Riot Roundup: The Best Books We Read in November
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.
The Astaires: Fred and Adele by Kathleen Riley
I’m on a old-school Hollywood kick at the moment, and reading books about all the legendary dancers I can get my hands on. This biography of Adele and Fred Astaire writes Fred’s sister back into the action, right where she always was. It’s a beautifully told book, tightly researched, madly evocative, and I loved it.
Before the Devil Breaks You by Libba Bray
I’ll be honest: I’m not a horror fan so I mostly skipped the murder chapters. (Sorry, Libba! But my anxiety doesn’t need to be fed.) Maybe it means I’ve missed out, but the real gems here are the main characters, of which the United States is one. Bray highlights many of the beautiful and the ugly sides of America’s history, asking us to face them all at the same time. My husband and I listened to this concurrently, catching each other up on our reactions. Ghost cemetery rising from the dead, check. Haunted mental asylum, check. But because it’s Bray, she treats the mentally ill with respect and kindness, and even suggests that treating the ghosts as monsters makes them act like monsters.
I loved the peek into the labor history and Mabel’s egalitarianism. Theta’s story is gripping. Ling comes out as gay and ace. The King of Crows finally speaks. The story of Evie’s brother becomes clear. We get some YA sexy times. Blind Bill’s story emerges fully. Frankly, I found the storyline with him and Isaiah to fill me with more dread than the ghosts. And OH that ending hit me hard in my feelings. It’s a series that loves some aspects of America, but that refuses to ignore or excuse the obscene parts. As we should do.
Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs by Rachel Jeffs
I’m usually a sucker for a book about cult escapes. In fact, I once did a round-up of 100 books dedicated solely to this topic. I love feeling rage at injustice that is then lifted when the victim is able to escape the situation. So the minute I saw that the daughter of the infamous Warren Jeffs had written a memoir, there was no question that I’d be reading it. But I will admit, this is a difficult read. The sexual abuse Rachel suffered at the hands of her father in the name of their extremist religion is really hard to stomach at times. Jeffs lays her truth bare for the reader and does not sugarcoat her childhood in the slightest. This book is a great insight into the lives of others, but might be too much to handle for empaths or people who are triggered by discussions of sexual assault and/or incest.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
This book has been on my TBR list for years. After I saw the first look pictures from the film set, it quickly moved up the stack. This book had everything I love in it: an own voices perspective, historical context for a place I knew nothing about before I read it, crazy hijinks that made me actually laugh out loud, and super detailed descriptions of food. My husband picked it up IMMEDIATELY after I put it down because, in his words, “You visibly enjoyed this book more than anything else you’ve read this year. I have to read it for myself.”
Dark Deeds by Mike Brooks
Third in Brook’s Keiko series, Dark Deeds continues the insane, hilarious, convoluted, fantastic saga of Ichabod Drift (best space smuggler name ever) and his truly motley, morally flexible but compulsively likable crew. Throw Firefly and The Expanse in a blender, add a touch of Hackers, a dash of Ocean’s Eleven, and Brook’s signature way with words and characters and you have the impossible to put down Dark Deeds.
— S.W. Sondheimer
Drop the Ball by Tiffany Dufu
Working mothers often do double the workload in raising kids and taking care of the house. This leads them to take on too many duties and eventually collapse from the effort. Tiffany Dufu fell into this trap when she had a successful career, a loving husband, and a baby boy. She decided, after a lot of internal struggling and sniping at her husband, to communicate with him more and drop some responsibilities. Doing this as a black woman was difficult, but she eventually found her way and hopes to share her methods with others. Dufu is a good writer.
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
I was eagerly awaiting this book of poetry, which came out in September, and it did not disappoint. I’m a fan of Smith’s earlier work, but this collection was their most compelling yet. These poems are about black life in America, and center around police shootings, the intersection of queerness and blackness, and living with HIV. It was painful to read, and I had to continually put it down after finishing a poem to let the words sink in. The imagery is sharp enough to cut, melodious, shockingly original. If you only read one book of poetry in the next year (or five) let it be this one.
