Riot Round-Up: The Best Books We Read in July
Expand your literary horizons with New Books!, a weekly newsletter spotlighting 3-5 exciting new releases, hand-picked by our very own Liberty Hardy. Sign up now!
We asked our contributors to share the best book they read this month. We’ve got fiction, nonfiction, YA, and much, much more. 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.
Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden
When Garden passed away in June, I thought to myself, okay, you HAVE to read Annie, now. And like all tributes, it was probably too late. But I was still so glad to have this love story wrap around me this month like a blanket. Man, there is just something about ’70s and ’80s YA, especially when you have a rad, musty, yellow page-d used copy. It is always full of the perfect amount of ache. The feelings in Annie On My Mind are big, sweeping, teenager-y, but it feels so genuine at the same time, so honestly and lovingly written, that it doesn’t feel melodramatic. Annie and Liza are smart, dorky, earnest, shy, brave, relatable, lovable. There were a few lesbian YA novels before Annie, but it makes sense to me now that Annie is always considered THE one, because it was the first to have the balls to show that gay teens in love could go through some enormous amounts of bullshit, but still, in the end, be happy. — Jill Guccini
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Well, this might be the weirdest thing I’ve ever read. It’s like an X-Files episode, but without all the sexual tension. Four women are sent by a secret government agency into Area X, a mysterious section of coastal land surrounded by an invisible border and inhabited by who knows what. The Area simply appeared 30 years earlier, killing (we assume) everyone who was present at the time, and anyone who tries to pass through the border, except through a specific door. Expeditions go in and never come out, or come out catatonic, remembering nothing. The women are stripped of all electronic equipment (and their names) and sent in to see what’s what, and creepy weird shenanigans ensue. Mulder would’ve loved it. — Amanda Nelson
Archangel by Andrea Barrett
Barrett’s short story collection Ship Fever won the National Book Award in 1996 and I’ve been with her ever since. Is she a science writer? She’s certainly done her research for the stories in Archangel. Is she a fiction writer? She makes up characters. So she threads the needle with both science and fiction. Maybe it’s because I wanted to be a scientist but didn’t because I was bad at math that her quiet jewel-like stories of early 20th-century explorers, map makers, inventors, and natural historians speak to me insistently of the path not taken, of laboratories, and field research into snails, of being the kind of mind who is able to pose The Big Questions. I think of Harvard’s Museum of Natural History — also something of a quiet jewel box and also a place where I cooled my heels when I was locked out of the dorm — all those stories behind the preserved skins and the skeletons and how they got there, behind the glass I gaze through at them. — Elizabeth Bastos
Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
This is the second book in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. It is different in tone and style from Annihilation but is still very much in the same territory, genre-wise. We now get to see inside the Southern Reach agency where we follow the story from the agency’s new director, a man called Control, in keeping with the anonymity of Annihilation’s characters. Those that were put off by Annihilation’s outright weirdness will find Authority an easier read. While it reveals part of Area X’s mystery, readers are still turning pages at break-finger speed, especially towards the end. Where Annihilation was like an episode of Lost, Authority is like an episode of X-files directed by Kafka. Bonus: the covers are really unique and beautiful. — Johann Thorsson
Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
This food memoir by chef Gabrielle Hamilton reaffirms something I have thought for quite some time now – and I know I’m not alone in this: people who were raised in the ’70s are lucky to be alive. Hamilton’s childhood and adolescence were made up of a series of misadventures, delinquency, drug use, and negligence as she was often left to her own devices, and she and her siblings were forced to fend for themselves. But as she grows up, her scrappy nature, inner strength, and usefulness in the kitchen come to light, and she manages to not only made a good living for herself as a cook, but also to open her own restaurant and become a writer. There’s the food, yes – which is lovely, step one of the food memoir checklist – but there’s also the way that relationships are made over food, whether it’s in-laws in Italy making dinner, or chefs in a restaurant behaving badly, or the family that forms in a new restaurant. One of the lovely things about this book is that way that family – and our changing ideas of family – come full circle. It’s a book that stayed with me. — Dana Staves
Blood Work by Holly Tucker
