We asked our contributors to share the best book they read from April to June and there’s a lot of fantastic books so get ready to hunker down and plow through a new TBR list! We’ve got a queer memoir-manifesto, essays about disability justice, romance, a social thriller, beautiful short stories, witches, magical realism and much, much more. There are excellent book recommendations for so many reading tastes: some are old, some are new, and some aren’t even out yet—a future treat!
All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson
George M. Johnson is Black and queer and this memoir-manifesto is about his finding himself, finding community, coming out, and being seen. He shares some very heavy things that people don’t necessarily talk about, but they are things that many teens may be going through and stories like this should not be kept from them. The author shares not only the traumas that can occur as a queer person or a Black person but at the intersection of being both Black and queer. It’s important to remember that this book is only partly memoir. It is also manifesto. Johnson ties his experiences to the greater experiences of us in queer communities of color in the United States and what we must strive for moving forward. It was such a phenomenal read.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to foray into the work of Jacqueline Woodson, and now I know it was far too long to go without her irresistible prose. Another Brooklyn is a beautiful and hauntingly lyrical story of adolescence, girlhood, friendship, and grief, all told in flashbacks. The magic Woodson can work within a few lines outpaces what most other writers would take pages to do. Another Brooklyn is truly a masterpiece of fiction.
A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green (Dutton, July 7)
I needn’t have worried about a sophomore slump with Hank Green’s follow-up to An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. While the first book chronicled one woman’s experience with first contact and viral internet fame, the sequel is about her friends navigating a world where humans cannot deny the existence—and sudden disappearance—of alien life. To keep up with a far more ambitious sci-fi plot, Green divides the narration between five characters. They parse conspiracy theories, a secretive offshore research lab, and an underground reality game to understand the aliens’ purpose as well as to confront the individuals accruing dangerous levels of influence in a world hungry for answers. In plot as well as form, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor warns against the consolidation of human power and makes a persuasive case for collaboration in both storytelling and problem solving. If you’re looking for a novel that will offer escapism alongside stinging social commentary and just the right amount of cautious optimism for humanity’s future, this might be the perfect read.
Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Arsenal Pulp Press)
I’ve been meaning to read this forever, and SO glad I finally had the chance. This is a book of essays about disability justice, a movement that centers the experiences and leadership of sick and disabled QTBIPOC. Topics explored include care webs, healing justice movements, accessibility, surviving abuse and how these narratives are framed, models of sustainability, and much, much more. The topics are framed from a personal viewpoint, but also always relate to the larger community framework, with a vision of radical accessibility. Societal examination and critique, observations of who gets to tell what stories and who gets to be in charge of activist spaces, and who deems what valuable are also explored in these essays. This is a must-read, and I have a feeling I’ll be returning to this one over and over.
Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth
Okay. So we’ve all read books and seen movies about a protagonist who has been named “The Chosen One.” You know, the one who’s fated to save the world from certain doom. We know how “Chosen One” narratives go, and we have certain expectations for what their stories will be. Based on my prior knowledge of the “Chosen One” trope, I can fully admit I went into this book with certain expectations about what kind of story Veronica Roth was going to tell here. Don’t get me wrong. I was excited about the premise: this is the story of what happens to the Chosen Ones after The Dark One has been defeated. Now they’re grown up and have to live with what happened, the choices they’ve made, and the people they lost along the way. Sounds cool, right? Well, this book is actually so much more than that. Chosen Ones kept surprising me in the best ways, and that’s all I really want to say about that, because I don’t want to ruin the journey for you. Just read it. Enjoy the ride. This is the first book in a duology, and I can’t wait for the next one.
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
This book came out in 2013, but I stumbled across it a few weeks ago and I’m so happy I did! Set in rural Louisiana, this is a murder murder that takes place at a plantation that’s become a museum. But it’s more than that, too—it’s a meditation on family, belonging, and how where we grow up shapes us. Caren is the manager of Belle Vie, a plantation where her ancestors were enslaved and, later, worked in the kitchen. Growing up at Belle Vie, Caren knows every inch of it by heart. But when a girl’s body is found early one morning, Caren’s investigation into what happened takes her into new, murky territory as she uncovers family secrets. This is a seriously well-crafted novel—the murder mystery is satisfying and surprising, and Locke’s rich exploration of modern America, which is never as far as we think from its roots in slavery and colonialism, is timely and fascinating.
