Riot Roundup: The Best Books We Read January–March 2020
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We asked our contributors to share the best book they read from January to March and there’s a lot of awesome books so reinforce your TBR shelf! We’ve got a juicy celebrity memoir, nonfiction that’ll stick with you, mythology, shmooching, horror, mystery and thriller, a delightful read, 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!
And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories & Other Revenges by Amber Sparks
I was predisposed to like this collection of short stories—Amber and I are friendly online and I had read a few of the stories already—and in fact I absolutely love it. Each story, or “revenge,” tears apart convention, plays with form, and gets under your skin in its own way. “Everyone’s A Winner In Meadow Park” is a devastating look at childhood that just happens to have a character who is a ghost. “The Eyes of Saint Lucy” is a story told out of sequence, some of it prose and some of it lists and some of it just…different. Both are stunningly original, and the rest of the collection is just as mind blowing.
—Annika Barranti Klein
Brave, Not Perfect by Reshma Saujani
I have to admit, I was not thrilled when my book club picked this title. I’m not a huge nonfiction reader and I was fully expecting it to be a same old, same old self-help book. But in the introduction alone, I felt attacked. The good kind, though (does that exist?). Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, was spitting so many truths describing me to a T that it was unnerving. Saujani talks about how basically from birth, boys grow up learning to be brave. Girls grow up learning to be perfect. Saujani mentions how she looked back at her life and realized she had never done a brave thing and that really hit home. Choosing bravery over perfection feels like the scariest thing, but with Saujani’s words, I feel a little less alone.
Circe by Madeline Miller
I had read and loved Miller’s first Greek retelling, The Song of Achilles, years ago. For whatever reason, I hadn’t gotten around to the much-buzzed-about Circe until January. Now I’m mad at all that time I lived without it. In Miller’s hands, the immortal witch Circe is born anew. We watch her lonely, restrictive childhood in the halls of her Titan father, Helios. We watch the mistakes of her adolescence, including the one that banishes her to the secluded island Homer describes in The Odyssey. (We see Odysseus here too, of course.) The novel is as much an epic as Homer’s tales but a fascinatingly modern, feminist one. It’s witty and funny and dark and angry—#MeToo mythology told as a lyrical battle cry.
Dig. by A.S. King
A.S. King is one of my favorite writers working today. Her compelling YA novels always contain an element of surrealism that drives a hard-hitting message deep into your gut, and Dig. is no exception. It’s an uncomfortable interrogation of white privilege centering on five teen grandchildren, one of whom is referred to throughout as “the Freak.” She has the ability to “flicker” in and out of the timelines of the other characters, and as their stories intertwine with a powerful metaphor about the potato plant, she has a message for the inheritors of generational racism: “DIG YOUR WAY OUT!” This jumped to the top of my TBR after its Printz win, and I hope this honor brings it to the attention of many more readers for years to come.
The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous, tr. Lissie Jaquette (Harvill Secker, August 11, 2020)
This book was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and Jaquette’s translation brings Wannous’s book about living with fear vividly to the page. It begins with an unusual romance (if you can call it that) that starts in a psychologist’s office in Damascus, and its tendrils of family relationships and different embodiments of fear move backwards in time through the lives of the narrator and her double. Vivid descriptions, excellent characterizations, deeply real feeling, and page-turning until the end.
—M Lynx Qualey
Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
After a near-death experience, Chloe Brown writes herself a “Get a Life” list to help her do just that. The first thing she crosses off her list is moving out of her family’s mansion, but she realizes she needs some help with the rest. Enter Red, the handyman at her new apartment building. This smart, fun romance was my first read of 2020, and I could not have asked for a better start to the year! The chronic illness representation especially was just so well done and so true to my own experiences with an invisible disability. There’s a quick line of dialogue that really struck me where Chloe uses spoon theory in talking about her illness. It’s incredibly casual and matter-of-fact, and I loved that Hibbert didn’t take any time to explain it, because it is just a fact of life for Chloe, as it is for so many of us in the real world.
