Riot Round-Up: The Best Books We Read in January

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.

Belle CoraBelle Cora by Phillip Margulies

Belle Cora is historical fiction with a nugget of truth at its core; the heroine is based on a real 19th century madam, and the story is sprinkled with bits of genuine primary sources. The writing is clear and precise, the characters enthralling. It has a bit of a good-girl-gone-bad narrative at the center, but it’s always more about the heroine’s determination to survive by any means than a novel that’s looking for an excuse for its characters to misbehave in a titillating fashion. Above all else, it tells a great story. –Becky Cole

 

 

 

 

 

Bring Me the RhinocerousBring Me The Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life by John Tarrant

You all know the famous koan, “You know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand?” I’ve puzzled over this Zen head-scratcher for years and will continue to do so for years. But that’s what’s great about koans, Tarrant suggests, they are little mind nuggets, and mind nuggets are, in my opinion, exactly what February calls for. Because late winter early spring as a season that is neither here nor there. Discuss. –Elizabeth Bastos 

 

 

 

 

The Confidence CodeThe Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman (Harper, April 15)

Remember when Susan Cain’s Quiet came out two years ago, and all the introverts started passing it around, saying, “Look, this is me?” Get ready for a repeat. Kay and Shipman, both high-profile journalists in DC, look at the cultural and biological basis of confidence — or, really, the lack of it. (Also why it matters: studies have shown that being confident matters more than actually being right, so.) Their focus is on improving women’s confidence, but most of the book applies equally well to men, from the biochemistry and neuroscience of decision-making to strategies for teaching yourself confidence skills. – Sarah Rettger

 

 

 

 

Creativity IncCreativity Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace (Random House, April 8)

The wonderful Benjamin Dreyer at Random House patiently listened to me live-tweeting my obsessive Pixar knowledge for two weeks, during my kids’ winter break, and then mailed me an advance copy of Creativity Inc, the upcoming book by Pixar’s co-founder and current President, Ed Catmull. I think he sent it in the hopes that if I went and read for a while, I would shut up. It didn’t work, I jabbered even more. Nominally, Creativity Inc is a “business management” book. That’s what it says on the tin. In point of fact, it’s an astonishing memoir about modern animation, the rise of the technology-world we currently live in, a razor-sharp look at people like Steve Jobs, a terrific book on creativity and what you should do with your own creative life, perhaps. (Certainly, it’s caused a lot of changes to how I’m working). It’s imminently quotable and useful. I don’t manage a business, but given that Pixar is a behemoth of animation success, it’s probably good as a business guide too. I think it could be as vital and exciting a book on creativity as Stephen King’s On Writing, which was itself a fantastic book even if you weren’t a novelist. Likewise, you don’t need to be an animation geek like I am to get a great deal out of this book. -Peter Damien 

 

David & GoliathDavid & Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

It seems as though January of 2014 has been the month for me to catch up on a slew of books published in 2013. David & Goliath was by far the best of the bunch. Anything by Gladwell is sure to get a lot of attention, but I was honestly surprised I didn’t hear more about this book before picking it up. It didn’t make the cut for many best-of lists last year, but surely should have. Gladwell is not scientific in the traditional sense, but he finds ways of weaving stories together that just make you consider new possibilities about the world around us. I’ve heard criticisms that he’s just a pop psychologist, but really he’s a master of observation. David & Goliath is all about how the little guy — the underdog in the story — often has certain advantages that aren’t necessarily readily apparent. That’s most compelling, to me, when he’s dissecting for us the biblical story of David and Goliath. He makes a convincing argument that how the whole episode went down is much different than what you may have been taught in Sunday school. And from that first chapter, he builds on the idea of the underdog being stronger than you think. This book will inspire you and motivate you and give you hope that being the little guy may actually put the odds in your favor. –Jeremy Anderberg

 

 

