My favorite recent reads (Q2 2021)

by Gigi Griffis

Another quarter past and another pile of books under my belt. This quarter, I read a respectable 19 books, mostly in audiobook form. I’ve honestly been having some trouble reading eBooks lately (focus issues mostly), so really grateful that audiobooks exist and can pump info and great stories straight into my head while I walked to and from the vet a bazillion times this quarter.

As usual, now I’m pausing to share some of my favorites. Great beach reads for your summer adventures. Compelling thrillers to get you through long plane rides. And fascinating non-fiction that’ll make you smarter while you walk the dog. Win-win-win.

Here goes…

(Please note that links below are affiliate links, which means if you click through and purchase something, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

(Books marked with an * were written by a writer from a marginalized group. By supporting these authors, you’re telling publishers we want more books from underrepresented authors. Yet another win-win situation.)

The Last Flight

Why I loved it: WHEW this book was a tense page-turner. I couldn’t put it down and it was the one book I read in text format that I sped through at warp speed this quarter.

Description: Two women. Two flights. One last chance to disappear.  

Claire Cook has a perfect life. Married to the scion of a political dynasty, with a Manhattan townhouse and a staff of 10, her surroundings are elegant, her days flawlessly choreographed, and her future auspicious. But behind closed doors, nothing is quite as it seems. That perfect husband has a temper that burns as bright as his promising political career, and he’s not above using his staff to track Claire’s every move, making sure she’s living up to his impossible standards. But what he doesn’t know is that Claire has worked for months on a plan to vanish.  

A chance meeting in an airport bar brings her together with a woman whose circumstances seem equally dire. Together they make a last-minute decision to switch tickets – Claire taking Eva’s flight to Oakland, and Eva traveling to Puerto Rico as Claire. They believe the swap will give each of them the head start they need to begin again somewhere far away. But when the flight to Puerto Rico goes down, Claire realizes it’s no longer a head start but a new life. Cut off, out of options, with the news of her death about to explode in the media, Claire will assume Eva’s identity, and along with it, the secrets Eva fought so hard to keep hidden.  


Why I loved it: This is one of my go-to re-reads. This was probably the fourth time I’ve read it and it never disappoints. If you like morally gray characters, superhero stories, and quirkiness at every turn, this one’s for you. The basic idea is this: Most superhero stories assume that when people get powers, they’d use them for good. But what if the most toxic dudes in your university got those powers. What then?

Description: Victor and Eli started out as college roommates―brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.

Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find―aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge―but who will be left alive at the end?

The Other Black Girl*

Why I loved it: This had a slow-burn creepy tension that kept me listening (and I loved the audiobook narrator). The story is about a young Black woman in publishing. She’s the only Black girl in the editorial department, so she’s thrilled when another Black girl gets a job there. Except…something’s not quite right and she can’t tell if the new girl is friend or enemy. 

If you liked When No One Is Watching, this one has some similar themes (though this one is slower-burn).

Description: Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust.

Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.

It’s hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realizes that there’s a lot more at stake than just her career.

A whip-smart and dynamic thriller and sly social commentary that is perfect for anyone who has ever felt manipulated, threatened, or overlooked in the workplace, The Other Black Girl will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last twist.

The List of Unspeakable Fears*

Why I loved it: I love J. Kasper Kramer. Her middle grade historical fiction (for readers in 3rd – 7th grades) is always a great balance of adventure and history. Her first book was set in Romania under dictatorship. This one takes us to NYC’s North Brother Island in 1910 – the era of Typhoid Mary. It’s part ghost story, part mystery, and part exploration of grief. If you’re looking for smart fiction for kids, this is it. (And bonus: enjoyable for adults as well.)

Description: Essie O’Neill is afraid of everything. She’s afraid of cats and electric lights. She’s afraid of the silver sick bell, a family heirloom that brings up frightening memories. Most of all, she’s afraid of the red door in her nightmares. 

But soon Essie discovers so much more to fear. Her mother has remarried, and they must move from their dilapidated tenement in the Bronx to North Brother Island, a dreary place in the East River. That’s where Essie’s new stepfather runs a quarantine hospital for the incurable sick, including the infamous Typhoid Mary. Essie knows the island is plagued with tragedy. Years ago, she watched in horror as the ship General Slocum caught fire and sank near its shores, plummeting 1,000 women and children to their deaths. 

Now, something on the island is haunting Essie. And the red door from her dreams has become a reality, just down the hall from her bedroom in her terrifying new house. Convinced her stepfather is up to no good, Essie investigates. Yet to uncover the truth, she will have to face her own painful history – and what lies behind the red door.

Laziness Does Not Exist*

Why I loved it: The title really says it all here. If you think you’re lazy, think again. If you think others are, think again again. This book is an exploration of the idea of laziness, what’s really behind it, and why we all need to extend ourselves (and others) a lot more grace.

Description: Extra-curricular activities. Honors classes. Sixty-hour work weeks. Side hustles. 

