24 books that local experts say you should read this fall

We asked staff members at Brookline Booksmith, Harvard Book Store, Porter Square Books, Frugal Bookstore, and Trident Booksellers & Café for the titles they’re most excited to delve into this season.

A child wearing a protective face mask to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus reads a book in a bookstore in Beijing, Sunday, May 17, 2020. China on Sunday reported five new cases of coronavirus, as the commercial hub of Shanghai announced the restart of classes for kindergarteners, first, second, and third-graders from June 2. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
A child reads a book in a bookstore in Beijing. –Andy Wong / AP Photo, File

Cozy, fall reading days are ahead of us. 

And whether you’re looking to learn something new this season through a work of nonfiction or escape into an immersive novel, there’s an abundance of titles for you to choose from. For help, we turned to the experts at five local shops — Brookline Booksmith, Frugal Bookstore, Harvard Book Store, Porter Square Books, and Trident Booksellers and Cafe — to get their picks for the 2020 books they are most excited to see during the fall season. Their recommendations — ranging from poetry to memoir to can’t-miss fiction — will keep you company during the darkening days of fall. 

“Mill Town” by Kerri Arsenault (Sept. 1) 

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This work of nonfiction — the author’s debut — is generating buzz and excitement, according Ellen Jarrett, book buyer and an employee-owner at Porter Square Books. In it, Arsenault focuses on Mexico, Maine, the working class town where she grew up that, for more than 100 years, was anchored by a paper mill. “It provided a livelihood for the entire town, but it was also just destroying the environment,” Jarrett said Arsenault’s examination of her hometown. “It’s that perennial issue, unfortunately, of what’s more important –providing for people’s livelihood or protecting our environment and their lives?”

“I Am Every Good Thing” by Derrick Barnes (Sept. 1)

If you’re looking for a new picture book for the youngsters in your life, Clarrissa Cropper, co-owner of Frugal Bookstore, recommends this one. The new children’s book from the author of “The King of Kindergarten” offers an inspiring and motivational message to its readers. “What I love about it is [the narrator is] a young, Black boy and there are affirmations — just positive words of inspiration,” Cropper said. “There are so many books geared toward girls, and sometimes the boys are left out. So I like that this one is geared to boys growing up, and it really is just an inspirational piece.”

“Having and Being Had” by Eula Biss (Sept. 1) 

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Rachel Cass, book buyer at Harvard Book Store, said she’s excited to pick up this new essay collection from the author of “On Immunity.” The essays delve into work, leisure, and capitalism, examining the topics through the lens of Biss buying her first home. “It’s essays sort of occasioned by that life event,” Cass said of the collection. “But I love the way her mind works — I always just want to crawl inside her brain. The connections she makes between things — historical and literary and social — are just so smart.”

“When No One Is Watching” by Alyssa Cole (Sept. 1) 

For her newest novel, Cole has set aside the genres of romance and historical fiction and instead delivers a psychological thriller for her readers, which Cropper said she’s looking forward to picking up. Set in Brooklyn, it follows a young woman who notices that her neighborhood is being gentrified. But the story comes with a twist, Cropper said. “She along with another neighbor, they’re just like, where is everyone moving to? And where is everybody going? They’re trying to get to the bottom of it. They do this walking tour of their neighborhood — and some secrets come out that they weren’t expecting.”

“Not a Novel” by Jenny Erpenbeck (Sept. 1)

Lydia McOscar, assistant buyer at Brookline Booksmith, recommends this new work of essays — translated from German — that is also part-memoir, centering around Erpenbeck’s background and experiences. She ranges from covering her childhood growing up in East Berlin to sharing the books that have driven her own work to continuing her outspoken criticisms of the treatment of refugees and suppressed populations. “She’s really a delightful writer,” McOscar said of Erpenbeck. “It’s a joy to read her books. They’re so personal and grounded in these details. Her voice feels so real and authentic and close to the reader, very conversational, so it’s very easy to pick up, even if you’ve never read her work before.”

“The Lying Life of Adults” by Elena Ferrante (Sept. 1)

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This new novel is Ferrante’s first new work of fiction in five years and is expected to be just as captivating for readers as her “Neapolitan Novels,” Jarrett said. The new work is set in a slightly different Naples from her previous series. It examines disillusionment and growing up with adults through the narrator, 12-year-old Giovanna, who discovers the adults in her life have been lying to her. Jarrett noted the novel is a “a little different” from what readers might expect from Ferrante. “It’s not really a coming-of-age novel, it really concentrates on [Giovanna’s] adolescence,” she said. 

