If you’re struggling with choosing your next book to read, you’re guaranteed to find a good book by digging into the lists of plentiful award winners. Of course, there’s always the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners, but then there are also fun book discoveries to be made by perusing the winner lists of more niche prizes, such as the Palestine Book Award, the Lammys, and the Whiting Award. We’re recommending some of our top books that have topped the lists of our favorite book awards, and deserve all the praise they’ve gotten.
Emily’s Pick #1: Is there an award for most beautiful book cover? Because if there is, I would nominate this one. Winner of the 2020 Palestine Book Award, AGAINST THE LOVELESS WORLD documents the journey of a Palestinian refugee as she heads through the Middle East. The narrative starts out with Nahr locked up in solitary confinement, and unfolds as she reflects back on her experiences throughout the ’70s to the present day: falling in and out of love, her family’s spiral into poverty, the US invasion of Iraq, and the events that ultimately landed her in an Israeli jail as a political prisoner.
2020 Palestine Book Awards Winner
2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize Finalist
“Susan Abulhawa possesses the heart of a warrior; she looks into the darkest crevices of lives, conflicts, horrendous injustices, and dares to shine light that can illuminate hidden worlds for us.” —Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize–winning author
In this “beautiful...urgent” novel (The New York Times), Nahr, a young Palestinian woman, fights for a better life for her family as she travels as a refugee throughout the Middle East.
As Nahr sits, locked away in solitary confinement, she spends her days reflecting on the dramatic events that landed her in prison in a country she barely knows. Born in Kuwait in the 70s to Palestinian refugees, she dreamed of falling in love with the perfect man, raising children, and possibly opening her own beauty salon. Instead, the man she thinks she loves jilts her after a brief marriage, her family teeters on the brink of poverty, she’s forced to prostitute herself, and the US invasion of Iraq makes her a refugee, as her parents had been. After trekking through another temporary home in Jordan, she lands in Palestine, where she finally makes a home, falls in love, and her destiny unfolds under Israeli occupation. Nahr’s subversive humor and moral ambiguity will resonate with fans of My Sister, The Serial Killer, and her dark, contemporary struggle places her as the perfect sister to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.
Written with Susan Abulhawa’s distinctive “richly detailed, beautiful, and resonant” (Publishers Weekly) prose, this powerful novel presents a searing, darkly funny, and wholly unique portrait of a Palestinian woman who refuses to be a victim.
Elizabeth’s Pick: Many coming-of-age novels explore feelings of disconnect and uncertainty in the face of challenges throughout adolescence. For Tope Folarin’s hero, Tunde Akinola, these experiences of alienation and struggle are even more keenly felt as a Nigerian American child of immigrants living in Utah. In a sea of white neighbors, Tunde’s family stands out, and at home, his parents try but fail to mask their unhappiness. As Tunde’s family fractures—his mother, displaying signs of mental illness, returns to Nigeria, and Tunde’s father hits one obstacle after another while pursuing the American Dream—his own sense of identity and mental well-being become equally precarious. It’s only once Tunde reaches Morehouse College that he can escape the pressures of his father’s ideal—to be a particular “successful and benign” Black man—and carve a path for himself. This critically acclaimed, Whiting Award–winning, nuanced meditation on diaspora, identity, and mental illness is a powerful read that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
**One of Time’s 32 Books You Need to Read This Summer**
An NPR Best Book of 2019
An “electrifying” (Publishers Weekly) debut novel from Rhodes Scholar and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing about a Nigerian family living in Utah and their uneasy assimilation to American life.
Living in small-town Utah has always been an uncomfortable fit for Tunde Akinola’s family, especially for his Nigeria-born parents. Though Tunde speaks English with a Midwestern accent, he can’t escape the children who rub his skin and ask why the black won’t come off. As he struggles to fit in, he finds little solace from his parents who are grappling with their own issues.
Tunde’s father, ever the optimist, works tirelessly chasing his American dream while his wife, lonely in Utah without family and friends, sinks deeper into schizophrenia. Then one otherwise-ordinary morning, Tunde’s mother wakes him with a hug, bundles him and his baby brother into the car, and takes them away from the only home they’ve ever known.
But running away doesn’t bring her, or her children, any relief; once Tunde’s father tracks them down, she flees to Nigeria, and Tunde never feels at home again. He spends the rest of his childhood and young adulthood searching for connection—to the wary stepmother and stepbrothers he gains when his father remarries; to the Utah residents who mock his father’s accent; to evangelical religion; to his Texas middle school’s crowd of African-Americans; to the fraternity brothers of his historically black college. In so doing, he discovers something that sends him on a journey away from everything he has known.
