Riot Roundup: The Best Books We Read January-March 2023
Themed book lists are all well and good, but sometimes us Book Rioters just want an excuse to rave about the latest books we’ve read and loved. That’s where the Riot Roundup comes in! Every few months, we let you know what we’ve been reading recently that we recommend, including upcoming releases, new releases, and backlist titles.
These are recommendations from 25 Book Riot contributors, each with their own reading tastes. You’ll find a forgotten queer classic from the 1920s, a magical library fantasy novel, moving memoirs, a picture book for readers of all ages, self help, literary fiction, YA, and so much more. Whichever kind of books you gravitate towards, you’ll find something to pique your interest on this list, passionately recommended by the professionally bookish. Let’s dive in!
Alexis by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Walter Kaiser
If you had told me last year that my favorite book of 2023 so far would be a 100-page novella published in 1929, I would not have believed you. But here we are. This absolute gem of a novel is written as a letter from the eponymous Alexis to his wife. He’s explaining to her why he’s finally left her — because he can no longer go on hiding his queerness from himself and lying to her. It’s a gorgeous book about artistry and courage and queerness and love, about human suffering and silence and what it means to choose yourself. I was blown away by the characterization, by how deeply flawed and messy Alexis is. This is not a simple novel about queer suffering; it’s a complicated and nuanced novel about queer possibility. It may have been written in a different time, but I felt it in this time. I will be reading it again and again.
The Book That Wouldn’t Burn by Mark Lawrence (Ace, May 9, 2023)
I’m a real sucker for magical libraries. (I personally blame that scene from Beauty and the Beast.) Mark Lawrence’s new series-starter is the most tightly plotted novel I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, and it’s about an apparently endless, magical library that 1) contains all the knowledge in the Universe and 2) can connect people who need one another’s help — across the boundaries of time and space. I haven’t recommended a book this often or this emphatically since Gideon the Ninth. It’s truly magnificent.
The Cherry Robbers by Sarai Walker
This book truly slayed me. I have loved Sarai Walker since I first read Dietland, and while the setting and conflict were completely different, the overarching themes are devastatingly the same. Following the marriages and deaths of the Chapel sisters, The Cherry Robbers engages with sisterhood, the expected roles of women in society, disappointing mothers, belief and spirituality, and specter of the construct of virginity. I got strong The Poisonwood Bible vibes, which is one of my highest compliments. While I admit that I first picked up the book because of its gorgeous cover, then because I was excited about the author, The Cherry Robbers ended up being not just my favorite book of the quarter, but one of my favorites in the past few years.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
I know I’m late to reading this memoir, but I finally listened to the audiobook this winter. Unfamiliar with Zauner’s original essay that inspired this book, or Japanese Breakfast, I had only the title to go on. Reader, I sobbed the entire 7 hours and 23 minutes. Crying in H Mart is all the tenderness and fury of a mother-daughter relationship. As someone whose mom is chronically ill, this book hit me a lot harder than I expected it to, especially the scenes of Zauner planning her wedding from her mother’s sick room. This memoir helped me make sense of some of my feelings about my mom and our relationship. I don’t necessarily recommend this book for everyone, but wow, is it good.
Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones
This memoir explores disability, motherhood, and beauty through a mixture of the author’s life story, personal reflections, and aesthetic philosophy. The combination might feel a little dense at first, but within the first chapter I became fully immersed emotionally and intellectually in this book. And by the end, I was turning pages as quickly as I could to find out what would happen next. Jones describes her experience living with sacral agenesis and chronic pain with humor, anger, and most of all honesty. At times, the book felt deeply relatable and at others I felt like my own unintentional ableism was being checked. With engrossing storytelling and beautiful language, I hope everyone reads this book.
Every Leaf a Hallelujah by Ben Okri and Illustrated by Diana Ejaita
This is one of those books that was made for kids, but really everyone should just read it. It’s an environmental tale with magic, talking trees, and a huge dose of hope. The young main character Mangoshi commits herself to a quest that only she can pursue and you will feel as if you have been drawn into the forest with her. The illustrations are so striking and vivid, I looked up the illustrator immediately after finishing so I could see more of her work. I now have several other titles she has illustrated on my TBR, including the forthcoming Let: A Poem About Wonder and Possibility written by Kei Miller. I cannot wait to read that later this year.
