We asked our contributors to share the best book they read this month. We’ve got fiction, nonfiction, YA, memoir, and more. Some are old, some are new, and some aren’t even out yet. Enjoy, and please tell us about the highlight of your reading month in the comments.
Let’s decide it’s charming how late I am to the A.S. King party but HOLY SUGAR SHACKS she is amazing, isn’t she? Ask the Passengers is a coming-of-age and coming-out story, but it’s a lot more than that too. My favourite thing about the story is the way Astrid, the protagonist, is questioning her identity and the world around her, but the world keeps trying to cram her into easy boxes. It’s a thoughtful, realistic depiction. Especially the parents, who are tragically letter perfect in their rigidity.
–Brenna Clarke Gray
Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber
While looking up Schreiber’s Star Wars books (he wrote the zombie-horror Star Wars novels Red Harvest and Death Troopers), I stumbled upon his YA book, Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick. I had to buy it immediately, not just because the plot intrigued me, but because the title is absolutely amazing. The story focuses on Perry, a geeky rock-star wannabe who is pushed around by kids at school, and Gobi, the odd foreign exchange student who has been staying with his family for nearly a year. When he’s forced to take her to the prom, he discovers she’s a lot more than he thought she was. Cause she starts shooting bad guys. Cause she’s a hired killer. WHAT. Loved the characters, the wild action-packed story, and the real character growth you get to witness as Perry gets dragged to and from Gobi’s hits. It’s one wild ride through the streets of New York, and I can’t wait to read the sequel, Perry’s Killer Playlist. It’s already sitting on my desk.
There’s been this developing category for a while now of absolutely fantastic non-fiction for youth, and this book took the cake in it last year. A lot of books in this category tend to be works of art, full of fantastic graphics and layouts and photographs, but the interesting thing about Bomb is that it’s mainly text, and pulls its punches simply through words. Jam packed with fascinating information, it reads like an awesome suspense novel, to the point where you’re all, what happens next, what happens next?! Even though it’s “for youth,” I learned so many things that I kept randomly (and probably annoyingly) entering tidbits from it into conversation with anyone who would listen for at least two weeks after finishing it. It also won a crapload of honors: it was a National Book Award finalist as well as the winner of the Sibert Informational Book Award (the highest honor for non-fiction in children’s lit), the YALSA Award for Excellence in Non-fiction, and also a Newbery Honor, which is somewhat rare for non-fiction.
Clean starts off with a well-meaning premise that grabbed my attention: “Addiction is a preventable, treatable disease, not a moral failing. As with other illnesses, the approaches most likely to work are based on science.” Sheff (Beautiful Boy) provides ample evidence and expert opinions in his quest to prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that addiction is an illness and not a moral failing on the part of users. When he sticks to science and statistics, Clean delivers; when Sheff digresses into multi-page first-hand accounts of addicts, the book grinds to a halt. I’m glad I kept reading: Toward the end, Sheff has a funny visit to a laboratory to observe drunk fruit flies that would feel at home in a Mary Roach book. Despite its uneven pacing, Clean is a must-read for anyone who has family or friends who are alcoholics or substance abusers. If you’ve ever wondered why addicts don’t “just stop” or “say no,” the answers are in this book.
Sue Trinder is a 17-year-old pickpocket (a “fingersmith” in the slang of Victorian England) raised by a woman who steals, buys, and sells babies in a house of thieves that feels straight out of Oliver Twist. When a dashing con man she knows only as Gentleman rolls into town one day with a proposition that promises to make Sue rich, she agrees to follow him to the countryside and help him seduce an innocent and wealthy young woman. But of course, things don’t go as planned, and the con you know about is never the only con. This story has crossing and double-crossing and triple-crossing, secrets layered upon secrets, villains, madwomen, and continuous revelations that will keep you turning the pages. Waters unravels the plot with gorgeous writing and masterful shifts in narrative voice that make Fingersmith the very best kind of literary thriller. I kept sitting down to read a chapter and looking up a hundred pages later, wondering where the time had gone.
