The 19 Best Contemporary Books

The Best of Books 2019

The 19 Best Contemporary Books

by Patrick Radden Keefe

Keefe’s fine, searching book shows that the political agreement formally resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland marked only the beginning of a long, agonizing, and fitful process of reconciliation.

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by Shoshana Zuboff

Zuboff’s book is a brilliant, arresting analysis of the digital economy and a plea for a social awakening about the enormity of the changes that technology is imposing on political and social life.

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by James Verini

Verini spent months embedded with Iraqi forces and writes beautifully about the toll of war on Iraqi society. His book is a marvelously reported, first-person account of the recapture of Mosul from the Islamic State (or ISIS).

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by Adam Gopnik

Gopnik paints a sweeping portrait of modern liberalism’s founding principles and accomplishments. He eloquently makes the case for the theory’s continued relevance in today’s struggle to build decent and inclusive societies.

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by Simon Reid-Henry

In this massive, kaleidoscopic history, Reid-Henry finds the roots of the crisis of modern liberal democracy in the early 1970s, in the subtle changes that conspired to erode the consensus-oriented model of democracy that had emerged after World War II.

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by James Traub

As liberals grapple with rising populism and authoritarianism, Traub turns to history and theory to reclaim liberalism’s principles. His book mounts one of the best efforts of this kind yet.

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by Paul A. Volcker with Christine Harper

This frugal and charming autobiography is filled with illuminating stories from Volcker’s seven decades of public service, from abandoning the last vestiges of the gold standard to dealing with the 2008 financial crisis.

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by Ben S. Bernanke, Timothy F. Geithner, and Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

This collaboration by the three officials who led the fight in the United States against the financial crisis of 2008 presents a mature and revealing assessment of the meltdown and the U.S. government’s efforts to halt it.

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by Kimberly Clausing

Amid a growing backlash against international economic interdependence, Clausing makes a strong case in favor of foreign trade in goods and services, the cross-border movement of capital, and immigration.

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by Max Hastings

In this masterly and engrossing account, Hastings explores three decades of conflict in Vietnam from the bottom up as well as the top down, describing the chaos of battle in a war of ambushes and without obvious frontlines.

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by Stephen G. Hyslop

More than 100 new maps illuminate many of the most important battles and campaigns of World War II. The stars of the book are the reproductions of maps first produced as part of the war effort.

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by Audrey Kurth Cronin

In this meticulously researched book, Cronin argues that governments must develop countermeasures to preempt militant groups from co-opting technological innovations to catastrophic effect.

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by Allen C. Guelzo

Guelzo offers a concise, clear, and temperate account of the failure of Reconstruction. Never losing sight of the cause of newly freed slaves, he underscores southern governments’ weakness and the collapse of political will in the North.

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by Hal Brands and Charles Edel

Brands and Edel argue that U.S. foreign policy should be less about building utopia than about preventing disaster. Unless met with resolute American power, countries such as China, Iran, and Russia will return the world to an age of catastrophic war.

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edited by James M. Banner, Jr.

The book is a fascinating glimpse into misconduct by every administration from George Washington’s through Barack Obama’s—and a look at the disappointing weaknesses of the remedies available to deter or punish presidential malfeasance.

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by Luuk van Middelaar

Part insider memoir and part commentary, van Middelaar’s is probably the best analysis yet to appear of how the European Union managed its recent crises over refugees, Ukraine, and the euro.

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by Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman

Globalization affects an ever-widening range of regulatory matters. Farrell and Newman examine recent disputes between the United States and its European partners over transnational flows of information, showing how complex and fraught such negotiations tend to be.

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by Sophia Besch, Ian Bond, and Camino Mortera-Martinez

The authors explain how sober Brexit negotiations with the EU could preserve most current forms of cooperation under another name—but that the changes that must occur will generally disadvantage the United Kingdom.

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by Camilla Townsend

Townsend rejects the portrayal of the Aztecs as driven by blood lust, superstition, and fatalism. Her book is a landmark masterpiece, powerful in its precision and subtle in its weaving of tragedy and glory.

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by Valeria Luiselli

In this novel, Luiselli combines literary brilliance, empathetic politics, and a dazzling imagination. She envisions the American Southwest as desolate and haunted by genocide, a xenophobic wasteland occupied by a brutal border patrol.

