A book list by Onset & Rime.
February is Black History Month, a time to not only reflect on the past, but look beyond those reflections to the future. As lovers of stories, we rely on books to learn from, and get lost in. This list is a continuation of last year's 19 Books by Black Authors to take you beyond Black History Month, celebrating more authors and new stories, across a range of genres.
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) BLACK BUCK by Mateo Askaripour
“A crackling, satirical debut novel about a young man given a shot at stardom as the lone Black salesman at a mysterious, cult-like, and wildly successful startup where nothing is as it seems.”
From the publisher: “An unambitious twenty-two-year-old, Darren lives in a Bed-Stuy brownstone with his mother, who wants nothing more than to see him live up to his potential as the valedictorian of Bronx Science. But Darren is content working at Starbucks in the lobby of a Midtown office building, hanging out with his girlfriend, Soraya, and eating his mother’s home-cooked meals. All that changes when a chance encounter with Rhett Daniels, the silver-tongued CEO of Sumwun, NYC’s hottest tech startup, results in an exclusive invitation for Darren to join an elite sales team on the thirty-sixth floor.
After enduring a “hell week” of training, Darren, the only Black person in the company, reimagines himself as “Buck,” a ruthless salesman unrecognizable to his friends and family. But when things turn tragic at home and Buck feels he’s hit rock bottom, he begins to hatch a plan to help young people of color infiltrate America’s sales force, setting off a chain of events that forever changes the game.”
Genre(s): contemporary fiction
Content Warnings: racism, white supremacy, harassment, violence
2) LOT: STORIES by Bryan Washington
“Stories of a young man finding his place among family and community in Houston”
From the publisher: “In the city of Houston - a sprawling, diverse microcosm of America - the son of a black mother and a Latino father is coming of age. He's working at his family's restaurant, weathering his brother's blows, resenting his older sister's absence. And discovering he likes boys.
This boy and his family experience the tumult of living in the margins, the heartbreak of ghosts, and the braveries of the human heart. The stories of others living and thriving and dying across Houston's myriad neighborhoods are woven throughout to reveal a young woman's affair detonating across an apartment complex, a rag-tag baseball team, a group of young hustlers, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a local drug dealer who takes a Guatemalan teen under his wing, and a reluctant chupacabra.”
Genre(s): contemporary fiction, short stories
Content Warnings: racism, homophobia, abuse
3) SEVEN DAYS IN JUNE by Tia Williams
“Seven days to fall in love, fifteen years to forget, and seven days to get it all back again...”
From the publisher: “Brooklynite Eva Mercy is a single mom and bestselling erotica writer, who is feeling pressed from all sides. Shane Hall is a reclusive, enigmatic, award-winning literary author who, to everyone's surprise, shows up in New York.
When Shane and Eva meet unexpectedly at a literary event, sparks fly, raising not only their past buried traumas, but the eyebrows of New York's Black literati. What no one knows is that twenty years earlier, teenage Eva and Shane spent one crazy, torrid week madly in love. They may be pretending that everything is fine now, but they can't deny their chemistry - or the fact that they've been secretly writing to each other in their books ever since.
Over the next seven days in the middle of a steamy Brooklyn summer, Eva and Shane reconnect, but Eva's not sure how she can trust the man who broke her heart, and she needs to get him out of New York so that her life can return to normal. But before Shane disappears again, there are a few questions she needs answered...”
Genre(s): romance, contemporary fiction
Content Warnings: child abuse, self harm, racial slurs
4) A LITTLE DEVIL IN AMERICA: NOTES IN PRAISE OF BLACK PERFORMANCE by Hanif Abdurraqib
“A stirring meditation on Black performance in America”
From the publisher: “At the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine Baker was fifty-seven years old, well beyond her most prolific days. But in her speech she was in a mood to consider her life, her legacy, her departure from the country she was now triumphantly returning to. “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too,” she told the crowd. Inspired by these few words, Hanif Abdurraqib has written a profound and lasting reflection on how Black performance is inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture. Each moment in every performance he examines—whether it’s the twenty-seven seconds in “Gimme Shelter” in which Merry Clayton wails the words “rape, murder,” a schoolyard fistfight, a dance marathon, or the instant in a game of spades right after the cards are dealt—has layers of resonance in Black and white cultures, the politics of American empire, and Abdurraqib’s own personal history of love, grief, and performance.