–Rebecca Joines Schinsky
There’s a great passage early on in Giovanni’s Room that’s incidental to the plot, but provides key insight into the main character, David. He’s describing a car crash in which he was the drunk driver, but he tells his story completely in the passive voice: “something weird happened to all my reactions,” “the car sprang suddenly out of my control,” and finally, “a telephone pole, foam white, came crying at me out of the pitch darkness.” Through this narrative alchemy, David manages to separate himself from the responsibility for his actions. He didn’t so much cause the accident as the accident happened to him. As the story unfolds, you see David repeatedly rely on this self-preservation tactic. He may feign self-loathing as he wreaks havoc on the lives of those around him, but whether he is steering friends into a tree or driving his lover toward tragedy, in his mind David is never truly at fault—he is merely the victim of circumstance.
I don’t often read non-fiction, but when I do, I want to be floored. With Going Clear, which makes a second appearance on the list of best books we’ve read, I was floored. Wright begins his tale with a biography of Scientology’s founder, the inimitable L. Ron Hubbard. What a schmuck this guy was! I mean, you gotta assume any guy who bases a religion on an extraplanetary creature named Xenu is a little, um, off. But LRH also was an egomaniacal, wife-cheating-and-beating asshole. Wright then spends a good amount of time on the “juicy bits” — Hollywood. We get anecdotes about John Travolta and Tom Cruise, and their bizarre connection to the “church.” We learn about the current leader, David Miscavige, and the lengths he’s gone to in order to protect Scientology. It’s crazy. And terrifying. But it all makes for a riveting read.
Publishers Weekly called this book a “raucous yarn,” and I can’t think of any better way to describe it. The 100-Year-Old Man tells the story of the titular character’s flight from his old folks’ home and his subsequent adventures, interspersed with flashbacks to his long and remarkable life. The story is full of improbable coincidences, unlikely turns of events, and lucky breaks, all pulled together by Jonasson’s spectacularly matter-of-fact narration. It’s precisely my cup of tea, full of dark humor and absurdity. I actually think it feels somewhat like a Mel Brooks movie, except that, rather than feeling like one long joke, the book takes itself seriously and all of the events that transpire just happen to be ridiculous. I’ve been couch-bound with a minor injury, and this book cheered me right up out of my self pity.
It is almost impossible to give an elevator pitch for this book. It’s a novel, kind of. It’s about Scandinavian mythology, kind of. It’s about the meeting of two cultures, the Norse and the Inuit — kind of? It’s about Vollmann researching all these things, and a trip he took to the Northwest Passages in 1987, also kind of. Here’s what it definitely is: a dense, layered piece of metafiction that sucks you in and whirls you all around, playing with the present and deep past in ways that delight and surprise.
First of all, Ann Wilson is a total badass. Second of all, Ann Wilson is a total badass. Third of all, Nancy Wilson is pretty rad too. Before reading this memoir by the Wilson sisters, I’d have called myself a casual Heart fan at best. Sure “These Dreams” is forever the soundtrack of ninth grade, but my affection for the band wasn’t that deep. And now? Holy Buckets! I am in love with the Wilson sisters. Ann pulls no punches and she calls all kinds of bullshit on the misogyny inherent in the music industry. As a rock & roll-loving woman I’ve been waiting exactly my whole entire life for this kind of memoir, about what it’s really like to be a woman in rock. Ann & Nancy deliver. Also it’s a great run through the past fortyish years of rock from Led Zepplin to Def Leppard to Alice in Chains. So much love for this one.
April has been kind of a slow reading month for me as I continue making my way through A Song of Ice and Fire, so I didn’t have a lot of books to choose from when choosing my favorite of the month. I chose Lamb because it broke my heart and turned my stomach, which is a testament to the very good writing. Of course, it’s always going to be difficult to pull off the old man-little girl relationship without Lolita comparisons (and, let’s face it, nothing holds up to Lolita), but Nadzam holds her own. I wanted to bring Tommie to my house to watch Jem and the Holgrams and read Lemony Snicket, and forcibly plunk “Gary” down with a really good therapist.