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by Eduardo Engel, Delia Ferreira Rubio, Daniel Kaufmann, Armando Lara Yaffar, Jorge Londoño Saldarriaga, Beth Simone Noveck, Mark Pieth, and Susan Rose-Ackerman

This all-star team of eight governance and anticorruption experts has produced a powerful indictment of Latin American institutions. The authors condemn both public and private elites for undermining good policymaking and entrenching impunity.

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by Ofer Fridman

The modern concept of war fought by multiple means, on and off the battlefield, originated with the U.S. military. The current, more expansive Russian version reflects what its Russian authors believe were the West’s own methods of waging the Cold War, which they now see being used against Russia once again.

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by Ethan Pollock

Pollock has produced a rarity: a work of solid scholarship that is also an elegant page-turner. It traces the history of the Russian steam bath all the way back to the Middle Ages, exploring how its image and function have shifted over time.

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by Owen Matthews

Matthews’s book is a spy thriller that doubles as an enthralling history of revolutionary Germany in the 1920s, Tokyo during the country’s prewar militarization, and Moscow in the 1930s.

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by Kenneth M. Pollack

Arab militaries have always performed poorly. Pollack, who has studied them for nearly two decades, exhaustively explores four explanations for their ineffectiveness: their reliance on Soviet military doctrine, the politicization of the officer corps, economic underdevelopment, and Arab culture.

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by Rory McCarthy

McCarthy travels to Tunisia’s heartland to understand the mindset of devotees of the country’s major Islamic movement, al Nahda, which abandoned its mission of religious transformation in 2016 to become an exclusively political party.

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by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi

Morris and Ze’evi tie together the three waves of killing that swept across the Christian population of Anatolia (in modern-day Turkey) from 1894 to 1924. Their book is a gut-wrenching chronicle of human depravity that shows how ordinary people can become barbarians.

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by Ming-Sho Ho

This penetrating, theoretically informed study analyzes the large protest movements that erupted in Taiwan and Hong Kong in 2014. Ho suggests that similar resistance may emerge elsewhere if China pushes too hard.

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by Anna Fifield

Kim Jong Un was an unly heir to the North Korean throne, but from the regime’s perspective, he turned out to be a brilliant choice. If he survives to hand power to a fourth generation, “the most Machiavellian figure of our time” will have achieved a remarkable feat.

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by Richard J. Samuels

This engrossing history of Japanese intelligence demonstrates how recent reforms have made Japan a better security partner for the United States while preparing the country to stand on its own if the U.S. security guarantee loses its credibility.

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by Mick Moore, Wilson Prichard, and Odd-Helge Fjeldstad

Taxation in Africa remains poorly understood. The authors of this concise and masterly introduction to the topic go some way toward filling that gap. They explain why African tax systems are highly regressive, with poorer citizens paying much higher rates than richer ones.

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by Laura Fair

This superb social history of cinema in Tanzania is rich with keen insights into urban life in East Africa throughout the twentieth century. Fair is equally at ease discussing midcentury international film distribution networks as she is explaining the local appeal of obscure Indian movies.

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by Nanjala Nyabola

This survey develops some keen insights into the social and political effects of the Internet in Kenya. Nyabola’s conclusions are far from optimistic, exploring how social media may come to undermine Kenyan democracy.

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The Best Books of 2019 – Great New Books to Read Released in 2019

The 19 Best Contemporary Books


From buzzy biographies to mystifying novels and everything in between, we've gathered the best books of 2019.

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1 The Dark Star Trilogy: Black Leopard, Red Wolf

The latest from  the Man Booker Prize-winning author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, this fantasy epic—the first in a trilogy know as “Dark Star”—follows a hunter who joins a search party dedicated to finding a missing boy.

On his journey through a fantastical world that's already drawn more than a few comparisons to that of The Hobbit, the mystery grows and changes, and what's found might not always be what one thought he was looking for.


2 Working

Robert Caro, the great biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, is one of the most respected historians of our time. His memoir is a masterclass in how great books are built, and is peppered with anecdotes about powerful people. Caro’s painstaking research process and attention to detail is well known; here, we learn more about him than his subjects.

3 Normal People

One of the seasons's most anticipated books, this second novel from Irish writer Sally Rooney has already been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and is being developed for the screen by filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson. Normal People tells the story of the difficult, exhilarating, uplifting, and often-broken relationship between a young man and woman as they come of age and find themselves both together and apart. 

4 Orange World and Other Stories

A new collection of short stories from Karen Russell, the Pulitzer Prize finalist author of Swamplandia! is always something to celebrate. This collection, her third, once again puts on display her powerful imagination, sharp sense of humor, and ability to reveal recognizable truths about the everyday human experience without ever lacking in style. 

