RIF’s Favorites of August 2017

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

August has been a tough month for many of us. With torch-bearing Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia; with our government only condemning them in the lukewarm language of tacit approval; with many of us feeling the surprise and fear of these actions and many more feeling entirely aware that this was not only a real possibility but one that made absolute sense in our climate–with all this, it’s no wonder that we’re feeling anxious, or sad, or scared, or simply avoidant. In this climate, art is ever more important, and books are the side of that art that we know most about. Books and reading teach us to be more empathic, they teach us about people different from ourselves, as well as highlight the similarities and universalities of parts of the human condition. Through reading, we can both learn and escape at the same time. Spending money on books is just as important, especially spending money on books by people of color, women, and queer folk—this will continue to encourage the publishing industry—of which we are part—to publish and promote more books by such authors, creating space for those whose voices must be heard and listened to. And now, stepping down off the soapbox, let us tell you about our favorite books published in August.

Stay with Me by Ayobami AdebayoTaking place in the 1980s and 1990s in a tumultuous Nigeria, debut novel Stay with Me is, at its core, a novel about marriage and motherhood. Yejide and Akin are the narrators of alternating chapters—they are a married couple who fell in love at university and who have decided that despite their parents’ traditions and those of many their age, they will have a monogamous marriage. But, after years, Yejide isn’t pregnant, and the pressure on her and Akin to, not only have a child, but a son, is mounting. Eventually, Akin agrees—without his wife’s knowledge or consent—to what, for others, seems to be the obvious solution: a second wife. Struggling to remain in her husband’s life, Yejide becomes even more desperate to get pregnant, as the couple’s personal chaos unfolds against the backdrop of the student protests, the presidential assassination, and the military coup of that time. (Knopf)

I’d Rather Be Reading: A Library of Art for Book Lovers by Guinevere de la MareAs mentioned above, we’re really big on reading as both a learning tool and a therapeutic outlet. Part of that is the physical object of the book: its smell, its weight, and, of course, the way it looks. If you’re into libraries, into the way books look and feel, and into art that features books in it, then you should definitely check out Silent Book Club co-founder Guinevere de la Mare’s ode to reading: a slim volume perfect for book lovers or bookish art lovers. Featuring art by various artists like Jane Mount and Lisa Congdon, the book includes text by essayists Maura Kelly and Gretchen Rubin interspersed with bookish poems and quotations, as well as an afterword by author Ann Patchett, this is a must-have for your beloved bookish home. (Chronicle)

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John BoyneIn John Boyne’s new novel, a gay boy (then young adult, adult, and senior), narrates his life. Before his birth, Cyril’s mother—as seen in the book’s opening scene—is flung out of church quite literally by a priest known to be a philanderer. While her family looks on, stone-faced, she is banished for being pregnant and unmarried. Leaving her village in Ireland, she goes to Dublin to give birth and gives Cyril up for adoption to the Avery family. Over the course of his life, Cyril tries to suppress his feelings for other boys, especially his best friend Julian, but as time passes, he finds masquerading as straight simply isn’t feasible for him. Eventually, as he finds his way back to Ireland after a stint in Amsterdam and then the U.S., he begins to reconcile and reckon with both his past and himself. (Hogarth)

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The Good Daughter by Karin SlaughterIn this standalone novel from the aptly-named thriller writer Karin Slaughter, two sisters endure the same disturbing event very differently. As young girls, Samantha and Charlotte survive the night a masked gunman comes to their house to destroy their attorney father. Their father lives, their mother is shot, and they are taken into the woods at gunpoint, where Charlie flees and Sam remains for a harrowing time. Now, twenty-eight years later, Sam and Charlie are both living very disparate lives, but when a school shooting in their hometown draws their father’s attention and Sam returns home to help him defend the shooter, the two women must face their childhood trauma together. (William Morrow)

