RIF’s Favorite Reads of June 2016

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

June has been a difficult month, but there is also so much to celebrate. Not only is June Pride Month, but it is also the beginning of summer here in the western hemisphere, and you know what that means… Reading outside, and trying not to get sunburned! Or reading inside, wherever you can snag some nice A/C vibes (thank goodness for libraries and coffee shops). There’s also the possibility of reading picturesquely on a picnic blanket in a park or perching on a bench or tanning on a rooftop with a book. Basically, summer is the season to laze around and read a lot because it’s often too hot to do anything with your body, whereas working out your brain with some awesome words is the perfect distraction from the sweat beads making their way down your back.

Click on the images of our favorites to buy them, and tell us in the comments which books were your favorite reads in June!

The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay

Tumbling Turner Sisters

Rooted in the true story of Juliette Fay’s great-grandmother, this novel takes a look at a particular niche of American entertainment society in the early 20th century. The tumbling Turners are four sisters, trained by their mother to become a vaudeville circus act, in order to avoid poverty once their breadwinner father injures his hand in a bar fight and can’t work. Two of the sisters alternate in narration, and, as the plot unfolds, each sister has increasingly complicated love interests, but both are fierce in their desires and ambitions. The characters surrounding the Turner family are just as engaging: a crew of various entertainers who are outcasts of one sort or another in 1919, from a Black man (one of the aforementioned love interests) to an Italian immigrant (another of them) and a couple of Yiddish comedians. A rollicking ride of independent women and their time on the stage. (Gallery Books)

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls

An ambitious and much-discussed debut novel, The Girls immerses us in the world of a Manson Family-like cult, where Russell is the dangerous manipulator. However, it isn’t Russell’s power that’s at the center of this book; instead, it is the women who join him, especially the novel’s protagonist, Evie, who narrates from present day, when she is in middle-age and very aware of what she did, what happened to her, and how it all ended. First seeing Russell’s girls in her early teens, Evie finds them fascinating because of their apparent hippie freedom, their long hair and bare feet calling to her as any counterculture would to a suburban teen whose parents are in the throes of a splintering marriage. Evie’s relationship with one of the other women is what stands out in The Girls; this connection between women, friends and lovers and allies, is what ultimately saves Evie from the hellish “freedom” she thinks she’s entered into. (Random House)

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley 

Lily and the Octopus

“THIS! EYE! RAIN! YOU! MAKE! IS! FANTASTIC! I! LOVE! THE! SALTY! TASTE! YOU! SHOULD! MAKE! THIS! EVERY! DAY!” says Lily, the protagonist’s dog in Steven Rowley’s to-die-for book. Rowley himself had a dachshund (Lily is one if you can’t tell by the way she speaks, which is so clearly tiny-happy-dog-like) who died of a brain tumor, but in this fictionalized account of Lily and her owner, Ted, there is a rather dramatic difference. Instead of a brain tumor, Lily has an octopus latched onto one side of her head. An octopus that talks. One that Ted manages to convince others to see and address as well. As funny as it is utterly sad—if you’re a pet lover of any sort, or if, you know, you have a heart—the book’s exploration of the life of a writer and his only true love is well-worth your time. (Simon and Schuster)

I Almost Forgot About You by Terry McMillan 

I Almost Forgot About You

All you need is love—or your memories of love, maybe. When fifty-something Georgia finds out that her one-time college love has passed away, she decides to find all the men she has loved in the past and make clear to them that they meant something to her—something she never got to do with that now-deceased crush. Though successful in life, Georgia feels stuck in the same old rut and needs something to shake her life up. In doing so, she is quick to let go of things that tend to define us as adults—her house, her business partner, her career, her children, and grandkids—in order to explore her past. But of course, the present catches up with her just the same, and, as her fortieth high school reunion approaches, the dramas of all she’s left behind find and confront her—oh and, there’s also the drama of the men from her past she finds. Georgia’s mid-life renaissance is so relatable and her journey of self-re-discovery is an enjoyable trip. (Crown)

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid 

I'm thinking of ending things

The best thrillers and horror movies are those that bring things that are just slightly out of the ordinary into utterly normal situations, throwing off the viewer’s equilibrium. This is exactly what Iain Reid does in his philosophically thrilling debut novel. The narrator travels with her boyfriend, Jake, to meet his family, who lives on a farm. That’s where the narrator finds everything to be a bit off. Jake’s mother has tinnitus and says she hears voices along with it; his father talks about her problems and bickers with her when the narrator isn’t in the room; and in the basement, there are some bizarre though apparently harmless paintings that will nevertheless make your skin crawl. The narrator and Jake’s conversations are full of pauses in which the narrator ruminates on a mysterious “caller” leaving vague messages. A slim book that will keep you up at night—likely because you’ll want to read it all in one go. (Scout Press)

Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith 

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Marrow Island

In this unsettling novel, Alexis M. Smith uses the environment as a driving force for the characters populating her pages. An earthquake 20 years ago destroys Marrow Island’s ecosystem, and creates a fire at a refinery that releases a whole mess of chemicals in the soil and groundwater. But now, even though the island is technically uninhabitable and the legality of living there is questionable, some eco-activists do reside on the island, looking for ways to help the environment become safe again. Lucie, who has just lost her job as a journalist focusing on the ecology, returns to her family home on a nearby island where she finds that a long-ago friend of hers is one of those living in the colony on Marrow Island. The two connect, and a battle is waged with and for the environment, but its outcome isn’t clear. Where human hands play a part, Mother Nature doesn’t necessarily play nice. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro 

I'm Just a Person

Tig Notaro isn’t the kind of comedian who uses jokes to escape from her personal pain—she makes her hellish experiences the subject of her stand-up. In her memoir, Notaro reflects upon her year of hell: she contracts a life-threatening bacterial infection, then her mother dies suddenly, and, to top it all off, she discovers that the lump in her breast that she’d been ignoring was breast cancer, which led to a double mastectomy. But, in spite of all this, Tig’s heart didn’t shrivel up—instead, it grew and allowed her to get to a place where she could heal, even if momentarily, with laughter. With her comedy, she made people uncomfortable (“Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Is everybody having a good time?”) and then made them laugh, and she does this in her bravely honest memoir as well. (Ecco)

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi 


Yaa Gyasi’s incredibly ambitious debut novel covers over 250 years of African-to-American history, into contemporary life. Her characters share a bloodline that starts in the mid-18th-century and an object is exchanged and brought to the forefront in each of their stories, which are unique. From a woman marrying a British occupier for financial gain to more recent portrayals of horrific acts of racism, Gyasi deals with her characters with empathy and care. Her prose is beautiful and her stories ache with true emotion, and though the narrative is more collection of stories with a common thread than a novel, the scope is no less intimidating or impressive. An incredible read and one that is important for everyone to get their hands on. (Knopf)

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley 

We Could Be Beautiful

Another debut on our list, Swan Huntley’s novel is remarkable for its examination of secrets, of uncomfortable moments, of possible lies and scary discoveries. The protagonist, Catherine, seemingly has everything, from a trust fund to a beautiful apartment in Manhattan’s most coveted neighborhood to a wonderful job and even good looks. She’s perfect and perfectly good. But she feels incomplete and restless and her aching desire to conceive a child is consuming. Her mother has Alzheimer’s and maybe that’s why she refuses to talk about Catherine’s new beau—and then fiancé—William. Then again, maybe there’s something more to the story, something that neither the reader nor Catherine knows… After all, she does have a niggling sense of something being wrong, but how long can she go on ignoring it? (Doubleday)

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton 

The Book of Esther

Author Emily Barton brings to life an ancient civilization of warrior Jews—the Khazars—in this reimagining of how history might have gone. Instead of the medieval Jewish Turkic nation of Khazaria falling during the Middle Ages, they’ve survived up until recent history. So recent, in fact, that they’re able to step in when they hear of the troubles starting up in Germania. That’s right—The Book of Esther imagines the Khazar Jews coming to the aid of European Jews during the equivalent of the Third Reich. Esther, a young woman whose father is involved in the Khazaria’s politics, leaves home to track down a sect of Kabbalists who may, she believes, be able to turn her into a man so that she can become her nation’s leader and bring them to fight the Nazi threat. Incredibly imaginative, an alternate history well-told. (Tim Duggan Books)

Monsters: A Love Story by Liz Kay 

Monsters A Love Story

Monsters: A Love Story is a book within a book: it is the title of the feminist gender politics novel-in-verse that Liz Kay’s protagonist, Stacey, has written, which is also a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Stacey is a poet in grief and slightly maddened by her inability to write, by her guilt regarding her children, and by her food obsessions. But she’s also caught the eye of a Hollywood bigwig who wants to make her strange little book into a movie. Tommy is the monster she doesn’t know she needs, and she’s the Frankenstein she doesn’t know she is; a mad scientist of a writer and a monster waiting to be molded into goodness by someone else, Stacey and Tommy embark on a steamy, confusing, and secretive love affair. (Putnam)

