October (Not Really a) Surprise: 26 Great New Mid-Festival Reads

We know you expect our Staff Picks every month, and this time around they’re coming to you right in the middle of the Southern Festival of Books! Normally we’re hunkered down in our tent, but with the festival online this year for the first time, we’re all enjoying the ability to watch from anywhere — and any time. Missed Ann Patchett interviewing Yaa Gyasi? Watch it now! The festival continues through Oct. 11, and you can buy books and help support the festival at our official SFB shop. Meanwhile, we’ve scared up another batch of great books to feed your need to read!

Recommended by Ann

The Index of Self-Destructive Acts Cover ImageThe Index of Self-Destructive Acts

This is a big novel of big ideas. Beha tackles finance, faith, war, entitlement, and no end of self-destructive acts. I greatly admired both the writing and the ambition. Bonus: It’s on the longlist for the National Book Award.

Recommended by Cat

Missionaries: A Novel Cover ImageMissionaries

Anyone who read Klay’s first book, the short story collection Redeployment, has anxiously been awaiting his first novel. Wait no longer! Missionaries follows a disparate collection of characters who all end up in Colombia with various connections to the military conflict there and the involvement the U.S. has fostered over recent decades. Klay brings the reader to no clear conclusions as to what “right” and “wrong” are amidst the chaos, but rather dwells in the complex gray areas.

Recommended by Kay

Piranesi Cover ImagePiranesi

Piranesi is a peculiar story told through the journal entries of a man trapped in an endless labyrinthine house. Full of flooded hallways and enigmatic statues, the House provides the perfect atmosphere for the mysteries at the heart of the journal-keeper’s life. How did he get there? Who is the Other man in the House? Is there a world outside the House at all? Strange and captivating, Clarke’s return does not disappoint.

Recommended by Erin

Anxious People: A Novel Cover ImageAnxious People

Backman is back with a study of death, life, fear and hope that is equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming. When a robber bursts in on an apartment open house and takes a group of strangers hostage, everyone involved learns that first appearances can be deceiving. No one is entirely who they appear to be, and all of them — bank robber included — crave rescue. This novel is surprising, and surprisingly delightful.

Recommended by Becca

Leave the World Behind: A Novel Cover ImageLeave the World Behind

This eerily familiar tale about two families coping in the face of unknown disaster is on the 2020 National Book Award Longlist, so you don’t need me to tell you that it is worth reading, even while it really does feel like the world is falling apart around us. If you are looking for a suspenseful story to keep you distracted from worrying about your own problems, look no further than Leave the World Behind!

Recommended by Ben

Jack: A Novel Cover ImageJack

Marilynne Robinson may be my favorite living writer. Jack Boughton is many things — disheveled, blundering, thieving, wayward son of Gilead’s Presbyterian reverend — but he’s also falling in love with Della Miles, the bright, assured daughter of a Baptist minister. Set in post-WWII St. Louis, and told in generous, luminous prose, their interracial relationship explores the crevices in America’s heartland and the many facets of our motives and souls.

Editor’s note: Our First Editions Club pick for October; see more below!

Recommended by Chelsea

A Deadly Education: A Novel (The Scholomance #1) Cover ImageA Deadly Education: A Novel (The Scholomance #1)

Imagine a magic school with staircases and cool magic classes but with monsters who definitely want to eat you. That’s the setting where El has to learn to control the dark power she unwillingly possesses. Her antics inside the dangerous school make other magic-based academia novels look tame. I’m very much looking forward to the next installment.

Recommended by Sissy

Cursed Objects: Strange but True Stories of the World's Most Infamous Items Cover ImageCursed Objects: Strange but True Stories of the World’s Most Infamous Items

Ocker quickly became one of my favorite horror writers last year with the publication of Twelve Nights at Rotter House. He’s hilarious and scary at the same time. This book isn’t scary … it’s like watching Ripley’s Believe it … or Not with your witty best friend. A must-have autumn bedside book as the days grow shorter.

Recommended by Becca

Only What's Necessary 70th Anniversary Edition: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts Cover ImageOnly What’s Necessary 70th Anniversary Edition: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts

The American Book Association has a campaign to let book buyers know that October is the new December (meaning that if you want to give books as gifts this year, you should start shopping early). This beautiful 70th anniversary edition is full of rare and previously unpublished art as well as early comic strips. While perhaps not truly necessary, it would make for an excellent gift for any Peanuts fan in your life.