Goldilocks by Laura Lam (Headline Publishing Group, April 30, 2020)
If The Martian and The Handmaid’s Tale had a book baby, this feminist environmental sci-fi thriller would be the incredible result. A group of women steal a spaceship headed for a potentially habitable planet in the Goldilocks Zone after being sidelined by the men slowly stripping away women’s rights on Earth. But the closer they get to their destination, the more disturbing secrets are revealed, until finally the crew begins to suspect that their brilliant leader may have been hiding horrifying ulterior motives. The book is full of The Martian’s “science the shit out of this” attitude as well as the spacefaring intimacy of Becky Chambers’s To Be Taught, If Fortunate. If you’ve been looking for your next favorite science fiction novel, this is it.
Here For It; Or, How to Save Your Soul in America: Essays by R. Eric Thomas
R. Eric Thomas is a funny person on the internet. Now, he’s a funny person you can get to know better through his memoir. This book opens with a hilarious philosophical essay on Sesame Street and ends with a bizarre, poignant short play where Thomas meets past and former versions of himself over lobster tails at a cruise ship buffet. And between, you get so much more, including the time Thomas accidentally became a famous racist, what it feels like to kiss a gay pastor at a Pride parade, and how a funny Facebook post led to a career. I LOVE everything about this book: the humor, the profundity, the timing, the balance… It’s exactly what I hope for in a book of personal essays. I laughed, I cried, I gasped, I texted quotes to friends and begged them to read it. As soon as I read the last word, I wanted to flip back to the beginning and start all over again.
Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
I started reading this book while on a long layover, and I must have been making some pretty weird faces as I got my head around what was going on, because someone sitting nearby asked me if I was okay. I was, for the record. I was just surprised. The book is narrated by a crow that is trying desperately to make sense of the way that the world is falling apart around him. Humans are dying or transforming into creatures that take the term “zombie” to a whole new level. The animals are slowly reclaiming the land and banding together to face these new threats. The book has a lot to say about humanity and the impact we are having on the planet, but it also shows that there is hope. Experiencing the story from the perspective of the animals was a pretty cool experience. The only downside was that it made me really crave some Cheetos. You might consider picking up a bag before you sit down to read.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
This is the most delightful, feel good read I’ve read in a long long time. If you’re in a reading rut and your anxiety is high, I cannot recommend this enough. It takes place in a magical alternative world to ours, where magical children are imprisoned in “orphanages” to keep them safe. At least, that’s the reasoning of the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, but it’s far from the truth. Social worker Linus Baker carries out his work of investigating these orphanages with his head in the sand. He truly cares about the children’s well being, but he doesn’t want to know the truth about how the government he works for is self-serving and corrupt. His blind obedience changes when he’s sent to a top-secret orphanage in the Cerulean Sea, and finds himself falling in love with the magically menacing children there, and the orphanage’s enigmatic and handsome master. I smiled, I cried, I laughed out loud, and I would love to adopt a certain murderous garden gnome named Talia. If you enjoy fantasy of any type, do yourself a favor and pick this one up immediately.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
This groundbreaking memoir sheds light on a subject long relegated to the shadows: abuse among queer couples. In the Dream House chronicles the abuse Machado suffered in her relationship with a woman during graduate school in painstaking detail. Machado experiments with narration that echoes her fractured memories and destabilizing experience. By bringing us so intimately into her thoughts and memories, Machado creates a powerful sense of claustrophobia, as if we, too, feel trapped and unable to escape.
—Sarah S. Davis
The Last Jew of Treblinka: A Memoir by Chil Rajchman, translated by Solon Beinfeld
This is the unflinching account of Chil Rajchman’s survival in Treblinka, a Nazi extermination camp, during World War II. Treblinka covered a very small area and I was surprised by this, considering the scale of torture and systematic murder perpetrated there. Rajchman somehow managed to avoid death on numerous occasions and—according to the forward—never planned to share his memoir with any wider audience than his family. This quiet account of Treblinka is as devastating as one can imagine, making it a hard book to recommend to others. I realize the difficulty of reading everything Mr. Rajchman survived. However, we are all fortunate that his memoir was translated and published. It stands as a stark confirmation of what so many suffered and what only a tiny few lived to tell the world.
