RIF’s Favorite Reads of April 2017

Helping you sort out the best from the rest published this month.


Has April been filled with more sun or showers for you? In New York City, we’ve been inundated with sunshine recently, but we’ve also been showered with good books! As we do every month, we’d like to recommend our favorite books published in April to you, our dear readers, and we hope you consider purchasing some either here or at your local independent bookstore on Independent Bookstore Day, April 29!

Marlena by Julie Buntin


When 15-year-old Cat moves to Michigan with her newly-divorced mother, Marlena is the girl next door, though nothing about her resembles the girl-next-door trope. Marlena isn’t the usual cool girl, either. While she’s far more experienced than Cat—Marlena drinks, has sex, pops pills like candy—she is also kind and loving, and the two girls form a deep, impactful friendship. As Cat loses her innocence, Marlena loses her compass, ultimately ending up drowning in just a few inches of water. Much later in life, living in New York City, Cat still thinks back to that relationship and sees it reverberating into her contemporary life. A book that examines friendship and the devastating love we can share with others, it’s a must-read by a stand-out young writer. (Henry Holt)

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve


Grace is a housewife in Maine in 1947, married to a veteran of World War II whose scars are made clear to her in his viciousness in the bedroom. Five months pregnant, Grace and her children have to flee their house in the middle of the night when the fires raging around Maine that summer finally reach her town. Gene was meant to be out with the other men digging a fire break but now he’s declared missing and Grace finds herself squatting in a seaside house with her two young children and an odd pianist whose tour was interrupted by the fires. As the summer moves forward, Grace finds new and unexpected freedoms in her sudden state of uncertainty, until it becomes even more uncertain. Harrowing and gorgeously written. (Knopf)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout


This collection of interwoven short stories from the acclaimed Elizabeth Strout is sure to leap beyond your expectations, especially if you’re a fan of My Name is Lucy Barton. In this collection, Lucy is long gone from her small town in Illinois, but her brother Pete remains, as does her resentful sister Vicky. Still involved with the family is janitor Tommy, and town local Patty. Class issues loom large in the book, and come to a head in Lucy’s visit in the story “Sister.” The humanity that shines through these portraits of the town’s life shows both the best and worst in our nature, and Strout’s prose and care for detail continue to be immensely satisfying.  (Random House)

 Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan


Six friends. One long, spooky night. Tragedy. Consequences that reach far into the future. These are the elements that make up Jennifer Finney Boylan’s fantastic new novel, which calls to mind both The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Megan Abbott’s Dare Me. After college graduation, six friends decide to visit the ruins of a state penitentiary on a daring lark. But when they get locked inside and then separated—and when one of them goes missing—their friendship changes forever and they drift apart. Decades later, a body is found, and what was once a missing person’s case is now ruled as a homicide. As the investigator doubles down on one of the members of the original group, another knows the truth and is hiding it. Full of twists and turns, Boylan’s return to fiction after her memoirs is a strong one indeed.  (Crown)

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard


In Sarah Gerard’s remarkable collection of essays, she explores a variety of oddball characters, and in the process, takes a probing look at the nature of Florida, that famed sunshine state. From the founder of a bird refuge who’s gone mad and embezzles funds from his suspicious sanctuary to the congregation of a New Thought church where Gerard’s own parents used to be parishioners, the characters Gerard spends time with in these autobiographical essays jump from the page and appear larger than life. Taking us into a Florida that we aren’t likely to see as tourists, Gerard’s essays are eye-opening and fascinating. (Harper Perennial)

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro


Dani Shapiro’s haunting, beautiful, challenging memoir asks how, in marriage, can we commit our lives to another person forever when we know that life is full of flux? Everything is always changing, from our jobs to our living situations to our very selves—how can we expect a life partner to stand beside us for these changes? How do we expect to be supported through our own changes? Using literature, poetry, philosophy and more to try to understand her own marriage with M., Shapiro explores a truly universal space—the space where we commit ourselves to others and ask them to commit to us in return—investigating it with a careful, poetic eye. Intimate and breathtaking, Shapiro is at her finest in this meditation on modern marriage. (Knopf)

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer


In Jeff VanderMeer’s highly anticipated new book, we see a world where rising seas have destroyed islands and where a big biotech company (called Company) is now lying in ruins. In other words, we find ourselves in a very near future dystopia, where we can see quite clearly the consequences of humanity’s actions in the destruction. The titular character Borne, in this world, is a blob—a biochemical thingamajig, that is found by survivors Rachel and Wick, who live off the land that Company used to own and run. Borne is a living thing, somehow sentient, and it begins to travel with Rachel and Wick, showing them a kind of beauty in the ruins. As haunting as the Southern Reach trilogy, and as gorgeously and carefully written. (MCD)

Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott


Anne Lamott has a way with words that you may already be familiar with from her previous (gorgeous) books. In this newest, she’s meditating specifically on the idea of mercy and all that entails. “Mercy is radical kindness,” she writes, and that idea itself is radical to many of us—how can forgiveness, letting go of anger and resentment, be radical? Yet, as Lamott points out, it is—it is entirely contrary to the way most of us lead our lives, which makes it utterly radical. For Lamott, mercy is also found in faith, which she explores deeply here by drawing from scripture, but her wisdom is far-reaching and will touch those of varying faiths and even those with none. (Riverhead)

American War by Omar El Akkad


The year is 2074. Oil is outlawed. Drones fill the sky. Louisiana is flooded. So starts the deeply evocative and disturbing new novel from Omar El Akkad. Sarat Chestnut is six years old and the Second American Civil War has just broken out when her father is killed and she and her family must move to a displaced persons camp. Sarat grows up in the camp and begins to become a powerful woman in her own right, leading a resistance against the North’s military. But Sarat is not without influence—a man in her camp has been feeding her stories about other occupations and dissidents her whole life and she is shaped into one of those freedom fighters from the stories she’s heard. An allegory for our own times and a vicious look at what our future could become if we’re not careful. (Knopf)

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch


Lidia Yuknavitch’s newest novel is unsurprisingly gorgeous, mesmerizing, and deeply moving. In a not-too-distant future, a megalomaniacal media personality is supreme ruler. Not of earth, though—no, the earth has been destroyed by war and humanity’s hatred. Earth’s former elite—the rich and powerful—are the only ones who could afford to join the giant spaceship-type dwelling that’s still sucking supplies from earth. But the earth’s elite have also been cursed: they don’t resemble humans anymore. Sexless, they can’t reproduce, and they’ve lost all pigment and hair so that they’re all quite simply blank slates. But earth still has survivors, and one of them is the renowned, famous eco-terrorist, Joan… A fable as well as an incredibly grounded novel, Yuknavitch delivers another fantastic and imaginative work of literature. (Harper)

Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic


Olivia Sudjic’s debut novel takes a harrowing look at how social media and internet connections can bleed into real life in unexpected and often disturbing ways. Protagonist Alice spends her early childhood in Japan. Having no recollection of this, however, she begins to romanticize that time and becomes obsessed with a New York-dwelling Japanese writer. This obsession becomes more apparent than ever when Alice “accidentally” manages to meet the writer. As Alice and the writer begin to know one another, they discover lies in their pasts, as well as their present—things they’ve carefully filtered—and the ensuing relationship, is threatened to be torn apart. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Get recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.

What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah


This much-anticipated debut collection is as marvelous as we all expected it to be—and then some. In Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short stories, Nigeria is a character as much as it is the backdrop. The stories are evocative each on its own and also as a whole, as tales of mothers weaving children out of hair are spun, and conflicts of love, family, and class clash on the page. The magical realism elements (such as turning one’s own joy into a child or mathematically figuring out how to allay grief—for a price) are so deftly blended into the tales that it’s always easy to suspend one’s disbelief. A truly gorgeous book that looks at humanity in all its angles, from the worst of greed to the best of compassion. (Riverhead)

Exes by Max Winter


In Max Winter’s new book, a variety of voices come to the forefront, all in order to try to get to the bottom of a single death. Narrator Clay is still mourning his brother’s passing—more precisely, his brother’s suicide. In order to try to figure out what motivated his brother to do what he did, Clay talks to people who knew him, from exes to mere acquaintances, and logs their memories, which make up the book. Clay then footnotes these memories, so that he is always present in the recollections of various voices—a girl who dated Clay’s brother covertly, a man pretending to be a famous actor in order to hit on women, a widower with a vendetta against Canada geese, and more. (Catapult)

No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts


Billed as a retelling of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Stephanie Powell Watts’ debut novel is far more than that—it has its own plot line, its own place, its own unique voice. In No One is Coming to Save Us, JJ has returned to his North Carolina town to win back his childhood love, Ava. The problem is, she’s already married, though she’s unable to conceive a baby with her husband Henry, who’s feeling the dull ache of jobs lost overseas to cheaper manufacturers. Meanwhile, Ava’s mother is meddling with everyone’s lives, mourning her son, and catering to her oddly charming and unsettling husband. A small-town book with a big heart and lots of healthy social criticism, this novel has been highly anticipated for good reason. (Ecco)

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann


David Grann has done it again. This New Yorker staff writer has again managed to take a too-little-known bit of history, has dug into it as far as it seems humanly possible to go, and has emerged with a page-turning true crime investigation that reads like the very best and smartest of fictional thrillers. Here, he investigates the murders of members of the Osage Indian nation, who, in the 1920s, were being systematically killed because of the oil on their land. The Osage were some of the richest people in the world at the time, and people married into their families or declared them incompetent in order to seize control of their wealthy land; but when that wasn’t enough, the Osage began being murdered. The nascent FBI attempted to solve the case and did a terrible job at first. David Grann looks into the whole, harrowing saga with smooth prose and all the gritty details you could want. (Doubleday)