A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark
This needs to be a TV show ASAP. I would 100% watch six seasons and a movie with Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi strutting around Cairo in her three-piece suit, bowler hat, and wingtip shoes solving supernatural crimes. It’s Egypt, 1912, and Fatma works for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities as an investigator. She catches the case of a dead djinn and working with the local police liaison to the Ministry, sets out to solve the mysterious crime. The world-building and character-building that takes place over this 46-page short story is honestly mind blowing. The audiobook version narrated by the amazing Suehyla El-Attar is especially transporting. The gas lamps, the clockwork creatures, the steampunk city, and the detailed characterizations all come together to create an atmosphere that is truly cinematic and I can’t stop thinking about it.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (Del Rey, September 29)
I’d sell my soul to Naomi Novik because she just gets me, and this book is no different. I stayed up all night to read it and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. A Deadly Education, the first in the Scholomance series, is dark and hilarious. There’s a Chosen One destined to destroy the world, a dangerous magical school, kids left to fend for themselves, and a golden boy whose student body saving antics are just as annoying as they are helpful. El is an incredible heroine. She’s cynical, practical, and an absolute joy. She’s joined by a cast of characters as dynamic and fascinating as she is, against the backdrop of a demented school packed with monsters. And the last line is a kick to the chest. I hate how long I have to wait for a sequel.
To tell y’all the truth, I haven’t been able to read much of anything these past few months, but Ali Wong’s Dear Girls is one of the only books I’ve really been able to enjoy even during this wild time. I was already a fan of Wong as a comedian, and Always Be My Maybe was one of the most delightful things I watched last year, so this book was just another big helping of the Ali Wong goodness I have grown to love. In this collection of letters to her daughters, Wong shares hilarious and heartwarming stories from various parts of her life, from her career to her love life to her Asian American identity. I highly recommend reading this on audio to really immerse yourself in Wong’s voice for an extra rollicking good time.
Drifts by Kate Zambreno
Drifts is a novel about consciousness. It’s the kind of book where you are immersed in the narrator’s mind, following her thoughts as she goes through her day. The narrator tries to write and thinks about memory, time, literature, teaching, family, animals, bookstores, museums, and a lot more. It’s more a novel of thinking and feeling than it is about action, but the events that do occur take on a heightened meaning. I found it immersive, moving, and profound and was sorry that it had to end.
Drowned Country by Emily Test (Tor.com, Aug.18)
Drowned Country is the second book in Tesh’s lush and impressive Greenhollow Duology. Silver in the Wood was Tobias Finch’s book and centered on Greenhollow, building the world and its mythos in stunning detail. Drowned Country focuses on Henry Silver, and it takes the world we know and expands it, but not overtly so. And as brilliant and fascinating this world is, Drowned Country is also deeply emotional and introspective: Henry Silver comes into a position of immense elemental power he is by no means prepared for, or even wants, especially if it means doing without the man who loves him. Drowned Country returns to the original cherished cast of characters such as the unshakeable Adela Silver and no-nonsense Bramble, while also introducing new characters, most notably the headstrong and ambitious Maud Lindhurst (“your name first, Maud, when we publish!”). So if you’re looking for a strong ensemble of characters, high stakes, AND a delicious tension-filled lovers quarrel, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
I was late to the Good Talk bandwagon and only ended up reading it because it came in one of my Feminist Book Club subscription boxes. But when I read this graphic memoir about the author’s experiences with racism post-9/11—told within the context of the conversations she had with her young son—my heart was broken over and over again. How do we negotiate these difficult conversations with our children? Even though Jacob is winging it, she provides a fantastic example for the rest of us.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
This was the inaugural pick for my workplace book club, and it floored me. The novel is shot through with such watchful compassion for its many characters that it made me wonder about what stories all the strangers around me might be carrying. It’s a kaleidoscopic portrait of Black British women, which manages to capture each character’s essence in just a few pages, yet without limiting her complexity.
The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
In this excellent debut novel, Book Riot contributor Jaigirdar tackles the many facets of life as a teenager—in this case a Bengali Irish immigrant lesbian teenager dealing with racism, homophobia, cultural appropriation, and more—with a deft hand, while delivering a first-rate romcom that is charming, fun, and full of sweet moments. Nishat comes out to her traditional parents, who do not accept that she is gay and refuse to discuss it. At school, she parts ways with her best friends over a group project for business class, and Nishat ends up doing the project—starting a henna art business—with only her little sister Priti and her crush (and biggest competition) Flávia to support her efforts. I adored this book!
—Annika Barranti Klein
Inconvenient Daughter by Lauren J. Sharkey
Inconvenient Daughter tells the journey of a transracial adoptee on a painful journey toward a sense of self. We follow Rowan (born in Korea and adopted by a white family) struggling with her identity while being raised in Long Island, New York. Rowan lives between two cultures, yet feels that she belongs in neither. This story is told during two timelines: the present time, where she seeks help after experiencing a traumatic event, and the other timeline in which Rowan shares the tumultuous experiences leading to this point. Inconvenient Daughter is an emotional tale, as it chronicles the journey taken in order to gain empowerment.