Layover by Katrina Jackson
This was my first read by this author but it won’t be the last. It was a short sweet read and just what I needed after the couple of weeks I’ve had. I really appreciate how their romance built between flirting online but there was also a serious side to it. I also enjoyed how it touched on grief and how people can process it in many different ways. I have experienced a lot of familial losses over the last few months, so reading about the raw grief that Lena experienced as well as the way she handled it helped me to process a bit of my own. If anything I wish this story had been longer but it also seemed to be the perfect size at the same time.
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
My first literary cry of the year. This book had been on my TBR list for a while, so when I was on a holiday trip to New Orleans and spotted it at an indie bookshop in the Garden District, I knew it was time to buy it and read it. Through his spare, but achingly beautiful prose, Gaines transported me to 1940s New Orleans and into a tight-knit Cajun community. A young black man named Jefferson has been sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. Grant Wiggins, a teacher who has returned to his hometown to work at the plantation school, begins—reluctantly, at first—to visit Jefferson in jail. As the bond between them blossoms and solidifies, it becomes very clear how both of them have been shaped by the people and places around them. These characters and their stories still ring true today—and they will stay with me, I’m certain, forever. This novel made me weep, but also laugh, and maybe most importantly, it urged me—and still urges me—to think and rethink about integrity, justice, and respect for yourself and others.
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin (Riverhead Books, May 5, 2020)
Samanta Schweblin’s books make me squirm with discomfort, and her newest English translation, Little Eyes, is no different. If you’re as paranoid about life in general as I am, when you hear the premise that there’s a new gadget on the market that is essentially a robot controlled by a rando on the other side of the planet, you probably think, WHO WOULD BUY THAT? This novel illustrates who. Its perspective revolves between “keepers” and “dwellers” as they’re called, and it just unfolds in sci-fi/horror throughout. You’ll love it.
—Mary Kay McBrayer
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere is now a television series, but reading the book is an absolute must! This story handles the topic of the strength and fragility of mother/daughter bonds powerfully. Celeste Ng also fixes a magnifying glass on the Shaker Heights community. The layers of tolerance and social acceptance are slowly peeled away, as citizens’ social standing is thrust into the forefront. This is definitely an eye-opening read!
—Cathleen Perez Brenycz
Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen
One of my biggest regrets is never studying abroad during college. When Loveboat, Taipei was released, I was over the moon to finally live vicariously through a character going through the experience and get insight into Taiwan, a country I’ve always wanted to visit. Ever Wong is our protagonist; she loves dancing but is committed to medical school by her strict parents. Wanting her to learn about their family’s heritage and culture, they send her to Taiwan via a program promising a fully educational experience. However, Ever quickly learns that “Loveboat” is actually a summer-long party where every student can finally shed their facades of perfection.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
It’s early yet, but I predict that Minor Feelings will be my favorite essay collection of the year. It’s a book about Cathy Park Hong’s feelings and ideas about what it means to be Asian American. She writes about her complicated family history and her personal experiences and struggles. She also writes about art, language, friendship, depression, activism, and justice. Her essays are smart, honest, and bracing, and I learned so much and thought about so much while reading them. Any essay fan will want to pick this up, as will anyone who wants to think deeply about race in the U.S.
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
My friends and family are probably sick of me talking about Miracle Creek, but I don’t care. I love this book about a deadly explosion during a group therapy session. What might have been a tragic accident is quickly ruled a double homicide and Miracle Creek explores the backgrounds and motivations of everyone connected to the group. It’s a fast-paced, well-plotted story, but what really hooked me is how richly developed each character is. Ultimately, the book explores the question: what wouldn’t you do for your child? I suspect that author Angie Kim took all the parts of parenthood and motherhood that she’s lived—all the wonderful, heart-catching moments and all the dark thoughts we don’t speak aloud—and wrote them into her characters. There’s a gripping honesty there that makes this book a must-read.
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
I had been meaning to read Monster for quite some time, but somehow kept moving it down my TBR list. After reading, loving, and being extremely disturbed by a book that had been compared to Monster (Allegedly by Tiffany Jackson), I decided it was time to move it back to the top of the pile. Monster is a quick and compelling read. It follows 16-year-old Steve Harmon, who is on trial for murder because of his alleged involvement in a robbery gone wrong that ended in the death of a store clerk. Steve’s youthful vulnerability is painfully evident in the way he narrates the story, alternating between firsthand accounts of the violent horrors of prison and the dissociative device he adopts to tell the story of his trial. He frames it as a movie script, entitled Monster, and the reader is left wondering how much Steve actually believes of what he writes (and, thus, how much to believe ourselves). Is he the innocent protagonist of his script or the hardened villain the prosecutor portrays? Is he a kid caught in an adult situation who understandably made a mistake or is he, indeed, a monster?