1goldfinch.JPGThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

For some dumb reason, I tend to avoid books that receive an inordinate amount of hype unless I’m already a huge fan of the author. The utter idiocy of this habit has never been more apparent to me than during the couple of weeks it took me to read Donna Tartt’s sprawling, wonderful The Goldfinch. The traumatic loss of the Theodore Decker’s mother sets off a series of harrowing and often bizarre events involving stolen art, antique furniture, and one of the most memorable casts of characters I can remember in a novel. At about 800 pages, The Goldfinch is an experience as much as it is a book, but despite its potentially intimidating length, it has now been added to the very short list of books that I’ll recommend to anyone who tells me they’re looking for a new book to read (it’s happened twice already). Since you’re reading this, I’ll assume you need a book to read. Make it The Goldfinch. Like, now. Go. Seriously. – Josh Corman

 

 

HildHild by Nicola Griffith

This is the best kind of historical fiction. It takes a mystical figure, St. Hilda of Whitby, and imagines a childhood for her that feels like the best blend you can imagine of biography and fantasy. Hild herself is uncanny, unreal yet deeply realistic. I loved her. Like almost any novel that requires world-building, this one took a while to really get rolling, but your patience with the setup is rewarded tenfold by the payoff. I loved it from the start and am calling it: Hild will be one of my favorite reads of 2014. –Jeanette Solomon 

 

 

 

 

 

Little FailureLittle Failure by Gary Shteyngart

I’ve been crushing on Gary-Shteyngart-the-person since Day 1. How can you not be in love with a cheeky Soviet immigrant who blurbs a million books, writes about wearing Google Glass for the New Yorker, and has encyclopedic knowledge of old school hip hop and ghetto tech? With Little Failure, I’m now officially crushing on Gary-Shteyngart-the-writer, too.

In his most vulnerable project to date, Shteyngart finally lets down his guard to write about the Soviet immigrant experience. How does a 7-year-old boy go from living amongst exploding Soviet TVs and writing his first novel — Lenin and His Magical Goose — for one slice of cheese per page, to living in a tiny American apartment with his screaming parents and being the laughingstock of the Solomon Schechter Hebrew Day School in Queens? Not easily, it turns out.  It helps that his American TV wasn’t the exploding variety. Little Failure is Gary Shteyngart’s best writing yet; a memoir that strives for truth and addresses that age-old question of how you can still love someone who had you circumcised at age 8. -Rachel Smalter Hall 

 

 

 

A Life in MenA Life in Men by Gina Frangello (Algonquin Books, February 4)

Don’t be fooled by the title: A Life in Men is actually about the complexity and enduring impact of our closest friendships, and with Mary and Nix, Frangello has given us one of the most authentic depictions of female friendship that I’ve ever read. Frangello does not shy away from the conflicting layers of the deepest friendships–the jealousy and competition, the betrayals and shifting motives, the fierce loyalty and the secrets we keep to protect one another. Yes, the timeline of this novel follows Mary’s subsequent relationships with the various men in her life (cut in with flashbacks to one very fateful trip to Greece), but it’s the fallout of her friendship with Nix that drives Mary forward, chasing her memory through the lush landscapes of Amsterdam, London, Kenya, Mexico, the Canary Islands, and Morocco. I’m wary to say much more and give away the many twists of this novel (which I truly didn’t see coming), but rest assured that this is no After School Special: Frangello bravely faces Mary and Nix’s journey head on, never flinching in the face of fatal illness, grief, infidelity, betrayal, and violence. A Life in Men is an important and powerful novel, and one I won’t soon forget. –Marisa Atkinson

 

 

 

the-luminaries-3The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

If one of the reasons you read is to totally lose yourself in a story, then this year’s massive, challenging Booker Prize-winning novel is for you. Set in 1866 New Zealand, the story is about a dead hermit named Crosbie Wells, a supposedly drug-addled suicidal whore named Anna Wetherell, and the machinations and whims of more than dozen characters all connected to these first two – often in increasingly surprising ways. This novel is an awe-inspiring feat of storytelling, as you follow Catton the plot through several perspectives, trying to guess along with the characters about what really happened. It’s complicated, and infuriating, but infinitely rewarding if you stick with it and figure it out. (If you need a little nudge, I took a bunch of notes on the book as I read, which you’re welcome to. They’re here.) –Greg Zimmerman 

