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.
Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America by Gregory Pardlo
I am ashamed to admit that, not having read much poetry, I had never heard of Gregory Pardlo (who won a Pulitzer Prize for one of his books of poetry), but I am so glad I had the opportunity to read his memoir. It’s Pardlo’s story of growing up with his brilliant father, an air traffic controller, and how the loss of his father’s job in the strikes of 1981 not only changed his father but changed their family’s situation financially and emotionally. It’s about his father’s decline, how he came to see Pardlo as a kind of competition, Pardlo’s own dependency on alcohol, and how he came home after so many years of running from his family and rebuilt his life and relationships. It is a tremendous, smart memoir, full of sadness and joy, like life itself.
Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi (Rick Riordan Presents)
This book is one of the ones that, to me, proves that middle grade books are the pinnacle of storytelling. Aru is a twelve year old girl, living with her mom at the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture, who has a habit of over-embellishing her stories. When she lights the lamp that frees the Sleeper, whose mission is to wake the Destroyer, she must defeat him to rescue her mom. Aru gets a spirit sister, Mini, who is bookish and a little anxious, and together they learn to be friends and support each other as they grapple with characters of Hindu Mythology. I loved the friendship between the two girls, and the way they go from being two people with little in common to utter biffles. Aru herself is hilarious, but she’s also average in most ways, rather than underestimated for being nerdy, which makes for a nice change in a hero. Do yourself a favor and pick this up. Do a kid a favor and give it to them. I’ll be pushing this into the hands of everyone I know, regardless of age.
Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano, translated by John Brownjohn
This book is absolutely delightful. Reading it felt like a mini-vacation to Sicily, full of colorful characters and all the twists and turns I crave in a mystery. Auntie Poldi is a 60-year-old widow who has retired to Sicily. After an acquaintance goes missing, she makes quick work of becoming the town’s premier amateur detective. She charms most of the town’s residents (and the reader) immediately, with her colorful storytelling, penchant for wine, and signature wig. If you’re looking for a book to read on the beach, this one is perfect!
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers)
I’ve been talking to everyone and their mom about how much I love this book since finishing it this month. It seriously lives up to all the hype, and it has a lot of hype to live up to. The story follows many traditional fantasy tropes—quests to restore magic, mystical objects, corrupt rulers who must be overthrown. But the character development and world-building is both unique and nuanced, mixing themes of racism and privilege with West African myths. The story of Zelie’s quest to bring back magic to her land so her people can fight their oppressors is full of unexpected twists, slightly more expected romantic developments, and a magic system that I’m excited to see developed throughout the series.
Circe by Madeline Miller (Little, Brown and Company)
Best book I’ve read this year. It still hurts me to think about it. Miller does such a great job bringing Circe to life. I loved Song of Achilles, which also hurt me, but this book was even better. For those of you who haven’t been eagerly awaiting this book, it’s the life of Circe, known from the Odyssey as the sea-witch who turned Odysseus’s men to pigs, from her perspective. Go read it now.
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande (Washington Square Books)
In her memoir, Reyna Grande details her impoverished life in Mexico as she yearns to join her parents in El Otro Lado. At the age of nine, Grande left her Grandmother’s one room bamboo shack and crossed over the border illegally to start her life in America. While it is not easy, Grande learns English, graduates from high school, and eventually earns a degree from The University of California, Santa Cruz. All of this takes place as Grande tries to create relationships with her abusive father, her absent mother, and her nurturing sister and brother. This is an amazing read and one that is especially important at this time as our country questions its stance on illegal immigration.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
I have so many thoughts about this book and they come with such emotional baggage that it’s difficult to write this blurb. I both intensely loved and intensely hated this book. It’s been awhile since a book inspired such vitriol in me that I found myself screaming back at the narrator while my husband looked on me with a face of concern. This book is a great read for anyone who felt touched by Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. But be forewarned…the men in this book make Rex Walls look like a lovable scamp. Tara Westover’s narrative style and lyrical writing have the reader continually forgetting that her first foray into any sort of formalized education was when she first stepped foot into a classroom at Brigham Young University at the age of 17. Going on to Cambridge and Harvard and ultimately earning her PhD, the true mastery in this book was how she managed a level of empathy and compassion for the religion she was raised in and the life choices her abusers made. I can’t describe it except to say that Tara Westover is a special person and I’m looking forward to seeing what other contributions she makes to the world.
