Riot Roundup: The Best Books We Read July–September 2021
We brought back our quarterly roundup and asked our contributors to share the best book they read from July through September. Rioters delivered an impressive collection of reads to pile onto what we’re sure are your very manageable TBRs *wink wink*. We present you with this big, beautiful list of books for every mood, vibe, and literary taste. Want a queer Hamlet retelling? Got that. A cozy where some aunties help hide a body, or a coming-of-age memoir? Got those too. Get into these witchy reads, cozy mysteries, poetry, romance, memoir, magical realism, and tons more. Enjoy!
36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant
This backlist title was one that caught my eye in a used bookstore a while back and I finally got around to reading it in August. Drawn into a psychology grad student’s experiment for very different reasons, Hildy and Paul are the unlikeliest of potential romantic partners, especially when their first meeting ends in Hildy throwing a fish at Paul. Over a prescribed series of 36 questions, however, they find an undeniable pull that just might bring them back together in person. Plus, Hildy really needs her fish back. I loved the different formats Grant employs in her storytelling, the top-notch comedy couched in heartfelt (but never corny) tragedy, and the specific voices of the narrator and characters. This book walks the line between young adult and new adult for great crossover appeal, too!
Arcadia by Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam
I lapped up this unsettling novel about an intersex teenager growing up in a French intentional community. Arcadia is about sex and gender, yes, but it’s also about the complexities of authority and identity. And it’s funny to boot.
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala
This book introduced me to cozy mysteries and I think I’m in for a new obsession! It’s a light and fun read that has all the twistiness of a murder mystery, plus the comfort of a romcom. It follows Lila Macapagal, who’s suspected of killing her ex-boyfriend in her family’s Filipino restaurant. Lila recruits her best friend Adeena to help her investigate the case, and clear her name before her family loses everything. Oh, and did I mention that the author includes some of Lila’s recipes so you can make them too?
Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis
This novel caught me from the first page and never let go. Katrell is a witch who speaks to the dead in the form of letters, helping connect them with living loved ones. These letters help her make money, especially when she is the sole provider at home for mom and her mom’s deadbeat boyfriend. But when things take a sour turn, Katrell realizes she just might be able to make some more money by the form of resurrections. Featuring themes of family, loss, financial strain and growing up, this book is a wonderful and scary one at times, that I truly enjoyed.
—Aurora Lydia Dominguez
Battle Royal by Lucy Parker
Imagine Roy Kent as a judge on a show like the Great British Bake Off and the person he boots off ends up owning a rival bakery across the street, and then gets invited to guest judge on the show. It’s delicious. It’s hilarious. It’s hot. There’s royalty, sweets, friendship, family, lust, rivalry, drama, and some funny scenes that had me laughing so hard I had to stop reading until I caught my breath. Think a Roy Kent grump meets food glitter in human form! If you need a laugh and a hug to your soul, pick up this book! If you love GBBO and Ted Lasso, pick up this book! If you loved Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, pick up this book! Seriously all the !!!!!!!!
Be Holding by Ross Gay
Be Holding is a book-length poem about basketball, but if you are not a basketball fan or even a poetry fan, don’t let that scare you away! The book is about so much more, and I, not at all a basketball fan, absolutely loved it. Ross Gay looks closely at Julius Erving’s famous baseline scoop, recounting a night when he watched the clip over and over. From there, he moves on to discuss neighborhood basketball games, family history, legacies of slavery and the Middle Passage, photographs from the Library of Congress, and more. It turns into a contemplation of flying, looking, holding, and beholding, as well as Erving’s gorgeous athleticism. It’s moving, thrilling, and will leave you wondering how Ross Gay (and Julius Erving) pulled it off.
Bombshell by Sarah MacLean
If you’re looking for a historical romance about a girl gang who fights the patriarchy and has fun doing it, this is for you. Oh, yes there’s a swoonworthy love story, too. Rollicking isn’t a word I use often, but absolutely applies here. Bar fights? Yes. Humiliating rich, evil men? You betcha. Long cons? Absolutely. Heroine saving the hero? I wouldn’t be a Sarah MacLean novel otherwise. Every book by MacLean is better than the last, and this is the first in a four-part series. Join me in eagerly waiting for the rest of these books.
Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen, Translated By Tiina Nunnally and Michael F. Golmad
“In the morning there was hope,” writes Tove Ditlevesen in the beginning of this fictionalized memoir. That’s how I think of the author in my head – as Tove, a kindred spirit and friend who lived and died years before me, and who I had the good fortune of meeting at exactly the right time in my life. Also known as The Copenhagen Trilogy, this collection follows Tove through the trials – and triumphs – of her childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. Written in gorgeous prose that cuts to the heart, it was impossible for me not to care and love Tove’s story. Growing up poor, in a working class neighbourhood in Denmark, Tove dreams of becoming a writer, and of being free. More than her struggles, it was her thoughts that were endearing. At times funny, at times sad, but always heartfelt, Tove describes her longing for friendship and affection, her need to escape from the lives her parents had lived, finding solace in words and happiness in her writing. I love this book for reminding me that I am not alone in the world, that there are friends who understand me in ways no one does, despite the time that separates us. Every morning, this book gave me hope.
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Cloud Cuckoo Land is more than 600 pages, and I read it in 24 hours. I simply could not put it down. It features three timelines — 15th century Constantinople, winter 2020 Idaho, and mission year 65 on Argos, an ark that left earth just a generation back for a new home for humanity. Across the three timelines, one thing connects the characters: a manuscript by an ancient Greek author, about a man seeking a golden city he thinks he’ll find above the clouds. The story is rich and daring: Doerr’s new novel is about the need to fight disinformation, about the power of librarians and good stories, about how small acts of resistance can have lasting and potent consequences. I’ve loved Doerr for years, and this new book doesn’t disappoint at all—it had me completely immersed, beginning to end, and it was surprisingly easy to keep the timelines and characters straight. Cloud Cuckoo Land is a daring and imaginative book that’s in the running for my favorite read of the year.
—Leah Rachel von Essen
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
As part of the Sealey Challenge, I finally read this poetry book that made my head spin. In a fictional Eastern European town, soldiers shoot and kill a deaf boy, and the entire town falls deaf in response. This collection of poetry tells a narrative of resistance, community, and hope from a poet who is partly deaf himself.
—Chris M. Arnone
Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q Sutanto
Sutanto’s comic thriller-romance is a mix of genres I don’t typically read so, when I received the book in my latest Feminist Book Club Box, I didn’t expect to love it. But within the first few pages, it became super clear that I was about to have the most fun ever. In the book, our leading lady accidentally kills her blind date. Meddelin Chan doesn’t know what to do, but her Chinese-Indonesian aunties immediately step up, all while prepping for the grandest wedding they’ve ever worked before. Can they pull it off? Will Meddelin reunite with the one who got away while also getting away with murder? Is it possible that I have just found the only book my mom and I might both enjoy? I can’t believe I have to wait until March for the sequel.
Feral Creatures by Kira Jane Buxton
The follow up to Hollow Kingdom, Feral Creatures catches up with Cheeto-eating, human (“MoFo”) obsessed Shit Turd (S.T.) over a decade after the electronic virus wiped out his beloved MoFos. His new mission in life is to take care of Dee, the final MoFo, as they come across all manners of dangers to her very existence. Since the first book, MoFos have morphed into deadly hybrids of humans and animals, focused on Dee and posing a true threat to her and the beings of Aura, Echo, and Web that she has come to love and protect. Hollow Kingdom was, without a doubt, the best book I read in 2019, and Feral Creatures continues that pattern. Buxton combines dad joke-level humor with powerful and lyrical writing in a way I’ve never seen before. My eyes will be peeled for her next release!