Gilded by Marissa Meyer
I love fairy tale retellings with my whole heart. Somehow, I never grow tired of the creative ways people reimagine familiar stories. After reading Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series, I knew she had a gift for not only bringing something new to well-known tales but also centering them around complex, feisty, smart, lovable female characters.
Gilded (and the sequel, Cursed) is another winner. Loosely based on Rumpelstiltskin, the story follows Serilda, a miller’s daughter with a gift for storytelling…or lying, depending on who you ask. When her unruly tongue leads her into a dangerous relationship with a demon king, Serilda has to spin straw into gold or risk the lives of herself and everyone she cares about. As a lover of stories, I thoroughly enjoyed the tales interwoven throughout this book and its message about the enduring power of the stories we tell.
The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness by Marc Schulz and Robert J. Waldinger
I was really young when I listened to the researchers explaining the basis of the Harvard happiness study in their Ted talk. They emphasized that if we could take away only one thing from the study, it would be this: people and the connections we make with them are the biggest contributors of happiness. My 14-year-old self was unconvinced but knew enough to at least try to trust the evidence. The researchers have documented the experiences, stories, and entire lives of people to drive the same point home. They acknowledge the lack of diversity of their initial candidate pool, and how they have gotten more inclusive over the years. I listened to the audiobook. I nodded, chuckled and teared up. My 22-year-old self with a bigger bag of experiences and an absence of teenage angst agrees wholeheartedly. It’s the people we know, both casually and completely, that affect how we ride the wave. And we should keep them close like our life depends on it, because it does. It was the first book I read this year, and a great reminder to begin it with.
The Golden Spoon by Jessa Maxwell
I love mysteries told from a ton of different perspectives with a wide cast of suspects, and I love low-stakes TV baking competitions. This book somehow brought both of those interests into one intense whodunit. Basically, imagine that a killer was on the loose in the Great British Baking Show tent, with every host and contestant now a suspect with possible motives, and you’ve got the premise of this book. It was a great escapist read for the hellish and seemingly neverending winter we’re having where I am.
Happiness Falls by Angie Kim (Hogarth, September 5, 2023)
Kim’s first novel, Miracle Creek, was a fantastic work of family, crime, love, and loss, and she returns again to that combination to blow our minds with this incredible follow up. 20-year-old Mia and her twin brother are home from college at the start of the pandemic. They’re staying with their parents and their younger brother, Eugene, while the world shelters in place. But from the explosive first page, something is horribly wrong: their father has gone missing. He didn’t return from his walk with Eugene, and due to mishaps and miscommunications, no one notices he is missing for several crucial hours. The only person who knows what happened to him is Eugene, but he can’t talk, due to Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic condition. As her family works to find out what happened to her father, they must also protect Eugene from the police, who care less about his condition and his rights and more about getting answers. And as the hours pass with no luck in finding her father, they uncover secrets her father was hiding. Given how great Miracle Creek is, I was ready to be amazed, but this is a next-level dazzling feat of storytelling. The pandemic plays a huge role in the book in how the case has to be handled and how things unfold, which I haven’t really read in a mystery yet, and it’s fascinating. Kim expertly teases out the mystery of Mia’s missing father and his secrets, while also telling the story of family and love, resentment, and fierce loyalty. It’s simply a heart-squeezing stunner.
Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo (Ninth House #2)
This was my first read of 2023, and I was so ready to dive back into the dark academia magic of Ninth House. Hell Bent starts right where Ninth House left off, with Alex Stern searching for a way to bring Darlington back from hell. This sequel delves even deeper into the violence, power, and privilege of the secret societies at Yale, introducing new twists, characters, and creatures. This book is truly a feast for the senses, with all cylinders firing at once. If you’re looking for dark academia, fantasy, horror, and a murder mystery rolled into one, this will check all your boxes. And once this series is over, Alex Stern needs a nap.
