly moving memoir that reveals the incredibly racist world of the feds, the courts, and the laws that throw away people’s lives—for life. —Al Woodworth


All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny

If earlier Gamache books showed the detective’s preternatural kindness and steadfastness in the face of evil, All the Devils are Here sheds light on the tragedy out of which his steadfastness came, and the second family who taught him kindliness, empathy, and patience. The Gamache family—including Armand’s godfather: wealthy industrialist Stephen Horowitz—gather in Paris to await the birth of Annie’s and Jean-Guy’s daughter. But walking home from dinner that night, Stephen is mowed down by a passing van and it’s immediately clear to Gamache that this is no accident. To catch a would-be killer in the City of Light without the resources of the Sûreté at his back? Tough. But he has an old colleague he can call on to help, and a family that has his back, though some old tensions float to the surface. Despite this fascinating glimpse into the workings of the Gamache family, there will be those thinking: A Gamache book in which we don’t visit Three Pines until near the very end? Mais, non! Rest assured, Penny takes with one hand and gives with the other. The sixteenth entry in the series is essentially an origin story fans will love, one which sets up a complex whodunit which is also a whydunit, all of it buttressed by a Penny trademark: a canny mix of empathy, psychology, and suspense. —Vannessa Cronin


Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi’s debut Homegoing was a sweeping, multi-generational novel that covered 300 years of Ghanaian and American history. It was moving and powerful, and it announced a rare new talent. The question was, how would she follow up that novel? Transcendent Kingdom is contemporary and grounded in one time period, but it is equally impressive. Gyasi’s talent is very real and very consistent. The story introduces Gifty, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford. She studies addiction and depression in mice, but addiction and depression exist in her family as well. Her once-promising brother died of a heroin overdose, and her depressed mother believes only prayer can heal her. Gifty is very much a contemporary, forward-looking character—a Ghanaian-American woman who is excelling in science at one of the best schools in the world—but she is also drawn by memories of faith and family in Alabama where she grew up. There are differences between Gyasi’s first two novels, but both are inhabited by characters that are multi-dimensional and real. And both are brilliant. –Chris Schluep


Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

An everyday apartment open house becomes the stage for Backman’s latest novel, when a bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. As the title hints, each member of the group bares his or her own anxieties, not just about the hostage situation, but about their individual lives. Backman is a funny, charming story teller, and Anxious People is a fine showcase for his talents as a writer. There are twists and surprises. There are editorial asides. Beneath it all, there is a deep sense of warmth and empathy. Backman is particularly gifted at creating a community of memorable characters and opening up their mental states to readers. And many readers of Anxious People will in turn reflect on their own anxieties. Ultimately, Backman seems to be telling us that—though it be a messy, ambiguous world we inhabit—we can turn toward one another to find calm and assurance. This is a novel that can, and should, be embraced by anxious people everywhere. –Chris Schluep


The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

How many of us have looked back on a decision that changed our lives and wondered: what if we had made a different choice?  Picoult’s novel The Book of Two Ways digs into this very question and the result is incredibly thought-provoking. Dawn Edelstein was once a young grad student working on a dig in Egypt, in love with a fellow Egyptologist, and getting ever closer to proving a radical new theory about ancient Egyptians’ burial rituals for the road to the afterlife. Then a phone call from home changed everything. Fifteen years later, Dawn is married, with a teenage daughter, and working in Boston as a death doula, helping the dying prepare to leave this world in the best way possible. When Dawn has a near-death experience she is confronted with the question of whether the good life she has could have been a great one. Dawn doesn’t just ponder the question—she returns to Egypt, and the man she once loved, to see if she can find the answer. Picoult incorporates fascinating details about Egyptology into her novel—the title comes from an ancient Egyptian tome of the same name—bringing history and a universal connection into the story. The Book of Two Ways is a provocative exploration into monumental questions: about the life we are living, who we want to be with when we die, and whether it’s possible—and acceptable—to change our mind, return to the trailhead, and go another way. —Seira Wilson


The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

The inaugural book in the Kingsbridge series, The Pillars of the Earth, has sold over 27 million copies worldwide. So, Ken Follett knows what he’s doing, but no one would blame him for blinking twice at the prospect of penning the prequel. The Evening and the Morning proves he has nerves of steel. Set at the tail end of the Dark Ages when England was being pinched by the Vikings and the Welsh, it mines the growing pains of a budding legal system, one that wouldn’t only benefit the ruling class and corrupt clergyman. It’s also a star-crossed love story involving a humble boatbuilder and Norman noblewoman, two heroes whose journey provides the emotional center of an otherwise brutal, and yet beautiful, tale. Fans of Follett will certainly relish this very worthy addition to a beloved oeuvre, but it will also attract new admirers like yours truly, who initially balked at the 928 page count and then was disappointed that The Evening and the Morning didn’t stretch on to the afternoon. —Erin Kodicek


