Riot Round-Up: The Best Books We Read In October

Jessica Tripler

Staff Writer

Jessica Tripler is an academic who lives in Maine. Follow her on Twitter @jessicatripler.

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.

all the bright places nivenAll The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (Knopf, January 6, 2015)

The “meet-cute” of Finch and Violet is unusual by any stretch: the teenagers meet while both perched at the top of their school’s bell tower, preparing to throw themselves over the edge. So begins an unlikely love story that pulls Violet out of the grief-driven depression after her sister dies in a car accident while Finch continues to battle a deep-seated mental illness, sinking further into his own darkness despite his growing love for Violet. It’s a powerful story that left me sobbing into my pillow at 1:30 in the morning. You cannot help but root for these characters – as individuals and as a couple. You also can’t help being impressed by the frankness and eloquence with which Niven approaches very real issues for lots of teenagers. It is a gut-punch of a book, but a gut-punch I’d ask for over and over again. — Rachel Manwill


and still i rise angelouAnd Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

Until a few months back I was a firm hater of poetry. However, my efforts to read poetry have revealed that it wasn’t poetry I disliked- the poets I’d read at school had been uninspiring. And Still I Rise is not the first book of poetry I’ve enjoyed in the last couple of months, but I think it’s been the best. Poems that have been emotional, autobiographical, encouraging, and so much more. I found this book best read aloud, whether in whispers or shouts. — Rah Carter



batman- hushBatman: Hush by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee (et al)

I actually didn’t read much this month, so this was a pretty easy pick. Hush is loads of fun to read as a Batman fan, and it’s super friendly for fans at all levels of knowledge of the character and the world he inhabits. Just the sheer amount of cameos and unabashed don’t-give-a-damn attitude about what goes and doesn’t while telling a good story make this one worthwhile. Even if you’re just familiar with Batman through various films, this book won’t leave you behind. — Kristina Pino



The Better Angels of Our Nature- Why Violence Has DeclinedThe Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

It’s hard to look at the news without getting the impression that nearly all of us are doomed to be murdered, abducted, blown up, or tortured to death. Violence is omnipresent and oppressive. However, by the numbers, we are living in the least violent time in human history. Pinker’s book takes an erudite, lengthy, persuasive look at the civilizing effects that literature, critical thinking, art, cosmopolitanism, and more have had on the decline of violence. A fascinating read by a formidable intellect. — Josh Hanagarne


the book of strange new thingsThe Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Not only my favorite read of October, but a massive contender for my book of the year, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things manages to explore almost every facet of humanity in this gut-wrenching, heart-breaking novel. Peter Leigh, a once alcoholic and self-destructive man turned preacher with the help of his wife, Bea, is sent on a mission to Oasis, a newly discovered planet trillions of miles away. Upon his arrival, he learns that the natives, the fragile, thoughtful Oasans, have already heard of Jesus from a previous, mysterious preacher and are eager to continue their education in the Bible, their, “book of strange new things.” But that’s only the tip of the iceberg as everything Peter has known is tested: his faith, his mission, his will, and most importantly, his relationship with Bea who’s lightyears away, on an Earth that is falling apart.


Everything about this book was beautiful and sad and thought-provoking and wonderful; it shed light on humanity and they way we are and think and exist in ways that were subtle and effortless. Peter and Bea felt entirely real and I was with them the entire way, cheering through every high and shouting at every low. Most important, to me at least, is that Faber managed to discuss faith and religion without talking down to the reader and without coming out on one particular side in the end. I highly recommend this book, so please read it ASAP so we can talk about it and cry together. Okay, great — Martin Cahill


The Dead Girl by Melanie ThernstromThe Dead Girl by Melanie Thernstrom

I stumbled across the Pharos Editions reissue of this 1990 bestseller by accident at my beloved Word bookstore; I bought it on the basis of its opening paragraph, and that impulse turned out to yield one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. On its surface, The Dead Girl is the story of the sensationalized murder of Thernstrom’s best friend, Bibi Lee, in 1984, but at its heart it’s a powerful exploration of personal grief and our very public cultural obsession with “dead girls” like Bibi: beautiful, charismatic, enigmatic, and permanently preserved as tragic victims. Thernstrom is a ruthless, gorgeous writer (it’s almost impossible for me to believe The Dead Girl was originally her senior thesis, written when she was 23) who is as brutal when facing her own motivations and attraction to Bibi’s death as she is when laying bare the hypocrisy of other people around her. — Sarah McCarry