Abdurraqib writes prose brimming with jubilation and pain, infused with the lyricism and rhythm of the musicians he loves. With care and generosity, he explains the poignancy of performances big and small, each one feeling intensely familiar and vital, both timeless and desperately urgent. Filled with sharp insight, humor, and heart, A Little Devil in America exalts the Black performance that unfolds in specific moments in time and space—from midcentury Paris to the moon, and back down again to a cramped living room in Columbus, Ohio.”
Genre(s): nonfiction, history, culturee
Content Warnings: violence, police brutality, racism, Islamophobia, suicide, misogynoir
5) FOUR HUNDRED SOULS edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
“… a chronological account of four hundred years of Black America as told by ninety of America's leading Black writers.”
From the publisher: “Curated by Ibram X. Kendi, author of the number one bestseller How To Be an Antiracist, and fellow historian Keisha N. Blain, Four Hundred Souls begins with the arrival of twenty enslaved Ndongo people on the shores of the British colony in mainland America in 1619, the year before the arrival of the Mayflower.
In eighty chronological chapters, the book charts the tragic and triumphant four-hundred-year history of Black American experience in a choral work of exceptional power and beauty.
Contributors include some of the best-known scholars, writers, historians, journalists, lawyers, poets and activists of contemporary America who together bring to vivid life countless new facets to the drama of slavery and resistance, segregation and survival, migration and self-discovery, cultural oppression and world-changing artistic, literary and musical creativity. In these pages are dozens of extraordinary lives and personalities, rescued from the archives and restored to their rightful place in America's narrative, as well as the ghosts of millions more.”
Genre(s): nonfiction, history
Content Warnings: slavery, racism, lynching, sexual assault, violence
6) MAJOR LABELS: A HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC IN SEVEN GENRES by Kelefa Sanneh
“The entire history of popular music over the past fifty years refracted through the big genres that have defined and dominated it: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music, and pop.”
From the publisher: “In Major Labels, [Kelefa] Sanneh distills a career's worth of knowledge about music and musicians into a brilliant and omnivorous reckoning with popular music--as an art form (actually, a bunch of art forms), as a cultural and economic force, and as a tool that we use to build our identities. He explains the history of slow jams, the genius of Shania Twain, and why rappers are always getting in trouble.
Sanneh shows how these genres have been defined by the tension between mainstream and outsider, between authenticity and phoniness, between good and bad, right and wrong. Throughout, race is a powerful touchstone: just as there have always been Black audiences and white audiences, with more or less overlap depending on the moment, there has been Black music and white music, constantly mixing and separating. Sanneh debunks cherished myths, reappraises beloved heroes, and upends familiar ideas of musical greatness, arguing that sometimes, the best popular music isn't transcendent. Songs express our grudges as well as our hopes, and they are motivated by greed as well as idealism; music is a powerful tool for human connection, but also for human antagonism. This is a book about the music everyone loves, the music everyone hates, and the decades-long argument over which is which.”
Genre(s): nonfiction, music, history
7) CHERISH FARRAH by Bethany C. Morrow
“[A] young, calculating Black girl … manipulates her way into the lives of her Black best friend's white, wealthy, adoptive family but soon suspects she may not be the only one with ulterior motives.”
From the publisher: “Seventeen-year-old Farrah Turner is one of two Black girls in her country club community, and the only one with Black parents. Her best friend, Cherish Whitman, adopted by a white, wealthy family, is something Farrah likes to call WGS--White Girl Spoiled. With Brianne and Jerry Whitman as parents, Cherish is given the kind of adoration and coddling that even upper-class Black parents can't seem to afford--and it creates a dissonance in her best friend that Farrah can exploit. When her own family is unexpectedly confronted with foreclosure, the calculating Farrah is determined to reassert the control she's convinced she's always had over her life by staying with Cherish, the only person she loves--even when she hates her.
