Written by: Andrea Marks-Joseph
Ah, September! The weather is starting to cool, Halloween decorations will inexplicably show up in stores even though none of us are emotionally ready, and Starbucks has already launched the pumpkin spice lattes. But what are the books doing?
This month we have a Gothic Horror with car racing and grief, sci-fi mecha battles inspired by Chinese history, a Fantasy heist novel about sarcastic criminals, and two very different Thrillers where women go missing and the police investigation does not go as it should.
It’s not all dark and moody, though! We’ve also got an accidental feminist movement that turns into a teen romance, an adorable ‘Oops the producer fell in love with the reality dating show contestant’ rom-com, the follow-up to Gabrielle Union’s bestselling memoir, the new Sally Rooney book, and a Camelot teen comedy with Merlin’s daughter at the centre!
I absolutely adore that many of this month’s books showcase female rage, spooky vibes, and potentially unlikable protagonists. Go forth and preorder these gems!
1. The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun (7 September – Romance)
Dev is a producer on the reality dating show called Ever After. He believes in fairy tales and spends his career crafting the perfect love stories for his contestants. Charlie does not believe in true love, but he’s joined the show as a contestant in a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image.
The problem? Charlie’s an awkward, anxious mess, overwhelmed by the idea of dating all these women on national TV. The real problem? Dev starts working with him to help things improve on-camera (they go on practice dates!), and off-camera, the two men really connect. Sparks fly between them, which means they may have to go off-script, follow their hearts, and live their own real-life fairy tale!
In addition to the absolute adorability, there’s great mental illness representation: Dev has clinical depression; Charlie has anxiety and OCD. I’m really looking forward to reading the way mental health issues are discussed through their charming love story.
2. Among Thieves by M.J. Kuhn (7 September – Fantasy)
Among Thieves is a gritty fantasy novel that the author describes as a “fast-paced fantasy read featuring daring heists, sarcastic banter, and antiheroes galore.” Its protagonist has a reputation as the sharpest tongue, and the deadliest blade. She’s been living on the run with a false name, a deadly secret keeping her in hiding, when she is forced to team up with a crew of smugglers and thieves.
The story has fascinating worldbuilding and magic systems, morally grey characters, and a crime syndicate called the Saints. If you loved the Shadow & Bone series’ gritty backdrop, misfits doing crime together, and hiding from sovereign rulers of kingdoms –but wish it was more queer, with more humor and more questionable characters, this sounds like the story for you.
3. Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (7 September – Contemporary Fiction)
It truly could not be a most-anticipated September 2021 new releases list without this Sally Rooney novel, which I have seen all over social media for months as people started getting ARCs and flaunted them online. If you have loved Rooney’s stories, you’ll have been counting down the days for this one.
The multi-perspective story follows four young people: Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon. “They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart.” Rooney crafts a world of sex, love, friendship, adventure, travel, self-reflection, deception, and modern anxieties.
Though reviewers have noted a departure from her usual tone, Beautiful World, Where Are You is said to be just as thought-provoking and captivating a read as you’d expect and hope for.
4. Nice Girls by Catherine Dang (14 September – Mystery Thriller)
Don’t you just love a cover with neon text? This striking mystery-thriller for the modern age “explores the hungry, angry, dark side of girlhood” which is like catnip to me. It also “dares to ask what is most dangerous to a woman: showing the world what it wants to see, or who she really is?”
When beautiful, wealthy social media darling Olivia goes missing, Mary is less than concerned. Though everyone adores her online persona, our protagonist knows Olivia as a manipulative girl with sharp edges who would do anything for attention. Then she notices there’s another missing girl in their town, perhaps connected to this case. What’s interesting here is that this is a person of colour, whose disappearance has gone under the radar and treated as a runaway as a result of her race and class.
A thriller that examines the poisons of girlhood and influencer culture, told by a potentially unlikeable and unreliable female narrator, while exposing racial inequalities and the unjust police system? Yes please!
5. Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty (14 September – Thriller)
This novel seems like the perfect book to sit by the fireplace with. The tagline reads: “If your mother was missing, would you tell the police? Even if the most obvious suspect was your father?”
Imagine this: One night a stranger knocks on your parents’ door, bleeding after a fight with her boyfriend. They gladly welcome her inside. But then! Later, when your mother goes missing, and that stranger is nowhere to be found, the police question the one person who remains: Your father. And he’s clearly hiding something.
