8 Books That Live Rent-Free in My Head

October 4 2021
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Some books just become a part of you. The words swim inside your head and the characters take up space in the back of your mind long after you finish the last page. I like to think of my head as a giant boardinghouse for books, and some of them have taken up permanent residence. If you’re looking for powerful, emotional, or deeply touching books that will keep you thinking about them days or years later, you should definitely check out these eight books.

We Are Not Like Them
by Christine Pride

WE ARE NOT LIKE THEM will leave a lasting impact on any reader, especially in light of the harsh reality of senseless violence and crimes against Black people. Written by two authors and alternating between two points of view, this book is an incredible story that you won’t be able to put down. Jen and Riley have been best friends their whole lives and are as close as sisters, despite the different paths they’ve taken in life. But when Jen’s police officer husband is involved in the shooting of an unarmed Black teen, the women’s bonds are tested. Jen is white and Riley is Black. Jen worries about her husband’s freedom and wants to support him while trying to understand Riley’s perspective, while Riley struggles with her connections to Jen and her community as she covers the tragic story.

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We Are Not Like Them
Christine Pride

“Now these women, they can WRITE!” —Terry McMillan, New York Times bestselling author of It’s Not All Downhill from Here

We Are Not Like Them will stay with you long after you turn the last page.” —Laura Dave, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Thing He Told Me

Told from alternating perspectives, an evocative and riveting novel about the lifelong bond between two women, one Black and one white, whose friendship is indelibly altered by a tragic event—a powerful and poignant exploration of race in America today and its devastating impact on ordinary lives.

Jen and Riley have been best friends since kindergarten. As adults, they remain as close as sisters, though their lives have taken different directions. Jen married young, and after years of trying, is finally pregnant. Riley pursued her childhood dream of becoming a television journalist and is poised to become one of the first Black female anchors of the top news channel in their hometown of Philadelphia.

But the deep bond they share is severely tested when Jen’s husband, a city police officer, is involved in the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager. Six months pregnant, Jen is in freefall as her future, her husband’s freedom, and her friendship with Riley are thrown into uncertainty. Covering this career-making story, Riley wrestles with the implications of this tragic incident for her Black community, her ambitions, and her relationship with her lifelong friend.

Like Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage and Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things, We Are Not Like Them explores complex questions of race and how they pervade and shape our most intimate spaces in a deeply divided world. But at its heart, it’s a story of enduring friendship—a love that defies the odds even as it faces its most difficult challenges.

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Dancing With Einstein
by Kate Wenner

This book, full of idiosyncrasies and trauma, explores how the understanding of the world that we develop as kids shapes the rest of our lives. The protagonist, Marea Hoffman, is such an interesting character, and the storyline immediately drew me in. After wandering the world for years, Marea has finally decided to return to New York and begin her “real life,” so to speak. She suddenly finds herself seeing not one but four different therapists simultaneously, telling each of them a different version of the story of her tumultuous 1950s childhood. Marea grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, with a pacifist mother and a father who survived the Holocaust and worked on the Manhattan Project. One of the bright spots of that time was the charming and grandfather-like Albert Einstein. But when he suddenly disappears from Marea’s life and her father dies, she finds herself alone with her mother. Decades later, Marea reluctantly returns to Princeton, where she finds her father’s Cold War diary, which changes her perspective on everything.

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Dancing With Einstein
Kate Wenner

From the acclaimed author of Setting Fires, this highly original novel offers a protagonist so intensely felt and so compassionately rendered that readers will not easily let her go at the novel's end. She is Marea Hoffman, who, after wandering the world for seven years, has returned to New York at age thirty with the intention of starting her real life.

But Marea approaches everything in her own idiosyncratic style, and she is soon seeing four different therapists simultaneously and telling her story to each in a different way. The story she reveals is about her childhood in 1950s Princeton during the age of "duck and cover" drills and McCarthyism, when fear of communism obsessed America. Marea's father, a Holocaust survivor, worked on the Manhattan Project and later on the development of the hydrogen bomb; her mother was a confirmed pacifist.

Frightened by her early exposure to the threat of nuclear annihilation, young Marea finds comfort in the company of her father's colleague and friend, the grandfatherly Albert Einstein. Einstein charms Marea even as he provokes the wrenching moral debate that will drive her parents apart. When Einstein disappears from Marea's life as suddenly as he entered it and her father is killed in a mysterious car accident, she is left alone with a mother she no longer trusts and with questions that won't go away.