The Readymade Thief by Augustus RoseIn Augustus Rose’s impressive debut novel, 17-year-old Lee has just escaped the psych ward, where she was sent after being in juvie, and now she’s trying to eke out a meager existence on the streets. But soon, she’s being followed by more people than she’s aware of, after she runs afoul of a secret society located in an abandoned building named the Crystal Castle by the other folks squatting there. There, Lee befriends Tomi, artist and hacker, and when the shadowy figure in charge of the Crystal Castle starts coming after her, it’s Tomi who helps her escape into the city’s abandoned and secluded spaces. What is the key Lee holds that’s making her a target of these people, and how will she stay one step ahead of those chasing her? (Viking)

Pieces of Happiness by Anne OstbyNorwegian Kat is recently widowed, in her 60s, and desperately missing her friends. After moving to a cocoa farm in Fiji, Kat invites her beloved friends to live with her, to create new lives for themselves now that they’re in their prime (isn’t 60 the new 40 after all?). The women come together indeed: Sina, a single mother of a man-child son; Lisbeth, with her outwardly perfect life but deep-seated insecurities; Maya, who’s feeling lost in the world; and Ingrid, a perpetual loner. With a trusty housekeeper providing wisdom to these winsome women, they begin to slowly, but surely, emerge from their shells to learn more about themselves than they ever have before. Think of this as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but with chocolate. (Doubleday)

New People by Danzy Senna“New people,” in Danzy Senna’s biting exploration of race (and the way white people view racial ambiguity), are those children of interracial couples who are blurring boundaries of cultures and colors. Maria and Khalil are such folks, and their impending marriage is being documented by the documentary filmmakers interested in such “new people.” Living in a bohemian black enclave in Brooklyn, it seems everything should be perfect—a beautiful couple, a future hipster baby, a good job for Khalil, a dissertation being written by Maria… What could go wrong? Well, Maria is a bit more cynical about her and Khalil’s picture-perfect “mixed” existence, and she begins fantasizing about a black poet she barely knows with dark skin, the kind “that cabdrivers pretend not to see.” Plus, Maria is mistaken one day for a nanny and given an infant she has no clue what to do with. Is the wedding still on by the end of the book? Read and find out. (Riverhead)

The Misfortune of Marion Palm by Emily CullitonMarion Palm is a woman of means. That is, she has embezzled those means, about $180K worth, from her daughters’ private school, no less. Which goes undetected until the school gets audited. Oops. Marion Palm gathers the cash she’s squirreled away (the rest of the money has paid for vacations and expensive appliances and exercise equipment) and runs off, leaving her husband and daughters to deal with the school board, the detectives, and their own confused bemusement at Marion’s criminality. Narrated in turns by Marion herself, her husband Nathan who comes from old money that has been depleted, her cantankerous teenage daughter, and her dreamy younger girl, this novel is both hilarious and discomfiting as Marion hides in plain sight. (Knopf)

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel TallentTurtle is truly intimate only with the forest she’s grown up around with her father Martin after her mother died. Fourteen, attending middle school where she pushes away anyone who tries to get close, Turtle is deeply isolated but beyond capable. Martin, who’s outfitted their home like a survivalist might, has taught Turtle how to survive in the woods, how to shoot, and how to remain strong. This last quality is one she’s needed to use a lot with Martin, who reveals himself to be both physically and emotionally abusive. When Turtle meets an affluent kid, Jacob, and saves him one day in the woods, she begins to see a life other than her own and how it could potentially be lived. But when Martin brings another girl home, Turtle has to decide how to prevent her fate from being inflicted on another person, how to deal with what she’s lived through, and how to fight her way out of it. (Riverhead)

See What I Have Done by Sarah SchmidtLizzie Borden was never proven guilty, despite her fame as having whacked her mother forty times with an axe (forty-one whacks for her father, according to the chilling nursery rhyme). In this work of historical fiction, Sarah Schmidt reimagines the day of and the day before the killings, showing us a portrait of a distraught family. Lizzie’s father had a temper, her stepmother had a mean streak, and there was nothing good to be had in that uneasy household. When her father and stepmother are found dead, though, Lizzie isn’t certain of her memories of that morning. Where had she been? Who was she with? Who else might have wanted to kill these destructive people? As the novel vacillates between the points of view of Lizzie, her sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and a mysterious man named Benjamin, we begin to doubt both the story we’ve been told in the past and the stories we’re being told by these narrators. Whose truth is the real one? (Grove Atlantic)