 

 

 

The Liminal PeopleThe Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett

If you love Lauren Beukes, Jim Butcher, Ilona Andrews, and/or urban fantasy, heads-up! I recently read The Liminal People, after a recommendation from a friend, and it’s an absolute must-read. Much like Beukes’s excellent Zoo City, Jama-Everett envisions a world in which those on the fringes (and some more in the spotlight) have special powers. Rather than get caught up in their source, he’s written an action-packed adventure that spans Africa and London, takes on questions of identity and family, searches for a higher meaning, and creates a wise-ass narrator for the ages. –Jenn Northington 

 

 

 

 

the-lowland-1The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The story of two inseparable brothers growing up in mid-century India. One leaves to go to school in America, one stays and becomes more and more deeply involved in political upheaval. Tragedy comes, families are torn apart and remade and then torn apart again. There’s an especially interesting examination of motherhood here- how can you possibly mother a child who is a living reminder of the worst day of your life? A deft yet steady exploration of human nature, with a solid dose of the unfamiliar-to-me history of another country that sent me scrambling to Wikipedia (which I appreciate). –Amanda Nelson

 

 

 

 

Maddie on ThingsMaddie on Things by Theron Humphrey

This is one of those books I threw onto my Amazon wishlist in December on a whim, because I’d seen it in displays and it looked cute and, you know, doggies, and then someone actually bought it for me and HOLY CRAP, thank you, in-laws! Because the hour or two I sat in my favorite chair and just enjoyed this book were some of the happiest hours of my entire month. It’s exceedingly simple–a dog, on things–yet Maddie and Theron’s adventures also speak to the deepest of American dreams, a la Steinbeck and Charlie, of just heading out on the open road with no other purpose than to meet good, ordinary folks and see new things. Maddie’s skills are awesome, but so are Theron’s. The photographs are excellent, and all of them made me want to go adventuring. (And if you’re not following Maddie and Theron at thiswildidea on Instagram, you should be.) I read a whole lot of pretty good novels this month that had all received critical acclaim, but when I sat down and thought about it, Maddie put a permanent  smile on my face the whole time I had her open in front of me, so Maddie wins. –Jill Guccini 

 

 

May We Be ForgivenMay We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

To boil down May We Be Forgiven, the story of underachieving Nixon scholar Harry Silver and his highly dysfunctional family, to its plot would be to do it a disservice. Because, frankly, the storyline is a shambles. It veers from domestic tragedy and sad-sack campus comedy to international spy games and African voyages of discovery, and still manages to be home in time for tea. It’s like The Corrections but with the picaresque turned up to 11. This scattergun, highly-caffeinated approach to plotting should result in a mangled car crash of a novel, not dissimilar to the actual vehicular accident that kick starts proceedings. And yet Homes injects everything with an odd sense of humour that, while occasionally black, holds everything together in a blissed out, pseduo-medicated haze. If the Coen Brothers wrote novels about when Thanksgiving dinners go horribly wrong, May We Be Forgiven would be the result. –Edd McCracken

 

 

Minister Without PortfolioMinister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter

Oh, the incomparable Michael Winter. You, non-Canadian Riot fan who does not know the magic of Michael Winter: GET THEE TO A BOOKSHOP and purchase anything at all by Michael Winter immediately. DO IT.