Nearly two decades later, during the August hiatus from her four therapists, Marea takes a reluctant trip home to Princeton. There her eyes are newly opened to the past when she uncovers her father's secret Cold War diary.
Weaving back and forth between 1970s New York and 1950s Princeton, Wenner's exploration of the impact that history can have on a young life is powerful and moving—a deeply intelligent look at the challenge of finding hope in the modern age.

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MENTIONED IN:

8 Books That Live Rent-Free in My Head

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These Ghosts Are Family
by Maisy Card

I love multigenerational stories and intense family dramas, and THESE GHOSTS ARE FAMILY does not disappoint. Maisy Card weaves family trauma and identity struggles into a larger picture of slavery, migration, and so much more. This book is haunting, and still holds space in my mind. Stanford Solomon has a secret: He is actually Abel Paisley, a man who faked his death and stole his best friend’s identity. And now, on his deathbed, he’s about to meet his firstborn daughter, Irene Paisley, a home health aide who has no idea that her newest patient is the father she believes to be dead. Told across time and through multiple points of view, THESE GHOSTS ARE FAMILY follows the Paisleys from Jamaica to Harlem and explores the consequences of Abel’s decision.

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These Ghosts Are Family
Maisy Card

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, whose 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.

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We Are Called to Rise
by Laura McBride

I think the thing that sticks with me the most about WE ARE CALLED TO RISE, other than the fact that it’s just an incredible debut novel, is that, despite all the horror and tragedy, this book is full of hope. And I don’t know about you, but I think the world could use a lot more of that these days. This is just one snippet that I’ll include as a tease: “I get that this one small life is all we have for whatever it is that we are going to do. And I want in.” WE ARE CALLED TO RISE brings the lives of three strangers together after a split-second mistake. Avis knows her marriage has stalled, but a shocking truth threatens to destroy the family she has dedicated her life to. Luis is a soldier who suddenly finds himself at Walter Reed with only foggy memories of how he ended up there. And third-grader Bashkim, whose family faces constant stress as they struggle to survive in a new country, develops a bond with his pen pal, an American soldier—and in a single moment, they are all called to rise.

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We Are Called to Rise
Laura McBride

“Your heart will break…then soar” (Redbook) when, far from the neon lights of the Vegas strip, three lives collide in a split-second mistake and a child’s fate hangs in the balance.

Avis thought her marriage had hit a temporary rut. But with a single confession in the middle of the night, her carefully constructed life comes undone. After escaping a tumultuous childhood and raising a son, she now faces a future without the security of the home and family she has spent decades building.

Luis only wants to make the grandmother who raised him proud. As a soldier, he was on his way to being the man she taught him to be until he woke up in Walter Reed Hospital with vague and troubling memories of how he got there. Now he must find a new way to live a life of honor.

Every day, young Bashkim looks forward to the quiet order of school and the kind instruction of his third grade teacher. His family relocated to Las Vegas after fleeing political persecution in their homeland. Now their ice cream truck provides just enough extra income to keep them afloat. With his family under constant stress, Bashkim opens his heart to his pen pal, a US soldier.

When these lives come together in a single, shocking moment, each character is called upon to rise. “You’ll be thinking about these characters long after you finish this haunting, heart-wrenching, and hopeful book” (Houston Chronicle).

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Small Country
by Gaël Faye

This is a deeply moving coming-of-age story about the loss of innocence and privilege set in 1992 during the Rwandan genocide and the civil war in Burundi. This semi-autobiographical story, translated from the French, is more than authentic. Given the historical context, a lot of violence surrounds the story, but it’s the characters and their growth that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. Gabriel and his sister, Ana, live in a rich cul-de-sac in Burundi with their Rwandan refugee mother and French father. Gabriel runs through his neighborhood with a gang of other children, knowing about the horrors his mother faced but not understanding them—that is, until the cyclical nature of history returns to destroy the idyllic existence he’s always known.

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Small Country
Gaël Faye

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A Sudden Light
by Garth Stein

Garth Stein is incredible at weaving impactful stories, and A SUDDEN LIGHT is no exception. A Gothic coming-of-age story with family secrets and ghosts? I’m already sold, but combined with Stein’s voice, it feels as if you’re taking something physical away from this story. During a trial separation from his wife, Jones Riddell moves his son, Trevor, to Riddell House—a sprawling estate constructed with massive live trees and financed by the success of his family’s lumber business. Nearly penniless, Jones is determined to move Grandpa Samuel into an assisted-living facility and sell the estate so that everyone profits. But Trevor quickly realizes that there is someone else in the house, with an agenda of their own. In an attempt to save his parents’ marriage, fourteen-year-old Trevor unearths family secrets and the ghost of family patriarch Elijah Riddell, who promised that the land would be returned to the forest as recompense for all the trees his family’s business harvested. Elijah’s ghost will not rest until the promise is fulfilled, and Trevor now holds their future in his hands.