— Elizabeth Allen
Finding True North: First-Hand Stories of the Booms that Built Modern Alaska by Molly Rettig
Rettig had only expected to go to Alaska, do some environmental reporting and then go elsewhere. But she ended up falling in love with Alaska and falling in love. She had thought it would be an easy story of the environment versus industries but discovers it’s so much more complicated. She uses a single person’s story to explore the history and impact of gold mining, airplanes/war industry, oil, and subsistence in Alaska’s history. It’s quasi-memoir and history. I highly recommend it for people like me who are obsessed with Alaska or people who want to deepen their understanding of the state.
The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang
After going viral on YouTube, violinist Anna Sun finds herself stuck trying to recreate her success. Things get even worse when her longtime boyfriend insists on opening up their relationship before making a commitment. Anna decides to set off on a series of one-night stands herself. That is, until she finds she can’t walk away from her first one-night stand with Quan Diep. I loved Helen Hoang’s first two books, but The Heart Principle is my favorite yet! This is a romance novel, but it’s also a story of a woman coming to terms with receiving an autism diagnosis in adulthood and learning to recognize her own needs and desires. It’s incredibly powerful, vulnerable, thoughtful, and still a delightfully charming love story. I can’t get enough of Anna and Quan!
Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person by Anna Mehler Paperny
Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me is an essential book on one of the most taboo topics. Anna Mehler Paperny makes herself completely vulnerable in this moving work about her multiple suicide attempts, psychiatric hospital stays, and experiences with a rainbow of medications and treatments. It’s not fully a memoir, though; she uses her journalism background to dig into the politics on how the medical field does a disservice to psychiatric patients. She interviews practitioners, scientists, and fellow mentally ill humans to get the full scope of the impact depression and suicide has on the world — and why we feel like we aren’t supposed to openly talk about it. A note: Please do not pick up this book until you’re in a strong, healthy mental state.
House of Sticks by Ly Tran
As a second-generation Chinese American, I have a very personal understanding of how widely AAPI experiences vary not only between ethnicities within the AAPI designation, but also between generations and among families with varying life circumstances. Author Ly Tran’s perspective is one I’ve known existed, but never fully appreciated until I read her coming-of-age memoir, House of Sticks. Tran’s story begins when her mother, siblings, and father — who spent almost a decade as a POW — immigrate from Vietnam to Queens in the early ’90s through a humanitarian program run by the U.S. government. Throughout her childhood, Tran is torn between fitting in with her American classmates and contributing to her family’s livelihood — from sewing countless cummerbunds in the family’s living room to working long hours in a nail salon. When her father, paranoid about government conspiracies, refuses to get Tran prescription eyeglasses, it sets off a series of challenges that significantly impacts her sense of identity for many years to come. The chance to feel, see, and hear another perspective in the greater AAPI community I call my own has stayed with me since the moment I finished the book.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
Klune writes an engrossing novel set in a world that is an intriguing blend of reality and fantasy. Going in, I tried not to expect too much even though it had been recommended to me by several sources I trust (including Book Riot’s own TBR) but it lived up to the hype and I am so happy I finally read it. It’s hard to describe this book without giving too much away, but I loved the characters and the way they formed a family for one another in the best and most necessary ways. Definitely read this if you enjoy quirky characters, settings that are both familiar and strange at the same time, and stories about the power of friendship and love. Oh, and did I mention magic? Definitely also if you enjoy a little magic in your stories.
How To Kidnap The Rich by Rahul Raina
Non-stop chaos unfolds in How To Kidnap The Rich that shows the absurdity of the pressure young people face in needing to succeed, especially parental pressure. Simultaneously, Raina’s frantic plot dives into the age-old notion of mo’ money mo’ problems. Kidnappings and hostage situations happen more than once, and they all come undone in dire and comedic straits. Also, someone loses a finger.
—Christina M. Rau
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
Zoraida Córdova’s first foray into adult fiction is an absolutely stunning work of contemporary magical realism. After leaving Ecuador for the U.S., Orquídea Divina creates for herself a house made of wishes, wind, and magic in rural Four Corners. Fast forward 60 years, and her descendants have spread, though Orquídea never leaves her home. Her grandchildren Marimar and Rey live in New York City, struggling to find themselves and their purpose in the bustling city. Tatinelly, another grandchild, lives in Oregon and is expecting her first child. When the three cousins receive letters announcing Orquídea Divina’s death and requiring their immediate attendance, they leave their lives for Four Corners. They discover a familial magic gifted to them by their grandmother and a curse that has already begun slowly murdering Orquídea Divina’s descendants. It’s up to them to stop the curse by tracing their grandmother’s origins. This novel is simply gorgeous.
