Riot Round-Up: The Best Books We Read In September
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.
Act Like A Success, Think Like A Success by Steve Harvey
Whether you know him from his stand-up comedy, his nationally syndicated radio-show, his multiple television gigs, or even from his deadpan antics as host of Family Feud, you have probably wondered, like me, how the heck does Steve Harvey have the time to write a book? And this isn’t even his initial go-round, as his first book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man went on to not only become a best-seller, but also was made into two movies starring comedian Kevin Hart. So, of course, when someone who handles so much almost effortlessly (did I mention he also has his own talk show), decides to impart wisdom to the masses about how he became successful, well, you can just sign me up. I’m somewhat of a self-help book hoarder, but thankfully, I didn’t just hold on to this book; I actually read it, did the worksheets, and am going to apply it to my life. Harvey uses a faith-based model, putting belief in God as a priority, as his secret to success. However, no matter what your religious values, there is a lot to be gained from this easy-to-read-and-understand motivational book. Of course, there are the usual tropes of creating vision boards, and making SMART goals, but in showing his own struggles from working a mundane factory job, to becoming homeless and divorced, to stepping out in his gift and becoming a King of Comedy, Harvey is able to show you how to use your failures and your gift as a platform for your success. — Syreeta Barlow
All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s usual hard, violent writing takes a backseat for this coming-of-age tale; I had read Horses before, but it was even better on the re-read. Between the gripping story and the luxuriously gorgeous language, I was unable to put the book down for any serious length of time. I’ve also decided that I want to move to Mexico and become a cowboy. – Susie Rodarme
The Bees by Laline Paull
Whenever someone asks me what the book is about, I have such difficulty coming up with an accurate description. I stumble over my words before blurting out, “It’s weird, but so good. But weird. But really, really good.” I’ve never read a book quite like this and I know it’s going to stick with me, purely because of it’s uniqueness in storytelling and characterization. I will talk to anyone who’s willing to listen to me ramble on about this book and, after the conversation, I will emphatically shove my copy in your face and yell, “Just read it!” because my paltry words cannot seem to do it justice. — Amanda Diehl
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I know I’m obsessed with a novel when I have to have it in both audio and digital so I can immerse myself in it 24/7. You’re told in Chapter 1 that there’s been a suspicious death on Trivia Night, a fundraiser for a Pirriwee Public School, set in a small beachside community near Melbourne. Chapter 2 takes you back to six months before Trivia Night, and the rest of the novel proceeds chronologically, culminating in an answer to the opening question of who dies and why. But Australian writer Liane Moriarty’s fifth novel is not just another book about dirty secrets harbored by middle class white people. Nor is it primarily a mystery. What I loved about this book was the characterization of the three main female characters, all moms, and their complex and changing relationships with each other, their kids, their partners, and the other parents. What are the lies we tell, big and small, to ourselves and others, just to get on with the business of life, and how do they work for us and against us? Big Little Lies has a great hook and a galloping plot with a satisfying (if slightly hasty) conclusion, but it’s Moriarty’s assured depiction a particular small town parenting milieu that is somehow both toxic and supportive, threatening and comforting, ridiculous and sinister, that will stay with me. — Jessica Tripler
The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer
As I mentioned in a recent Buy, Borrow, Bypass, this is Heyer’s first novel. It’s ridiculously over-the-top and incredibly entertaining. There are love affairs, lost heirs, conniving in-laws, a woman who ends every sentence with an exclamation mark (!), kidnapping, sword fights, a gentleman highwayman with a great passion for bespoke jackets, gambling, cheating, comedy of manners, self-sacrifice, heroic rescue, trips to Paris, and the kitchen sink. It’s a ludicrously fun adventure and I enjoyed the hell out of it. — Tasha Brandstatter
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (October 2, Riverhead)
After reading Land of Love and Drowning, I wanted to branch out a little and read more Caribbean lit; the language is different, the setting is its own character, and I like getting my learn on. A Brief History of Seven Killings is a 704 page whopper that opens with a four page cast of characters, so if you’re into a big juicy delicious multi-decade spanning novel, this is SO perfect for you. It explores the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley and its aftermath, and dives deep into Jamaica’s rich history. You’ve got gangsters, dealers, CIA agents, ladies, and dead people roaming around Kingston, New York, and the new Jamaica. It took me a few chapters to find a reading rhythm (lots of characters and shiny glittery prose to absorb) but once I did, I was knocking out big chunks in a sitting. Thank you, Marlon James, for enriching my reading life. — Emily Gatlin
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