I have a hard time reading nonfiction. I want to. I buy nonfiction. I purchased this book when it first came out a few years back. I got a signed bookplate from the author. I wanted to read it, but I knew that I probably wouldn’t, so I planned to give it to my mom for Christmas. And then I kept it. For years now, it has been sitting on my shelf staring at me. I remember people telling me it was medical history with a murder mystery element to it, and I kept thinking that maybe one day I would pick it up off the shelf and read it myself. A couple of weeks ago, I did. It took me a while to finish it (I’m a serial nonfiction abandoner, so I had to continually fight the urge), but I stuck with it, and I LOVED IT. It was as thoroughly fascinating as I had hoped it would be. In addition to a detailed exploration of the early history of blood transfusion, there’s murder, intrigue, moral uncertainty-all the elements of a stellar mystery novel. But be warned: there’s also animal experimentation. It’s not the author’s fault, though. She’s just reporting the facts. — Cassandra
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (Hogarth, October 28)
I don’t know what to think about this book, but I can’t really stop thinking about it. The story of a man who goes to a colony in space and interacts with an alien race while Earth appears to be on the verge of destruction sure sounds sci-fi and there’s plenty of sci-fi trappings. But that man, Peter, is a minister and a missionary. His purpose is to preach to this strange new race that has embraced Christianity. It is not a simple book. The aliens are mysterious. Peter’s human peers are strange and removed. And there is Peter himself, an addict before finding religion and it’s unclear whether he’s addicted to God or a really changed man. He’s left his wife Bea behind on earth and the book is as much about their relationship and what distance can do to a couple as it is about aliens or God. The aliens themselves are masterfully portrayed, unusual, and enigmatic. Basically, this book is unlike anything I’ve ever read. And that is a big compliment. — Jessica W.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
The Rivera family leaves Mexico after their daughter Maribel has an accident and needs treatment (and education) she can’t there. When they arrive in Delaware, they move into an apartment complex housing numerous other immigrants, each with their own stories of how and why they came to be living in the States. Told through multiple voices, Henriquez’s story is, at heart, a romance between two teenagers: Maribel and her new neighbor Mayor. Interspersed are the individual tales of how immigrants in this apartment complex chose to leave their home countries and make a go of it in America. What makes this story so great, aside from the variety of voices, is that it undercuts the idea that immigrants — especially those from Latin America — choose to come to the States in order to “make a better life.” Rather, it becomes clear that these choices aren’t always made in order to “better life,” but instead, to pursue opportunities or needs that can’t be met in their home countries. I’m not an emotional reader, but the end of this book, I got a little misty-eyed. — Kelly Jensen
Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer
I am in full on re-read mode. After finally going back to Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, I decided to continue the trend by re-Twilighting. I still love how Meyer told this story from both the Jacob & Bella POVs; I still hate what a busybody punky imprint Jacob becomes; I still love/hate the name Renesmee. And I have to admire how this really successful YA series captured our attention with so many pages of people standing around thinking or talking. Seriously-every Volturi gathering is 100 pages of half-spoken-half-Edwarded train of thought. No action! But I’m ok with that, because there’s a happy ever after. It’s all I request in a summer reading binge. — Alison
Captain America: Man Out of Time
I hopped onto Marvel Unlimited and added a million things to my library but started with this, as I have wanted to read it forever (well, forever for a newly minted comic person, say three years?) and not only was it a short run, but also actually accessible (don’t get me started on how slow MU has been because everyone and their mother was on it). The artwork is pretty, but not fantastic or groundbreaking; what really hit me with this one is Mark Waid’s contribution to Marvel’s historic ability to knock people in the feels.
This comic expects you to at least know something about Captain America; instead of giving you background, it starts with a snapshot of Captain America and his best friend and partner-in…not-crime…Bucky going on what would be their last mission in World War II. Jump ahead several decades, and Iron Man, Giant-Man, Thor and the Wasp pull him out of the ocean and proceed to disappear. Cap has to fight his way through understanding modern New York, and when he and the Avengers get mixed up with a new kind of villain, figure out which way is up, and where he wants home to be.
