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10 Books to Read: The Best Reviews of September

A writer’s journey into his father’s wartime past, a love letter to belfast, novels from zadie smith and anne enright and more..

WSJ Books Staff

Sept. 28, 2023 5:27 pm ET

books best reviews

A selection of September’s most noteworthy books, as discussed by The Wall Street Journal’s reviewers.

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What Book Should You Read Next?

Finding a book you’ll love can be daunting. Let us help.

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By The New York Times Books Staff

At The New York Times Book Review, we write about thousands of books every year. Many of them are good. Some are even great. But we get that sometimes you just want to know, “What should I read that is good or great for me ?”

Well, here you go — a running list of some of the year’s best, most interesting, most talked-about books. Check back next month to see what we’ve added.

(For more recommendations, subscribe to our Read Like the Wind newsletter, check out our romance columnist’s favorite books of the year so far or visit our What to Read page.)

I want a historical masterpiece

The fraud , by zadie smith.

Based on a celebrated 19th-century criminal trial in which the defendant was accused of impersonating a nobleman, Smith’s novel offers a vast, acute panoply of London and the English countryside, and successfully locates the social controversies of an era in a handful of characters.

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Introduce me to a family I’ll love (even if they break my heart)

The bee sting , by paul murray.

This tragicomic novel follows a once wealthy, now ailing Irish family, the Barneses, as they struggle with both the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash and their own inner demons.

I’d like a crime novel from an American master

Crook manifesto , by colson whitehead.

In this new novel, a follow-up to “Harlem Shuffle,” Whitehead once again uses a crime story to illuminate a singular neighborhood at a tipping point — here, Harlem in the 1970s.

I want a mystery that tugs at my heart

Happiness falls , by angie kim.

A father goes missing while out on a walk with one of his sons, sending his family scrambling to uncover what happened. The only person who might have a clue is his teenage son, Eugene, who doesn’t speak. The story becomes an examination of bigger ideas: the relativity of happiness; the Korean concept of jeong (“ that sense of belonging to the same whole, your fates intertwined, impossible to sever no matter how much you may want to”); and, above all, the pervasive mislabeling and misunderstanding of neurodivergent people.

I’d like a story that appreciates the little things, from a beloved novelist

Tom lake , by ann patchett.

Set on a cherry orchard during the recent pandemic, this novel has echoes of both Anton Chekhov and Thornton Wilder. It follows three sisters in their 20s quarantining with their mother and drawing out stories from her past as an actress.

Give me a nerve-wracking, deep-sea thriller

Whalefall , by daniel kraus.

A teenage scuba diver, inadvertently gulped down by a 60-ton whale while trying to honor his father’s death, must try to escape. However improbable its premise, this is a crazy, and crazily enjoyable, beat-the-clock adventure story about fathers, sons, guilt and the mysteries of the sea.

I’d like a fizzy novel of manners

Pineapple street , by jenny jackson.

Jackson’s smart, dishy debut novel embeds readers in an upper-crust Brooklyn Heights family — its real estate, its secrets, its just-like-you-and-me problems (which threaten to weaken the clan’s stiffest upper lip). Does money buy happiness? “Pineapple Street” asks a better question: Does it buy honesty?

I like to be scared — but not too scared

Lone women , by victor lavalle.

It’s 1915 when Adelaide, a young Black woman, makes her way from California to the Montana wilds in the wake of a family tragedy. As she establishes herself as a homesteader, adjusting to the isolation and wide open spaces, the contents of a locked steamer trunk — and some dark secrets — weigh heavily on her conscience.

Actually, I’d like to be a little more scared

Holly , by stephen king.

King’s latest stars Holly Gibney, a private investigator who appeared in “The Outsider” and several other novels. She’s pulled into a missing-persons case with unlikely fiends at the center: two retired professors, who keep a cage in their basement. As our reviewer put it, “What makes King’s work so much more frightening than that of most other suspense writers, what elevates it to night-terror levels, isn’t his cruelty to his characters: It’s his kindness.”

Give me a crackling, fast-moving literary thriller

Birnam wood , by eleanor catton.

In this action-packed novel from a Booker Prize winner, a collective of activist gardeners crosses paths with a billionaire doomsday prepper on land they each want for different purposes. The billionaire decides to support the collective, citing common interests, but some of the activists suspect ulterior motives.

I want to read the big biography everyone is talking about this fall

Elon musk , by walter isaacson.

Isaacson spent years trailing Musk, the contrarian billionaire whose businesses include Tesla, SpaceX and now X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. There are scoops in his account, and the overarching impression of Musk is that of a mercurial “man-child” with grandiose ambitions and an ego to match.