Recommended by Chelsea

Hench: A Novel Cover ImageHench

Anna is a temp hench — an evil sidekick for hire. One day, she’s a seat-filler at a press conference that goes horribly wrong. While recovering from injuries caused by Supercollider, the most famous superhero, Anna crunches the numbers on just how much collateral damage superheroes cause, and decides to do something about. This is possibly my favorite read of the year, and I so hope there’s more to this story and this world.

Recommended by Rae Ann

When We Were Young & Brave: A Novel Cover ImageWhen We Were Young & Brave

This unique WWII novel is set in a boarding school in China. An English teacher and her young students are forced into an internment camp when war arrives. Based on a true story, this is a novel of humanity and courage.

Recommended by Kathy

Winter Counts: A Novel Cover ImageWinter Counts

Virgil Wounded Horse sets out to find the members of Mexican drug cartels responsible for involving his young nephew and other residents of the Rosebud Indian Reservation in deadly drug activity. It’s been years since I’ve run across a book which kept me up half the night to finish it. This is a can’t-put-it-down, heart-pounder of a suspense story.

Recommended by Ben

Against the Loveless World: A Novel Cover ImageAgainst the Loveless World

From an Israeli solitary confinement cell, Nahr recounts the struggles she faced in Kuwait, Jordan, Palestine as she searches for a place to belong. In a saga filled with family, friends, and enemies, her desperation and defiance shine through. The beauty of land and culture sits next to the pain of living as a refugee and second-class citizen. Harsh realities can’t hold strong-willed Nahr back as she embodies the human longing for love and peace.

Recommended by Heather

The Sacrament: A Novel Cover ImageThe Sacrament

Just out in paperback! If you missed reading this last winter, give yourself the luxury of escaping into a different world. Foreign landscapes, love, abuse, intrigue and religion are interwoven to draw you away from the stressors of this world into another where things do find resolution.

Recommended by Ginger

Bear Necessity: A Novel Cover ImageBear Necessity

A delightfully quirky love story between a father and son, Bear Necessity shows the lengths a parent will go for family.

Recommended by Steve

Down Along with That Devil's Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy Cover ImageDown Along with That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy

In this impressive, powerful book, Connor Towne O’Neill starts with a question: Why are these people planning to put a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest on public property in, of all places, Selma, Alabama? He follows his curiosity into all kinds of uncomfortable places, including his own upbringing. This is a fraught, compelling read even if you’ve made up your mind about these kinds of monuments.

Editor’s Note: Look for an interview with O’Neill later this week!

Recommended by Sarah

A Measure of Belonging: Twenty-One Writers of Color on the New American South Cover ImageA Measure of Belonging: Twenty-One Writers of Color on the New American South

By Cinelle Barnes (Editor)

This moving anthology addresses the central question, “Who is welcome?” The contributing authors use a wide range of topics, from food to music, academia to immigration, to explore what it means to be a person of color in the modern American South. Learning about the nuances of the BIPOC experience, especially in the South, is crucial for anyone looking to continue their education in antiracism.

Editor’s Note: Read our interview with editor Cinelle Barnes!

Recommended by Andy

Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980 Cover ImageReaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980

Over four volumes, Rick Perlstein has chronicled the political right rising from the Goldwater campaign to the election of Ronald Reagan. Reaganland, the final book in the series, examines the Carter administration and Reagan’s election running on the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again.”

Recommended by Sissy

Solutions and Other Problems Cover ImageSolutions and Other Problems

Allie Brosh was our favorite blogger a decade ago. She put into pictures and words the despair many of us were feeling; my friends and I (mostly in our 30s) were finally seeing therapists and admitting that something was wrong. She drew her dogs and her memories, and we got this girl. Chronic depression plagued her family, and eventually her posts and books just stopped. Her fans often wondered if she’d write for us again. Thank goodness she’s put together another book that’s both hilarious and heartbreaking. You’ll cheer her on and laugh and cry.

