We asked our contributors to share the best book they read this month. We’ve got fiction, nonfiction, YA, memoir, and more. Some are old, some are new, and some aren’t even out yet. Enjoy, and please tell us about the highlight of your reading month in the comments.
Reality Boy by A.S. King (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, October 22, 2013)
A.S. King is one of the finest (and most underappreciated) writers of books for young adults, though ‘young adult’ is becoming a passe term, and YA books should just be called ‘books for humans.’ Because there are so many amazing YA books out there. And people of all ages can learn from King’s books. In this case, the story is about Gerald Faust, former star of a reality show, who spent his formative years in front of a camera and is now dealing with the fallout of growing up under the close scrutiny of millions. Reality Boy is a smart critique of today’s culture, as well as an important statement about family. It’s time kids understand that family is a privilege, not an obligation. Parents are not always right – they have problems, too. You don’t have to like someone who is horrible to you simply because you’re related to them. I love her for saying this. King consistently, brilliantly, knocks it out of the park.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The narrator of Ellison’s 1952 classic tells his story from his “hole,” an underground room in a New York City building where he doesn’t pay rent and steals electricity from Monopolated Power & Light to fuel the 1,369 light bulbs that burn overhead. “I am an invisible man,” he tells us. Invisible socially, invisible because he has chosen to be, the narrator recalls his young adulthood in the American South and the events that brought him to the city, where struggles and falls and struggles and falls and rises and falls in a series of experiences that teach him what it is to be a black man in mid-century America. This book is beautifully written and completely devastating, and I read it with my heart in my throat. Call it a picaresque. Call it one of the most important works of 20th century American fiction. Call it the book you missed in school and have been meaning to read forever. Call it necessary. It is necessary.
The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy
This book scratches a lot of my itches: interwoven vignettes that eventually come together in unexpected ways, narratives from the past and present, and concise writing that resembles poetry but isn’t boring or hard to get through (not that all poetry is like that, blah blah blah etc.). It’s a slim book that travels the world and several decades and it’ll break your heart and then put it back together nicely- which is what we’ve come to expect from Simon Van Booy.
The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
There was a time when I read other books which weren’t by Ruiz Zafon. I remember those days, but I can’t remember why. His mixture of historical fiction, gothic romance and tragedy, and a mysterious literary world resonate so perfectly, I just want to crawl into the Barcelona he’s created and live there (sort of. It’s not always a kind place. I’d be murdered in tragic and interesting circumstances). What fascinates me about Prisoner of Heaven in particular is that it overlaps a great deal with his previous two adult novels, which means that in many ways, you’re reading the same basic story over and over…and yet it’s compelling and exciting each time, not least because you’re coming at it from a slightly different angle. Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a master writer.
Every Day by David Levithan
I didn’t fall in love with this book immediately, nor am I completely in love with it now. I had tried to read it once before then returned it unread to the library, but something about it stuck with me and made me want to try it again. I’m always fascinated by shifting identities, and I find it particularly interesting here that the narrator has developed such a firm(ish) one through living many lives, each only for a day, and from babyhood, never waking up twice as the same person. It’s excellent premise and it kept me turning pages furiously, if for no other reason that I got to meet so many different characters. As much as I liked it—definitely not as much as The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which someone chose before I could—I did find parts of it problematic. Still, I’m glad I stuck with it this time, even if it left me wanting. I wanted to know why this was the narrator’s life, how it came to be; I had real trouble accepting that it just was.
Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson
When I first started this book–ostensibly a mystery and the seventh in a series starring Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire–I was expecting a more or less straight-forward police procedural. Holy snowballs, Santa, was I wrong. This book is craaaaaaaazy, in a very good way. Walt has to chase some escaped convicts to the top of the Bighorn Mountains in nothing but snow shoes, during a blizzard, accompanied only by a copy of Dante’s Inferno and an Indian named Virgil. His journey is so mind-bendy that whenever I put this book down, I was like, “Is this Real Life? *pats random objects*” Hell is Empty is the perfect example of a novel that’s extremely literary (it’s based on the Inferno, obviously), and which also tells a completely engrossing story. You don’t need to be familiar with the Inferno at all to get into it, but if you are the book will only be that much more awesome. I definitely plan on reading the rest of the Longmore series in short order.
