Riot Roundup: The Best Books We Read in December
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.
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
I have a regret about this book and that is that I shall never again read it for the first time. I loved it so very much. As a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, I’ve read many books that make use of the “Science vs. Magic” trope and just when you think this book is doing the same old thing, it turns it completely on its head. The writing is engaging and comfortable. The use of magic is a nice balance of fanciful and almost believable. As soon as I finished this book, I bought about 5 copies as gifts. This book very easily has made it onto my list of favorites.
All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
I, admittedly, know very little about Watergate. But with the scandal(s) plaguing the current administration, I started to become interested in learning more. I started out with listening to the new Slate podcast “Slow Burn”, sharing the interesting, often overlooked stories of Watergate. From there, I figured it was time to finally bite the bullet and read the book by the two young Washington Post journalists who, with the assistance of the infamous Deep Throat, broke the story wide open that would lead to Nixon’s resignation. The book reads more like fiction than a memoir by two journalists. It’s an absolute page turner that will keep you interested from page one. The book ends (a bit unsatisfyingly) with Nixon still in office, insisting that he will stay on as the man the American people voted for. So I’m excited to next get to Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days, outlining the ultimate fall of the Nixon presidency. What can I say…I need a little hope in these dark hours that justice does eventually win out.
American War by Omar El Akkad
I love a well-thought-out dystopian novel, and this one is especially good. Set in the late 21st century, it describes a United States once again torn apart by civil war, this time over the use of oil. Florida is almost entirely underwater, and the main character, Sarat, lives in a version of Louisiana that is partially flooded and part of the neutral border territories between the southern states that continue using oil and the northern states where it is outlawed. When circumstances force Sarat’s family into a refugee camp in Georgia, Sarat develops a political ideology that leads to destruction on various fronts. It’s a fascinating exploration into how a person can become radicalized. On reflection, I’m not sure the future El Akkad posits is entirely convincing, but it’s an interesting vision that makes sense on the surface. What I admire the book for most is how it so thoroughly puts us inside the mind of a terrorist. And it does so without letting her off the hook for her crimes or softening the horror of her ultimate act. It’s a tricky balancing act, and El Akkad manages it perfectly.
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
Recently on Twitter, Malka Older (author of Infomocracy and Null States) strongly recommended Newitz’s Autonomous. As a big fan of Older’s thoughtful political sci-fi, I was excited to take her advice and pick up Newitz’s book. And that excitement paid off. Newitz spins a story of drug patents, indentured servitude, robot sex, and more within a richly imagined near future where intellectual property laws structure economic and social interaction even more than they do now. Shifting perspectives between a biotech pirate running for her life and the robot tasked with killing her, Autonomous is as thrilling as it is politically sharp. I’ve had a serious book hangover since I finished it.
Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi
It’s becoming harder and harder to find truly unique fantasy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I like a lot of the tropes out there, but finding a new, original fantasy world is such a treat. This is Onyebuchi’s debut and sometimes it shows in his pacing, which is slower than what you can usually expect from YA fantasy, but his world building is phenomenal. Beasts has garnered quite a few comparisons to Nnedi Okorafor’s work and rightfully so; the Nigerian influences are strong and authentic. I found myself drawn to the cocky young aki, Taj. As a protagonist, I don’t think I’ve read a more authentic teenage boy in a while. Taj has a talent and a curse in his ability as an aki, which means he can eat the sins of others. While they provide an essential service to society, they are reviled by the populace. Taj is one of the most experienced and competent akis, which, of course, leads to his entanglement in a royal plot and an unexpected romance. If you’re looking for dark magic, political intrigue, and some interesting societal commentary, then you should definitely pick up Beasts Made of Night. You won’t regret it.
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
This book is Louise Erdrich’s answer to the Little House on the Prairie series: it’s life in the “big woods” from a Native American point of view. It’s the story of Omakayas, an Ojibwe girl, and her thoughts and experiences as she goes through a momentous year in the life of her island community. We learn about her daily life and the rhythms of the year at the same time as we get a sense of the threats Omakayas’s family and community face. It’s charming, moving, difficult, and important reading.
Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self by Manoush Zomorodi
This gave me so much food for thought about why I have the relationship I have with my technology and the ways I can consider being more conscious of that. This isn’t anti-tech, and Manoush does a great job of giving insight into both sides of the coin—she, for example, found herself addicted to Two Dots and wondered why, so she explored why it was a problem for her, as well as interviewed one of the creators of the game and how the “addictive” mentality could be mined to suck people into such a game. There are mini challenges throughout, meant to encourage finding ways to “get bored.”
