Riot Roundup: The Best Books We Read in January
We asked our contributors to share the best book they read last 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.
Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
I will be shocked if this doesn’t turn out to be the best book I read all year. It nails the feeling of being new to an elite British university as a smart young woman who’s used to being laughed at for working hard. Every sentence is masterful, and it has important things to say about consent and gaslighting and the Establishment. But it’s also just a really good story, expertly told.
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
This book hit me in the feels. But I’m glad I read it. It’s about Mel and Sharon, college friends and partners, who have just released their first animated feature to critical acclaim. It’s about figuring out your life after the cruelty and banality of childhood. It’s about the ups and downs of creative partnership. And of course, it’s about friendship. I read it because it is on the Short List for the Tournament of Books.
Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor
I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain why the sequel to Akata Witch by the indomitable Nnedi Okorafor was the best thing I read this month. I mean, I’ve been waiting to read this sequel since even before it was announced. I am obsessed with everything Okorafor writes and the holds on her books are always forever long at my library. Honestly, I was so thrilled that Warrior flushed out even more of Sunny’s character and gave her more grit and that the novel eclipsed Witch in terms of quality and length. If you’re not familiar with this series but you love Harry Potter, this is your next pick, trust me.
Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Annie Tucker
This was the first book I read in 2018. I read it because it was thick and it was translated. Two things that I’d like to do more of in 2018 are read more translations and get back to reading thicker books. So reading Beauty is a Wound was meant as a sort of prelude to a year of better reading, and, well—talk about setting the bar high. This is a fabulous book set in Indonesia during and after WWII. The best comparison I could give you is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s tragic and funny and gruesome and beautiful. This book is epic. It is everything. I loved it so much. Writing about it now is making me think about it again, and I can’t believe this isn’t more widely read! It should be! Everyone should read it! Kurniawan has a beautiful talent.
Bruja Born by Zoraida Córdova (Sourcebooks Fire, June 5th 2018)
An intense, magical adventure about loss, love, and strength that will grip you from the first sentence and leave you agog with the last. Lula Mortiz is a bruja still figuring out her powers, but after an accident she’s certain that she must save her boyfriend. Except there is an order in this world and no one crosses Death. Brujas vs casimuertos for ALL THE WINS!
Buzz by Hallie Lieberman
I acquired this book for Work Purposes, but reading this was pure pleasure. Lieberman’s book is a fascinating and engaging historical account of the birth of the sex-positive feminist movement, the ever-shifting politics behind masturbation, and the stories behind the handful of plucky entrepreneurs who made the sex toy industry what it is today. Best history book ever.
Call of Fire by Beth Cato
After reading Breath of Earth for a book club, I was so deeply in love with the world of earth-based magic Cato crafted that I had to pick up the sequel ASAP. Call of Fire expands past protagonist Ingrid Carmichael’s alternate-history 1906 San Francisco into other places up and down the West Coast, and it’s incredibly well-researched—the author even includes a list of books she used for research for readers curious to read more about some of the forgotten parts of early 20th century American history.
The Courtesan Duchess by Joanna Shupe
I went on a deep romance reading spree this month, and reading all of Joanna Shupe’s backlog was my favorite. Her stories are clever, bring up feminist messages, and are sexy AF—three things that don’t always come together in historical romance. The Courtesan Duchess had a set up so bananas that I found myself telling absolutely everyone I saw about it. Julia, the young Duchess of Colton, was abandoned by her husband after the Regency equivalent of a shotgun wedding. She needs an heir to protect her financial future, but her husband wants nothing to do with her. So she disguises herself as a courtesan and gets sex tips from the most notorious prostitute in London in order to trick her husband into sleeping with her—sparks fly, tempers flare, and by the end my heart was totally rooting for these two.
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
I had been hearing some buzz about this book and picked it up on a whim. Immediately I was drawn in as Jude and her sisters witness their parents’ murder and are kidnapped. They are brought to Faerie to live among the Fae. I loved every moment of this dark fantasy adventure. The land of Faerie is so interesting and full of political intrigue. I loved following badass Jude as she discovers no one is all good or all bad. Despite how it appears, everyone has both in them. Even Jude.
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell
I read this book as my Celebrity Memoir choice for the Book Riot: Read Harder Challenge. After seeing the movie The Disaster Artist, I couldn’t help myself. I’d never seen The Room before, but I suddenly found myself fascinated with the mystery of Tommy Wiseau and his obsession with making it in Hollywood, despite his lack of charisma and talent. I ended up listening to the audiobook version of this, which is narrated by Wiseau’s best friend and partner Greg Sestero, and I’m so glad I did. Sestero’s impression of Wiseau is spot on, and, dare I say it, 5,000 times better than James Franco’s. This book was hilarious, outrageous, and thought-provoking. It truly took me by surprise.