Our Book Riot read-along got me hooked on The Secret History and as I’m now a bit jittery in anticipation of Tartt’s upcoming novel, I plunged into this. Already the best thing I’ve dug into all month and I’ve only read the first 100 pages or so. The book opens with a family tragedy, described so seamlessly it feels like a perfect tracking shot.
Holy adverbs, Batman! This collection of short stories is good; so good that once inside, I didn’t want to escape. McLeod writes of residents on the lunatic fringe: young male escorts, an Amish boy on rumspringa, a man who puts his life up for sale on eBay. These characters are steeped in the tar and nicotine of Raymond Carver, and bathed in the sentences of Flannery O’Connor. I was so impressed (and quite a bit jealous) of McLeod’s seemingly effortless control of sentences, the pacing and the startling reveal of surprises. He does handicap himself somewhat by putting a challenging story, “Edge Boys,” at the start. If you are put off by breathless, pages-long sentences, just hang on, the sentences get shorter after that first story. And what beautiful sentences they are. Consider this: “The first snowfall will feel like soft electricity.” Or this description of one of the book’s scarier creatures: “He was bearded and awkward, an oaf of a man, but in the water he was something to look at.” And a few pages later, talking about that same character: “His teeth were a mess, not aware of each other; they sprung from his gums at all angles.” I spent the entire book hypnotized by McLeod’s wordcraft.
The Ones You Do is the third book in Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy. It is about the return of John X Shade to Frogtown, where he reunites with his sons, who hardly know him. The book is mostly about his relationship with his children, but also about the lives these children have created in the absence of a father. John X Shade does not come to his family by choice, though, but because he is being chased by a man who thinks that Shade stole quite a bit of money from him. There is quite a bit of violence in the book, and a great cast of colorful, broken characters. Woodrell’s writing is very good, and is a treat to watch as he improves from one book in the trilogy to the next. Not just a book that is fun to read, it is also great to see a writer come into his own and find his voice.
I listened to Jodi’s recommendation and rushed out to buy this shortly after our discussion about gender and reading. Thrilled I did, too. TPSoLC is nowhere near as whimsical as the premise (young girl discovers that she tastes in food the moods and emotions of those who make it) might lead you to believe, but there is a deeply felt sympathy Bender has for her characters that lends warmth to what is at times a dark, strange novel. Magical Realism only works when the reader buys both the magic and the realism, and Bender’s handling of both is unimpeachable. The narrator’s gift/curse is the device that keeps the novel moving, but it’s the novel’s exceptionally crafted portrait of a family full of secrets that will stick with me.
This is the first Robert E. Howard novel I’ve read, but it definitely isn’t the last. If you’re as unfamiliar with Howard as I was when I started The People of the Black Circle, he’s the guy who wrote the Conan the Barbarian novels. I wasn’t expecting much out of this book, to be honest, but it was crazy fun and unputdownable (it’s really short, too, so totally a read-in-one-sitting type of novel). It has the sensibility of a kick-ass romance, what with the plucky kidnapped princess, Yasmina, and Conan going all alpha-hero on her. Yeah, it’s pulpy, but the writing style just seemed to fit the story. And Conan isn’t all brawn—his real secret to winning a fight is that he’s surprisingly canny. Definitely recommend this if you like historical fantasy or romances with OTT alpha males.
A seventeen-year-old London girl, who is (too) mature for her age, flies to Los Angeles to attend the funeral of her mother, Lily. Lily, it should be mentioned, abandoned the girl and her father when the girl was three. The girl ends up encountering several of the damaged people who were players in Lily’s life, as well as starting to carve out a not-entirely-truthful life for herself in Los Angeles. I keep saying ‘the girl’ because we don’t know her name, something I didn’t notice until now, as I write this, even after reading the back of the book, the book itself, and reviews that pointed out this very fact. This is the magic of The Pink Hotel. It’s like when you’re in the shower and you notice a bruise on your leg the size of a Pop Tart, but you have no recollection of how you got it. The Pink Hotel is utterly absorbing, and Stothard’s writing is lovely and crystalline. I look forward to more from her.
