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

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Peter Damien

Staff Writer

Peter Damien has been reading since time out of mind, writing for a very long time, and been hopelessly lost to a disgraceful addiction to tea for a few years now. He writes short stories, comics, a lot of articles, and novels at an achingly slow pace. When not staring at words, he spends a lot of time in the woods, as befits a man of his hairstyle. He lives with a billion books, a tolerant wife, too many animals, and also two small boys. When it comes to writing, the small boys are, frankly, no help whatsoever. You can find Peter on Twitter, if that's the kind of thing you're into. Twitter: @peterdamien

Peter Damien

Staff Writer

Peter Damien has been reading since time out of mind, writing for a very long time, and been hopelessly lost to a disgraceful addiction to tea for a few years now. He writes short stories, comics, a lot of articles, and novels at an achingly slow pace. When not staring at words, he spends a lot of time in the woods, as befits a man of his hairstyle. He lives with a billion books, a tolerant wife, too many animals, and also two small boys. When it comes to writing, the small boys are, frankly, no help whatsoever. You can find Peter on Twitter, if that's the kind of thing you're into. Twitter: @peterdamien

AdamAdam by Ariel Schrag

I love stumbling upon books that are unlike anything else I’ve ever read, and Adam by Ariel Schrag is absolutely one of those. What happens when an incredibly awkward, hormonal, confused teenage boy falls in love with a beautiful girl? Oh, basically every YA novel ever. But what if that girl is a lesbian? Who returns his feelings? But only because she thinks he’s a transgender man? And he goes with it?

Like I said, unlike anything else out there.

The story is heartfelt and hilarious, and explores concepts of gender and sexuality that aren’t really explored in other YA books. At least, none that I’ve read in recent memory. Definitely pick this one up. It’ll stick with you. – Eric Smith 

AuthorityAuthority by Jeff Vandermeer

I crave stories where I cannot guess a damn thing about what’s going to happen next, and that’s what I’ve loved so far about Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. The creeping dread and looming presence of Area X are explored further in the second installment as we follow Control, the new head of the Southern Reach facility and work to make sense of Area X with him. If the first book was Atwood by way of Lovecraft, this was Le Carre by way of Shyamalan. Questions are answered, more questions are raised, and by the end of the book Vandermeer has us going 90mph into Acceptance, due out in September. I loved this novel, love this series and I can’t wait to see how it all comes together.  –Martin Cahill 

Beak of the FinchThe Beak of The Finch: A Story of Evolution In Our Time by Jonathan Weiner

Rosemary and Peter Grant return to Daphne Major, one of the Galapagos Islands, every year. They do this to observe the finch population, and they have done it for over twenty years. This crash course in evolution, in Darwin, and in the early advocates and challenges to the theory of natural selection is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. These finches are fascinating!

Also, I love science, but it has never come naturally to me. I mention this because Beak  was as accessible to me as a passionate layperson as if it were written with me in mind. –Josh Hanagarne 

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell 

Brilliant and cinematic, The Bone Clocks is several chunks of time in the life of Holly Sykes. From her time as a rebellious teenager to her last years, Mitchell tells Holly’s story by way of several different narrators. Oh, and there’s some seriously bizarre futuristic stuff going on, but it almost seems secondary when you’re so wrapped up in the gorgeous details of the everyday stuff. (Can you tell I’m trying not to give anything away?) I can’t believe one person could write this many amazing books in a row! The man is a master of the craft. If everyone wrote like David Mitchell, people would never have gotten around to inventing movies. Get it, read it, rub it on your brains, sleep with it under your pillow. –Liberty Hardy

Book of Unknown AmericansThe Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

After reading Americanah last spring, I fell in love with stories about immigrants. The Riveras leave Mexico and come to America to seek better care for their daughter, Maribel, after a near fatal accident caused her to have a serious brain injury. They move into an apartment complex full of other immigrants, each with their own story of America. A young neighbor from Panama, Mayor, takes to Maribel and sees beneath her damage the way her own parents do not; she is kind, funny, and wise. While on the surface, it sounds like a story of young love, but beneath it all is the story of America. If you’re big on marginalia, get your pen ready for gems like, “…when I glanced at the people around us, no one was even looking in our direction. I felt the way I often felt in this country – simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.” –Emily Gatlin 

