RIF’s Favorite Reads of October 2016

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

Favorites of October

Happy almost-Halloween! Once upon a time, if you were a child growing up in this country, you probably wandered around with a bag or a pumpkin-shaped plastic bucket and asked people for candy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could walk around, knock on people’s doors, and ask them for books? But, alas, that holiday doesn’t seem to exist (though maybe we’re onto something) and so, for now, we have to contend with buying our favorite books from the interwebz, our local bookstores, or borrowing them from the library. But the most important thing to remember this Halloween season is that no matter how much candy we’re about to ingest, we still prefer books. Enjoy this month’s selection of favorites—and we promise not to judge you if you also salivate over the candy corn below…

The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang


Jade Chang said in an interview with The Rumpus that she “very much wanted to write an immigrant novel that was not a story of pain and suffering and wanting to fit in with white people because none of that is part of [her] lived experience.” Indeed, the novel is remarkable in that it is unlike many so-called immigrant novels we’re familiar with. The Wangs are a highly hilarious, highly-dysfunctional once-millionaire Chinese-American family, who, after the 2008 financial crash, are forced to leave their California mansion and go live with adult daughter Saina in upstate New York. The road trip Charles Wang, his second wife Barbra, son Andrew and daughter Grace take from Bel-Air to the “modest” farmhouse in the Catskills binds them together again in the quirky ways only families can experience and their journey redefines the notion of the American Dream. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Favorites of October

Margaret Atwood’s latest novel is a new take on Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest. In this remarkably meta-fictional novel, Atwood explores the power of the artist through the lens of Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival who finds himself betrayed and ousted from his position, exiled and left to face his haunting memories of his dead daughter Miranda. Felix lands a new gig as the director of a prison Literacy Through Literature program where he trains inmates in the works of Shakespeare, planning to put on The Tempest, which he was thwarted in doing when he was shoved out of the company. When Felix uses the prisoner-actors who comprise The Fletcher Correctional Players to enact his revenge on those who wronged him, things come to a head. Margaret Atwood’s creative vision brings incredible freshness to the Bard’s seasoned plot. (Hogarth)

The Trespasser by Tana French

Favorites of October

Detective Antoinette Conway is new to the “Murder squad,” as the members of the Dublin police force dub the homicide unit. She is new, and not so welcome. Is it because she’s young? A woman? Whatever it is, the harassment is getting to Conway. She and her partner, Stephen Moran, pick up her first case on the squad and it seems to be the kind of open and shut case detectives like; a lovers’ quarrel gone horribly wrong, plain and simple. Except… it isn’t. Something fishy is going on. Not only does Conway recognize the victim—though she’s not sure from where—but it seems the victim has also gone through a slew of recent changes that may challenge the obvious answer about the identity of her killer. (Viking)

The Hostage’s Daughter: A Story of Family, Madness, and the Middle East by Sulome Anderson

Favorites of OctoberSulome Anderson was six years old when she first met her father, American journalist Terry Anderson. He had just been released after being held for six years by a Shiite Muslim militia connected to Hezbollah, kidnapped while in Beirut on a reporting mission with the Associated Press. The U.S. celebrated his release, and the media showed pictures of Anderson and his daughter smiling for the cameras, but unsurprisingly, Terry was marked by deep-seated wounds and PTSD and his daughter, who’d long dreamt of his return, was unsure how to react to this man she barely knew. Their relationship was not an easy one and the experience of being the hostage’s daughter led Sulome on a years-long battle with drugs and mental illness. Having emerged from this struggle victorious, Sulome follows in her father’s footsteps as an investigative journalist in the Middle East, eventually turning her reportage to her father’s story, vying to learn more about what he went through and how it shaped him and her, and the foreign policy machinations behind his long captivity. (Dey Street Books)

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

Favorites of October

Maria Semple’s newest book is poignant exploration of a woman who is trying so hard to live her best life, she’s falling apart in the process. Eleanor Flood, who narrates the book, is going to have a good day. Except her makeup-wearing son decides to fake sickness, so Eleanor has to pick him up from his extremely liberal school in the middle of the day. And her husband Joe seems to have decided to take a secret vacation without telling her. And, oh, her sister has been abducted by Mardi Gras celebrants. Eleanor’s day is going to be interesting, certainly, but maybe not the calm, yoga-and-poetry-filled day she was picturing. A raucous book, Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, has enchanted us yet again. (Little, Brown)

The Mortifications by Derek Palacio

Favorites of October

In Derek Palacio’s incredible debut novel, the members of the Encarnación family are torn apart in an attempt to immigrate to the United States from Cuba. Soledad and her two children, Isabel and Ulises, get to Hartford, Connecticut and start a new life there, complete with a new lover for Soledad to replace her left-behind husband, Uxbal. While Ulises tries to create a father figure out of Soledad’s tobacco-farming boyfriend, Isabel is called to the silence of death and enters a convent spiritually-hungry, with a vow of silence. But back in their homeland in Cuba, Uxbal is alive and waiting—and at a startling point in the assimilating family’s life, he calls them back home to the island. (Tim Duggan)

