RIF’s Favorite Reads of July 2016

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

Faves of July

July hasn’t been easy so far. We’ve been watching the deaths of too many people to count on our TVs and Facebook timelines; we’ve watched peaceful demonstrations turn violent and violent coups get shut down with more violence. It’s hard to see the good in the world when we’re bombarded day after day with images of death and hardship. And while it’s a privilege to have the escape of books, it’s a privilege that we won’t deny ourselves, especially when books have the ability to make us more empathetic.

In the heat of our frenzied, worried minds, we turn to the words of literature to soothe, to evoke, and, yes, to run away a little bit. And so, without further ado, please enjoy our favorite reads of this July.

Click on the images to shop our picks and then let us know the books you’ve been enjoying this month in the comment section below.


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Siracusa by Delia Ephron 

Faves of July

When two couples go away on vacation together, and when two members of the group (one from each couple) had a fling once, and when a third is having an affair with a woman back home and the fourth is obsessed with her daughter’s shyness… What on earth could go wrong? In Delia Ephron’s newest novel, the two couples—Michael and Lizzie, Finn and Taylor—come to terms with their variously complicated relationships. And while the novel may be lighthearted and funny at first with these American tourists enjoying the Italian seaside, their deceptions and misunderstandings quickly become tense and poignant. Told from each of their perspectives, the couples, and Finn and Taylor’s daughter Snow, discover themselves and their complexities in this fast-paced but psychologically intense book. (Blue Rider Press)


Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Faves of July

Margot is 30 years old, Jamaican, and the protagonist of Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel Here Comes the Sun. Margot is also the sole supporter of her younger sister, a 15-year-old named Thandi, who becomes engrossed in lightening her skin with creams in order to be considered more beautiful. Margot, trying to support her little sister, is not only a clerk in a hotel in financial peril but also becomes a sex-worker in order to make ends meet. The wealthy white men who come to Jamaica pay her handsomely for her services, which she’s trying to spare her younger sister. The sisters’ abusive mother’s tale is woven in with theirs, as is the issue of the divide between the poor black community they live in and the wealthy white tourists who visit the island for pleasure and leisure. As Margot finds love with another woman, her worlds—both her personal one, in a place where same-sex love is harshly judged, and the world of her community—are threatened. (Liveright)


Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Faves of July

We featured an excerpt from Dark Matter on our site a few days ago, so you had to know that it would be one of our favorites. In case you haven’t read the excerpt yet, or in case you have and need some more info to make you see why we love this book, here it is: Physics professor Jason is married, and he and his wife Daniela have a beautiful 15-year-old son, a son who indirectly caused both Jason and his wife to give up on their skyrocketing careers because of his illness as an infant. On the night the book opens, Jason is abducted outside a bar and in a flash (and some pain, waking up on a gurney in front of a crowd of strangers wearing bulky protective gear), the life he inhabits is different than the one he used to have, devoid of his loving wife and son. Where does reality begin and end, and where does the tangle of this dream (is it?) lead to? You wouldn’t believe us if we told you. (Crown)


They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson 

Faves of July

Plum Johnson’s memoir is quite aptly titled. Her parents, for whom she’d been consecutively caring for almost two decades—first her father, then her mother—leave her and her siblings a houseful of mementos upon their death, which leads to extensive trips down memory lane. Over the combined lifetime of her parents—amounting to over 180 years—they managed to accumulate a lot of stuff. So much stuff that Johnson sift through 23 rooms, searching all the while for clues about these parents of hers who are now gone for good. She traces her parents’ marriage and her own misunderstanding of that relationship as well as her own with her mother. A difficult but beautiful read about that thing which comes for us all—death—and that thing that the lucky among us get to have: family. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)