As troubled Farrah manipulates her way further into the Whitman family, the longer she stays, the more her own parents suggest that something is wrong in the Whitman house. She might trust them--if they didn't think something was wrong with Farrah, too. When strange things start happening at the Whitman household--debilitating illnesses, upsetting fever dreams, an inexplicable tension with Cherish's hotheaded boyfriend, and a mysterious journal that seems to keep track of what is happening to Farrah--it's nothing she can't handle. But soon everything begins to unravel when the Whitmans invite Farrah closer, and it's anyone's guess who is really in control.”
Genre(s): thriller, horror
Content Warnings: gaslighting, gore, racism
8) THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY by Brendan Slocumb
“A riveting tale about a Black classical musician whose family heirloom violin is stolen on the eve of the most prestigious classical music competition in the world.”
From the publisher: “Growing up Black in rural North Carolina, Ray McMillian’s life is already mapped out. If he’s lucky, he’ll get a job at the hospital cafeteria. If he’s extra lucky, he’ll earn more than minimum wage. But Ray has a gift and a dream—he’s determined to become a world-class professional violinist, and nothing will stand in his way. Not his mother, who wants him to stop making such a racket; not the fact that he can’t afford a violin suitable to his talents; not even the racism inherent in the world of classical music.
When he discovers that his great-great-grandfather’s beat-up old fiddle is actually a priceless Stradivarius, all his dreams suddenly seem within reach. Together, Ray and his violin take the world by storm. But on the eve of the renowned and cutthroat Tchaikovsky Competition—the Olympics of classical music—the violin is stolen, a ransom note for five million dollars left in its place. Ray will have to piece together the clues to recover his treasured Strad … before it’s too late.
With the descendants of the man who once enslaved Ray’s great-great-grandfather asserting that the instrument is rightfully theirs, and with his family staking their own claim, Ray doesn’t know who he can trust—or whether he will ever see his beloved violin again.”
Genre(s): mystery, thriller
Content Warnings: racism, mentions of slavery
9) REMOTE CONTROL by Nnedi Okorafor
"An alien artifact turns a young girl into Death's adopted daughter in … a thrilling sci-fi tale of community and female empowerment”
From the publisher: “The day Fatima forgot her name, Death paid a visit. From hereon in she would be known as Sankofa--a name that meant nothing to anyone but her, the only tie to her family and her past.
Her touch is death, and with a glance a town can fall. And she walks--alone, except for her fox companion--searching for the object that came from the sky and gave itself to her when the meteors fell and when she was yet unchanged; searching for answers.
But is there a greater purpose for Sankofa, now that Death is her constant companion?”
Genre(s): sci-fi, fantasy
Content Warnings: child abuse
10) SONG OF BLOOD AND STONE by L. Penelope
“[An] epic fantasy about an outcast drawn into a war between two powerful rulers.”
From the publisher: “The kingdoms of Elsira and Lagrimar have been separated for centuries by the Mantle, a magical veil that has enforced a tremulous peace between the two lands. But now, the Mantle is cracking and the True Father, ruler of Lagrimar and the most powerful Earthsinger in the world, finally sees a way into Elsira to seize power.
All Jasminda ever wanted was to live quietly on her farm, away from the prying eyes of those in the nearby town. Branded an outcast by the color of her skin and her gift of Earthsong, she’s been shunned all her life and has learned to steer clear from the townsfolk…until a group of Lagrimari soldiers wander into her valley with an Elsiran spy, believing they are still in Lagrimar.
Through Jack, the spy, Jasminda learns that the Mantle is weakening, allowing people to slip through without notice. And even more troubling: Lagrimar is mobilizing, and if no one finds a way to restore the Mantle, it might be too late for Elsira. Their only hope lies in uncovering the secrets of the Queen Who Sleeps and Jasminda’s Earthsong is the key to unravel them.
Thrust into a hostile society and a world she doesn’t know, Jasminda and Jack race to unveil an ancient mystery that might offer salvation.”
This is the first book in The Earthsinger Chronicles.