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
This is a delightful romp through language and idiosyncrasy. The premise is a winner: an autonomous island nation off the Eastern Coast of the U.S. worships the author of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” When letters from this sentence start falling off a plaque, the nation’s leaders assume their deity is speaking through this. They order all island residents to stop using the fallen letters. It’s entertaining to see how the residents, and the author, manage to communicate as more and more letters are forbidden. And despite being much more light-hearted than 1984, this novel also touches on the devastating effects of totalitarianism on language.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
This book didn’t just buzz when it came out; it’s been buzzing all year in the UK, beloved by critics and ordinary readers alike. I love quirky loner characters, so it’s been on my radar since I first heard about it, and I wanted to read it to see if it deserved a place on my Best of 2017 List. And oh, it does! It does. Eleanor is such a wonderfully drawn character—seen as odd and irrational, she actually has an internal logic that it’s hard to argue with, so that from inside her head it’s perfectly plausible that she is the normal one and everyone else is weird. She’s right: scalding mediocre tea with boiling water and then spoiling what’s left of the taste with milk is definitely no less weird than the careful way in which she makes hers. The story is heartwarming and heartbreaking—but you close feeling like you’ve been hugged by it.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao
I’ve had this on my to-read list since I heard about it because, yeah, of course I want to read an East Asian evil queen retelling. The writing is beautiful and heart-wrenching, and I’m really excited for the sequel.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee
I have four words for this book: LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE. It has everything: romance, adventure, Versailles, pirates, highwaymen, evil dukes, alchemists (!), Venice, family secrets…Plus I adored all the characters, especially Monty, who is absolutely lovable and hilarious. The romance between him and Percy is sigh-worthy, and the relationship between Monty and his sister Felicity was perfectly done. I wish I could live in this book. It’s a romp, a romp I tells ye!!!
Ghost Summer: Stories by Tananarive Due
I’ve been a Tananarive Due fan ever since I read The Good House several years ago (seriously, go read that one right now), but it took me a surprisingly long time to get to Ghost Summer, considering how much I love her brand of horror. But now I’ve finally read it, and I have to say that this is one of my favorite short story collections. It spans horror genres from ghost stories to apocalyptic horror, and each story is a fascinating, creepy, unsettling vignette infused with African mythology and African American history. Horror fans (and even non-horror fans) need to pick this one up immediately.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden (Del Rey, December 5th, 2017)
I loved this even more than The Bear and the Nightingale! In book 2 of the Winternight trilogy, Vasya is pretty much a badass from beginning to end. I could not put the book down. No longer is Vasya the girl at home, waiting for adventure. She dresses like a boy and seeks out her own story, and that story involves rescuing kidnapped girls, confronting old enemies and making new ones, and protecting her family. Book 2 still has everything I loved about book 1: magic, Russian folklore, feminist themes, engaging plot. But Arden’s writing, in my opinion, improves with book 2. You see character traits by the way characters act vs. what Arden tells you, and the prose is richer, the pacing engaging. Don’t get me wrong—I really enjoyed book 1 and was excited to continue the series—but now I have even more reasons to rave about these books! It’s one of my very few 5 star ratings from 2017.
Good as Gone by Amy GentrY
The subtitle of this book is “a novel of suspense” and it definitely lives up to that. Told in two voices and timelines, this novel explores the web of grief and survival woven after a 13-year-old girl goes missing. Seven years later, a young woman returns to the damaged family, but is she really their long-lost daughter? Where was she for all those years? Told in the present day voice of the mother, and reverse chronologically in the voice of this young woman, it is at once a gripping thriller and an affecting psychological examination of motherhood, girlhood, and revenge.
His Road Home by Anna Richland
When a soldier experiences multiple career-ending injuries, a misrepresentation leads people to believe that a woman he knows peripherally from his hometown is his fiancé. The misinformation causes some issues, but eventually leads them to each other. Rey and Grace are an adorable pair, and it is delightful to watch their relationship grow from confusion to perfect.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
I’ve been wanting to get into Jemisin’s work for a while, and when I found myself between books this month I decided to start at the beginning. The Broken Earth series has been getting a lot of buzz lately, but it’s definitely worth exploring Jemisin’s first series about the fallible gods of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the human Yeine who refuses to be intimidated by them.
The Unbelievable Gwenpool: Believe it written by Christopher Hastings, penciled by Danilo Beyruth and Gurihiru
In a delightful upheaval of superhero comics, Gwen Poole is a comic book reader who falls into the wrong universe where all her superheroes live and act. She thinks it is all a dream or imaginary and treats the world as if there were no consequences. That’s the basic premise. It’s silly, delightful to watch this very irresponsible woman figure out her place in this universe.
