We asked our contributors to share the best book they read last month and as usual Rioters read a lot of great books: we’ve got a girl with two hearts, satirical erotica for feminists, a pregnancy graphic memoir, an 88-year-old Swedish psychopath, and so much more! There’s backlist, new releases, and not-even-out-yet reads. And remember to tell us in the comments what your favorite read of November was!
America Is Not The Heart by Elaine Castillo
I was immediately caught up by this lushly written, beautifully complex, and deeply character driven novel about several generations of Filipina women. Traveling throughout time from the 1950s to the late 1980s and early 1990s, and moving between California and the Philippines, this book is a nuanced, engaging, painful, and sometimes funny look at what it means to move between homes and selves. The bulk of the story follows Hero, a young woman who has lived many lives, as she slowly adjusts to a new chapter after immigrating to the Bay Area. It was her character that made the book exceptional, as well as the rich and layered story about two queer women. Castillo explorers sex and desire between women, as well as trauma and intimacy, in really compelling ways. I couldn’t put it down.
An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten, Marlaine Delargy (Translator)
I read the title and said “Yup, I need to read that” and then discovered how delighted I was to read about a psychopath 88-year-old Swedish woman. While this is a handful of short stories. because they all center Maud and her psychopath ways it should appeal to novel readers, even if they don’t usually go for short story collections. I don’t want to say anything else about this delightful dark humor read but I’ll leave you with the fact that I fell off the sofa laughing from the first story.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Becoming has been patiently sitting in my Audible preorders list for most of the year, so when it finally came out this month and I knew I had a long drive home for Thanksgiving in which to listen to this book in its entirety, I started this sucker right away. Michelle Obama’s narration of her own story was definitely an added bonus to a memoir that was inspirational and aspirational. If you like Michelle Obama at all (and seriously, why wouldn’t you?), you’re going to love this book. The former first lady outlines her journey from her childhood in a working class family to meeting her husband at a law firm to her influential time in the White House to now. But more important than her journey are her words of encouragement and empowerment, which will stick with you long after closing this book (or until the “we hope you have enjoyed this production” guy pops up on your audiobook, depending on how you choose to read it).
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
I definitely wasn’t expecting to read one of my favorite books of 2018 this far into the year, but here we are. This memoir tells the story of Trevor Noah’s life growing up as a mixed race boy in South Africa during Apartheid. Despite the intensity of the subject matter, there is something about Noah’s voice and sense of humor that keeps it from every feeling truly dark. I picked it up and couldn’t put it back down. Not to mention, it’s being turned into a movie with the inimitable Lupita Nyong’o playing the role of Noah’s mother. So if that’s not reason enough to go ahead and read it I don’t know what is.
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
Nina Riggs was just 37 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and 39 when she died. In the time in between, she wrote this unvarnished and candid memoir of living with terminal cancer. She perfectly captures the tug-of-war between living in the present and acknowledging the nearness of death. Putting sentimentality aside, she is forthright in sharing her journey from diagnosis through decline, her desperate longing for more time with her young sons and husband, and her attempts to prepare them all for the inevitable separation. The prose is poetic, funny, clear-eyed, and moving. A beautiful book by a writer taken from us all too soon.
The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash
This book was the perfect complement to a cold and cloudy, steel gray day for me—even though it has nothing to do with actual winter. Young Anton Winter, newly back from the Peace Corps and recovering from a bout of malaria, returns to his childhood home in the famed Dakota building in 1979 New York City. His father, a former talk show host a la Johnny Carson, is recovering from a nervous breakdown. His brother plays high school tennis, his sister dates a cop, and his mother campaigns for Ted Kennedy. Anton floats through all their lives and his own adventures (some with another Dakota resident, John Lennon) while trying to find his place in the world. Real life famous people as side characters are my jam and I’m in love with The Beatles so this was extra cool. Side note: pairs well with The White Album and Egypt Station.
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker (Penguin Random House, January 15, 2019)
This isn’t Karen Thompson Walker’s first foray into a mysterious dystopia that follows a varied range of characters, as The Age of Miracles had similar themes. But The Dreamers is sharper and even stranger, with an intriguing hook: Students at a California college dorm fall prey to an epidemic where they sleep…and sleep…and sleep. Soon enough the illness spreads. The Dreamers raises interesting questions about community, and is nail-bitingly gripping.
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
I found this one of the most eye-opening, helpful books in terms of confronting the white privilege I have within my own practice of feminism. The centering of Black women and Black feminism in each of Cooper’s essays is way too rare in books that are published today. From the personal to the political and the academic to the anecdotal, I was engaged, engrossed, and learning so much on every page.