(Note: while this came out around the same time as Captain America: The First Avenger, it is a Marvel Comics original and was in no way meant to tie-in with the movie. Also, it comes at the story from a completely different angle.) — Jessica Pryde
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, August 12)
Murakami is a giant of the literary world, but I hadn’t actually read any of his books. That changed with his upcoming novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Murakami hooks the reader with a mystery–why did Tsukuru Tazaki’s circle of close friends turn their backs on him without an explanation when he was in college–but keeps them reading through the excellent character development of Tsukuru Tazaki. Readers who don’t know where to start with Murakami should definitely give this accessible, entertaining novel a try. — Swapna
Don’t Start Me Talkin’ by Tom Williams
I tend to plow through more books in the summer when I have time to read outside long after I get out of work. With that said, I read some damn good books this month. Near the beginning of July, I read The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure and I can say it was the first book I’ve read in months that I couldn’t put down. I looked forward to my train rides to and from work because it gave me time to read this book. But as the month came to an end, I read Don’t Start Me Talkin’ by Tom Williams, and it’s been sticking with me. Following the story of a young bluesman and his mentor Brother Ben–a True Delta Blues legend–touring the country, I was immediately hooked by Williams’s prose. His narrator, Pete Owens, has a raw mix of suspicion, curiosity, intelligence, and naivete that makes it hard to tell how much he truly knows about the sharp-witted older man he admires. Despite the fictional characters, this novel is chocked full of information about the blues. There’s a full-fledged history course in there if you’re willing to do some research. My recent move to Chicago made it all the more relevant, as the Windy City is well known for its blues scene. Don’t Start Me Talkin’ is a rambling adventure filled with topnotch musical references, vivid storytelling, and astute cultural analysis. — Aram
East of West: Volume 1 & 2 by Jonathan Hickman
Every Wednesday, I assemble with a few of my local friends around lunch time to hit up the nearby comic book shop. And every Wednesday since the Fall of 2013, these friends have pestered me to start reading East of West by Jonathan Hickman. Earlier this month, I finally caved, and purchased the first and second trade paperbacks of the comic book series. After promptly devouring both collections in a single weekend, I discovered I was indeed missing out.
East of West takes place during an alternate history, where the world is in a futuristic Wild West. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are set upon the world, but one of them is missing. Death. And he’s unleashing some serious vengeance on the people who took away… well, you know what, if I say much more, I’ll ruin absolutely everything. Let’s just say Death and the other Horsemen are on the outs, a cult of powerful world leaders are supporting the oncoming end of the world, and it’s all drawn out beautifully, both in story and in art. Definitely worth checking out. — Eric Smith
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
I read Everything I Never Told You in two sittings. The second sitting ended when the book ended. At four o’clock in the morning. Yes, Celeste Ng’s debut novel is that good. The novel is a story about how the Lee family handles the death of middle child Lydia. The family dynamic centers around the tension between father James, Chinese-American, and mother Marilyn, Caucasian. While James fights a futile struggle to fit in, Marilyn fights an equally hopeless battle of breaking the mold. Neither of them succeeds and instead focuses on Lydia to fulfill their hopes and dreams, at the expense of their other two children, Nathan and Hannah. Even though I have finished the book, I still carry the story with me, inside. I already know that, at some point, I will read this novel again. — EH Kern
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
This is one of those books that I fell for after the first six pages. (Don’t you love that?) Multiple storylines intertwine in Luiselli’s beautifully modern debut: The main thread is told by a stifled young mother in Mexico City who recalls her days as a translator — and sometime literary con artist — in New York, where she’s on a mission to get the work of an obscure poet named Gilberto Owen published. Owen, in turn, narrates his electric life during the Harlem Renaissance and faded one in 1950s Philadelphia. There are no chapters in this book; instead brief sections lead you from scene to scene. Luiselli handles this stream-of-consciousness style with charm and mastery, making the story of love, identity, art, and ghosts unforgettable. –Margret Aldrich
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King (Little, Brown, October 14)
If you’ve been following Book Riot for a while, you know that a lot of us here worship at the temple of A. S. King. And with good reason: she is a no-nonsense, kick-ass writer who believes in all of us, even if we don’t believe in ourselves. In Glory O’Brien, Glory is coping with graduating from high school, the possibility of leaving her widower father, and the growing separation between her and her best friend, Ellie. Then she starts having visions of the future after she and Ellie drink dead bat dust. (Like you do.) In this version of the coming world, women are removed from the work force and made to stay home and raise children, causing a new Civil War to break out in the U.S. King is a master storyteller, and her idea of the future is chilling, because it seems so plausible, and everything about her characters feels so real. (Okay, maybe not the bat juice juju, but everything else. And I don’t know, I’ve never drank dead bat juice, maybe she knows something we don’t.) A. S. King is working hard to save us before the angry pink goo beneath the city consumes us all, and I believe she just might succeed. — Liberty