Minister Without Portfolio tells the story of Henry, a Newfoundlander with fresh heartbreak and very few commitments in life, who after a traumatic experience as a contractor in Afghanistan finds himself, well, in search of a few good commitments. So, like many a good literary man on a mission to make sense of himself, he heads for rural life and sets about building himself a house. Along the way, he falls in an incinerator, falls into more knowledge of his new community than he thought he wanted, and certainly falls in love. The voice is charming and witty, the style literary in the best way, and the plot ambling and engaging. And it includes lines like this: “He spoke of Henry as if he were an old shed built with found wood. Which he was. Which we all are.” Tell me that’s not brain-ticklingly gorgeous prose? –Brenna Clarke Cray 

 

 

The Night Gwen Stacy DiedThe Night Gwen Stacy Died by Sarah Bruni

In addressing the phenomenon of the superhero, Alan Moore recently said that “this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence.” Predictably, this elicited much whining from those recognised something of themselves in Moore’s remarks. Yet the fictional possibilities posed by such an escapist sense of arrested development are part of what makes Sarah Bruni’s debut novel so original.

Sheila Gower, a teenager already afraid she’ll never leave her small, suffocating Iowa hometown, finds escape in the form of a taxi driver who calls himself ‘Peter Parker’. Together, they head for Chicago via a half-faked kidnapping, and as a bizarre romance develops, identities shift and reality becomes deeply uncertain. Just as her new boyfriend models himself on Spider-Man, Sheila becomes ‘Gwen’, Spider-Man’s perfect, doomed girlfriend. However, Peter is not merely a fantasist, and has dark reasons for bringing Sheila/Gwen into his life…

Bruni’s novel is far more than an interesting twist on a pop culture staple. The parallels she draws between the simple, four-colour world of comics and the far more complicated one we inhabit invests the book with a fascinating unpredictability, breathing new life into the trope of young lovers on the run. A beguiling exploration of human identity and fragility, Bruni is an author to keep an eye on.  –Sean Bell 

 

 

On Such a Full SeaOn Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

I loved Lee’s use of a communal narrator. I loved how that narrator gave the book a mythic/epic/timeless texture. I loved that the narrator told us a story that they could never have known, so they made it up because we need narratives to get us out of bed in the morning. I loved that the narrator lives in a labor settlement called “B-mor,” when I’ve been calling my hometown “B-more” for years. I loved that Fan’s journey through all three levels of this dystopian American society was like a good-old-fashioned picaresque in the style of Don Quixote but so very, very strangely different. I loved that I heard great things about this book before I read it and wasn’t disappointed. And I loved how Lee holds a distorted mirror up to us and slyly but gently invites us to see ourselves in this crumbling world marked by obsessions with health, status, and stratification. I loved it. –Rachel Cordasco

 

 

 

The PainterThe Painter by Peter Heller (Knopf, May 6)

Heller’s first novel, The Dog Stars, was my favorite book of 2012, and the book gods have been kind: his follow-up does not disappoint! Jim Stegner is a wildly talented painter whose temper landed him in jail and cost him some of the people he loves. Now out and trying to make a new life for himself, he buys a secluded ranch in Colorado to focus on his work and sobriety. But no sooner has he set up his easel than trouble finds him again, and he winds up killing one of the known local thugs. Now Jim is being hunted by the family of the man he killed, while the local sheriff tries to find evidence that connects Jim to the murder. This could be called No Country for Old Painters. Or Asher Lev: First Blood. And like Chaim Potok’s classic, My Name is Asher Lev, the writing about art in The Painter is so beautiful. Heller’s descriptions of Jim’s paintings and techniques are wonderful, and his tale of a damaged artist is a great meditation on redemption and change. –Liberty Hardy 

 

 

 

The Salinger Contract Adam Langer CoverThe Salinger Contract by Adam Langer

I enjoyed the hell out of this novel. Adam Langer is a not-writing writer living in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife and kids. His days revolve around runny noses, laundry, and dishes. But then he meets up with Conner Joyce, a best-selling crime novelist with a bizarre true story, and is drawn into a film noir-ish tale of intrigue.