5 Lost and Wanted

The latest novel from the bestselling author of The Newlyweds follows an MIT professor as she grapples with the death of a close friend, reconsiders their long history, and faces the prospect that, despite everything she believes, logic might not explain everything. 

6 All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf

Some of our most intimate relationships can be with people we’ve never met, but who have nonetheless inspired us, so much so we feel as if we know them. For first-time author Katharine Smyth, that person was Virginia Woolf.

Smyth, an American who was raised in New England by a British father and an Australian mother, read To the Lighthouse while abroad at Oxford.

Part memoir, part literary criticism, the book examines Smyth’s own life in parallel—and contrast— to that novel’s themes.

7 Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir

In this smart, touching, and dishy memoir, T&C contributor Ruth Reichl recalls her years at the helm of Gourmet magazine with clear eyes, a sense of humor, and some very appealing recipes. 

8 The Farm

In this provocative debut, we meet Jane, a Filipino immigrant who agrees to live at an all-expenses paid, all-inclusive luxury retreat in the Hudson Valley for nine months—just enough time for her to act as the perfect “host” for someone else’s baby.

Jane’s every movement is monitored, and she can’t leave the premises, or else she forfeits the astronomical sum she’ll receive after the birth of the child.

The deal a lifetime soon turns into a bit of a nightmare as she wrestles with questions of motherhood, family, and identity.

9 Trust Exercise

Susan Choi delivers a punchy, hotly anticipated novel about teens at a performing arts high school in the 1980s. Two freshmen fall in love, their teacher takes note, and an explosive plot twist you don't see coming will upend your entire sense of what's real. Strap in for a wild ride.

10 Fleishman Is in Trouble: A Novel

You already know Taffy Brodesser-Akner's writing from her sharp celebrity profiles in the New York Times and elsewhere, but this debut novel proves she's just as adept with fiction. Especially the kind of funny, ferocious writing in this story about a recently divorced New York doctor and the unexpected ways his life is turned upside down. 

11 The Most Fun We Ever Had: A Novel

A sprawling, enchanting debut from Claire Lombardo, this novel jumps back and forth across time to tell the story of one powerful, complicated, and utterly unforgettable family as they navigate love and loss (as well as Chicago high society and the occasional felony). At more than 500 pages, it's a big book in every sense of the word, and one that's a distinct delight to spend time with.  

12 Three Women

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster

The truth really can be stranger than fiction—or at least more entertaining.

In this non-fiction work, Lisa Taddeo tracks the lives of three women—a married midwestern mother, a high schooler in North Dakota, and an East Coast restaurateur—and examines their complex romantic relationships with a uniquely sharp eye and detail. There's a reason this was the book we spotted most around the pool this summer. 

13 The Nickel Boys: A Novel

In his first novel since 2016's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead tells the harrowing story of two young men sent to a truly awful reform school in 1960s Florida.

Whitehead's signature knack for creating unforgettable characters and spinning compelling stories even the darkest places is on display once again, and while it's not always an easy story to read, we'd venture to say it's essential. 

14 City of Girls: A Novel


The latest from the author of Eat, Pray, Love follows a wide-eyed young woman who is booted college and lands in 1940s Manhattan. When she finds herself caught up in the seedy, glamorous world of a Midtown theater—and interacting with all its exciting, eccentric habitués—her life changes forever, but not in any of the ways she could have expected. 

15 Inland: A Novel

From the author of The Tiger's Wife comes a fascinating, experimental look at the intersection of two very different lives—that of a lonely frontierswoman and a possibly mystical outlaw—in the American West in the late 1800s. 

16 Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion

At last, the debut collection from The New Yorker’s resident millennial cultural critic is here. These nine brand-new essays get at the heart of our modern obsessions, frustrations, and breaking points.

From meditations on faith and drugs, to wedding culture, to the ever-expanding hell that is the Internet, Tolentino tackles the state of our world with honesty, precision, and the gallows humor we so desperately need.

17 The Yellow House: A Memoir (2019 National Book Award Winner)

This ambitious memoir by Sarah M. Broom centers on the house her parents bought in New Orleans in the 1960s, and follows the fate of the building as well as that of her family through the difficult, beautiful, and memorable years to come.

This beautifully written book tells the story of a house, but also of a family and a city in transition, and you can’t help but root for all three of them. Listen to one early review, which said, “The Yellow House is a masterpiece of history, politics, sociology and memory.

Actually, it’s just a masterpiece, period.” 

