A book list by Onset & Rime.
February may be over, but we're going beyond Black History Month with this long list of amazing books by black authors. There's something in here for everyone, and lots of content to take you through the rest of the year or more!
A Note: Content warnings have been provided where appropriate. Highlight the "invisible" text beside the content warning label to see. Content warnings are not value statements about the books or judgements about the inclusion of any particular content. They are there to give you a heads up on what to be prepared for so you can choose if and/or when a book is right for you.
1) REAL LIFE by Brandon Taylor
From the publisher: "Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community."
Content Warnings: racial slurs/racism, homophobic slurs/homophobia, sexual abuse, sexual abuse of a child
2) QUEENIE by Candice Carty-Williams
From the publisher: "Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she's constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places...including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth. As Queenie careens from one questionable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, 'What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be?'—all of the questions today's woman must face in a world trying to answer them for her."
Content Warnings: sexual violence, racism, child abuse
3) TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi
From the publisher: "Gifty is a fifth-year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after a knee injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family's loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive."
Content Warnings: racism, drug addiction, suicidal ideation
4) SONG OF SOLOMON by Toni Morrison
From the publisher: "Milkman Dead was born shortly after a neighborhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life he, too, will be trying to fly...As [we follow] Milkman from his rustbelt city to the place of his family's origins, Morrison introduces an entire cast of strivers and seeresses, liars and assassins, the inhabitants of a fully realized black world."
Content Warnings: racism/racial slurs, violent hate crime, slavery, mentions of incest, suicide
5) IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK by James Baldwin
From the publisher: "Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin's story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions-affection, despair, and hope."
Content Warnings: rape, racism, suicide
Narrative Nonfiction and Biography
6) CASTE: THE ORIGINS OF OUR DISCONTENTS by Isabel Wilkerson
Wilkerson weaves together stories from a broad spectrum of people to show the insidious undertow of the unspoken caste system in America is experienced every day. She links the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany to compare the impact caste systems have on the lives of those who are ruled by them.
From the publisher: "She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity."
Content Warnings: racism, historical violence against minorities
7) STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING by Ibram X. Kendi
From the publisher: "Kendi chronicles the entire story of anti–Black racist ideas and their staggering power over the course of American history. Stamped from the Beginning uses the lives of five major American intellectuals to offer a window into the contentious debates between assimilationists and segregationists and between racists and anti-racists. From Puritan minister Cotton Mather to Thomas Jefferson, from fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to brilliant scholar W. E. B. Du Bois to legendary anti–prison activist Angela Davis, Kendi shows how and why some of our leading pro-slavery and pro–civil rights thinkers have challenged or helped cement racist ideas in America...Kendi illustrates [how] racist thinking did not arise from ignorance or hatred. Racist ideas were created and popularized in an effort to defend deeply entrenched discriminatory policies and to rationalize the nation's racial inequities in everything from wealth to health. While racist ideas are easily produced and easily consumed, they can also be discredited. In shedding much–needed light on the murky history of racist ideas, Stamped from the Beginning offers tools to expose them—and in the process, reason to hope."
This book is also available in an adapted format more accessible to younger readers (but is still great for adults!). This version is called Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.
Content Warnings: racism, historical violence against minorities
8) ALL BOYS AREN'T BLUE by George M. Johnson
Through a series of personal essays, LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson explores his childhood, adolescence, and college years in New Jersey and Virginia.
From the publisher: "From the memories of getting his teeth kicked out by bullies at age five, to flea marketing with his loving grandmother, to his first sexual relationships, this young-adult memoir weaves together the trials and triumphs faced by Black queer boys...All Boys Aren't Blue covers topics such as gender identity, toxic masculinity, brotherhood, family, structural marginalization, consent, and Black joy."
Content Warnings: racism, homophobia, racial and homophobic slurs, incest, physical and sexual assault
9) HALF-BLOOD BLUES by Esi Edugyan
In Paris in 1940 Hieronymus Falk, a Black German jazz musician is arrested by the Nazis and never heard from again. Fifty years later his bandmates Sid and Chip are returning to Berlin. When secrets buried since Hiero's disappearance are brought to light, they must reckon with their past. This is a story about friendship, jealousy, guilt, and forgiveness.
Content Warnings: racism, racially motivated violence, references to the Holocaust
10) DEACON KING KONG by James McBride
From the publisher: "In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .38 from his pocket, and in front of everybody shoots the project's drug dealer at point-blank range...As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characters—caught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New York—overlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion."
Content Warnings: racism/racial slurs, homophobia/homophobic slurs, abuse, mention of rape, mention of pedophilia
11) HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
From the publisher: “Thirteen-year-old Ugwu is employed as a houseboy for a university professor full of revolutionary zeal. Olanna is the professor's beautiful mistress, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos for a dusty university town and the charisma of her new lover. And Richard is a shy young Englishman in thrall to Olanna's twin sister, an enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone. As Nigerian troops advance and the three must run for their lives, their ideals are severely tested, as are their loyalties to one another.
