Riot Round-Up: The Best Books We Read in May
We asked our contributors to share the best book they read this month. We’ve got fiction, nonfiction, YA, and much, much more- there are book recommendations for everyone here! 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.
Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone
History. Heartwarming. Families separated by oceans, wars, and generations. These are words that would typically make me think “Nope! Not for me!” as I much prefer my fiction placed firmly in the present, and filled with numerous psychological horrors. But this story about a girl born with wings, and the generations that came before her, mesmerized me with its mix of magical realism, storytelling, and survival. Love love love.
– Steph Auteri
American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis
Since I work from home and have caregiving responsibilities for my family, I feel in some ways a kinship to the American housewives in Helen Ellis’ short story collection. Ellis is a gifted writer and somehow manages to unify the diverse experiences of women who stay at home. Her collection is at once hysterical as it is bittersweet. And at under 190 pages in a petite size, American Housewife is a satisfying single-sitting read. File this one away for your next readathon.
— Sarah S. Davis
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
I picked up the Babel-17 audiobook because I thought it was a recent release. And as I listened to it, I had no other reason to think otherwise for the first few chapters: The hero — poet and space captain Rydra Wong — is on the autism spectrum. Her friends are in polyamorous, non-binary relationships, and are very much into body modification. Coding is a part of the plot. Then I heard some dated language and looked the book up: it was published (and won the Nebula) in 1966.
I don’t want to tell you any more than that for fear of spoiling you, so check it out for a space adventure set in a very cool universe (I wish this were a series so I could get more Rydra) and an excellent meditation on the power of language.
— A.J. O’Connell
Bloodline by Claudia Gray
As a huge Leia fan, I had basically been counting down the days to this one and I’m happy to say it didn’t disappoint. Bloodline is set years prior to the events of The Force Awakens during the dissolution of the New Republic as Leia undertakes a dangerous final Senatorial mission. It’s told through the point of view of Leia, as well as her Senatorial staff, allies, and enemies. I loved getting a window into the political manoeuvrings happening in the background of all the action and friendship of the Star Wars films, and I especially loved actually getting to see Leia be the brave, savvy, compassionate, and all-around-badass political operator we know she is. And without giving too much away, I was also impressed with the extent to which Bloodline inserted women into the New Republic and the rise of the First Order. I’d recommend for even casual Star Wars fans.
— Maddie Rodriguez
Booked by Kwame Alexander
Again, Kwame Alexander delivers a stunning middle grade book in verse following his Newbery winner, The Crossover. In Booked, twelve-year-old Nick navigates girls, soccer, and a family falling apart. He finds peace in poetry, words, and the advice from a rapping school librarian who steals the show with his rhymes and his “I Like Big Books” t-shirts. No word is wasted in this gorgeous book of verse; it’s a must read for every middle grader and beyond.
— Karina Glaser
Confessions by Kanae Minato
What happens when a middle school teacher’s daughter is murdered by two of her students? What about if she chooses to get revenge upon them and let everyone in the class know that’s how she’s handling the crime? This is a horrifying (and sometimes horrifyingly funny), weird, dark, noir-y book that keeps you turning pages as you flip through the perspectives of the teacher who is mourning the death of her daughter and the two young boys accused of the murder. It’s twisty and turny and unexpected in every possible way, and the ending is totally unexpected and terribly satisfying in ways that leave you as a reader questioning your own humanity. It’s a Japanese crime read in the Iyamisu subgenre, and fans of Natsuo Kirino will love this, as should those who enjoyed The Vegetarian.
— Kelly Jensen
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Holy crap, this book. It was 1) so fun, 2) such a good audiobook, 3) addictive, I could not stop listening. Even though the book was populated by a ton of unlikable characters, Kwan did an amazing job making sure that they were juuust evil enough that they didn’t actually make the book unbearable to read; the good characters, on the other hand, were people that you definitely wanted to root for. Lynn Chen’s narration was superb. Every character (and there were so many, with many different accents) had a different voice without being, you know, hokey. I stayed up late into the night with headphones on for this book.