Sweeping, stirring, and perspective-shifting, A Particular Kind of Black Man is “wild, vulnerable, lived…A study of the particulate self, the self as a constellation of moving parts” (The New York Times Book Review).
Sharon’s Pick #1: As an avid reader of queer literature, my favorite literary awards ceremony is the Lambda Literary Awards (affectionately known as the Lammys), as it is a celebration of queer books and authors, as well as a great opportunity for discovering new books to add to my TBR list. So I was so excited to see THE THIRTY NAMES OF NIGHT win a Lammy in the transgender fiction category. In this coming-of-age novel, a Syrian American trans boy, searching for a new name and attempting to cope with the loss of his mother, comes across the journal of the Syrian American artist Laila Z. While reading her journal, he learns of the connections between the artist and his mother and uncovers the history of his community’s queer and transgender people.
Watch Zeyn talk about their new book!
Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2020 by PopSugar and The Millions
The author of the “vivid and urgent…important and timely” (The New York Times Book Review) debut The Map of Salt and Stars returns with this remarkably moving and lyrical novel following three generations of Syrian Americans who are linked by a mysterious species of bird and the truths they carry close to their hearts.
Five years after a suspicious fire killed his ornithologist mother, a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one. He has been unable to paint since his mother’s ghost has begun to visit him each evening. As his grandmother’s sole caretaker, he spends his days cooped up in their apartment, avoiding his neighborhood masjid, his estranged sister, and even his best friend (who also happens to be his longtime crush). The only time he feels truly free is when he slips out at night to paint murals on buildings in the once-thriving Manhattan neighborhood known as Little Syria.
One night, he enters the abandoned community house and finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. She famously and mysteriously disappeared more than sixty years before, but her journal contains proof that both his mother and Laila Z encountered the same rare bird before their deaths. In fact, Laila Z’s past is intimately tied to his mother’s—and his grandmother’s—in ways he never could have expected. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story reveals the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew. Realizing that he isn’t and has never been alone, he has the courage to officially claim a new name: Nadir, an Arabic name meaning rare.
As unprecedented numbers of birds are mysteriously drawn to the New York City skies, Nadir enlists the help of his family and friends to unravel what happened to Laila Z and the rare bird his mother died trying to save. Following his mother’s ghost, he uncovers the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself, and discovers the family that was there all along.
Featuring Zeyn Joukhadar’s signature “magical and heart-wrenching” (The Christian Science Monitor) storytelling, The Thirty Names of Night is a timely exploration of how we all search for and ultimately embrace who we are.
Holly’s Pick: Alice Hoffman’s THE WORLD THAT WE KNEW is an incredible work of fiction and a very deserving recipient of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize award, which recognizes literature’s ability to promote peace. In this novel, readers are brought on a journey through Nazi-occupied Europe. Hoffman illuminates the unimaginable cruelty the victims face, while bringing to light the power of love during a time of evil. Sprinkling in a bit of magical realism, Hoffman weaves Jewish lore into the story. A mystical golem accompanies one girl on her bold escape from the Nazi terror. Sacrifices are made, fate is tested, and above all else, love and strength prevail.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * LONGLISTED FOR THE ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL
On the brink of World War II, with the Nazis tightening their grip on Berlin, a mother’s act of courage and love offers her daughter a chance of survival.
“[A] hymn to the power of resistance, perseverance, and enduring love in dark times…gravely beautiful…Hoffman the storyteller continues to dazzle.” —THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
At the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. Her desperation leads her to Ettie, the daughter of a rabbi whose years spent eavesdropping on her father enables her to create a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Hanni’s daughter, Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.
What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never-ending.
Kelly’s Pick: This brilliantly imaginative Audie Award–winning audiobook is inspired by the Hugo Award–nominated song “The Deep” from Daveed Diggs’s rap group Clipping, narrated by the Hamilton star himself! THE DEEP tells the story of water-breathing descendants of African slave women who have built their own underwater society and must reclaim the memories of their past to shape their future. Daveed’s lyrical narration is interwoven with music and sound, blending mediums for a unique listening experience.
Octavia E. Butler meets Marvel’s Black Panther in The Deep, a story rich with Afrofuturism, folklore, and the power of memory, inspired by the Hugo Award–nominated song “The Deep” from Daveed Diggs’s rap group Clipping.
Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.
Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.
Yetu will learn more than she ever expected about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.
