Riot Roundup: The Best Books We Read in February 2018

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Emily Polson

Staff Writer

Emily Polson is a freelance writer and publishing assistant at Simon & Schuster. Originally from central Iowa, she studied English and creative writing at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi, before moving to a small Basque village to teach English to trilingual teenagers. Now living in Brooklyn, she can often be found meandering through Prospect Park listening to a good audiobook. Twitter: @emilycpolson |

Emily Polson

Staff Writer

Emily Polson is a freelance writer and publishing assistant at Simon & Schuster. Originally from central Iowa, she studied English and creative writing at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi, before moving to a small Basque village to teach English to trilingual teenagers. Now living in Brooklyn, she can often be found meandering through Prospect Park listening to a good audiobook. Twitter: @emilycpolson |

We asked our contributors to share the best book they read last month. We’ve got fiction, nonfiction, YA, and much, much more—there are book recommendations for everyone here! Some are old, some are new, and some aren’t even out yet. Enjoy and tell us about the highlight of your reading month in the comments.

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

I loved loved loved this book. It is the sequel of 2011’s Akata Witch about Sunny Nwazue, an American born girl living in Nigeria, who is albino who loves playing soccer but can’t handle the sun. In Akata Witch, she learns that she is a Leopard Person where one’s greatest weaknesses is one’s strengths. Okorafor has created a wonderful world that I can’t get enough of. It’s also about the awkwardness of growing up and figuring out who you are. I couldn’t wait to return to the book.

—Elisa Shoenberger

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

We know the prison industrial complex is broken. We know it preys on men of color. We know it destroys communities and families. But have you ever gotten an inside look into that acute pain? Tayari Jones opened that window for her readers in her haunting and beautifully written tale of one marriage torn apart by powers outside of their control. A combination of narrative and epistolary storytelling calls blunt attention to the fact that it’s not only years stolen by a corrupt and prejudiced prison system.

—Elizabeth Allen

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard

Emily Beam writes poems, and she’d rather keep to herself in an Amherst boarding school. She is not Emily Dickinson, however, and her parents didn’t name her for the poet; nevertheless, Emily starts finding kinship with the long-dead woman after she suffers a huge trauma. This tale combines poetry with the disorientation of aftermath, with teenage rebellion and explorations of love. This may prove triggering for some who don’t like the mentions of guns or teen pregnancy. Nevertheless, it explores aftermaths.

—Priya Sridhar

Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women's Pain by Abby NormanAsk Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman

Uterus-owners have endured pain that gets brushed off as “hysteria” for centuries. Abby Norman’s is brushed off as “all in her head.” She suffers endometriosis undiagnosed for years, her leg goes numb, she loses 30 pounds. When she gets to a doctor, she’s sent home with antibiotics. And so Norman begins the quest to find the answers for herself, reading medical journals and tracking her symptoms. But she runs into the same problem over and over: Doctors don’t believe her and make decisions for her. This is an eye-opening read to the way the medical world works when it comes to gender biases.

—Ashley Holstrom

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan (March 20, LBYR)

Grief is an experience we will all go through at some point, no matter what we do, and it’s one that shifts life into a different, painful gear. We never see the world the same way again, our lenses just a little bit darkened from loss. In The Astonishing Color of After, Emily X.R. Pan enters into grief with her characters, as Leigh Chen Sanders clings to the strange life she still has after the suicide of her mother. Pan’s prose is deeply empathetic, and poignant in its honest look at what loss and death mean to each of us. As Leigh reflects on her mother’s death, and the history and heritage that she finds in Taiwan, a picture emerges of a girl who never wanted to learn of grief in this way, but is finding her way through it, piece by piece, and feather by feather. I am sure I will return to this book every year, just as I am sure that there will always be something new for me to find in its pages.

—Angel Cruz

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I know I’m way late on the bandwagon for this one, but after reading a short story I loved by Nnedi Okorafor (“The Baptist” from From a Certain Point of View) and knowing that the third book in the trilogy just recently came out, I felt like it was high time to jump onboard. The story felt like such a fresh take on sci-fi, and it definitely left me wanting more! I can already tell that I’m going to have to work my way through the entire (and not insubstantial) body of work by Okorafor.

—Rachel Brittain

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Everyone’s been talking about the movie, so I picked up the audiobook without knowing much more than the very basics of the plot. I was not prepared for the brilliance of this novel. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has so beautifully and authentically captured the experience of teenage love/desire/obsession. It’s a deeply internal book, primarily concerned with seventeen year old Elio’s emotional life, his fantasies, his endless analysis—and yet the book was so captivating I practically held my breath. I couldn’t stop listening. It was one of those audiobooks where I actually just sat on the couch and listened, too enraptued to do anything else. Call Me By Your Name is a soaring and gorgeous exploration of intimacy and identity that I will not soon forget.