Like many Americans, Dr. Devon Price believed that productivity was the best way to measure his self-worth. Price was an overachiever from the start, graduating from both college and graduate school early, but that success came at a cost. After Price was diagnosed with a severe case of anemia and heart complications from overexertion, they were forced to examine the darker side of all this productivity. 

Laziness Does Not Exist explores the psychological underpinnings of the “laziness lie”, including its origins from the Puritans and how it has continued to proliferate as digital work tools have blurred the boundaries between work and life. Using in-depth research, Price explains that people today do far more work than nearly any other humans in history yet most of us often still feel we are not doing enough. 

Dr. Price offers science-based reassurances that productivity does not determine a person’s worth and suggests that the solution to problems of overwork and stress lie in resisting the pressure to do more and instead learn to embrace doing enough. Featuring interviews with researchers, consultants, and experiences from real people drowning in too much work, Laziness Does Not Exist encourages us to let go of guilt and become more attuned to our own limitations and needs and resist the pressure to meet outdated societal expectations.

Black Against Empire*

Why I loved it: Have I mentioned before how mad I am that my historical education failed me so badly? Because I had only the vaguest notion of the Black Panthers until a few years ago. After getting some foundational knowledge in the past few years, this year I finally grabbed an audiobook and dug deeper. And I encourage you to do the same. 

Description: In Oakland, California, in 1966, community college students Bobby Seale and Huey Newton armed themselves, began patrolling the police, and promised to prevent police brutality. Unlike the Civil Rights Movement that called for full citizenship rights for blacks within the US, the Black Panther Party rejected the legitimacy of the US government and positioned itself as part of a global struggle against American imperialism. In the face of intense repression, the Party flourished, becoming the center of a revolutionary movement with powerful allies around the world.

Black Against Empire is the first comprehensive overview and analysis of the history and politics of the Black Panther Party. The authors analyze key political questions, such as why so many young black people across the country risked their lives for the revolution, why the Party grew most rapidly during the height of repression, and why allies abandoned the Party at its peak of influence.

I Hate Men

Why I loved it: This is the book that took France by storm – in a scandal! Some man got horribly offended by the title and tried to get it banned. Instead, as you might expect, the proposed ban made everyone want to read it. And so this long, charming essay on feminism and misandry blew up, gaining way more attention than the publisher expected and being translated and published in multiple other countries, including the US. The essay was by turns funny and thoughtful and I have a feeling I’ll go back and listen again soon.

Description: Women, especially feminists and lesbians, have long been accused of hating men. Our instinct is to deny it at all costs. (After all, women have been burnt at the stake for admitting to less.) 

But what if mistrusting men, disliking men – and yes, maybe even hating men – is, in fact, a useful response to sexism? What if such a response offers a way out of oppression, a means of resistance? What if it even offers a path to joy, solidarity and sisterhood? 

In this sparkling essay, as mischievous and provocative as it is urgent and serious, Pauline Harmange interrogates modern attitudes to feminism and makes a rallying cry for women to find a greater love for each other – and themselves.

Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters”

Why I loved it: This very readable exploration of the history of women in journalism left me both cheering and screaming in anger. I’d heard of some of these women (Nellie Bly and Ida Wells, in particular), but many were new to me. And not only were their stories fascinating, but it’s also easy to see the through-lines from then to now, determining what is “serious” writing and what’s fluff – based on who was writing it. 

Description: In the waning years of the 19th century, women journalists across the United States risked reputation and their own safety to expose the hazardous conditions under which many Americans lived and worked. In various disguises, they stole into sewing factories to report on child labor, fainted in the streets to test public hospital treatment, posed as lobbyists to reveal corrupt politicians. Inventive writers whose in-depth narratives made headlines for weeks at a stretch, these “girl stunt reporters” changed laws, helped launch a labor movement, championed women’s rights, and redefined journalism for the modern age. 

The 1880s and 1890s witnessed a revolution in journalism as publisher titans like Hearst and Pulitzer used weapons of innovation and scandal to battle it out for market share. As they sought new ways to draw readers in, they found their answer in young women flooding into cities to seek their fortunes. When Nellie Bly went undercover into Blackwell’s Insane Asylum for Women and emerged with a scathing indictment of what she found there, the resulting sensation created opportunity for a whole new wave of writers. In a time of few jobs and few rights for women, here was a path to lives of excitement and meaning.

After only a decade of headlines and fame, though, these trailblazers faced a vicious public backlash. Accused of practicing “yellow journalism”, their popularity waned until “stunt reporter” became a badge of shame. But their influence on the field of journalism would arc across a century, from the Progressive Era “muckraking” of the 1900s to the personal “New Journalism” of the 1960s and ’70s, to the “immersion journalism” and “creative nonfiction” of today. Bold and unconventional, these writers changed how people would tell stories forever. 

Now, to you: What are the best things you’ve read so far this year?

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