Riot Roundup: The Best Books We Read April–June 2019

We asked our contributors to share their favorite read from April to June, and that’s a hard choice but it got us this fantastic list! We have poetry, thrillers, memoirs, fantasy, literature, some real LOLs and so much more—there are book recommendations for every reader! And the list includes backlist, new releases, and not-even-out-yet reads.

Beyond the Sky and the Earth A Journey into Bhutan cover imageBeyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa

This memoir, by a Canadian woman embarking on a two-year teaching stint in Bhutan, initially seems like it’s going to be an amusing travelogue. But it ends up being much more. It’s a very smart, very well-written reflection on relationships as they are or aren’t affected by cultural differences, including a suspenseful will-they-or-won’t-they romantic narrative.

—Christine Ro

Bitten cover imageBitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons by Kris Newby

Before his death, Willy Burgdorfer, the revered scientist who discovered the spirochete that causes Lyme disease, confessed that much of his research into tick-borne diseases had been part of the U.S. military’s push to develop bioweapons during the Cold War. Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act confirm this. In Bitten, science writer Kris Newby explores the link between Willy’s work and the epidemic of tick-borne diseases that followed decades later. Were the original outbreaks in Lyme, Connecticut, and Long Island the result of open-air bioweapons tests gone wrong? Why did Willy attribute the outbreak in Lyme to Borrelia when the blood samples from the affected population tested positive for a strain of Rickettsia known as the Swiss Agent? And why did Willy have a secret Swiss bank account filled with money? Bitten answers many questions and raises even more, shining a light into the dark corners of mid-century vector-borne disease research and our country’s shameful history of experimenting on its own citizens in the name of defense.

—Kate Scott

The Candle And The Flame cover imageThe Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

I normally request my advance review copies, but this one came in the mail in January, unrequested. Though I immediately fell in love with the cover, it got set aside, and one thing led to another and I found it among piles of my daughter’s picture books several months later and thought, Ah ha! I know what I’m reading tonight. And it is such a wonderful read. With djinn magic, a diverse and intriguing city, and best of all, complex and dynamic female relationships, this book mesmerized me from beginning to end. And it’s a rare stand alone fantasy. It’s hard to believe this is the author’s debut novel. I look forward to following her work in the future.

—Margaret Kingsbury

The Chain cover imageThe Chain by Adrian McKinty

It’s been a bit since I’ve flown through a book in a matter of hours because of its can’t-put-down-ness, so when I started THE CHAIN and immediately got sucked in, I knew I was in for a ride. Rachel Klein receives the phone call that every parent fears: her daughter, Kylie, has been kidnapped. The only way she can get Kylie back is to pay a ransom, kidnap another child and make this same phone call to their parents. So creates The Chain that she will never be free of…and the consequences are deadly. We follow Rachel and her rush against time to get the ransom money and find the appropriate child to kidnap in exchange for Kylie. The first half of the book moves incredibly fast and defines the term “nail-biter.” The second half moves a bit slower and switches the direction of the story but it was equally enthralling. This book was an easy 5-star read and I’m still thinking about it.

—Kate Krug

rooney conversations with friends coverConversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney’s debut novel is a beautiful portrait of two young women in Ireland struggling to navigate their friendship and their role in the adult world. As they are drawn into this sophisticated adult art world, Bobbi and Frances find themselves intoxicated by the lifestyle of Melissa and Nick, a married couple who take an interest in the girls’ poetry. But when Frances and Nick move beyond a mere flirtation, everything begins to unravel. Rooney’s stark, simple language is realistic and moving in the way that she portrays her characters’ inability to communicate effectively. She does a fantastic job of giving you a window into these very complex relationships and strikes an authentic chord with each line of dialogue. The story is captivating and the writing style is heart wrenching in its realism, I couldn’t put it down!

—Katherine Packer

Daisy Jones and the Six cover imageDaisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I absolutely loved Daisy Jones & The Six—it’s every bit as good as everyone says! It’s the story of 1970s rock n’ roll stars on their rise to fame. The Six is a rock band led by the charismatic Billy Dunne. Daisy Jones is an aspiring singer and song-writer and a magnetic beauty and personality—everywhere Daisy goes is a party. Their producer discovers that Daisy and Billy are a magical duo, and push them together with legendary results. The book is told in retrospective as an oral history interview. Each character gets an opportunity to tell their viewpoint on some of rock n’ roll’s most famous moments of the 1970s. If you’re interested in that era, or in music and celebrity, it’s very vivid and unputdownable!