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A Sudden Light
Garth Stein

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Run Me to Earth
by Paul Yoon

Paul Yoon’s writing is full of lush details, tender moments, and enchanting prose. RUN ME TO EARTH is another story that deals with trauma and war and the power of friendship. This book is intense and dark, and doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war-torn Laos and the impact they had on those who lived there. Set in the 1960s in the middle of the Laotian Civil War, three orphans come together through devastating loss. Alisak, Pranny, and Noi are sheltering in a bombed-out field hospital when they meet Vang, a doctor who has dedicated his life to helping as many of the wounded as possible. Wanting to help, the teens find themselves navigating the minefields of their homeland as motorcycle couriers attempting to aid the wounded and gather much-needed supplies. Vang finally secures their escape on one of the last helicopters leaving the country, but leaving will cost all of them as they each navigate difficult paths through the world. RUN ME TO EARTH spans decades as Yoon masterfully creates a story of hope and friendship amid the terror and fear of war.

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Run Me to Earth
Paul Yoon

From award-winning author Paul Yoon comes a “spellbinding” (The Washington Post) novel about three kids orphaned in 1960s Laos—and how their destinies are entwined across decades, anointed by Hernan Diaz as “one of those rare novels that stays with us to become a standard with which we measure other books.”

Alisak, Prany, and Noi—three orphans united by devastating loss—must do what is necessary to survive the perilous landscape of 1960s Laos. When they take shelter in a bombed out field hospital, they meet Vang, a doctor dedicated to helping the wounded at all costs. Soon the teens are serving as motorcycle couriers, delicately navigating their bikes across the fields filled with unexploded bombs, beneath the indiscriminate barrage from the sky.

In a world where the landscape and the roads have turned into an ocean of bombs, we follow their grueling days of rescuing civilians and searching for medical supplies, until Vang secures their evacuation on the last helicopters leaving the country. It’s a move with irrevocable consequences—and sets them on disparate and treacherous paths across the world.

Spanning decades, this “richly layered” (The New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice) book weaves together storylines laced with beauty and cruelty. Paul Yoon’s “greatest skill lies in crafting subtle moments that underline the strange and specific sadness inherent to trauma” (Time) and this book is a breathtaking historical feat and a fierce study of the powers of hope, perseverance, and grace.

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Dark Horses
by Susan Mihalic

This book is raw, emotional, and at times uncomfortable as the main character deals with her abusive father. DARK HORSES deals with several incredibly dark and difficult topics, including sexual assault and abuse, but Susan Mihalic has created a powerful story that shouldn’t be missed. Roan Montgomery is an equestrian prodigy whose life is controlled by her father and coach, former Olympian Monty Montgomery. Her father long ago blurred the lines between coach, parent, and partner, but Roan has compartmentalized the abuse by prioritizing her own ambitions. That is, until she meets Will Howard, a boy from her school, who changes her perspective on everything.

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Dark Horses
Susan Mihalic

A “sweeping and raw story of courage, resilience, and clear-eyed grace” (Sara Gruen, #1 New York Times bestselling author) about a teenage girl’s fierce struggle to reclaim her life from her abusive father in the vein of My Absolute Darling and Room.

Fifteen-year-old equestrian prodigy Roan Montgomery has only ever known two worlds: inside the riding arena, and outside of it. Both, for as long as she can remember, have been ruled by her father, who demands strict obedience in all areas of her life. The warped power dynamic of coach and rider extends far beyond the stables, and Roan’s relationship with her father has long been inappropriate. She has been able to compartmentalize that dark aspect of her life, ruthlessly focusing on her ambitions as a rider heading for the Olympics, just as her father had done. However, her developing relationship with Will Howard, a boy her own age, broadens the scope of her vision.

“[A] heart-pounding, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it debut novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine), Dark Horses explores the themes of abuse and resilience in a way that will leave you transfixed. This is “a provoking and needed book” (Booklist, starred review).

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Photo credit: iStock / Avosb

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