Epic, ambitious, and triumphantly realized, Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel about moral responsibility, about the end of colonialism, about ethnic allegiances, about class and race—and the ways in whiDch love can complicate them all."
Content Warnings: rape and sexual assault, graphic violence
Mystery & Thriller
12) WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING by Alyssa Cole
From the publisher: "Sydney Green is Brooklyn born and raised, but her beloved neighborhood seems to change every time she blinks. Condos are sprouting like weeds, FOR SALE signs are popping up overnight, and the neighbors she's known all her life are disappearing. To hold onto her community's past and present, Sydney channels her frustration into a walking tour and finds an unlikely and unwanted assistant in one of the new arrivals to the block—her neighbor Theo. But Sydney and Theo's deep dive into history quickly becomes a dizzying descent into paranoia and fear. Their neighbors may not have moved to the suburbs after all, and the push to revitalize the community may be more deadly than advertised."
Content Warnings: racism, police violence, physical abuse, suicide
13) BLACKTOP WASTELAND by S.A. Cosby
From the publisher: "Beauregard 'Bug' Montage: husband, father, honest car mechanic. But he was once known—from North Carolina to the beaches of Florida—as the best getaway driver on the East Coast. Just like his father, who disappeared many years ago. After a series of financial calamities (worsened by the racial prejudices of the small town he lives in) Bug reluctantly takes part in a daring diamond heist to solve his money troubles—and to go straight once and for all. However, when it goes horrifically wrong, he's sucked into a grimy underworld which threatens everything, and everyone, he holds dear."
Content Warnings: racism, graphic violence
Sci-Fi & Fantasy
14) KINDRED by Octavia E. Butler
Kindred is generally recognized as the first science fiction novel written by a Black woman and is a cornerstone of Black American literature.
Dana, a modern Black woman living in California in 1976, is wrenched back in time to a plantation in antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning boy, she is pulled back to her California home just in time to avoid a shotgun being pointed at her face. As she continues to be bounced between 1970s California and pre-Civil War Maryland, she becomes more and more entangled in the life of Rufus, the white boy she saved, and his connection to her own familial history.
This novel has also been adapted into an award-winning graphic novel: Kindred, adapted by Damian Duffy, illustrated by John Jennings.
Content Warnings: sexual assault, racism/racial slurs, lynching, slavery, suicide, graphic violence
15) THE RAGE OF DRAGONS by Evan Winter
From the publisher: "The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine. Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war. Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He's going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn't get the chance. Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He'll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him."
This is the first book in The Burning series by Evan Winter.
Content Warnings: sexual assault, racism
16) AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon
Aster is a healer living in the lower-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized like the antebellum South. It is a generational ship, ferrying the last of humanity to a 'Promised Land'; but the ship's leaders have chosen to enforce harsh restrictions on those passengers they view as lesser than. When the sovereign of the ship dies under mysterious circumstances, the autopsy has revealed a link between his death and the death of her mother twenty-five years earlier. Aster finds herself in the center of a mystery that may be the spark to ignite a revolution.
Content Warnings: racism/racial slurs, homophobia, intersexism, child abuse, sexual assault, suicide, ableism, lynching
17) DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland
Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead rose from the battlefields of Gettysburg—derailing the Civil War and changing America forever. As a result of the changes wrought by the emergence of the living dead, Jane is forcibly enrolled at a combat school so she can learn to protect wealthy white women in this new reality. But that's not a life she wants.
Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home, and doesn't spend much energy thinking about the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to its pre-War glory days. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane becomes caught up in a sinister plot in which the living can be just as lethal as the dead.
This is the first book in a fully published duology. The second book is called The Deathless Divide.
Content Warnings: racism, racial slurs, slavery, some gore
18) CHARMING AS A VERB by Ben Philippe
From the publisher: "Henri 'Halti' Haltiwanger can charm just about anyone. He is a star debater and popular student at the prestigious FATE academy, the dutiful first-generation Haitian son, and the trusted dog walker for his wealthy New York City neighbors. But his easy smiles mask a burning ambition to attend his dream college, Columbia University. There is only one person who seems immune to Henri's charms: his 'intense' classmate and neighbor Corinne Troy. When she uncovers Henri's less-than-honest dog-walking scheme, she blackmails him into helping her change her image at school. Henri agrees, seeing a potential upside for himself. Soon what started as a mutual hustle turns into something more surprising than either of them ever bargained for."
19) THE SOUND OF STARS by Alechia Dow
From the publisher: "Two years ago, a misunderstanding between the leaders of Earth and the invading Ilori resulted in the deaths of one-third of the world's population."
In the new Ilori-run world, humans are seen as dangerously volatile and displays of human emotion can be grounds for execution. All art, books, and creative expression are illegal as a result.
Seventeen-year-old Ellie Baker lives in an Ilori-controlled center in NYC, but she has a secret. She keeps a hidden library. When a book disappears, she fears that her secret will soon be discovered, and she'll be executed. But the alien who discovered her secret has a secret of his own. He's drawn to the human culture that he's found in Ellie's library, and he is drawn to Ellie herself.
Content Warnings: racism, violence