For your reading delight, here are the Amazon Books editors’ favorite books publishing this October. Typically we select ten books, but this month was so full of captivating stories (and lots of incredible memoirs) that we picked twelve.
At the top of the list is Adrienne Brodeur’s unforgettable memoir of growing up complicit in her mother’s affair — truly, a wild game. Other memoirs on the list include that of punk rock legend Debbie Harry, a moving recollection of a woman leaving the church her family created, the story of a CIA covert agent, and a funny and fuzzy recounting of a runner who adopted a neglected donkey and entered a burro race (yes, donkey race) as a form of rehab. There are also novels from bestselling and beloved writers Leigh Bardugo and Elizabeth Strout, a dazzling story collection from Zadie Smith, and more.
When Adrienne Brodeur was 14 years old, her mother entered her room to tell her “Ben Souther just kissed me.” Her mother wasn’t upset, despite the fact that Ben was not Adrienne’s stepfather. In fact, she was happy about it. This event sets off Brodeur’s memoir exploring her outwardly comfortable upbringing and the odd triangle that she, her mother, and Ben eventually created. The result is an engaging, at times breathless read that builds in anticipation, even after that bang of a beginning. The tensions that develop between various members of the family, good or bad, recognized or not — as well the tensions we feel as readers — keep the narrative humming. It’s difficult to describe what makes one memoir more readable than another. But put this one at the top of your list. —Chris Schluep
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the church founded by her grandfather. The Westboro Baptist Church gained global notoriety for its in-your-face gospel of righteousness and hatred emblazoned on picket signs and shouted by protestors. Targets of Westboro Baptist included the LGBTQ community and even deceased American soldiers as church members picketed, taunted, and generally stoked the flames of outrage wherever they showed up. Unfollow is the unflinching memoir of a young woman who grew up in the teachings and activities of this church, but as a young adult, she started to see things differently, and ultimately made the decision to leave the church. It’s hard to look at the cruel, shameless actions church members — including the author — took in the name of their beliefs and to attract attention, but the raw candor with which Phelps-Roper shares her account is nothing short of remarkable. Unfollow is an inspiring account of a woman who had the courage to untangle the beliefs her life was based on, choose differently, and share her story with the rest of us. —Seira Wilson
Leigh Bardugo made her mark writing bestselling young adult fantasy, but now she’s doing something a little different with Ninth House, her first adult novel. Bardugo uses Yale’s secret societies — their hidden rituals and the power of membership — to create the perfect setting for a story where elitism and the occult are intertwined. In Ninth House we meet Alex Stern, a young woman with nothing left to lose and who is given a strange second chance at a different life — as a freshman at Yale. Alex has been selected to attend not for her academic achievement, but rather to perform a dangerous task for which she is uniquely qualified: finding out who among the secret societies is resurrecting ancient dark magic. Ninth House is an epic read — sharp, dark, and incredibly atmospheric, with a gutsy protagonist and a conclusion that leaves the reader eager for more. —Seira Wilson
Jeannie Vanasco will be the first to admit that what happened to her is not uncommon. Another sexual assault statistic, she remained silent for 14 years before doing something rather extraordinary, and that is where her story takes a rare and profound turn: Vanasco reached out to her rapist, once a long-time friend, and he not only admitted what he’d done, he apologized. Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl chronicles this reckoning, and in doing so adds a different dimension to the #MeToo conversation — one more intimate, insidious, and full of improbable grace. There will be much debate about Vanasco’s decision to give her abuser this platform, something she openly struggles with in the pages of this powerful memoir. But if the root causes of sexual violence are not confronted, particularly from a perpetrator’s point of view, it will continue. One other fascinating element of Vanasco’s provocative but cathartic account is the interrogation of femininity itself, and how, for many women, the impulse to placate and praise puts them in vulnerable positions. With Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl Vanasco regains some of the power that she lost. Read it; talk about it. —Erin Kodicek
Although she has had a nearly 20-year career, this is Zadie Smith’s first short story collection. One of the things readers will notice about it is the impressive scope of Smith’s writing. There is a broad and diverse cast of characters in these stories. There is urban realism, speculative fiction, and many degrees between. There is playfulness and precision. Of the 19 stories in Grand Union, 11 are new; the majority of the others appeared in The New Yorker. And despite the range, Zadie Smith’s voice — the intelligence and insight, the control of language — is always evident. This is a satisfying, memorable collection by a talented author teeming with ideas. —Chris Schluep
By all accounts, the mysterious and mercurial patriarch of the Tuchman family is a “bad man.” To his wife, this quality could actually be a turn-on, despite her being the occasional victim of his basest impulses. His children, on the other hand, have borne the brunt of his pernicious nature, marking them in ways that have followed them into adulthood. So when Victor finds himself on death’s door, there’s not much love lost — only one last opportunity to try to discover what made this toxic man tick and, with any luck, escape the lingering effects of his dubious legacy. You may have gleaned that Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours is not the cheeriest of reads, but it accomplishes what the best novels do: It helps us to make sense of life’s messiness, and find hope in the most hopeless of places. Once again, Attenberg finds the function in dysfunction. —Erin Kodicek