I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
This fantastic novel was a reminder of why I sit down to read. The death of her older sister will force Julia onto a path of actually knowing her sister Olga, her family members, and herself—all while navigating being a Mexican-American teenager caught between her parents’ strict rules and the life she wants. Although, the what-she-wants part she’s still working out since right now; it’s mostly just a lot of anger and frustration at trying to be someone when you’re old enough to be treated as an adult but not old enough to be given the freedom of one. Sánchez beautifully tackles a lot of important issues and this is one of those novels that should be at the top of everyone’s TBR list.
The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
This book is a slow-moving portrait of Salvador and his gay adoptive father, dying grandmother, and two best friends who make up his Mexican-American family. In his senior year of high school in El Paso, Salvador wrestles with his shifting sense of self, debating nature-vs-nurture as he considers the warring influences of his violent birth father and his gentle adoptive father. The further I got along, the more wrapped up I became in the story, the characters, the unfairness of their struggles, and the way they cope with it by being there for each other in a wonderful example of found family. The story holds so much redemption. My favorite line, which sums up the tone of the book, is when Salvador’s grandmother tells him: “‘Life can be hard. I know how hard it can be. . . . Déjate querer.’ Let yourself be loved.”
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
This multigenerational novel set in New Orleans wasn’t on my radar until it made the National Book Award longlist and I’m so glad that it did. Sometimes a book just takes you under its spell, your emotional connection becomes so deep that it feels like a loss when it’s over. This was one of those books for me. Three generations of a family go through cycles of hope and loss, the story never feels like it’s trying to hit you over the head with issues, it feels like the real world.
The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo
I had to put off reading this short story collection for a few weeks after its publication, because I took one look at the first story and knew that I’d want to have a few hours just to sink into each tale. That was a good decision, and getting to really immerse myself in Bardugo’s prose and imagination made the reading experience (and return to the Grisha universe) just that much better. You might think you know where these folk tales and fairy tales are heading, but Bardugo is nothing if not adept at surprising and delighting readers with the twists within.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Written entirely in verse, this novel is fast and powerful. Fifteen year old Will’s brother has just been murdered, and Will knows the rule: he must avenge his brother’s death. Will knows where his brother keeps his gun, and thinks he knows who killed his brother Shawn, so Will takes the gun, gets into the elevator in his apartment complex, and hits the “L” button. From that moment on Will is visited by the ghosts of his past (yes, like in a Christmas Carol). It’s a glorious book, and the author’s bio on the back flap says it all: “Jason Reynolds is also tired. Of being around young people who are tired of feeling invisible.” I loved this book!
Mean by Myriam Gurba
This memoir took my breath away. Gurba tells the story of growing up mixed-race and queer in a California town, and it also takes a look at the sexual assault, misogyny, and racism endemic in our culture. It’s gorgeously written—beautiful, forthright, honest, and just a little bit mean, and I loved every minute of it. Gurba’s is a voice we need to be listening to right now.
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
I’m a sucker for any story about magical adventures that grapples with the trauma you’d experience if you actually stumbled into one as a child. Meddling Kids is one of those stories. It’s about a kid detective crew like the one in Scooby Doo, except that the gang’s all grown up, there’s a queer interracial love story, and not all mysteries are as neatly-resolved as they seem. The whole book reads as if the hilarious narrator of the Artemis Fowl books were just as interested in describing sunsets over the lake of your childhood summer home as in rendering over-the-top action sequences at the pace of roller coasters. Plus, the kids’ dog sometimes gets to tell the story from his point of view à la Doug from Up. You’ll chortle, you’ll weep, you’ll underline an especially gorgeous turn of phrase every three paragraphs. This book has it all.
—Alyssa Eleanor Ross
Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
I probably don’t have to explain to the BR community what is so amazing about this poetry and prose collection that touches on topics ranging from love to abuse to feminism. I’ve never been much of a poetry reader—I think I just never found anything that was particularly affecting to me personally—but from the very first page of Milk and Honey, it was like I was being punched in the gut. I read this as an ebook, but am planning on gifting myself a hard copy ASAP.