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“Transcendent Kingdom” by Yaa Gyasi (Sept. 1) 

The latest novel from the author of “Homegoing” is not one to miss this fall, topping the list of recommendations for almost all of the booksellers interviewed for this article. The story follows Gifty, the daughter of Ghanian immigrants who is pursuing her PhD in neuroscience at Stanford and grappling with her family’s history with depression and addiction, including her brother’s overdose death. “She’s kind of pulled between trying to find some resolution and healing — pulled between her research and the scientific power to do that and the religious faith of her youth,” McOscar said of the protagonist’s journey. Cropper said what she liked about the story is it touches on real issues — depression, addiction, religion, and spirituality — that families experience. “Whether we were born here or not or immigrated here — it’s just a family unit and the layers that come with it,” she said. Cass described the writing as beautiful in her recommendation of it, and Flynn called the novel “hands down” one of the best books she’s read this year. “It’s very much a juxtaposition between so many things — past and present, science and faith, happiness/sadness, good/bad,” she said. “[Gyasi] really layers so many contradictions … It’s really about how people have hidden selves and they kind of keep parts of them always within, because they’re too difficult to explain but it drives people.”

“The Primal Gourmet Cookbook” by Ronny Joseph Lvovski (Sept. 1)

For all those who have discovered their inner chefs during the coronavirus pandemic, Cropper recommends picking up this new cookbook of dairy-free, gluten-free, and grain-free recipes to try out. “I really like this one,” she said of the recipe collection. The cookbook focuses on healthy, but straightforward, meals that would work whether you’re cooking for your family or just for yourself, she said, adding that recipes are simple and appealing whether or not you’re following the paleo diet. “I like having an all-in-one type cookbook for everybody, that anybody can pick up,” she said.

“Azadi” by Arundhati Roy (Sept. 1)

A new collection of essays focused on the rise of authoritarianism from the author of “The God of Small Things” is a work of nonfiction McOscar said isn’t to be missed this fall. The collection springs from the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, but Roy finds broader footing exploring the role of borders and the rise of far right nationalism in other countries around the world. “She’s probably best known for her fiction, and I hope this collection finds a home with fans who are more familiar with that,” McOscar said, adding that the writing is very accessible and you don’t have to be an academic to absorb the essays. “It’s just fantastic and you don’t need a civics background or a familiarity with the sort of politics that [Roy’s] writing about to understand it and really connect with her writing,” she said. 

“Monogamy” by Sue Miller (Sept. 8)

In her new novel, Miller tells the story of Graham and Annie, a couple who have been married for 30 years and live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When Graham dies suddenly, she discovers he has been unfaithful to her during the course of their marriage. “Like nobody else can do it, [Miller] writes about love marriage and infidelity,” Jarrett said. For those who are familiar with Cambridge, there are recognizable landmarks — restaurants, galleries, and streets — woven around the couple’s narrative.

“What Are You Going Through” by Sigrid Nunez (Sept. 8) 

The new book from the author of the National Book Award winning novel “The Friend,” is centered around a female narrator describing a series of encounters with people through the course of her life. “It’s about what we ask of people and what people ask of us, and at what point in our lives we’re asked these things and how they transform our lives,” Jarrett said of the new novel. “So it sounds simple, yet it’s pretty profoundly complicated.”

“Just Us” by Claudia Rankine (Sept. 8) 

Both Jarrett and McOscar recommend this collection of essays, poetry, and visuals, in which Rankine confronts white supremacy and explores the division that has found its way into every sector within American life, focusing in particular on racism and intersectionality. Rankine gives the readers a series of prompts for “beginning conversations or behaviors that take us out of our comfort zone that need to get below the surface and confront what makes each of us uncomfortable, which in many cases is our own ignorance,”Jarrett says. McOscar described the writing as both compelling and gut-wrenching, saying the author is building on the work of her 2014 book, “Citizen.” “It’s probably one of the more urgent reads for Americans in the fall, particularly going into an election season,” the book buyer said of “Just Us.” 

“Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke (Sept. 15) 

If you’re a fan of fantasy and whimsy, Flynn said to keep an eye out for the “much anticipated” new book from the author of “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.” The new novel follows its main character, Piranesi, who is chronicling his life living in a labyrinth with infinite rooms in his journals, eventually meeting a mysterious figure called “the Other.” “It’s not full fantasy,” Flynn said. “You can imagine living in this world, but it’s really fun and interesting and kind of a light read for these times.”

“Grown” by Tiffany D. Jackson (Sept. 15)

Cropper recommends picking up this young adult book about a young singer in pursuit of her musical aspirations. In telling the story of Enchanted Jones, the author delves into the underbelly of the music industry, examining the culture and experiences of Black women in the predominantly male industry. “This is really about a young woman who finds her voice,” Cropper said. 

“If Then” by Jill Lepore (Sept. 15)

This new work of nonfiction from the Harvard professor and author of “These Truths” is on Cass’s list for the fall. In it, Lepore chronicles the history of the Simulmatics Corporation, a company founded in 1959 during the Cold War with the aim of using data analysis to predict and influence human behavior. “They were sort of doing the data work that we find so common now 60 years ago,” Cass said of the Lepore’s examination. “I really love her writing — I really love her analysis. And this fall I’m really interested in books that give our current moment some historical context.”