—Emily Stochl

Deathless cover imageDeathless by Catherynne M. Valente

This book had been on my TBR list for ages. Honestly, I don’t know why I waited so long to dive in but dear reader, I finally did, and oh my haunted fairytale heart loved it so much. It’s the story of Marya Morevna, who’s taken away by Koschei, the Tsar of Life. It is a story of their deep love and even deeper betrayals. It is a story of magic, fate, war, and death. I was absolutely wrecked by Valente’s lush prose, the heart-wrenching story of love and loss, and the artful way this fairy tale retelling was set against a war-torn Leningrad in the 1940s. This is a book to be savored. It’s decadent and unforgettable. Now I can pass this recommendation on to you. Don’t make the same mistake I did and wait. Pick up this jewel of a book.

—Lyndsie Manusos

Dressed in Dreams cover imageDressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion by Tanisha C. Ford

I love fashion memoirs, so when I read about this book, I knew I had to read it. Ford, a pop culture expert, blends memoir, research, and reportage in this book, which I devoured in little bites, because I wanted it to last. She looks at certain big trends that made an impact on her life, including dashikis, leather jackets, bamboo earrings, baggy jeans, and “coochie cutters.” In each chapter, she not only details her experiences with the fashion, but also goes into the cultural significance and history of each one. But more than this, Ford tells the story about how fashion can help form your identity, in both fitting in and as “other.” I laughed with appreciation and agreement at her memories of Wilson’s leather goods, I couldn’t stop reading about her experiences at St.  Paul’s, and the chapter on the bamboo earrings was eye-opening and pertinent to many of the “borrowing” of trends we see today. If you’ve ever found solace in fashion or felt like a rock star with certain outfits or accessories, read this book. You’ll never look at what you wear the same way ever again. I’m excited to read more from her.

—Jaime Herndon

Gideon the Ninth coverGideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com, 9/10/19)

Nine houses enter into a puzzle, challenge, and fight to become immortal knights, each house submitting a necromancer-cavalier pair: what follows is a maze of plotting, manipulation, murder, and skeletal constructs. I loved every moment of Gideon the Ninth, especially the hate-to-trust relationship of sword-swinging lesbian Gideon with the creeping, brutal, and intelligence necromancer Harrowhark. Muir’s world-building is intricate and fascinating—this is a horror novel, a battle royale, and a murder mystery all with a big dollop of dark humor. And the ending was one of the most daring I’ve seen in a fantasy novel in a long time. Muir is wildly talented, and I enjoyed Gideon from start to finish.

—Leah Rachel von Essen

Going Off Script cover imageGoing Off Script by Jen Wilde

Queens of Geek was the most heartwarming queer YA I’ve ever read, so I had high expectations coming into this book. Luckily, it exceeded them. I was immediately pulled into the fast-paced plot, in which 17-year-old Bex is taken on as an intern at her favourite TV show, only to find out her boss (the showrunner) is a jerk. When she writes a script to prove her worth to him, he passes it off as his own and straightwashes her lesbian character to boot. Jen Wilde’s books always include such a strong element of queer found family, which I love, and like Queens of Geek, this celebrates queer fandom and drops lots of geeky references. This is a fun, satisfying read that left me feeling all warm and fuzzy: just what I have come to expect from a Jen Wilde YA.

—Danika Ells

Good Talk by Mira JacobGood Talk by Mira Jacob

This book hooked me with its portrayal of talking to 6-year-olds (their questions are endless, complicated, and sometimes hilarious) and kept me reading with its nuanced, important conversations about race in America. Good Talk is a graphic memoir about Mira Jacob’s efforts to explain racism to her son and conversations with her husband, friends, and family about what it’s like to be a person of color in America today. I read this in one day and loved every moment: it’s absorbing, emotionally-wrenching, and essential reading for our time. It’s one of the most bracing and honest books about race I’ve come across.

—Rebecca Hussey

the great believers cover imageThe Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

This was just marvelous. Sort of heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. The writing is fantastic, the dialogue just perfect, and the parallel story lines compliment each other beautifully. The book follows two alternating time periods. The first is 1980s Chicago in and around Boystown. The story follows Yale and his group of gay friends as they wade through the burgeoning AIDS crisis and face the death and uncertainty in their community. One man’s sister, Fiona, is especially close to the group and becomes a caretaker for many. The second storyline finds Fiona in present day Paris seeking out her estranged daughter. I was completely swept up in the lives of the characters. What a moving, insightful, engrossing book.