—Cathleen Perez Brenycz
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Achingly beautiful. This was my reaction to “A Temporary Matter,” the first in this collection of short stories, which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. My reaction to each of the following stories was a variation of this visceral feeling, thanks to the author’s exquisite prose and poignant themes. Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories—some set in the U.S. and some set in India—take us into the lives of several Indian and Indian American characters as they come together, break apart, and reckon with their racial and cultural identities. Despite the shortness of these stories, their characters are multidimensional, in part because Lahiri presents them from multiple perspectives. I was particularly struck by the story of Mrs. Sen (from the story “Mrs. Sen’s”), whose experience as a new immigrant to the U.S. from India is told through the observations of the 11-year-old white boy whom she babysits. Food and clothing play significant roles in many of the stories and are illustrated so vividly, I can taste the rogan josh and see the saris fluttering in the breeze. While many of these stories resonated with me because of my own experiences as a second generation Asian American, their universal themes are so beautifully expressed, I have no doubt that readers of all backgrounds will find something moving in them.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
Schwab is an automatic preorder author for me. Her books never fail to absolutely amaze me and I’ve honestly adored every single one. And this one is no exception—in fact, it might be my favorite yet. In 1714 France, we meet Adeline LaRue who has been betrothed to marry a man she does not want to be with. Running away from the altar she meets the handsome Luc, who offers to grant her her freedom in exchange for an endless life of being forgotten. Now going by Addie, we follow her up until present day, meeting and charming people who forget her the second they turn around. Hating her predicament but refusing to let Luc win, Addie continues to live her life until one day someone utters the three words she’s wanted to hear: “I remember you.” Oh my goodness. I was going through a reading slump and this brought me out of it so fast. LOVE LOVE LOVE.
Lilac: A Sound Love by Asia Monique
Asia Monique’s Love Language series follows a group of sisters affectionately known as The Flower Sisters because of their names. As we follow each sister’s love story, food blogger and private Lilac’s story is a standout for me. Lilac is in need of a creative and website refresh, and talented photographer Ezra Fields is a perfect partner for the project. This tale follows two creatives who are in tune with both each other and their art. They share a connection based on their pasts that allow for much-needed understanding. Ezra is attentive yet assertive and is a perfect complement to Lilac’s personality. It’s really cute, sweet. and easygoing, and a romance that should be on your list to read.
Little Blue Encyclopedia (For Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante
Where do I begin with this beautiful, gentle, wonderful tribute to the loved and lost in the world? Perhaps I’ll start by telling you that it’s a queer trans woman’s love letter to the straight trans woman she loved, told in the form of an encyclopedia about a Lynchian television show that they both loved. And now I’ve begun there, I can tell you about how utterly endlessly gorgeous and subtle and clever it is, and how much it’s going to make you smile, cry and remember how beautiful love can be.
My Summer of Love and Misfortune by Lindsay Wong
Perhaps most of why this book appealed to me so much is that it reminded me so much of my own faux pas–filled summer in China. Regardless, I found myself laugh-crying while reading this YA romcom about a spoiled teenager who gets sent to live with relatives she’s never met in Beijing. Hijinks ensue. The writing is smart and witty, making it read more adult than YA, but the protagonist, Iris, makes ridiculous choices, which endeared her even more to me.
My Summer of Love and Misfortune is easily the funniest book I’ve read so far this year.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Our narrator is young and beautiful, but deeply depressed and empty. Her parents are dead, her boyfriend is terrible, and her best friend is annoying. But it’s the year 2000 and exciting things should be happening for a young woman in Manhattan. Right? To avoid the world, she finds the worst psychiatrist she can and makes up stories to get medications to put her to sleep. And so, we get Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It was the perfect companion for the first month of COVID-19 quarantine.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow (Redhook, October 13)
The Eastwood sisters have been parted for years, but when they all arrive at a suffragist rally in 1893, their reunion sparks a revolution in New Salem. Their story pulled me in from the moment I opened it. Witchery, suffragists, and fairytales? Count. Me. In. Harrow’s world is one of small magics—until they are not. It made me rethink nursery rhymes, family, the literary canon, and long for my own tower full of magical books. The prose itself is full of magic, weaving together a story that I couldn’t put down. I have found myself muttering quotations during my daily life; this is a rare book indeed.
Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo (Akashic Books, September 15)
A strange, dark, fascinating, and thought provoking novel. Priya is in her 50s and lives with her partner Alex in an Ontario small town. Out of the blue she gets a message from an old university friend Prakash, with whom she had a complicated and fraught relationship. Her invitation for him to visit brings up longstanding insecurities and issues in Priya and Alex’s relationship. Themes in the novel include mainstream (white) discourse about queer sexuality and identity, refugee experiences, difficulties of intimacy and communication in relationships, and the triple effects of sexism, racism, and homophobia on queer women of colour. Polar Vortex is a nuanced meditation on all these issues, a deep character study, and a compelling psychological thriller. I have not stopped thinking about this book since I finished reading it. FYI Polar Vortex is already out in Canada, but not available in the U.S. until September.
Queen Move by Kennedy Ryan
This is a book that broke me down and then put me back together. In romance, fated mates is a label conferred on couples whose pairing is written in the stars or nature or somewhere in the supernatural. It exists outside of logic and rationality: a pairing that was simply meant to be, two people so bonded together that no one else will do. True fated mates traditionally happen in romance with a fantasy or paranormal bent. But in Queen Move, a gorgeously written, emotionally wrenching contemporary romance about childhood best friends who are torn apart then reunite two decades later, being together was this couple’s destiny from the day they were both born. Ryan brilliantly combines the novel’s social justice themes with softest, most lyrical and genuinely romantic prose. The result is a true triumph. There’s nary a witch or shifter around, but magic abounds.
Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst
Race the Sands is the book I’m giving all my fantasy reader friends for their birthday. It’s a standalone epic fantasy with lots of intense action, characters that are just so well-written, and it’s feminist af. The story: Some humans are so evil they’re reborn as monstrous kehoks. Tamra is one of the few who can control kehoks. She once won the famous Becar races and now trains new kehok riders, but after an accident last year with her potential champion, no one wants to hire her anymore. She needs money desperately to continue living with her daughter, so she decides to train a new champion and a new kehok. Broke, she buys a dangerous kehok who’s already killed and agrees to train Raia, a young girl who has escaped an emotionally abusive family that want to sell her to the highest bidder. But unknowingly, Tamra and Raia have become players in the political turmoil of Becar, and now the fate of Becar lies with a poor, badass, disabled mom and a girl whose always been told she’s not good enough.
Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev
Readers occasionally talk about the trust they have in certain authors, and there may be no author I trust more than Sonali Dev. Specifically, Dev is the only author I let put me through the emotional wringer because her payoff is always so satisfying. Recipe for Persuasion may be her most emotionally complex book yet, in part because she starts with a seemingly silly premise: a struggling chef gets cast on a cooking competition reality show AND she’s partnered with her long-lost love, who is a massively famous pro soccer player. Dev makes it believable, though, and soon you’re so caught up in the traumatic and heartbreaking past that Ashna and Rico are still grappling with that you don’t even care what brought them together, you just want them to stay that way forever. What takes Recipe for Persuasion to the next level, though, is the way Dev adds a third point of view to the story, which had previously only been told through the eyes of the two main characters. An understanding of this third character adds both a new lens to the story and also pushes readers to think more about the way any story is being told. It’s a narrative stroke of creative genius from a storyteller who is already one of the best.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com, Oct. 13)
This novella lands like a bomb, and it’s one of the most disturbing and compelling horror stories I’ve ever read. It’s also tragically timely, even with its historical setting. In Ring Shout’s version of early 20th century America, racism is given literal monstrous form, with a Ku Klux Klan filled with otherworldly monsters. D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation has a sorcerous power to transform everyday racists into clawing, gnashing initiates. Combatting this supernatural plot is (again literal) Black girl magic. Among the resistance is Maryse Boudreaux whose magic sword draws its power from centuries of injustice. Body, eldritch, and real-life horror meld into a book I can’t stop thinking about and won’t stop talking about.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Honestly, it’s rare for a book to grab me right from the first paragraph and not let me go. That is what happened with this novel. I was utterly enthralled from the first moment to the last. It’s the story of two generations of a Native Hawaiian family struggling to survive amidst economic collapse and a changing Hawaiian landscape. It begins when a young boy, Nainoa, is rescued by sharks after falling off the edge of a boat. Afterwards, he develops healing powers, which changes the course of his life, and the lives of his siblings and parents. The narrative switches back and forth between multiple perspectives over a decade. The prose is absolutely gorgeous and there’s just a hint of magic that enhances the story but doesn’t overpower it. But it’s the characters that make this book so unforgettable. They are so real, so fully, deeply alive. I loved every one of them so hard. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book with characters that have gotten so deeply under my skin. I inhaled every word of this novel and was heartbroken when it was over.