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson SextonIn 1944, when Evelyn is 22, she falls in love with a black man with no money or status. She is from an upper-class family with an African-American father and Creole mother, who are none too pleased with Evelyn’s new beau. Years later, Evelyn’s daughter Jackie is trying to come to terms with her husband’s leaving the family to pursue his greater love of crack, and when he suddenly returns, she needs to decide how to deal with him. And years later still, after Hurricane Katrina ravages New Orleans, where this multigenerational novel is set, we find Jackie’s son, T.C., negotiating life after a months-long stint in prison, trying figure out whether to go back to dealing dope, when he is really more fascinated by the growing of the weed than the smoking of it. Following these characters through a changing United States that continues to enable plenty of Jim Crow-era behavior, A Kind of Freedom examines family, legacy, and the falsehood of the American Dream’s tenet that hard work will keep you safe. (Counterpoint)

Sour Heart by Jenny ZhangThese seven stories from Jenny Zhang portray a variety of uncomfortable, awkward experiences related to sexuality, poverty, and immigration. Narrated by the daughters of Chinese immigrants to the United States, these stories take us from Queens, New York, to Shanghai, China and back. In one story, the narrator sees her brother self-harming as he tries to maintain control of his body. In another, a girl struggles with how she wants—or doesn’t want—to be touched. One mother relives her artistic days in China through karaoke. But throughout these stories, there’s both something lost and something gained, whether that’s experience or knowledge or innocence. (Lenny)

The Lauras by Sara TaylorNarrated by gender-rejecting Alex, yet not a novel solely about genderqueerness, Sara Taylor’s The Lauras follows a hectic summer during which Alex and their mother go on a road trip together. Alex’s mother is looking for bits of her past in a string of friends all named Laura. But the road trip’s route, which is only understood by Alex’s mother who’s charting the course, has them meeting wild characters and settling scores. As Alex begins to learn more about their mother through her chosen stops along the way, they’re also beginning to learn more about their own sexuality, lust, and trust issues. Creating a vivid landscape and unforgettable people, the book’s journey carries itself right off the page and into readers’ beating hearts. (Hogarth)

Girl in Snow by Danya KukafkaLucinda Hayes was the popular girl in high school with the picture-perfect life. But that perfection is shattered when she’s found murdered on the school playground, and nobody’s quite sure who the killer is. Through the eyes of three characters on the outskirts of her life, we get to see the plot unfold: first, Cameron, a 9th grader who is obsessed with her, who’s been accused of stalking her and who is now in possession of her diary. Next, another classmate, Jade, who hates Lucinda for stealing her boyfriend and her babysitting job, among other things. Finally, Russ, a cop investigating the murder, who has an odd fascination with Cameron’s father who was his former partner and who is mysteriously not around anymore. As we slowly piece together bits of what has happened in this small Colorado town, we also get to spend time with these unforgettable characters, whose fixations, fears and desires overshadow Lucinda Hayes’s murder, bringing the focus back to the living rather than the dead. (Simon & Schuster)

How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille BordasIsidore Mazal has it tough. With five older siblings to look up to, he will never be the first to do something and won’t impress anyone. Besides, unlike the others, he’s not some prodigy who’s going to get a Ph.D. by his mid-twenties. No, eleven-year-old Isidore knows he can’t measure up, even though he sees things his siblings don’t and notices emotions they never pick up on. When a terrible event occurs in the family, it is Isidore who recognizes the grief affecting them all and who reaches out to them. Set in a small French town, Isidore’s affecting voice and his struggles feel universal, and we root for him and alongside him, hoping he will stay and help his siblings rather than run away from home—though the latter option would be warranted too, with what he’s going through. (Tim Duggan Books)