How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler
This was my first read of the year and talk about starting off with a home run. It’s the kind of rare reading experience where it burrowed under my skin, flowed through my veins, and forever lives in my soul now. It is impossible to summarize this book in any way that even comes close to doing it justice because Imbler’s words, thoughts, life, and research just shine in a way that needs to be read in their words. But here goes: In a series of essays, Imbler talks about sea creatures that live in hostile environments juxtaposing them with their own life experiences, including as a queer, mixed race writer. I listened to the audiobook, which is exceptionally narrated by the author, and then purchased a physical copy of the book because I need to highlight the hell out of it and also regularly see it on my bookshelf for random bursts of inspiration and reminders that voices like Imbler exist in the world.
In the Language of Remembering by Aanchal Malhotra
If there was one word to describe any of Aanchal Malhotra’s books, I’d say: Masterpiece. An oral historian, Aanchal Malhotra’s work focuses on the Partition of India with a kindness and compassion that’s hard to find in nonfiction these days. In the Language of Remembering is a 700+ page brick, a collection of her interviews with the people who went through the traumatic events of the Partition, and their descendants. In here, she not only explores the gamut of emotions associated with it, but also how trauma trickles down through generations. I was in tears quite early into the book and this persisted till the very end, where I had to try and collect myself and breathe, because this book had taken everything from inside me. I exhausted three highlighters and a bunch of sticky notes as I furiously annotated, tabbed, and wrote my thoughts in it. But hardly could it be compared to the exhaustion and the emotional drain that In the Language of Remembering inflicted on me. And yet, I’ll take it anytime. “For you, a thousand times over.”
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
I didn’t realize a book could vibrate with fury and also be such an absolute blast to read. In Huaxia, boys and girls pair up to pilot giant mechas to fight alien threats: the boys to become heroes, the girls to die from the strain of keeping the boys alive. Zetian enlists purely to avenge her murdered sister, only to discover that she’s a vastly more powerful pilot than anyone expected — and she’s determined to use her newfound power to tear down the broken system she lives in. Iron Widow is smart and thrilling and heartbreaking and incandescent; I can’t wait for the sequel Heavenly Tyrant next year.
Liar, Dreamer, Thief by Maria Dong
This genre-bending thriller is completely unpredictable and absolutely fabulous. Katrina Kim — a lesbian Korean American woman — is estranged from her parents, living in an apartment with a peppy physical therapist, and has been working as a temp in the same boring company for the last three years. She has become obsessed with her coworker Kurt, rifling through his desk, following him outside, and stalking him in general, though she rarely speaks to him. Since she was a child, Katrina has projected the world from a Korean portal fantasy novel she loved as a kid into reality. She believes Kurt is somehow a part of this fantasy world, possibly connected like she is, but she doesn’t understand why or how. Everything spins wildly out of control when Katrina witnesses Kurt’s suicide. I was initially worried about how mental illness would be portrayed in this, but I found it to be a nuanced depiction of mental illness and neurodivergence.
Liliana’s Invincible Summer by Cristina Rivera Garza
I’ve read many powerful memoirs, but very few have made me feel like this one — which is actually translated from Spanish! Liliana’s Invincible Summer is the true crime story of the author’s sister, who was the victim of femicide in Mexico during the 1990s. The story hit close to home, as the amount of women killed in this country has only increased with each passing year. This is by no means an easy read. You get to see the family’s grief at Liliana’s death, and how society found countless ways to blame them and her for her murder. The feeling of anger and hopelessness only gets worse when you know that the killer was never actually caught. But it all comes together to tell an incredibly powerful and emotional story that everyone should read.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
I have always been a huge science fiction fan, and have made it my mission lately to read some of the classics in the science fiction canon. I went into this book thinking I would enjoy it, but not be blown-away. Oh I was so wrong. This collection of short stories about the attempted colonization of Mars was so hilarious, heart-wrenching, and beautiful. Reading this book made me go through all five stages of grief all at once and I loved every second of it. This is a truly remarkable work of science fiction and it fully earned its title as a classic.