The audiobook is read by the author, and it’s no surprise she’s great. It’s fabulous to listen to a self-help/creative/business-y book written by and read by a woman of color. It’s not some Silicon Valley, young white guy who has all of the answers. It’s much more real and, for me, applicable.
I also just agree with the premise of needing quiet, boring time in order to be our best, most creative selves. And oh, how I loathe spending time with people who never get off their damn phones. Why am I with you if your face is glued to a screen?
But then again, I don’t feel the compulsion to do that, and it’s worthwhile to read this one and consider why it is a. other people do and b. why I react how I do.
The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman
I’m still processing this book, but to be honest, it’s not necessarily a book I want to process. Pullman’s His Dark Materials series was part of my childhood, and so I was ready for anything new involving that world and its beloved daemons. This book is hard, and it meanders sometimes, and I’ve heard someone criticize for the entirely fair reason of there being what can be read as a rape scene of a young woman—but it’s not on the page, and it’s a hint that grownups will understand and children reading the books won’t put together, and honestly, I don’t find rape scenes gratuitous in books very often, because it’s a reflection of a very very fucked up society and reality that we live in. More importantly, though, the book felt true to its world for me in a deep way that I’m grateful for.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
We Need New Names has a familiar narrative arc: a child in a poor country (in this case, Zimbabwe) longs for a new life in a rich country (here, the U.S.), only to find that this new life doesn’t quite live up to its mythology. Bulawayo makes this story arc vivid, moving, and at times comic. Her book doesn’t romanticize the poverty of a Zimbabwean shack settlement, but also deeply humanizes the characters and the emotions within it. From disillusionment following an election to the guilt of being the one who got out, We Need New Names is devastating and beautifully detailed.
From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon (Simon Pulse, June 5, 2018)
Delightful, inspiring, and the hug your heart most certainly needs. Twinkle is an aspiring filmmaker writing journal entries to the directors she looks up to about her current life: her distant mother, workaholic father, free spirited grandmother, her best friend finding new friends with the popular rich kids, the boy she has a crush on, her secret admirer, and her not so secret admirer—all while filming her first movie. It’s a pleasure to watch Twinkle succeed, stumble, fall, and learn while trying to find her voice and place as the girl who refuses to stay a wallflower. Do future you a favor and pre-buy this 2018 gem. When it arrives on your doorstep on its publishing day you’ll be thanking past you.
George by Alex Gino
I happen to not often pick up books that are middle grade or YA, but after hearing so many great things about George, I just had to see for myself what the hubbub was about. And y’all. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so much reading a book. Simply put, George is the story of a transgender girl in the fourth grade who wants nothing more than to play Charlotte in the class production of Charlotte’s Web. But there is so much more to this book that makes it beautiful and heartwarming and hopeful, something I especially needed at a Tim e when the world feels like it’s falling apart.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
For fans of The Bear and the Nightingale this sequel does not disappoint! The Girl in the Tower has all that its predecessor does: elements of Russian folklore and fantasy, a breathtaking background of snowy medieval Rus’, and a heroine that will steal your heart, but it also has so much more. It’s a joy to see Vasya come into her own as a young woman as she finds a path that’s truly her own. I also loved the expansion of Katherine Arden’s worldbuilding as Vasya’s journey brings her to medieval Moscow and her brother and sister, both great characters in their own right. I can’t wait for the final book in the trilogy!
Into the Night by Cynthia Eden
So creepy and chilling that I had to sleep with the light on, this book follows two FBI agents as they pursue a vigilante stalking and slaughtering serial killers. Macey Night and Bowen Murphy, both of whom we met in book two of Eden’s Killer Instinct series, have personal connections to a killer and have landed a coveted spot on Samantha Dark’s team due to those connections. So when Macey thinks she might have found her attacker from long ago, a doctor-turned-serial killer who vanished after she escaped him, Bowen and Macey proceed cautiously to the shadows of the Smoky Mountains. It’s soon apparent that they are caught in the vigilante’s web and that it may not be in the cards for them to survive. Oh yes, and they begin and smoking hot romance somewhere along the way too! If you are looking for a psychological thriller and are a fan of romance, this is the book for you. It’s not weighted too heavily in one genre or another, it’s just genuinely frightening enough to scare someone out of their wits while also having moments of intense, captivating romance.
Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings by Sarah Graley (March 13, 2018)
This is an absolutely adorable little comic about Kim, an art school student who is crushing on Kim, a gothic girl in her class. Little does she know, Kim is a part-time Grim Reaper, and she ends up being dragged along in various undead shenanigans. If you’re looking for a fun, cute, quick read (especially an F/F one), I would highly recommend picking this up. Also, Becka is the most adorable main character. The hair buns! Her cute little tummy! Honestly, I couldn’t believe how much I appreciated that there is an outline of Becka’s tummy in every panel. Seeing a character that’s so cute have a visible stomach outline makes me happier in my own clothes.
