RIF’s Favorite Reads of January 2018

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

So far, 2018 isn’t shaping up to be much better than the garbage fire that was 2017 (I’m not sure how often most of us are exposed to flaming piles of trash, but we sure love the metaphor). However, that doesn’t mean all areas of life are equally awful. In fact, being the bookish folks we are here at Read It Forward, there’s one thing we consistently take solace in: the excellence of literature. This month, a whole bunch of incredible books came out, and while we can’t feature all of the ones we loved, these were our total favorites. Please love them, buy them, read them, reread them, gift them to friends, and continue supporting literature. Now there’s a slogan we can stand by in 2018. Onwards!

The Sky is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith

Funny story: long before I knew about Smith as an author, we exchanged emails about literary readings in NYC, so it’s a particular pleasure to recommend her work to y’all. In this energetic debut, Smith introduces readers to a New York City-like future/fantasy world, Empire Island, where instead of global warming hovering overhead there are literal fire-breathing dragons. Reality TV star Duncan Humphrey Ripple V has been set up by his parents with the Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg, aka Swanny, but he’s not quite sure about her—especially when he finds a wild girl beyond the bounds of the city. When a group of prisoners from the nearby Torchtown invade Duncan’s mansion on his wedding night, he, his betrothed, and the girl he’s actually into all flee, and must learn to survive Empire Island on their own. (Hogarth)

Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan

This essay collection’s subtitle—Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say—is as bittersweet as the phrases that title the chapters. From “I Love You” to “Good Enough” to “I Was Wrong” and “Tell Me More,” these phrases define numerous moments in life, and Corrigan wields them deftly as she learns to listen more, to appreciate the bodily warmth of another person beside her, and to admit fault. While there are many moments of humor, it’s somewhat rueful, and beautifully illustrates the way the author has learned—and is still learning—how to be a person in the world, alongside the rest of us. From deeply personal moments, like Corrigan’s attempt to better connect with her teenage daughters, to the more irreverent admiration of her mother’s ability not to eschew approval, Corrigan reveals herself as always to be extremely, wonderfully human. (Random House)

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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

This is one of those books whose cover is as gorgeous and alluring as the story itself (don’t you love it when that happens?). In Benjamin’s sophomore novel, four siblings venture out one hot summer and end up visiting a psychic who tells each sibling how and when they’re going to die. Her prophetic proclamations shape the next 50 years of these children’s lives, and we read each sibling’s life story: Simon, who, much to his surprise, finds a love of dance, Klara, who becomes a magician, Daniel the doctor, and Varya the scientist. Through them, we see four distinct stories full of different choices. Readers will try to parse out whether the prophecy was real, if it matters, and how much knowing the date of their death informs each of their lives. (Putnam)

Brass by Xhenet Aliu

In Xhenet Aliu’s debut novel, a mother and daughter’s lives run parallel to one another, though they’re also very different. Elsie is still a teenager and hoping to find a way out of her industrial dump of a town in Connecticut, but her work at the Betsy Ross Diner only gets her as far as Bashkim, charismatic and full of flattery for her. He left Albania—and a wife—in search of a new life in the United States, but he doesn’t stay around for long once Elsie gets pregnant. In present day, Lulu, Elsie’s daughter, is also trying to find a way to get out of dodge, but she gets a rejection letter from NYU that shatters the certainty she’d held. Instead, she decides to try to find answers about her absent father, discovering both the familiar and mysterious. (Random House)

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

If you’re a fan of Stranger Things or Stephen King’s It, this book is going to be right up your alley. Four children growing up in 1980s England use chalk to communicate with each other in code. These are the chalk men, stick figures that help them find each other, talk secretly, and avoid parental interference. The narrator, Eddie Adams, is now all grown up and doesn’t want to remember that time in 1986 when someone used his friends’ secret code to lead them all to a gory body. But when one of the friends ends up dead in present day—and when the old friends receive stick-figure drawings in the mail—they know something’s up. Eddie remembers the past as he lives out the present, the parallels drawing both readers and Eddie closer to solving the mystery of that long-ago death. (Crown)

Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

David Greenfield is a Jewish kid with well-meaning liberal parents who send him to public school because they believe in that sort of thing. Dave is one of the only white kids at his Boston public school; he’s not just far from popular but pretty invisible, a dynamic that’s ironic within the context of larger race relations in the U.S. Dave is friendless until Marlon, aka Mar, decides to befriend him in the lunchroom one day. The boys bond over the stuff of junior high—the Celtics, figuring out ways to make a buck, and, of course, get out of public school and into the exclusive Boston Latin High School. As the year progresses, their friendship both deep-ends and falls short as Dave slowly becomes aware of his privilege relative to Mar’s. A nuanced coming-of-age story about both race and boyhood. (Random House)