18 The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale—which offers a harrowing portrait of an America under totalitarian rule—was a touchstone long before it became a hit TV series, but that added visibility means a lot more people are anticipating this sequel, more than 30 years in the making. 

19 The Water Dancer: A Novel

This first novel from the award-winning journalist Coates, author of the 2015 phenomenon Between the World and Me, follows a young man born into dire circumstances but bestowed with an extraordinary power. It's a powerful story about what we can do for ourselves and for our families in a world with which we're constantly at odds. 

20 Red at the Bone: A Novel

The latest from the National Book Award-winning author of Another Brooklyn and Brown Girl Dreaming, this slim, powerful novel leaps across time to tell the story of a young woman in New York in 2001 and her mother 16 years earlier. Rarely has such messy, troubling, and human tale been told with such style. 

21 She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement

While the aftershocks of the #MeToo movement will be changing our world for years to come, this book—by the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporters uncovered the dark history of Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassment—charts its beginnings and their own incredible journey to uncovering a story many thought would never be told.

22 Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Arienne Brodeur's stunning memoir is the kind of true story that makes you wonder why we'd ever need fiction.

Beginning during her childhood in a bohemian Cape Cod, the gimlet-eyed book tells the story of her mother's all-consuming affair and how Brodeur herself became an accomplice to a lie that became bigger than anyone could have imagined.

It's a beautifully written, totally engrossing story un any we've read before—and will surely be one of the most talked-about books of the year. 

23 Nothing to See Here

There's nothing we at T&C love more than a book about a prep-school scandal. But this latest from Kevin Wilson, author of The Family Fang, only uses that delightful idea as a jumping off point for a complicated, charming, and totally engrossing story about friendship, family, and the things we want people to know about us. Oh, and also people who can light themselves on fire. 


27 Engrossing Contemporary Novels to Read Right Now

The 19 Best Contemporary Books

There is nothing better than a good contemporary read.

Sure, I sometimes love to whisk myself away to fantasy worlds or immerse myself in books that show us a glimpse of what life was a few hundred years ago, but usually, it’s the contemporary books that strike me the most. I connect with them on a personal level because the stories feel they could happen to someone I know. Check out some of my favorites below!

1. SLAY by Brittney Morris

This book tells the story of Kiera Johnson, who builds a secret online role-playing game, SLAY, as a refuge for Black gamers everywhere. But when an anonymous troll infiltrates the game & threatens to destroy it, Kiera must fight to save the only world in which she feels that she can be herself.

2. Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi

Pablo Rind is a college dropout working the graveyard shift at a twenty-four-hour deli and drowning in credit card debt. Leanna Smart is a pop juggernaut with enough social media followers to populate whole contents. When they meet at 5:00 a.m.

at the deli, its certifiably insane to think they’d be A Thing. But one hashtag leads to another and as they start to piece together who they are, who they want to be, and how to defy all the deafening expectations bearing down on them, Lee and Pab turn to each other.

Which, of course, is when things get seriously complicated.

3. She’s the Worst by Lauren Spieller

She’s the Worst by Lauren Spieller follows April and Jenn as they spend spend an epic day exploring the greatest hits of their childhood and all that Los Angeles has to offer.

The sisters haven’t been close in years, but with only one day to set things right, the sisters must decide if their relationship is worth saving, or if the secret that Jenn has been hiding will tear them apart for good.

4. Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott

Can you love someone you can never touch?

In this moving story that’s perfect for fans of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, two teens fall in love with just one minor complication—they can’t get within a few feet of each other without risking their lives.

 Stella Grant s to be in control—even though her totally control lungs have sent her in and the hospital most of her life. Will’s exactly what Stella needs to stay away from. If he so much as breathes on Stella she could lose her spot on the transplant list.

Yet, as the two start to fall in love, distance is harder than it has ever been for either one of them. Now a major motion picture starring Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson!

5. Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali

This is an unforgettable romance that is part The Sun is Also a Star mixed with Anna and the French Kiss, following two Muslim teens who marvelously and oddly meet during a spring break trip.

6. Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens tells the story of Nima, who’s a little bit awkward and working through family issues. But when she finds herself immersed in the drag scene, filled with macho kings and magical queens, she learns how to confidently express herself and accept the love that surrounds her.

7. The Universal Laws of Marco by Carmen Rodrigues

In the summer before eighth grade, Marco Suarez kissed his best friend Sally Blake. This was his first spark. And then, at the end of that year, she disappeared, leaving without even saying why.