The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay Faye
I have been hoping for a queer Hamlet retelling since I was a teenager, and I was blown away at how excellent this was. It was like watching a full stage production in my head — so atmospheric and compelling. It’s up there with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for me in terms of “perfect Hamlet retellings.” It’s hard to find retellings that do Ophelia’s character justice, too, but this one brought a lot of depth to her story that I appreciated.
Local Girls by Caroline Zancan
I’ve had this book on my shelves for a long time, and with this being the year I was officially giving myself permission to read as much backlist as I wanted, I finally did it! I love books that include a celebrity plotline, and this novel delivered. It’s about a group of friends who, hanging out at a random bar in Florida one night not long after high school, find themselves spending the evening with an actor who happens to be passing through their town. It’s also about all the years in their lives that have led to that moment. It’s so beautifully written, and really insightful about growing up, and the role of fandom in that, and especially about how friendship shapes us and our choices.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
When Malibu Rising was announced, I knew that I was going to read it as soon as it came out. I let myself fall into the hype and had huge expectations for this book. It did not disappoint. We start off being told that everything that happens in this book leads up to one night where a guest at a house party will accidentally start one of the biggest wildfires in California. As we move towards the event, we go back and forth across time and perspective, rooting for a family that is coming apart at the seams. This book is one of those reads that leaves you breathless after reading. It is a masterpiece of fiction that will stay lingering in your brain for a long time to come. I’m already looking forward to my next reread of it.
Never Pay the First Bill: And Other Ways to Fight the Health Care System and Win by Marshall Allen
Of course I knew the financial part of our medical system was messed up, but I had no idea of the extent of the deception and back dealing that goes on until I read this book. An estimated 80% of medical bills have errors! I have chronic illness and this book taught me so much about how to protect myself from excessive, unnecessary medical bills. I wish that everyone in the U.S., but especially those dealing with or caring for somebody with chronic health issues, would read this book and learn to protect themselves and start demanding change from our healthcare system.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
I think the best way I can describe reading this epic historical family saga would be an emotional rollercoaster ride, but in the best way possible. Following a Korean family and those close to them through four generations in the 20th century, this poignant, heartbreaking, and moving story brings you on an unforgettable journey through Korean and Japanese history. While Min Jin Lee creates an expansive cast of characters, she does so in such a way that I found myself becoming invested in each new character as it switched perspectives. I particularly found myself drawn to Sunja, the fisherman’s daughter. After getting pregnant by a married man, Sunja refuses to become his mistress, and instead forges her own path, marrying a kind minister and moving to Japan to live with him and his family there. Sunja’s determination to work as hard as she can to take care of her family is truly inspiring. Read this one for heart wrenching and uplifting family dynamics and an immersive experience into the history, peoples, food, and culture of Korea and Japan over the course of a century.
People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry
I will be honest: I am very, very picky about M/F romance novels. I am just…way too queer for most of them, but I’m also drawn to them because I am in a M/F partnership. Henry’s first romance, Beach Read, passed muster for me, so I was excited to read her follow-up, but my excitement was tempered by (I’m embarrassed to admit this) not having particularly enjoyed the sample chapter that was online last year with the cover reveal. Well. First of all, that sample chapter isn’t in the finished book. Second of all, THIS BOOK IS EVERYTHING. The best comparison I can make (and it’s unfair to compare writers like this) is that it is full of the sort of pining that one might expect from a Casey McQuiston novel. Poppy and Alex have been unlikely friends for 12 years, taking a summer trip every year, but haven’t spoken since something happened on the trip two years ago. Poppy convinces Alex to take one more trip with her, everything goes wrong, and OH MY GODS THE PINING. Those dumdums are so in love with each other. This book has it all — rich, nuanced characters, a non-traditional structure, and SO MUCH PINING.