Recommended by Sissy

Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times Cover ImageLove is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times

Bishop Curry has put together a touching memoir of his spiritual growth that aligns with the growth he wishes for our entire nation. I love how he details again and again what it’s like to have your mind and heart opened and changed. It’s not a one time miracle. It’s an every day practice to learn and to love. He eloquently describes his path to wisdom, and admits he’s nowhere near the end of his journey.

Recommended by Nell

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music Cover ImageWagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

An astonishing exploration of composer Richard Wagner’s influence. His churning mix of musical phrases paved the way for Virginia Woolf. His operas used myths to speak to his audience, a device that inspired W.E.B. DuBois (and George Lucas). Alex Ross guides us through these and other surprising histories without bypassing Wagner’s most notorious admirer: Adolf Hitler. Wagnerism is a prism through which to see anew the art and ideologies of the past 150 years. I can’t stop talking about this book!

Recommended by Andy

Agent Sonya: Moscow's Most Daring Wartime Spy Cover ImageAgent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy

Macintyre weaves an incredible narrative about the Soviet spy Ursula Kuczynski. Reading like a novel, Agent Sonya chronicles Kuczynski’s espionage activities — including passing information crucial for the Soviet’s development of atomic weapons. In her lifetime she was hunted by the Chinese government, the Japanese secret police, the Nazis, MI-5, MI-6, and the F.B.I. and evaded them all.

Recommended by Chelsea

Eat a Peach: A Memoir Cover ImageEat a Peach: A Memoir

I picked this up because I enjoyed Chang’s philosophy about food. I kept reading because of his unflinching discussion of mental illness. Accessible and easy to read, Eat a Peach is about running a business, building a team, and being honest to yourself about yourself.

Recommended by Ben

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments Cover ImageWorld of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

Nezhukumatathil weaves musings on flora and fauna with personal experiences in this effortless melding of nature writing and memoir. Buoyant and mesmerizing, her observations of axolotls, ribbon eels, cassowaries, narwhals, dragon fruit, and so on, are nuanced by insights into her family, herself, her fellow human creatures. A taut profusion, this joyous book begs the reader to slow down and savor its language the way one should the ripest cara cara orange.

Editor’s Note: Watch our virtual event with Nezhukumatathil and Margaret Renkl on Facebook!

Recommended by Andy

Sec Planet Golf USA: The Definitive Reference to Great Golf Courses in America, Revised Edition

If you had to cancel your golf trip this year because of the pandemic, Darius Oliver offers the perfect antidote. Featuring the top 100 courses in the United States, Planet Golf is beautifully illustrated and completely revised for 2020.

Recommended by Ben

Ledger: Poems Cover ImageLedger: Poems

Hirshfield’s ninth collection is a stirring meditation on wonder, loss, memory, climate, war, connection, the sheer strangeness of being alive. With uncomplicated language, yet startlingly original images and metaphors, the precision of her diction delicately connects each poem to the next. Spare and pulsing, they are deeply moving and profound, and taken together illuminate the importance of noticing, caring, pondering, acting, existing.

Book Club

In-person Book Club is on hold for now, and space is full for our virtual sessions.

First Editions Club: October Selection


Jack: A Novel Cover ImageJack

Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, returns to the world of Gilead with Jack, the latest novel in one of the great works of contemporary American fiction.

Marilynne Robinson’s mythical world of Gilead, Iowa–the setting of her novels GileadHome, and Lila, and now Jack–and its beloved characters have illuminated and interrogated the complexities of American history, the power of our emotions, and the wonders of a sacred world. Jack is Robinson’s fourth novel in this now-classic series. In it, Robinson tells the story of John Ames Boughton, the prodigal son of Gilead’s Presbyterian minister, and his romance with Della Miles, a high school teacher who is also the child of a preacher. Their deeply felt, tormented, star-crossed interracial romance resonates with all the paradoxes of American life, then and now.Robinson’s Gilead novels, which have won one Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Critics Circle Awards, are a vital contribution to contemporary American literature and a revelation of our national character and humanity.

More about our First Editions Club: Every member receives a first edition of the selected book of the month, signed by the author. Books are carefully chosen by our staff of readers, and our picks have gone on to earn major recognition including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Plus, there’s no membership fee or premium charge for these books. Build a treasured library of signed first editions and always have something great to read! Makes a FABULOUS gift, too.