The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope
This is the last book in Trollope’s Palliser series, and it’s a good one. Plantagenet Palliser, who was always distant from his children, now has to guide them into adulthood without the help of his wife. It’s a sweet story because he loves his children so much and wants them to be happy, but he also believes in tradition and is deeply torn when two of his children fall in love with people he doesn’t think are acceptable matches. It’s such a joy to watch the Duke soften and become the kind person he’s been all along, even if he didn’t know how to show it. Among 19th-century male novelists, Trollope is particularly good at writing women, and I liked how he filled this book with strong-minded women of various types. Not everyone gets a happy ending, because life is complicated, but the endings feel right, and the was a great conclusion to the series.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
This book is worth all of the hype. It was utterly immersive and unlike anything else I’ve read. Jemisin juggles multiple stories in different parts of this unfamiliar world without losing either momentum or reader’s interest. I will say though that the child abuse meant I needed to take regular breaks while reading (because I wish I’d known that going into the first scene). If you’re wondering whether you should pick this book up, the answer is yes.
Finding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert (August 9, 2018)
It’s unfair to talk about a book this much in advance of release but I need to talk about it.
Yvonne’s been playing violin for many years, but now that her senior year is here she’s facing the reality that playing violin might not be her future. She’s been fine at school, but she doesn’t want to attend a school to simply attend school. Right now, she’s concerned about figuring out what to do with her passion for music and how to temper that with the impending reality of high school ending. Then there’s the rocky relationship she has with her dad and the desire she’s unable to shake relating to finding out more about the mother who left her many years ago.
But just as things begin to shake out a bit and Yvonne finds herself finding an interest and strong talent in baking and she begins toying with the idea of music therapy as a career, she finds out she’s pregnant. She’s not sure who the father is, and she’s certainly not sure what to do.
Colbert weaves in a lot of smart exploration of race and class here, particularly when it comes to the fear always lingering at the back of Yvonne’s mind about how her choices and decisions look because she’s black. She knows she has to work twice as hard to do half as well as her white peers, but she also is spot on about the challenge of then always feeling she’s feeding into some statistic, which removes her from being a fully-realized, complex human.
Fans of Colbert’s previous works will love this. It has a VERY Nina LaCour feel to it, too, so readers who love LaCour and haven’t read Colbert would do great starting here.
Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
Sometimes I don’t need artful language and documented proof. Sometimes I miss mid-aughts Perez Hilton. Sometimes I just want to live in my echo chamber and read juicy gossip about people I already dislike. Fire and Fury scratched that exact itch for me. Wolff might not be a reliable Deep Throat/Woodward/Bernstein hybrid, but he sure knows how to write a page-turner full of schadenfreude and tabloid fodder. No shame in my game, I thoroughly enjoyed every second of this book.
FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 5: Ahistorical Blackness by by Justina Ireland, Troy L. Wiggins, L.H. Moore, Monique L. Desir, Irette Y. Patterson (Contributor), Shari Paul, Phenderson Djeli Clark
This issue is just what 2018 needs: fiction about history, legacy, rebellion, and the need to know the truth. We have uncomfortable tales about slavery and complicity, as well as Norse werewolves (because that is awesome). It also has beautiful art, prose, and excerpts.
From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon
As a South Asian, it’s rare to get books that represent us and do it well. Sandhya Menon did that with When Dimple Met Rishi, and now again with From Twinkle, With Love. She’s written an amazing book that will resonate with many—but especially resonated with me as a South Asian and an immigrant. Menon has created a complex and relatable character in Twinkle Mehra and the plot is as much about figuring yourself out as it is about romance. From Twinkle, With Love is funny, heartwarming, and also absolutely heartbreaking at times.
From a Certain Point of View edited by Elizabeth Schaefer
I love everything about this book from the premise to the execution. Basically, From a Certain Point of View is an anthology telling the story of A New Hope, except entirely from the point of view of side characters. So, yeah, sign me up! It dragged a little on Tatooine, but overall the quality of stories was pretty high. Particular favorites were “The Sith of Datawork” by Ken Liu, “Master and Apprentice” by Claudia Gray, “The Baptist” by Nnedi Okorafor, and “There is Another” by Gary D. Schmidt. This is a must-read for any Star Wars fan, as far as I’m concerned!
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I’m mad at myself for taking so long to get around to this book, but I’m so thankful it was the first book I read in 2018. Given that it’s such a heavy topic, I didn’t expect it to be quite so funny. But I laughed quite a bit throughout this one, which was a nice surprise to balance some of the weightiness. One of the biggest feats Thomas pulls off in this, that I appreciate the most, is writing teenage characters that actually act—and sound—like real teenagers. Thomas has written a humane and human story about police brutality, racism, injustice, and adolescence with eloquence and grace.
