RIF’s Favorite Reads of July 2018

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

Best July books

Whether or not you celebrate the 4th with a big bang this year, it’s a great time to reflect on our values, goals, and individual roles in our communities, both large and small. At Read It Forward, we’re especially proud of the literature going out into the world, the national and international authors whose gorgeous words are published and read and loved, and the bookstores, libraries, and faithful readers who pass those words along to others. And so without further ado, we present you with our favorite reads of July, which are—as always—wonderfully wide-reaching and meant for all.

The Shortest Way Home by Miriam Parker

The Shortest Way Home

A recent business school graduate, narrator Hannah Greene has her life all planned out: she’s about to start working at a fabulous and high-paying job in Manhattan, and she has a boyfriend who, Hannah’s certain, is about to drop to one knee with a ring any day now. And things would be simple, though maybe a little dull, if Hannah really went this route. But instead, she falls in love with a winery in Sonoma, California, thousands of miles away from where she’s meant to be. And—oops—they’ve also offered her a job? Oh dear. Hannah decides to go for it: to take the marketing job and try to save the winery. Curl up with a glass of vino and read this delight while inhaling some delicious summer scents. (Dutton)

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Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce

Dear Mrs Bird

Women on the home front in World War II England were faced with challenges day after day, and this tribute to them is a fantastic and poignant read. Emmy’s a legal secretary dreaming of doing something of import, like being a war correspondent. But when she finally makes it into a job in journalism, it turns out to be quite different than expected: rather than tramping around Europe with the boys, she’s going to be a glorified secretary for the prim and proper agony aunt Mrs. Bird. One of her duties is destroying the letters asking for advice that can’t be printed in the stuffy women’s magazine—letters about extramarital affairs, premarital sex, and, well, sex in general. But Emmy isn’t able to just silence these women by throwing them into the bin, so she begins answering the letters privately, with startling results. Meanwhile, London is suffering, but Emmy keeps calm and carries on. (Scribner)

How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran

How to Be Famous

In Caitlin Moran’s sequel to her 2014 novel, How to Build a Girl, a young rock journalist whose pen name is Dolly Wilde experiences heartbreak, sex, and shame, and works through it all with her feminist awesomeness. Set in the ’90s, Holly’s in her prime: she’s writing a column for the best music magazine in the UK, she has her very own London flat, and she’s still in touch with the love of her life, John Kite. Except that John, well, he’s gone through some changes recently—that is, he’s gotten mad famous and left Dolly behind. But Dolly’s determined to figure out what being famous means and begins writing about it for the magazine, looking at why groupies are great and why teen fans are so important. Meanwhile, she sleeps with an asshat comedian, finds herself amidst a sex-tape scandal, and begins hanging out with a rad musician who’s more like a hurricane than a woman. Follow along and cheer her on. (Harper)

Eagle & Crane by Suzanne Rindell

Eagle and Crane

In 1940, pilots Harry Yamada and Louis Thorn meet Ava, the beautiful daughter of their employer, Earl Shaw. Shaw’s an entrepreneur of sorts, and he employs Harry and Louis as stunt pilots in his traveling circus. Years later, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and after the American government interned Japanese citizens in terrible camps, Louis finds himself face-to-face with an FBI agent investigating the disappearance of Harry and his father, Kenichi, from an internment camp. When a plane crashes nearby, Kenichi’s body is discovered inside, beside another that’s so burned it’s unidentifiable—but who could it be other than Harry? As we move back and forth in time between Harry and Louis’s friendship, rivalry and the imminent investigation, we learn more about the feud between their families and the divided loyalties Louis is grappling with. Extremely relevant to our current immigrant crisis, the novel explores love, hate, and everything in between. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

Crux by Jean Guerrero

Open yourself up to believing in the madness of a loved one, and life can start looking very different; Jean Guerrero knows this firsthand. A journalist, Guerrero set out to try to understand her father’s paranoia and apparent mental illness, which she watched with fascination as a child. Guerrero’s papi was a self-taught genius, fixing things and hacking into phones, but he also left often on self-medication binges, traveling around the world and just over the border to Mexico. Believing the CIA had mind-control techniques trained on him, he tried everything to keep them out of his head, harming himself in the process. As Guerrero explores her father’s wildest claims and tries to piece the story of her family together, she begins to believe in her ancestors’ powers to raise spirits of the dead and tap into something larger than themselves. Maybe Western skepticism and the love of science isn’t the only thing out there worth understanding. (One World)

Orchid and the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes

Orchid and the Wasp

This lovely, language-driven debut novel features an unusual character at its center, given that we don’t often see women con artists in books. This particular con artist doesn’t start out that way; it’s only after Gael’s father walks out on her family that Gael begins to hustle. With her mother slowly dwindling of shock and heartbreak and her brother’s mental illness causing him beautiful though debilitating delusions, Gael is left as the sole striver in the family. She tries to get into business school, use her mother’s music to get into the orchestra business, and finally decides to sell her brother’s paintings in New York. But there, she makes a choice she can’t find her way back from, and questions of loyalty, ambition, and art rise to the fore. (Hogarth)

