Grab a hat, a pair of sunglasses, and one of the Amazon Books editors’ favorite books of July to celebrate summer to the fullest.
A thriller in which parents are forced to kidnap other children, Colson Whitehead’s story of a young man sent to a reform school in the Jim Crow era, and a nuanced debut novel about four adult sisters are among the new great reads that grabbed our attention this month.
With 31 days in July, you’ll have all the time you need to get absorbed in these editors' top picks.
Based on a real school for boys that closed in Florida in 2011 after more than 100 years in existence, Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Academy is the kind of institution that purports to rebrand bad boys into good young men. In theory it should be a good place for Elwood, a young black man who was caught unknowingly riding in a stolen car. But what happens inside Nickel Academy does not match its public image, and Elwood is about to learn that, no matter how idealistic or optimistic he is, his life is taking a very bad turn. Set in the 1960s during Jim Crow, The Nickel Boys is both an enjoyable read and a powerful portrayal of racism and inequality that acts as a lever to pry against our own willingness to ignore it. —Chris Schluep
Claire Lombardo’s debut is the best kind of family saga — tightly woven with characters who submerge us face-first into the messiness of familial and romantic love. The four adult Sorenson daughters fear that they will never have a relationship as strong as that of their parents, “two people who emanated more love than it seemed like the universe would sanction.” Wendy has suffered a devastating loss and soothes herself with alcohol and men; Violet is faced with the son she gave away in a closed adoption 16 years ago; Liza, pregnant by a man she’s not in love with, is weighing single parenthood; and Grace — the baby of the family — struggles to launch and is keeping a secret from her family. Told through flashbacks interspersed with the present day, The Most Fun We Ever Had is a beautifully written, up-close examination of life, love, and the inevitable changes wrought by the passage of time, placing Lombardo in the company of talented chroniclers of family life such as Celeste Ng and Meg Wolitzer. —Sarah Gelman
This will likely be one of the most talked-about books of the year. Journalist Lisa Taddeo spent eight years covering the lives of three women: Maggie, who met her lover when she was a 17-year-old student and he was a married schoolteacher. Lina, a mother of two who leaves her marriage and rekindles a flame with her high-school sweetheart. And Sloane, gorgeous and happily married, whose husband likes to pick out her extramarital sexual partners. At first blush, this may seem like a book about sex. But really it is more about desire — and really it is about more than that. Taddeo thoroughly documents her subjects’ lives, but the language she employs reaches higher than simple journalism. There will be moments when her words make you forget that you even are reading; other times you will feel like you want to turn off the light and never speak to another human being again. But that would mean you wouldn’t get to talk about this book. —Chris Schluep
Teeth-grindingly tense? Check. Mind-bogglingly surreal? Check. An ending you’re going to debate with your friends? Check. When paleobotanist Molly uncovers strange artifacts at a dig — a plastic toy soldier with a monkey tail and a Coke bottle with the letters slanted backward — the finds are intriguing but not alarming. But sleepless nights devoted to her two children under age 5, more weird discoveries, and inexplicable sounds twist into an acidic fear. And the source of these oddities, once revealed, is both more horrible and more sympathetic than Molly could ever imagine. Phillips makes motherhood a transcendent power even as she gives it a ferocious bite. Luckily The Need is a fast read, because I dare anyone to try to sleep after starting the first chapter. —Adrian Liang
Young Perley is an intrepid soul, and by the time he expresses interest in leaving his family’s isolated existence on an Appalachian homestead to go to school, you’re almost used to his normal: living with black rat snakes, minding the “humanure” pile, and foraging for dinner. When an innocent accident attracts social services’ attention, Perley’s family’s imperfect, but preferred, utopia is upended. First-time novelist Madeline ffitch’s background as an environmental activist is evident in Stay and Fight, which deftly pivots from family drama to an encroaching political one that poses even more of a threat to their way of life. If that sounds stress-inducing, it is, but it’s tempered by the exquisitely endearing Perley, who is uniquely bonded to each member of this motley crew and provides the motivation behind the book’s title. Stay and Fight is an earnest and heart-wrenching celebration of family, and what it means to be free. —Erin Kodicek