Bring Up the BodiesBring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

I’ve written in praise of Hilary before. But after finally getting round to her 2012 Booker Prize winning novel, I struggle afresh to find new ways to sing of her brilliance. This is the second in a planned trilogy about Henry VIII’s court, told through the eyes and keen mind of the endlessly-impressive, ultimately-doomed Thomas Cromwell, the king’s right hand man. It focuses on the events that lead Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife and mother of the future Queen Elizabeth I, to the executioners block. It is a staggering achievement on many levels. The level of research on show is exhaustive, but lightly worn. No fact is hurled at the reader that doesn’t advance character or plot. The utter moral murk of Anne’s downfall, and its attendant uncertainties, is handled with a deftness and restraint that eludes most historical fiction. Her language is that of a poet, her confidence in her readers to keep up is flattering, and her pacing makes the near-500 pages feel like a breeze. And it contains the best last lines of a book that I’ve read in years. Don’t worry, by sharing them, this gives nothing away. Just lap up their awesomeness: “There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.” –Edd McCracken 

Broken MonstersBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland Books, Sept 16)

In last month’s best-of, I chose The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, which I had just devoured and which blew the top of my head clean off (it’s okay. I wear a hat.) What I didn’t expect to happen was in the intervening month, I’d find myself with an advance copy of Broken Monsters, her next book, and I would wind up devouring that in even less time than her last book took me.

This is the story of a man with a head injury (which perhaps let something inside) who begins not just murdering people, but using their bodies in grotesque and horrific ways, leaving them in artistic scenes all around wrecked parts of Detroit. Detective Gabriella Versado is tasked with figuring out who he is, what he’s doing, and trying to stop him. That’s the story, simple as that, except that it’s wound as tight as a piano wire, and the novel is populated with other characters who matter just as much as this detective story, like Layla Versado, the Detective’s young daughter, who has her own life and own world of problems, not to mention a guy named Jonno, who is a journalist (and kind of a loser) trying to reinvent himself in a youtube era, and getting in way over his head. And there’s so much more.

When I finished the book, I said it was a mix of True Detective, Peter Straub (particularly lost boy lost girl and in the night room) and Guillermo del Toro. I also added that it was like them in that order. I still feel that way. When this novel comes out, I’m buying it and I’m reading it again, and then I’m forcing everyone else to read it too. It is so goddamn excellent. –Peter Damien 

Curtsies & ConspiraciesCurtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger

This is the second book in the Finishing School series by Gail Carriger, in which we get something like Harry Potter meets steampunk except instead of learning magic the students are learning to be spies. Rather than reading, I actually listened to this (and the previous in the series, Etiquette & Espionage) on audiobook, narrated by the fantastic Moira Quirk. She does such a wonderful job with all the different characters’ voices, and I was impressed with her performance in this second book in which the author added even more characters to the already heavy cast (school setting, remember).

These books are a real adventure, and I can’t help but feel like the logical next step would be for Studio Ghibli to animate them into delightful films. Just when I thought I’d only really listen to nonfiction/memoir on audiobook, I stumbled on these during a sale and I’m just hooked. It’s just too bad the third book’s release is currently shrouded in mystery.  –Kristina Pino 

The EnchantedThe Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

This is the best book I have read so far this year, no contest. The writing in this book is absolutely awe inspiring and there are so many passages that I underlined and flagged. The story takes place at a prison and follows at variety of characters: a female investigator who works to get prisoners off death row and is hired by a firm to help a prisoner who does not want to be set free, a former priest who works as a counselor in the prison with the death row inmates, the warden of the prison, and more. Denfeld herself works as an death row investigator so the situations in this book feel just as real and complex as you would expect from a prison story. Coming up at about 250 pages, the story explores a lot more than many books twice its size do. The book can be difficult at times, I had to put it down a couple of times to get a handle on my emotions before jumping back in. But the lyrical writing and the small elements of magical realism create a world and story that is worth jumping into. –Rincey Abraham

Hark! A VagrantHark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

For those who are new to the interwebs, Hark! A Vagrant is a webcomic from New Yorker cartoonist, Kate Beaton. Lovers of history and literature, will enjoy Kate’s hilarious illustrations and quotable panels. While most of the content in the book is taken directly from its online counterpart, it’s great to have a physical representation of her work to show off rather than staring at your computer screen, scrolling through the archives (there’s a lot). On the brightside, with Beaton’s work being online, you can try it before you buy it! Might I suggest starting with her Gatsby comics. However, if you don’t particularly care about owning the book, I’d say stick to reading it online. I loved every page and I’m itching to throw more money Beaton’s way to get some of the panels as prints. –Amanda Diehl

