Amazon's best books of August

Erin Kodicek on August 04, 2020

Amazon's best books of August

This year has been a disappointment in many ways, but not where great reads are concerned. Once again we felt compelled to extend our typical list of top ten favorites to twelve, and we're delighted to share them with you. In the mix of the best books of August is a provocative debut, another endearing yarn from the best-selling author of One Day, an addition to the Twilight series fans will be eager to sink their teeth into, and much more.

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Clear your calendar and settle in for a brilliant and breathless read. Migrations is about a woman who goes to the ends of the earth in search of herself and to track what just might be the last migration of Arctic terns, birds that travel from pole to pole every year. It’s also about love, adventure, climate change, and what happens when a person simultaneously runs away from her past and runs straight towards it. Migrations gets richer with every scene as you learn more about Franny Stone—why she boards a boat full of fishermen, why birds call to her, how she fell in love with her husband, and how death stalks her at every turn. From Antarctica to a prison in Ireland, Australia to Galway, Franny traverses the world and with every turn of the page, you learn more about why she’s always on the move. The novel’s pacing is phenomenal—and the candor, veracity, and clarity with which it’s written make it feel like a memoir. Migrations is confessional, intimate and one of the best books I’ve read this year. —Al Woodworth

Luster by Raven Leilani

The life of twenty-something Edie will be familiar to many people. She is living in a big city (New York). Her neighborhood (Bushwick) isn’t the best; nor is her apartment, which she shares with a roommate. When we meet her, she is working a low paying job in publishing—until she gets laid off. She has dated around some. On the other hand, she is now in a relationship with an older man, Eric, who is in an open marriage with his wife, Rebecca. Eric and Rebecca are white, but they have an adopted Black daughter who is twelve. When Rebecca invites Edie (also Black) to stay at their home, things have become much less familiar. It’s rare these days to come across a book and a style that’s really different, but Raven Leilani’s Luster is exciting, surprising, sometimes sad, at times awkward, even shocking. And it’s also funny. The book will make you uncomfortable, but that mirrors the discomfort that the characters, especially Edie, feel—about age, status, race, sex, salaries, you name it. Luster has an energy and an honesty that makes the words practically shimmer on the page. I am so glad I read this. —Chris Schluep

Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey’s taut memoir will leave you breathless and sad, but please trust me when I say it’s worth the read. Perhaps it’s no surprise this poet is a beautiful, provocative writer; the way she describes, unpacks, and shares what it was like to grow up with a Black mother and a white father, and to have her mother killed when Trethewey was only 19, is tragically clear-eyed. Trethewey digs into her mother’s life, and her own childhood, and in so doing she gives shape to the embedded racism of this country, which feels incredibly relevant today. At the same time, she describes how childhood trauma and the fierce love of her mother shaped her heart, mind, and art. —Sarah Gelman

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

It has been ten years since Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns was published. While that book pointed to the great migration of Black people to the north as an “unrecognized migration,” this new book points to our entire social structure as an unrecognized caste system. Most people see America as racist, and Wilkerson agrees that it is indeed racist. She points out that we tend to refer to slavery as a “sad, dark chapter” in America when in fact it lasted for hundreds of years—but in order to maintain a social order and an “economy whose bottom gear was torture” (as Wilkerson quotes the historian Edward Baptist), it was necessary to give blacks the lowest possible status. Whites in turn got top status. In between came the middle castes of “Asians, Latinos, indigenous people, and immigrants of African descent” to fill out the originally bipolar hierarchy. Such a caste system allowed generations of whites to live under the same assumptions of inequality—these “distorted rules of engagement”—whether their ancestors were slave owners or abolitionists. And the unspoken assumptions of caste encouraged all to accept their roles. As Wilkerson develops her argument, she brings in historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Satchel Paige. She even looks at the Nazis, who turned to us when they were seeking ways to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich. As I read this book, I finally had to consciously stop myself from highlighting passages. Because I was highlighting most of the book. —Chris Schluep

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls

Sixteen-year-old Charlie Lewis is in a dark place. He’s failing at school, his mates are sort of jerks, and his home life was ripped apart when his mother moved out with his sister to live with another man, leaving him to watch over his depressed father. One summer day, he happens upon a theater troupe putting on the Shakespearean classic Romeo and Juliet. Charlie is not really the theater sort, but there’s a girl—the artsy Fran Fisher, who is playing Juliet. Charlie is no Romeo but he falls for Fran in a sweet love story. Telling the story in flashbacks, the adult Charlie recalls one fateful summer in his life. Nicholls writes razor-sharp dialogue, and it’s impossible not to daydream about “the one who got away” while reading this novel. Nicholls may be best known for his breakout hit One Day, but Sweet Sorrow cements his place in the smart romantic comedy canon. —Sarah Gelman

The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi

Thirty years ago, mathematician Grant McAllister applied the laws of mathematics to detective fiction and deduced that there were seven basic mystery plots. To illustrate, he wrote seven murder mysteries and published them under the title The White Murders. Then he took himself off to a remote island in the Mediterranean and was never heard from again. When The Eighth Detective opens, Julia, an editor with Blood Type Books, has made her way to Grant’s island to intrude on his exile with a plan to re-edit and re-issue The White Murders. But as the two of them re-read the seven mysteries, curious typos—inconsistent with the precise nature of a mathematician—strike Julia and she grows uneasy. Grant tells her that when it comes to detective fiction, “The possibilities are presented to the reader up front. The ending just comes back and points to one of them.” Julia begins to wonder if the seven stories aren’t themselves possibilities, containing clues to a bigger mystery that may have happened off the page. Trying to reason along with Julia—and tease out the possibilities—will alternately drive readers mad and keep them endlessly entertained. Aficionados of puzzles, misdirection, contradiction, red herrings, twists, jaw-dropping reveals, and nesting doll plots: this book is for you. —Vannessa Cronin