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
This book is part memoir, part exploration of feminism—Black feminism in particular—and all-around totally awesome. It’s accessible and engaging, consistently surprising and fresh. It’s informed by philosophy and theory, but always in an approachable, clear way. It’s a difficult book in other ways, though: Cooper has some harsh truths to share about the sexism and racism particular to the U.S. and how those two “isms” combine to make the lives of Black women much more difficult than they should be. It’s a book every American should read.
Furyborn by Claire Legrand (Sourcebooks Fire, May 22)
I was excited about this book from the moment I read the premise about two young women with incredible powers, wrapped up in the fate of their kingdom, and separated by one thousand years. That’s such an interesting structure for a book—to essentially show a before and after shot of the events that leads to the destruction of a kingdom and the rise of an unforgiving empire. Even more so since it’s dealing with a prophesy about two queens, one who will save them and one who will doom them all. Plus angels and elemental magic and romance. This book just has that unputdownable quality that has you staying up all night to finish it. I mean, the first book hasn’t even come out yet and I’m already making grabby hands at the sequel. More please!
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
In 1940s New Orleans, Evelyn, a doctor’s daughter, falls in love with a janitor’s son. In the 1980s, Evelyn’s daughter, Jackie, has an infant son whose father, a pharmacist, is addicted to drugs. And in 2010, T.C., Jackie’s son, is trying to stay straight after getting out of prison for dealing marijuana. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton weaves together the stories of these three generations so that we see, with heart-breaking clarity, how hopes get dashed. Yet, somehow, the book remains hopeful, because these characters have such strong love for each other. That love sometimes drives them to say and do difficult things, but they keep wanting the best. Around the edges of the story, we see the effects of various forms of racism on this family, and that’s a crucial piece of their lives to address, but the focus is on the family love, which makes the book especially beautiful and devastating.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
When you look up “hit you in the feels” in the Dictionary, it’s just a picture of this book. I laughed. I cried. I hugged my stuffed bear so tight fluff was threatening to burst out. Helen Hoang’s debut and #ownvoices novel is an adorably cutesy love story and a steamy romance at the same time. Stella Lane is an econometrician, meaning she spends her days immersed in numbers and algorithms. After a coworker implies she doesn’t know how to date (and do other things), she decides that research and evaluation is the best way to go. Her solution is to hire a male escort to teach her the ways of the bedroom and of the heart. Which leads her to Michael, a Vietnamese/Swedish god. (Seriously, where is MY Michael?) Hoang’s author’s note at the end recalls her own diagnosis with Autism Spectrum Disorder and what it meant to her as an older adult. And in regards to the steamy part, it went past my usual level of comfort of description for sex scenes and I wasn’t bothered at all. Ok, I definitely blushed a lot. But it was worth it.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
This YA book tells the gripping story of 15 year-old Will, who is reeling after his brother is shot and killed in their neighborhood. With his brother’s gun shoved in the back of his jeans, Will sets out to follow the rules he’s been taught: no crying, no snitching, just revenge. But as he steps into the elevator, he is confronted by the past and is forced to consider what future awaits him. The story is told in verse and I devoured it in one sitting. The power and economy of Reynold’s language is deeply affecting and packs a big emotional punch. I highly recommend this one and will definitely be reading more from this author.
Ms. Marvel Vol. 4: Last Days by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, Ian Herring, and Joe Caramagna
I came to Ms. Marvel a bit late, and ended up binging volumes 4-8 this past month. I love Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel for a number of reasons. She’s a young woman trying to juggle too many things, including life as a high schooler, life as a newly-minted superhero, the expectations of her family, and the needs of both her friends and her community. In the process, she finds that she can’t possibly make everyone happy. TOO REAL. On top of that, I am delighted by her embiggening powers, rendered vibrantly by Adrian Alphona and Ian Herring. Plus, she’s a fellow Jersey girl (and with a fantastic wardrobe!). Volume 4 has all of these elements in spades, but what sets it apart from the other ones, at least for me, is the emotional arc. As I followed along with Kamala’s struggles, I found—smack dab in the middle of everything—a panel that brought me to tears. This volume of Ms. Marvel brought all the feels.
