Maybe you’ve been seeing too much of your family these days and are eager for an escape to a different set of personalities and antics. Or maybe you’re after the familiar feel of a family dynamic, missing the people you love because you’ve only been able to connect over a screen. Perhaps you’re interested in learning about other families, the similarities and differences offered by a variety of settings, cultures, situations. Families we’re born into and those derived from need or circumstance or shared interests. Whatever your motivation, you’ll find plenty of immersive reads in this list of nonfiction, literary, and thriller picks centered around family.
There are multiple titles on this list that give me pause, mostly in trying to convey just how beautiful and thought-provoking the quality of writing, how the largest observations are held in the simplest of lines. Thankfully, you don’t need to take my word for it; HEAVY is the winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal and a finalist for the Kirkus Prize. Above all, the memoir is about a relationship between mother and son, one that both shapes and hurts, sharpens and guides, incites and hides. Kiese grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and writes honestly and poetically about his experiences, many of which his mother has never wanted to talk about.
This is another striking book about a mother and son relationship, this time divided by language and literacy. The novel is formatted as a letter to a Vietnamese mother, one she can never read. Here, too, I’m stunned by the incisiveness and deftness of prose, moving from scene to scene almost in a trance. The title alone evokes so much, the layers we unravel in the moments we have left; the text offers snapshots of a young man’s life as he recounts the most impactful and everyday moments, largely surrounded by family.
I read this for a book club, and can attest to both the level of engaging conversation that followed and the eye-opening scenes rooted in the complex inner-workings of a family in rural Mississippi. There’s Jojo, whose life becomes more complicated when his father is released from prison and his mother drives the little family to the penitentiary. There’s his mother, Leonie, still haunted by the death of her brother and struggling to give her kids what they need. SING, UNBURIED, SING delves into father and son relationships, histories and legacies, and what we can teach one another.
WINNER of the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD and A NEW YORK TIMES TOP 10 BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
A finalist for the Kirkus Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, Aspen Words Literary Prize, and a New York Times bestseller, this majestic, stirring, and widely praised novel from two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, the story of a family on a journey through rural Mississippi, is a “tour de force” (O, The Oprah Magazine) and a timeless work of fiction that is destined to become a classic.
Jesmyn Ward’s historic second National Book Award–winner is “perfectly poised for the moment” (The New York Times), an intimate portrait of three generations of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. “Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love… this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it” (Buzzfeed).
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.
His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.
When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic and unforgettable family story and “an odyssey through rural Mississippi’s past and present” (The Philadelphia Inquirer).
Author Picks: 5 Novels That Perfectly Capture the Wonderful and Messy Nature of Complicated Families
Every time I think about this book, the plot still blows my mind. Imagine that there are other versions of you resulting from other decisions, big and small, culminating in an expansion of multiverses. Imagine you end up somewhere else, separated from the version of the wife and son you know, surrounded by familiar faces who want to take them from you. DARK MATTER is a continuous thrill ride through the murkiness of self that will make you question everything you call your own and how far you would go to protect it.
For me, the setting is one of the most memorable pieces about this book, so deeply rooted in the ambiance of New York City and then in an isolated farm upstate. The characters are equally as passionate about each other, even as they fall apart and attempt to pull themselves together again, experiencing a prolonged illness, witnessing the birth of a child. Always a kind of family, life leads this group of friends down segmented paths that sharpen and waiver with the beauty of Cunningham’s observations and prose.
This rich, evocative story about generations of a family living between Jamaica and Harlem caught me by surprise in its breadth and ability to draw me into the minds of so many characters. And that ending! The tale begins with a faked identity, a daughter caring for a father she has no idea exists. Tracing back through points where crucial decisions were made and repercussions knowingly or unknowingly shared, THESE GHOSTS ARE FAMILY examines what we carry with us—especially our relationships with trauma and regret.
Longlisted for the 2020 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
A “rich, ambitious debut novel” (The New York Times Book Review) that reveals the ways in which a Jamaican family forms and fractures over generations, in the tradition of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
*An Entertainment Weekly, Millions, and LitHub Most Anticipated Book of 2020 Pick and Buzz Magazine’s Top New Book of the New Decade*
Stanford Solomon’s shocking, thirty-year-old secret is about to change the lives of everyone around him. Stanford has done something no one could ever imagine. He is a man who faked his own death and stole the identity of his best friend. Stanford Solomon is actually Abel Paisley.
