Lively guests: Invite the 10 best books of May into your home

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Good books can be sought-after companions to enliven our days. Such visitors bring gifts of countries and cultures different from our own, of new ideas, or of alternative ways of looking at things.  

Sometimes those literary guests pull us into the realm of the fantastical – women turning into dragons – to make a point, or bring us down to earth with their eloquent descriptions of the rural American South, for example. We see into the poverty, silence, and art that turns our preconceptions on their head. 

In two biographies, we witness the foresight of Benjamin Franklin and the early glimmerings of populism in the presidency of Andrew Jackson. We connect the 19th-century demand for peanut oil in Europe with the continuing practice of slavery in West Africa, after it was declared illegal. And we discover the beauty of the high Sierra in California through the brilliant descriptions of a science fiction writer.  

Why We Wrote This

Our picks for this month include books that cut through stereotypes, confront the legacy of colonialism, charm with humor, and illuminate a bold and far-reaching experiment by Benjamin Franklin.

The books recommended by our reviewers take readers across the globe, from the hills of Kentucky in the United States to the streets of Cape Town, South Africa. The eclectic settings also include the coast of Ireland and the peanut farms of Senegal.   

1. The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson

The beguiling sequel to “The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek” introduces Honey Lovett, teenage daughter of librarian Cussy Mary, who continues the family tradition of delivering books to far-flung neighbors in rural Kentucky with the Pack Horse Library Project. The novel abounds with Appalachian voices, imagery, and lore, paying homage to this community’s bright strength of spirit amid harsh landscapes, poverty, and prejudice.

Why We Wrote This

Our picks for this month include books that cut through stereotypes, confront the legacy of colonialism, charm with humor, and illuminate a bold and far-reaching experiment by Benjamin Franklin.

2. When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

In 1955, nearly 650,000 American women turn into dragons and take to the skies. The event’s repercussions come into focus through the recollections of Professor Alex Green, snippets of scientific scholarship, and firsthand accounts. Kelly Barnhill’s poetic, pointed tale tackles the era’s pervasive silence concerning all things female.

3. The Dark Flood by Deon Meyer

Detective Benny Griessel and his partner Vaughn, demoted and reposted to a wealthy South African town, track a seemingly mundane missing-person case that unearths gang ties and police corruption. Packed with cars, confrontations, and local slang, the fast-paced book excels when the detectives’ easy patter and cooperation get a chance to shine.

4. The Colony by Audrey Magee

Villagers on a remote island off the Irish coast are visited in the summer of 1979 by a British painter and a French linguist. Against the drumbeat of violence in Northern Ireland, author Audrey Magee juxtaposes an exploration of art, language, and love.

5. Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Nora Stephens travels with her sister to a picturesque town for a vacation. The last person she expects to see is her nemesis – the editor who rejected her client’s manuscript. Readers already know the pair will fall in love, but Emily Henry’s talent infuses the romantic comedy with layers of delight.

6. Slaves for Peanuts by Jori Lewis

Jori Lewis resurrects voices silenced by history in this sumptuous journey beginning in 19th-century Senegal. Traveling down the coast of West Africa, the story sweeps through medieval kingdoms to bustling colonial capitals. By digging through historical archives and oral histories, Lewis unearths a neglected part of the Atlantic slave trade, all wrapped around the humble peanut crop.

7. Nasty, Brutish, and Short by Scott Hershovitz

Scott Hershovitz’s delightful debut manages to be fun, funny, and intellectually rigorous all at once. The law and philosophy professor tackles serious topics including morality, rights, and conceptions of truth and knowledge, framed by amusing conversations with his two young sons. (Full review here.)

8. Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet by Michael Meyer

In the last days of his life, Benjamin Franklin changed his will and funded a 200-year experiment: He left the cities of Boston and Philadelphia money to be lent to help tradesmen start businesses. In this engaging book, Michael Meyer skillfully weaves together a biography of Franklin and his heirs with the story of what happened to the money.

9. The High Sierra by Kim Stanley Robinson

Award-winning science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson tackles a more earthbound subject in this personal guide to the planet’s “best hiking mountains.” Combining backpacking advice, geological history, intimate recollections, and breathtaking photography, this eclectic compendium will appeal to a range of adventurous readers. 

10. The First Populist by David S. Brown

Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, styled himself a “man of the people.” Calling Jackson “the country’s original anti-establishment president,” historian David S. Brown offers a timely assessment of Jackson’s controversial career, in the context of the American populist tradition.

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