— Susie Rodarme
Dragonfish by Vu Tran
Neo-noir is one of my favorite genres, but it’s hard to find books that really get it right and harder to find books that do something different with it. Robert is a cop who is still obsessed with his ex-wife Suzy, a secretive Vietnamese immigrant who left him years ago. His obsession sends him to Suzy’s new husband, Sonny, a Vietnamese gangster in Las Vegas and from there things go about as well as you’d expect. It’s a dark and sometimes violent book, but Tran sometimes interrupts Robert’s story to tell you Suzy’s and you realize that absolutely nothing is as it seems.
— Jessica Woodbury
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
Modern Jane Austen reboots are my weakness and Cincinnati (where this book is set) is my hometown. Those facts alone combine to ensure that this book would be my favorite for the month. The Bennet family is modernized into yogis, Crossfit enthusiasts, and online shopping addiction sufferers in this modern twist on Austen’s classic. Although you think you know the basic trajectory of Pride and Prejudice, this book manages to create a fresh take that still has a few surprises in store.
— Amanda Kay Oaks
The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
Poor Lizzie Eustace! Widowed at a young age, she’s now being asked to give up the valuable diamonds that her late husband gave her to be her very own–or so she says. Lizzie’s lies and other hijinks in her effort to keep “her” diamonds while finding her next husband make this a highly entertaining and humorous read. Although Lizzie gets the most attention, the book contains a large cast of characters, and the women are especially well-written. There’s Lucy Morris, a governess who longs to marry Frank Greystock, a lawyer who is also being wooed by Lizzie. And Lucinda Roanoke, an American, becomes engaged but then realizes she can’t bear the idea of marriage and appears to go mad. This book is the third in Trollope’s Palliser series, although it can stand on its own. A few characters from previous Palliser books appear, but they remain mostly on the sidelines.
— Teresa Preston
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
What a freakin’ gut punch. Or, rather, a series of gut punches. The Lee family silently struggles with being mixed race, but no one talks about it. Ever. Until Lydia, the perfect daughter, is dead. What follows is an attempt to untangle the mess and history of the family’s past and present. The writing is gorgeous and the story is winding and complicated and heart-breaking and so many things all wrapped up in one. This one will stick with you for a while.
— Ashley Holstrom
The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House, June 2016)
Emma Cline’s prose has the feel of a deftly-handled chef’s knife in its attention to diction and syntax. She has total control of each sentence and it is an enviable quality. The story, told much from the perspective of a teenage girl who joins a Manson Family style cult, takes that same knife and dulls it, sullies it with onion juice and meat gristle, buries it in the dirt to rust, and unearths it years later. It becomes more beautiful that way, mesmerizing and attractive, an object to be tucked in your belt and carried around. Keep it by your side: in jealousy, in lust, in fear, in awe. It’s a pretty fucking brilliant debut, one worthy of its ravenous hype. I was entranced, to say the least.
— Aram Mrjoian
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn (DAW, July 2016)
I LOVED this book. Asian lady superheroes are my jam, and every page of Sarah Kuhn’s novel delighted me immensely. Evie Tanaka is best friends with and the much-beleaguered personal assistant to superheroine Aveda Jupiter, who destroys demons tearing up San Francisco. Their friendship is a bit uneven, with Evie catering to Aveda’s whims and caprices, even as she deals with her own emerging superpowers. Seeing the way both women deal with those hard moments in both constructive and selfish ways was a welcome surprise, because women don’t often get to be both things and grow. Kuhn’s writing is bouncy and engaging, and Evie is very clearly spun into a captivating character. I also have to give Kuhn props for balancing romance and humour and L drama, and making me wish that Heroine Complex would go on just a little bit longer.
— Angel Cruz
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, June 7th)
This multi-generational novel has been getting all the positive buzz by other Book Rioters so I knew I had to pick it up myself and give it a try. The story begins with two half sisters and follows the family tree down those branches across around 100 pages through Ghana and (eventually) the United States. Each chapter follows a different member in the family line, alternating between different sides of the family. Despite the fact that you are only seeing snippets of each person’s life, Yaa Gyasi is still able to create a connection between the reader and these characters. Each chapter is filled with so much emotion and depth and tackles so many different topics. Even though so much of this book was so emotional, I didn’t want to put it down.
— Rincey Abraham
Little Labors by Rivka Galchen
This book is part memoir, part essay, part literary criticism, part sociology, part who knows what, and I loved it. Galchen writes in what feels like a newly-forming tradition of books about motherhood and parenting that don’t fit neatly into any genre, a tradition that includes Maggie Nelson, Heidi Julavits, and Sarah Manguso. It’s exciting writing, fresh, surprising, and vital. Like other books in this style, Little Labors is made up of short sections that move between personal experience and the larger world in ways that consistently illuminate what it means and has meant to be a woman and a mother.