And now, nearing the end of his life, Stanford is about to meet his firstborn daughter, Irene Paisley, a home health aide who has unwittingly shown up for her first day of work to tend to the father she thought was dead.
These Ghosts Are Family revolves around the consequences of Abel’s decision and tells the story of the Paisley family from colonial Jamaica to present-day Harlem. There is Vera, whose widowhood forced her into the role of a single mother. There are two daughters and a granddaughter who have never known they are related. And there are others, like the houseboy who loved Vera, whpose lives might have taken different courses if not for Abel Paisley’s actions.
This “rich and layered story” (Kirkus Reviews) explores the ways each character wrestles with their ghosts and struggles to forge independent identities outside of the family and their trauma. The result is a “beguiling…vividly drawn, and compelling” (BookPage, starred review) portrait of a family and individuals caught in the sweep of history, slavery, migration, and the more personal dramas of infidelity, lost love, and regret.
I’ve been a fan of Rene Denfeld since her debut novel, THE ENCHANTED. Her use of vivid imagery, her way of portraying deeply troubled characters, and her sense of place weave a compelling, visceral story. THE BUTTERFLY GIRL is no different; following THE CHILD FINDER, this is the second book featuring PI Naomi Cottle, who spends her life looking for missing children. Growing up in foster care after a traumatic experience that tears her from her sister, Naomi runs with the hope that her sister is still alive somewhere; if she looks in the right corners, saving other children in peril, she may find a clue to her own sister’s whereabouts.
As the title indicates, there are some familial divisions between floors in a home that quickly become a cult-like lure for a mesh of interesting people. Juggling between past and present, we know the outcome of events years ago, but not how they happened; the slow unraveling is as much mystery as an assessment of minds, the malleability of groups by leaders, and the construct of circumstance. In present day, we meet Libby Jones, who has inherited a mansion on her twenty-fifth birthday; soon we see others have been marking down the time to this exact moment.
INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A GOOD MORNING AMERICA COVER TO COVER BOOK CLUB PICK
“Rich, dark, and intricately twisted, this enthralling whodunit mixes family saga with domestic noir to brilliantly chilling effect.” —Ruth Ware, New York Times bestselling author
“A haunting, atmospheric, stay-up-way-too-late read.” —Megan Miranda, New York Times bestselling author
From the New York Times bestselling author of Then She Was Gone comes another page-turning look inside one family’s past as buried secrets threaten to come to light.
Be careful who you let in.
Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.
She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.
Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.
In The Family Upstairs, the master of “bone-chilling suspense” (People) brings us the can’t-look-away story of three entangled families living in a house with the darkest of secrets.
Keefe’s extensive research shows in the seemingly effortless way he helps picture complex scenes and their major players; in this case the “snakeheads,” who help people illegally enter the United States for absorbent fees, especially through New York City, the gangs that roam the Chinatown streets, and the families that sacrifice everything to go after what they believe will be better lives. At the center is Sister Ping, whose operation spans continents and leads the FBI down various paths for a decade. Sister Ping’s tale is only the tip of all that Keefe examines in this true story that peels back layers of immigration and exploitation and makeshift families.
Families lodged in Greek myths have their own sets of troubles; Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and their children are no different. In Colm Tóibín’s retelling, relationships are shattered, betrayed in the name of power and victory. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter for a leg up in the war; Clytemnestra schemes for his downfall; their remaining children plot against their mother. The alternating perspectives embattle readers in the heat of the moment, enabling a deeper level of investment and understanding.
This memoir follows the Cayton-Holland family, three siblings born to a civil rights lawyer and an investigative journalist. Adam, the narrator, describes his life in comedy, and the paths of his sisters. His younger sister, Lydia, helps him through a series of tough times; when she takes her own life, he’s lost, devastated. Through the honest and fragile moments infused with humor and realization, you’re reminded of the importance of family and the type of conversations that come from loss.
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