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7 Fantastic Under-the-Radar Books You Need to Read Now

A look back at some of our favorite novels and nonfiction from the past five years


spinner image from left to right top to bottom the female persuasion by meg wolitzer then good neighbors by sarah langan then the lemon by s e boyd then my monticello by jocelyn nicole johnson then american pop by snowden wright then the buddhist on death row by david sheff
Riverhead Books / Atria Books / Anchor / Viking / Henry Holt and Co. / William Morrow / Simon & Schuster / Getty

Yes, loads of fantastic new books keep coming out every week, but sometimes it’s nice to look back in time and consider a slightly older gem you may have missed. The seven below are among my favorites from the past five years, and — with the exception of The Lemon — are now available in paperback.​

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (2018)

This engrossing, thought-provoking novel by the author of 2014’s acclaimed The Interestings is about a young college woman, Greer, who’s drawn to an old-school feminist activist she hears speaking on campus, and later ends up working for her cause. Ever ambitious, Greer focuses on her rising career while trying to juggle a complicated longtime romance. The book is about so much more, though, raising profound questions about responsibility, loyalty and what it means to be a strong woman — all with a masterfully subtle touch.​

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American Pop by Snowden Wright (2019)

This is a sweeping, supremely entertaining debut novel about a Southern family’s very American rise then fall with the fate of their soda company, Panola Cola, which is “built on bubbles.” The book follows the Forster family through the dramas of the 20th century, including siblings’ power struggles and rivals’ attempts to discover Panola Cola’s secret ingredient. Wright tells their story playfully, weaving in various quotes and “facts” about the characters as though they’re news reports. It’s funny and it totally works. ​

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love by Dani Shapiro (2019)

After the writer had her DNA tested on a whim at age 54, the results blew her away: She discovered that her Orthodox Jewish father was not, in fact, her biological father. Shapiro candidly describes the drama that follows, including her immediate and profound identity crisis and dogged quest to find out what happened, what her late parents knew and who the heck her “real” dad is (not to mention what a “real” dad even is). It’s a fascinating story, only possible in this modern age. She now has a podcast, Family Secrets, where guests describe their own discoveries of long-held family secrets. ​

The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place by David Sheff​ (2018)

Jarvis Jay Masters, now 61, arrived at San Quentin State Prison a rage-filled 19-year-old, sentenced for armed robbery; after he was set up and convicted for the murder of a guard, he would spend more than two decades in solitary confinement. Then, with the help of some devoted teachers, he discovered Buddhism. After a painful period when he allowed himself to fully feel all his pent-up doubt, fury, fear and frustration, he focused on Buddhist principles such as sacrifice, patience and forgiveness to free his mind from destructive thinking and eventually found meaning, strength and hope despite his grim circumstances. Sheff, the author of Beautiful Boy, writes with admiration and compassion about the transformation of Masters, who remains on death row despite his many supporters’ efforts toward his release.​

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My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson (2021)

A finalist for the Kirkus Prize, this debut collection of short stories that Colson Whitehead has called “electrifying” tackles issues of racial identity and racism in different settings and contexts. The titular novella features two modern-day descendants of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, a woman and her grandmother, who join a group of Charlottesville neighbors seeking refuge at Monticello to hide from violence fomented at a Unite the Right rally. In “Control Negro,” a story that was included in The Best American Short Stories 2018, a university professor distances himself from his son from birth — an experiment to see how his son might develop if he grows up unaware of his Black father. The audiobook is read by a full cast, including the actors LeVar Burton and Aja Naomi King. ​

Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan (2021)

The setting for this mesmerizing novel is a quiet suburban street whose center literally and figuratively falls away during a brutally hot summer when a sinkhole opens up, spewing a smelly black sludge. After a girl falls in, a troubled woman starts pointing fingers at one family (they never did fit in), and the nastiness escalates on Maple Street — Langan’s witty reference to “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” the famous Twilight Zone episode about scapegoating turned deadly. It offers both page-turning suspense and brilliant social commentary.​

​​The Lemon by S.E. Boyd (2022)

I devoured this cynical, funny novel when it came out last year. The creation of three writers — journalists Kevin Alexander and Joe Keohane, and editor Alessandra Lusardi — it’s packed with dark humor (despite its grim-sounding premise) and hilariously self-centered characters out to make a buck and find their 15 minutes of fame. Their paths cross after celebrity chef John Doe, a troubled Anthony Bourdain-like traveling foodie, dies in a particularly embarrassing way that needs to be covered up to protect his brand.​​

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