The Deep is “a tour de force reorientation of the storytelling gaze…a superb, multilayered work,” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) and a vividly original and uniquely affecting story inspired by a song produced by the rap group Clipping.
Sharon’s Pick #2: While it’s been a number of months since I’ve read this book, I frequently think about the devastating and brilliant prose of HOW WE FIGHT FOR OUR LIVES. From the book’s stunning prologue to the tear-jerking final page, Saeed Jones lyrically charts growing up gay and Black in the American south, as well as his tumultuous relationships with family, lovers, and his own body. HOW WE FIGHT FOR OUR LIVES is a book with lyricism you’ll want to savor.
WINNER OF THE 2019 KIRKUS PRIZE IN NONFICTION
WINNER OF THE 2020 STONEWALL BOOK AWARD-ISRAEL FISHMAN NONFICTION AWARD
ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES’S 100 NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2019
One of the best books of the year as selected by The Washington Post; NPR; Time; The New Yorker; O, The Oprah Magazine; Harper’s Bazaar; Elle; Kirkus Reviews; Publishers Weekly; BuzzFeed; Goodreads; School Library Journal; and many more.
“A moving, bracingly honest memoir that reads like fevered poetry.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Jones’s voice and sensibility are so distinct that he turns one of the oldest of literary genres inside out and upside down.” —NPR’S Fresh Air
“People don’t just happen,” writes Saeed Jones. “We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The ‘I’ it seems doesn’t exist until we are able to say, ‘I am no longer yours.’”
Haunted and haunting, How We Fight for Our Lives is a stunning coming-of-age memoir. Jones tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his family, into passing flings with lovers, friends, and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.
An award-winning poet, Jones has developed a style that’s as beautiful as it is powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze. How We Fight for Our Lives is a one-of-a-kind memoir and a book that cements Saeed Jones as an essential writer for our time.
Anne’s Pick #1: I read INTERIOR CHINATOWN when I was feeling particularly daunted by my TBR list. Written as a screenplay, this book moves swiftly—you can envision the scenes before you, and all the classic TV tropes (cop shows, kung fu movies, romances) combine to create an engaging and heartbreaking story of a young man’s mission to become Kung Fu Guy. When a book like INTERIOR CHINATOWN gets so much praise, sometimes I’m a bit hesitant to read it—but rest assured, this one lives up to the hype!
Anne’s Pick #2: My best advice: Go into this book with as little information about the plot as possible. Stephen Graham Jones builds a slow, suspenseful story that will have you looking over your shoulder until the final showdown. THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS is horror like you’ve never read before. It’s some of the most evocative, gorgeous writing you’ll ever read, and once you finish this one you’ll be forced to track down everything Jones has ever written. It’s 100 percent deserving of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and so many others!
A USA TODAY BESTSELLER
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
In this latest novel from Stephen Graham Jones comes a “heartbreakingly beautiful story” (Library Journal, starred review) of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition.
Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians is “a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, warm, and heartbreaking in the best way” (Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts). This novel follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in violent, vengeful ways. Labeled “one of 2020’s buzziest horror novels” (Entertainment Weekly), this is a remarkable horror story “will give you nightmares—the good kind of course” (BuzzFeed).
Emily’s Pick #2: LUSTER is one of those books that pack so much into one sentence that I’m in awe of the writer’s mind. I was drawn in by the premise of a Black twentysomething editorial assistant struggling to get by in New York City and falling for a fortysomething married white man, and then remained utterly absorbed in and shocked by Edie’s every move. With each new sentence, I would alter between being enthralled or being appalled; one moment I’d profoundly relate to Edie’s quarter-life crises and in the next moment, she’d take a turn or have an opinion on something I would’ve never seen coming. I loved this wholly unique reading experience. It’s safe to say others enjoyed it as well, as it’s won a boatload of awards: the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Kirkus Prize, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and more!
Sarah's Pick: Pulitzer Prize–winner ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE may be the book that has most stayed with me throughout the years. I can still vividly picture the scenes, the gripping suspense, the beautiful language, and the compelling characters. It is my top book recommendation to readers of all genres because the story itself covers a critical time period from very unique points of view, with strong family elements and evocative settings. The book follows Marie-Laure, a young girl on the run with her father and an important Paris treasure, and Werner Pfennig, an orphan whose understanding of radios has the potential to hugely impact World War II.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a New York Times Book Review Top Ten Book, National Book Award finalist, more than two and a half years on the New York Times bestseller list
From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.
Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).
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Photo Credit: Simon & Schuster