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

For fans of Nick Hornby, Almost Famous, and music-lovers in general, this gloriously aural novel is one you absolutely must read. The music shop in question belongs to Frank and is filled solely with vinyl records—a contemporary hipster’s dream, except it’s only 1988, and CDs are just on the rise. When a woman faints in front of Frank’s shop, she turns out to be the most enchanting thing Frank has experienced in a long time. She confesses she’s engaged, and—even worse—she doesn’t listen to music. But she’s curious about it, and as Frank begins to give her the kind of music lessons only true music-lovers can give, jumping around in time and genre and free-associating between concept albums, something begins to happen between them. But they’re both terrified of closeness, and whether music can save them remains to be seen. (Random House)

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Richard is 36, a hedge-fund manager, a runner, and a romantic. Until he gets tired of it, apparently. His former love, Vanessa, is now living with her aunt, while Richard—who is rightfully hers—is off gallivanting with a New York preschool teacher named Nellie. To be fair to Nellie, she’s not entirely certain about jumping into this marriage that Richard is planning for them, and she’s even less sure about the wedding’s locale—all she knows is it’s somewhere bathing suits are rife, which isn’t helpful, as she’s long had a dreadful feeling about Florida due to secrets in her past. But then again, Richard is so charming and wonderful…or is he? And what about Vanessa’s attempts to stop Nellie from marrying him? Nothing’s quite what you expect it to be in this fantastically head-spinning book, the first collaboration between Hendricks and Pekkanen. (St. Martin’s)

Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates

Patrick was only 12 when his friend Matthew shot Hannah with a BB gun; he stood by and watched it happen. His memory might not be perfect, but he’s pretty sure he was there, and he could have stopped it. Hannah never knew, and years after this act of violence, she and Patrick are married and living in New York City. The story moves between the events that led up to the attack and the present when Hannah is a writer struggling to find a subject for a true crime book, and Patrick is out of a job after the 2008 financial crash. Complicating ideas of truth, memory, love, and violence, Yates manages to create not only a fascinating web of relationships and emotional connections but also a beautifully written and compelling novel. (Picador)

Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby

Hermione Hoby’s debut crackles with its New York City summer heatwave and beautifully languid sentences to match, punctuated by sharp observations like the blessed breezes that provide stark relief. It is, in other words, a gorgeously atmospheric novel about Kate, an Englishwoman whose Skype conversations with her boyfriend back home are as drab as a gray London sky. But in New York, even as she feels she doesn’t quite fit, she also finds the excitement and enchantment of two seemingly different people. Inez, just out of high school, is a sometimes sex worker and sometimes barista. Her father, Bill, is the kind of writer who peaked in his mid-20s and hasn’t seen success since his one-hit-wonder novel was made into a film. Both of them are so supremely New York that of course Kate is drawn to them, but where she’ll end up in this dense and lonely city, you’ll have to read to find out. (Catapult)

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

Think Rear Window or One Hour Photo, and you’ll be close in mood to this chillingly amazing book. Dr. Anna Fox is our protagonist, and she’s undergone a recent trauma that has caused her to isolate in her apartment for months on end, severely agoraphobic and unable to leave. But it’s Harlem, and everything can be delivered, so it’s easier than it once was to deal with. She watches the world from within her apartment and obsesses over her neighbors—in particular, the new people who’ve just moved in, about whom she knows everything because, of course, she’s internet-stalked them. What else can she do when she’s incredibly bored and terrified? But when she watches something terrible happen in their living room, she begins to spiral, trying to figure out what’s real, what’s imagined, and what’s too dangerous to stay silent about. (William Morrow)

This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff

Jillian Medoff’s novel takes the concept of the office drama and makes it so real, so achingly poignant at times, that you’ll be glued to the page even as you walk through scenes devoted to CEOs and cubicles. Rosa is the chief of human resources at Ellery Consumer Research, and she cares for her staff like the best of bosses and matriarchs. As Rob and Lucy grow closer—he with a slow marriage, her with a void she’s trying to fill with something, anything—tensions rise in the office. Leo is Rosa’s second-in-command and friend, while Kenny thinks he’s just cooling his heels at Ellery until he can move on. After Rosa suffers a minor stroke, these characters band together to protect her job, and their flawed yet sweet attempts at helping, paired with their own personal dramas, make this more a family novel than an office one. (Harper)

Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

This gorgeously written debut by Mira T. Lee takes on some big topics, but does so with vivid attention and thoughtful pacing. Lucia is mentally ill; this is clear to everyone when she starts hearing voices after her mother’s death. Her older sister, Miranda, tries to save her time after time, but ultimately Lucia has to live her own life. And live it she does. She’s brilliant, charismatic, charming, and caring—until a manic psychosis takes hold, and she changes her life dramatically in search of comfort. Marrying an older man almost as quickly as she leaves him, having a child with an Ecuadorian immigrant and moving with him to Ecuador, returning stateside—these are Lucia’s big, sometimes split-second decisions. But eventually, Miranda comes back from where she’s built a life in Switzerland in order to try and reach her sister one more time. (Pamela Dorman Books)