“The Meaning of Mariah Carey” by Mariah Carey (Sept. 29)

If you’re a Mariah Carey fan — this memoir isn’t one to be missed. A Mariah fan herself, Cropper said she’s looking forward to seeing how the superstar shares more about who she is and her life experiences in the autobiography. “Stars and celebrities, we think we know everything about them because they’ve been out there so long and their lives have been put on screen and you read about them in the tabloids or through the media,” she said. “But what I like about autobiographies is it digs deeper into who they actually are, not just the surface of what we see from the media.”

“Just Like You” by Nick Hornby (Sept. 29) 

The new novel from the author “High Fidelity” follows how Lucy, a disillusioned mother of two in her 40s, meets Joe, a 22-year-old living with his mother and working multiple jobs. Despite all odds and in spite of their very different backgrounds and generations, they fall in love, Jarrett said. “And of course, being Nick Hornby, it’s going to be funny,” she said. 

“Swimming Lessons” by Lili Reinhart (Sept. 29) 

Flynn recommends this debut poetry collection from the actress and mental health advocate Lili Reinhart. Drawings intersperse the pages, and Flynn called the volume “a perfect little book to read during these times,” especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed by picking up a longer work or a novel. “This is a really sparse, beautifully packaged poetry book about anxiety and young love and depression,” Flynn said, adding later. “They’re very relatable and kind of reflect back to you what you’re feeling.”

“Jack” by Marilynne Robinson (Sept. 29) 

This new novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Gilead” marks the fourth and final installment of her series set in the fictional world of Gilead, Iowa. In it, Robinson tells the love story of an interracial couple, John Ames Boughton and Della Miles, during segregation. “This is just kind of a major literary event,” McOscar said of the release. “I think it will be exciting to look back and say, ‘Oh, I was there — I was reading when someone who was basically in the literary canon was still putting books out and you could be one of the first ones to read them.’ She’s just an artist at the top of her craft.”

“Leave the World Behind” by Rumaan Alam (Oct. 6) 

Cass said she can’t wait for the release of this novel so others can read it. It follows a family from New York City who go on vacation to a home they’ve rented in the woods on Long Island, when Cass says “unusual” and “slightly creepy things start to happen.” “It is so good and so propulsive and just unrelentingly unsettling,” she said. “I really enjoyed it a lot and have been thinking about it a lot since I finished it.”

“African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song” edited by Kevin Young (Oct. 13)

This collection of poetry, edited by the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the poetry editor for the New Yorker, is being hailed for being a landmark anthology of African American poetry, stretching from the colonial period to present day. “It’s quite a reach,” Jarrett said of the range the collection covers. “And obviously through the writing, it gives the reader a history of Black culture, including music, the arts, trends, and history.”

“Memorial” by Bryan Washington (Oct. 27) 

McOscar recommends you keep your eyes peeled for this new work from the author of the acclaimed short story collection “Lot,” saying it is one of the books of the season you’re going to be hearing about “from everyone” when it is released. “He’s a tremendous writer,” McOscar said of Washington’s writing in the new novel. It tells the story of a couple — Mike, a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant and Benson, a Black day care teacher — living together in Houston. They’re settled in their relationship, but are unsure of the future when Mike’s mother arrives in Houston, bringing news that prompts him to fly home to Japan. She stays on in Houston with Benson. “Essentially these two men are sort of galvanized into their own growth in a way that their relationship didn’t necessarily prohibit but didn’t foster, and then they’re grappling with the ways that their lives have changed,” McOscar said. 

“White Ivy” by Susie Yang (Nov. 3) 

Flynn said she loved this new novel, which follows a Chinese American girl who goes to extremes in the pursuit of always wanting to be somebody else. It starts with her childhood growing up in Boston and her return in later years. “She finds herself pulling away from her past and towards a future, but loses herself in the process,” Flynn said. “It’s really a mysterious, beautifully written, [and] interesting comment on immigration and our culture here in the U.S.”

“We Keep the Dead Close” by Becky Cooper (Nov. 10) 

This mix of true crime and history is another locally-set book that Flynn recommends. It examines the murder of Harvard graduate student Jane Britton in 1969. The author, Cooper, learned of the murder — and stories around it — as an undergraduate on campus decades later. “The murder itself is a mystery, but also the sort of growing rumors around the murder became its own thing and has perpetuated through decades of students at Harvard,” Flynn said. She added that the work of nonfiction makes connections between Britton’s case and the present day dangers that women continue to face on college campuses and at elite institutions. “It’s really interesting and well written,” Flynn said. 

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