The Good, the Bad, and the Duke by Janna MacGregor
When Daphne finds herself alone for Christmas, a childhood acquaintance, Paul, comes to her aid. However, this isn’t exactly a friends-to-lovers romance since Daphne’s family unilaterally dislikes Paul. Instead what you get is a romance built upon discovery; discovery of oneself and discovery of each other. If you can only read one holiday romance this year, this should be it. Utterly delightful in every possible way.
Heresy by Melissa Lenhardt
So many Westerns are so incredibly white. And male. And straight. Like can a girl just get a female outlaw gang already? Melissa Lenhardt says yes! Heresy is the feminist Western I never knew I wanted. Plus it’s written in epistolary form, with diary entries and oral histories telling the story of a forgotten lady outlaw gang in Colorado led by an English duchess and a former slave. It’s fun and fast paced and I was completely hooked from the first page. Completely perfect (especially if you’re trying to finish up that Read Harder Western task and just CANNOT with white men anymore).
The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas
Charlotte Holmes, perpetually snacking, finds her appetite curbed in the third book of Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, when a dead body is discovered on the estate belonging to Lord Ingram. As signs point to Ingram, Charlotte’s good friend (who she has, on more than one occasion, proposed become her lover) as the killer, Charlotte disguises herself as Sherlock Holmes’s even more eccentric brother to clear his name, right under the nose of Scotland Yard’s most skilled detectives. This is the smartest and most engrossing Lady Sherlock book yet (and the previous two are very smart and very engrossing), becoming more and more harrowing as we get nearer to the true killer. Besides the twisty and Sherlockian nature of the mystery, Hollow is delightfully cheeky when it plays with the romance between Charlotte and Ingram and heartwarming in the affection between Charlotte and her sisters, working against the limitations tacked onto their gender to support and care for one another. Thomas has written the Sherlock I’ve always wanted, and I can’t wait to for the next one.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? By N. K. Jemisin
If you love the work of N. K. Jemisin, or simply haven’t had a chance to read her incredible novels, now is the perfect time to jump in with this stunning collection of her short fiction. Charting her growth as a writer, this collection has a little bit of everything: science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, and much, much more, the majority of which are populated by complex black characters from all walks of life, struggling with revolution, power, justice, and more. Jemisin’s rise has been meteoric and for good reason; her work is not only insanely good, but is also a form of building a future for herself and black writers like her, who may not have seen themselves in these genres in their youth. With How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? Jemisin not only shows you how she became the writer she is today, but also actively is building a better, and more inclusive, vision of the future of science fiction and fantasy.
I Am Yours by Reema Zaman (Amberjack Publishing, February 5, 2019)
This is a memoir that is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. Told through Zaman’s simple, but lyrical prose, it’s the kind of book that draws you in until Zaman’s journey in life feels a little too close to home. Though there are some dark and difficult things in here, it’s ultimately a moving memoir about love and growth.
The Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang
Cora runs the most well-renowned grave robbing operation in 1850s Manhattan, procuring strange corpses for anatomists and museums that cater to the curious public. When rumors start circulating about a young woman in the city born with two hearts, her competition are prepared to commit murder to obtain the anomalous body. Cora’s secret? She’s that young woman. This historical mystery/thriller is full of unexpected twists and turns, and Cora is the perfect badass protagonist to keep you cheering the whole way.
In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com, January 8, 2019)
This is the story of Katherine Lundy. The fourth volume in the Wayward Children novella series dives into a world inspired by the Goblin Market: this is a place where words have a higher power, and where nothing is said casually. Like so many of my favorite stories, McGuire’s novella looks at oaths, promises, the trickiness of fairness and balance. What do we ask of each other, in friendship, in sisterhood, in supporting one another, in taking on a friend’s burden? In growing up? In leaving a place? And Lundy herself speaks to my heart: the girl who believes in the rules behind fairy tales is reading and walking when she stumbles on a door in an old, gnarled tree. This fourth volume in the series took me by the heartstrings and squeezed. It hasn’t yet let go.
—Leah Rachel von Essen
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
It is novels like this that make me want to get down on my knees and weep with joy over the fact that such powerful, inventive fiction still exists. This is a novel that houses scripts, about a film director and a translator who are in the Philippines to make a movie about a massacre in 1901 during the Philippine-American War. The director is writing her script based on ideas she got from her father’s most famous film—her father being a famous director who later disappears—but the translator has her own ideas about the story being told and writes her own version. The productions of the films are what propels the actual story: the often-overlooked horrors of the Philippine-American War. And the narrative structure and writing of the novel are a continuous, beautiful punch in the gut. I loved, loved, loved this book.
Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen
This is the most sex-positive YA novel I’ve ever read, in multiple decades of reading YA. I wasn’t expecting anything in particular when I started reading this book, but whoa was I hooked almost immediately. Jack and his friends attend a private school in Manhattan, and his BFF was kicked off the newspaper for being a little too investigative. She has her own website now, and wants Jack—about whom wild sex rumors abound—to write a Dear Abby style column answering sex questions from his fellow schoolmates. And boy, do these columns live up! (Honestly, some of these things will be extremely useful to teenagers who get their hands on this book.) Jack also has “an admirer” who quickly shifts into stalker territory, and it gets pretty stressful for him and for the reader. Between the sex-positivity, the amazing adults in Jack’s life, and the relationships Jack has with everyone he encounters, it’s pretty easy to not be bothered by the fact that there is no central romantic plot—even for me, who thinks a little romance makes everything better.
Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos by Lucy Knisley (First Second, February 26, 2019)
Lucy Knisley’s Instagram was a lifeline for me when I had a newborn at home, and when I found out that a lot of her wisdom, experiences, and her story of how she came to be a mom was going to be a book? Oh, I waited with a LOT of anticipation for that book—this book—to come into being. And it exceeded my expectations. Lucy Knisley is a cartoonist known for documenting the transitional periods of her life and of the lives around her. And this—going from not a parent to a parent—is one hell of a transition. The honesty in her story and the openness with which she shares the pain and the joy, the ups and the downs, the absolute brokenness and the absolute build-up-again-into-something-brand-newness—it’s all what I’ve come to expect from her stellar writing and characteristic drawings. She was a lifeline then, and she’s a lifeline in this book, and I will be gifting to every new mom, every friend trying to conceive, and every woman who needs some real talk about this whole “becoming a mom” thing.
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Meade
This book is probably the reason I first read Middlemarch. When it first came out a few years ago, there was a lot of buzz about it from people I respected, and I think I read an excerpt or an essay by the author on The Toast (RIP The Toast). I finally got to Middlemarch and I LOVED it. This year, I’m rereading Middlemarch but wanted more content. My Life in Middlemarch was billed as a blend of author memoir and George Elliot biography, but I was actually delighted to find that it is much more an Elliot biography. I loved getting context for the novel, and I appreciated that Meade just seemed to dip in and out of her own life story. I thought the book was marvelously researched, and full of useful tidbits about the context of the world Middlemarch came from.
New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay by Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer
Ah, feminist erotica. New Erotica for Feminists—with bits originally published at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency—is broken up by section, covering various aspects of the modern feminist’s life: work, dating, pop culture, literature, and more. Your boss asks you to come into his office and promotes you again and again. You meet a scientist on Tinder who created the serum to make Ruth Bader Ginsburg immortal. Romeo and Juliet is rewritten with Juliet pointing out that, dude, you don’t even know my name, and also, consent is sexy. It’s a collection of light-hearted imaginations of a world where women have equal rights and are respected. What a concept! And a fun little book.
Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton
Chanel Cleeton’s historical romance has been on my list for months and in retrospect, it was a good idea to wait because I’ve yet to recover from it. After the death of her grandmother, Cuban American Marisol travels to Cuba for the first time, uncovering secrets along the way, finding love in unexpected places, and reconciling present-day Cuba with the one in her grandmother’s stories. Told in alternating timelines, Next Year in Havana delves into the consequences of revolution and the politics of trying to speak up in a country that demands your silence; it also captures the true essence of nostalgia—the Welsh word “Hiraeth” comes to mind, a deep longing for a home you can’t return to, that is lost in the recesses of your past. Lush with lyrical prose, a setting brought to life in ways that will resonate with everyone—especially those of foreign ancestry—and gripping romances whose intensity and pain readers will feel deep in their core, this book is ineffably beautiful. It dawns a whole new era of literature for Cleeton.
Nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon
This is just a fabulous book by a two-spirit Cree, Saulteaux, and Metis writer. It’s a genre-defying memoir about “blood and chosen kin.” Nixon writes about queer love, the unexpected death of their white adoptive mother, being a prairie punk, the complex intersections of queer and Indigenous identities, living in different parts of the prairies and the world, and more. Their writing is poetic, funny, sad, clever, and biting and full of startling realizations.
Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik (Harper Voyager, February 5, 2019)
Two fugitives—one a princess fleeing an arranged marriage, the other a rogue running from a mass-murder beef—steal a spaceship and, in the process, find themselves on the brink of a galaxy-wide war. It’s a jam-packed premise, and Polaris Rising delivers with a story that’s equal parts thrillingly suspenseful and comfortingly familiar. And that’s exactly what I want in my sci-fi romance. Here’s hoping Mihalik spends more time in the compelling world she’s built, so we can explore it with her.