The Mere Wife: A Novel by Maria Dahvana Headley
When I got this ARC in the mail, I wasn’t sure about it, I admit. Described as “Beowulf in the suburbs,” I didn’t know what to think. I’m glad I gave it a chance, because Headley’s writing is magical. It’s a story of two women and their sons, vastly different from one another, but more alike than they could ever know. One, a socialite; the other, a wounded war veteran in hiding. One is rich beyond compare; the other lives off the land in a cave. When their sons develop a friendship, both families explode from the inside out, and the entire town will never be the same. I couldn’t stop reading this, because the writing is painfully gut-wrenching, but beautiful in the minutiae of motherhood that it captures.
The One You Can’t Forget by Roni Loren (Sourcebooks Casablanca, June 5)
Trigger warning (gun violence): this is the second book in Loren’s series about a group of friends who survived a mass shooting in high school. I know that doesn’t sound like the typical setup for a series of romance novels, but it’s really lovely. This one follows divorce attorney Rebecca Lindt, an overachiever in every way except when it comes to romance. On her way home one night she’s held at gunpoint, which brings back a flood of memories and causes her to freeze up. This is when she meets two heroes: one is a dog, who saves her and gets shot (the dog lives, don’t worry!), and the other is sexy chef Wes Garrett. I won’t go into too much plot here, but I really loved Loren’s exploration of PTSD, family pressure, perfectionism, and learning to think of oneself as worthy of love and desire. I wish I could get my hands on her next book in the series now! (By the way, the first one, The Ones Who Got Away, is great too!)
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
My favorite reading experience is finding a book I must read because the cover is gorgeous, and then discovering that the inside content is as wonderful as the outside. It is book perfection! And in this case the audiobook, read by the author, is *chef kiss* for an extra layer of perfect. This is one of the year’s best books, period. Acevedo’s ability to write about a teen girl in Harlem trying to find her place in the world, her passions, and dating while having a strict Latina mother, in such an honest, realistic, heart-pouring, and unique way makes her one of the best writers today. I look forward to everything Acevedo writers and am grateful to have gotten to know and watch a part of Xiomara Batista’s life. Go listen to the audiobook right now, your life will be better for it.
Tales of Yusuf Tadros by Adel Esmat, translated by Mandy McClure (Hoopoe Fiction)
Winner of the 2016 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, now available in English, this novel is unlike most of what is translated from Arabic. Instead of engaging political narratives or events, this is a small-town artist’s personal journey toward meaning and family in a Coptic Christian community. The narrator, Yusuf Tadros, never leaves for the big, art-laden cities—such as Cairo or Paris—that he dreams of while a boy. Instead, he struggles to make a life as a teacher with his wife and family, having two passionate affairs that put him at odds with his conservative community. Yusuf Tadros struggles between communal and individual meanings, between maintaining his relationships and chasing his passions, between an intensely personal art and one that can be exhibited and shared. As in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Tadros rebels against social rules, but he also comes, later in life, to claim his family, including his wife. A lucidly written and tremendously genuine-feeling portrait of an Egyptian artist who makes his life both with and against his community, gorgeously and feelingly rendered in English by debut translation-artist Mandy McClure.
—M Lynx Qualey
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us: Essays by Hanif Abdurraqib (Two Dollar Press)
Abdurraqib knows that writing about music can never be only about music. Because music is not just a tune, it’s your first group of friends, and it’s your first love, and it’s that one day you walked down a city street and felt desperately alone. Each essay in this stunning collection about music and life and blackness is Abdurraqib walking into a room and pressing play, immersing us in a moment at a show or a place in time, and most importantly, in a feeling—Abdurraqib writes about music as feeling, as moment. He writes about going to an Atmosphere show and leaving it to discover Trayvon Martin had been killed; he writes about what My Chemical Romance says about death in The Black Parade; he writes about Carly Rae Jepsen, Chance the Rapper, Fall Out Boy, and so many more, all while sharing some of his most personal stories with us. It’s a gorgeous book that’s required reading for everyone who loves music (by which I mean…everyone).