— Rebecca Hussey
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders(Random House, Feb. 14, 2017)
Saunders has released several story collections, and a novella, but this is officially his first novel. And what an amazing, magical thing it is! He has destroyed any notions of the novel as we know it and rebuilt it to suit his beautiful mind. Lincoln in the Bardo is a weird, mesmerizing story about the death of Willie Lincoln, his interment in a borrowed crypt, and the stories of his neighbors in the cemetery, who are perplexed that as a child, he has not already moved on to the next spiritual plane. It’s an absolute work of genius! But let’s be honest – no one expected anything less from George Saunders.
— Liberty Hardy
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones
The best–the best— werewolf novel I have ever read. It’s a coming-of-age story of a young boy whose family lives on the fringes of society for several reasons: they’re brown, they’re poor, oh oh and also they’re werewolves constantly on the run from the law. Come for the heartbreak, the desperation, the superglue holding this family together; stay for the tidbits about lycanthrope daily life (like why they can never, ever wear pantyhose).
The Mothers by Brit Bennett (Riverhead, October 11, 2016)
This book is something special: sage and sad and spectacular. Focused on a church that acts as both center and centrifuge for a black Southern California community, The Mothers follows a trio of young people as they make decisions about their future and live in the aftermath of those choices. The structure and plotting are genius, letting you dive deep into a particular character at some points and slide between them, in fragments and fractures, at others. The book is narrated by the church mothers, elderly women who see all (and have seen it all, as their periodic reports from their century of black womanhood make clear), a conceit that works so well it hurts. When I wrote a recent post on books about finding your place in the world, I hadn’t read The Mothers. If I had, it would have featured grandly among those other fantastic titles. This is a book about how the choices you make, and those made for you, shape the lovely, hopeful tragedy of your life. *
— Derek Attig
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Morgenstern’s book should come with a disclaimer: may lead to bookish existential crises. I’d picked it up as therapy, thinking it’d fill the Harry Potter void, but I ended up with a bucket of feels and another hole in my heart. The Night Circus is all kinds of beautiful, and combines a heart-wrenching love story with gorgeous fantasy. The story of two apprentices trained to battle each other with their magical powers, it’ll leave you dazed. I still cannot decide if I want more of the same genre, or want to swear off books completely because everything else will likely be a disappointment now (I kid, I kid; I’ve ordered more books since then)
— Deepali Agarwal
The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
I have this thing about people describing things as “Orwellian” when, usually, they’re not. In this case, though, the description is spot on. Much like the opening chapters of 1984, you’re led to believe that you’re reading a boring story about bureaucracy. But there’s something decidedly chilling about this queue and what happens in the lives of the people who find themselves waiting there for months on end. They are counting on the Gate to open and to give them the approvals they need to continue with their normal lives. Meanwhile, people are dying. Lives are crumbling. And they are being watched. It’s a crazy ride – one where you feel like you’ve jumped on in the middle and where you get pushed off before it comes to a full stop. It’s awesome.
— Cassandra Neace
Quiet Neighbors by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink, April 8, 2016)
DC had 19 days of cool, gray, soul-crushing rain this May. So, instead of reading books to get me excited for summer (which will apparently never arrive) I dove into this mystery set in a Scottish bookstore. This cozy book follows a library cataloguer trying to outrun her past, the bookstore’s owner as he makes sense of his family’s history, and a young woman searching for her place in the word. It’s got everything I love: unreliable narrators, family secrets, old graveyards, rich descriptions of bookstores, and eccentrics. To solve the mystery, the group must make sense of a notes in a dead man’s books. If you’re a fan of books, bookstores, or libraries (and you are because you’re reading this site) you’ll enjoy this mystery.
— Ashley Bowen-Murphy
Reclaim Your Brain: How to Calm Your Thoughts, Heal Your Mind, and Bring Your Life Back Under Control by Joseph A. Annibali, M.D.