Himself by Jess Kidd
This was the latest pick for my mystery book group, although it is by no means a straightforward mystery. It’s a book where there are ghosts who reveal some important plot points, just as a starter. But there is a mystery at the heart of the book—the question of what happened to the main character’s mother. This main character is a young man in Ireland in the 1970s who grew up in an orphanage in Dublin and travels to the small Irish town where he was born to try to discover his family history. The book begins very violently but quickly turns into something much funnier than I expected. It’s amusing, charming, absorbing, and a lot of fun.
Home fire by Kamila Shamsie
I can’t stop talking about how much I love this book! I’ve already recommended it to about a dozen people since I finished it a couple of weeks ago. Home Fire is a modern retelling of Antigone that follows three Pakistani siblings living in London. They’re grieving the loss of their mother and grandmother, coming to terms with the legacy of their jihadist father, and grappling with religious freedom and discrimination. It’s a little cerebral, but in a way that I loved, with poignant moments and perfectly imperfect characters. I really can’t recommend this book highly enough.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Mariner Books, April 17)
I’m not great about reading books of essays, especially personal essays. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to reading them on the internet that I don’t think of them as books. I read this book because I loved Chee’s first two novels and because I’m working on a semi-autobiographical novel myself and the title was too much to pass up. It’s a fantastic collection that both shows the kind of depths in a single person that we rarely encounter even in memoir, and that offers several essays about writing that I found inspiring and useful. If you’re the kind of writer who will never get an MFA but wants to know more about how writers are trained and how they think, there’s so much to consider and it’s provided in the kind of prose that will thrill you and make you deeply jealous.
The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
I loved Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe so I made room for this one in my reading schedule as soon as I could. I gotta say I loved Aristotle and Dante more, but this one is still great. There are things that happened in it (spoilers!) that mirrored things happening in my own life and I cried most of the way home one day while listening to the audiobook. The author does a great job of exploring teen feelings with depth and respect.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
In 1969, adolescent siblings Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya visit a travel psychic who, rumor has it, can tell you the exact day you will die. Each of the children are rattled by the encounter, and the prophecies they hear affect their decisions for the rest of their lives. I enjoyed Chloe Benjamin’s debut novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, but The Immortalists is a huge step up from there. The writing feels smoother and more confident, and her grasp of her characters is perfect. There were a few moments where I thought the plot felt a little forced, but I was still deeply affected by each of the Gold siblings and the choices they made about how to live their lives given what they thought they learned as children. It’s a melancholy, beautiful novel.
Just Like Jackie by Lindsay Stoddard
This lovely middle grade book is about Robinson Hart and her grandfather. As far as she can remember, it has only been the two of them. But as her grandfather’s memory begins to decline, Robbie has to work hard to keep him safe so they can stay together. At the same time, Robbie struggles to control her anger at school and stay out of trouble, but that is much harder than she imagined. This is a sweet intergenerational story of an unconventional family sure to engage young readers who will root for Robbie’s happy ending.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
This book has been on my to-read list for an age and a day. I’m only sorry it took me so long to read it. Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization dedicated to fighting mass incarceration, the internment of minors in adult prisons, the death penalty, racial criminal injustice, and a host of other human rights abuses perpetrated by our legal system. In this book, he shares the story of Walter McMillian, a black man who spent years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Woven into the narrative are the stories of many other men, women, and children sentenced to endure horribly unjust punishments. This book is brutal and heartbreaking to read, but it also gives me great hope that there are people and organizations like Stevenson and EJI out there fighting for change. I can’t recommend it highly enough, so if, like me, you’re a little behind on this one, get your butt to the bookstore and buy a copy today.
The People Could Fly: The Picture Book by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon
This lovely picture book retells an African American folktale about slaves with wings and finding freedom. I loved the rich illustrations, and I look forward to reading the larger collection this is taken from—The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. I meant to read the larger collection, but my library only had the picture book currently available. But I’m glad I checked it out! I will now be purchasing it for my daughter’s library.
Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert (April 10, Disney Hyperion)
WOW. wowowow. I am kind of speechless. This book is brilliantly and beautifully written and tackles some timely and important subjects. Senior Danny Cheng has his future set: acceptance and a scholarship to RISD. He has great friends, supportive parents, and all he needs to seemingly do is coast for the next few months before college. Then he stumbles upon a box in his father’s closet that unravels a family secret his parents have tried very hard to bury. There were so many surprises (all of them good) in this book. I’m not going to go into specifics about the storyline I related to most because it would ruin the reveal—but I haven’t read many books with this subject and I greatly appreciated it. It’s been a while since a book shattered and mended my heart in 300-some pages and I loved every second of this.