The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
The Good Girl is a book that hung around the periphery of my awareness for a couple months before I finally decided I had to read it. I downloaded an egalley and read it all in a flurry just a few days before the galley was set to expire. I shouldn’t have worried about getting through it before expiration though; I was reading it in as many quick snatches as I could muster. On the subway, before bed, in the kitchen while trying to cook dinner and not burn down my apartment building. The book will inevitably get Gone Girl comparisons – it’s a story about a young woman who is kidnapped by a guy who has been watching her, and when her boyfriend bails once again, leaving her sitting alone in a bar, the kidnapper chats her up and she goes home with him willingly. There’s not much more I can tell you without being completely spoilery, but the narration shifts among the victim’s mother, the lead detective, and the kidnapper, each of them providing context with nuggets of information doled out sparingly. The tension and the “What happened to her?” elements kept me holding my breath the whole way through. Definitely a great summer thriller. — Rachel M.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling
Since it’s been seven years since the seventh Harry Potter book was released (and seven years since I read the whole series all at once), I thought now would be an excellent time to reread the entire series and rewatch all eight films. I’ve seen the movies a few times over the years (ABC Family reruns at Christmastime have become something of a tradition), but I’d almost forgotten how amazing the books are. There are few things that come close to the immersive, escapist experience of reading Harry Potter. I really must do this more often. — Kate
Into the Shadows (Undercover Associates Book 3)
by Carolyn Crane
Off the Edge, the terrific second book in Crane’s romantic suspense series Undercover Associates, just won a RITA, the Romance Writers of America’s highest honor, and was the very first self-published work to do so. The third book, Into the Shadows, is just as good, and it’s easy to jump in to the series here. It has a lot of well known romance tropes: a tortured bad boy hero, a secret baby, and a big misunderstanding, but Crane’s distinctive quirky voice is what sells it. Loner Thorne has worked his way to the number two spot in Hangman, a criminal organization, in order to exact revenge on its leader. Along the way he had a very hot and very-bad-idea affair with Nadia, a crime boss’s “Party Princess” daughter. A year and a half later they cross paths again, as a more mature Nadia, now a mother, tries to undo some of the damage done by her father (sweatshops, money laundering, and drug dealing). Romantic suspense is not a genre I usually enjoy, but Crane has a warm, tender touch, even amid the carnage. Thorne’s tendency to model his approach to life on martial arts legend Bruce Lee, for example, is a sly wink to stereotypes of the subgenre but also a poignant reminder that he had no other role models. — Jessica Tripler
Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Scholastic, September 30)
On the surface, Love is the Drug is about a bioterrorist attack on the United States, a super flu that is supposedly released on the US by the Venezuelan government. Sounds like a great thriller, right? It’s actually that and so much more. Emily Bird is a good girl. She goes to one of DC’s most elite prep schools. Her boyfriend is ambitious and ready to do whatever it takes to get into National Security. Her parents work in the government doing … something scientific. She’s not quite sure what, but she knows not to ask. Then, after a chance meeting with a homeland security agent named Roosevelt at an elite party, she wakes up in a hospital with no recollection of how she got there. Roosevelt is sure she knows something about her parent’s work, and is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that the secrets are trapped in Bird’s brain stay there. The only person who is willing to tell her anything is Coffee, a Brazilian diplomat’s son and a genius with a penchant for designer drug manufacturing. As she and Coffee try to figure out what really happened that night, they realize there’s a reason the government should be afraid of what she knows.
Part of what makes Alaya Dawn Johnson such an incredible writer is not just her beautiful use of language, or her incredible stories, but the normalcy with which she represents diversity in her books. I love reading a book in which nearly every main character is a minority, but that is only one part of who they are. Bird is black, and it has an effect on her, and her decisions, but it is not the whole story or her whole identity.
There are a hundred reasons to read this book, whether you love a fantastic political thriller, you’re looking for a love story fraught with tension, you want beautiful, lyrical prose, or you want to see more diverse books. Or you could just pick it up because it is an outstanding read.