Moonbath by Yanick Lahens, translated by Emily Gogolak
Moonbath is a beautiful and haunting novel that is at once an intimate family saga that spans four generations of Haitian women and at the same time this broad and sweeping story of a country. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished it—it’s lyrical and evocative and the writing will blow you away. It’s not an easy read in many ways, the history of Haiti is often complicated and we watch these women struggle against violence and poverty but it is such a powerful force of a novel.
The Mother of Black Hollywood: A Memoir by Jenifer Lewis
I knew I had to read this when I saw Auntie Jenifer’s viral promotional video, sung to the tune of “The “D” Challenge. Just like the song, the book doesn’t disappoint. I have been loving Jenifer Lewis for all of my memorable life, and her memoir has taken that love into the stratosphere. I laughed, cried, laughed some more until I nearly peed on myself…Y’ALL!!!! Do yourself the favor and read this book! I listened to the audiobook narrated by Ms. Lewis herself…fabulous. I highly recommend this format.
Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins (HQN Books, December 26, 2017)
My favorite thing about Kristan Higgins is that she doesn’t write love stories, she writes life stories wherein generally people fall in love. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in on a good love story. But it’s an important distinction. In Higgins’ books, the relationship isn’t the center of the universe, it’s just one part of the constellation (others generally include family, friendships, jobs, and dogs). Her books show how a “happy ever after” isn’t just about one aspect of your life; it’s about continuously trying to strengthen and balance all of the things that are important to you. Nora, her latest heroine, is working to do just that by rebuilding complicate familial relationships, recovering from the trauma of her recent past, and confronting the long-neglected consequences of a difficult childhood. If Nora finds love on her path to figuring out herself, that’s just a delightful bonus.
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay
Best crime thriller I’ve ever read. Love the deadpan tone, the fragmented sentences that give this novel its distinctive noir-ish feel. Fascinating insights into the world of gunmen, how things are run in the underworld. But be warned: some may find the writing rather flat. Mackay doesn’t spoonfeed you character emotion; he expects you to have the imagination to supplement them yourself. Also, Mackay doesn’t seem to care much about proper grammar or punctuation, so if you’re what C. S. Lewis calls a “Stylemonger”—people who “judge [a book] neither by its sound nor by its power to communicate but by its conformity to certain arbitrary rules”—then you’d best find something else. For the rest of the less perfectionist world, Mackay’s multi-award-winning Glasgow Trilogy will start you off with a deceptively simple job, following the life of a young, freelance gunman; then suck you into an increasingly complex web of coalitions and betrayals as Glasgow’s largest criminal organisations wage bloody war against each other.
Otaare by Alessandra Ebula
Otaare is a Nigerian phrase that roughly translates to an enemy turned friend. In the book, a struggling writer, Ukeme Collins, accuses the rich and famous singer, Bola “Blaze” Johnson, of plagiarizing his spoken word in Blaze’s new song, Otaare. What I loved about the book is both of the main characters are gay Nigerian men who are not ashamed or questioning of their sexuality. Having a book take place in a country where being gay can lead to imprisonment or even death is radical, revolutionary, and beautiful.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (Harper Teen, March 2018)
Okay. Get this. A YA novel. Written in verse. Slam poetry style. Yup. This novel about a young woman coming of age in Harlem is truly one-of-a-kind. At first, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it through, simply because of the form it took. But the way Acevedo uses the main protagonist’s poetry to build up the reader’s investment in her life is masterful and, by the end, I was sobbing.
Renegade Cowboy by Sara Richardson (Hachette Book Group, December 19th, 2017)
I needed a little joy in my life early in November, and a good cowboy romance usually does the trick. Renegade Cowboy managed to be sweet and sentimental without seeming overly sappy. Although I hadn’t read the previous two books in this Richardson’s Rocky Mountain Riders series, I thoroughly enjoyed Levi and Cassidy’s love story without any adverse effects from not starting the series at the beginning. This book is totally worth the read for any cowboy romance fans out there!
Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali
Writing about sexual assault in a young adult novel is always difficult, and not always handled very well. But Saints and Misfits did a brilliant job of it. It tells the unique story of Janna Yusuf who, after being sexually assaulted by a pious member of her Muslim community that everybody holds in high esteem, grapples with what she should do. Does she keep it a secret, even though doing that might disrupt her life? Or does she tell her closely-knit Muslim community, which might also have terrible repercussions for her? It’s not an easy decision for any young girl, but Ali manages to tell Janna’s story with amazing depth and nuance. And in doing so, she created Janna, a character that is heart-wrenchingly palpable.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Hollywood gossip, a string of marriages, a heartbreaking lifelong love affair, secrets, scandals…this book has everything. Quick paced and packed with drama, I found I couldn’t put it down, could barely catch my breath, before turning the page. At turns juicy and salacious, sweet and then utterly heartbreaking, this is a big novel that tells one woman’s story of the lengths we’ll go to for love. And if you find yourself curled up in a blanket with a box of tissues at the end, trust me, you’re not alone. Evelyn Hugo is responsible for my worst book hangover of the year, and it was 100% worth it.
The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Did you know the author of The Secret Garden also wrote books for adults? Well, she did, and this 1907 novel about an American girl who essentially rescues her sister from her despicable husband is a lot of fun. Sir Nigel Anstruthers used his title to win the hand of the wealthy Rosalie Vanderpoel, but once he had whisked her away his crumbling and isolated English estate, he was able to gain complete power over her. At least until her little sister Betty decides to take herself to England to see what’s up. She immediately proceeds to fix everything, and she falls in love along the way. It’s an extremely melodramatic story, and sometimes more than a little silly, especially in its editorializing about the American can-do spirit, but I had a great time reading it—and I can’t help but think of a few places that could use a Bettina Vanderpoel coming in to make things right.
Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward
This novel recently won the National Book Award for fiction, so I moved it up my TBR and wow, I was blown away. I can’t believe that more people aren’t reading and/or talking about this book. The story is about a young family living in southern Mississippi. They’re faced with many hardships including drug abuse, racism, grief and loss, and false imprisonment. Amongst all the drama of their lives, they are also faced with the ghosts of people they loved facing the imminent death of their grandmother. I couldn’t put this book down and I’ve been having such a tough time describing how amazing this novel is. If you’re a fan of Toni Morrison and Beloved, this novel will be right up your alley.
Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant
This is such a tiny book to fall in love with. But I couldn’t help it! A bisexual, polyamorous love story with a kind dominatrix love interest, all portrayed in warm, soft illustrations that make you want to crawl into the pages and curl up there? What’s not to love? I was giggling and swooning the entire time I was reading it.
Sweet Tea and Sympathy by Molly Harper
This is the newest release from Harper and the first in her Southern Eclectic series. In continuing Molly Harper fashion, this book is funny and the characters engaging. While more serious than her most well known Jane Jamison series (vampire romances), the relationships she explores go beyond typical romance. Margo, the main character, is reunited with her biological father’s family and has to relearn how to function in a family unit and decide if a relationship with her father, as well as her love interest, are worth it. Finished it in 24 hours and already looking forward to the next in the series.
The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (St. Martin’s Press, April 10, 2018)
I am a fan of books that wreck me, and HOLY CATS, did this one fit the bill. The true story of the remarkable life of Sandra Pankhurst, a woman in Australia who was raised as a boy in a violent home, became a husband and father, had gender confirmation surgery, worked as a sex worker, and is a now a wife and businesswoman, the owner of a cleaning company that specializes in trauma cleanups. She goes in and takes care of messes that 99.99999% of the population couldn’t fathom. But it is her amazing spirit and belief in kindness, and Krasnostein’s storytelling, that make this such a fascinating, life-affirming story.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
I heard an interview with the author on NPR a while back and finally got a copy this month. WOW. This book had me all in my feelings and crying on buses. The story follows Samuel Hawley and his daughter Loo as they transition from living on the run to settling down in a fishing town in Massachusetts. Samuel’s criminal past is revealed through the stories of the 12 bullet scars on his body, which is a gripping storytelling mechanism. The book explores love, loss, grief, and loneliness in a way that really sticks with you.
Wild Beauty: New and Selected Poems by Ntozake Shange
I’ve always loved Shange’s poetry and prose, so I knew I had to read this. What stood out initially is the entire thing is bilingual (English and Spanish). Her writing always cuts me to the bone, and this collection is no different. Fierce, feminist, brutal, loving—what poetry should be.
What did you love this past month?