I met Lauren Beukes before I ever had a chance to read any of her books, and I liked her so much that I was afraid to read her stuff, just in case it wasn’t as awesome as she is. Other Rioters read it, though, and their near endless praise made me think that I should take the risk. I am now super-upset with myself for putting it off so long. Broken Monsters is an amazing book. It hits just the right balance of gritty crime story and supernatural fantasy tale. And the protagonists are women. And the setting is pitch-perfect. And…well, I could keep going, but I think I’ve already given you some pretty solid reasons for picking this one up. Now, I’m off to read The Shining Girls and see what I’ve been missing. — Cassandra Neace
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
The only books in verse I ever read before this point were The Odyssey and Shakespeare’s plays. Books in verse were not something I naturally gravitated toward because I just did not know much about them. But this book completely blew me out of the water. It is a memoir, following Jacqueline Woodson’s life from her birth in the 1960s through the 1970s. Some of the poems pack such a strong punch and tell so much truth in so few words. Her stories are honest and reminded me a lot of what it felt like growing up. Even though this is classified as “middle grade” I feel like this is a book everyone should read. — Rincey Abraham
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Hot damn, I loved this book. I was downright giddy when I finished it – it was so much fun to read! It’s smart, and interesting, and Bennett has mad world-building skills. He was so thorough that it was completely believable the whole way through. Here’s what happens: Shara Thivani, a junior diplomat, is sent to the city of Bulikov to find out who murdered a visiting professor, who was studying the old gods, all of whom have been dead for centuries. What she finds instead is an ex-lover, a web of corruption, and evidence that the old gods may not in fact be gone. Now let’s pretend I mentioned a bunch of spoilery-type arm-flail-worthy examples here. (But I’m not going to really because spoilers.) Moving on, I have to say, my favorite part of the book was Shara’s “secretary,” Sigrud. Imagine if Predator and River Tam had a baby, and that baby was raised by Sherlock Holmes – that’s Sigrud. And I am crazy excited, because Bennett says that he is hard at work on a sequel. And by “Bennett says,” I mean “I’ve been rifling through his stuff when he’s not home, and living in the tree near his house.” Or he may have mentioned it on Twitter. One of these things is true. (But this book is entirely a stand-alone, so do not fear cliffhangers.) — Liberty Hardy
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
I tend to get skeptical of books that come with buzz, especially if they’re YA. It’s my contrary nature. So I’m very late to the party with Code Name Verity, which everyone and their dog read two summers ago. I apologize, although I’m the one who suffered by waiting so long to dive into this amazing novel. I have no idea why it’s classified as YA, it actually kept me away from it. YA and WWII? No thanks. But when I actually read/listened to it, I never thought of it that way. I tend to be tough to please with both YA and WWII since there are so many out there, but this one is right up there for me with The Night Watch as a book with amazing narrative tricks that never leave you feeling frustrated but instead just pull you in even deeper. It has none of the lazy storytelling and flat characters that make up the majority of YA, either.
So I won’t try and sell you the typical Girls Fighting in WWII shtick that goes along with this book. If you bought that you probably would’ve read it already. Instead, I’ll plug it as a book that kept me nearly breathless on a regular basis, had me close to tears several times on the train, and a great listen to hear Julie’s Scottish brogue. — Jessica Woodbury
Conversations with Beethoven by Sanford Friedman
I had such a tough time picking just one book for the roundup this month, because I read so many great titles! This one has really stuck with me though, and it’s partially because the format is so different from what I’m used to. The main character is Beethoven, but we rarely see anything from his point of view in the narrative. Rather, we mostly have to imagine what his reactions and replies are based on what the people surrounding him have written in his notebook. It’s fascinating, and sad, but also quite hilarious, all at the same time. Beautiful snapshot of Beethoven’s last year of life. — Kristina Pino
Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers
I’m only a quarter of the way through this book, and I already like it as much as Grave Mercy, the first in the His Fair Assassin trilogy (the third book, Mortal Heart, comes out in November). The premise of the series is that girls who are said to be daughters of Mortain, the god of death, train to be assassins in a convent. They have certain gifts that predispose them for such a profession, such as being able to see when someone has been “marqued” by Mortain for death. I’m also reading the Gentleman Bastard series, and I have to say that LaFevers has given readers who crave female-driven fantasy a really awesome alternative to all the dudes, dude-ing around in their dudely worlds. I forget that it’s YA because it just feels like good historical fantasy. — Jeanette Solomon
Days of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War by Annia Ciezadlo