Landline by Rainbow Rowell
This is not the first time I’ve read Landline. The end of the year is a great time to reread a lot of Rowell’s stuff—many of her books are set at Christmas or have Christmas scenes—and Landline is the one I return to most often this time of year. Georgie McCool has a shot at her dream job—the one she’s been working towards nonstop for the last decade. The only problem is, she’ll have to work through Christmas, an issue that will not be taken lightly by her two beloved daughters and her lately-distant husband. The choice to chase this dream could have disastrous consequences…unless Georgie can find a way to revisit the past and figure out where things went wrong. Landline is about college and marriage and personal ambition versus family happiness and the enormous complication of fitting your life along someone else’s life, all handled while still making me snort-laugh and swoon.
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
This in-depth biography of one of the Renaissance’s most remarkable men was just…amazing. Like many other people, I assume, I knew a few things about Leonardo already. I think it’s impossible to go through any kind of schooling and not learn at least a little bit about him. But after reading Isaacson’s biography, I felt like I was learning stories about a relative, or a friend. Isaacson did real justice to da Vinci, showing him warts and all. This book made me want to experience the world differently, look at things the way Leonardo might have. That is a rare thing and I loved it. This was actually the first of Isaacson’s works I had read and I was surprised by how engaging and funny his writing is – not at all boring, pedantic, or self-important the way some texts can be. I listened to this on audiobook, so having Alfred Molina’s voice in my ears for 17 hours was not at all a bad thing, either.
The Library At Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
I learned of this book through the Penguin Hotline, which I highly recommend using just for this gem alone. Carolyn vaguely remembers what it is to be an American, but it’s been a while. She was adopted with other children by the man they call Father to live and learn at his Library. Each child is tutored in their own Catalogue, everything from war to healing. Now Father is missing and the Library is booby-trapped and they don’t know why. Carolyn must now venture out into America and prepare for the upcoming battle for the world. It’s an engrossing read but it can be very gruesome at times. Penguin calls it a mix of Lovecraft and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This novel about the placid community of Shaker Heights, upended when artist Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl arrive and rent a house from the picture-perfect Richardson family (mom, dad, and four teenage children), has been everywhere and on multiple “best of the year” lists. Now that I’ve finally gotten to it, I can say…I agree! Ng’s thoughtful look under the surface of American life, her careful use of secrets and miscommunication to move the plot forward, and her sympathetic rendering of complicated characters all make this one of the best books I’ve read in December—and this year.
Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green
This quiet graphic memoir about a girl’s life with an eating disorder will tear you apart. The art—all shades of gray—is gorgeous, with a ball of black squiggle following her everywhere she goes, telling her not to eat a thing. Lighter Than My Shadow is the story of Katie Green’s struggle and recovery, and, as the forward notes, the book she wishes had been there for her.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Jason Reynolds has written some of my favorite YA and middle grade fiction. His stories feature important stories, strong emotions, and beautiful writing. Long Way Down feels like the culmination of all three elements super-sized. Told in verse, with each section representing the ride between a different floor on the elevator, we meet fifteen year old Will as he’s visited by the literal ghosts of his past while trying to decide if he’s going to avenge his older brother’s murder.
The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 13)
I picked up Jennifer Egan and Celeste Ng vibes as I devoured this fantastic novel about five girls who experience a traumatic event while on a camp outing. The telling of the event itself unfolds slowly in between larger chapters examining the lives of each of the girls after camp. The narrative structure works perfectly, and I loved that one of their stories is even told from the perspective of a younger sister of one of the campers instead of the camper herself. This is a gorgeous heartbreaker of a book.
Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead (Simon & Schuster, March 2018)
When Laura, a privileged New Yorker, gets unexpectedly pregnant from a random encounter, she tells people she used a sperm donor and becomes a single mother to Emma. I couldn’t stop reading this book—set in NYC in the ’80s and ’90s, this examination of the mother-daughter relationship, as well as family dynamics, was so well done. The ending knocked me on my butt, and will stay with me for a while.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
After months and months of hearing so many good things about this book, I was doubtful it would ever live up to all the hype. I could not have been more wrong. When I finally decided to pick it up, I was absolutely blown away. It exceeded all my expectations, and rocketed into position as my favorite read of 2017, no contest. I listened to the audio, which was extraordinary, and I admit that I’m not sure I would have liked it nearly as much in print. The audio itself is a masterpiece—Saunders’ bizarre, strange, beautiful, haunting novel lends itself to audio in ways that few books do. Lincoln in the Bardo moved me in a deep and lasting way. It’s a masterpiece of form and style, experimental and original, but it’s also a universal and riveting story about grief and family and what makes us who we are.