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland
When archivist Shapland finds love letters between Carson McCullers and another woman, she sets out on a quest to find evidence of the author’s queerness. She ends up digging into everything from the perceived need to “prove” queerness to her own coming out to the life and affairs of the famous author, and all its ambiguities. “I go on long walks for my weak heart,” writes Shapland, “but I am still a queer, sick, writing person—woman—living in the world.” I wrote earlier in 2020 about how Shapland’s memoir spoke to my feelings of invisibility, queerness, and illness, and this book continues to speak to me. From its short chapters to its compelling insights, I think about it often.
—Leah Rachel von Essen
New Waves by Kevin Nguyen
I thought this book was excellent. It’s about race, grief, friendship, and our digital footprints. Lucas and his BFF, Margo, work for a huge social media site. Lucas answers FAQs, while Margo makes five times his salary as a developer. But even though she is a genius, Margo is also a Black woman, so her ideas and complaints are often ignored by the mostly male staff. Her frustrations over this eventually get her fired. That night, she and Lucas get drunk and do something really stupid: they sneak into the office and copy all the personal info for the site’s users, just to show they can do it.
The next day, realizing how stupid and highly illegal their actions were, they swear to delete the info and never speak of it again. Months later, Margo is struck and killed in a hit-and-run. After the funeral, Margo’s mother wants Lucas to delete Margo’s Facebook account for her. But after figuring out her password and looking through Margo’s laptop, Lucas discovers there was a lot he didn’t know about his friend. He also finds that she still has the user info she said she deleted. Now Lucas wonders if Margo’s death was an accident. I found this to be a quiet but compelling novel. It’s smart, sad, and hard to put down.
Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles
I was excited about this book based on the premise alone, but I was still surprised by just how much of a joy this YA novel was to read. Del has had a crush on Kiera Westing since they were in kindergarten together. Now that she’s finally single in their Junior year, Del would do anything to win her over. Which is how he finds himself inadvertently joining a Purity Pledge (oops). It was so refreshing to read a contemporary YA novel from a male perspective that explored toxic masculinity and coming to terms with societal pressures to be a “real man.” This novel also examines religion and purity culture. That’s a lot for one YA novel to cover, and yet Lamar Giles writes about all these topics the nuance and complexity they deserve. And somehow manages to be really funny too.
Open Book by Jessica Simpson
Before reading Open Book, I would not have described myself as a Jessica Simpson fan. In fact, I didn’t even know that much about her—I knew she is (or was) a pop singer from the same era as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and I knew her provocative, cleavage-revealing poster for her role as Daisy Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard film, which my older cousins drooled over when I was younger. I also vaguely remember her being made into a ditzy, blonde joke by the media, which is what every tabloid did to every female celebrity in the Britney era. Nonetheless, as Simpson made her way across every major news outlet to promote the book in February—where it was made to sound too juicy to resist—this pop culture enthusiast gave in and got his hands on a copy. All I can say is I’m so glad I did pick it up, because it was everything I didn’t know I needed and more. Jessica Simpson is no joke, and I think we all owe her an apology. If you grew up in the 2000s and you love pop culture, you must read it. And if you love John Mayer, you must also read it, and if you still love John Mayer after finishing it, we’re going to need to have a talk.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
There is nothing I do not love about this novel. It takes all the conventional narratives about how women and mothers are supposed to behave and turns them on their head. The characters are nuanced and flawed and completely unforgettable. The representation of queer women is some of the best I’ve ever read—complex and real. It’s a sprawling, bighearted novel, full of heartbreak and joy. It deals with a lot of painful and serious topics, but it is also celebratory. Though epic in scope, the characters are so well-drawn that the reading experience feels intimate. And if you’re into audiobooks, I can’t recommend this one enough.