—Heather Bottoms

cover of How to Date Men When You Hate Men by Blythe RobersonHow to Date Men When You Hate Men by Blythe Roberson

If your first thought on reading that title was “omg SUCH a mood” then you, like me, will devour this book. Comedy writer Blythe Roberson offers hilarious, relatable, and whip-smart commentary on crushing, kissing, and dating boys in a patriarchal world (especially those “professionally insecure woke boys”). Blythe’s zeitgeisty humor hit all the right buttons for me, a young millennial woman of the interwebs—from her advice on how to make it clear you’re on a date (“Refer to your socks as your ‘date socks’”) to her list of subtweets about her high school crush (“i guess if i could go back and give my teenage self advice it would be to never laugh at anything a teenage boy said”) to her discussion of acceptable and unacceptable PDA locations in New York (“Acceptable: outside the subway. You’re saying good-bye! Who knows when you’ll ever see each other again! Other than when you’re pretending not to notice that the other person is standing directly across from you on the other side of the tracks”). And before anyone gets his boxers in a bunch, I’ll note that the book is written in the spirit of Mrs. Banks’s famous line from Mary Poppins: “Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid!”

—Emily Polson

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi Book CoverHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing tells the story of slavery and its lingering effects through the lives of two half-sisters in 18th Century Ghana, Esi and Effia. One is sold into slavery; the other is married off by her family to a slave trader. In alternating chapters, author Yaa Gyasi traces the family lines of these two women through history to the present day. It is powerful and educational—I learned something and felt so much more. I haven’t read Roots (yet) but I have a feeling Homegoing is to me what Roots was for my parents and grandparents. It made me mad, sad, hopeful, and proud. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. I can’t even imagine how Gyasi will follow this up, but whatever she writes next I will definitely read.

—Tiffani Willis

The Infinite Noise cover imageThe Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen (Tor Teen, 9/24/19)

Caleb and Adam are two high school boys who, from the outside, could not seem more different. Caleb is the running back of the football team, and Adam is a smart, quiet loner type. But when Caleb finds out he is an Atypical, a person with enhanced abilities (in his case, extreme empathy), he becomes drawn to Adam and his emotions, and the two slowly discover how much they need each other. The author, Lauren Shippen, is the creator of the popular fiction podcast The Bright Sessions, and The Infinite Noise is the first in a trilogy of YA novels that expands upon the podcast and some of its characters. The Bright Sessions has always meant a lot to listeners, including myself, for its creative, yet honest and validating exploration of mental health, and Shippen has successfully captured the same magic in novel form.

—Patricia Thang

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara

Did you know that a woman by the name of Milicent Patrick was the brilliant artist behind the creature from The Creature from the Black Lagoon? Probably not. You also probably didn’t know she was one of the first female animators for Disney. That’s because a jealous male colleague set out to erase her contributions, leaving her all but forgotten from film history. But Mallory O’Meara, co-host of the Reading Glasses podcast and horror filmmaker, set out to get the real story straight once and for all. Told in alternating viewpoints between O’Meara’s search for answers and the fascinating life of Milicent Patrick, this is a nonfiction book you’ll find it difficult to put down. And I especially recommend listening to the audiobook since O’Meara narrates it herself. Trust me, you’ll be wishing your commute was a little longer just so you can find out what happens next.

—Rachel Brittain

Cover of Lanny by PorterLanny by Max Porter

A young family have chosen to make their home in a very normal village just outside of London. It’s a village with a pub, a church, government housing and a few larger homes for the wealthy dotted around. It’s a village like any other where everyone knows everyone else’s business and discusses it openly behind the closed doors of their homes. But this village has Dead Papa Toothwort, a creature the children sings songs about who is listening to the voices of the village and is cooking up his schemes. I’m often nervous about experimental fiction, but Lanny is experimental fiction at its best. With a mix of folklore and magical realism, Porter explores communities and relationships through one family going through one of the most traumatic experiences a family can go through. This book is beautifully written and also causes the reader to think twice about how they interact with their communities.

—Enobong Essien

 Let Me Hear a Rhyme cover imageLet Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson

Jackson’s fantastic writing transports readers to a very specific music scene, time, and place: Brooklyn, 1998. After Steph is murdered in the street, with no known cause or assailant, his grieving sister, Jasmine, and two best friends, Quadir and Jarrell, decide to pretend Steph is still alive and get him the record contract he deserved. I loved the characters—a side character’s amazing scene shows off Jackson’s talent for seeing the depths of people and putting it on the page—and watching their journey through grief and discovering you don’t always know everything about everyone, as they carve a spot for themselves in a difficult world. Jackson continues to be an author whose work I’ll read sight unseen. If you’ve yet to discover her I highly recommend you read her three novels, the first two are especially must-read for crime fans: Allegedly; Monday’s Not Coming.