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Ottessa Moshfegh’s prickly humor and deadpan criticism of the human condition are back again in this new novel. The unnamed narrator is a young, beautiful woman living in New York City with an easy job, heaps of money, and dead parents. But she’s no Batman, and she’s certainly not going around saving people. In fact, she’s pretty sure she’s just not suited to the whole business of being alive in the world in the way she’s expected to be. With a boyfriend who only wants her when he’s rebounding from other people, a best friend whose shallowness is matched by the narrator’s aloofness, and a psychiatrist willing to hand out pills that cause three-day blackouts, our narrator decides to spend a year hibernating. With the help of drugs, her collection of odd people, and a disregard for the rules of social living, she might just get through it. (Penguin Press)

The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger

The Bankers Wife

A smart and compelling thriller, this book concerns finance, corruption, and two women who first reluctantly—and then voraciously—search for answers. Annabel’s husband Matthew has just died, along with his client and possible mistress in the Swiss Alps. The police think it’s an accident, but Annabel isn’t convinced, and as she begins looking into Matthew’s employers, she discovers what’s looking more and more like a corporate conspiracy. Meanwhile, journalist Marina has recently gotten engaged to a financial bigwig and is eager to start her life of leisure; but when her mentor turns up dead, Marina knows she needs to investigate one more story before her early retirement. And guess who Marina’s mentor was investigating for corruption when he mysteriously died? Travel the world as these two fascinating women’s searches lead around the globe. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon 

The Incindiaries

In Kwon’s timely debut, two strangers arrive at Edwards College, unaware that their fates will soon be deeply intertwined. Will Kendall is working to support his education at the posh school after leaving the evangelical community, while Phoebe Lin has recently quit playing the piano after the death of her mother and is trying to appear like everything is absolutely, positively fine. But when Phoebe becomes fascinated by an Edwards dropout with a political cult, Will begins to worry about her. When she disappears, he’s frantic. And when bombs begin going off in the name of faith in the cult, Will needs to find out where Phoebe is, whether she was harmed, and—even more difficult to contemplate—whether she’s had a hand in the violence. Despite this high-energy plot, Kwon’s language is lyrical, smart, and will cradle you along through this gorgeous debut. (Riverhead)

The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani 

The Death of Truth

Critics everywhere (this one included) mourned the profession change of New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, but she must have had good reasons, and perhaps this book was one of them. In this critical examination of culture, Kakutani demonstrates her bookish knowledge, alluding to several writers and narratives of the past in order to understand how we’ve arrived at our current political and media landscape. The truth is essential, Kakutani knows, and yet there’s precedent in literature, culture, and history to our current clime (the Nazi Party, certain elements of Communist Russia, and so on). Urging us all to pay attention to truth and the consequences of ignoring it, this read is an important and useful primer to understanding the seriousness of falsehood. (Tim Duggan Books)

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

In Anne Tyler’s latest, we first meet Willa as a child watching her parents interacting: her mother is energetic and volatile, her father soft-spoken and placid. But soon we’re brought to the present, where Willa is married to her second husband after the death of her first. Peter, Willa’s current husband, is used to Willa being somewhat like her father: pleasing, trying to ease tensions between people, catering to their needs. But when Willa gets a call informing her that her son’s ex has been involved in a shooting, she gets Peter on a plane and flies to Baltimore, where she settles in with her son’s ex-girlfriend and helps care for the woman’s daughter, the closest thing Willa has to a granddaughter. As Willa begins discovering her voice, readers will cheer on her gentle transformation. (Knopf)

Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar

In 1990, a young man arrives in the U.S. from India in order to begin his graduate studies. Kailash, whose name evokes nicknames from his peers like Kalashnikov and AK-47, is eager to study the meeting of East and West as he moves from one to the other, and is constantly aware of his status as an immigrant from a once-colonized country on this still-colonized land. Academically, he thrives under the mentorship of another immigrant, a history professor with a politically fascinating past. But personally, Kailash finds himself cresting waves and then falling below the surface with each relationship that first succeeds and then begins to fail. Narratively experimental, weaving strands of Kailash’s intellectual and emotional lives, this gorgeous novel will keep you reading for its equal measures of emotional and intellectual intelligence. (Knopf)

Mary B by Katherine J. Chen

Mary Bennet is the famously least-liked sister in Jane Austen’s classic: she’s bookish and plain and a goody-two-shoes to boot. But Katherine Chen looks deeper than the source material and sees Mary for who she really is: an intellectual and imaginative introvert with a rich inner life to make up for the way she’s constantly belittled by her family. Taking place before and after the events of Austen’s novel, Mary experiences crushes, heartbreak, and the startling realization that her sisters’ happily-ever-afters aren’t necessarily all they seem to be. And when a man she never expected to take an interest in her actually does, Mary’s set with a new challenge of Austen proportions: will she let herself be drawn into courtship, or will she retain as much independence outside of marriage that she can? (Random House)