Long DivisionLong Division by Kiese Laymon

When my friends at The Larryville Chronicles tweeted “There’s a line about ‘basic bitches’ in #LongDivision,” I knew I had to check it out. A little digging revealed that this debut novel by Kiese Laymon was actually a finalist in the 2014 Tournament of the Books. After 14-year-old City Coldson becomes an overnight YouTube sensation for shouting at some racist judges during a nationally televised quiz contest in Jackson, Mississippi, he picks up a mysterious novel called Long Division and discovers a way to travel into the future. Here are more reasons to love Long Division, in no particular order: Hip hop lyrics. Time travel. Love. Revenge. Badass women. Talking cats. Grammar jokes. Post-Katrina racial politics. Time traveling Klansmen doing 80s dance moves in front of a laptop camera. Weird and wonderful teenagers creating the lives they want to live. An open-ended conclusion that made me cry like a baby.  Kiese Laymon is completely rewriting and reinventing literary fiction, and it gives me shivers— I think I like it. –Rachel Smalter Hall 

The Lucy VariationsThe Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr helped to pull me out of something of a reading slump by nailing the feelings that I felt so acutely at Lucy’s age. No, not the pressure on a gifted, well-known (in her world) pianist who suddenly quits playing, and right before a mega-important performance. That’s definitely not me. It was the other Big Thing: Lucy’s attraction to inappropriate people: her English teacher, her brother’s piano teacher. When Lucy quits, her brother becomes the next great hope for her family name in the music world, and his teacher tries—for a mixed bag of reasons—to convince Lucy to start playing again. There were more than a few moments when Lucy’s embarrassment caused my own to come rushing back. I laughed, I cringed, I wanted to cry. I can’t speak to the music world, but in my view, Zarr gets Teen Girl World just right. (Nerdy: I kept hoping Lucy would mention Tori Amos, a fellow piano prodigy, when talking about contemporary music, but she never did.) –Jeanette Solomon

Plato at the GooglePlexPlato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away by Rebecca Goldstein

I first tried this on audio: big mistake, unless you are in need of a non-medicinal sleep aid. Goldstein’s latest is a more adult Sophie’s World, with expository chapters on ancient philosophy interspersed with chapters that trace the adventures of Plato on a present-day book tour. He tours the Googleplex in California, serves as a guest on a cable news talk show, gets into it with “tiger mom” parenting gurus, and chats with a neuroscientist among other opportunities for dialogue with contemporary folks who think they have life all figured out until a quiet guy in a toga starts gently asking a few pointed questions. The conceit is a bit silly, and it shouldn’t work, but it somehow does. –Jessica Tripler

the QuickThe Quick by Lauren Owen (Random House, June 17)

A young 19th century poet lazes about London being ANGSTY and POET-LIKE and involved in a FORBIDDEN LOVE for about 100 pages (and those are very nice 100 pages), and then BAM, the book completely changes direction and genre in a way that had me literally talking to my cat: “WTF just happened, cat?”. The following 250 pages are an adventurous romp through London’s underground and secret societies, complete with a lady acrobat who battles evil and I can’t tell you much else because: spoilers. It’s reminiscent of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things in scope and tone, but with evil baddies. I hated the ending, but loved the rest of it enough to be completely and slavishly willing to read the sequel that I’d bet money is coming in the future. –Amanda Nelson

RelishRelish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

Part memoir, part graphic novel, part cookbook, this little gem is quite unlike any other book I own or have ever read, and believe you me people, it truly is a GEM. The writing itself is excellent, and then the artwork and the way it’s all put together? Charming to the gazillionth degree. Each chapter ends with a recipe that is done graphically, as well, which is a bit hard to describe until you see it, but it made me wish every recipe ever was done that way. It’s a tribute to eating, and how eating shapes a life, and how generally good it is to be able alive and be able to taste stuff and share those tastes with people you love. Perfect. –Jill Guccini