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

Elliott’s honest, sometimes darkly funny personal stories illuminate how identity can be both a bludgeon and a backbone. The daughter of a white Catholic woman and a Haudenosaunee man, Elliott is at once part of both cultures and separate from them, crafting and navigating her sense of self as best she can. Thorny brambles block her path: her mother’s severe mental illness, deep prejudice against Natives, and poverty so extreme that Elliott lives with head lice from elementary school until she leaves home. Elliott’s magnetic writing and keen sense of self guides her and the reader through moments that are terrible, wonderful, and ultimately unforgettable. —Adrian Liang

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

Morgan Jerkins, author of the best-selling and acclaimed This Will Be My Undoing, sets out to discover her family’s roots in Wandering in Strange Lands. In doing so she paints a larger portrait of African American displacement and disenfranchisement during the Great Migration and its impact on her own life. Traveling across the country following leads and oral histories of her ancestors, Jerkins explores her own cultural identity as a Black woman, shedding her family’s credo of only looking forward and never looking back. Jerkins is a wonderfully articulate memoirist and critic as she shares her own quest to understand the hard truths and actions of her ancestors, interrogating what it means to be Black but light skinned, why the Creole label in her family was “downplayed,” and why the Native American label was “flaunted.” It is easy to feel the flood of emotion as Jerkins does. Wandering in Strange Lands is revelatory, shocking, and affirming. —Al Woodworth

Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer

Stephenie Meyer spent over a decade writing Midnight Sun and Twilight fans will be well-rewarded for the wait. At long last we get to see Edward and Bella’s story from Edward’s perspective. We learn where he goes and what he does in the unseen moments of Twilight’s narrative, and most powerful of all, readers see, through his thoughts and actions, the intensity of Edward’s desire for Bella and how it clashes with his nearly overwhelming need to protect her, even from himself. Edward’s ability to read people’s minds, the content of which we are now privy to, adds a fresh dimension to the story, as do the flashbacks Edward has throughout the novel: visions and memories of his life before Forks, before Bella. I love these moments. For those of us who read Twilight years ago, Meyer transports us back to that pivotal story from the very first pages of Midnight Sun. Twilight changed a genre, redefined vampires, and put a whole new spin on dangerous obsession and star-crossed love. There are two sides to every story and we’ve long had Bella’s—now, thanks to Midnight Sun, we can see the whole picture. —Seira Wilson

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Virgil Wounded Horse has lost many things: his parents, his sobriety, his dignity, his beloved sister, and Marie, the woman he loves. Sober again, living on the Rosebud Reservation, he lives among his people but turns his back on their traditions. Half-Lakota, half-white, the taunts of “half-breed” still ring in his ears. He’s raising his teenage nephew Nathan, but ekes out a less than family-friendly living by charging money to rough up tribespeople whose crimes have been ignored by the federal government. So when Marie’s dad, a tribal councilman, offers him a big payday to go to Colorado and deliver justice to a fellow Lakota who’s bringing heroin back to the “rez,” Virgil can’t turn his back on that kind of money. But then Nathan overdoses on heroin, and is later arrested, and Virgil suddenly has more skin in the game than he ever wanted. He will need to fight for stakes way higher than the next payday, and he can’t do it alone. Thought-provoking and suspenseful, uplifting and heartbreaking, moving and brutal, Winter Counts is a thriller that delivers so much more than the word thriller promises. —Vannessa Cronin

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

It was Helen Macdonald’s unusual way of processing grief that put her on the literary map. In H Is for Hawk we met Mabel, a rancorous raptor Macdonald adopted and trained, and in doing so, wrenched herself free from despair. The book was an award-winning best-seller that captured countless hearts, and not just ones belonging to ornithologists. The why of that is the reason readers will also fall in love with Vesper Flights. More meandering than her memoir, this collection of essays waxes poetic on things ranging from lunar eclipses, to nocturnal bird-watching in Manhattan, to mushroom hunting, and even migraines. Before reading Vesper Flights the only swift I knew about was Taylor, and she’s pretty good at drawing attention to herself. But that is one of Ms. Macdonald’s gifts. She notices things, the magic and the wonder and the consolation of nature, and she mines what those things have to teach us about being better humans and stewards of this planet. Her exquisite prose will get you to pay attention too. Macdonald writes: “Someone once told me that every writer has a subject that underlies everything they write. It can be love or death, betrayal or belonging, home or hope or exile. I choose to think that my subject is love…” That is evident on every page of Vesper Flights. —Erin Kodicek

The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager

Sara Seager is an MIT professor, an astrophysicist, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient, and is referred to by NASA as “an astronomical Indiana Jones.” And now she can add brilliant memoirist to her list of accomplishments. In The Smallest Lights in the Universe, Seager shares the landscape of her own cosmos—her childhood and life as an astronomer, discovering companionship when your mind works a bit differently than everyone else’s, having babies, and navigating the loss of her husband. She also brings you deep into the science and math of rogue planets which makes the book, interestingly enough, all the more intimate. The sentences are rewarding and so is Seager’s infectious love of the universe: “My heart stopped...I wondered how such beauty could exist, and I wondered, too, why nobody had ever told me about it. I must have been the first person to see the night sky.” Even when her world crumbles after the death of her husband, Seager is determined to navigate the expanse of grief and the solar system. There’s something familiar and hopeful about her words, or maybe she’s just effortlessly channeling her beloved night sky: comforting, limitless, dark, and dazzling. —Al Woodworth

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