She’s baaaaack. Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 novel, Olive Kitteridge, won the Pulitzer Prize and spawned a hit HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand and Bill Murray. In Olive, Again she resurrects the endearing curmudgeon from Crosby, Maine, in 13 interconnected stories that remind us that you’re never too old to grow up. As the book opens, Olive is being wooed, in a manner of speaking, by widower Jack Kennison. Even he is at a loss to explain the precise reasons for his affection for her, but as we see Olive fumbling through everyday life — still grappling with its disappointments and mysteries — we recognize a kindred soul. Olive, Again is not what you would call a page-turner. There are the none of the requisite heart-racing moments but rather a steady beat of ordinary magic — which ends up being not so ordinary at all. —Erin Kodicek
Prepare to have your mind gently cracked open by Ahmet Altan’s I Will Never See the World Again. After the failed coup in 2016, Turkish writer Altan was imprisoned via trumped-up charges and sentenced to life without parole. His self-reflective, short essays written from prison are deceptively graceful and often humorous even as they deliver a blow to the heart. Altan’s cellmates, his days in solitary confinement, and his childhood love of O. Henry’s stories provide glimpses of Altan’s hardships and the mental feats needed to stay engaged. Ultimately, Altan discovers that the power to survive his new reality has lurked inside him all along: “I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not.” Uplifting, often sharply funny, and poetic, I Will Never See the World Again will awaken readers to the luminous strength of creative passion in even the worst circumstances. —Adrian Liang
With many of the legendary punk rockers of the 1970s — the Ramones, Richard Hell, the Clash, et al. — what you saw was what you got; they wore their anger, disaffection, and alienation on their ratty sleeves. Not so much with Debbie Harry. The founder and singer of Blondie was striking and aloof, a persona more akin to Lana Turner than Lydia Lunch. The band’s music, a bit more polished and inquisitive than many of their peers’, encouraged the enigma. And it made Harry a bona fide star. Face It has more than enough detail to satisfy any fan, from her New Jersey childhood, her early days in New York, and the rise and fall and rise of her iconic band, presented in a forthright, almost laconic style not unlike her controlled performance in the “Heart of Glass” video. There’s also an impressionistic element to her presentation — one chapter entitled “Close Calls” is a litany of near-death experiences, from birth to car crashes, told outside of the context of the rest of the book. Taken together, the multiple personalities of Face It give readers the experience they want: All the dirt without sacrificing the art. Total punk. —Jon Foro
Readers — and runners — will recognize Christopher McDougall’s name as the author of the bestseller Born to Run. His latest, Running with Sherman, is part animal love story, part adventure book, part feminist running manifesto, and part scientific exploration into healing. Journalist McDougall lives on a farm in Amish Country, Pennsylvania, and one day his neighbor alerts him to a donkey that has been neglected by its hoarder owner. While nursing Sherman back to health with the help of an equine expert, McDougall learns that donkeys thrive from having a job, and he remembers that ambitious athletes like himself race burros once a year in Colorado. Thus kicks off McDougall and Sherman’s training for the annual burro race. Along the way they pick up a wacky cast of characters: two additional donkey running pals; a young man recovering from depression and a suicide attempt; McDougall’s incredibly patient, former hula-dancer wife turned trail runner and donkey whisperer; an Amish running club; two women who drive McDougall and donkeys across the country…you get the idea. McDougall is a fantastic storyteller and a witty writer. A fascinating and inspiring hybrid nonfiction salve to the problems of our day, Running with Sherman achieves the running equivalent of a hole-in-one. —Sarah Gelman
A high school debate champion growing up in Topeka, Kansas, sounds like a fairly conventional character for a novel. But this is not a conventional novel — it builds through shifting points of view, and it is a book concerned with language and cultural expectation, and how one conveys the other. By the end, you begin to realize that it is a story about how we reached the national state of consciousness we inhabit today. The Topeka School is also autofiction: Lerner’s book tells the story of teenager Adam, the debate champion (as Ben Lerner was himself), and Adam’s parents, both psychologists (as were Lerner’s parents) living in Topeka (where Lerner lived). The entire family struggles at one point or another with success and privilege, something that opens up contradictions within each one of them, and the book itself is a bit of a contradiction — mixing the warmth of ’90s nostalgia with the existential anxiousness we recognize so well today. There is a lot going on here, but the read is often mysteriously calming due to Lerner’s deep relationship with language and subject matter. At the same time that he gives us a great deal to think about. Readers looking for a literary romp should probably search elsewhere. But if you’re looking to go deep, this is your guy. —Chris Schluep
While Amaryllis Fox’s memoir of her years as a CIA covert agent reads like a John le Carré novel come to life, the writing makes vehemently clear that a real person is moving in and out of the shadows. When the CIA recruits Fox as a Georgetown graduate student after she writes an algorithm to help predict terrorist attacks, her double life begins. Six months of advanced operations training at “the Farm” launches her into covert operations in the Middle East, where she’s tasked with finding would-be terrorists or terrorist suppliers and turning them into CIA sources. But marriage to another agent, a baby, and living in China while under constant supervision also take their toll. Even as Fox wins praise from Langley for her astonishing work in the field, her interior life is crumbling. Fox demonstrates not only the bravery and guts of young CIA agents — for they are almost all young — but the courage it takes to challenge whether a life of lies is a life worth living. Sparely written and gripping, Amaryllis Fox’s memoir dives into the beating heart of undercover work, illuminating its corrosive effects on the spirit even as she celebrates the humanity behind the hard-won triumphs. —Adrian Liang
Bloody Genius — the 12th book in John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series — lands at No. 3 on this week’s Most Sold Fiction list. The book opens with the murder of a scholar beaten to death with a laptop at a local college campus, and Virgil Flowers is brought in to investigate. What he discovers is that two academic departments have been facing off against one another, and it appears that their disagreement has now turned deadly. Virgil is a pretty laid-back guy, but the faculty around him have clearly lost their faculties.