RIF’s Favorite Reads of May 2018

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

Best May Books

May is meant to be a happy month full of flowers and sunshine, that transition from spring to summer. But, alas, there’s far too much to be unhappy about, upset or traumatized or triggered by, what with more school shootings, international upheavals, and the continued general unease and fear many of us feel. So, as we do every month, we round up some of the best of the informative, empathic, and escapist books that have been released this month and share them with you. Reading is one of the best forms of retail (or library!) therapy, so we hope these books move you, make you think, make you feel, and help you forget what you need to and remember what is important to you. Literature is powerful, and we’re grateful to authors for helping us through the best and the worst of times. Read on!

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

The Pisces

From the author and Twitter personality behind So Sad Today comes a debut novel that is as irreverent as it is beautifully serious. Lucy is a 38-year-old woman who grows tired with her relationship, except that once she and Jamie break up, she desperately wants him back. Or maybe it’s not him she wants—maybe it’s just someone with whom to stare into the void. In L.A., house-and-petsitting for her sister, Lucy finds love in the form of her sister’s gorgeous, sweet dog. She attends group therapy with a collection of characters, goes on Tinder dates with strange and somewhat awful men, and generally tries not to fall apart. But there’s a swimmer she keeps meeting when she goes to sit by the ocean at night, and he seems like he’s too good to be true: young, sweet, intelligent… Can Lucy find love again amidst her depression? And is love even what she really wants, or needs? (Hogarth)

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

That Kind Of Mother

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Rebecca Stone is white, rich, pretty, and about to give birth. She meets a breastfeeding consultant at the hospital, Priscilla Johnson, a black woman, and the two form a bond that causes Rebecca to beg Priscilla to come and be her nanny. Priscilla agrees and the bond of employer and employee becomes intertwined with the friendship between them. When Priscilla has a son and dies unexpectedly soon after, Rebecca adopts him without a second thought, wishing to share with him his biological mother’s approach to love and motherhood. But with one black son and one white son, Rebecca has to face that fact that even if she loves both children equally, the world she lives in won’t ever treat them the same. With pathos and empathy, Alam’s second novel is as gorgeous and moving as his first. (Ecco)

Tin Man by Sarah Winman 

Tin Man

Sarah Winman’s new novel’s title is perhaps, at least, partially a reference to the gay slang “friend of Dorothy,” meaning a gay man—and, indeed, Winman’s main characters, Ellis and Michael, are the most real emotional connections of one another’s lives. As 12-year-old boys, they become incredibly close friends, and eventually, the relationship turns sexual. But years later, Ellis is married to Annie and working at a car plant, having given up on his dreams of being an artist in order to fulfill his father’s wishes, and Michael has disappeared from his life. As the novel moves back and forth in time, secrets spill forth and the complicated history of this friendship and its end becomes clearer, if no less painful. A beautiful story of a complex relationship and thwarted desires. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner 

The Mars Room

It’s no secret that the prison system in the United States is deeply flawed. In her new novel, Rachel Kushner takes a look at many of the systemic issues shared by the inmates that Romy, her main character, meets during her time in prison. With humor and pathos reminiscent of Orange is the New Black, the novel follows Romy’s entrance into a California prison after a jury convicts her of murder and she receives two life sentences. Never mind that the man was stalking her—many of the women in the prison have valid reasons for the crimes they committed, but those reasons tend not to matter. Many of the inmates share a background of poverty, drug use, and sex work—these aren’t clichés, but rather brutal truths of how people whose needs fall through the cracks of society end up in prison. Romy and the other women’s backstories are fascinating, as are the scenes of prison life, including those of the non-incarcerated who come to try to help. A gripping, serious book. (Scribner)

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo

Welcome To Lagos

In the streets of the diverse, madcap, magical, and intense city of Lagos, Nigeria, a ragtag group of folks fleeing from different circumstances find a home together, squatting in a politician’s abandoned apartment. The characters are dynamic and fascinating: there’s Chike Ameobi, who deserts his army post with a private, Yemi, when told to kill innocent civilians; there’s Fineboy, a rebel soldier; Oma, whose wealthy husband is also abusive; and 16-year-old Isoken, who fears being raped if she stays home. Together, they try to cobble a life in Lagos, hustling for money with a variety of side gigs. Meanwhile, in the background, the politician in whose apartment they’re squatting is said to have stolen money in order to get it directly into schools rather than hung up in the red tape of bureaucrats—but is he a thief or a Robin Hood figure? A remarkable and fresh book. (Catapult)