And now in their senior year, Sally unexpectedly returns and Marco is shaken. Still, he holds tightly to his carefully choreographed life.

A life that is full of reasons why first sparks don’t matter, the main reason? He has a girlfriend.

8. This Might Hurt a Bit by Doogie Horner

A grieving teen faces dangerous classmates, reckless friends, and the one-year anniversary of his sister’s devastating death in this poignant, quirky, often humorous novel that’s perfect for fans of Jeff Zentner and Brendan Kiely.

9. Save the Date by Morgan Matson

Charlie Grant’s older sister is getting married this weekend at their family home, and Charlie is desperate for one last perfect weekend, before the house is sold and everything changes.  Making decisions about things what college to attend and reuniting with longstanding crush Jesse Foster—all that can wait. She wants to focus on making the weekend perfect.

10. The Chaos of Standing Still by Jessica Brody

Over the course of one chaotic night stranded at the Denver airport, Ryn confronts her shattered past thanks to the charm of romance, the uniqueness of strangers, and the magic of ordinary places in this stunning novel.

11. Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

A gorgeous and emotionally resonant debut novel about a half-Japanese teen who grapples with social anxiety and her narcissist mother in the wake of a crushing rejection from art school.

12. Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

Feminism + ice cream + friendship + romance = the perfect contemporary novel.

13. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

What if all the crushes you ever had found out how you felt about them…all at once?

14. Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi

“Smart and funny, with characters so real and vulnerable, you want to send them care packages. I loved this book.” —Rainbow Rowell. Do you need a reason other than a Rainbow Rowell quote to pick up a book? I don’t think so.

15. Your Destination Is on the Left by Lauren Spieller

Seventeen-year-old Dessa Rhodes is torn between leaving her modern nomadic life and pursuing her dreams of becoming an artist.

16. From Twinkle with Love by Sandhya Menon

Aspiring filmmaker and wallflower Twinkle Mehra has stories she wants to tell and universes she wants to explore, if only the world would listen. So when fellow film geek Sahil Roy approaches her to direct a movie for the upcoming Summer Festival, Twinkle is all over it. The chance to publicly showcase her voice as a director? Dream come true.

17. A Kiss in the Dark by Gina Ciocca

A mystery kiss during a blackout at a football game leads Macy on the hunt for the culprit she suspects is a guy who made her junior year of high school really difficult. When new transfer and bad boy, Noah, takes credit for the kiss, things get a little more complicated.

18. Until Friday Night by Abbi Glines

The first novel in Abbie Glines’ Field Party series, about a small Southern town filled with cute boys in pickup trucks, Friday night football games, and crazy parties that stir up some major drama.

19. The Victoria in My Head by Janelle Milanes

A shy, rule-following teen winds up joining a local rock band in this laugh-out-loud, heartfelt coming-of-age novel.

20. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds

Two teens—one black, one white—grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension.

21. A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

A girl who can’t speak and a boy who can’t hear go on a journey of self-discovery and find support with each other in this gripping, emotionally resonant novel.

22. Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett

Ever since last year’s homecoming dance, best friends-turned-best enemies Zorie and Lennon have made an art of avoiding each other. But when a group camping trip goes south, Zorie and Lennon find themselves stranded in the wilderness. Alone. Together.

What could go wrong?

23. Autoboyography by Christina Lauren

Fangirl meets Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda in this funny and poignant coming-of-age novel from New York Times bestselling author Christina Lauren about two boys who fall in love in a writing class—one from a progressive family and the other from a conservative religious community.

24. The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

Until a political scandal costs Andie her summer pre-med internship, and lands both she and Dad back in the same house together for the first time in years. Suddenly she’s doing things that aren’t Andie at all—working as a dog walker, doing an epic scavenger hunt with her dad, and maybe, just maybe, letting the super cute Clark get closer than she expected.

25.Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch

A summer in Italy turns into a road trip across Tuscany in this sweeping debut novel filled with romance, mystery, and adventure.

26. The Last to Let Go by Amber Smith

How do you let go of something you’ve never had?

Junior year for Brooke Winters is supposed to be about change. She’s transferring schools, starting fresh, and making plans for college so she can finally leave her hometown, her family, and her past behind.

27. The Place Between Breaths by An Na

From master storyteller and Printz Award–winning author An Na comes a dark, intensely moving story of a girl desperately determined to find a cure for the illness that swept her mother away, and could possibly destroy her own life as well.

Not in the mood for a contemporary book? Try one of these addicting fantasy novels!