Rick by Alex Gino (Scholastic, April 21, 2020)
This is a fun, thoughtful book that’s tangentially related to Gino’s previous book George. Rick just started middle school, and he’s never really had a crush on anyone before. He doesn’t understand why everyone makes such a big deal about romantic relationships or sex, and starts to wonder about his sexuality and identity. His best friend Jeff is kind of a jerk, but Rick ends up going to an after-school club called Rainbow Spectrum, and learns that things aren’t always what they seem—not to mention what real friendship is, and who he is once he starts listening to himself and not to people like Jeff.
Sex Matters by Alyson J. McGregor (Hachette Go, May 19, 2020)
When it comes to women’s health, reproductive health gets a lot of play. I should know. I write about sexuality for a living. But women’s health is about so much more than our reproductive organs. In Sex Matters, McGregor breaks down gender disparities in healthcare across all aspects of women’s health, showing how everything from gender bias in research to incomplete medical school curricula lead inevitably to medical professionals who are unprepared to give women the healthcare they need. And while much of this seems out of our control, McGregor also lays out what we can do to ensure we get better healthcare that takes into account who we are. Such an important read.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Reading The Starless Sea is kind of like deciding to stare at a beautiful Surrealist painting for hours. You spend most of the time not really understanding what’s happening. But that’s not the point. You appreciate the beauty and the strangeness. The book is mysterious and weird. Even more so than the author’s first bestselling book The Night Circus. But approximately 85% of the sentences read like lyrical poetry. The characters are so fully developed and real that you feel like you know them by the middle of the book. And it is a story that celebrates storytelling. It treats storytelling like a mystical, revered religion—and that is something that I can fully get behind. Zachary Ezra Rawlins finds a 100-year-old book with a story about him and his childhood. It feels impossible—but the book leads to more impossible things, people, and most of all places. It leads him to the starless sea, an underground maze filled with stories. It’s a bit slow to start. And you might (probably) won’t know what is going on half the time. But neither does Zachary and, frankly, that’s more than half the fun of this twisty, romantic tale.
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown (Balzer + Bray, June 2, 2020)
Are you Team Malik or Team Karina? Whether you favor refugee storyteller Malik or lonely but fierce princess Karina, you will enjoy reading this epic debut by Ghanian American author Roseanne A. Brown. Or perhaps, you will favor the darker, more mysterious characters that appear in A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, like the grim folk (I get chills every time I read their name) or the Faceless King (one of my favorites, tbh). Brown thoroughly depicts a culturally diverse yet economically unsettled backdrop in this magical YA fantasy that is All the Stars and Teeth meets Hunger Games meets An Ember in the Ashes, with a bit of Harry Potter thrown in. Although heir to the sultana throne, Karina is not safe from attacks, treason or gossip within her politically unstable kingdom. Magical powers and unthinkable family secrets emerge as Malik competes in the kingdom’s Solstasia Champions competition and Karina struggles to gain power right after the loss of her mother.
The Sound Of Stars by Alechia Dow
Set in an earth occupied by aliens called Ilori, The Sound Of Stars follows human Ellie who runs a secret library, and alien M0Rr1S (Morris), who harbours a secret love for human music. The two become unlikely companions on a road trip to save themselves, their families, and maybe even the world itself. The Sound Of Stars features two characters who are easy to sympathise with, and a relationship that is sweet and difficult not to root for. The book is also full to bursting with its love of art, as Ellie and Morris’s relationship is rooted in their love of music and books, in a world where they are both banned. This is the sci-fi road trip romance book I didn’t know I needed, but glad that I got!