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Recommended to me by about 90 percent of the readers I know, this beautiful, accessible-yet-experimental, brave, and intelligent package of a book will have you staying up late to read it. In a slightly futuristic United States, the things we fear now are true: abortion is illegal, embryos are legally people under the law, and in-vitro fertilization is banned as well, as pregnancies aren’t allowed to either be stopped or helped along. Through the lens of five very different women, all of them living in the same small Oregon town, their lives inextricably linked through colleagues, marriages, and interests, we see the toll the new laws are taking. Zumas examines women’s rights, their bodies, their desires for children, or the mistakes that led them to bearing cells that haven’t yet become babies. And, let’s not forget—there’s a witch-hunt underway, as an herbalist, living in the forest and providing herbal abortion aids—is arrested. (Little, Brown)

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

Okay, enough with all this heavy stuff. Sometimes you need a good, whip-smart romcom to tide you over, and Guillory’s charming and addictive debut is just right for that. Alexa’s the chief-of-staff for Berkeley’s mayor, and she really should know better than to agree to a date with a guy she got stuck on an elevator with. But Drew is charming and convincing, and what the hell, she needs a night of fun. Alexa accompanies Drew to his ex’s wedding, and their fake relationship looks real enough, thanks to the fantastic chemistry between them. When real life returns and Drew goes back to LA, he can’t stop thinking about Alexa…and she’s thinking about him, too. These two young professionals might work hard at their jobs, but now they have to figure out how to make this thing between them work just as well. (Berkley)

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

The nanny is perfect—except that she kills her charges. This haunting book opens with the murder of the children and then reverses in an attempt to figure out why the nanny would do such a thing. In a ritzy Paris neighborhood, parents Paul and Myriam need to hire a nanny because Paul is a rising star in the music production business, while Myriam is about to start working at a law firm. Their children, Mila and Adam, are immediately taken with the Mary Poppins-ish Louise, who’s a perfectionist and becomes not only a nanny, but a kind of housekeeper as well. She stays with the children anytime she’s needed, amuses them, throws parties for them, and fills her role to a tee. Except we know the ending of this story, so we watch for clues—and whether we find them or not might depend on the individual reader. (Penguin)

Our Lady of the Prairie by Thisbe Nissen

In this alarmingly relevant novel set during the 2004 Bush-Kerry election season, Phillipa’s daughter is getting married. Also, Phillipa decides to come clean to her husband about an affair she’s been having. Not great timing, really, but nothing about Phillipa’s life is going well right about now. Her difficult daughter Ginny is almost off her hands for good, marrying a nice Amish boy, but of course, a tornado just has to skip through town on Ginny’s wedding day. Even after she gets past that mess, Phillipa just can’t catch a break. She lives in a motel and becomes obsessed with the elections, stops teaching her classes, and tries to handle the fact that something—or maybe she herself—has turned her life upside down. Will she emerge from the pit she’s dug herself? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

Debut novelist Sharon Bala paints the ravages of the Sri Lankan civil war in this book based on a real ship that arrived on the shores of Vancouver. Instead of being allowed to start their new lives, refugees are held in a detention center and interrogated, due to a fear that members of a terrorist group were aboard the ship as well. Mahindan is the father of a 6-year-old boy, and all he wants is to start over. Law student Priya is a second-generation Sri Lankan, and she finds herself gagging at the smells, familiar and unfamiliar, of the refugees, these men and women she finds herself representing as the assistant to a well-meaning yet absent lawyer. Grace, a Japanese-Canadian whose mom once lived in an internment camp, is the adjudicator who must decide on the fates of the refugees. And Mahindan—could he have bargained with the wrong forces in his attempts to flee the war? (Doubleday)

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins

Morgan Jerkins may already be well-known to readers as a cultural critic and essayist, as well as editor at Catapult. In this book, Jerkins writes with a fierce intent—to remind black women they are human, and to remind white readers that few black women are allowed to actually experience their humanity through the gaze of others. A fierce advocate for awareness, Jerkins’s essays point to moments when she measured herself against whiteness, and how she reeled back from this space and found the richness of her community. Writing about far-flung experiences, from Princeton to Harlem to Japan to Russia, Jerkins’s experiences are not meant to be uniform, nor are her opinions meant to be an end-all-be-all. Instead, she’s continuing a conversation that black people have been having for a long, long time—and it’s time for nonblack folks to shut up and listen. Try listening by reading this powerful book. (Harper Perennial)

The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce

Short story writer Thomas Pierce’s debut novel deals with universal and endless questions: does anything come after life? What is death, really? Jim Byrd died for a few minutes, his heart giving up on him at only 33, but he’s brought back to life, complete with a device (and a mobile app) to remind his heart to keep beating. But the thing is, Jim didn’t see anything when he died. No light. No angels. No heaven. No hell. Now Jim’s obsessed—he has to figure out what he just went through, and he and his wife begin a sometimes scientific, sometimes spiritual journey together, toying with both psychics and physicists, with the paranormal and the religious, all in a quest to figure out: what’s the afterlife, if there’s one at all? And what does it mean for life here and now? (Riverhead)

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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