The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen
Every new Sarah Dessen book excites me, but this might be my favorite of hers so far. In The Moon and More, Emaline struggles to come to terms with what her future may hold when it comes to not only her education (she’s just graduated high school) but more importantly, what relationship she wants to have with the father who was never really there for her. Does she try to establish a strong connection now that she’s met her step brother or does she accept that her father’s history of unreliability just won’t change? Bonus points for a teen who has to work to support herself, as well as an honest series of romantic relationships that, well, may not end up happily ever after.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
I said recently that I don’t really read thrillers in the summer, because they feel more like winter reads. You want to be curled up with a blanket and a sweater and hot cocoa, and feel nice and safe while the pages in front of you basically make the REE REE REE sound from Psycho, right? But The Shining Girls has proved me wrong — it was the perfect distraction from the overbearing humidity. A time-traveling serial killer in 1930s to 1990s Chicago; a possibly-demonic house; a survivor; a hard-bitten journalist; it’s a wicked, ingenious, crazy-making, terrifying book.
The Fables series by Bill Willingham
I’ve been diving into comic books a lot lately, and as a fan of the literary, Fables is just the best thing ever. Characters from all over mythology and classic fables, running around together in a complicated modern world? I just can’t get enough. Full of betrayal and mystery, intrigue and humor, and of course absolutely beautiful artwork, it’s easily my new favorite comic book series. I tore through the first three hardcover volumes in under a month.
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
Holy shit, guys. This book is nonsense creepy. There’s a magical bridge, an evil car, and a serial child-murderer eager to take kids to “Christmasland.” But here’s a surprise: the real attraction here isn’t Hill’s (legitimate) spookiness. It’s his prose. Deeply indebted to Stephen King—see “evil car,” above, and the New England setting—Hill isn’t quite as nimble a plot-master as King, but he writes more smoothly and evocatively. The novel is particularly good early on, when the plot focuses on a young girl who can find missing objects by riding her bike over a (non-existent?) covered bridge. The chapters focused on her childhood are vividly rendered, with Hill’s clearly expert eye and ear tuned to atmosphere, mood, and place. By the end, the plot has gotten a bit mechanical—you’ll know where it’s headed by the time you’re halfway through—but the creepiness, and the writing, will hold your attention.
Ten Letters: The Stories American Tell Their President by Eli Saslow
At the time I’m writing this I am not quite finished with Ten Letters, but I know already that it’s the best book I’ll finish this month. Eli Saslow is a staff writer for The Washington Post who got on my radar after he wrote this crazy-amazing profile of Mark and Jackie Barden, parents who lost their seven-year-old son Daniel in the Newtown shooting in December. Ten Letters, Saslow’s only book, is a collection of profiles of people who have written to President Barack Obama. It’s also a beautiful portrait of a particular moment in American history and a look at how personal stories impact national politics. I am just in love with the book and deeply disappointed that Saslow hasn’t written anything else I can read right now.
Taipei by Tao Lin
Up until Taipei, I get the feeling that people talked more about Tao Lin than about his books. That might still be the case—another Rioter was diagnosed with “Tao Lin feature fatigue” last week—but I found Taipei to be a fascinating novel nonetheless. It’s tragic and funny, like an episode of Seinfeld acted out by a comedy troupe on Percocet.
Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster, September 10, 2013)
Every once in awhile, a book comes along that makes me rethink my aversion to certain types of novels. In this case: dystopian fiction. What would happen if Hurricane Katrina level storms kept on keepin’ on for years? In Rivers, Smith explores this possibility and creates dark and memorable characters. The writing style reminded me of Cormac McCarthy and Larry Brown, and that isn’t a comparison I take lightly. I spent many hours in my hammock with my fingers glued to Rivers, jumping and nearly hurling myself out of my perch every time a bug landed on me. It’s creepy good.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
I first finished this book the week it came out after buying it at a midnight release party. So why mention it now? This month, I finished listening to the entire Harry Potter series on audiobook with my boyfriend, who was completely new to the story. He’d never seen the movies, never read any of the books, and apparently managed to never pay attention when the plot was being discussed in his presence. We started with the audiobook of Sorcerer’s Stone in the fall and returned Deathly Hallows to the library this week. He was surprised by every surprise: he had not had one single plot point spoiled for him. It was incredible to witness. I may not love everything about book 7 (the sad camping, the epilogue, etc.) but hearing it out loud with someone who was experiencing Harry’s story for the first time made it more wonderful than ever.
The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki, illustrated by Edward Gorey
Imagine an episode of Downton Abbey with a guest appearance from Larry David and you’ll get a good idea of what a Saki story is like. Mercilessly irreverent, Saki delights in making his characters look ridiculous, skewering the “first world problems” of the cultural elite in pre-World War I Britain. Gorey’s illustrations provide a nice accent, with their intricate detail and dark–perhaps even sinister–underlying tension.
Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels by Barry Gifford
Barry Gifford is the kind of writer who reminds you what a ‘stylist’ really is – someone who builds their stories with such immense, unashamed style that you wonder why you ever put up with boring, functional prose or grey, uninspiring characters. The seven-book Southern Gothic saga of Sailor and Lula may be best known to many from David Lynch’s cinematic adaptation of its first installment, Wild At Heart, but the book is so much more than that. What begins as a self-conscious take on the classic theme of lovers on the run blossoms into an epic romance spanning decades that not only convinces the reader – the bare-minimum for what a literary romance must do – but also compels us to care. Dark, whimsical, noirish, surreal, satirical, brutal, tender, sexy and permanently, strangely innocent.
City of Glass by Paul Auster
It all starts when Quinn, who writes detective novels under the pen name William Wilson about a private eye named Max Work, gets a phone call asking for Paul Auster. Quinn tells the caller that it’s the wrong number, but when they call again he says that he is indeed Paul Auster and takes the case, protecting Peter Stillman from his father, also Peter Stillman. Still with me? City of Glass is not what I expected, but is wonderful nonetheless. We go along with Quinn as he loses his identity in an attempt to save the young Peter Stillman from his father, but then we get to wondering whether there ever really was a case, or indeed if there ever was a Quinn to begin with. In the end, all we are left with is the wonderful book we just read.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
I picked this book up because it was an employee rec at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, not realizing it was an employee rec from fellow Rioter Emily Murtagh!!! Book Riot for the win for the millionth time!! I love this book. It’s a Dickensian world with a Christopher Nolan sensibility and a rapidly beating feminist heart. The twists and turns are so bad-ass and the atmosphere is the raddest kind of gothic gloomy.
Quiet by Susan Cain
Watching Susan Cain’s TED Talk on introversion and extroversion was a genuine revelation for me, and her book, which extends her investigation into the ways in which introverts are marginalized in Western culture, felt gratifying in a way unlike any non-fiction book I’ve ever read. For years, I joked along with friends and family about my “anti-social” behavior, my desire for seclusion, and my intense conversational style, but Quiet gave me a scientific and sociological understanding of those behaviors and impulses that has made it easier for me to trust my personality. But Quiet isn’t a self-help book, even though it provided me with some personal clarity. Mostly it’s concerned with Western ideals of behavior and how our culture has made extroversion king, to our individual and communal detriment. Introverts, Cain argues, possess particular skills that we should embrace and implement in the workplace, in schools, and in our power structures. Read Quiet, and you won’t see your office, your school, government, or even the dinner table the same way again.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Late to this Booker-saluted party but such a happy guest… Compared to Wolf Hall, Mantel’s first Cromwell novel, Bodies feels like a racing telenovela, as the plots around Anne Boleyn coalesce. Mantel / Cromwell always seems to notice a giveaway detail; Jane Seymour has an unexpectedly wry tongue on her. I can hardly wait to see Mark Rylance as Cromwell!
Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan
If you believe Scott McClanahan (and you really shouldn’t), he spent his childhood in rural West Virginia pouring six packs of beer down his uncle’s feeding tube and dodging his formidable grandmother Ruby at neighborhood funerals. McClanahan is a quintessential unreliable narrator, and his loose first person account of his Appalachian kin sprawls out over 192 pages peppered with tall tales and half truths that, taken together, make up a tender portrait of strange love and angsty youth. For such an experimental little book, Crapalachia is also very funny and readable. I loved the 2 hours I spent with Grandma Ruby, Uncle Nathan, and the rest of the West Virginia clan — including (or maybe even especially) his neurotic neighbor Bill who collects troll dolls and crotchless panties. McClanahan is an exciting new voice in the growing canon of kickass Southern writers.
-Rachel Smalter Hall
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
There are lots of things that could be said about this book, and we’ve done a fair amount of talking about on both Book Riot and Food Riot. I will start by saying that this book made a bigger impact on me than any of his others because it is so personal. It also felt familiar, even though it is different from most everything else he has written. Anyone who has ever looked back over their childhood and had a memory come back to them so vividly, so completely, that it makes them feel as if they are back there in that moment knows what it is like for the narrator as he sits on that bench next to the duck pond. It’s a magical feeling, even if it is a bit unnerving. This is my new favorite Gaiman novel, and it’s right up there with one of my favorite books of all time. READ IT.
Now, it’s your turn. Tell us what you read this month that really hit the reading sweet spot.
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