—Jamie Canaves

Cover of The Library of the Unwritten by HackwithThe Library of the Unwritten: A Novel From Hell’s Library by A.J. Hackwith (ACE, 10/1/2019)

Unwritten stories live in Hell’s Library. It is, for the most part, a quiet place when librarian Claire, and her assistant, a failed Muse named Brevity, repair and organize and repair the books that need organizing and repairing. Until a story escapes to the human realm. Until a mysterious, young demon named Leto arrives to assist in the search and thoroughly complicates matters. Until two angels decide the librarian is hiding a powerful artifact they will stop at nothing to possess.

—S.W. Sondheimer

The Light at the Bottom of the World cover imageThe Light At The Bottom Of The World by London Shah (Disney Hyperion, 10/29/2019)

I literally dove head-first into The Light At The Bottom Of The World and was completely swept away by the story. Shah’s compelling narrative plunges the reader into a dystopian future where the entire world is submerged under water. It is entirely driven by its fierce protagonist, Leyla McQueen, a submersible racer who is at once brave yet fearful of what lurks within the unknown depths of the sea. Leyla’s deep appreciation for her Afghan heritage and Muslim faith was such a joy to read about in a sci-fi setting, which Shah manages to keep anchored to the present with references to famous landmarks, events and people (it’s pretty Wilde!). But it’s Leyla’s love for her family—her papa and her dog Jojo—that ultimately steers the novel to its bittersweet and hopeful conclusion.

—Nadia Ali

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls coverLong Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T. Kira Madden

I can’t quite remember where I read the excerpt. Was it BuzzFeed? But this one short piece was rendered with such lyricism and hinted at so many hidden depths—desire, coming of age, absent parent(s)—that I immediately knew I had to read the book from which it had been excised. And Madden’s memoir doesn’t disappoint. About growing up as a queer, biracial teenager within a dysfunctional family environment, finding fleeting connections with other fatherless girls, this book manages to unpack so much in what turns out to be a fairly quick read.

—Steph Auteri

The Monster of Elendhaven cvoerThe Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht (Tor.com, 9/24/19)

You all know how I feel about Gideon the Ninth by now. (WE LOVES THE PRECIOUS.) That’s why I am doubly excited about this other deliciously disturbing book coming in the fall, because it’s a perfect compliment to Gideon. It’s about a place called Elendhaven, a black oily town that exists five hundred years after the North Pole split in two. And there is a creature-man called Johann, who likes nothing more than to murder. Johann teams up with a frail sorcerer named Florian to double their evil, double their fun (and engage in an effed-up courtship). Together they set about plotting horrible plots to please their smoldering, pustule-covered hearts. This is like the anti–Edward Scissorhands. It gave me total Perfume vibes, even though it’s not really similar at all. It’s a 160-page-long gothic grotesquerie that I wish was 1600 pages.

—Liberty Hardy

My Past is a Foreign Country cover imageMy Past is a Foreign Country by Zeba Talkhani

In this memoir, Zeba Talkhani takes us from her childhood growing up in Saudi Arabia amidst patriarchal customs to her search for freedom abroad. As you follow her on this journey between country and culture, you can’t help but be inspired by her contagious hope and eagerness to question the status quo. While we grew up in two separate worlds, I found myself identifying deeply with Talkhani. Living an ocean away from my own culture, I am grateful to her for showing me a glimpse of what it’s like to live that experience—both the hard and beautiful moments.

—Sophia LeFevre

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim cover imageNatalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim

Chef Natalie Tan is brought home by the death of her estranged mother and decides to reopen her grandmother’s legendary restaurant in this beautiful story about family, community, and a bit of magic. First, this book is going to make you so hungry. Do not read it on an empty stomach because the food descriptions are drool-inducing. But the best part is the warm-hearted story those dishes are woven around. I savored it’s subtle sentimentality as well as the explorations of grief and mental illness.

—Sarah Nicolas

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead book coverThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, 7/16/19)

News breaks that the bodies of over 40 boys have been excavated on the grounds of an old reformatory school in Florida. Remembering the horrible living conditions and cruel treatment he experienced at the school, a man in New York knows he must come forward to set the record straight. Colson Whitehead is truly one of the most incredible authors writing today. With stunning prose, unforgettable characters, and a powerful plot that keeps you on your toes, this book feels like a modern classic. This is a story that demands to be told, and I’m so, so grateful that Whitehead chose to tell it.