MEM by Bethany C. Morrow
In an alternate 1920s Dolores Extract #1 is recalled to the Vault. There, she exists among other extracted memories like her, or rather, unlike her entirely. Dolores knows more than her Source’s traumatic memory—one she might have been forced to play out on loop if not for her singular ability to make her own memories, have her own thoughts. Mem is a haunting instant classic of the Flowers for Algernon ilk; spare, beautiful, and intensely powerful. This book was unputdownable, and is everything I want in a 2018 science fiction novel.
—S. Zainab Williams
Mr. Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo
Barry is a 74 year old Antiguan-born husband, father, and grandfather who has been in a long term secret relationship with his best friend since he was 14 years old…also a married husband and father. Told with wit, richness, and flair, Evaristo writes a story about this man coming to live his truth openly and the ripples it creates within this family. I listened to the audiobook and I highly recommend that format. Robin Miles and Ron Butler gave fantastic performances.
My Grandmother: An Armenian-Turkish Memoir by Fethiye Cetin
A beautiful (short) memoir that tells the story of how Cetin discovered that her grandmother, Seher, was in fact the daughter of an Armenian family that fled Turkey during the Armenian genocide, snatched by a Turkish gendarmerie commander as they embarked on a death march that would take them across the border to Aleppo, and kill thousands of their friends and fellow villagers.
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul
Confession: I usually get about 1–2 essays deep in a collection and then wander away. I have terrible attention span when it comes to essays. But Scaachi Koul’s collection was such a fantastic read, I couldn’t wait to get back to it each evening. Her writing is hilarious and poignant (there were moments in the first essay that had me laughing, and then on the next page, took my breath away). Her subject matter—family, career, identity, race—she handles with unflinching honesty and admirable humor. I can’t recommend it enough, and I’m so glad I finally read it.
Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey
This seventh volume of The Expanse series was the book I was most excited to read in December and it was also my favorite. It starts a little more slowly than I’ve become accustomed to as regards these novels and I was a little worried the engines may have run out of fuel, but my concerned proved unfounded—it picked up about a third of the way through and after that, I couldn’t put it down. In fairness, there was some reframing to be done—Persepolis starts thirty years after the conclusion of Babylon’s Ashes—and we need to catch up on everything that’s happened with our intrepid heroes, and a couple of galaxies, in the intervening years. Bobbie, my absolute favorite character in The Expanse world, is a major player in Persepolis, so if you’ve been waiting for that, Happy Holidays, and you’ll be pleased to know Avasarala is still very, very fond of the more colorful parts of her vocabulary. Proof positive there are always more stories to be told.
Princess Jellyfish, Vol. 1 by Akiko Higashimura
This was an incredibly fun read. Princess Jellyfish was about a group of women who live together and are passionate about different things. Their lives change when Tsukimi crosses paths with a beautiful woman in a pet store. This was a fantastic slice of life that showed female friendships in a slightly heightened magical realism. It was full of makeover scenes, discussions of specific fandoms, and romantic entanglements. A super fun easy read that helped get me out a reading slump.
Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eager
Science. Adventurous girls. Pirates! All the great ingredients needed for a fun children’s story. It starts out soberly, when young Fidelia loses her parents. Then pirates kidnap her, to use her inventions to retrieve treasure from the ocean floor. This story asks who the heroes and villains are, and doesn’t pull punches about how living means you have regrets, and that death happens to everyone. It’s also refreshing that we have a female lead who’s clever and a scientist. Fidelia is the role model we need, going into 2018. I hope we get more adventures with her.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
I’ve been on the hold list at my local library for a LONG TIME for this book, and I was thrilled to get it before the end of the year! Sing, Unburied, Sing won the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, marking Jesmyn Ward’s second time winning the award. She’s a phenomenal writer; her strength really shines through her masterful language and moving characters. This book explores race, poverty, family, loss, and grief in rural Mississippi, with a bit of magical realism as well. It’s probably been on every Riot RoundUp this year. If you haven’t already read it, add it to your TBR immediately. It’s a book that you won’t forget.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
I’m two years behind on this book because I kept resisting picking it up. After reading it, I have no idea why I put off this book. Of our two main characters, I really liked Zacharias with his quiet composure despite the chaos around him. But, I loved Prunella. She practically crackled in every scene she was in. A woman who is self-assured and competent, she made things happen to improve her very unstable situation. I love capable heroines. The magic was fun with England having international situations in this world, as well as Fairyland. I think I’m ready to give Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell another whirl.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Confession: sometimes I judge books by their covers. And I initially dismissed this novel, thinking it was chick lit. Any time I heard people gush about it, I half-listened. Recently I listened to Stephanie Danler talk on a podcast about writing. I fell in love with her voice and her brain and ran to the library to pick up her book. I’ve inhaled this book with a violent ferocity that I never thought I would. It is delicious, dangerous, brutally honest, and insanely addicting. I’m now revisiting books I may have initially rejected due to their subject matter or content, and am DESPERATE for read-alikes.