This is the type of book I’d recommend to anyone who’s a bibliophile. Not only is it a great story and completely unputdownable (I may or may not have played hooky for a few days just so I could spend my afternoons reading it), it’s a book about books and how some books inspire people to make fiction their reality. The most infamous example is The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, but lots of other books do this, too—think of travel guides based on The Da Vinci Code, or muggle quidditch. Why do some books resonate like this? It’s one of the great mysteries of reading and the question that really drives the novel. Not only is The Salinger Contract wry and fun and ever-so-slightly over the top (in the way all good thrillers are), it also makes you think. And on a side note, I’m totally drinking at the Coq d’Or the next time I’m in Chicago. –Tasha Brandstatter 

 

 

A Second Mencken ChrestomathyA Second Mencken Chrestomathy by H.L. Mencken

I love H.L Mencken and I love the word chrestomathy. Say it out loud. It sings. This is another big book of short writings from the ever-irascible and entertaining critic. I disagree with Mencken as often as I agree with him, but I never fail to enjoy his writing. It’s arranged by subject, as most chrestomathies are, so it’s easy to dip in and out and find something interesting that flies by. Politics, book reviews, manners, women, men, etc. Locked myself up for a week with this one. Happy times. –Josh Hanagarne

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Secret RoomsThe Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey

When John Henry Montagu Manners, the ninth Duke of Rutland, was diagnosed with pneumonia in APril 1940, he did a perplexing thing: he locked himself in the suite of dank, musty rooms in the basement of his family’s castle that housed his family’s personal archives. When he died, likely alone, the rooms were sealed. Sixty years later, historian Catherine Bailey became one of the first people to re-enter the archive. Bailey discovered that there were three distinct gaps in the collections — gaps she determined that John created just before he died. What secrets were so devastating that John would sacrifice his life to hide them? Those are the stories in The Secret Rooms that Bailey seeks to tell. Although the story peters out a little at the end — Bailey gets wrapped up in World War I strategy and the final “secret” the Duke tried to hide is a tad anticlimactic — but those mis-steps are small when compared to the overall wonderfulness that is this book. If you like real life historical mysteries, this is a good one. -Kim Ukura 

 

 

 

Sex CriminalsSex Criminals #1-4 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

When the main character of this radtastic comic has an orgasm, time stops. Literally. She has time-stopping orgasms. And she’s a librarian! She’s a librarian who has time-stopping orgasms. Tell me you’re not sold already! Then she meets a guy who has the same special skill–they discover this when they sleep together the first time and then each find out they are not alone in their post-coital time-stopped happy place (she calls it The Quiet, he calls it Cumworld. Dudes will be dudes, I guess..)–and they decide to use their powers for good to save her struggling library. And by “use their powers for good,” I mean they’re going to have orgasms, stop time, and rob banks while no one can catch them, then give the money to the library Robinhood-style.

This comic is edgy and hilarious and so frank, and it examines women’s bodies and sexuality in a way that is delightfully celebratory and not sexist or judgmental. And the awesomeness doesn’t stop there! The fan letters in the back of the issues are *filled* with people telling stories about the times they found porn in the woods when they were kids, which is apparently A Thing That Happens and not just a conceit in movies and comics. Amazing. Fellow Rioter Paul sent me the first issue in the mail, and I promptly downloaded the ComiXology app and gave them all my dollars for the next three. Can’t wait to continue this crazy sex-filled adventure. –Rebecca Joines Schinsky

 

 

 

Shovel ReadyShovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

Late last year, I started seeing tweets about this book. Most used the words “Noir” and “Post-Apocalyptic” in their descriptions, and I was sold. Shovel Ready is certainly a noir novel, a hardboiled tale of a gun-for-hire set in the near future. But it’s not post-apocalyptic. The world hasn’t ended, nor is it significantly broken: Incidents (terror attacks) have happened in New York, which have caused the wealthy to retreat into their homes and tap into to the Limnosphere: an immersive internet program, like Second Life. While the elite live out their fantasies on the virtual plane, the less fortunate scratch out a living by tending to their physical bodies. Spademan, the novel’s antihero, is a garbageman-turned-hitman sent to find the daughter of a powerful evangelist. As befits a hardboiled adventure, Spademan’s original pursuit (a maguffin) leads him into ever deeper hot water. He pursues his targets (and is pursued) through the smoking ruins of New York City and into the simulated worlds of the Limnosphere. Sternbergh plucks from Sam Spade and Neuromancer equally, and creates a novel that’s a blast to read. I, for one, hope there are more Spademan adventures in store. –Casey Peterson 

