Incredible stories to celebrate Black History Month

A stack of books, nonfiction and fiction, by Black writers, sitting against a white brick wall.

Happy Black History Month! While I think we as readers have a real responsibility to read stories by diverse voices all year long, I do think cultural celebratory months such as this are a wonderful opportunity to take a step back, reflect, educate ourselves, amplify diverse voices, and most importantly celebrate! To start off this incredible month of recognizing and celebrating Black history, I wanted to share a stack of some of my favorite books by Black writers that I have read or have on my TBR.

For me, I hope that this month is one where I not only reflect on all I’ve learned and where I have room to grow when it comes to being a voice for racial inequality, but also to use my love of reading to joyfully celebrate and highlight Black voices, especially this month!

Photo by Ellie Turns the Page.

So here are some mini synopses of the books featured here that I have read, ranging from romance to fantasy, and memoir to coming of age.

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin — What if cities really did have a soul? This fantasy explores the individuals who make up New York City in a creative, fantastical ode to NYC.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett — This story follows twin sisters whose lives diverge when one embraces her Blackness and one chooses to pass as White.

The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper — Dr. Harper, an ER doc, discusses brokenness, in her own experiences, in the patients she encounters, and within a medical system that isn’t always fair.

Here For It; Or How to Save Your Soul in America: Essays by R. Eric Thomas — A hilarious, laugh-out-loud collection of essays that explores how to move forward and keep going in modern America. Hint: the answer involves hope.

The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon — After Samiah and two other girls go viral when it is discovered they have all been cat-fished by the same guy, the three new best friends make a pact to put themselves first. But that promise is put to the test when Samiah meets sexy, thoughtful Daniel Collins at work.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi — A stunning, expansive story that spans several generations beginning with two Ghanian half-sisters unknown to each other, one who marries into the comfortable life of a White man and the other who is sold into slavery.

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans — This collection of short stories explores race and history in the U.S. You can check out my full review of the novella here.

Memorial by Bryan Washington — Benson and Mike’s relationship is at a crossroads when Mike’s mom finds herself staying with Benson while Mike flies to Japan to reconnect with his dying father. This story explores both their relationship with each other and their families.

This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith — Tallie comes across Emmett, who is about to jump off a bridge. After convincing him to come back with her, they discover the power of healing and truth over the course of one short weekend.

Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour — A laugh-out-loud funny satire about ambition, race, and identity in the American workforce. You can read my full review here.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi — This story opens with Vivek’s death. What follows is an exploration of the events that lead up to its crisis and the people involved.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi — Gyasi’s newest novel explores themes of loss, faith, science, and addiction through the voice of Gifty, a PhD student studying the role of addiction on the brain, whose depressed mother has come to stay with her. Both continue to reel from Gifty’s brother’s death, the result of addiction.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum — Highly researched and informative, this nonfiction book discusses the role psychology plays when it comes to racial, ethnic, and cultural identities.

The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi DarΓ© — Told from the perspective of 14-year-old Adunni, this story explores Adunni’s journey to finding her voice on the path to her dream of gaining an education, escaping poverty, and one day helping other girls do so as well. You can check out my full review of the book here.

Books on my to be read list include The Mothers (Brit Bennett), Queenie (Candice Carty-Williams), and Stamped from the Beginning (Ibram X. Kendi).

What books by Black authors do you love? Which ones do you want to check out? Comment below or message me on Instagram!

Ambition, identity, and otherness: A review of Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour

A cup of black coffee next to a Book of the Month copy of Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour on top of a wooden table.

So disclaimer: this was my first FIVE STAR read of 2020. Now, I used to throw 5 stars around like they were candy. But the more I read, the more I realized I needed to reserve that rating for the far and few — the ones that touched my heart, made me think differently about a topic, or stuck with me for whatever reason. Black Buck is certainly one of those stories.

The first thing that caught my eye (beyond the colorful, striking cover) was Mateo Askaripour’s very personal dedication — “To all of those who have ever been made to feel less than / I see you.” I love to see who authors dedicate their stories, something so personal to them, to, and I found it very powerful that Askaripour aimed it at basically everyone. After all, who hasn’t been made to feel less than before? And after reading this witty, pointed, and sharp critique of race, ambition, and otherness in America’s workforce, I couldn’t help but think back to his dedication.

Quick synopsis: Darren, a young and unambitious Black man living in NYC, is suddenly swooped up from his job at Starbucks into a sales role at a hot, new startup after a chance encounter with the company’s enigmatic leader. There, he finds himself the token POC in an office that is very, very white. As the story progresses and Darren learns to master the art of sales, he remakes himself into the titular Buck and makes it his mission to help other BIPOC infiltrate the workforce by teaching them to be masterful salespeople.