The Descendants by Kaui Hart HemmingsThe Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings

I usually read the book before I watch the movie, but sometimes I miss one. The Descendants was one- I caught the movie after it got so much Oscar buzz and enjoyed it- but sure enough I liked the book more. The tonal gymnastics here are impressive. Matt’s wife is in a coma, and he’s suddenly a single parent to the two daughters he’s ignored for years. Daughter Scottie is only 10 but throws around sexually aggressive language. Alex is off at boarding school after problems with drugs and alcohol. And yet with all this heaviness, the tone of the book is often light and funny and even kooky. This is unlike any parent-child bonding book you’ve read before, but you come to love clueless Matt and his bizarre kids and really watch them grow into people through some rather madcap adventures. There’s a lot of heart, great character development, a look into the culture of native Hawaiians, and meditations on how a long marriage works. — Jessica Woodbury


The Dirty Life- A Memoir of Farming, Food and Love by Kristin KimballThe Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

I’ve been on a kick of nonfiction recently, specifically with nonfiction that deals with gardening. This one is an overwhelming memoir about farming on a plot of land the author and her future husband name Essex Farm. The author illustrates what it’s like to start a farm from scratch and with little funding. The romance between the narrator and her future husband is also pretty fantastic in a practical yet magical way. I was most interested in the minute details here– how to remove cream from milk the old fashioned way, the reasoning for tilling with horses instead of machine, and ultimately the harshness of a life of labor. It was a nice break from my normal fiction, but I still walked away feeling pretty darn educated. I love it when that slips into a nonfiction piece unnoticed. — Jessi Lewis


Find Me by Laura van den BergFind Me by Laura van den Berg (FSG, February 2015)

This is one of my favorite novels of 2015, and we’re not even IN 2015 yet. A plague of forgetfulness sweeps America, or at least that’s how it begins. It begins with forgetting, and it ends in death. Joy is immune, though, and she finds herself swept from her life as a cough syrup-addicted, graveyard-shift-at-the-grocery-store worker and living in a hospital in Kansas that has been repurposed into a research facility where “doctors” conduct tests on the immune in hopes of discovering a cure or vaccine. The days are as desolate as the winter prairie, and when the flimsy system holding the hospital together falls apart, Joy escapes and sets out for Florida in search of the mother she has never known. Her journey takes her through abandoned cities and to bewildered people, and it’s her time in the fractured landscape that helps her face the broken pieces of herself. Van den Berg’s short story collections infused me with sky-high expectations for this debut novel, and I was not disappointed. The language is beautiful, spare, and carefully crafted, and the characters are fully realized and unforgettable. There is tension and redemption and insight and even humor in these pages, and they make for a really incredible read. — Rebecca Schinsky


gabi a girl in pieces (1)Gabi, A Girl In Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Gabi is kicking off her senior year in high school when her best guy friend is kicked out of his house for coming out as gay and her best girl friend tells her that she’s pregnant. Gabi’s father is an addict, and she’s feeling immense pressure this year when it comes to her home and family life — is she ready or willing to go away to college and break from some of the cultural expectations put upon her as a Latina girl? This book, told through diary format, is a true year-in-the-life of a girl as she learns how to navigate the road she’s on while figuring out what it is she wants to do for herself when school comes to an end. Gabi is full of heart and she’s really funny. While there are some tough issues tackled in the book, including teen pregnancy, abortion, drug addiction, and death, it never once feels overdone or melodramatic. It’s exceptionally rare to see a well-developed fat girl in YA fiction. Too often their stories are about the path to weight loss and how that changes them for the better. Not so in this book. Sure, Gabi has to deal with body image and she feels pressure to lose weight from those around her, but she also realizes that her life and her dreams are much bigger than her waist size and she’s not afraid to pursue what it is she wants. Gabi is one of the most authentic teen voices in YA, and it’s refreshing to read a story told through the point of view of a Mexican American girl who embraces her cultural. Quintero’s debut novel is a powerhouse. — Kelly Jensen


how to be a victorianHow To Be a Victorian
by Ruth Goodman

Ruth Goodman is best known for her living history miniseries on the BBC (Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, etc.), where she goes and lives as as a person from that time period for a whole year. She’s unfailingly fascinated and enthusiastic about history, and she’s never squeamish or whiny, so when I saw that she’d written a guide to daily Victorian life, I was all over it. The book starts with Waking Up- so there are chapters on Victorian pajamas, chamber pot/cesspool care- and moves through getting dressed, going to work, leisure, meals, and bed. This isn’t a guide to being rich and Victorian, it’s a guide to how the normal, working class people lived, and it’s beyond fascinating. It’s much more about the downstairs than the upstairs- and it’s about time someone told the history of those folks. — Amanda Nelson