Startup by Doree Shafrir


A unicorn is what the startup world calls that one-in-a-million app that rises up into a billion-dollar business, and that’s exactly what TakeOff—Mack McAllister’s app—is going to be. Or so Mack hopes. Sabrina is a failed novelist and struggling mom with credit card debt and a less than ideal husband who takes a job at TakeOff, and gets caught in the middle of a scandal when Mack’s texts to her boss go a little too public. Katya, the journalist trying to break the story about Mack and the texts, pairs up with Sabrina and these unlikely allies break through the misogyny of the tech world by telling the story from their point of view. A searing yet hilarious novel, Doree Shafrir, senior culture writer at Buzzfeed, hands readers a promising—and a promise-fulfilling—debut. (Little, Brown)

Beartown by Fredrik Backman


The beloved Fredrik Backman (whom I’ve already showered with love on Read it Forward) is back with another delight of a novel. This time, the microcosm we’re focusing on is Beartown—a tiny community with trees slowly eating it up from all sides, except for the side with the lake, where the ice hockey team—the hope and pride of Beartown—practices. But when an act of violence rocks the community, accusations fly from one end of the town to the other, and it’ll take courage, understanding, and love to knit it back together. Backman, as only he can, brings larger issues to bear (pun unintended) in Beartown while also letting the story unfurl in a simple and stately fashion. (Atria)

What To Do About the Solomons by Bethany Ball


This fantastic debut by writer Bethany Ball takes us inside a family of Israelis living in Los Angeles. Each chapter is written from a new point of view and illuminates another member of this piecemeal family, strewn all over time and space. That is, at least, where we start off. From the L.A. Solomon family, where we watch Marc get falsely accused of money laundering, to Israel and the kibbutz Marc hails from, to his sister Shira, to further afield in the family tree and beyond, Ball weaves a deft rope of story on which we dangle, occasionally laughing helplessly and occasionally groaning for these characters’ misfortunes. This book will have you reading past your bedtime to keep up with these personalities. (Grove Atlantic)

Oola by Brittany Newell


Brittany Newell’s debut novel is rave-worthy. The novel is narrated by Leif, a young man drifting around Europe after college, accompanied by his paramour, Oola, a woman a few years his junior who has dropped out of music school and run away from her passion as a pianist. Together they romp around Europe and end up in California, where Leif embarks on a passion project of his own: researching a book that will be about Oola, or about a person based on Oola. Either way, he needs to watch her extremely closely in order to get to the bottom of things… and he goes further than you’d think possible. (Henry Holt)

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci


The narrators of Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel, translated into English, are mother and son. We follow the mother from her girlhood in Yugoslavia to her marriage to a man who awakens passion in her before turning cruel to the war that tears her country apart and forces her move to Finland. Years later, the son meets a talking cat at a gay bar soon after adopting a snake (both are animals he feared as a child). The cat is rather human-like—he is dapper and desirable in a suit—and quickly moves in with the young man and his snake, to unexpected results. An oddball cast of characters and elements of magical realism mean you’re always on your toes with Statovci so that when he lands a blow of serious social criticism, you feel it all the way down to your boots. (Pantheon)

Double Bind: Women on Ambition edited by Robin Romm


Even before the most recent election, there was an uptick in cultural discussion—via books like Lean In and many a Twitter-storm—about the way ambition works for women in society. In this fantastic compilation of essays (which every ambitious woman should read), writers like Roxane Gay and Claire Vaye Watkins discuss the way women have been taught to think about ambition, to talk about it, to consider it their own. What makes ambition legitimate? When and where are women allowed to be ambitious? What realms are open and which do women need to fight their way into? In this collection, writers discuss the double bind of ambition—how women are meant to feel it versus how they actually do, or how they feel it versus how they act in it, and more complex dichotomies—and through their words many women will feel both vindication and permission to feel what they feel and do what they do. (Liveright)

Photography by Ryan Deshon.

About Ilana Masad

Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Printer’s Row, The Toast, The Butter, The Rumpus, Hypertext Magazine, and more. She is the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast for new, emerging, and struggling writers. She is (way too) active on Twitter @ilanaslightly.

  • Oooh – Black Veil sounds awesome! I’m a sucker for the dark campus novels – just loved If We Were Villains. And also really enjoyed Killers of the Flower Moon and Startup. About to start No One is Coming to Save Us.

  • RoRo Kaye

    have just made my list of must reads from Ilana’s wonderful list- so many great sounding books!!! I have quite a long list- hope my library will have all of these, especially MY CAT YUGOSLAVIA- I am a sucker for novels using a cat as a character.

  • My May is looking a little light, but with several on this list that I want to read, they just might fill it out!

  • SueMac

    Another great list from Alana Masad. Can’t wait to read most of these.

[email_signup id="4" download="http://www.readitforward.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/bookmarks_pens_withlogo.jpg" success="Success! Click below to get your bookmarks."]
[email_signup id="4"]