—Annika Barranti Klein
Prior Affair by Christina C. Jones
Finding comfort and familiarity in a complete stranger is insane, most would say it’s not possible. But what if your souls had met in another lifetime? This is a premise that intrigues me and the story of Hailey Freeman and Ellis Boyd in Christina C. Jones’s latest release, Prior Affair.
Hailey moves to Blackwood, to the dismay of her mother, to begin a journey that quickly turns almost deadly. She meets Ellis in the midst of a chaotic and terrifying transition. She’s not one for long-term relationships or large declarations of love. Ellis also isn’t looking for something concrete right now either. But the past has a way of finding itself into our present and feels as strong and familiar as these simply can’t be denied. Prior Affair is a story of discovery, true love, and embracing what seems scary, and resisting the urge to run even when it feels so right.
In a time where I went through another reading slump that felt almost indefinite, this book was like a breath of fresh air and an excellent addition to the Night Shift universe.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
I kept this lovely book on the nursery side table next to the rocking chair, and every time I nursed or put my baby to bed, I read a few pages. It took some time, and I finished in late August. Sometimes I read at 3 a.m. while my baby needed an extra night feed; other times I let her sleep on me just a little longer so I could finish a chapter. To say this book soothed my soul barely captures how important it is. This book, about a monk trying to find their purpose, connected me with me on all the emotional levels. Sibling Dex’s thoughts and frustrations reflect my own in so many ways. And the robot Mosscap’s intrigue — the sheer fascinatation and want to understand — is beautiful to behold. Anyone feeling unmoored, asking “what is is all for?” especially with *waves hand at the world*, let this book be a balm.
Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson
This was the perfect book to read during a heat wave, as Olivia and her best friend drive to a music festival with the windows rolled down and the music cranked, scream-singing along. I love that all the characters, especially Olivia and Toni, are flawed and struggling. This is an F/F summer romance, but it’s also about grief, gun violence, and sexual harassment. I know I am very late, but I am fully on board the Leah Johnson hype train. If you like YA with realistic, messy main characters who are doing their best and figuring themselves out, definitely check out this one out. Plus, it’s set entirely at a music festival!
The Seep by Chana Porter
Humanity wins the lottery and runs into its missing species soulmate: an unembodied alien called The Seep. In exchange for sharing an embodied existence, the Seep connects everyone and everything on Earth through a kind of psycho-spiritual internet, leading to a utopian era of peace, contentment, and unlimited potential…for most. Because Trina Goldberg-Oneka’s beloved wife has decided that she’d like to start over as a baby, and she can do that now. What do you do when you’re sad in a perfect world? Porter’s post-contact Earth is one I’d absolutely love to live in. It’s weird, nurturing, beautiful, challenging, and, despite being completely ideal in every possible way, has its own share of problems.
Seven Days in June by Tia Williams
I started hearing buzz for this romance in the beginning of summer, by the time I got around to reading it in August I saw exactly what the buzz was about. Eva and Shane are both successful Black authors who reunite after sharing an intense, seven-day teenage love affair 15 years ago. Those seven days deeply influenced both their writing and the rest of their lives. And even though it was so long ago, their passionate chemistry and strong bond persisted. While the book deals with very serious topics, like chronic pain, self harm, drug abuse, and parental neglect, the moments of humor and romance assert that people dealing with these issues are not confined to trauma narratives. They belong in hopeful and romantic stories and can certainly fall in love too.
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet
This seems to be a controversial one to love on Goodreads, but if you are a fan of books that raise more questions than answers and feel vaguely like a fever dream as you read, then you’ll enjoy this one as much as I did. It’s an eerie portrait of a woman and her daughter trying to escape their politician husband and father, but with his well-connected strings, he can manipulate them to do whatever he wants, even if that means stand by his side while he runs for office. They try to run and hide and end up drawn to a motel full of residents who, like the main character, are all connected by an inner voice that seems to drive them. There’s a lot going on, but despite that, this novel is quiet and unsettling and despite the strange occurrences seems all too real for today’s climate.