Give me a swashbuckling tale of survival

The wager: a tale of shipwreck, mutiny and murder , by david grann.

After the H.M.S. Wager, a British man-of-war, was shipwrecked off the coast of Patagonia in 1742, surviving crew members returned to England with dramatic — and starkly conflicting — tales about what had transpired. Grann recreates the voyage in all its enthralling horror.

I’d like a dishy, well-reported book about a brand I see everywhere

Glossy: ambition, beauty, and the inside story of emily weiss’s glossier , by marisa meltzer.

This book recounts the millennial makeup company’s rise and unglamorous plateau. Glossier’s success was fueled by the entrepreneurial savvy of its founder, Weiss, who transformed it into the rare billion-dollar company helmed by a woman. Our reviewer called the book “a compulsively readable narrative of beauty, business, privilege and mogul-dom.”

I want a celebrity memoir that doesn’t hold back

Pageboy: a memoir , by elliot page.

Page, known for his roles in “Juno” and “Inception,” came out as trans in late 2020. In this “brutally honest” memoir, he recounts the fears and obstacles to gender transition — and the hard-won happiness that’s followed.

I want to know more about the climate crisis, even if it scares me

The heat will kill you first: life and death on a scorched planet , by jeff goodell.

In his fast-paced new book about the extreme heat caused by climate change, Goodell shows how even the most privileged among us will struggle with the cascading catastrophes — rising seas, crop failures, social unrest — generated by the deadly heat. (If you’d like something more retrospective, another recent book, John Vaillant’s “ Fire Weather ,” argues that the catastrophic — and inevitable — 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire in Canada was a sign of things to come.)

I want a revelatory biography of someone I thought I knew everything about

King: a life , by jonathan eig.

The first comprehensive biography of Martin Luther King Jr. in decades, Eig’s book draws on a landslide of recently released government documents as well as letters and interviews. This is a book worthy of its subject: both an intimate study of a complex and flawed human being and a journalistic account of a civil rights titan.

I’d like a dramatic history that reads like a novel

Master slave husband wife: an epic journey from slavery to freedom , by ilyon woo.

Woo’s book recounts a daring feat: the successful flight north from Georgia in 1848 by an enslaved couple disguised as a sickly young white planter and his male slave. But her meticulous retelling is equally a feat — of research, storytelling, sympathy and insight.

I want to read about art!

The slip: the new york city street that changed american art forever , by prudence peiffer.

From Ellsworth Kelly to Agnes Martin to Robert Indiana, a group of scrappy artists gathered in illegal studios at the tip of Lower Manhattan in the 1950s, trying to provide an answer to Abstract Expressionism. This group biography reflects the excitement of those years — and our debt to them.

I’d like a moving memoir about friendship and mental illness

The best minds: a story of friendship, madness, and the tragedy of good intentions , by jonathan rosen.

In his engrossing new memoir, Rosen pieces together how he and his brilliant childhood friend, Michael Laudor, ended up taking sharply divergent paths. (Laudor came to prominence as a Yale Law School graduate working to destigmatize schizophrenia, but later killed his pregnant girlfriend.) Rosen brings plenty of compassion to this gripping reconstruction of Laudor’s life and their friendship.

Honestly, I really like reading about animals

What an owl knows: the new science of the world’s most enigmatic birds , by jennifer ackerman.

There are some 260 species of owls spread across every continent except Antarctica, and in this fascinating book, Ackerman explains why the birds are both naturally wondrous and culturally significant.

Take me on a head-spinning trip through the dark corridors of the national security apparatus

Bottoms up and the devil laughs: a journey through the deep state , by kerry howley.

The people in this darkly funny book include fabulists, truth tellers, combatants, whistle-blowers. Like many of us, they have left traces of themselves in the digital ether by making a phone call, texting a friend, looking up something online. Howley writes about the national security state and those who get entangled in it — Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Reality Winner all figure into Howley’s riveting account.

Explore More in Books

Want to know about the best books to read and the latest news start here..

In her memoir, “Thicker Than Water,” the actress Kerry Washington opens up about the family secret  that made her question whether she was playing the lead role in her own life.

Pharrell, Thom Browne and Linda Evangelista are all contributing to a starry season for fashion publishing. Here are the most exciting titles coming out this fall .

Five decades ago, the Malian author Yambo Ouologuem disappeared from public life after being accused of plagiarism. Now, the novel that caused his fall from grace is being evaluated in a new light .

Do you want to be a better reader?   Here’s some helpful advice to show you how to get the most out of your literary endeavor .

Each week, top authors and critics join the Book Review’s podcast to talk about the latest news in the literary world. Listen here .


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