In the masterful Deep River, Karl Marlantes writes about a different place and time than that of his classic Vietnam War novel, MatterhornMatterhornMatterhorn, but admirers of Matterhorn will recognize his gift for telling a sweeping, consuming epic through the day-to-day experiences of his characters. Escaping famine and Russian oppression, three Finnish siblings head for the United States and eventually the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century. There is Ilmari, who becomes a farmer and a blacksmith, and who dreams of starting a church. There is Matti, who becomes a logger. And there is Aino, the sister who may possess the most grit and determination of any of them, and who emerges as a union organizer where work often means low pay and the constant threat of death or dismemberment. Deep River is a place where you hear trees thundering to the ground and see 150-pound salmon working their way upstream. It is also a finely hewn portrait of people’s lives in an era when this country was figuring out what it stood for. You could call Deep River the great Pacific Northwest novel, but it’s even more than that. —Chris Schluep
While exploring the Great Bear Rainforest, a remote and utterly wild expanse on British Columbia’s northwest coast, globe-traveling writer and photographer John Zada was struck by the prevalence of Sasquatch tales wherever he went and the matter-of-fact manner of the storytellers. He returned with a mission, interviewing scientists, First Nations peoples, hunters, and conservationists about the legendary giant, and did he ever bring back some good Bigfoot stories! In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond takes those accounts seriously while walking a fine line between skepticism and credulity. To many (or most), Bigfoot is a fantastical if not downright silly subject, one that has attracted mostly silly contributions. But Zada’s entry is a beautifully rendered account of a mist-shrouded world suspended between myth and modernity. —Jon Foro
Made famous via his role as Sulu in Star Trek, George Takei now reveals in his graphic memoir the story of his family’s internment during World War II. A United States citizen, Takei was only 5 years old when the government forced his family to leave their home and possessions and move to a concentration camp along with hundreds of other Japanese Americans. The straightforward illustrations make this a read comfortable for all ages, even as the scenes range from unsettling to infuriating. Its power, like that of John Lewis’ March trilogy, burns in how it persuades the reader to consider how much we’ve really changed since Franklin D. Roosevelt and Earl Warren decided to imprison families based on unsupported fears. They Called Us Enemy also inspires us to engage through democracy and insist that we treat fellow human beings with fairness and dignity. —Adrian Liang
The Chain is one of those white-knuckle, stay-up-till-3-a.m. thrillers that keeps you reading feverishly because you just need to know how this one plays out. Rachel gets a call from a panicked mother who has just kidnapped Rachel’s daughter, Kylie, from a bus stop. Now the only way to save Kylie is for Rachel to join The Chain by kidnapping another child, whose parents will also be forced to kidnap a child. Each must also send $25,000 before the child will be released. Divorced, poor, a cancer survivor, and a working mom, Rachel is no one’s idea of a wealthy mark. But failure is not an option when your child’s life hangs in the balance. Before the last page is turned, Rachel will cross lines she’s never crossed before. Ultimately empathy lifts this terrifying thriller a cut above — seeing ordinary people just like us trying to rise to extraordinary circumstances. —Vannessa Cronin
Fast food often gets a bad rap, but the truth is Americans still harbor a (sometimes secret) love for it. In Drive-Thru Dreams, Adam Chandler introduces us to the entrepreneurs, dropouts, and dreamers who built empires out of nothing and mentored others to follow in their footsteps. We meet the people who work in fast food restaurants and those who gather around their Formica tables. These are places where all share a common experience — rich or poor, young or old. Drive-Thru Dreams is a fascinating and incredibly fun read that will change the way you think about this most American of industries. —Seira Wilson
Evvie Drake Starts Over hurtles to the No. 2 spot on the Amazon Charts Most Sold Fiction list with a lift from Today co-host Jenna Bush Hager, who picked this Maine-set debut novel for her #ReadWithJenna book club. Evvie prefers to stay holed up in her large seaside house, supposedly grieving for her young husband. When Dean Tenney, a professional baseball player with a case of the yips, becomes Evvie’s temporary roommate, the secrets they’ve been smothering can’t be hidden any longer. Sweet hilarity makes Evvie’s and Dean’s struggles with their past decisions go down easy, even as they build a friendship — and more — that flourishes amid their vulnerability. Plus, there’s an adorable lobster on the book cover. What more could you ask for?