A Place Called No Homeland by Kai Cheng Thom
This book of poetry took my breath away. These poems are fierce and angry and tender and beautiful. Kai Cheng Thom writes about trauma and loss, sexual assault, and the violence perpetrated against trans and queer people of color. But these poems also reverberate with a deep, deep joy; they celebrate trans and queer lives and loves and bodies; they are about sisterhood and resilience and loving yourself through brokenness. There are some truly astonishing lines in this book that will stay with me forever. It’s one of the best poetry collections I’ve read in recent memory, and a book I can’t stop shouting about to everyone I know.
Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese
This is a story about a group of four chronically homeless people who win the lottery. But there’s not as big a chasm between “before” and “after” as you might expect. Ragged Company is thoughtful, character-based, and has more to do with survival than anything else. We slowly get the backstories of each of them, and see how they deal with their past, racism (two of the characters—as well as the author—are indigenous), addiction, and having their whole lives changed. I will admit to full-out sobbing at points, but there is more hope and friendship here than despair. This is definitely one I will keep thinking about for a long time.
Shadow Girl by Liana Liu
I picked this up because the gorgeous illustrated cover caught my eye. Plus I’m always down to read YA lit by Asian authors. Shadow Girl centers on Mei, an academic tutor who goes to be a live-in tutor for a wealthy family, but the moment she steps into their mansion, it’s clear that something isn’t right. This book immediately became one of my fave YA books ever—haunting stories with a supernatural element aren’t usually my cup of tea, but the portrayal of Mei’s fraught mother-daughter relationship with her single, Chinese-speaking immigrant mother felt so real and relatable. Definitely check it out!
Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George
Imagine Much Ado About Nothing set in the Roaring Twenties with speakeasies, gangsters, jazz, and Charles Lindbergh, and you have this book. It is a DELIGHT, funny and sweepingly romantic with a diverse cast of characters who have a ton of chemistry. I loved all the historical details George included in the book and how she used them to go beyond the stereotypes of Prohibition, setting her speakeasy in a quaint boarding house on Long Island instead of in New York City. Not to mention it’s just a charming, unputdownable romantic comedy. I stayed up until eight in the morning reading, and I didn’t even realize how late it was until I turned the final page! In conclusion, John Morello is the swooniest. The end.
Tempest by Beverly Jenkins
Only in a romance novel could a man get shot by his mail-order bride, marry her a few days later, and then find love with that same woman less than fifteen chapters later. Of course, with Beverly Jenkins pretty much anything is possible. This book had so much more going for it than just an enthralling meet-cute, though. There was female friendship, an exploration of grief, and historically-accurate event details woven throughout the fictitious love story. This book will definitely be going on my keeper shelf.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
It is entirely possible that I am the last person left who hadn’t read this. Unlike a lot of people, I didn’t have to read it in school. (Related: I didn’t go to a good school.) I obtained a copy in 2007 with the plans to read it, and promptly lost it in a box when I moved. When it resurfaced in 2016, I made it my goal to read it in 2017…and then lost it down behind a bookcase for ten months. So this year, I made sure to read it as my first book of 2018. As expected, it was AMAZING. It’s an incredibly heartbreaking story about former slaves, racism, and loss as told through one woman’s life, and the language and storytelling are so powerful it will take your breath away.
The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded: Poems by Molly McCully Brown
In this incredible collection, Brown handles her historical subject matter with sensitivity and authenticity; the poems felt well-researched yet organic. Her style embodies everything I look for in poetry: she plays with form, tells stories, uses concrete details, makes every line significant, handles alliteration effectively, and overall writes her speakers with a spirit of empathy. All of this comes together to form beautiful, heart-wrenching poems that touch on something universal to the human experience. I read every poem at least twice.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
This remarkable work of narrative nonfiction tells of The Great Migration of African Americans fleeing the south to pursue freedom in the north and west from 1915–1970. I was blown away by the impressive amount of research Wilkerson compiled to give such a comprehensive overview of this decades-long movement. On a purely intellectual level, I learned a ton. But the information is interlaced with intimate personal accounts of three particular migrants over the course of their lifetimes, and these were so moving and affecting, that I walked away with a much richer picture of this epic change in our country.
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
I was incredibly moved by this memoir. Khan-Cullors shows that in her family and community, like in families and communities of color around the nation, systemic injustice and racist policies are dehumanizing black and brown bodies. She speaks of her hard-working mother, her brother whose mental illness was exacerbated by torture during incarceration, and her kind and loving father who struggled to stay clean from substance abuse. This is such a stunning and unforgettable memoir that is as much a call to action as it is a revealing portrait of a brilliant young leader.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
I’m a little late to this party, and White Tears was almost custom-made for a music obsessive like me, but White Tears is just as good as people say. It’s a piercing examination of the elusiveness of authenticity and racial affiliation. The dreamlike second half felt less compelling to me than the very specific and detailed first half, but both sections are unforgettable.