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
We all need this book. Tavia is tired and terrified: in modern day Portland, Oregon, the voices of sirens are skewed as dangerous. As a Black teen in a very white city, she already has enough to worry about without anyone discovering she has the magic and power of a siren. Her best friend Effie, on the other hand, has no idea what she is: Effie’s skin itches, she is continually blacking out, and she hopes answers will be found when she returns to role-playing as a mermaid in the fantastic annual fair. The two navigate an America that praises gargoyles, elekos, and sprites, but seeks to silence and threaten Black voices. Bethany C. Morrow crafts a vivid story about sisterhood, strength, and standing against racism. A Song Below Water enchanted and challenged me. Immerse yourself, open your ears, open your eyes, and prepare to be swept away.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, Sept. 8)
Gifty is a young woman constantly torn between two worlds: between the religion of her upbringing and science of her PhD studies, between her brother’s addiction and her mother’s depression, between her parents’ homeland of Ghana and her childhood home in Alabama, between the past and the present, between her desire to be loved and her fear of losing loved ones. Since losing her brother to opioid addiction, Gifty has focused her studies on reward-seeking behavior in mice. But can her research open a window to her lost brother? Or help her better understand the depression that has turned her mother into a shadow of her former self? Yaa Gyasi’s prose is beautiful, but also insightful enough to break society and humanity down to their cores. Transcendent Kingdom is heartbreaking, perspective-changing, and completely unforgettable. I love every word of this book.
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson
What’s old is new again, right? This is actually Wilson’s first short story collection from 2009, and after the recent success of Nothing to See Here, HarperCollins is reissuing the book in September. Kevin Wilson might be my favorite literary short-story writer. It’s not just the quality of his writing or the structure and understanding of the genre, but his ability to take these stories and push them to the absolute limit of believable reality. Whether it’s spontaneous combustion or a company that offers grandparent services to families, many of Wilson’s stories live in reality, but a reality that pushes up to genre, but never quite passes into it. There is no magical realism here, but rather the magic of how strange reality can actually be. While his more recent works show his growth as an author, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth still puts on a class in short story writing.
—Chris M. Arnone
We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper (Grand Central Publishing, November 10)
In 2009, while attending Harvard University, Cooper heard a story: In 1969, one of the archaeology professors still teaching on campus had murdered a student after she threatened to tell his wife about their affair. And not only that, but the school helped cover it up. Cooper thought there was no way that story could be true…could it? And that is how she began her relentless search into the decades-old unsolved murder of Jane Britton, a 23-year-old graduate student in Harvard’s Anthropology Department. This book is a bananapants account of everything she uncovered over ten years, including rampant misogyny in the school system, government stonewalling, police misconduct, and more suspects than you can shake a stick at. (The number of people in Britton’s life who themselves had missing people and/or suspicious deaths in their lives is astounding.) And the most amazing part is that at the end of the book, you find out who did it. Cooper even tells you at the beginning that you will find out, so I flew through this book to get to the reveal. We Keep the Dead Close is the most amazing true crime book I have read where the identity of the person responsible was not revealed until the end. It’s the true crime story everyone will be talking about next year.
When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald
Strange and quirky books are typically what I turn to, so I was expecting just that with this book when I first picked it up. What I got was so much more. Zelda was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and now, at 21, lives with her older brother and relies on routine and rules to keep order to her life. Zelda is such a charming and hilarious narrator, and her voice felt incredibly authentic. Beyond the charm, the book took several more serious turns, surprising me (in the best way) with its commentary on growing up and finding one’s own way.
When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole (William Morrow, September 1)
Suspense at its best. And hopefully the start to the next massive boom in crime novels being social thrillers. I’d first like to say that this is best read knowing nothing—think of it like the movie goers that got to see The Sixth Sense with no clue and those who followed after there was either “hype” or comps or “OMG you won’t see it coming!” This is not comparable at all to that film, but you get what I mean and this way I spoil nothing. Anyhoo, this is a suspense novel about a young woman, Sydney Green, in Brooklyn doing her best to get her life in order, dealing with an ill mother, and trying to keep her neighborhood together. But her research into the neighborhood, her past, and strange occurrences starts playing with her mind and soon she can’t tell what is real, what’s a conspiracy thought, and what might actually be danger…GET THIS BOOK THE SECOND IT RELEASES AND READ IT. Sorry, to yell but you know, it’s that good—you aren’t going to be able to put it down until you finish it, and then have fun staring at a wall thinking about it.