Junkyard Dogs by Craig JohnsonJunkyard Dogs by Craig Johnson

I feel like Johnson’s really hitting his stride in this book. When Geo Stewart, the eccentric owner of the Absaroka County junkyard (or waste management facility, as Geo prefers to call it), is pulled off the roof of his house, it seems like a hilariously quirky accident. But is it? Soon Sheriff Walt Longmire is investiating murder and drug trafficking in sleepy Durant, Wyoming. The plot of this novel might have made Junkyard Dogs depressing, were it not perfectly balanced with humor and zippy dialog. I loved the chemistry between Walt and his sassy deputy, Victoria Moretti, and I ALSO loved that Vic answers her phone like Dorothy Parker. The characters are charming and pitch-perfect, and the mystery kept me guessing until the very end. There really is something for every reader here, and it’s a completely enjoyable book from start to finish. — Tasha Brandstatter


lock in scalziLock In by John Scalzi

Ah, this book. I rambled a little bit about it in the Peeking Over Our Shoulders column, and finally finished it this week. After I picked this up (and subsequently got it signed by John Scalzi while fanboying ever-so-slightly) at New York Comic Con, I spent my first day back from the convention buried in this book, finishing half of it in a single evening.

The premise? Scalzi takes you to a future where mankind has been hit with a virus that mostly dishes out fevers and flu-ish symptoms to anyone who gets it. However, 1% of anyone who gets the virus ends up with Locked In (or Haddens) syndrome, leaving them fully aware consciously, but unable to move. 1% doesn’t sound like a lot of people, but when you take into account the entire world… the number suddenly becomes staggering. And society had to change to help these people.

The novel that results from this setting is a science-fiction police procedural that follows one of these locked-in individuals (who, like many like him, navigate the world in a robotic, android-ish suit), a new FBI agent and his non-locked in partner as they investigate a murder. The mystery and thrills are there, and it’s an amazing piece of sci-fi from Scalzi. But probably the most intriguing part of the story is the setting itself. Watching these characters navigate this incredibly realized world… it’s just so riveting. He addresses everything about this new society. Their politics, culture, social interaction. Scalzi dishes out a fully realized world that is just awe-inspiring. — Eric Smith


the name of the wind rothfussThe Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss.

I have to confess: I read the first couple of chapters of The Name of the Wind three times before I actually decided to commit to reading the whole rest of the book, despite glowing recommendations from several of my most trusted bookish friends. I could tell it was excellently written, but I wasn’t sure it was for me. I finally decided to buckle down and read further, and the next thing I knew it was 2 A.M. and I wasn’t remotely interested in stopping. Holy epic fantasy, Batman. This series is amazeballs. I’m almost done with the sequel now and I’m already dying to know what happens next. — Becky Cole


Of Things Gone AstrayOf Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson (The Friday Project, March 5, 2015)

A piano player wakes to find the keys of his piano gone. A shut-in wakes to find a breeze blowing in through the missing front wall of her house. A directionless woman finds she has, quite literally, lost her sense of direction, and a family man with a steady job shows up to work only to find that it’s not there. Thus is the premise for Of Things Gone Astray, in which a revolving cast of characters find that something dear – something specifically precious to them – has disappeared. And while they wait to to find these lost things, or adjust to life without them, we get to know the characters: their heartaches, their fears, their joys, their regrets, and their plans for adjusting to a very uncertain future. This book was full of whimsy and magic and the struggle for human connection. — Dana Staves


Off the Sidelines- Raise Your Voice, Change the World by Kirsten GillibrandOff The Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change The World by Kirsten Gillibrand