While Askaripour may not have intended for his debut to be read as a satire, I found it to be one of the freshest, sharpest satires I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The story was laugh-out-loud funny as it tackled startup culture, racism in the workforce, the intensity of sales, and more. But it was also incredibly cringe-inducing, as I watched Darren face a variety of of microaggressions in the workplace, from being told he looks like basically every Black celebrity, and even more outright and stomach-churning acts of racism.

At times, I remember thinking, there’s no way stuff like this could actually happen — but then again, doesn’t it? As an BIPOC person, I could relate to the feelings of inadequacy or otherness that Darren felt, along with this intense desire to live up to and even succeed the expectations laid out in front of him, both his own and of those around him. While the story certainly felt over the top, the feelings those scenes inspired were real, whether that was relatability, discomfort, even fear or sadness. And that’s exactly what makes a good satire — using these extreme, almost cartoonish scenarios to evoke feelings in the readers that are real and tangible.

Overall, this story was a profound examination of how race plays a role in business and beyond, but I think what it did best was address otherness and create a sense of community and belonging, especially for BIPOC and perhaps other marginalized groups. While I’m no skilled salesman in a NYC high rise, I certainly understand many of Darren’s feelings of needing to fit in and prove himself worthy. And while everyone has arguably experienced feeling like a “less than,” I think any BIPOC can attest that that feeling is sometimes deeply ingrained in us as a result of the system. And while I think many BIPOC readers especially be able to relate to, laugh with, and ache alongside, I definitely think this is a story that anyone can read and gain a whole new perspective.

My top 10 favorite books of 2020

Four books in shades of blue against a black background.

What a year 2020 was! I don’t know about you, but it’s certainly not one I’ll be forgetting anytime soon. Aside from all the craziness of pandemic living, one good thing it gave me was time — which lead to reading 81 books from a wide variety of writers and across a range of genres and topics. And while I know it’s almost the end of January, I wanted to officially put forth my top 10 favorite books of 2020!

10 – The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany by Lori Nelson Spielman

This book was one of the biggest delights of 2021! When the book popped up as one of the November Book of the Month choices, I picked it purely because Italy (where the story takes place) sounded like such a wonderful escape during a time in my life that was rather difficult. But I ended up falling in love with the second-born Fontana sisters (Poppy, Emilia, and Lucy), cursed never to find love. This book, while funny and oftentimes light-hearted, was far from fluffy, diving into serious topics, as the Fontana women not only discover more about each other, but also learn more about themselves as individuals. Overall, it was a wonderful tale of family forgiveness, self-discovery, and learning how not to let others’ opinion (or even you own self cloud of judgment) define who you are.

9 – These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

If you didn’t know, I am a major Shakespeare fan girl (my college capstone was actually about feminism in his plays, but we can talk about that a different time!). But surprisingly, my least favorite play of his is actually Romeo and Juliet. Maybe it’s the countless poor re-imaginings of it out there or the tired old star-crossed lovers trope — or least that’s what I’m going to blame, because Gong’s debut novel completely transformed my view. It was such a fresh take on an old classic, namely through its setting of 1920s Shanghai and its diverse cast. I mostly adored Juliette Cai — underneath a hard exterior was a character who cared deeply for her family, friends, and city and is willing to do whatever it takes to protect them. She is the heroine I wish I had growing up: someone who looks like me, experiences some of the same feelings I do as an Asian woman, and isn’t delegated to some basic, uninteresting, or stereotyped side character.

8 – Anna K by Jenny Lee

So confession — I just told you how much I adore a good reimagining. But I actually haven’t read Anna Karenina! It just seemed like one of those really intimidating classics, so alas, it has been left untouched on my shelf. Regardless, I adored Lee’s retelling. It read like a television show, giving off massive Gossip Girl vibes, but it was diverse — and actually diverse, not just “here’s some characters of color to please readers.” Anna K herself was smart, brave, and kind, and she was another character I wish I had read about as a teen trying to come to terms with my identity as an Asian American woman.

7 – Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This book was a bit of slow burn for me, told from the point of view of Gifty, a PhD student studying the role of addiction on rats’ brains. Through this heavily character-driven story, I found myself sucked into Gifty’s narrative and she addresses her experience growing up in a Ghanian immigrant family in the Deep South and watching her brother and mom struggle with addiction and mental health, often in retrospect of her current role as a scientist. Her voice is so honest as she grapples with coming to terms as a scientist, daughter, sister, lover, and friend. For me, the most powerful part of Gyasi’s novel was her exploration of Gifty’s personal, sometimes contradictory, and oftentimes intertwining relationship between science and religion. Gyasi is a talented writer with artful control of language — I’m so glad to have discovered her this year.