Losing It by Emma Rathbone  

Faves of July

The protagonist of Emma Rathbone’s book is losing it. Well, not literally. In a way, she’s going slightly nuts, yes, finding herself ambitionless after losing the drive of a nearly-professional swimming career. But she’s not losing that thing she really wants to lose. That thing being her virginity. Yup—at 26 years old, Julia Greenfield has remained somehow immaculately virginal. This isn’t where she wants to be in life: She doesn’t want to be a virgin, she doesn’t want to be working a job she hates, and she doesn’t want to keep living in the D.C. suburbs she’s living in. So she visits her aunt Vivienne, a fifty-something woman who, as Julia soon learns, has also managed to “keep it” for decades. Rathbone writes with humor and poignancy about the search for a very specific kind of loss in this charming coming-of-age novel. (Riverhead Books)


Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams

Faves of July

Joy Williams, who just finished a stint teaching at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, was recently published by the same organization; this most recent volume of short stories is not thick but it is packed with goodness in its relatively few number of pages. In this pseudo-theological set of stories, God is a character trying to figure out the world we humans so rarely understand ourselves. In the 99 stories from the title, God appears as a consciousness communicating with fish or wolves or bats, and at other times as a human, someone homeless, or a contestant at an eating contest. God is puzzled and puzzling, which seems to fit rather well with the way our society feels about that Supreme Being these days: a little befuddled. But there is nothing confusing about Williams’ writing, which is, as always, magnificent, imaginative, and moving. (Tin House Books)


The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close 

Faves of July

If this election season is getting you down, not to worry—Jennifer Close is here to bring you back up from the slough of despond. In Close’s new book, The Hopefuls, we see the Washington insiders as they really are: humans, not speechifying images on the news or fast-walking, fast-talking actors on TV. Narrator Beth is married to Matt, who gets hired by the White House counsel’s office. She moves to D.C. and hates everything about it, except for Ash, married to Jimmy (also a White House staffer) and the two married couples become fast friends. When Jimmy and Ash move back home to Texas for Jimmy to run for Railroad Commissioner, they invite Matt and Beth along so that Matt can run Jimmy’s campaign. In Texas, everything is different—Ash is Ashleigh, and her D.C. sophistication drops in favor of her down-home-girl Southern Belle self—and the friendship between her and Beth becomes strained. A master at writing about friendship and tension, Close will have you baking in the Texas sun rather than fuming in front of the TV. (Knopf)


Lions by Bonnie Nadzam 

Faves of July

Bonnie Nadzam’s sophomore novel is an atmospheric exploration of what she calls a “living ghost town.” Lions, the town, is somewhat reminiscent of Twin Peaks, the town from David Lynch’s cult-classic show by the same name. Like Twin Peaks, Lions doesn’t have much  in the way of news, so a death in town—even that of a newly arrived stranger—hits the population (all 117 of them) hard. But the stranger isn’t the only one who dies. Gordon’s father does too, and Gordon now has to choose whether to follow his girlfriend, Leigh, as she goes to college or to stay put, where his family has been for generations and where he feels compelled to stay. What does it mean to choose to remain in a dying town rather than leave it when one gets the chance? What does it mean to leave the place you’ve called home but that is wilting around you even as you flower into adulthood? Nadzam takes these questions into account in this novel of uncertainty and sometimes quiet desperation. (Black Cat)


Night of the Animals by Bill Broun

Faves of July

London, England, 2052. Harry9 (Henry IX) is now King of England, and he and the state control WikiNous, which transmits events, announcements, correspondence, etc. through people’s flesh, directly layering the news onto their cornea. Cuthbert Handley is 90 and homeless and hears voices—he’s been hearing them for a long time…maybe as long as he’s been addicted to a legal hallucinogenic. He calls them the Wonderments, which his grandmother told him was the gift he had for communicating with animals. Cuthbert is intent on releasing the animals in the London Zoo, and even as his own body begins to shut down, he’s intent on completing his mission in order to be reunited with his brother, who drowned 84 years prior. Meanwhile, a suicide cult is raging across the globe, a comet is getting closer and closer to earth, and Cuthbert is in danger of being locked up in a “Calm House.” Dystopian and human, this stunning debut is not one to miss. (Ecco)


Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan  

Faves of July

Glamorous Singaporean Jazzy is obsessed with finding a white husband and convinces her friends to come along for the journey. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan doesn’t treat this subject lightly; Through Jazzy’s brand-obsessed search, gender and class are both explored, along with the wild nightclub scene through which they rage. Tan’s novel is written in “Singlish,” a patois with slang all its own, and her protagonist—who finds herself rather than a husband—and her friends are as memorable and unique as the scenery of brazen after-hours activity they engage in. Follow these sarong party girls (SPGs) as they navigate worlds both exciting and dangerous. (William Morrow)


This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell 

Faves of July

Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, told in interlocking sections, spans the years from 1944 to 2016 and follows the meeting, connection, and life of Daniel and Claudette. Like life, their narrative is dotted with the lost people of the past and the complicated families and situations they come from. O’Farrell’s sleekly beautiful language takes us through countries and circumstances, unlocking the doors and windows of emotion, whether it is through Claudette’s past as a famous, then reclusive movie star or Daniel’s non-relationship with his estranged children or the separations the couple go through or their reunions. In the vein of A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, the stories here stand on their own but create a novel that is whole and complete when it is strung together in this way. (Knopf)


You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein  

Faves of July

Jessi Klein is known to many of us as the head writer of Inside Amy Schumer, but Klein is a comedian in her own right (complete with understanding and knowledge of the comedy club circuit, and the years of therapy it took for her to get onstage and perform). In this collection of hilarious and spot-on essays, Klein looks at femininity, the expectations put on women by the media and pop culture, and, by extension, by everyone else. Her stories of being a tomboy, and later, what she dubs a “tom-man,” will feel familiar to many of us, and her humor is witty and sharp and cuttingly fresh. This memoir-in-essays is a must-read for any woman who has ever felt out of place because she didn’t quite fit in with how others wanted to see her (also relevant to fans of Broad City and defying expectations of female comedy). (Grand Central Publishing)


Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard  

Faves of July

Hannah Pittard’s novel Listen to Me has a relatively simple premise: married couple, plus dog, on a road trip. Seems simple enough, right? Except, of course, that this setup has more complexity than initially meets the eye. Mark and Maggie and dog Gerome are in cramped quarters in the car and their already on-the-brink-of-being-on-the-rocks marriage is not helped by the close confinement. Plus, Maggie is going through PTSD from a robbery in which she was held at gunpoint, and Mark doesn’t quite know how to deal with this on-edge woman that is so unfamiliar to him. The gender roles and power dynamics inside this marriage become abundantly clear—though possibly a little flipped on their head by the time the book reaches its climax (and no, we’re not going to spoil that for you). (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)


Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters  

Faves of July

Ben Winters has been receiving both praise and criticism for his book, Underground Airlines, which came out at the beginning of this month, however, putting the controversy aside for a moment, the premise that lies under Winters’ book is fascinating. The world is identical to the world in which we currently live, except for a crucial detail: the Civil War. In Winters’ Underground Airlines, it never happened. There was no Civil War. Black slaves still exist in the “Hard Four” states and Victor, a young Black man who’s become a bounty hunter for runaway slaves, infiltrating the abolitionist movement who call themselves the Underground Airlines. Through his search for a fugitive, we watch Victor struggle with his own suppressed past as a plantation slave, his fierce protectiveness of his own freedom, and the complexities of working for what was once the enemy. (Mulholland Books)


The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis  

Faves of July

It’s the wild, wild West, except that it’s not. The future dystopian world in The Wolf Road is bleak and frightening, and much of humanity has been wiped out by some sort of event (was it really the Rapture? Or something else?). 17-year-old Elka, a survivor, is abandoned by her parents who went in search of gold (there’s a new gold-rush in keeping with the wild West atmosphere) years ago, and learns everything she needs to know about survival from Trapper. Trapper’s identity is a mystery until Elka sees that he is a wanted man, one who the Magistrate (the de-facto sheriff) is adamantly looking for. As Elka runs away to find her parents, the Magistrate is hot on her heels. Thrilling and disturbingly satisfying, The Wolf Road will stick in your mind for a while before you can let it go. (Crown)