In 2003, as Iraq descended into civil war, Annia Ciezadlo spent six months in Baghdad on her honeymoon. For the next six years, she lived in Baghdad and Beirut, working as a freelance journalist while her husband worked as a foreign correspondent, reporting on the various wars raging around them. In Day of Honey, she recounts her time spent in Baghdad and Beirut, of the people she met and befriended; of the complicated inner strife and battles raging between genders, religious groups, and nations; but most of all, she focuses her story on the food. As she explains so eloquently in her opening chapter, for civilians, a war is a whole world of “can’t” – children can’t go to school, people can’t go to work or leave the country or go shopping. But people can – and must – eat. And the dishes consumed, the bread broken, the pulse of preparing and eating meals, provides a constant in a world of so very much upheaval. — Dana Staves
Eat The Document by Dana Spiotta
I don’t know how I forgot that I purchased this novel– it was one of those sneaky books that somehow migrated to the forgotten side of the shelf. But I’m so glad I came across it again. This novel features an incredibly well-paced and stressful plot line that follows radical protesters who went into hiding in the 1970’s. The chapters jump back and forth between characters and timeframes, dropping the reader into the desperate idealism of the extremists, Bobby and Mary, and the aftermath of their greatest mistake. The focus here on music (especially The Beach Boys) acts as an indicator of the past and our obsession with that past. I could read this one again just to focus on the music commentary. There’s so much here to soak in. — Jessi Lewis
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters had been on my radar for a while now, but it was the release of her new novel last month that pushed me to finally pick up one of her books. Starting with Fingersmith was certainly not a decision I regret. This crime novel, set in Victorian England, contains themes of sexuality, interspersed with some staggering plot twists. This was one of those introductions to an author that drives you to consume everything else they’ve ever written. — Rah Carter
The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey
One of the most difficult tasks as the most bookish person in a family of readers is to be the one responsible for choosing the roadtrip audiobook. My parents and I needed a book that all three of us were going to enjoy on a 10+ hour trip, and having heard a few other Rioters rave about the audio version of The Girl With All the Gifts, I thought it was worth a shot. Not only was it a raging success, but M.R. Carey’s story of a strange little girl in a post-apocalyptic future where the world is filled with “Hungries” could probably have please just about anyone.
Though “zombie” isn’t a word that’s ever uttered in Carey’s graphic and suspenseful novel, a “zombie novel” it most certainly is. Except that that particular genre tag doesn’t convey all that is imaginative and spooky and vivid and touching and funny and terrifying in this book. Carey’s background as a comics writer (M.R. Carey is Mike Carey) serves him well writing prose. The dialogue is everything, absolutely everything, which is impressive considering the thorough worldbuilding he does. Though he’s not a visual artist, an intimacy with a vivid landscape also come clearly through. It’s hard to talk about this book without giving away massive spoilers, so I’ll just say this: Go listen to this audiobook right now. RIGHT NOW. — Rachel Manwill
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Offred used to be a free individual, used to have a husband, a child and a life of her own. But since the fall of the United States, and the rise of the Republic of Gilead, an ironclad totalitarian theocracy, she has become a Handmaid: a fertile woman forced to procreate with higher ranking members of the regime, in order to boost the population. One of Atwood’s most famous and terrifying novels, The Handmaid’s Tale is a look at a future that looks a little too familiar, especially these days, where women’s bodies and rights are abused in favor of those in power. Oppression, terror, freedom, womanhood, civil rights, and identity are front and center in this powerful novel, and I can’t believe I didn’t read it sooner. Atwood’s haunting, stream of conscious moments with Offred as she tries to come to terms with this new, awful life are some of the most powerful writing I’ve ever seen, as Offred’s two lives come crashing together in her memory, and all that’s left is sorrow. — Martin Cahill
Hell Is Empty & As The Crow Flies by Craig Johnson
I have to just echo Tasha’s comments from Best of Backlist 2013: “Hell is Empty wound up being one of my favoritest reads of the year…As soon as I finished Hell is Empty, I immediately started reading the Walt Longmire series from book one and Craig Johnson is my new favorite author!” I did not know I loved mysteries. I did not know how thrilling the wilds of Wyoming (in deepest winter!) could be. Frankly, I did not even know that Longmire (the canceled TV series) was based on this Craig Johnson series. And As the Crow Flies is longer, more plot-twistier, and leaves you with an awful suspense that Something Horrible is About to Happen to our hero and his family. Not Walt Longmire!!! — Alison Peters
Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix
The elevator pitch for this book (“Evil Dead 2 set in an Ikea”) is so good that I can’t believe I’m ever able to go five minutes without bringing it up. Weird things have been happening at the Orsk furniture store due to the fact that it was (oops) built on the grounds of an evil prison workhouse, unbeknownst to the beleaguered staff. Three employees are tasked with spending the night in the store to find out what’s going on. Shit then gets real.