—Leah Rachel von Essen
Thirsty by Mia Hopkins (Loveswept)
Romance has a reputation for overblown angst or manufactured conflict that could be easily resolved with one damn conversation. Thirsty is not that book. Sal just finished a five-year prison sentence and is trying to start over but doesn’t know how to extract himself from the gang that helped land him in trouble in the first place. Vanessa is a single mom trying put herself on the career track she’s been working toward for years. In other words, there are no billionaires here, and the stakes are decidedly higher than whether or not someone’s brother will be mad if these two get together. Mia Hopkins also infuses so much detail into her storytelling—like Vanessa whistling on her daughter’s nails after she paints them to make them dry faster—that it’s impossible not to get drawn into the story. It’s such a satisfying read that I’ll forgive Hopkins for ending the book on a cliffhanger for Sal and his family. As long as she gets the next book out ASAP.
Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves
With this little book, Rick Steves goes beyond European travel guides to discuss everything he’s learned about world citizenship from his globetrotting career. He covers everything from the political and economic state of El Salvador to drug use in the Netherlands to secular Islam in Turkey and Morocco. He visits an Irish-speaking region of Ireland, Copenhagen’s nonconformist commune, and a martyr’s cemetery in Iran. In every chapter, he reflects on what the U.S. could learn from these places by sharing anecdotes from local people he met along the way. Empathy is the lens through which he views the world, and he challenges his readers (and members of his tour groups) to do the same. To step back, consider another’s point of view, and come away from the experience changed, because “the ultimate souvenir is a broader outlook.” In this way, he shows how “travel can be a powerful force for peace. Travel promotes understanding at the expense of fear.” I already considered myself a fairly thoughtful traveler before I read this, but I learned so much that I wish I had encountered it much earlier in my traveling life. It’s definitely a book I’ll gift to my wanderlust-stricken friends.
Wade in the Water: Poems by Tracy K. Smith
Every poem in this collection is a gem, but by far the most powerful are the erasure and found poems. Drawing on the Declaration of Independence, the correspondence of black soldiers who fought in the Civil War (along with their wives, children and friends), correspondence between slave owners regarding the sale of slaves, accounts of near-death experiences, and reports of attacks on Muslim and immigrant women (among other sources), Smith weaves dazzling, powerful poems that took my breath away. These poems are beautiful and brutal, and they illuminate truths about the American past and present in startling new ways. Wade in the Water is a truly American book of poetry—but it’s about the true, often ugly, often brutal America. Smith brilliantly turns the myth of America upside-down, using our most beloved mythical documents (i.e. the Declaration) to tell a story that is both harrowing and celebratory, unflinchingly honest, but not without hope.
The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, May 8, 2018)
I fell in love with the cover of The Way You Make Me Feel and immediately knew I had to get it on my TBR a few months ago. In March, I was lucky enough to snag an ARC and bumped it up my TBR—this novel is the story of Clara, who takes things too far with a prom night prank and ends up working on her father’s Brazilian-Korean fusion food truck with her least favorite classmate for the summer as punishment. As the summer moves on, Clara meets the enthusiastic and stylish Hamlet, who mans a coffee stand at one of the food truck stops. Juggling a new romance, a rocky mother-daughter relationship, the consequences of her prank, and a contest that could potentially change her father’s life for the better, Clara is a little overwhelmed. But this doesn’t stop her from being her own unique self. With a beautifully depicted Gilmore Girls–esque relationship between Clara and her father, I can only say good things about this excellent YA summer read.
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
I approached this book fully expecting some laughs. What I wasn’t expecting was to have my heart wrenched out of my chest, to find tears in my eyes, to commiserate at such a level. This is seriously a five-star book, and I didn’t think a humor book could be a five-star read for me. Irby’s bitter, dry humor while filling out a Bachelorette application, growing up poor in an abusive home, exploring lesbian sex and her perfect partner Mavis, gave me all the feels. And I laughed. A lot. (I hear you about that Cinnamon Toast Crunch.) I recommend listening to this on audiobook. Irby reads it, and it brings you that much closer to her humor. I’ve already put her other books on hold at the library.