J-Jerry, as I am no doubt alone in calling him, is yet another example of the genre-straddling longform journalists that America seems to produce at will. There must be some underground bunker in New Mexico where these kinds of writers are produced in petri-dishes lined with pages from Tom Wolfe, David Foster Wallace, and Gay Talese. Pulphead collects J-Jerry’s disparate work from a variety of American magazines, on everything from Axl Rose’s small town delinquencies to cave paintings in Kentucky, and in the process gives us a personal, fractured take on what lies between those two shining seas. His trick of being at the centre of almost all his stories, such as his theory that the animals are about to overthrow humans or his house being used as a set for One Tree Hill, would render him a mere dinner party bore, were it not for his infectious enthusiasm and curiosity about the world that swirls around him. For example, no one has ever explained why I should pay more attention to The Real World or Christian rock music with such brio. I consider myself seduced.
I’m sure this has been in a Riot Round-Up before because I’ve spoken to a few of the other contributors about it. It is so good that I feel bad for the next book I read for having to go up against it. It’s the future, and the world is a dystopia. Most of the population spends its time in the massive free online world of OASIS, where you can live your whole life plugged in and as someone else. Wade, or Parzival as he’s known in OASIS, is in a race to win billions of dollars and save the virtual world he loves from the evil corporation IOI. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more, well, exciting book. I can’t even begin to describe how anxious I was while reading. It was like I was 14, watching my cousin go up against Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time, and seeing Link’s hearts blink out one by one, only to have him came back and win it in the last few minutes. Ready Player One kept the adrenaline up until the very end. Now I just have to wait for someone to invent the gameplay that existed in the book, because oh my God. I want it.
I’m basically jumping on the This Book Is Awesome Bandwagon by choosing this book, but whatever. I knew that The Round House was great while I was reading it — engaging characters, strong plot, lovely writing, plus some social commentary — but I didn’t realize how great until I got to the last page and immediately wanted to start reading it again from the beginning. Erdrich drops a lot of hints about how the mystery of this book works out as you’re reading, but their full weight doesn’t really become clear until the book is done. I can’t wait to re-read this one.
You’re probably familiar with the story, so I’ll spare you the synopsis. This is the first Austen novel I’ve read and it totally blew me away. Some scholars say Sense and Sensibility has the least literary value of her six major novels. Maybe that’s true, but it’s still one hell of a great book. I read the standard Penguin Classics edition and fell in love with the original introduction by Tony Tanner. It enhanced my reading experience tenfold and I highly recommend it.
I am the number one fan of Rachel Shukert’s Smash recaps for Vulture (you guys, it’s not a real Saturday night unless you’re watching Smash and Doctor Who back to back). Her recaps are maybe the funniest thing the internet has ever seen (and the internet has seen A LOT of videos of dogs being cute and children being stupid). Shukert, who’s put out a couple memoirs, builds her body of work with Starstruck, the first in a trilogy of YA novels set in late 1930s Hollywood. The novel follows three young starlets, an ingenue, a songbird, and a bombshell, as they navigate the treacherous waters of fictional Olympus Studios. It’s all the fun and glam you want it to be. I also want to wear every single outfit in this book. If you’re anything like me (I was a senior in high school the year my parents got TiVo and I would record every movie on TCM, watching the first hour before I went to bed and the last hour before I had to go to school in the morning) you will eat this book up with a spoon. I really hope Fun American History is the next Derivative Dystopia of YA trends.
I tried to read this book last year, when it was still getting a lot of attention. And by read, I mean listen. I kept falling asleep when it was playing, and when I managed to stay awake, I somehow managed to listen to it on shuffle, so the chapters were out of order. I put it aside, and only found my way back to it this week. A pharmacologist finds herself heading to the Brazilian rainforest in search of answers about both the progress that a certain secretive researcher is making and the sudden death of the colleague who made the trip before her. She fights nightmares fueled by her anti-malaria medication, deals with perpetually lost luggage, and comes to doubt her career path. She marvels at the world she is introduced to, and she finds that she thrives in it. She has hidden herself away in a safe little space, and it takes a radical change of scenery to help her find herself again. It’s a fascinating process to watch. The only part of the book that bothered me was the ending, and that’s just because it was a bit too abrupt for my liking. I felt like there was another chapter in there. Or an epilogue. I always appreciate a good epilogue.