Content Warnings: attempted rape, violence, racism
11) ACE OF SPADES by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
“A YA contemporary thriller … about two students, Devon & Chiamaka, and their struggles against an anonymous bully.”
From the publisher: “Welcome to Niveus Private Academy, where money paves the hallways, and the students are never less than perfect. Until now. Because anonymous texter, Aces, is bringing two students' dark secrets to light.
Talented musician Devon buries himself in rehearsals, but he can't escape the spotlight when his private photos go public. Head girl Chiamaka isn't afraid to get what she wants, but soon everyone will know the price she has paid for power.
Someone is out to get them both. Someone who holds all the aces. And they're planning much more than a high-school game.”
Genre(s): Young adult, mystery, thriller
Content Warnings: racism, homophobia, suicidal ideation, sexism
12) BLOOD LIKE MAGIC by Liselle Sambury
“An urban fantasy ... following a teen witch who is given a horrifying task: sacrificing her first love to save her family’s magic.”
From the publisher: “After years of waiting for her Calling—a trial every witch must pass in order to come into their powers—the one thing Voya Thomas didn’t expect was to fail. When Voya’s ancestor gives her an unprecedented second chance to complete her Calling, she agrees—and then is horrified when her task is to kill her first love. And this time, failure means every Thomas witch will be stripped of their magic.
Voya is determined to save her family’s magic no matter the cost. The problem is, Voya has never been in love, so for her to succeed, she’ll first have to find the perfect guy—and fast. Fortunately, a genetic matchmaking program has just hit the market. Her plan is to join the program, fall in love, and complete her task before the deadline. What she doesn’t count on is being paired with the infuriating Luc—how can she fall in love with a guy who seemingly wants nothing to do with her?
With mounting pressure from her family, Voya is caught between her morality and her duty to her bloodline. If she wants to save their heritage and Luc, she’ll have to find something her ancestor wants more than blood. And in witchcraft, blood is everything.”
This is the first book in the Blood Like Magic series.
Genre(s): young adult, fantasy
Content Warnings: violence, racism and slavery discussed, discussion of misgendering, police brutality
13) THIS POISON HEART by Kalynn Bayron
Briseis has a gift: she can grow plants with a single touch; but when she is faced with a centuries-old curse and a deadly plant, she must harness her gift to protect herself and her family.
From the publisher: “When Briseis's aunt dies and wills her a dilapidated estate in rural New York, Bri and her parents decide to leave Brooklyn behind for the summer. Hopefully there, surrounded by plants and flowers, Bri will finally learn to control her gift. But their new home is sinister in ways they could never have imagined--it comes with a specific set of instructions, an old-school apothecary, and a walled garden filled with the deadliest botanicals in the world that can only be entered by those who share Bri's unique family lineage.
When strangers begin to arrive on their doorstep, asking for tinctures and elixirs, Bri learns she has a surprising talent for creating them. One of the visitors is Marie, a mysterious young woman who Bri befriends, only to find that Marie is keeping dark secrets about the history of the estate and its surrounding community. There is more to Bri's sudden inheritance than she could have imagined, and she is determined to uncover it . . . until a nefarious group comes after her in search of a rare and dangerous immortality elixir. Up against a centuries-old curse and the deadliest plant on earth, Bri must harness her gift to protect herself and her family.”
This is the first book in a duology. The sequel, This Wicked Fate, will be published in June 2022.
Genre(s): fantasy, young adult
Content Warnings: violence, gore, death of a parent
14) BLACK GIRL, CALL HOME by Jasmine Mans
“…[A] love letter to the wandering Black girl and a vital companion to any woman on a journey to find truth, belonging, and healing.”
From the publisher: “From spoken word poet Jasmine Mans comes an unforgettable poetry collection about race, feminism, and queer identity.
With echoes of Gwendolyn Brooks and Sonia Sanchez, Mans writes to call herself—and us—home. Each poem explores what it means to be a daughter of Newark, and America--and the painful, joyous path to adulthood as a young, queer Black woman.”
Content Warnings: homophobia, racism, sexual assault, emotional abuse, human trafficking, forced family separation, violence against transwomen, trauma, forced sterilization