The Best New Fiction of September 2019

This month, heavy hitters such as Margaret Atwood (whose followup to The Handmaid’s Tale is the September Barnes & Noble Book Club selection), Stephen King, Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Archer, and Jacqueline Woodson are back with highly anticipated, thought-provoking, perfect-for-your-book-club reads. They’re joined by the likes of Ann Patchett, Alice Hoffman, and Ta-Nehisi Coats (in his fiction debut), and if that’s not enough, fans of “meta” fiction will go crazy for Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept, about the real-life spy craft surrounding the creation and dissemination of Doctor Zhivago.

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood
The long-awaited sequel to Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale promises to answer all the questions readers (and viewers of Hulu’s adaptation) continue to grapple with. Here’s what we know: it’s set fifteen years after the events of the first book, and employs three female narrators from Gilead—the dystopian society formerly known as the USA in which women have been stripped of autonomy—to continue the riveting story. This unexpected followup to Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece is the Barnes & Noble Book Club’s September selection and will be discussed at stores nationwide on October 9 at 7 pm (check the store locator for your local event details). You’ll also want to make sure you pick up our exclusive edition, which features a Q&A with the author.

The Institute, by Stephen King
With chapter two of It hitting theatres, it’s King’s world this month and the rest of us just live in it. As with It, King’s new book concerns a group of children fighting back against monsters—but this time, the monsters are adults, and the fight takes place not in a creepy small town like Derry but the eminently sinister Institute. Each child at the Institute has been kidnapped; their parents murdered. Each child has paranormal abilities that are being exploited for an unknown purpose. Escape seems impossible, but staying at the Institute, where abuse runs rampant, is not an option either. Grab some popcorn and a big ol’ can of soda so you can stay up all night reading this one.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow
Some of the very best fantasy stories ever written begin with a magical portal to another world, but there’s a lot more than familiar tropes on offer in this buzzy debut (a Barnes & Noble 2019 Discover New Writers selection). January Scaller finds just such a portal in 1901—a doorframe standing in the wreckage of a ruined house that opens onto the seaside cliffs of another world—but is whisked away from it by Mr. Locke, the wealthy benefactor who employs her father, and told what she experienced was simply a fit of madness. She forgets the experience—until years later, a book stained with magic leads her back to that childhood discovery, which may hold the key to discovering the fate of her father, lost on an expedition to seek out ancient artifacts Mr. Locke covets for mysterious—perhaps even sinister—reasons. Alix E. Harrow’s debut entrances with a captivating story told in rich, artful prose.

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
When Maeve Conroy and her little brother Danny are expelled from the enormous, suburban Philadelphia estate in which they’ve been raised, the shared loss and subsequent poverty shapes their entire future. Abandoned by their socially conscious mother—who couldn’t abide the opulence of the so-called Dutch House and fled to India—the siblings couldn’t rely on their chilly, late father for love. Worse, their stepmother proves to be the fairy tale kind, full of resentment and greed. Over the span of 50 years, narrator Danny and his protective sister parse their history, attempting to come to terms with the past. Patchett’s mastery of family drama is on full display here.

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
For his first novel, Coates (We Were Eight Years in Power; and Between the World and Me, for which he won the National Book Award) depicts a version of the Underground Railroad never before seen. Readers will be transfixed by the story of Hiram Walker, a slave (known here as “the Tasked”) with a gift for conducting: a power to assist people (including himself) in getting across water. When his initial escape attempt falls apart, he joins the Underground, vowing to rescue his beloved Sophia, who remains in Virginia.

The World That We Knew, by Alice Hoffman
Using her trademark magical realism to great effect, Hoffman sets her latest novel during World War Two. Separated from her mother, twelve-year-old Lea flees from Berlin to Paris, accompanied by Ava, a golem brought to life by Ettie, a rabbi’s daughter. The trio of characters are forever linked in the months and years ahead, as Ettie becomes a resistance fighter and Lea and Ava eventually settle in a village atop a mountain, in which 3,000 Jews hope to be saved.

Nothing Ventured, by Jeffrey Archer
Archer fans already know Metropolitan Policeman William Warwick from the now-complete, seven-volume Clifton Chronicles. In this fresh, fabulous series opener, we get William’s backstory as a rookie detective knee-deep in art fraud, forgeries, and counterfeit antiques. Having defied his father by joining the police force instead of becoming a lawyer, William has a lot to prove and he’ll quickly get his chance. While investigating a missing Rembrandt, he falls in love with Beth, an enigmatic research assistant at the art gallery where the painting was stolen. He also goes up against a master thief and a seriously shady lawyer.

The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott
This powerhouse debut brings together historical spy craft, two sweeping love stories, and the true tale of the CIA’s use of Boris Pasternak’s seminal Doctor Zhivago to win Russian hearts and minds during the Cold War. Two secretaries in the CIA typing pool—experienced Sally Forrester and novice Russian-American Irina Drozdova—team up to retrieve a book from inside the USSR (where it’s unpublishable), get it out of the country, and then disseminate it among Russians attending the Vienna World’s Fair. Toggling between the events in D.C. and those happening to Boris Pasternak and his beloved muse Olga, this looks to be a gripping account of a little-known mission.

Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson
Readers are always in good hands with Woodson, whose Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award (among others), and whose Another Brooklyn was a finalist for the same prize. Set in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2001, Red depicts the coming of age ceremony of 16-year-old Melody, while also exploring the reasons why Melody’s own mother, Iris, did not participate in a similar event, despite the fact that Melody’s dress was originally sewn for Iris. Issues of unplanned pregnancy versus ambition, independence versus family ties, and the ways in which those elements inform, expose, and intersect with race, class, and gender, are at the forefront of this moving and beautifully written novel.

Quichotte, by Salman Rushdie
Already longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Rushdie’s latest finds its inspiration in the classic Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Set in a surreal, at times horrifying, yet easily recognizable present-day America, this satire ties together the lives of a thriller writer, a pharmaceutical salesman, and a television actress. Not all of them exist, except in the minds of the other characters, but each one brings his or her own humor and pathos to this original reimagining.

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