Lastly, I have to sneak in a shout-out to the Matt Fraction & David Aja Hawkeye series because it is seriously beautiful and seriously well-written. — Preeti Chhibber
Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid
I had a really difficult choice to make this month, because I started July by reading two awesome books: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter and Neanderthal Seeks Human. I love them both equally (ish) but for different reasons: Beautiful Ruins is amazingly well-written, well-constructed, and tells a good story to boot. But Neanderthal Seeks Human offered me escapist entertainment and made me care about the characters in a way Beautiful Ruins didn’t, so Neanderthal wins. It’s classified as a romantic comedy, but really it’s a coming of age story centering around Janie, a super-smart trivia hound who’s obsessed with comic books and shoes, but isn’t very confident. After she dumps her long-time boyfriend for cheating on her and loses her job, it looks like Janie’s life has hit rock bottom. With the help of her friends and a cute guy named Quinn, however, she bounces back and finds her place in the world. I was slightly disappointed Quinn didn’t turn out to be The Batman, but other than that this novel is pretty delightful. I can’t wait to read Reid’s other books. — Tasha
O, Democracy! by Kathleen Rooney
Do you like politics? Absuridity? The absurdity of politics? You do? That’s great. This novel is for you. It’s about a late-20s Chicago woman who works on the staff of the Senior Senator from Illinois during his reelection campaign in 2008. (This also happens to be the time the Junior Senator from Illinois is running for President, so things around Chitown are a bit bananas.) The novel is based on Rooney’s own experience as senatorial staffer — and is a mixture of high comedy and that low feeling that our political system is irreparably broken, and we’re all pretty much screwed. But it’s very entertaining! This is an indie (Chicago’s Fifth Star Press) novel that is deserves a much wider readership. — Greg Zimmerman
Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith
A sweeping epic of eccentric and corrupt billionaires, political activists, sexual revolutionaries, and beautiful women who live by their wits set against a backdrop of massive social upheaval and a nation hanging in the balance–it sounds like the awesomest novel ever, but everything in Barbara Goldsmith’s meticulously researched and fascinating Other Powers actually happened. A fabulous cast of characters–suffragists Susan B. Anthony and and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, scurrilous tycoon Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, firebrand preacher and serial womanizer Henry Ward Beecher, and reformer and escaped slave Frederick Douglass, just to name a few–swirls around the book’s central focus, the scandalous and canny spiritualist Victoria Woodhull, who survived an impoverished, brutal childhood to become one of the most influential and wealthy women in America. One of the most absorbing and entertaining books–fact or fiction–I’ve read in years. — Sarah M.
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
This is one of those books in which what actually happens is less important that everything that comes after. A young girl is said to have slept with her teacher, and then a bunch of stories go around and grow up around this one central scandal, or tragedy, or mere experience, depending on who’s talking about it. The book centers on the alleged victim’s sister, not the AV herself, and the other individual girls who all take private lessons with the same saxophone teacher. I am not even using names because I don’t want to give you too many expectations/hints/preconceived notions; part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much is because I went in with absolutely none of those things. Read it if you like Megan Abbott. It doesn’t share the noir elements, but it definitely has a similar feeling of claustrophobia—the sometimes suffocating feeling of being a teenage girl. — Jeanette
The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
Scott Lynch ends his Gentleman Bastard series with even more great heistiness and criminal undertakings. Instead of the Bastards against the world, Lynch sets the Bastards against each other, more specifically a long-time departed associate, Sabetha. I adore how Lynch always had the love interest, Sabetha, in the background as a reminder, but waited until the third in the series to give her a full book. Their relationship is complex. Their dance around each other both exciting and a bit heartbreaking. I loved it (and the cover, which is damn fantastic).