—Laura Sackton

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

This debut novel is fascinating, moving, and unforgettable. It follows Ada, a troubled girl born in Nigeria who moves to America for college, but is narrated by the gbanje (Nigerian spirits) that occupy her body. I’ve never read anything like it. It’s a brilliant merging of mythology and modern experience, spiritual and haunting and turbulent. I still can’t stop thinking about it.

—Susie Dumond

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

I’ve read a lot of Snow White Retellings, so when I say this one is unique, I really mean it. It’s not your romantic, happily-ever-after retelling. Nor is it like your typical young adult novel, where you’re in the head of the “good” character. Instead you’re forced to empathize with the evil queen. I loved the writing and world building as well.

—Margaret Kingsbury

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room gave me all the same feelings The Great Gatsby did with its beautiful prose, complicated characters, and poignant themes. This is not to say it doesn’t deserve attention in its own right. It absolutely does. Baldwin unabashedly dared to write about queer characters in the 1950s, and the result is a complex, engrossing novella about passion, shame, and culture.

—Emily Polson

Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake (HMH Teen, May 15, 2018)

I read a lot of books that deal with rape/sexual assault and consent and this is the first one that focuses primarily on the perspective of the loved ones of the perpetrator. How do you continue loving someone accused of and guilty of such a heinous offense? Can you love the sinner, not the sin? I loved Girl Made of Stars so much. It’s poignant, raw, and such an important read today now more than ever. All the stars.

—Kate Krug

Cover Give Me Your Hand | 6 Spring Fiction Releases Dressed in Florals | Book RiotGive Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown and Company, July 17, 2018)

I don’t expect I’ll ever not love a Megan Abbott book. Her latest thriller—about two friends who share a troubling secret, and who are thrust together again later in life—yanked me right out of a reading slump. Every time I thought I’d figured everything out, Abbott managed to surprise me.

—Steph Auteri

A Grave Talent (Kate Martinelli, #1) by Laurie R. King

This was a perfect mystery to curl up with that hit so many of my favorite things in a good procedural: clues slowly build up as old-fashioned detective work is used to get the killer; detectives partnered with different personalities that respect each other but still butt heads and have chemistry (not the romantic kind, Martinelli is a lesbian); an exploration of social behavior; and a character with an obsession—in this case painting. I could not have been more invested as recently promoted Homicide Detective Kate Martinelli and veteran Al Hawkins hunt for a child killer in San Francisco. And if you like your mysteries in your ears I really enjoyed Alyssa Bresnahan’s calm, smooth narration on the audiobook.

—Jamie Canaves

How To Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

I’m a little bit ashamed of myself that I didn’t pick this up sooner. It’s one of the queer girl YA titles I’ve been hearing the most love for, and for good reason. This a complex, nuanced story that deals with parental neglect/abuse, grief, race, and a bisexual love story, to name a few. I especially loved Grace as a character, even (especially?) when her trauma makes her prickly. This was a 5-star read for me.

—Danika Ellis

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

Good god, this is a virtuosic book. It covers the many lives lived in a short period by a young Indian man, as he sheds one identity (and continent) for another. Unspooling these identities and the complexity of belonging gives Kunzru a canvas for fascinating meditations on authenticity, privilege, and social relations. If you liked White Tears, this is a more sprawling take on related themes.

—Christine Ro

In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diana Guerrero and Michelle Burford

When Diane Guerrero was 14, her parents were detained and deported to Colombia, and she was left entirely on her own, without even Child Protective Services on her trail. This is the story of everything that led up to that moment—including Guerrero’s fears that this very thing would happen—and the fallout afterward. It’s a moving account of hard work and resilience and of the injustices in our immigration system. It’s a story for our times, for sure.

—Rebecca Hussey

I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan

This was a fantastic debut by a new and much needed voice in UKYA. In I Am Thunder, Muzna Saleem is trying to figure out her place and identity in London’s Pakistani community and struggling with her parents’ hopes and expectations of her. And then she starts hanging out with the school hottie, a devout Muslim who brings trouble of his own…

—Claire Handscombe

Kindred by Octavia Butler

I didn’t get a lot of reading done in February, but thankfully one book I finally got to was Kindred. Butler’s been on my to-read list forever, and I was happy to finally get to this historical fiction/sci-fi mashup. It exceeded expectations. This one is the very definition of a page-turner, and I found myself both fascinated and horrified by Dana’s experiences in the antebellum South.

—Matt Grant

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

I’m a sucker for a great heroine, and nothing delights me more than finding a new one to add to my list of favorites. Stella was on that list before I was fifty pages in to debut author Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient. (The book’s hero, Michael is also fantastic, so it’s a true testament to how much I love Stella that I’m not going to talk about him here at all.) Stella has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is important to her story, but what Hoang does so well is avoid making it the center of Stella’s story. Hoang has Autism Spectrum Disorder, so she’s drawing on her own experience, but she’s also just a really great writer; I don’t know if I’ve ever liked a debut book this much. Hoang writes Stella in a way that not only does Stella not feel particularly different—let alone “other”—she’s relatable in far more ways than she’s not. In fact, Stella’s determinedly navigating all of the same challenges we consistently see in romance—miscommunication, encounters with family, challenges with co-workers, and so on. The balance of humor, kindness, and honesty in The Kiss Quotient combined with the gentleness in Hoang’s style of storytelling charmed and connected with me in a way no other book has done in a long time.