This isn’t so much a novel, as an arachnophobe’s version of Hell rendered in print. Much like the giant, monstrous spiders that Wong insists live in our brains (yes, including yours), the idea at the core of this book – the sequel to Wong’s debut, John Dies At The End – will creep into your mind and stay there, whether you like it or not. It achieves what so little comedy-horror manages to do – the funny parts are very funny, and the gruesome parts are genuinely unsettling. Genre-savvy metaphors for belated mid-twenties coming-of-age are not in short supply right now, so it is to Wong’s credit that he makes this apocalyptic, post-ironic adventure story not only unique, but consistently winning in style and comedy throughout.
I loved Wild when I read it last year, but I hesitated to pick up this collection of pieces from Cheryl’s stint as advice columnist Sugar on The Rumpus. Mostly because I’m not interested in the clichéd platitudes dished out by so many advice columns, and a little bit because I never actually read Cheryl-as-Sugar and was afraid (based on what I’d read in Wild) that this book would be too hippy-dippy for my tastes. INACCURATE. Sugar/Cheryl is a loving hard-ass, the greatest guidance counselor you never had, a maybe-slightly-older-than-you cool aunt who dishes out the hard stuff and then buys you a margarita and a cookie. And yeah, Cheryl can write like a motherfucker.
“She has got you buffaloed with her saucy ways!” First, imagine the dandyish Texas Ranger LaBoeuf saying this to former bushwhacker Rooster Cogburn to scold him for taking up with a 14 year old girl hell-bent on avenging her father’s death. Got it? Now, imagine it being read aloud over your car speakers by Donna Tartt during your morning commute. AWESOME. I heart the book and film versions of Charles Portis’ classic western tale of revenge and justice, but the audio version read in Donna Tartt’s tough-girl Mississippi accent trumps them all. Go check it out from your library right now.
–Rachel Smalter Hall
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
It’s very fitting that this is my first Murakami book ever, given how much running I do these days and how much brain space it now occupies. Unlike Murakami’s elaborate, surreal, incredibly popular novels, this is a very slim book that explores Murakami’s thoughts not only on writing, but on running regularly, training for marathons and triathlons, and the ways in which novels and runs are similar and how they’ve influenced his life. It’s a wonderful little book that offers no gigantic metaphors or huge life-lessons anywhere along the way. Just a chronicle of running, books, the pain (and the incredible pleasure) that can come from both. It took me about a day to read, but I’ll re-read it many more times. Probably after a long run, when I’m in pain.
I live down the street from Roger Ebert’s childhood home, so shortly after his death this month, I saw flowers and bags of Steak ‘n Shake piled up on the sidewalk out front. I realized it’d been a while since I’d read anything of his, and I had a copy of Your Movie Sucks lying around. So I picked it up and started reading his reviews of terrible movies…and suddenly it was hours later, and my sides hurt from laughing so hard. It was, for one, hilariously embarrassing to realize just how many of these movies I had seen. But really, it was Ebert’s exasperated cattiness that kept me reading and laughing. Try this: “This is a movie made for nobody, about nothing.” Or: “Charlie’s Angels is like the trailer for a video game movie, lacking only the video game and the movie.” Or: “To call this movie dead in the water is an insult to water.” Or: “It’s so ludicrous in so many different ways it achieves a kind of forlorn grandeur.” And there are many, many more, in reviews that are hilarious and cutting, but somehow also generous in their criticism. They made me want to write better reviews and to see fewer terrible movies, both of which count, I think, as fitting tributes to Ebert and his work.
Your turn, readers! What was your best book of the month?
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