6 – The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Sometimes a novel seems to just show up when the world needs it most — which is why this book became one of my favorite books of 2020. This story deals powerfully with race in a way I hadn’t discovered yet in fiction, and this year perhaps more than ever showed us that we need books that can do this and do it well. Each character was well-developed, making me feel like I knew them intimately, especially the twins: stubborn, vibrant Desiree, and intelligent, secretive Stella. This book is tenderly written and equal parts imaginative and grounded. It made me both escape inside the story and think hard about my world. And while it made me think about how much we as a society have to grow when it comes to how we deal with racism, it also gave me hope. It definitelyd deserved to be named Book of the Month’s Book of the Year!

5 – Anxious People by Fredrick Backman

So this was my first book by Fredrick Backman! I know he’s a fan favorite of many readers, and after this one, I can completely see why. For the first 100 pages or so, I honestly had no clue what I was reading — the plot was so weird, albeit funny, with a cast of oddball, off-kilter strangers. Yet through this charming story of a hostage situation gone wrong, Backman created a story that managed to touch my heart, make me both laugh and cry, and remind me of why stories done right about mental health are so important, as the story explores the lengths each character is willing to go for love, family, friendship, and forgiveness. There’s no surprise to me that this was a finalist for Book of the Month’s Book of the Year award.

4 – Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

In 2019, after finally finishing up school, I made a promise to myself to work hard to explore writers of Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander descent. As an adopted Chinese American, I realized how powerful fiction was in allowing me to better explore my own culture and identity. Of all the amazing writers I have discovered, this hilarious and ultra-creative satire by Charles Yu really sticks out. For one, it is laugh-out-loud funny, but it also perfectly addresses the ways that Asians in media are portrayed. I think this perspective has been vastly left out of storytelling, so I am so glad that Yu’s story won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2020. This story spoke to my soul as an Asian American woman, and I was so touched by its beckoning to “be more” than any stereotype dictates of us or the world sees us as.

3 – The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

I recently revisited this book for the second time with a book club and a friend described it as a “warm hug of a book.” He could not have been more correct! I recently received my The StoryGraph results, which showed that I tend to read books that are emotional, mysterious, and reflective. So I love that a more lighthearted yet simultaneously thoughtful and touching love story cracked my top three. In a year that was full of collective challenges — isolation and fear from a pandemic, decisive politics, continued police brutality and reminders of the systemic racism still present in our society — this book was a breath of fresh air, as it followed case worker Linus Baker, enigmatic children’s home director Arthur Parnassus, and six magical, powerful children capable of bringing the world to its knees. It was not only lovely, heartwarming, and whimsical, but it was also a powerful reminder to embrace empathy, understanding, and acceptance of both self and others.

2 – The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

If you didn’t know, Addie LaRue is a special book to me — so special, that I named my new puppy in honor of the titular character! But as Addie walks forgotten and invisible across time, history, and geography, I found her story to be a powerful testament to the importance of living life to the fullest, loving deeply, and staying true to yourself. Simultaneously, it did a great job pondering the question of what makes up an identity: a name, a face, an idea, or something else? By the time I hit the end of Addie’s story, I wanted more. She is the type of character who I wish I could be friends with in real life. She’s brave, resourceful, intelligent, and brimming with curiosity and adventuresome spirit. Despite immortality, she is so achingly human — and because of Addie alone, this book deserves its spot as my No. 2 favorite read of the year. Check out my full review here.

1 – The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

And for spot No. 1 — The Midnight Library! This wonderful story will probably always hold a special space in my heart. I remember finishing this book in a hotel room in Westchester County, N.Y., while my husband was on a virtual meeting. I attempted to hold in sobs as I reached the end — Erik thought some terrible tragedy had occurred, when really, I was just experiencing the power of fiction at its finest. Relatable-as-hell Nora Seed feels as if life has passed her by. Ultimately her choices — or lack thereof — bring her to titular Midnight Library, granting her the opportunity to pursue decisions she decided to bypass in her root life. What I love most about Haig is how he powerfully transforms his own experiences dealing with depression and suicide into a work of fiction that was so raw and relatable. Of all the books this year, this one really touched my soul the deepest, made me think the hardest, and has been most difficult to forget — so of course, it fully deserves spot No. 1.

Honorable mentions and books not published in 2020: This Tender Land by William Kent Kreuger, The Space Between Worlds by Macaiah Johnson, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Three Souls by Janie Chang, Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Circe by Madeline Miller, and Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano.

What were your favorite books in 2020? Post a comment or reach out to me via Instagram!