The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya (ECW Press, April 7, 2020)
My words are inadequate in the face of what an incredible piece of art this novel is and how thought-provoking and readable it was. Neela and Rukmini are two South Asian Canadian women musicians (one trans, one cis) who form a friendship when Rukmini, an emerging artist, covers one of Neela’s (the more established musician) songs. The story investigates brown female friendship, professional jealousy, the pleasures and price of making art, social media and call-out culture, the way systemic racism and sexism pits women of colour against each other, and more. It’s also very much a love letter to so many women (mostly of colour) artists and theorists. This book was so good and so smart! The characterization of Neela and Rukmini was incredible. I love how Shraya refused to make Neela and Rukmini “likeable.” When I say Neela and Rukmini aren’t nice and likeable, I don’t mean that they aren’t kind to each other (and others) or that I didn’t like and sympathize with them. I absolutely did. But they aren’t “nice” and “likeable” in a way that flattens and uncomplicates them. Rukmini and Neela are not made easily digestible and palatable, which is how a sexist white supremacist society wants them. Neither is the villain or the victim. I had high expectations after loving Shraya’s previous work, but The Subtweet blew even those expectations out of the water.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
This was the first book I read in 2020 and it was perfect: a surprising, slyly funny story with a very timely hook. Babysitter Emira Tucker is confronted in a grocery store one night while she’s with her clients’ baby. Why? Because she’s Black and 2-year-old Briar is white, and someone thinks Emira kidnapped her. The incident goes viral after being filmed by a bystander, and Alix Chamberlain, Emira’s boss, is determined to make it right by taking on Emira as her latest project. But Emira is trying to figure out her life on her own terms—and Alix’s meddling is both unnecessary and annoying. When the viral video brings back someone from Alix’s past into her life (and Emira’s), the two women will learn that they don’t know each other at all. I loved everything about this book. Emira is an observant, sharp narrator just trying to figure things out, and Reid’s portrayal of transactional relationships and young adulthood is keen and insightful.
There There by Tommy Orange
The people within Tommy Orange’s novel There There sunk into my heart and left a lasting impression. Tinged with sadness, hope, and suspense, There There rotates between the perspectives of 12 Native Americans planning to attend the Big Oakland Powwow—either working, performing, spectating, or plotting. Orange excels at switching between a large cast of characters while still drawing you in to each person’s story. As I traveled further within the pages, I began to pick out the connections between characters like interwoven threads within a spider’s web. Orange’s characters deal with serious issues such as addiction, abuse, body image, and grief—all touched by the painful history they carry as Native Americans. As the storylines converge towards the Big Oakland Powwow, the heightening suspense had me racing to the finish.
A Taste of Her Own Medicine by Tasha L. Harrison
Sonja Watts is newly divorced and looking to start fresh, post marriage. With a nudge from her sister and friend, she enrolls in a six-week entrepreneurship course that will allow her to build her dream business. She knows that most of the students will be younger than her, and has prepared herself for that. The younger and very sexy instructor, Atlas James? Well, that’s a different story entirely. She’s very interested in Atlas and the feeling is mutual, but can she allow herself the chance to be happy and trust that a man can truly love her for who she is, perceived flaws and all? A Taste of Her Own Medicine is a solid story of asserting yourself, fresh starts, and amazing love when you least expect it.
Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
There are many books I sought to escape into from January to March, but none grabbed me by the collar as hard as Jeannette Ng’s mind-blowing debut novel. Ng won multiple awards for this book and rightfully so. Under the Pendulum Sun is the gothic, psychological fantasy horror tale that delves deep into the power of stories and the double-edged sword that is faith. Victorian missionary Catherine Helstone travels to Arcadia, the magical land of the fae, to find her brother, who’s the second missionary to attempt to preach there. While in Arcadia, the very sun and moon do not abide by the same logic or science as the world we know. And when the very land and its people no longer conform to the faith you’ve built your entire life and emotions around, what is there left to believe in? What emotions are valid? What exactly is the definition of evil? I can’t stop thinking about this book. It’s beautiful, haunting, terrifying, and utterly brilliant.
The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G. Parry
This fanciful literary thriller is a delight for bibliophiles. Strange tidings are afoot in Wellington, New Zealand, where some cosmic strangeness means that literary characters are coming to life and populating a parallel part of the city. Uriah Heep is bent on revenge; Dorian Gray is an unreliable hacker; and there are multiple Mr. Darcys. The premise is irresistible but also tricky; this could easily have turned into tedious crossover fanfic or endless Dickens adoration. Instead, The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep finds compassion for even the Uriah Heeps of the world, while spinning a page-turning yarn about saving humankind from them.