Ghost Songs: A Memoir by Regina McBride

Favorites of October

Regina McBride’s lyrical, beautiful writing is all the more astounding when paired with its subject matter. In her memoir, McBride describes the mental war she descended into after both her parents committed suicide. Having been raised Irish Catholic, she felt haunted by her mother and father, who were surely stuck in a purgatory of their own making, sinning as they did in their deaths. McBride reflects on her life with her parents and how their experiences led them to their self-inflicted ends. Unflinching, yet tender, McBride’s memoir is a moving tribute to the realities of one’s past and how they shape our present. (Tin House)

Nicotine by Nell Zink

Favorites of October

When your family is exceedingly different than that of anyone else—your mother belonged to an Amazonian tribe and your father was a cultish figure among a bunch of hippies years ago—the only way to rebel is to be conventional and straight-laced. This is Penny Barker’s life, up until her father dies and leaves her his New Jersey home. Investigating the property, Penny finds a group of smokers’ rights activists (yes, you read that right), and she falls in with them, surprisingly enamored with their particular brand of anarchy and nicotine. As Penny’s family starts growing nearer to engage with her and the squatters on her father’s land, she becomes more fervent than ever in keeping her newfound community intact. (Ecco)

The Girl From Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

Favorites of October

In 1945, the Second World War is waning, but Venice is still occupied, Mussolini’s power is on the rise, and a fisherman finds a Jewish girl floating in a lagoon. Cenzo, the fisherman, decides to protect Giulia rather than turn her over to the Nazis for them to kill her as they’ve already done with the rest of her family. Cenzo is precariously close to the powers that be, though, as his brother is Mussolini’s “golden boy,” a popular actor. Fleeing with Giulia, Cenzo shows bravery and daring in the face of great odds and the two embark into a seedy underworld of the black market filled with forgeries and explosives. An action-packed novel full of daring kindness, Martin Cruz Smith’s stand-alone historical thriller is engrossing and rapidly-paced. (Simon & Schuster)

Reel by Tobias Carroll

Favorites of October

Tobias Carroll’s gorgeous book—his second out in as many months—takes place in the punk world of concerts, road trips, bad decisions, and attempts at righting them. Timon and Marianne’s lives are incredibly different, and yet various events in their disparate lives draw them towards the same place at the same time. Timon is obsessively knowledgeable and observant and works for his family business, identifying and proving or disproving the authenticity of historical objects. Marianne is nomadic and trying to fight her wanderlust by making art and coming to terms with her past. As their decisions have ripple effects on those around them, they both try to make peace with themselves. (Rare Bird Books)

I’ll Tell You in Person by Chloe Caldwell

Favorites of October

This collection of essays by Chloe Caldwell has a confessional quality to it. As she discusses her unfulfilling work at a jewelry store, or the amount of heroin she snorts before appearing at events on previous book tours, or tales of the men she finds on Craigslist, and discovery of her own sexuality, Caldwell matures through the essays. She seeks warmth in male friendships, emerges from addiction, tries to find out what home means to her, and allows us to be as flawed as she is through her engaging prose. These stories feel like the most private tête–à–tête with your new BFF. (Emily Books)

The Mothers by Britt Bennett

Favorites of October

Years ago, in a Southern California community, during the fateful summer after her mother’s suicide, Nadia Turner sleeps with the pastor’s son, Luke Shephard. The dull ache in her heart pushes her to seek solace in his arms, but the feeling is short-lived after she finds herself pregnant. She decides to abort the pregnancy and the infant-less freedom allows her to leave her hometown and her sad father and go off to college. But the “what if” remains lingering in her head. Luke, though he’s now with Nadia’s best friend Audrey, feels it too, and so do “the mothers,” the old ladies of the church, who are all-seeing and all-knowing of the long-simmering secrets buried deep within the parishioners. This powerful debut about mothers, daughters, and familial obligation will resonate deeply. (Riverhead)

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Favorites of October

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a septuagenarian who makes his living reading aloud to crowds across West Texas in 1870 when he is offered some gold and a mission he never expected. He is charged with taking Johanna, a ten-year-old orphaned girl who speaks no English to her only living relatives in San Antonio. She lost her parents four years earlier in an attack by a band of Kiowa who took her hostage and raised her as one of their own. Life with the tribe is the only kind she remembers. But she was recently “rescued” from them by the white man, and torn away from the life she knows for a second time. As she and Kidd travel across the terrain, they develop a beautiful and unexpected bond that avoids cliché, in part due to Jiles’ deep empathy and understanding of character. (William Morrow)

Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins

Favorites of October

Phil Collins is not only very much alive, he is also a fabulous storyteller, which, for a man who has lived so much and so richly, shouldn’t be surprising. From his 11-year-old debut onscreen in The Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night to writing the music for Disney’s Tarzan, Collins describes his on-the-fly approach to music training, his career shifts and moves from Genesis to sharing stages with Eric Clapton. Engaging and open, this memoir explores the highs and lows of Collins’ career, including his retirement, the despair he experienced as a result, and how he loved his way back to the light. (Crown Archetype)

The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue

Favorites of October

Kay is an acrobat and her husband, Theo, is a translator. The two are spending their summer in Quebec, and seemingly, all is well. Until Kay is turned into a puppet in the magical back room of the never-open toy store she visits every day, after falling in love with its display window. As Theo and the Quebec police search for Kay, she comes alive for a few hours every night along with the other puppets in the shop’s storeroom. Theo believes against all odds that his wife is still somewhere, even if perhaps she’s not human anymore, and he refuses to give up. Their dual stories blend together as Kay slowly begins to lose her humanity. (Picador)

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

Favorites of October

Libby is a girl everyone thinks they know, mainly because of the moniker she is given in the papers. But her mother is dead, her father is grieving, and she just wants to live a normal life as a high school teen. Jack is also recognizable at Libby’s new school—but does he recognize everyone else? Facial recognition blindness is newly affecting him, and he is terrified to get close to anyone for fear of his secret being revealed. After a cruel high school game lands them in close quarters, Jack and Libby get to know one another and discover that they are more than the sum of their perceived flaws. (Knopf Books for Young Readers)

My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams

Favorites of October

Despite her recent comments (for which she thankfully apologized), Ruth Bader Ginsburg has long been a feminist icon for many. Only the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court, she has had her fingerprints on many progressive laws that have moved us towards truer gender equality. In this collection of her writings and speeches—both serious and funny—we get a taste of Ginsberg through the ages in, as the title suggests, her own words, from her early interest in human rights, all the way to her opinions on her portrayal in the opera Scalia/Ginsburg. (Simon & Schuster)

Another Place You’ve Never Been by Rebecca Kauffman

Favorites of October

In these linked short stories, debut novelist Rebecca Kauffman explores the life of Tracy from childhood to adulthood through the peripheral characters of her life: from her father’s resentful girlfriend to the girlfriend of Tracy’s cousin, and on and on through time, until we find a grown-up Tracy who wishes for a more creative and fulfilling existence, but who actually spends most of her time working as a hostess at a restaurant in her native Buffalo, NY. Through the eyes of the characters in these stories—many tragic but making the best of what they have—we glimpse Kauffman’s deep and abiding empathy. (Soft Skull Press)

You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson

Favorites of October

Phoebe Robinson has already proved herself to be a comedic genius on her podcast 2 Dope Queens, but her wit comes through all the more acerbic, political, personal, and important in her collection of essays. She is both irreverent and completely serious in her discussions of race and gender politics. This book is woke as fudge, and purposefully so, but also calls into question all our assumptions. For example, Robinson gets the brunt of both ends of the stereotypes—she’s called out for liking “white” music like Billy Joel, but is then criticized for speaking up in the workplace like the white author of Lean In advised us all to do. Laugh-out-loud funny food for thought here. (Plume)

Fractured by Catherine McKenzie

Favorites of October

Julie Prentice is a writer. Not only that, but she’s the bestselling author of a book titled The Murder Game. Bestsellers garner lots of fans, obviously, but can also, occasionally, bring with them some less well-meaning folk… and Julie has unfortunately been cursed with an obsessed stalker. She and her family move to a small town in an effort to evade them, but it suddenly seems like her new neighbors might be out to get her too. Her next-door neighbor, John Dunbar, seems like a good egg however, and the two have an instant connection, a hopeful one. But when it seems like Julie’s stalker might have found her—or there’s a new, homegrown terror out to get her in this town—things begin getting even more complicated. (Lake Union)

Paris for One and Other Stories by Jojo Moyes

Favorites of October

Jojo Moyes delivers a collection of short stories all told with her trademark engaging wit. In the titular novella, “Paris for One,” a young woman named Nell discovers herself alone in Paris unexpectedly, and must figure out what to do with herself. The women in the other stories also end up in situations they don’t anticipate and are forced to make decisions they wouldn’t make otherwise. The surprising results, the self-discovery that ensues, and the women’s consistently freeing realizations speak to the pleasure that can come from change and adventure when least expected. (Viking)

Photography by Ryan Deshon; Styling: Abbe Wright

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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