Untethered by Julie Lawson Timmer 


Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy wisely taught us, and Julie Lawson Timmer explores the unhappy complexities of one particular family in Untethered. Char’s husband and Lindy’s ex-husband is dead, but his and Lindy’s teenage daughter is still alive and living with stepmother Char. That is until Lindy starts an ugly custody battle that causes stress for everyone, especially teenage daughter, Allie. Allie herself becomes unmoored when a girl she tutors disappears, and it is at that point that the novel’s focus narrows to look carefully at the different parents involved in the search for the missing girl. Ultimately, though, this novel is about family love that is chosen, not only born into. (Putnam)

Goodnight, Beautiful Women by Anna Noyes 

Goodnight Beautiful Women

A beautiful and skillfully written debut short story collection, Anna Noyes’ Goodnight, Beautiful Women takes on the lives of women in a plethora of situations. From unexpected pregnancy to love affairs with maids, the stories center around coastal Maine and the choices and mistakes the women themselves make, even as threats circle them. The girls and women are ultimately their own biggest enemies as well as their own best saviors. Understanding the beauty of nuance, Noyes doesn’t strive to end all her stories with neatly tied bows, but rather allows them to remain open-ended when necessary, leaving an emotional resonance that is strongly felt. (Grove Press)

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel 

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

The breathtaking prose of Ramona Ausubel strikes again in her new novel. Set mostly in the mid-1970s, Fern and Edgar are a married couple who’ve fallen on hard times when they discover that the fortune they believe was going to be theirs when Fern’s parents’ died ends up having been all used up. As each parent goes on an adventure of their own, thinking that the other is taking care of their three children, the kids actually remain alone: the fourth-grade daughter has to take care of her twin kindergarten-age siblings. Meanwhile, Fern and Edgar each have a path that goes beyond the realm of pure realism into the magical reality of Ausubel’s making, a magic that is only just a little bit to the left of reality. Remarkable writing and a beautiful story, Ausubel’s new book is lush and lovely. (Riverhead)

Barkskins by Annie Proulx 


Before you wonder any further, “barkskin” means woodcutter, and it refers to the major characters of Annie Proulx’s multigenerational novel, who, beginning with immigrants Charles Duquet and René Sel, make their living out of the forest they inhabit. At the start of the novel, it is endless, this forested land, but as the generations pass and Duquets and Sels rule the St. Lawrence River area, the earth exerts its own toll, as do other people. A saga of many years, Barkskins takes on themes of violence amongst men and the earth, becoming both an eco-fable and a story of families sprawling over the decades and pages. In Proulx’s excellent and beautiful writing, the 700+ page book is sure to grasp your attention rather than intimidate. (Scribner)

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley 

Before the Fall

Following the narratives of the dead in a crashed charter flight, as well as the stories of the survivors, Noah Hawley’s new novel is gripping and thrilling. Painter Scott Burroughs and JJ, the son of the dead man who chartered the flight, are the survivors of this crash, and the novel follows Scott as he deals with survivor’s guilt and attempts to escape the media attention of his survival and his saving the boy. In looking back at the doomed crew and passengers, this gripping novel unfolds as a whodunit where we, along with Scott, try to figure out how the flight was downed. (Grand Central)

This is Not My Beautiful Life by Victoria Fedden 

This is Not My Beautiful Life

Victoria Fedden’s not-beautiful life begins when she finds out that the slightly shady things she already knew about her parents are actually far worse than she expected. As her parents get involved in a federal investigation, after a raid on their South Florida home, Fedden needs to deal with new motherhood; she was nine months pregnant when the raid occurred. Feeling inadequate, confused, and lost, she turns to various methods to bring back an equilibrium to her life and that of her new child. She needs to discover how to accept her family members with all their flaws and shocking failings, as well as herself, even though she feels that she doesn’t match up to her sister. A beautifully disturbing memoir of events that would turn anyone’s life upside down, Fedden’s book is wise and wonderful. (Picador)

Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam 

Rich and Pretty

Alam’s debut novel deals with female friendship at its most difficult and most beautiful. Childhood friends Lauren and Sarah have kept their BFF status through thick and thin, all the way from 6th grade into adulthood. But now their perspectives have shifted and things have changed, as they do for all of us, and while Sarah is certain that despite it all they’re still part of one another’s worlds, Lauren wonders whether it is only because they’ve been friends for so long that they’re still close today. A rare novel of an incredibly truthful friendship that comes with the flaws and pitfalls of grown-up life, Alam’s debut is delightful. (Ecco)

Photographs by Ryan Deshon.

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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