The (best)worst thing about this book though was that Lynch is definitely launching into another series after it. While part of me wants to stay in Lynch’s amazingly created world, part of me also has a bit of series fatigue with fantasy. I wanted to be done with you Lynch! I wanted to read other books! — Nikki Steele
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
I really loved Tom Rachman’s first book, The Imperfectionists, the stories of the staff at an international English-language newspaper based in Rome. I loved the way Rachman explores how old things survive in a new world, the way he played with storytelling structure in the book, and the characters he built along the way. Like The Imperfectionists, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers starts out in a nostalgic place – this time, an isolated bookstore in the Welsh countryside owned by 31-year-old Tooly Zylberberg. The book quickly jumps back to two earlier periods, when Tooly was 21 years old and living in New York City and when Tooly was nine years old living in Bangkok. The book alternates between these threads to show how Tooly’s past threads together and how her experiences help her figure out the mysteries of her childhood. The background characters in the book are just wonderful and the unique structure made it a joy to read. — Kim Ukura
The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland
Dear fans of historical fiction, YES. That is all. Just kidding, but really, that’s basically what I want to say over and over again. This well-researched, fantastically-written story about a woman in 17th century France is one of the better books I’ve read all year. It follows Claudette de Oeillets from her poverty stricken childhood as the daughter of players (theatrical people) to the courts of King Louis XIV (the Sun King, the one who built Versaille). The descriptions are exquisite, the facts incredibly interesting, and the plot continually moving. There is magic, sadness, intrigue, and joy throughout this novel and I highly, HIGHLY recommend it. I hope you love it as much as I did! — Wallace
Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that made me think so deeply about love and what it means to truly love someone until now. Most stories say pretty much the same thing – It’s real love when you’ll do anything for that other person, can’t get enough of them, when you sacrifice things for them, compromise, all of that business. But this book didn’t tell me what love was about – the author showed me by the way of her incredible, almost stream-of-consciousness style way of describing various events of her life, her views on Shanghai, descriptions of people and places, and way of speaking about her lover. The book isn’t a thriller and didn’t have me in suspense, but it’s a page-turner through and through. Such beautiful words. And such a tragic love story, especially considering this novel is semi-autobiographical. — Kristina Pino
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
This book should come with a disclaimer: “While reading The Signature of All Things, you will receive many unsolicited comments about people’s feelings re: Eat, Pray, Love.” I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love, but let me tell you all about the enormous lady crush I have on The Signature of All Things. It’s an old-timey, swashbuckling, epic adventure tale that follows the fortunes of Alma Whittaker, a girl born to a self-made botanical entrepreneur during the Age of Enlightenment. And where many stories would shower all their attention on the heroine’s young courtships, Gilbert speeds right past that part to show us a single Alma in her forties and fifties, still learning, growing, studying, traveling, and living an all-around full and fascinating life surrounded by crazed scientists, explorers, missionaries, and geniuses. The supporting characters are all WONDERFUL, and I want to kiss Juliet Stevenson on the nose for her brilliant performance on the audiobook. Read this if you’re in the mood for adventure, old-timey humor, and SECRETS in the vein of The Goldfinch or David Copperfield. — Rachel Smalter Hall
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (W. W. Norton, September 15)
Close your eyes and picture an undertaker, and you’re likely to come up with a tall, creepy looking fellow with Lurch-like features and a dark suit. Or, if you’re lucky, you’ll get Six Feet Under-era Michael C. Hall. What you probably won’t picture, because it’s a perspective we just don’t get, is a woman in her early twenties who wears dresses to work and has more-than-friends feelings for her best male friend and also happens to work operating a crematory and spend a great deal of her time thinking about the ways American culture talks about (or, rather, doesn’t talk about) and handles death and dying. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is Caitlin Doughty’s memoir about being a young woman in a traditionally male profession, challenging taboos and being comfortable with ideas and situations many people find repulsive, and connecting with people in their most difficult and unflattering moments. Doughty is smart and irreverent, and she is deeply concerned with placing the way we treat issues of death within the context of the way we live our lives. There’s history and religion and philosophy and cultural commentary here, alongside humor and wit and remarkable self-awareness, and it’s a real pleasure to read. Books about burial practices and the funeral industry are a thing I can’t resist, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, and Doughty’s is a fantastic addition to the genre. — Rebecca
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Knopf, September 9)
Fifteen years ago, a strain of flu originated from Georgia (the country) and in a very, very short amount of time it spread and the civilized world as we knew it collapsed under the force of it. Now, fifteen years since it’s died out, humanity lives in small salvaged-together towns and communities. Kirsten is a young actor in a Shakespearean troupe which roams a circuit between small communities, putting on shows and staying alive however they can. All of this is sustainable until one town goes very, very sour thanks to a dangerous prophet whom nobody can truly escape.
