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Book covers: No One is Coming to Save Us; Saint Monkey;Li

SJP Read-Alikes: Stephanie Powell Watts’ No One is Coming to Save Us

Watts’ debut novel, No One is Coming to Save Us, set in Pinewood, North Carolina, a small town decimated by the closing of formerly thriving furniture factories, is a deep and involving inquiry into family and place, racism and ambition, sorrow and determination. Watts considers what home truly means in this powerfully evocative improvisation on The Great Gatsby, as JJ returns to Pinewood to try to reclaim his one true love. Watts also tells a complex story of infidelity, infertility, and incarceration, of friction and love between sisters and a mother and daughter, and of a mother’s grief, illuminating traumas and sources of strength rooted in African American history. Each of the novels below also consider the complex legacy of prejudice and injustice, the emotional intricacy of marriage and parenthood, and under-pressure family dynamics.

A Kind of Freedom

by Margaret Wilkerson

First-time novelist Sexton tracks the consequences of racism in her compelling and thought-provoking portraits of several generations of New Orleanians struggling to follow their dreams, from Evelyn, a member of a prominent African American family who falls in love with the son of a janitor, to her daughter, Jackie, a new mother facing her husband’s crack addiction, to her son, T. C., whose life is derailed by Katrina.

2017. Counterpoint.

Read the full Booklist review.

Life Is Short but Wide

by J. California Cooper

Hattie B. Brown, 91, and her 105-year-old mother, tell the funny, poignant, multigenerational saga of a Native American and African American family rooted in land and a house in Oklahoma. One sister earns a PhD and moves to Paris; the other stays and teaches disadvantaged children. With a “hard” love story that brings another family into the story line, Cooper’s novel, told with directness and grace, invites lively debate.

2009. Anchor.

The Mothers

by Brit Bennett.

Bennett’s sensitive and skillful debut novel, set in Oceanside, California, home to a U.S. Marine Corps base, is narrated, in part, by a group of elder church women, mothers all, who recount the troubles of lovely young Nadia Turner, broken by her mother’s suicide; Luke, the pastor’s son, who suffered an injury that ended his college football career, and Aubrey, who is harboring hidden sorrows. Bennett’s many layered, deeply affecting, and wisely funny tale raises many discussion-worthy conflicts.

2016. Riverhead.

Saint Monkey

by Jacinda Townsend

Across-the-street best friends and rivals Caroline and Audrey live in the African American section of a small Kentucky town, during the fiercely segregated 1950s, and face wrenching family tragedies. Caroline, called Pookie, aims for Hollywood, but never leaves. Bespectacled Audrey, called Poindexter, is a musical prodigy destined for Harlem. The women take turns narrating, and stellar first novelist Townsend renders their opposite lives with stunningly sensuous and revelatory detail as she dramatizes the anguish of women’s lives compounded by brutal racial prejudice while asking profound questions about staying and going, sacrifice and ambition.

2014. Norton.

A Booklist starred reviewStar.

Singing in the Comeback Choir

by Bebe Moore Campbell

Campbell portrays an Everywoman who embodies the conflicts and challenges faced by professional African American women, and, by extension, everyone trying to keep open the bridge between their past and present. TV executive producer Maxine was raised by her magnificent grandmother, Lindy Walker, a knock-em-dead jazz singer who became a nurse to support her orphaned grandchild. But now Maxine is trying to care for Lindy while coping with work stress and a tricky emotional brew: joy over her pregnancy and pain over her husband’s infidelity. A novel of laughter and tears, spirit, and insight.

1998. Berkley.

StarA Booklist starred review.

Substitute Me

by Lori L. Tharps

Public-relations executive Kate needs a nanny, a “substitute me,” and Zora, an upper-middle-class African American, wants the job, even though she worries about betraying the dreams of the women who came before her by becoming a domestic. She discovers her gift for cooking, and hopes to become a chef, while Kate works long hours, and her banker husband ends up spending more time with Zora than his wife. With input from family, friends, coworkers, and lovers, Tharps’ vivid domestic drama explores questions of identity, vocation, and how we live our lives.

2010. Atria.

They Tell me of a Home

by Daniel Black

Like Watts’ JJ., T. L. Tyson returns to Swamp Creek, Arkansas, after a 10-year absence. Having left as an emotionally abused adolescent, he is now holds a Ph.D. and is about to become a professor of African American history. After learning that his sister has died under mysterious circumstances, he struggles with anguish old and new in his relationships with his father, mother, and brother, and comes to see his hometown in a new light.  Black continues T. L.’s story in Twelve Gates to the City (2011).

2005. St. Martin’s.

You Know Better

by Tina McElroy Ansa

Ansa’s engrossing, subtly magical tale focuses on three generations of Pines women in Mulberry, Georgia. Grandmother Lily is a natural nurturer, educator, and community leader, while her daughter, Sandra, has become disconcertingly self-centered, and her 18-year-old daughter, LaShawndra, dreams of becoming a music-video dancer.  As their lives unspool and each woman tries to come to terms with her strengths and weaknesses, Ansa explores family ties and women’s lives.

2002. Harper Perennial.

Donna Seaman is adult books editor at Booklist. Her radio interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (2005). Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Donna.

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