Spinning by Tillie Walden
I’m always on the lookout for a likely looking graphic novel, and this one jumped out at me from the shelf of my local library. Spinning is a gorgeous and poignant memoir about ice skating, coming of age, and love, among many other things. It’s incredible, queer, and an absolute must-read. I’m excited for whatever Tillie Walden creates next.
Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman
Scythe, the first book in the Arc of a Scythe series, was one of my biggest surprises of the past year and I was so excited to read the sequel. And it does NOT disappoint. Having successfully escaped from the Winter Conclave, Rowan has become a vigilante under the name Scythe Lucifer, where he only gleans scythes who are abusing their title. Think a scythe version of Dexter, here. Citra has now become Scythe Anastasia, and chosen a unique way of performing her gleanings: giving the chosen victims a month’s notice to get their affairs in order. We also get a glimpse into the inner thoughts of the Thunderhead, a omniscient, omnipresent watchdog.
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
This is a quirky and utterly charming book partly narrated by a cat whose owner is taking him on trips to find someone new to look after him. It’s sweet, funny, touching, and a little bittersweet. One of my top three of the year—and all my top favourites came from a non-English speaking country, so I’m glad I decided to broaden my reading this year.
Want It by Elisabeth Barrett
A sizzling hot contemporary romance set in Portland, with a Romeo & Juliet-inspired twist. The extremely Irish Phelan family and the very Italian Costa clan have hated one another for generations, ever since they set up businesses next to each other. But Juliet Costa and Brody Phelan have developed a friendship of sorts, at least until Brody decides he wants to take things to the next level. I loved take-charge Juliet and her crazy-making family, and the way her and Brody’s relationship developed. The sex scenes were a little OTT, but it is a romance novel. Definitely worthy escapist reading.
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
I picked this up for a Twitter readathon and it honestly became one of the best books I read this whole year. It was a book about love, loss, friendship, and grief that was at once devastating and heart-warming.
We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That are Funny, Complicated, and True by Gabrielle Union
I confess: I only knew Gabrielle Union from Bring It On and a brief stint on the cancelled TV show Night Stalker from 10 years ago. But I had heard so many good things about this book, and so many patrons at my library were asking to put this book on hold, that I knew I needed to read it. Holy cow, I loved this book with my heart and soul. Gabrielle Union narrates the audiobook, and her candid, chatty tone made me feel like I was sharing my commutes with a good friend. If I hadn’t been driving, I would absolutely have poured myself a glass of wine to listen. Her writing is open, and she’s very forthcoming about the mistakes she’s made in her life, as well as the experiences she had growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, and then making her way through Hollywood. As a woman, I laughed and related to many of her stories, but as a white woman, I also stopped and learned from her stories about colorism within the black community, racism in Hollywood, and the larger meanings behind how black women style their hair. There’s so much to learn and appreciate in this collection of essays, and we are all extremely lucky to have this book, and Gabrielle Union’s perspectives, in our lives. I’ll be buying my own print copy as soon as I can.
Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange
“i am the voice of my selves who have / not/learned to speak / my mute & deaf dreams come thru / here / my silent daughters / why i speak at all”
Powerful! This is the first poetry collection I’ve read by Shange, and I found it moving in many ways. It’s accessible, meaningful, and I’m looking forward to discovering more of her poetry.
wrapped by Rebekah Weatherspoon
This tiny novella published only days before Christmas grabbed me heart and soul. I love Rebekah’s work pretty much irrevocably, and she manages to pack a punch in a low number of pages and still make you happy at the end. In this one, Shae, a baker with a successful business, matches with Aidan, a former coworker she’d always had the hots for, on a popular dating app. The two hit it off pretty much immediately, but things from Shae’s past and her own issues with anxiety continue to lead to misunderstandings. I won’t tell you that this bit of fluff didn’t make me cry, cause anxiety is real, peeps. But in the end, it was the perfect way to wrap up the Christmas holiday.
What was your favorite book of the month?