Pride by Ibi Zoboi
My interest is often piqued by remakes of the classics, but Pride was catnip from the get go: it’s set in Bushwick *and* with Afro-Latinas?! Lo quiero todo, TODO! For a real treat, do what I did and catch it on audio. It’s narrated by fresh-off-a-National-Book-Award-win Elizabeth Acevedo, whose tone and cadence breathe life and perfect attitude into the text. It’s poetic, it’s urban, it’s the glory of Pride & Prejudice with the soul of mi gente.
Samer witnessed some of the worst excesses of the terrorist group ISIS after it took over his hometown of Raqqa, and himself was once sentenced to 40 lashes. He risked his life to document the horrors of living in the ISIS capital of Raqqa and, later, his escape from it. These diaries were the result of a collaboration with the BBC, encrypted and sent to a third country to camouflage its source and protect the young man in Raqqa. It is a harrowing chronicle of the initial euphoria of the city’s liberation from the totalitarian government of Bashar al-Assad, and the rising dread as extremists took over and imposed medieval punishments and laws. Samer, the anonymous author, was forced to abandon the city and leave his mother and family behind, and tells the story of the love of his life being forced to marry a foreign fighter from the terrorist group. It is a story of a revolution betrayed, and a spirit defeated, only to retain hope in fleeing.
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (St. Martin’s Griffin, June 4, 2019)
This past month I was in desperate need of a feel-good book that you just smile through the entire thing. Red, White and Royal Blue was that book for me. Alex Claremont-Diaz is the First Son of the first female president of the U.S. and he has always had a rocky relaysh with Prince Henry, the Crown Prince of Wales. After an argument leads to a messy confrontation at the royal wedding, they both have to do damage control. Namely, a staged, fake friendship between Alex and Henry…you can probably surmise where this goes from here. Pining, enemies-to-lovers, fake relationships—this book has it all wrapped in one beautiful package and I promise you will laugh and cry in equal measure.
Sunny by Jason Reynolds
Sunny is the weird guy of the Track quartet. And that’s totally cool. He’s the distance runner of the team, running for his mother who passed away. But Sunny doesn’t want to run, he wants to dance. Coach figures out a way to let Sunny move on the team and Sunny figures out a way to talk to his distant dad. Oh and to let his delightfully weird self out. Guy Lockard clearly has a blast narrating this book and Sunny utterly won me over. Reynolds seems to outdo himself with each of these books—I can’t wait to pick up Lu and get blown away.
There There by Tommy Orange
I organize Hype Lit Book Club in Tampa, Florida, and this title was voted to be our November Book of the Month in celebration of Native American Heritage Month. This was such a thoughtful and powerful story capturing Native American identity and heritage. At times heartbreaking and throughout insightful, I really connected with the characters and Orange’s powerful writing. This is an amazing debut novel and I look forward to what Orange writes next. We have yet to have our book club discussion, but I’m sure it is going to be epic.
Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan
Do you love sharp, edgy short stories written in straightforward prose that still manages to make you catch your breath? This book is full of them. May-Lan Tan’s characters tend to be young women (and some young men) trying to make sense of the world and their relationships. Many of the stories are in first person point of view, and one is written as a screenplay. They are about love, sex, family, and identity, and they are beautiful, dark, and absorbing.
Well-Read Black Girl: Finding our Stories, Discovering Ourselves edited by Glory Edim
I’ve been following WRBG for a while, mainly because I think it’s such a necessary force in the literary world, and when I heard about this book, I knew I needed to read it. It’s a collection of essays by black women writers, discussing how important it is to see ourselves in literature, how important it is to be represented, to read your stories. Each writer talks about the book that was important to them, or the character with whom they identified, or turning to books in hard times—it’s a love letter to diversity and inclusivity in literature, and these voices are ones we all need to hear. Jacqueline Woodson, Jesmyn Ward, Rebecca Walker, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Zinzi Clemmons—you really can’t go wrong with this book at all. I have so many books that I often give them away once I’m done, but I’m saving this one to return to when I need a reminder of how powerful books can be.
You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson
Although I’m a 2 Dope Queens fan, I’m a little late to the You Can’t Touch My Hair party. But I’m glad I finally arrived. Robinson’s voice, while instructive, is also so fresh and hopeful in a time where very little feels good. The shameless joy she takes in pop culture was exactly what my tattered heart needed. She is both sincere and buoyant, informative and fun. Robinson is the writer we all need right now and I can’t wait to read her follow-up, Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay.