July may be almost over and most of the Best Books of the Year (So Far) lists may have come and gone (including our own), but we have some more recommending to do. If you’re new here, welcome to Riot Roundup! This is where we ask our contributors to share the best books that they read in the last few months. These don’t have to be new books, either: whether it’s frontlist, backlist, or an upcoming release, we just want to know what books kept our folks turning those pages.
This edition of Riot Roundup includes historical fiction featuring a badass lady pirate; essays by disabled parents; a gloriously queer and messy coming-of-age story; Egyptian-inspired high fantasy; the racial origins of fat phobia, and more. There’s something here for all readers! Go on and find your next favorite read.
Alchemy of a Blackbird by Claire McMillan (Atria Books)
Do you ever feel like a book was written just for you? This book certainly does. It features two of my favorite painters, Remedio Varo and Leonora Carrington, who are adjacent to the surrealists. Varo is dismissed as a hanger-on and the girlfriend of poet Benjamin Peret by the surrealists even though she was a talented painter. Told from Varo’s mostly point of view, the book details their journey out of Vichy, France to safety in Mexico. The historical novel starts with Varo becoming interested in tarot cards and the two women learn together. Every other chapter or so features a tarot card assigned to a character in the novel and their point of view. It’s a powerful story about finding your voice, the power of female friendships, and the need to create. Their story is compelling and their work is incredible (go Google it now).
Bellies by Nicola Dinan (Hanover Square Press, August 1)
I gulped this down in two sittings. It’s a gloriously queer and gloriously messy coming-into-self book about two twentysomethings navigating tumultuous change. At first everything between Tom and Ming is easy; they fall in love at university and begin to plan a life together. But when Ming decides to transition, it throws their relationship into turmoil. This novel is funny, smart, deeply nuanced, and full of characters who are fully human. They’re sometimes selfish and sometimes clueless, they’re doing their best (or not), they make mistakes, they hurt each other, they try again. It’s one of the most poignant stories about queer and trans young adulthood I’ve read in ages.
Congratulations, the Best is Over!: Essays by R. Eric Thomas
Midlife crises are hard enough, but throw in a global pandemic and it becomes a whole other beast. In these essays, at turns hilarious, heartwarming, and eye-opening, R. Eric Thomas shares his mental health struggles in recent years and how he found a path forward that feels something like hope. I’m still regularly recommending Here For It because I adored it so much, so I was obviously thrilled to read a new essay collection by Thomas. And it did not disappoint! I laughed out loud in every chapter. But I was also moved by Thomas’ open-hearted and joyful approach to these essays, even those on difficult topics.
Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea by Rita Chang-Eppig
Badass historical lady pirates — do I need to say more??! Okay, then: This is a wildly fantastic debut about Shek Yeung, a pirate in the South China seas. When her captain husband is killed in battle, she begins to fear for her half of the control of his ship. So she agrees to marry his second-in-command, to hopefully ensure her safety and the safety of those loyal to her. But trouble is brewing in these seas, as the precarious alliance that was being fostered by her husband between the fleets might be, well, fleeting. And the Emperor has enlisted an elite hunter to rid the waters of pirates so now they have to constantly look over their shoulders. Should Shek Yeung fight for what is hers in a life that she didn’t choose for herself? Or is this a sign that it is time to cut her losses and run? Sign up to board this smart adventure of loyalty, betrayal, faith, survival, and the search for agency.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
A beautiful thing about books is how they sit patiently on your TBR until you can get to them, remaining as excellent as everyone shouted they were when they were first published. I purchased the hardcover, which sits on my orange–yellow bookshelf, and also the audiobook, which I finally devoured recently while trying to de-stress. Both the narrator, Logan Rozos, and the main character, Felix Love, are excellent, with wonderful voices. I love a book that equally makes me feel all the emotions while I root hard for the main character. If, like me, you’ve yet to find out why everyone loved this novel, go remedy that. I’ll be over here inhaling Kacen Callender’s entire backlist.
Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings
In this eye-opening nonfiction book, Strings explores the connection between how anti-fat beauty and health standards developed in Western society and anti-Black racist and eugenicist beliefs from the same time periods. It grounds these topics within a historical context, starting with the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade and the views of Renaissance artists and philosophers on what it meant for a woman to be beautiful. Strings follows the same threads through until the recent manufacturing of the “obesity epidemic” and how it disproportionately demonizes Black women. This book is an academic text written by a sociology professor. At times, the writing can be a bit dry. But it mostly felt accessible and well-researched. This is a must read for anyone trying to learn about fat positivity and/or antiracism.
The Jasad Heir by Sara Hashem
An unlikely found family support a lost heir running from her fate in this powerfully enthralling Egyptian-inspired high fantasy book. Sylvia is an orphaned apothecary’s assistant hiding her identity as the last of her family — the infamous lost Jasad heir. Sylvia learned how to hide in a world that wants Jasadi magic users like her gone until Arin, the adorably inscrutable Nizahl heir, discovered her power. Arin’s discovery is enough to blackmail her into becoming his champion for the deadly but prestigious magical competition, the Alcalah. Now, Sylvia must keep her true identity secret from the stubborn heir, even as they grow inextricably close. Winning could grant her the freedom to hide for the rest of her life, but the Jasadi rebels, and her guilt, draw her further out of hiding. Hashem’s debut is an impressive example of what complex fantasy worldbuilding can add to character development. Plus, I cannot get enough of a witty, capable, and sometimes messy protagonist like Sylvia, who battles with the appeal of a peaceful life.
Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames
An old, and I do mean old, band of monster hunting mercenaries must get back together for one last job. The daughter of Gabriel, the band’s frontman, is trapped in a kingdom besieged by monsters and they are determined to rescue her, or die trying. What I love about this book is that it’s very much a high fantasy adventure, but it’s so funny. It plays into the tropes of the genre for comedy and to raise the stakes in a way that feels fresh. Each of the characters has such a distinct voice, and through it all our band of heroes kill monsters and then grumble about their aches and pains. I immediately read the second book in the series, Bloody Rose, and am eagerly awaiting the third because I can just not get enough.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
Chemist Elizabeth Zott is absolutely brilliant. But Zott is also a woman, and it’s the early 1960s and, well, I’m sure you can imagine how that might go. But when she and a fellow researcher fall in love, it sets of a chain of events that changes the course of her life and, somehow, our protagonist ends up as the host of a daytime cooking show. I must admit, I wasn’t sure where it was all going at first, and if I wanted to follow her there. But by the end, I was insufferably LOLing at every other paragraph, and feeling deeply satisfied by this feminist tale.
A Limerick Fairytale by Gráinne O’Brien, Illustrated by Lena Stawowy
Prince Hugo has set out to find a princess, but when he meets Limerella, all of his ideas of what a princess embodies are thrown out the window. Limerella is not your traditional fairy tale “lady in waiting.” She has her own plans for the future and these may or may not include Hugo. This is a much needed revisit of the traditional Cinderella story with a strong female voice. As a school librarian I’m always trying to find books for youth that reflect the experiences of our students and this book is essential in planting the seed that you are the owner of your future. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also hilarious and beautifully illustrated, everyone should own this fabulous picture book!
A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting by Sophie Irwin
Kitty Talbot’s parents died within months of each other, leaving her and her four younger sisters with no money and (in a few short months) no home. Kitty needs to land a fortune…and because it’s 1818, that fortune can only be found through a rich husband. Soon, Kitty sets her sights on Archie De Lacy, a young man who is soon ready to throw himself at her feet. There’s only one problem: Archie’s older brother, Lord Radcliffe, sees right through Kitty’s plans…and isn’t willing to let her get away with it.
This book felt like an updated Jane Austen, with all the things I love about her books (the humor, the social commentary, the love stories) and none of the things that I don’t (like the classism and the slut-shaming). It made me smile from start to finish, and I can’t recommend it enough.
A Perfect Vintage by Chelsea Fagan
This is a deeply immersive, luxurious, and romantic read, ideal for when you’re on summer vacation or wishing to be on vacation. Set at a French château in the Loire Valley, we follow Lea Mortimer through one chaotic summer of creating a boutique hotel out of an old French mansion. Lea’s best friend is going through a messy divorce and asks to tag along, bringing her daughter as well. The family managing the project is difficult like all the rich families Lea has had to manage, but with the added wrinkle of Lea’s attraction to one of the sons in the family. I read this over a rainy weekend in April, but I will most likely break it out again when I am on a beach experiencing the joy of summer described in this book. Make sure you have some snacks nearby while you’re reading — the meal descriptions will make your mouth water.
A Power Unbound by Freya Marske (Tordotcom, November 7)
I fall more and more in love with this series with every book. And while I had a hard time imagining how exactly the final book in the trilogy would wrap up the mystery and conflict at the heart of the series, Freya Marske managed to tie a wonderfully satisfying bow on the series — even if I personally would’ve loved to see it go on forever! This queer historical fantasy romance world has truly taken over my heart.
Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
This was a recent book club pick that was selected from our jar, and I have to admit that I was not overjoyed when it got picked for whatever reason. How wrong I was. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was drawn into the story of Marcellus and Tova and how they connected. It was a beautifully told story about the connections that we all have, whether we know it or not, and how important they can be, even if they come later in life. I strongly recommend the audiobook if possible since I felt it added even more to this book.
We’ve Got This: Essays by Disabled Parents edited by Eliza Hull
“Being a disabled parent is a rebellious act,” asserts editor Eliza Hull in this essential collection of 15 essays by disabled authors about parenting. This is due explicitly to societal and medical discrimination toward disabled parents. Every essay makes one thing clear: disability isn’t the problem; problems stem from lack of accessibility and the way some people treat disabled parents. For example, queer wheelchair user Jax Jacki Brown describes a disturbing incident where a nurse tried to convince her wife to do genetic testing during an IVF informational clinic to screen for disabilities. “Disabled people, queer and trans people along with people of colour have long been discouraged or outright prevented from having children due to fear that we will taint the human race,” Brown says. “The experience of disability, it is assumed, should be avoided, and that people with disabilities should feel ashamed of the things that make them different.” This eugenic medical ideology and numerous other societal constraints plague many contributors. Contributors cite the need and appreciation for having a disability village, one of many reasons this collection is a must-read for parents; it shows disabled parents that they’re not alone. The collection includes authors from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, from Sitting Pretty author Rebekah G. Taussig to Sudanese refugee Neangok Chair to disability advocate husband and wife team Ricardo and Donna Thornton. I love that it also includes essays and interviews from parents with intellectual disabilities, a frequently missing discourse in disability spaces. As a disabled parent, this was such an affirming and moving read for me, though I think all parents will benefit from reading it.
When the Hibiscus Falls by M. Evelina Galang
This is a collection of 17 tales from across the Filipino and Filipino American experience. A lot of the tales deal with the relationships between youth and their elders, elders and their pasts, or youth and their heritage. My favorite story was probably the title tale, which was one of the first COVID-19 stories I’ve genuinely enjoyed. The protagonist’s cousin runs way from home, and Sol goes to try and bring her home. This collection is bright and vibrant and announces a really exciting new voice to watch on the literary scene.
—Leah Rachel von Essen