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What to read? Try these picks from Austin360 Book Club, Texas Book Fest

Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
Austin American-Statesman

Four Native men tracked by something otherworldly from their past. A Black teen’s letters that detail his struggles to clear a stacked societal deck. A Ghanaian American woman grapples with American societal expectations and a mother lost to depression.

These new novels tell radically different stories. Yet each one showcases lives we don’t always see illuminated in books. They’re also the next three picks for the Austin360 Book Club powered by Texas Book Festival: “The Only Good Indians” (Gallery/Saga, $26.99) by Stephen Graham Jones for September; “Dear Justyce” (Crown, $18.99) by Nic Stone in October; and “Transcendent Kingdom,” (Knopf, $27.95) by Yaa Gyasi in November. All three authors will have virtual appearances in Austin via the Texas Book Festival and Texas Teen Book Festival.

The book club, a collaboration between the festival and the Austin American-Statesman, typically taps a title each month for discussion in its Facebook group. It also stocks a Little Free Library off the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail near Lady Bird Lake. Past selections have included Susan Choi’s National Book Award-winning “Trust Exercise” and “How We Fight For Our Lives,” the memoir from poet and writer Saeed Jones, who talked about his book in a special Crowdcast event for club members.

Here’s a bit more on each of the next picks. And don’t forget to join the club through Facebook – it’s free! -- for ongoing bonus content, as well as specifics on the authors’ festival appearances once announced.

“The Only Good Indians” — dubbed one of 2020’s “buzziest horror novels” by Entertainment Weekly — reclaims the apocryphal frontier slur “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Jones, a West Texas native, Blackfeet member and prolific author who teaches at the University of Colorado in Boulder, explores what it means to be a “good Indian” through the story of four Blackfeet men. As teens, they killed elk on land reserved for elders. They broke the law, but more importantly, they broke the ethics of Native culture.

Years pass, but the ramifications of that night linger. Something is bent on revenge, and it takes it in grisly ways in this novel, which melds horror, dry humor and cultural commentary.

“You know, for me, the slasher is a wonderful model of — it's a wonderful thing to believe in, really. It's wish fulfillment,” Jones told an NPR interviewer earlier this year. “The spirit of vengeance rising to punish the guilty, that presupposes a world in which evil is punished … which is to say it presupposes a fair world. And that's not the world we live in. But I really like to engage slashers because they let me believe in that world for just a little bit.”

Justice also takes center stage in Nic Stone’s new young adult novel, a corollary to her breakout bestselling debut, “Dear Martin.” She offers enough backstory to understand the link between “Dear Martin’s“ Justyce McAllister and “Dear Justyce’s” Quan Cosby, even if you’ve not yet read the former. Quan is behind bars, and his path is one that elucidates how quickly that pipeline appears for Black children. Stone shows us another misunderstood Black boy, but while “Dear Martin’s” protagonist was an excellent student, Quan follows a path that’s not so straight and narrow.

Stone, who will be one of the keynote speakers at the Texas Teen Book Festival, has a lively Instagram presence full of writing tips, book recommendations and interviews with authors and educators. In one post, she explained how two high schoolers she met while they were reading “Dear Martin” inspired this book.

“Two years ago, we exchanged a thread of text messages … during which they asked me to write a book about kids like THEM. (‘You’re our voice,’ D told me),” Stone wrote.

“These text messages, combined with a few encounters involving white teachers at conferences telling me that ‘Justyce is the sort of kid all Black boys should strive to be’ (aka academically inclined and high achieving), highlighted just how important it was for me to dive into the life of a different black boy from #DearMartin: Quan. The one who can’t seem to stay OUT of trouble no matter how hard he tries.”

Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 literary debut “Homegoing” was an intricately plotted story that traced one family over many generations, rooted by half-sisters — one who marries a slave trader and lives in Ghana, and one who is enslaved and sent to the U.S. It graced multiple best-of-the-year lists: NPR, Oprah, Esquire and Buzzfeed.

Now comes “Transcendent Kingdom,” already a New York Times bestseller. It centers on Gifty, who is studying in Stanford’s graduate-level neuroscience program.

Gifty’s older brother has died from a heroin overdose, triggering her mother’s severe depression. Gifty funnels her energies into science, searching for medical answers for why the brain wants what it wants.

“She has heard the oft-spoken cliché ‘God works in mysterious ways’ and she’s rejected it, opting for reason instead. It’s this search for reason that leads her to science,” Gyasi said of Gifty in an interview with the Atlantic. “Yet even the way that she practices science is marked by a lingering faith. Gifty still believes in the mystery despite claiming to no longer believe in God. She chases the mystery every time she performs an experiment, and it’s the attendant belief in solvability that propels her.”

Join the club and the festival

The Austin360 Book Club powered by the Texas Book Festival is free to join; sign up through the group’s Facebook page.

The Texas Book Festival will be virtual this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The author lineup has been announced. Check in the coming weeks for the schedule and details about how to attend. Look for a special section with a schedule and preview stories in the American-Statesman and at on Oct. 25.

Here are the announced dates for 2020 book festival events:

Oct. 31-Nov. 1: Texas Teen Book Festival

Nov. 2-6: Children’s Programming

Nov. 6-15: Adult Programming Week

Nov. 8 and Nov. 15: Lit Crawl Brunch

Nov. 7, Nov. 13 and Nov. 14: Lit Crawl

"The Only Good Indians" by Stephen Graham Jones