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt

This book blew me away so hard that I went on Twitter and fired everybody for not making me read Donna Tartt sooner. THAT’S how brilliant The Secret History was. It’s one of those dense-in-a-good-way narratives, rich with self-analysis, suspense, and beautiful prose. Through Richard (the narrator), we learn about the small group of Classics students at Hampden College who study with a single charismatic professor. They become so obsessed with the ancient Greek culture they love that they lose sight of the world around them and wind up committing two murders and then covering them up. Tartt explores how each of the main characters interacts with the others and how Richard, despite his friendships with each of them, can never truly know what those relationships entail. We as readers are dependant on Richard for our information, and because of that, many answers and explanations seem to hover just outside our field of vision. Thus the book’s sense of haunting uncertainty. You’d better believe I’ll be reading more Donna Tartt- wait, you say she’s only written 2 other novels?! Nooooooooooooo!!! Write more, Donna, WRITE MORE! –Rachel Cordasco

Skin GameSkin Game by Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files is quite possibly the best series being currently written, and the latest installment Skin Game reminds the reader why. The series features Chicago wizard Harry Dresden, and in this novel, he’s involved in a heist . . from Hades himself. Taking a break from the earthshaking, overarching storylines, this novel allows Harry to take stock of his life and situation, evaluating relationships and what he is becoming. It’s fun, entertaining, and has a surprising amount of heart. If you aren’t reading this series, you absolutely should be. –Swapna Krishna 


the Unfinished Life of Addison StoneThe Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin (Soho Teen, August 12)

I hate talking about books this far in advance but Griffin’s novel is so out of this world good I can’t hold back. Addison Stone, a young, hot, up-and-coming artist in New York City, died under mysterious circumstances and now, any and everyone who had been in her inner circle is a suspect. This book is told through art, photographs, and interviews with her family, her boyfriends, critics, mentors. It attempts to piece together the story of who Addison is and offer an answer to what happened that night on the bridge. Griffin masterfully weaves a compelling story about Addison without ever once giving Addison a voice, except through periodic inclusion of her art. It’s a technique that doesn’t always work, but it’s because she lacks a voice that the story moves forward. The construction of the book allows for a sharp look at greed, especially how greed can be a wedge and/or a driving force in relationships.

This is more than a “what happened” story, though. It’s a book about art and about image, about how perceptions can be made through performance and about how madness and artistry might not be too far from one another. Addison’s built herself and her reputation through her art — but what does that really mean? What does she gain or lose being young, female, and under tremendous pressure to keep outdoing herself in her work? And what if what you’ve been trying to say for years about your own life and experiences has been overshadowed by the art you’ve produced?

Griffin’s work is packed with more questions than answers, despite being set up to look like a straightforward approach to the single question of what happened to Addison Stone. -Kelly Jensen 

word exchangeThe Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

In this delightful novel of our dystopian future (which I ironically read on my phone), the next gen smart phones, Memes, are stealing our words and our minds. Even Ana, Doug, and Bart, writers for the North American Dictionary of the English Language, aren’t safe from the word flu. When Doug goes missing, Ana scours New York City to find him and uncovers a virus that could wreak havoc on modern civilization. The Word Exchange probably sounds pretentious, but the story is clever and fast-paced, and I absolutely loved Bart and Ana. Ana is an endearing narrator, and I adored the way Bart expressed himself. The ending felt drawn-out and anti-climatic, but for the most part this novel is unputdownable, and its message about how smart phones inhibit communication and memory are thought for food. If you love smart, complex, slightly over-the-top thrillers or books about books, definitely give this one a try. Read it on a cell phone FTW. –Tasha Brandstatter 

EarthseaA Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin

So begins the saga of Ged, lowly goat herder of Gont who, against all predictions, becomes Archmage of Earthsea. I love these books, which I think began as a trilogy but now have at least five in the Earthsea series. They are sparse to an interesting degree, especially as compared to our more current wizard lore, but filled with helpers and villains, womanly witches and a school for budding mages (guys only), and unlikely hero Ged is wonderfully flawed, courageous as heck, and a bonafide Dragonlord. The island worlds Le Guin creates are just a great not-so-traditional place to get lost in. (My edition has a map that I consult throughout the entire reading, to gauge how far Ged has come.) Ged spends his time in this first installment getting to know his magic, being taught a valuable lesson in limits and hubris after accidentally unleashing a shadow-self bent on wreaking havoc, and setting the stage for his future adventures. And in the other books, he’s a central but not The Main character, which takes some getting used to, but ultimately is a great treat. Please make it to book three, and then let’s discuss: I never realized before how closely Archmage Ged’s relationship with soon-to-be-king Arren predates Voldemort & Harry, circa book 5. But, bet Le Guin has. Delicious fightin’ words! –Alison Peters