I sort of randomly decided to give this book a try after discovering it on the Volumes app and was a bit skeptical about it given the preponderance of mediocre medical self-help titles pouring out of the publishing gates these days. I’m really glad I gave it a chance. Annibali is a psychiatrist from northern Virginia who treats a lot of the common psychoneurological plagues of the twenty-first century–ADD/ADHD, anxiety, depression, OCD, and PTSD. He’s also pioneered the use of brain SPECT imaging to observe patterns common to these conditions, such as reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex and overactivity in other parts of brain. In Reclaim Your Brain, he details the biological processes behind these conditions and outlines coping techniques and DIY therapies that patients with mild to moderate cases can benefit from with or without the oversight of a medical practitioner. I highly recommend this book to anyone who suffers from one of the aforementioned conditions, or has a friend or family member who does.
— Kate Scott
The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson
I picked this up in hopes that reading it would mean I could sell more of the stacks of Eva Ibbotson we have at the bookstore, and now I know why so many people rushed out to buy her books in the first place. I listened to the audiobook, and the word that I can’t avoid while thinking about this book is “charming.” The plot is not particularly surprising, but the characters are vivid and the setting (Vienna in the early 1900s) is beautifully described. I also found the humor worked really well even (especially?) as an adult reader. I’m already eying up Journey To the River Sea as a future read.
— Danika Ellis
Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake (HarperTeen, September 20)
Three queen triplets born, raised apart, taught that upon their sixteenth year whoever kills the other two gets to keep the queen title. Yeah, you read that right and there’s more. SO MUCH MORE. The queens each have powers they need to master, and while it seems they’re not doing such a great job of that the people around them are making up for it by plotting and scheming. If this book were a meal it would be the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink ingredients meal and everyone would be raving about its deliciousness. There are poisoners, poison eaters, animal tamers, controllers of the elements, suitors and seducers, betrayal—of course!—and a hell of an ending…
— Jamie Canaves
Still Life by Louise Penny
If cozy mysteries are your jam, you need to read Louise Penny. Set in a small, remote town in Quebec, this book is SO charming, despite the tragic events that drive the plot. The main characters are lovably quirky and ridiculously clever, the sort of people you immediately wish you could hang out with. Penny’s writing style is full of wisdom and humor, of the “make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn” variety. It was so smart and delightful there were times I felt like I was reading something by J.K. Rowling–in fact, Still Life is everything I’d hoped Casual Vacancy would be. Plus, props to Penny for writing a book where art actually plays a crucial and believable role in the story. I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to dive into this series. Definitely a must read!
— Tasha Brandstatter
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Squirrel Meets World by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale (Marvel/Hyperion, February 2017)
This was the only ARC I was concerned about nabbing from BEA, and my focus and dedication paid. Off. Squirrel Meets World is everything you love about the Squirrel Girl comics (you do read the Squirrel Girl comics, right? RIGHT?) but in a funny, sweet YA novel. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl tackles bullying, babysitting, and all sorts of high school drama, including what it’s like to be a 14-year-old girl with a bushy tail. If you love superhero origin stories, smart girls solving problems, and the secret underworld of New York rodents, this is the book for you.
— Jesse Doogan
Unashamed by Lecrae
I didn’t know much about hip-hop artist Lecrae before I read this memoir… I knew a few of his songs, and I saw him on Jimmy Fallon last year, that’s about it. But I’d heard that he had a really interesting story, so when I spotted his book at BEA I snatched it up. I started it right away and I couldn’t put it down – he DOES have a really interesting story, and he tells it with transparency and grace. I really loved it.
— Christy Childers
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I randomly picked up this book at an indie bookstore while on vacation and it was so engrossing I barely paused to refill my wine glass while reading. I loved the fierce but flawed main character and the grouchy wizard, but what makes it a favorite is the seriously creepy sentient forest that serves as the evil force in this fairy tale fantasy. Plus, major bonus points for a complicated female friendship and just the right dose of romantic tension that doesn’t overwhelm the main plot.
— Molly Wetta
The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel (Grove Press)
The shelf-talker I promised my local indie I would write about this will need to be the size of a billboard to be able to contain all feels I have for this book. Family secrets, immigration issues, and ultimate redemption… I am here for all of it. Engel’s voice is raw and emotional, and she writes a dark family dynamic with a brutal honesty that is at once both refreshing and painful. But through it all, love remains the constant thread in Reina Castillo’s story. And that love helps her to discover who she is both within and without her broken family.
— Elizabeth Allen
*Edited to fix a formatting glitch.