—Trisha Brown

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

So I know I’m a little late to the party. I first heard about this book on the All the Books Podcast waaay back before I was even a Rioter. Liberty made Lab Girl sound so good, so in my wheelhouse, that I just couldn’t bring myself to start it. I was afraid of being disappointed. Well…I was about as far from disappointed as I could possibly be. Jahren mixes botany (I’m a plant nerd) with magical prose and well-crafted characters. If you like science and really good books, pick this one up already!

—Rebecca Renner

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

While adult books often miss the mark when it comes to writing characters who struggle with mental health problems, the young adult books I’ve been reading lately have been hitting it out of the park consistently. Little & Lion tells the story of Suzette (or Little), a teenage girl who has been sent away to boarding school because her brother Lion is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. To complicate things even further, when Little returns home for the summer, she and her brother find themselves falling for the same girl. I started reading this book on an airplane trip, and I was almost disappointed when we landed earlier than expected because I was not read to put this book down. Little’s relationship with her brother is compelling and heartbreaking, as is her journey to understanding her own sexuality and identity. Even if you’re not usually a YA reader, you should give this book a shot.

—Emily Martin

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

The reason I’m a reader is for books like Next Year in Havana. Reading for the sake of reading is good and all, but every so often a book touches you deep down in your soul and you know you are a different person than when you started the journey. This book completely and totally stole my heart; it changed me. Right away in the first few chapters, I noticed that  Cleeton’s descriptions of 1958 and modern-day Cuba are totally breathtaking. However, the beauty of this book goes beyond the vintage cars and the colorful architecture. Even now, weeks later, I can’t get Elisa and Marisol’s stories off my mind.

—Erin McCoy

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

As baby boomers hit hard by the 2008 recession reach retirement age and social safety nets fail, many folks over fifty find themselves in desperate straits. In this book, journalist Jessica Bruder investigates the “CamperForce” phenomenon—older adults who live in RVs and travel around the country in pursuit of low-wage seasonal work. In addition to being exceptionally well-written, it’s a fascinating look at a forgotten demographic of our senior population. It raises important questions about how large corporations exploit the poor, how we as a society care for our elderly, how we define homelessness, and how public policy affects those who live off the grid—whether by choice or necessity.

—Kate Scott

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book but it totally blew me away. It’s such an important book about class and race, told through a character who is incredibly relatable. The writing is also phenomenal. It’s the best book I’ve read so far this year.

—Adiba Jaigirdar


There There by Tommy Orange

Orange’s staggering debut novel sets out his task from the beginning: he is going to write the stories of the urban Indian. These are not the stories of reservation life, they are not the stories of the old ways. Through several connected stories of Native Americans in Oakland, Orange builds a picture of a community that is fractured, that struggles with their traditions, that searches for an identity. Grand in scale and ambition, yet intimate in tone and character, while you read There There you sense how groundbreaking it is, though reading it never for a moment feels like work. This is one of those extraordinary first novels, written with such clarity that it renews your faith in fiction.

—Jessica Woodbury

Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover

Colleen Hoover is one of my favourite authors and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to reading Ugly Love! Tate Collins meets Miles Archer when she moves in with her brother. Miles lives across the hall, and it’s not exactly love at first sight. However, it becomes clear that they are both very attracted to each other. They start a physical relationship, neither of them looking for love. But Miles has two rules: never ask about the past, and don’t expect a future. Obviously, that doesn’t work out too well but it’s a fun and sexy ride. I flew through Ugly Love and had an absolute blast.  

—Beth O’Brien

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I’ve had this book on hold at the library forever, and so when the audiobook became available, I grabbed it. Whitehead’s alternate version of the famous railroad sets real trains on actual underground tracks. We get a tour of the pre-Civil War south as we follow Cora’s escape from a brutal life on a cotton plantation in Georgia. With a slave tracker always at her heels, Cora flees from station to station, giving the reader a vivid picture of the unshakeable courage of those escaping, and the damaging imprint of slavery on America and its people. I was absolutely transported listening to Bahni Turpin’s incredible narration.

—Heather Bottoms

the wedding dateThe Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

I first started reading Jasmine Guillory’s writing at The Toast, so I’ve been so excited for her debut novel for a while. The Wedding Date is such a cute story and, as Jess and Trisha said on the Book Riot When In Romance podcast, it has lots of favorite romance tropes: long distance, meeting in an elevator, pretend relationship, etc. I loved how Alexa, the main character, talks about food (there’s a lot of good food in this novel!) and about her work. As is usually the case, this romance is about more than just love: it tackles race, friendship, and body issues. I highly recommend this fun, quick read!

—Lacey deShazo