The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson

Scott Anderson’s The Quiet Americans is a deeply-researched history that reads like a character driven novel. At the end of World War II, the United States began turning its attention to the Soviet Union, and the relatively new CIA became integral to the covert effort to confront the Soviets. Much as he did in his epic Lawrence in Arabia, Anderson focuses on the experiences of a handful of men in order to tell the wider story. The result is both intimate and sweeping. Anderson follows four agents whose work was spread across the globe, initially directed at maintaining American ideals, but eventually decaying under the weight of politics, myopia, and overreach. Each of these men bore great costs for the work they did in the CIA. As they were altering the course of world events, the work was altering—sometimes quite severely—the courses of their lives. –Chris Schluep


Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery by Catherine Gildiner

In reviewing her long career as a therapist, Dr. Catherine Gildiner was struck by the strength of spirit of her patients who struggled through each day despite being broken so many times by those who should have loved them. As Gildiner tells one of her patients, “To me, bravery isn’t a single act; it’s facing impossible odds every day to repeat the whole ordeal.” Throughout, Gildiner is filled with conviction and empathy for those she works with—making it easy to become utterly absorbed by their lives and her place in them. Among the five fascinating people Gildiner spotlights are a woman abandoned at age nine in a remote cabin, a man raised in one of Canada’s notorious residential schools for Indigenous children, and a woman whose father was an active member of the Ted Bundy fan club. (With the latter patient, Gildiner learns that the usual therapeutic processes for trauma won’t work: “some experiences are too hard to live through twice.”)  Gildiner’s compassion shines from every page without being mawkish, even as she calls herself out on her own blind spots or the moments in therapy when she says the exact wrong thing. To Gildiner, these patients are heroes, and as you sit beside her while she learns of their lives and helps them with their recovery, you’ll soon be in awe of the strength inside them, too. —Adrian Liang


Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen

In 2019, Peterson published a Buzzfeed article titled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation”—the article has been read over seven million times. Clearly the subject of burnout touched a nerve with the generation that coined the phrase “adulting is hard,” as well as with those who love to taunt them. Not as light as the title makes it seem, Can’t Even is a serious and sobering look at how former generations—specifically the Boomer generation—have failed millennials and set them up for burnout. She writes: “Millennials live with the reality that we’re going to work forever, die before we pay off our student loans, potentially bankrupt our children with our care, or get wiped out in a global apocalypse.” Peterson examines all areas of millennial lives: work (there’s particular attention and heft paid to this section), education, internet and tech culture, relationships, parenthood—specifically motherhood—and leisure time. The research is intriguing and fresh, with several references to just-published books such as Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee or Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener. In her Author’s Note, Peterson calls COVID-19 “the great clarifier,” and invites readers to read every section of the book with this in mind—work is harder, parenting is harder, our addiction to our phones is worse than ever. A millennial herself, the author is a welcome insertion into her argument, particularly in the conclusion when she strengthens her message with her own narrative. I won’t be poking fun at millennials anymore. —Sarah Gelman


The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series sparked readers around the world to immerse themselves in the intricate and intimate world of a neighborhood in Naples—the families, the friends, the lovers, the enemies, and the drama of life, loss, loyalty, and love. Ferrante and her translator, Ann Goldstein, revealed a world of extreme interiority that was richly satisfying and bursting with authenticity. And it’s thrilling to share that her new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, which follows Giovanna through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, is just as rewarding. As she takes to heart her aunt’s maxim to “look, look carefully," an entirely new world opens up to Giovanna—one that simultaneously frightens and excites even as it changes her whole perception of her parents, the city she loves, and the people around her. Reading Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults is to be fully consumed by the contradictions and complexities of the human spirit, and it’s exhilarating indeed. —Al Woodworth


Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine

Like her award-winning Citizen, Claudia Rankine’s Just Us is comprised of short vignettes, photos, excerpts from textbooks, tweets, historical documents, poems, and her own experiences as a Black woman, which serve to unravel the reality of the racism that runs rampant in our country. From chatting with strangers on airplanes, to recounting moments in her classroom, Rankine challenges herself, her students, and her readers to ask questions about privilege, racism, and bias, and then to listen. Throughout Just Us, Rankine annotates her own words and thoughts, as a way of reminding the reader of her commitment to understanding the evolutionary nature of thought, identifying bias, and then addressing it. In so doing, she encourages the reader to be ever vigilante and open to conversation. Rankine’s brilliance shines through her ideas and her facility with language, but also through the construction of Just Us, which is a truly visual and active inquiry into race. This book is catalyst for not only edification, but for participation and action. —Al Woodworth


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