Upstream by Mary Oliver
Combining Oliver’s musing and essays from other publications as well as her reflections on nature and writers that have inspired her. A powerfully quiet book for this time of solitude, Oliver shows how her explorations and observations of the natural world have led her to an understanding of herself. In recounting her walks around her home, the injured animals she takes in, and how time changes the places we find most recognizable she creates a series of essays that connect on a deep level. Her reflections on the writers like Emerson and Whitman, who have influenced her thoughts, add a section to the book that speaks to those in the writing process and the connections she makes to the natural world feel meditative and give you a glimpse into Oliver’s lyrical mind.
The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
It drew me in with the first line. There were more twists and turns than the Guggenheim. You think you’ve figured everything out and there’s another curveball thrown at you.
Multiple viewpoints keep the narrative interesting, and a complex chronological timeline adds wonderfully perplexing dimensions.
On the surface it’s a spurned wife stalking the current fiancée—hell hath no fury, right?
The literal blue-eyed boy of everyone’s affections is a hedge-fund manager, who is rich and powerful and likes to let everyone know. He dazzles his new fiancée with gifts, expensive dinners, and holidays. He’s also a bit of a control freak, does she really want to move out of the heart of the city and night-life to a gorgeous house in the middle of nowhere? Nellie, the fiancée, is a bubbly and somewhat clueless school teacher. Vanessa, the ex-wife, is neurotic, depressed and a drunk. Vanessa’s aunt Charlotte is my favorite character, a really well-written and all-round great human being.
Without giving too much away, I think this book opens up an interesting discussion about emotional and physical abuse and how easy it is to hide the signs of it. The devastating and long-lasting effects of gaslighting. Things are rarely what they seem, and hardly anyone has the kind of life we see and covet on social media. It’s a great way to spend your social distancing days, because you won’t be able to put it down till you’re through!
—Nyda Ahmad / Nida Aley
Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (August 25, 2020, Ecco)
This is an excellent mystery set in South Dakota on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, that follows a vigilante for hire. Literally, people pay Virgil Wounded Horse to beat the crap out of criminals who fall through a legal loophole when the FBI declines to investigate. Virgil is raising his nephew and trying to figure out his life when he’s asked to investigate who is bringing in drugs for a hefty paycheck. Problem is he doesn’t really think the man accused is guilty and more importantly he doesn’t want to work for his ex-girlfriend’s father. But it’s a mystery novel, so you know he ends up on the case—oh, and the ex-girlfriend does too, along with the FBI. Winter Counts is a mystery you’ll sink into with excellent characters you’ll be rooting for as you try and beat them to the solve. And, this is very much worth a pre-buy so when you forget about it it’ll be this awesome mystery treat later this year that shows up for you.
A Wish In The Dark by Christina Soontornvat
A middle grade Thai-inspired fantasy retelling of Les Misérables, it follows two kids on opposite sides of society. Pong, who was born in prison, and Nok, the prison warden’s daughter. I love how complex the characters are—Pong who wants to escape his fate but has to face the harsh reality of life in Chattana; Nok, who wants more than anything to make her parents proud and prove herself. It explores classism, found family, friendship, monopoly and the problems it brings, the lengths people are willing to go for family and the struggle to right the wrongs in an unfair world. I enjoyed every minute I spent reading this book and can’t recommend it enough.
Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli & Aisha Saeed
This book confronts challenging topics—like xenophobia and the anger associated with feeling like political doctrines are meant to exclude rather than include you—alongside traditional young adult book themes, like budding romance and self-discovery. Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed already have reputations as young adult superstar authors, but I was new to both of their works upon picking up Yes No Maybe So. It was really a joy to read about Maya and Jamie’s relationship with one another and the political environment embroiling their Atlanta, Georgia, district leading up to a special election. Canvassing their neighborhoods together for the Democratic candidate challenges them to identify where their ideologies overlap (and how and why they might differ), as well as how to handle the haters from the other side without losing themselves to misplaced anger. I devoured this story as the date of the Democratic Primary Election grew closer in my state, and felt more sane and less alone as I read how Maya and Jamie worked through the bureaucratic mayhem of running a political campaign. Albertalli and Saeed co-created a book that manages to be lighthearted and ultimately hopeful while balancing the heaviness of political activism. I’ll recommend Yes No Maybe So to readers of all age groups, and especially this year as the presidential election approaches.
Here’s to your next great read!