Shallow Waters by Anita Kopacz
Yemaya is a Yoruban Orisha, or deity, of the sea. This novel reimagines her in mid-1800s America. We see her as a young woman, still living in the ocean, unaware of all that she can do. When she decides to go on land to search for her love, she finds herself traveling the Underground Railroad, meeting historical figures and forging relationships with a variety of people along the way. She learns about her powers and strengths, and about the warrior she is inside. This is a story with so many layers to it and lyrical storytelling that begs to be reread in order to soak it all in.
Slippery Creatures by K. J. Charles
When World War I vet Will Darling inherits his uncle’s bookshop, he doesn’t expect to also inherit a dangerous secret that will put him in the crosshairs of a secret society — and he doesn’t even know what the secret is! Luckily, the charming Kim Secretan shows up in the nick of time to help. But Kim has secrets of his own, and the danger is building as quickly as the attraction between the two men. K. J. Charles does “noble cinnamon roll meets morally ambiguous (but sexy) scoundrel” so well, and my love for pulpy Golden Age mysteries made this book doubly delightful. I tore through it in a day and can’t wait to read the next two in the trilogy.
Sea Of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel (Penguin Random House, April 2022)
This was my first experience reading Mandel, and it was definitely the buzz around the author that made me pick this one up. I don’t know how it compares to Mandel’s previous works, but for a first experience with the author I doubt I could have found a better story.
The book plays with a known premise, a question that is not new but it still moves us: maybe the world is nothing more than a computer simulation. Divided between three eras – the past, a present affected by the pandemic, and many years in the future – each era is occupied by the story of one main character, and each of whom have experienced something very strange and very similar. The reader is not only presented with the search to solve the mystery, but with the lives of very different individuals and lives. It is wonderfully written, and it plays with a lot of emotions. I know I was crying at the last turn of the page (and a few times in between). In the end, it invites us to question humanity and, with it, our own selves.
—Carina Isabel Dias Marques Pereira
Travelers Along the Way by Aminah Mae Safi (Feiwel and Friends, March 1, 2022)
I had mostly given up on Robin Hood retellings when I saw Aminah Mae Safi was writing one. My love of her writing alone was enough for me to give it a chance, but when I saw it was going to be set during the Crusades and following Muslim sisters stealing from the Queen of Jerusalem, well, let’s just say I needed to rethink my stance. Finally, a Robin Hood retelling I can get behind! Safi delivers a remarkable new story that stands on its own, adding depth and humor galore while paying homage to a centuries-old myth. Put this one on hold at your local library, because you’re not going to want to miss it. Oo de lally all the way.
Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett (Ballantine Books, April 12, 2022)
Holy cats, I loved this book with the heat of a thousand suns. The main character is Emma, a young woman born in a small New Hampshire town with the ability to heal people with a touch of her hands. No, really. But because her parents don’t want her to become a sideshow act, she is forbidden to use it. Instead, they insist she will grow up to be a doctor and heal people that way, and indeed, that is what Emma goes off to school in California to become. At the start of the novel, Emma has been summoned home from college because her father is dying from a mysterious brain disease, and she thinks her mother expects her to try and heal him with her hands. But she’s not even sure if she still has the gift. That is just a tiny fraction of the plot of Unlikely Animals. There is so much going on in this astounding upcoming novel that it’s hard to succinctly sum it up. There’s also a missing childhood friend, the ghost of a New Hampshire naturalist, discussion of the opioid epidemic in America, lots of — you guessed it — animals, and soooooo much more. Plus, this book has my new favorite narrators in a novel, which I won’t spoil for you but yes, they’re pretty much genius. If you love Jami Attenberg and Kevin Wilson, and/or have been dying to read a new John Irving novel, then this is the book you want to read as soon as you can. It’s heart-squeezing near-perfection. (Also, someone please ask Ralph Lauren to make the cover as a pair of embroidered pants.)