Part-memoir, part-playbook, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World is a refreshingly practical addition to the women’s empowerment shelf. It chronicles the life of an extraordinarily accomplished woman leader, but studiously conveys warmth and accessibility with folksy “Hey, I have fat jeans, too!” anecdotes. (Yes, the senator actually uses those exact words in the book.) But don’t mistake the tone for a lack of seriousness about the mission. It’s part of her strategy for convincing readers that leadership isn’t reserved for “special” people. She issues us all an invitation to get off the sidelines and take seriously our moral obligation to participate in the political conversations surrounding issues that we care deeply about. After all, if we–the people affected most by issues–don’t act, who will? — Maya Smart


oryx and crakeOryx and Crakeand The Year of The Flood by Margaret Atwood

Reading Atwood’s first two parts of the Maddaddam Trilogy was an effort to head the HBO adaptation off at the pass. Before director Darren Aronofsky’s vision, I wanted my own. What I got with Oryx & Crake was a darkly funny, frequently cynical peek at a potential future bubbling under our present. It’s a book that makes you despair for humanity and question what Atwood herself thinks about us. As its characters give into both their basest instincts and grand Malthusian delusions, all of which usher in the end of this world, you fear that Atwood looks upon humans with a wry, detached and unaffectionate eye, like a sardonic god. Thankfully, The Year of The Flood glows with a hope only hinted at in the first book. Humanity isn’t 100 per cent eejit. She loves us after all. — Edd McCracken

the paying guests

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

A bunch of people have already raved about this book, so I’ll keep it short: The Paying Guests is a really amazing book. Each of the three sections reads like a distinct type of story – a Victorian story of manners, a sexy romance novel, and a murder thriller – but the whole is held together by an intriguing and wonderful main character. This was exactly the book I needed to kick a terrible reading slump to the curb. — Kim Ukura



The Ploughmen by Kim ZupanThe Ploughmen by Kim Zupan

On the surface, there’s not a lot of action in Zupan’s debut novel: some shallow graves are dug, a sheriff’s deputy goes out with his dog to look for missing persons, and there’s one particularly harrowing chase through a field in a Montana prairie. Other than that, most of the “action” takes place in the lush language which fills the pages of The Ploughmen–primarily the late-night conversations between John Gload, a septuagenarian serial killer, and Valentine Millimaki, the aforementioned sheriff’s deputy who works the graveyard shift at the Copper County jail. As the book’s jacket copy explains, “With a disintegrating marriage further collapsing under the strain of his night duty, Millimaki finds himself seeking counsel from a man whose troubled past shares something essential with his own.” Most of the book consists of cat-and-mouse conversations between diabolical killer and sympathetic lawman, and I’ve gotta say, I was held spellbound for the entire 256 pages of the novel. Zupan spins his tale with sentences that are rich in imagery and complex in construction. This is a book which encourages readers to slow down and savor its near-poetic language. At the same time, Zupan ratchets up the suspense with a menacing undertow that pulled me deeper and deeper into the novel. — David Abrams


Poisoned Apples- Poems For You, My Pretty by Christine HeppermannPoisoned Apples by Christine Heppermann

I didn’t know I wanted a feminist fairytale poetry collection, and then I read Poisoned Apples. This is the book I wish my 13-year-old self had had; the book that belongs on your shelf next to Ophelia Speaks, Go Ask Alice, Wintergirls. Through a framework of fable and metaphor, Heppermann looks long and hard at body issues, eating disorders, abuse, and consumerism. Some of them are funny, most of them are heartbreaking, and all of them are wonderful. Give it to everyone you know (no seriously, EVERYONE). — Jenn Northington



Rabbit Ears by Maggie de VriesRabbit Ears by Maggie de Vries

de Vries lost her sister, Sarah, in 1998 when a serial killer named Robert Pickton stalked Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside looking for victims among women employed in street sex work. Sarah was one of these women, and as both an author and an activist de Vries has been working to give a voice to Sarah and others like her. Missing Sarah, deVries’ memoir, explores her feelings of loss and remembrance, and also publishes some of Sarah’s own writing from her journals. In Rabbit Ears, however, de Vries tells Sarah’s story to and for other potentially vulnerable teenagers, while also dealing openly with the consequences of abuse and secrecy. The novel is moving and heart-wrenching, but what I loved most were the empowered teenage girls throughout this novel, who find in themselves the strength to offer hope. In spite of the difficult material, it is ultimately an uplifting novel about the power of girls to come to their own and each others’ rescue. — Brenna Clarke Gray


Soil by Jamie KornegaySoil by Jamie Kornegay (Simon & Schuster, March 10, 2015)

Jay moves his wife and son off the grid, to a stretch of river bottom farmland in the Mississippi hills, hoping to position himself at the forefront of a revolution in agriculture. All work and no play makes Jay monkeyshit animal crackers. His wife and son move back to the city, and Jay becomes a one man dumpster fire. Like, an actual dumpster fire. He finds a dead body on his property and instead of reporting it, he burns it. Unnerving but touching, dark yet hopeful, gritty but oh, so smooth; Soil is the deeply human story of one man’s personal apocalypse. Mississippi independent bookstore owner Jamie Kornegay has penned a debut novel that will establish him as a major force in the pantheon of elite Southern writers. I spent most of the time wondering why he didn’t write a book sooner. It’s not fair to keep something so wonderful away from readers. Would it be weird if I read it again? — Emily Gatlin