Two of his children believes he’s innocent, two are not so sure. What follows is a surprisingly humorous story of dysfunctional family drama, envy, gossip, keeping secrets, amateur detective work, sibling relationships, and an examination of marriage. Early readers report that the unravelling interpersonal relationships is so good that the mystery becomes secondary, which makes it all the more intriguing to me because discovering what happened is the main reason I’m gonna pick it up.
6. Not Here to Be Liked by Michelle Quach (14 September – Young Adult, Contemporary)
An enemies-to-lovers tale with an Asian American protagonist and the added spark of a feminist movement, Not Here to Be Liked sounds like perfection.
Every woman of colour knows the very particular rage of being dismissed or overlooked when it comes time for recognition. When Eliza is denied what she believes to be her rightful, well-earned position of editor-in-chief at her school’s newspaper in favour of an inexperienced boy, that frustration fuels her.
She writes an essay calling out the misogyny, accidentally publishes it, and suddenly becomes the face of a movement she did not mean to start. Then she’s asked to work with the boy in question and, to her horror, realizes she may be falling for him.
I’m particularly looking forward to the ways this book challenges various racial and gender stereotypes, depicts intersectional feminism, and a features a ‘prickly’ somewhat-unlikeable female main character.
7. You Got Anything Stronger? by Gabrielle Union (14 September – Celebrity Memoir)
The follow-up to Gabrielle Union’s bestselling memoir, We’re Going to Need More Wine picks up where we left her. The actress, known for her fierce openness and championing fellow Black women, notes that so much has changed since her last book released in 2017; Her life looks radically different, but so does society.
“I take you on a girl’s night at Chateau Marmont,” she writes in the book’s description, “and I also talk to Isis, my character from Bring It On. For the first time, I truly open up about my surrogacy journey and the birth of Kaavia James Union Wade. And I take on racist institutions and practices in the entertainment industry, asking for equality and real accountability.” I simply can’t wait to read it all.
8. Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao (21 September - Science Fiction)
There are so many fantastic, inventive debut novels releasing this month! Iron Widow is set in a sci-fi world with characters inspired by historical figures from throughout Chinese history –including that of the only female Chinese emperor.
It’s so elaborate, complex and dynamic a story that it’s best that I use the author’s description: Under siege by sentient machine monsters beyond the Great Wall, “a society that has the fashion, social customs, and beliefs of Ancient China but futuristic tech fights back by pulling a Neon Genesis Evangelion and rebuilding their very invaders into giant mecha.”
“Under command of human pilots, these mecha take on forms inspired by East Asian myth creatures and transform like Transformers through Digimon-esque evolution lines that get more humanoid as you go on.” Also, this novel features a teenage girl who rises to power, destroying the patriarchy and gender roles, and enters into a polyamorous relationship instead of choosing between her two love interests.
9. The Other Merlin by Robyn Schneider (21 September – Young Adult Fantasy)
Inspired by the humor of A Knight’s Tale, this is a queer teen rom-com take on Camelot where Arthur, a depressed botanist who would rather marry a librarian than a princess, accidentally pulls the sword from the stone while drunk and mostly kidding –and thus the hero’s tale begins.
In this Schneider-cut of the Arthurianverse, the main character is Emry Merlin, the legendary court wizard’s daughter, who disguises herself as her twin brother (who was summoned by the court but is far less talented than her) and travels to the royal court to study magic in his place. Scandals, lies, and disaster ensues –but there’s also love, and spells, and destiny!
10. Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo (28 September – Gothic Horror)
This is Lee Mandelo’s debut novel, a Southern Gothic Horror story giving us truly dark academia, betrayal, and a gruesome phantom muttering about revenge. Andrew and Eddie are “best friends bonded more deeply than brothers” until Eddie mysteriously dies, and Andrew is left searching for the truth.
In Summer Sons, the haunting is just as much ghosts as it is toxic masculinity, corrupt academic institutions, and privilege. While Andrew unravels Eddie’s secrets and lies, discovering a family history soaked in blood and death, the novel takes us on a suspenseful ride “whirling between the backstabbing academic world where Eddie spent his days and the circle of hot boys, fast cars, and hard drugs that ruled Eddie’s nights.”
Andrea Marks-Joseph is a South African freelance writer and book reviewer. She can be found on Twitter @stargirlriots and at stargirlriots.com