The Burning Girl by Claire MessudJulia has lost Cassie, maybe for good, but it wasn’t always this way. When they were young, they were besties, friends who thought as one and did everything together, including balancing one another out—Julia the more cautious one, Cassie daring and inventive. In 7th grade, Cassie drifts towards the popular crowd and leaves Julia high and dry, taking her crush to boot, but later, Cassie reaches out to Julia. By then, Julia has her own friends and doesn’t respond to Cassie’s need, even though she sees the telltale signs of a very real and disturbing trouble brewing in Cassie’s life. And now, Cassie is gone, and Julia reckons with hers and Cassie’s roles in one another’s lives, and how they may have influenced each other even while apart. (W. W. Norton)

Yesterday by Felicia YapFelicia Yap’s debut imagines a present-day England which is vastly different than our modern day. Mark and Claire are in a mixed marriage because he’s a Duo and she’s a Mono.  In Yap’s uniquely imagined version of the world, humans have become incapable of long-term memory after a certain age. Monos are the majority and can remember only one day into their past, whereas Duos, considered the elite, can remember two days into the past. Everyone has been socialized to maintain meticulous diaries in order to understand their lives and days, and this proves invaluable when a woman is found murdered. She is Mark’s mistress, and he immediately becomes a suspect. But how is a murder investigated when you can’t remember the past? How is your guilt or innocence proven? And will Mark and Claire’s marriage survive this ordeal? (Mulholland Books)

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom PerrottaEve Fletcher is a divorced mom who’s experiencing the empty nest for the first time. After she organizes her son Brendan’s closet at his college dorm just the way it had been at home, she’s forced to go back to real life which she’ll need to fill with something other than Brendan. Signing up for a class at the local community college about “Gender and Society,” Eve begins learning a lot from her professor Margo, who becomes a new friend and confidante. Plus, after receiving a salacious text from an unknown number, Eve ponders the possibility that she is a MILF, and discovers real MILFs online starring in amateur porn—completely eye-opening. Brendan, meanwhile, begins to learn that he’s not the center of the universe when a girl named Amber thoroughly attempts to school him in things he’s not learning in class. Mrs. Fletcher and her son both learn a lot in this rollicking satire. (Scribner)

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc

James and Julie are a modern millennial couple: they met on Craigslist, fell in love, and have been together ever since. But when James develops a gambling addiction, he and Julie decide to try to curb it by leaving the city for a fresh start in the country. They become home owners after purchasing an old Victorian in a small town. With woods and a lake both nearby, this should be their idyllic new beginning. Instead, the house becomes the locus for their fears and problems as it begins to seem possessed. Mildewed stains appear on the wall and then morph and fade away; a creepy neighbor is constantly gazing at them through his window; outside the house, the woods seem to be getting closer and closer each day; Julie’s body is mysteriously bruised all over; and that humming, there’s that humming noise they can’t locate or quiet. A haunted house or shared madness? Either way, the tale is psychologically spooky as Julie and James begin to distrust each other within their new home. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Home Fire by Kamila ShamsieIsma is new to the U.S., here to pursue her doctorate degree, finally. For years, she’s put her own desires aside in order to take care of her younger twin siblings, after the death of both their mother and grandmother. Their father died long ago, believed to be a terrorist, on his way to Guantanamo. When Isma meets a fellow Londoner, a fellow Pakistani Londoner at that, she’s thrown off guard: he’s good-looking, smart, and not as smarmy as she thinks he’d be. She knows his father, by reputation at least, as the politician who disavowed his Pakistani and Muslim background, and it’s a surprise that his son—while still renouncing those identities—manages to charm Isma so much. But when he leaves the U.S. and returns to London, he meets Isma’s sister and so begins a deadly chain of events that really started long ago, when Isma’s brother decided to join ISIS in order to reconnect with his father’s legacy. (Riverhead)


Photography by Elsa Jenna

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.

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