The book is told in flashes between the post-apocalypse world and the world we live in now, and Mandel’s writing moves effortlessly between the periods, the characters, and the worlds with a great deal of sympathy and tension and poetry. It’s been hard to talk about this book which isn’t out yet because I want to compare it to The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, which also isn’t out yet. Beyond that, what it does remind me of is the recent MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood. If you like David Mitchell or Margaret Atwood, I think you’ll find yourself enthusiastic about Emily St. John Mandel. I know I am. I am zooming immediately from this book straight into her back catalog. She is really, really good. — Peter
Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
It had been a long time since I’d read Suttree. Long enough that I’d forgotten that it is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. McCarthy is not known for whimsy and levity, but the story of Suttree is full of lines and phrases like “Moonlit melon mounter” and “pervert with a botanical bent.” Get past the first seven pages, which are basically just descriptions of water and carp, and enjoy. If you were thwarted by Blood Meridian and the darker McCarthy books, Suttree is a great intro to another facet of McCarthy, while still retaining the quality most of his fans seem to adore in his work. — Josh H.
Tenth of December by George Saunders
I had been meaning to read ToD for a while, but other books kept jumping into my lap, so when I came across it during a bookstore jaunt, I snagged it. And man oh man was it worth it. I mean, if you like black humor, cuttingly satirical narrators, and all-around weirdness, ToD is definitely for you. In story after story, Saunders offers up characters forced to deal with uncomfortable or even dangerous situations; forced, in fact, to choose between saving someone else from death or staying safe. Prisoners undergoing psychological experimentation, women used as lawn ornaments: Saunders brings ‘em all. And the stylistic experimentation, especially in “The Semplica Girls,” where the narrator uses more addition and subtraction signs than an algebra textbook? Believe me when I say that it adds to the clueless, willingly-blind narrator’s way of taking omphaloskepsis to a whole new level. Hilariously. So, bottom line: READ SAUNDERS. — Rachel C.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
This had been on my TBR for quite a while, and a perfect little coffee shop/bookstore in mountainous Ridgway, Colorado was the only excuse I needed to buy it. My wife actually read it first, and loved it (not an easy feat). I picked it up immediately after, and soared through it in just a few days. This is the first Bryson I’ve read — which is a bit of a sin considering his origins and Iowa and my living there for 6 years during and after college. He didn’t disappoint, to say the least.
If you aren’t familiar, A Walk in the Woods was published in the mid-90s, and is about Bryson’s tackling of the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail (the AT). He weaves in history, memoir, environmentalism, and best of all, uproariously funny humor. I’ve not read much in the way of non-fiction travel books, but this set the bar pretty damn high and makes me want to read everything he’s ever written. What a great introduction to a great author. — Jeremy
What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund (Vintage, August 5)
If you are a reader (which you are, because you are reading this right now, HI THERE) then you must must must pick up What We See When We Read. Mendelsund is a much-lauded art director and cover designer (for good reason; have you seen the Kafka redesigns?), and he brings the knowledge and experience that inform his work to every page of this discussion on how we turn words into pictures. The fonts vary in size and positioning, images integrate themselves throughout, and each page is a work of art designed to make you stop and think. Can you picture Anna Karenina clearly? How much does it matter if you can’t? How good is your sense-memory of smell? How important are adjectives? And what is the point of describing a river, anyway? This is the Reading About Reading book I didn’t know I wanted, and will now chase everyone around with. — Jenn Northington
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Pia Guerra (artist)
I’m in the middle of a deep comics dive this summer, and Y: The Last Man has been a real highlight. Like the comic version of a TV series that’s completed its run and landed on Netflix, I was able to binge-read all ten collected volumes in just three days. Brian K. Vaughan’s tale of the worldwide death of everything (save our hero Yorick and his pet monkey) with a Y chromosome is a wild, propulsive action survival story that uses Yorick’s situation as the last living man to explore global and domestic political tensions, feminism, and human desperation. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny in spots. If that seems like a weird combination, I can assure you that it’s par for the course for Mr. Vaughan, whose current work on Saga (along with artist Fiona Staples) is attracting hordes of converts around Book Riot HQ. Y is as sexy as it is smart and as comical as it is thoughtful. If you’ve ever even thought about taking the plunge into comics, I can’t think of a much better place to start. — Josh C.