—Susie Dumond

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker book coverThe Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

A reimagining of Homer’s The Iliad, The Silence of the Girls tells the story of women captured and enslaved by Achilles. Briesis was queen, but as  Greece’s greatest warrior, Achilles’s ‘prize,’ she has lost her privileged status. Still, she has it better than those forced to sleep under the huts with all of the island’s the filthy rats. When Agamemnon demands Briesis for himself, Achilles power begins to wane. The Silence of the Girls is gory and disturbing, yet written in such beautiful prose. (CW for Rape, Graphic Violence)

—Courtney Rodgers

The Song of Achilles coverThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Me, a week ago: “I probably won’t love this book as much as Circe.”

Me: now: *standing in puddle of own tears* “Patroclus! Porqueee?”

Madeline Miller, y’all. The way this woman breathes life into age-old stories is mythical magic in and of itself. The book is an homage to The Iliad (yes, another one #sorrynotsorry) from the perspective of Patroclus, the prince who was exiled to Phthia as a boy and there became companion to Achilles. It has long been speculated that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, and Madeline Miller imagines that intimate relationship from youth through adulthood in tender, gorgeous, heart-breaking detail. You know that’s coming: the Trojan war, the fall of Achilles. I’m telling you now: none of that knowledge will spare you.

—Vanessa Diaz

Tasty Other by Katie Manning

“Once upon a time, there was a mother” seems like a simple enough beginning to a fairytale. However, Katie Manning’s collection takes apart that sentence, word by word, sectioning off poems to redefine the meaning of each. Tasty Other, Main Street Rag’s 2016 Poetry Book Award winner, serves up pregnancy and motherhood in all its awkwardness. There are dream sequences. There are references to The Golden Girls and Jack Nicholson. There’s a poem after Sylvia Plath and a poem shaped like a disco ball. There’s a broken doll on the cover. This collection praises so many unspoken facets of womanhood intricately woven together poem by poem.

—Christina M. Rau

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow (Redhook, 10/10/19)

If you want to get my attention, “historical portal fantasy” is a good way to do so. Add an author whose short fiction is utterly divine and a stunning cover, and I am all yours. I read an ARC of this novel and had a book hangover for a week—I was genuinely unable to read anything else because this book is so good. Every word is chosen with care and the story is like catnip for me. In the early 1900s, January Scaller lives with her father’s employer, the wealthy and mysterious Mr. Locke, for whom her father goes on treasure-finding missions. January discovers a Door (with a capital D) when she is 7 years old; at 17, she finds a book that describes the existence of doors (Doors) between worlds and another young woman who found one. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is two stories for the price of one, with January’s book told as a story within her story, and of course the two stories meet. I loved this book with my whole heart.

—Annika Barranti Klein

Waiting for Tom Hanks by Kerry Winfrey cover imageWaiting for Tom Hanks by Kerry Winfrey

Every once in awhile you gotta read a lighthearted chick lit. It’s been a long time since I read a book that I had to put down to LOL for a minute. It hasn’t happened since Sophie Kinsella’s earlier novels. The town mirrors Gilmore Girls’s Stars Hollow, and the kooky characters like Chloe and Gary (who Tom should play in the movie) mirror the residents. Like Tom Hanks and his movies, Waiting for Tom Hanks is genuine and hilarious. Read it this summer, you deserve a laugh!

—Shireen Hakim

We Are Never Meeting in Real Lifewe are never meeting in real life. by Samantha Irby

This book is gross, crass, sometimes mean-spirited, and frequently dark. It is also the funniest book I have read in a long, long time. I literally laughed out loud, disgusting, snorting laughs with tears streaming down my face multiple times. It is 100% my kind of depressing humor. It is not for everyone, but for my fellow Daria Morgendorffers, Jane Lanes, Louise Belchers, and Wednesday Addamses, this book is for all of us. Samantha Irby is a g*ddamned gift.

—Patricia Elzie-Tuttle

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo book coverWith the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

I love books and films (documentaries and dramas) about food and cooking, so when I saw this book, I absolutely had to read it. I had never heard of Elizabeth Acevedo at that point, but the first thing that struck me was her lyrical writing. The story centers on Emoni, a high school senior and a teenage mother with a passion and an almost magical talent for cooking. Acevedo creates a realistic and relatable set of characters, and a plot that makes the heart soar. Also, the recipes in the book made the foodie in me very happy.  Bonus: The audiobook is expertly narrated by Acevedo herself and really worth listening to.

—Blaga Atanassova