— Mara Franzen
Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield
Miri’s wife Leah was gone on a submarine mission for months longer than she was supposed to be. Miri doesn’t know what happened — they won’t tell her — all she knows is that her wife has come home near-silent, with an obsession with long baths and drinking salt water, and that she doesn’t know how to reach her wife anymore. This genre-bending novel has an eerie sci-fi story looming in the background — but in the center, it’s a love story about watching someone you love recover from a trauma you can’t access. It’s a vivid, brilliant speculative fiction story about trauma, love, and grief that had me in tears by its ending and that uses ambiguity in all the right, creepy ways.
—Leah Rachel von Essen
The Postcard by Anne Berest, translated by Tina Kover (Europa Books, 5/16/23)
In 2003, Anne Berest’s mother received a mysterious postcard. On the front, there is a picture of the Opéra Garnier in Paris. On the back, there were four names: Ephraïm and Emma, Noémie, and Jacques, family members murdered at Auschwitz. Who sent the postcard and why? Is it a threat? The Opera was the headquarters of the Nazis in Paris. The postcard is put away but not forgotten. Almost 20 years later, Berest decides to investigate who sent the postcard, leading her on a journey of self-discovery and family history that she never knew. It’s a true story, Berest explained in an interview. I loved this book so much. I cannot stop thinking about it, especially Berest’s own meditations on what it means to be a secular Jew. It’s a book that will haunt you and make you think about family legacy, traditions, and so much more.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
This book is a collection of stories that revolve around the ways in which church and faith and sexual desire bump up against each other in the lives of Black women. Reading about the contradictions we carry within ourselves is interesting on its own, but I was really hooked by the phenomenal writing.
The Spite House by Johnny Compton (Tor Nightfire, February 7th, 2023)
I waited months for this book’s release and it was well worth the wait. The creepy atmosphere was perfect and just what I wanted. There was a good balance of a good story with the horror and not an overabundance of jump scares. Nothing was put in for shock value alone and there was a reason for every plot development and character introduced. The multiple POVs helped to unfold all the mysteries that were all tied together by the end. And that ending….wow. Just wow.
What the World Doesn’t See by Mel Darbon (Usborne Books, May 17, 2023)
Maudie’s life is falling apart: her dad has died of cancer and her mother has simply vanished, leaving her to help care for her disabled brother Jake. Desperate to learn the truth of what happened to her mum, Maudie breaks Jake out of his care home and together they go on the run to the southwest corner of England. As they search for their mum, Maudie stumbles upon someone who might be the best thing that ever happened to her, but can she trust anyone at this point? A very powerful and moving YA about acceptance and empathy, a must-read.
The Wind Knows My Name by Isabel Allende (Ballantine Books, June 6, 2023)
Samuel was orphaned at the age of five by Nazis in 1940s Austria. Leticia lost her family to political violence in 1980s El Salvador. In 2019, Anita is separated from her mother at the U.S.-Mexico border. All of these lives marked by tragedy and loss are destined to intertwine in their search for a path forward. It feels something like a modern version of The Secret Garden: lost, grieving people finding joy and hope with each other, with a touch of magic. It’s beautiful and moving, and I especially love how it draws parallels between humanitarian crises in different times and places in a way that feels deeply personal. This might be my favorite Isabel Allende yet!
When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb
I didn’t know angel and demon love stories were going to be such a thing for me, but between Good Omens and When the Angels Left the Old Country, apparently I’m weak for this obscure trope. A Jewish angel and demon in a tiny Eastern European shtetl study torah together, hardly noticing the years pass by. But when a girl from their community goes missing, they travel to America, making new friends along the way, and discover a conspiracy threatening the Jewish community both in Europe and America. Perhaps the most shocking revelation, though, is just how much the two of them mean to each other despite their differences. It’s lush and heartwarming and just utterly unputdownable.
Yellowface by R.F. Kuang (William Morrow, May 16, 2023)
Deviating from Kuang’s normal territory of genre fiction, this contemporary thriller is a biting critique of racism in the publishing industry. When June’s literary-superstar friend suddenly dies, June grabs her unfinished manuscript, edits it, and sells it as her own. Not only is that manuscript not hers, but June’s friend was East Asian, and June is white. The blatantly unreliable narrator and the spot-on inside baseball around the publishing industry really sold me. I found myself staying up WAY too late way too often flying through this book.
—Chris M. Arnone