 

 

Sweetness at Bottom of the PieThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Sweetness is the first in a long series of beautifully written cozy mysteries set in 1950’s England. Flavia de Luce, a precocious eleven-year-old with a penchant for chemistry, and in particular, poisons, discovers her talent for solving murders when a mysterious stranger breathes his last in the cucumber patch behind her family’s country estate. It’s unusual for a child to play first fiddle in an adult mystery novel, but it seems to have worked out brilliantly for Bradley. Flavia is a fascinating mix of childlike innocence, scientific genius, and sociopathic tendencies, and I have to believe her character is the driving force behind the success of the book. It’s the best mystery I’ve read in a long time. –Kate Scott 

 

 

 

 

Things I've learned from DyingThings I’ve Learned from Dying by David R. Dow 

David R. Dow is a death row lawyer who doesn’t believe in the death penalty. It’s his life mission to save the lives of criminals in Texas, some he believes are innocent, some he believes are guilty. He has spent a lot of time thinking about death and dying, but this memoir takes place during three major events: Waterman, a death row inmate, and his last days alive, his father-in-law’s melanoma, and his beloved family dog’s sudden liver failure. It’s beautifully written and, yes, it is sad. You know from the beginning how each of these stories will play out, but it is a beautiful look at three lives and what they mean to one man and his family. -Leslie  

 

 

 

 

Under the Wide and Starry SkyUnder the Wide and Starry Sky  by Nancy Horan

You generally know the outcome of historical fictions before you read them, because by their nature, they’re written well after the subject is dead. And even then, you (or, ok, I) usually look up the person and know exactly when the person died, just to be sure. But when I got to the end of Under the Wide and Starry Sky, and Robert Louis Stevenson expired right on schedule, I still burst into tears – but they were tears of release for a story well told and a life lived really, inspiringly, fully. Full disclosure: I could not place RLS with a single book of his till the native Scott started traveling the world in search of the perfect climate to keep his weak lungs going, and his adventures turned into Treasure Island. And then Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which may or may not have inadvertently been inspired by Stevenson’s own relationship with Fanny Van De Grift Osbourne, who is really the heroine of this love story about a gifted writer. Horan also wrote Loving Frank (Lloyd Wright), and seems to have found a perfect novel niche: extraordinarly spunky American woman, married, falls for struggling/troubled genius artist, who pursues the lucky woman halfway across the globe to secure her for his own – and the rest is literally history. From artist colonies in France to squatting in California to living like literal kings in Samoa, this rambling round-the-world adventure will leave you with two burning thoughts: first, I must read everything RLS has ever written, and second, how the hell does a struggling artist and a divorcee (with children in tow!) afford to travel continent to continent, and back? It’s a wild and crazy ride, well worth diving into. -Alison Peters

 

 

Unremarried WidowUnremarried Widow by Artis Henderson

I had a great month full of wonderful books. THREE were one day-ers, which rarely happens to me. Unremarried Widow hit all of my literary buttons: beautiful prose, real emotion, and connection. When she was five years old, Artis Henderson lost her father in a plane crash (she survived). Nearly twenty years later, she lost her husband in an Apache helicopter crash in Iraq. Her memoir is not just about her seemingly insurmountable loss, it is also a true testament to the strength of the human spirit. She knew both men for such a short amount of time but they had a profound impact on her life. As she reconciles with her own mother, their shared experience of young widowhood helps bond them together in ways they were never able to before. It will definitely make my “Best of 2014” list, even though it gave me major raccoon eyes. –Emily Gatlin

 

 

 

 

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