Station+ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I was a little bit skeptical about this book just because when everyone seems to be hyping up a book, I stay away to avoid being disappointed. But I am a sucker for a good survivalist-type story and it became available at my local library, so I decided to give it a try. Holy cow, am I glad I did. The story begins with an actor dying of a heart attack while on stage during a performance of King Lear. Simultaneously, a flu epidemic begins to take hold in the world and crumble the world that we currently know, which, let me tell you, was a weird thing to be reading about at the moment. The story then jumps back and forth in time between the pre- and post-epidemic follows multiple characters whose lives are closely linked in a variety of ways. The way this book connects all of these narratives and provides so many interesting perspectives on what our lives are like now and what could potentially happen completely gripped me and I am now on the bandwagon of pushing this book on everyone I know. — Rincey Abraham


The Three-Body ProblemThe Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, transl. by Ken Liu (Tor, Nov 14)

Check it out, you guys- The Three-Body Problem, already a huge hit in China, is now the very first Chinese science fiction novel available for English-language readers. It’s news like this that demonstrates American publishers’ continued efforts to bring us translated works from around the world. In this novel, Liu asks us to imagine what life was like during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and then apply that knowledge of intellectual harassment and violent suppression to the present-day, and an opportunity to make first contact with an alien race. Should the human race resist such a meeting, or welcome the aliens with open arms, in the hope that otherworldly brains can save humanity from its self-destructive tendencies? It’s fascinating and relevant questions like this that make the novel so compelling. But there’s so much more: physics, math, astrophysics, a virtual-reality “game” in which people try to solve the “three-body problem,” and all written so that a non-science person like me can understand it! Add to that Ken Liu’s beautiful, elegant translation and…well, I really can’t stop talking about this book. The Dark Forest, the next novel in the trilogy, is out in English next year. — Rachel Cordasco


tiny beautiful thingsTiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

I remember thinking that this book wasn’t quite for me when it first came out. Advice column? Meh. I suppose, though, that some books are meant for certain periods of time in life. Something made me pick it up this month–a need for something other than fiction, a book I could read in small sittings, or an antidote to some general stress I’ve been having–and I devoured it. Each entry broke my heart and then Sugar stitched it back up again. It’s not often that I cry while reading and it’s not often that books have such a profound effect on me, but this one did on both counts. I loved it. — Nikki Steele


Uprooted by Naomi NovikUprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey, June 30, 2015)

I almost feel guilty about recommending a book that doesn’t come out for another seven months, but only almost, because I want to tell the everyone about this book! Five pages in, I was already hugging it and jumping up and down on the bed because I knew I was going to love it. In Uprooted, a strange ritual takes place in Agnieszka’s town every decade: A young woman is chosen by The Dragon, and then whisked away to live in his tower. No one really knows what goes on, only that after ten years, the woman is released, and another takes her place. In exchange for this, The Dragon provides protection for the town, and serves its best interests. As the time of the next choosing draws near, the village is certain The Dragon will select Agnieszka’s beautiful best friend, Kasia. But to everyone’s surprise, it is Agnieszka who is picked, and carted off to The Dragon’s tower. Magic, comedy, and bravery ensue. This is the most glorious grown-up fairy tale I’ve read! There are witches and wizards and enchanted forests, and it sings from the page because Novik’s writing is itself magic. Mark this title down, kittens. With Sharpie. On your forehead. Because you don’t want to miss it. — Liberty Hardy


Votan by John JamesVotan by John James

Neil Gaiman and the Fantasy Masterworks series introduced me to John James and his roguish protagonist–that’s more than one thank-you letter I owe now. Photinus is a Greek native and Roman citizen who’s mostly interested in a quick buck and a good time. In the process of seeking those things out he inserts himself into the politics and economics of several primitive Germanic tribes and inadvertently inspires the Norse legend of Odin (or Wotan or Votan, for you purists). It’s not really a fantasy story so much as a comic historical romp about a time in which fantastic occurrences were a lot more believable than they are now, and fans of Gene Wolfe’s Latro, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin, or Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series should love it. — James Crossley


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