How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs

In Alexia Arthurs’s debut story collection, characters move between their origin stories in Jamaica, their attempts at new and different lives in the U.S., and their returns home. In one story, a teenager’s sent to stay with her grandmother in Jamaica with the hope that the strict grandmother and her old-fashioned ways will help scare the girl straight. In another, a teenage boy makes the opposite trip: he’s grown up in Jamaica with his grandmother while his mother began building a life in New York, and when he finally joins her, he needs to learn to exist in a new space. A book about belonging and not, yearning for the old while clamoring for the new, and the experience of leaving and still loving home, this strong collection will have you full of feels, as well as looking forward to seeing what Arthurs brings us next. (Ballantine)

The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom by A. E. Hotchner 

In Hotchner’s newest novel, a boy becomes a detective by necessity after his father’s taken away in handcuffs. Aaron is 12 in Depression-era St. Louis, and he’s left alone after his father is blamed for a murder in a jewelry store and his mother, who nearly died of tuberculosis, is still recuperating in a sanitarium. But Aaron alone isn’t Aaron idle—after all, he was there when the jewelry store heist/murder went down, and he saw the real criminal at fault. But the police won’t believe a kid without evidence, so Aaron recruits a variety of curious friends and neighbors to get his dad out of jail and back home where he belongs. In an era of poverty and hardship, Aaron’s sunny disposition shines through, and his resilience allows the dark underbelly of the time period to simmer through discerning eyes. (Nan A. Talese)

The Last Cruise by Kate Christensen 

On board the last run of an elderly cruise ship, a fascinating cast of characters come together in crisis. The ship is doing a gimmicky last run that attempts to evoke its bygone glory days in the 1950s, but the passengers can tell that the faded decor and tiny pool are no longer fit for today’s standards of cruising. It’s also a pain that cell phones aren’t allowed (though a relief that children aren’t either). Among the characters peopling the ship are Miriam, a violinist in an Israeli quartet who begins a love affair with her colleague Sasha; Mick, a sous-chef who can see the terrible working conditions his staff are supposed to accept without complaint; and Christine, a journalist-turned-farmer who’s accompanying her more successful journalist friend as she attempts to research her book. As the ship proves to be too old and broken to be sailing anywhere—let alone to Hawaii—tensions rise, and these characters come crashing together. (Doubleday)

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

It’s with a sure hand that debut novelist Ingrid Rojas Contreras introduces us to her two main characters, Chula and Petrona, in Pablo Escobar-era Colombia. Chula is only seven years old, living a charmed life in a gated community that her parents can afford. She’s imaginative and quick and curious, and as yet unaware of her privilege during these troubled times. Teenaged Petrona is the family’s new live-in maid, hired out of a Bogotá slum where she lived with her mother and sisters after the men of the family were abducted and their farm destroyed. As Petrona and Chula grow close, their different realities stemming from their immense class divide become stronger, and when danger threatens them and their families, they must make choices that will affect them all. (Doubleday)

A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

A Terrible Country

In Gessen’s sophomore novel, Andrei, a PhD-holding teacher in his 30s, is urged to return to his childhood Russia to care for his aging grandmother. As his job prospects in New York during the 2008 financial crisis aren’t great anyway, he decides to try the change and see what happens. In Putin’s Russia, Andrei discovers a place very different from the one his grandmother remembers—after all, Stalin himself gave her the apartment she’s still living in, and her dementia is definitely making the past clearer for her than the present. Andrei begins to settle in and make friends, and he’s drawn to a group of leftist political activists whose rhetoric fondly recalls a time before any of them were really aware of politics. Andrei, both Russian and American, watching both Putin’s iron-fisted rule and the financial recession in the U.S., must reckon with belonging, the countries of his birth and his adulthood, and the choices he’ll make about his future. (Viking)

From the Corner of the Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein 

Amazing as it may seem, in 2011 the White House apparently posted job listings to Craigslist, of all places, and Beck Dorey-Stein answered one. Becoming a White House stenographer—specifically, an Oval Office one, working directly with President Obama—was not on Dorey-Stein’s bucket list, but hey, she’ll take it. She travels on Air Force One, jogs alongside the President, and sees him in his most vulnerable moments. Dorey-Stein also begins an affair with a staffer far more enmeshed in the political life than she is, giving a whole new meaning to workplace drama. Combining touching glimpses of the beloved President with her own interpersonal sagas, this book reads like the best of political romance fiction, but the gossip is all real, which makes it even more titillating. (Spiegel & Grau)

The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh

Huda and Yvonne are longtime friends, though they share little other than a point of origin. Both born in Lebanon, Huda was raised a Shia Muslim and Yvonne was raised Christian; now Yvonne makes her living in London, while Huda’s based in Toronto. But on a work trip to London to work on a theatrical production, Huda meets Hisham, a Sunni Muslim, and becomes entangled with him. The trouble is that Yvonne is entangled with him as well. As the two women try to make it work with Hisham, their own bond threatens to be undone—but as time moves on, they recall what makes them love one another and try to work through their differences. A gorgeous exploration of Lebanese expat life and the complexities of Middle Eastern upbringing and tradition. (Pantheon)

Featured Images: Matt McCarty

About Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is a queer writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, an interview podcast featuring fiction writers, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, comes out May 2020.

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