The Muse by Jessie Burton 

Faves of July

Odelle Bastien emigrates from Trinidad to England in the 1960s and, as she combats rampant racism, she struggles to find work. She ends up with a job in an art gallery, where she finds a painting by a famous artist with a haunted legacy. As she explores the story behind the painting and the rumored artist, Isaac Robles, she stumbles across the life of a young woman, Olive Schloss, who, in 1936, in order to have her own artwork taken seriously, convinces Robles to show her paintings as if they’re his own. As Odelle tries to unravel the historical mystery of the discovered canvas, we watch the consequences of Olive’s concealed talent play out. This masterfully woven tale is a wonderful follow-up to Burton’s debut, The Miniaturist. (Ecco)


You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott  

Faves of July

From the author of addictive thrillers like The Fever and Dare Me comes a new novel about teenage girls, their highly strung parents and the intense chokehold of ambition. Devon Knox is a gymnast—an Olympic hopeful no less—who relies on the structure of her gym and the tight-knit community of her insular gymnastics world to keep her forging ahead. When the death of her coach’s niece’s boyfriend begins to create chaos in the gym, Devon finds herself off-balance, a precarious position she definitely can’t be in. And as accusations begin to pile up as to who the perpetrator of the hit-and-run death could be, Devon’s helicopter parents become ever more obsessed with her success, with her reaching the biggest of leagues, the Olympics, and with keeping her life drama-free so she can work diligently at what she does best. But is it really possible for anyone to detach so completely in order to get what they want? (Little, Brown and Company)


Break in Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter  

Faves of July

Many women will find Jen, the protagonist of Jessica Winter’s debut, all-too-familiar. She works a rather pointless job for a seemingly good cause—it’s a charity, but a vanity charity run by a sitcom starlet—and is married to a man she loves but who can’t financially support her dream of being a full-time artist. And art is Jen’s thing. She paints portraits that bring out her subjects’ inner feelings, capturing them vividly. She and her husband are also trying to have a child, which is proving to be more difficult than Jen thought it would be. But this isn’t a ponderous book; rather, it’s a humorous and irreverent one that shows the cruelty of dismissal in Jen’s workplace, the gallows humor of falling apart, and the rollicking adventures that will unearth some hard truths that will mean more to Jen than anything else. (Knopf)


The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Faves of July

P. D. James and Agatha Christie both knew that a mystery that unfolds within a set environment, with characters unable to easily leave, is a great device in a novel. Ruth Ware knows it too and so, sets her latest on a cruise ship, the confines of which are easily defined by the ship’s hull and portholes. Lo Blacklock is a travel writer embarking on a cruise after a traumatic home invasion leaves her locked in a room, terrified, for several hours. Now at sea and ready, she thinks, to do her job, Lo is quickly derailed by the fact that no one is living in the cabin next to hers—even though she interacted with someone there and swears she heard a scary splash one night that sounded like a body thrown overboard. But how can Lo prove there’s been foul play when no one is missing from the cruise’s registers and when no one is listed as occupying Cabin 10, the one next door? Lo, feeling increasingly paranoid, is in good hands in Ware’s thrilling and disturbing mystery of a woman possibly on the brink of madness, or just simply being gaslit—and both prospects are terrifying. This tense book will have you flipping the pages fast. (Scout Press)


Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon

Faves of July

The woman who leaves Lucy Pear is Beatrice Haven, a Jewish woman from a wealthy family. When it comes to light that she’s pregnant out-of-wedlock in 1917, Beatrice is sent by her mother to live with her uncle at the Cape, in order to keep the shame of her pre-marital impregnation secret from Boston society. But instead of giving up the child to the state’s system, Bea leaves her infant in her uncle’s pear orchard one night, where she knows many Irish workers raid the fruit trees, aided by the light of the full moon. Indeed, Emma Murphy picks the baby up, adding her to the nine children she’s already raising. Ten years later, when Bea returns to the Cape still unfulfilled despite apparent success—she’s gone to Radcliffe, she’s married—she finds Emma raising her daughter. Their daughter, now, for she belongs to them both in a way. The baby, dubbed Lucy Pear, is now a vivacious little girl who dresses like a boy, and who harbors her own strong personality, ambitions, and desires, just like her mothers. A beautifully written book, Solomon’s prose and plot are gripping and will make you ache. (Viking)

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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