My immediate thought upon seeing the finished copy of Horrorstor was that so many people have clearly loved this book so much before it even got to us. The amount of care that went into this package (it is the exact dimensions of an Ikea catalog, with the catalog formatting throughout the novel) is evident on every inch of every page. If you’re in the mood to make a huge case about the ways in which physical books still have e-books beat, this book should be the first weapon in your arsenal. — Cristin Stickles
The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky
If you only read one happiness book, let this be the one. Written by a serious psychological researcher, The How of Happiness eschews the usual laundry list of quick fixes and instead offers a unified theory of sustainable happiness, backed by empirical evidence and sound reasoning. The book’s conscientious scientific perspective and straightforward advice can feel a bit too tidy and clinical in places, but what it lacks in emotional power and messy personal narrative, it makes up for in practicality and effectiveness. It offers powerful assessment tools: happiness scale, person-activity fit diagnostics and happiness questionnaire. Together, they help readers assess their current happiness level and fashion individualized happiness programs. Thus equipped, committed glee seekers can animate the science and create their own personal stories of joyful living. — Maya Smart
The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
I struggled a bit with the first book in this series, fell a little in love while reading The Magician King, and then became a total goner while reading this last book in Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. Grossman accomplishes something magnificent here: a protagonist that grows substantially throughout the books; multiple allusions to our favorite childhood novels while still creating a book that feels new; and a sense of awe by the end that I very rarely encounter anymore while I read. — Nikki Steele
The Martian by Andy Weir
I had been meaning to buy The Martian for the longest time, but kept putting it off. I found it in the “adopt me” corner of a hostel and decided to, indeed, adopt it. It’s been a while since I read a book this fast. The Martian is near-future science fiction and tells the story of Mark Watney who is stranded on Mars. The astronauts were abandoning their mission on Mars because of a sandstorm, and Mark is hit by an antenna. It goes through his suit, knocking out both Mark and part of his bio-reporting unit, so the message the other astronauts get are that he’s dead. So they leave him behind.
But Mark is alive, and we watch as he patches himself up and tries to survive on the remaining rations and, more importantly, tries to let NASA know he’s still alive. Thrilling, exciting, hard to put down. — Johann Thorsson
Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea
Challenging the existing norms of Young Adult fiction, constrained by both publishers’ marketing departments and the often censorious voices of adult authority, is a tricky proposition. Fortunately, if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Michelle Tea, professional badass.
Regular observers of YA fiction will know that, in recent years, mermaids were widely touted as the next big thing – even, god help us, ‘the new vampires’. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is a napalm-strength antidote to such cliches, easily surpassing its would-be competitors in wit, bravery and sheer imagination. Tea’s deep sympathy with adolescent hopes and dreams never obscures the harsh realities of the adolescent experience. and while much of YA is escapist, Tea’s novel makes it very clear why young people might desire escape so badly.
Chelsea, Massachusetts is, as Tom Waits once put it, a town with no cheer, drawing hope desperately from a tangled local mythology. Local teenager Sophie Swankowski is, she discovers, a focal point in that mythology, and via a foul-mouthed Polish mermaid, she must prepare for the terrible responsibility it has forced upon her.
Both grimy reality and magical fantasy co-exist in Tea’s novel, and the compelling narrative she weaves demonstrates that neither can ever truly cancel the other out. The first part of a trilogy, the second volume cannot come fast enough. — Sean Bell
Poisoned Apples: Poems For You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann
I read this collection early on in the year, and then when it hit store shelves and I could see the final version, I bought it and read it again. These 50 poems spin modern-day realities and challenges of being a teenager girl — of being a woman, period — and tell them as though they’re fairy tales. Then, because of what the poems are about, those romantic, dreamy notions of fairy tales and what they’re really telling us are examined. These are sharp, biting poems that cut to the bone on gender and sexism, and the collection is made even more powerful through the black and white photos complementing the words. This is an unapologetically feminist poetry collection and it’s awesome for being just that. I highly recommend taking a peek inside this book for a sample of the poetry and the photography. -Kelly Jensen
Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis
Landis’s second book focuses on the angsty teenage years of Rainey Royal, a girl growing up in a dysfunctional family in Greenwich Village during the 1970s. Her father, a famous jazz musician, has opened their brownstone to his many groupies and girlfriends; her mother has left them for Colorado; and Rainey must grope her way through adolescence as best she can. Only her art, her friends, and her unshakeable belief in herself, keep Rainey going. Landis’s prose is suggestive, understated, spot-on, and brilliant. Highly recommended. — Rachel Cordasco
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
Maggie Stiefvater and I have chatted off and on for ages now on Twitter, after I was obnoxious about something or another and she responded (this is how everything starts for me basically). It took me all this time to finally read and discover her books, because I’m disorganized and reading a zillion things at once…but I’m kind of glad it took me so long, because it turns out I am a gigantic fan and might have been less obnoxious had I become a huge fan before talking to her. Shiver is probably one of her most famous books, the first in a trilogy about werewolves in Minnesota, and the girl who has fallen in love with one of them…and what happens when the wolf is shot and turns back into a human being. Her love story is amazing and I was enraptured by it, but I was also really fascinated by Maggie’s werewolf logic and rules, what they’re like before and after a change, what the cold does to them, and so forth. I’m generally not that interested in werewolves, vampires, or zombies (because there is no little that anyone says which is new about them), but her attention to detail won me over completely. I read the book in a day, staying up very late at night to finish it, and the moment I was done, I was desperate to go and order books two and three. Absolutely brilliant book. Get thee hence and read. — Peter Damien
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Where do I even begin with this book? Do I start talking about the incredibly intricate plot, that weaves together a slowly crumbling past with a shattered apocalyptic future? The memorable characters and their riveting backstories? The dialogue and narrative that frequently left me with a sob caught in my throat? Mandel’s beautiful novel left me stunned and moved, and I’ve been talking about it non-stop since I finished it.
Oh, perhaps I should maybe discuss what the book is about.
Station Eleven explores a world where the apocalypse has hit (I won’t say what causes it), and centers around several characters, including The Traveling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians who travel from town to decimated town, performing Shakespeare. Their struggles and adventures on the road are thrilling and heartbreaking, and how they connect to the past… well, I won’t ruin it for you. There’s so much here to be surprised and stunned by. Pick it up, and be warned. If you’re reading this in public, you will be seen gasping and crying. So very good. — Eric Smith
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
I have always struggled with short story collections. I like long, sustained narratives and short stories always feel… short. But I should have known that the amazing Margaret Atwood would write a collection that could reform me on short stories. This book has well-drawn characters, a little mystery and madness, beautiful sentences, and stories that feel like they have life well beyond the last page. This collection is a wonderful introduction to Atwood and to short stories more generally – read it! — Kim Ukura
The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan (January 2015, Minotaur)
When a wealthy Canadian man falls to his death while taking an evening walk, the detectives who deal with culturally-sensitive cases don’t understand why they’ve been called in. But what looks like an accident might be murder, and the man who looks like an everyday businessman might be a war criminal on the run from his role in a massacre in the Bosnian War. This book is equal parts page-turning whodunit and heart-breaking, eye-opening account of a war I knew very little about. Set aside a whole day for this one- you won’t be able to put it down. — Amanda Nelson
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
I read lots of books that I like, and then, every once in awhile, one comes along that I love. And how do you explain why you love something? In We Were Liars a dreamy 15 year-old girl falls in love. There are beach houses and terrible secrets and kissing. Amnesia. Inheritance drama. The voyeuristic pleasure of reading about the very wealthy mixed with the tender heartache of first love. Sooo much high teen angst, but somehow written with delicate nuance. On top of all this, Lockhart steals elements from poetry and fairy tales for a totally gorgeous linguistic effect. Sorcery, I say! Surrender yourself with a high tolerance for unreliable narrators and a hefty willing suspension of disbelief, and you might just find you love it as much as I do. — Rachel Smalter Hall
What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund
I read a bunch of good books this month that got me thinking, but only one of them stayed with me even while I was reading all the others. The lucky subscribers to Book Riot’s Quarterly Box already know about it, because it was the centerpiece in the most recent shipment of goodies.
Every book lover is familiar with the vivid pictures that words can create in the mind’s eye, but Mendelsund gently coaxes us to examine what we’re really “seeing,” pointing out the tentative, fragmentary nature of these images. A mere word or two is all we need to create something that’s in one way as solid and memorable as our own living room, and in another as insubstantial and mutable as smoke. This balance between specificity and vagueness, an effect that requires a participation between author and reader that’s unlike any other artistic relationship, is well worth examining, especially with Mendelsund as the teacher. He’s light and amusing, suggestive rather than authoritative, and can be quite profound. Some of what he says will affirm what you already know, but much of it will alter your perspective radically.
The best thing about What We See When We Read is how simply its creator gets his points across. His prose is honed, direct, and clear. And as a designer, of course he’d make his book beautiful and illustrate it heavily. Sometimes he’s merely being decorative, but on a dozen or more occasions, he produces an image that plays off the text and snaps a complex idea into your head in an instant. Understanding comes so suddenly and perfectly that laughter and applause seem the only appropriate responses. — James Crossley
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