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

The Ensemble

The competitive world of classical music and concert musicians is far more intense than the plain black dresses and suits the players tend to wear on stage could ever convey. Gabel’s novel shows us the roiling, ugly, and thrilling underbelly of this world through the lives and careers of the Van Ness Quintet: Jana the first violinist, Brit the second, Daniel the cellist, and Henry on the viola. Jana and Henry knew each other at music school, and when they meet Brit and Daniel, the quartet is formed. Through competitions, performances, solos, and sex, we watch the four friends, colleagues, and musicians weave their ways from youthful ambition to a true profession. As they fulfill, tear down, harm, and love themselves and one another, we watch their world define them and eat them up. (Riverhead Books)

The High Season by Judy Blundell 

The High Season

Summer is just starting for Ruthie, and things are not going well. Owner of a house on the North Fork of Long Island, which she needs to vacate every summer and rent out in order to keep affording it, Ruthie watches as a wealthy artist’s widow takes over her house and makes moves on her ex-husband. Work isn’t going much better for Ruthie—her own staff at the small museum where she works as a director is turning against her and chasing new blood. Ruthie’s daughter, Jem, meanwhile is also having a bit of a dramatic summer as she works a summer job—she’s 15, and it’s her first—and gets involved with some characters her mother certainly wouldn’t approve of. As we move in and out of the characters peopling this small Long Island town, including the art world and the Hamptons set, we get to enjoy the high drama of a summer full of surprises. Sometimes you need a guilt-free summer read, and this is certainly one of them. (Random House)

Mr. Flood’s Last Resort by Jess Kidd

Mr Floods Last Resort

Maud can see saints. Yes, you read that correctly: saints. Those figures deemed important by the church and given an extra status. Maud has always cheerfully accepted this, because she doesn’t have much of a choice, but there is a deep sadness in her as well, due to her older sister’s disappearance when they were young. Now, Maud is hired by irascible Mr. Flood, an old man whose son is threatening him with institutionalization in an old-age home. A caregiver by profession, Maud rolls up her sleeves and begins helping Mr. Flood get his Gothic mansion back into habitable shape in order to convince his son that he’s quite capable of remaining at home. But as she tidies and cleans and delves into piles of trash decades old, she also begins uncovering deep, dark mysteries in the Flood family, including another missing girl… Will Maud solve the mystery and will her saints help her? A spellbinding read full of bizarre, wonderful characters. (Atria Books)

The Glitch by Elisabeth Cohen 

The Glitch

Shelley Stone has it all: a great husband, two beautiful kids, and a position as the CEO of a company named Conch which sells personal data stores that sit behind your ear, shell-shaped. But Shelley’s life isn’t what you’d call pleasurable—in fact, she can’t really feel pleasure per se since a lightning strike two decades ago that caused her to be incredibly driven, if unlikeable. But who cares about being liked when you’re successful and have everything? Well, apparently things might not be as perfect as they seem. Shelley meets a young woman whose childhood and scars match her own, as if she’s a replica created by the lightning strike—is that even possible? Or is this what being overworked looks like? Plus, Shelley’s husband wants to move with the kids to Brazil, and her company is facing some serious trouble. Something is off, and it makes for a very, very fun read. (Doubleday)

Do This For Me by Eliza Kennedy 

Do This For Me

In Eliza Kennedy’s newest novel, lawyer Raney Moore is 37 and has everything going for her. She’s a partner at a leading law firm in New York City, has been working on a much-publicized case, has two lovely kids, and is basically obliviously content. Until everything is turned upside down when a man calls up out of the blue, informing Raney that his wife is sleeping with Raney’s husband. Oops. Maybe Raney hasn’t been seeing everything there is to see and her life isn’t perfect after all. Cue rage, regret, and a big life upheaval: Raney makes certain to properly punish her husband (she has his car towed, for instance) and takes the kids to their new home in a rundown Brooklyn brownstone. With therapy, friends, and a slowly developing awareness, Raney learns to be a bit less oblivious and to discover there is more to the world around her than the neat ticking of her former life. (Crown)

The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll

The Favorite Sister

In a hilarious and dark take on reality television, The Favorite Sister stars sisters Brett and Kelly, who are also business partners, though Brett, the younger, is the one calling the shots. On a TV show called Goal Diggers, the sisters appear alongside the other millennial business-owner cast members: Stephanie, the first Black woman to appear on the show, who is a bestselling erotica writer who struggles with depression; Jen, a juice bar aficionado; and Lauren, founder of a dating website. This might be the only reality TV show that ends in murder: Brett is dead, and no one knows who did it and why. As the various characters’ plotlines unfold over the course of this deadly season, we get to see how women support each other and where they take each other down, and whose fault exactly that is (hint: the expectations placed on them to have it all and look great while doing so). A scathing social critique and a rollicking read to boot. (Simon & Schuster)

Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard 

Spring

In the third seasonal volume of Knausgaard’s newest series (Autumn and Winter came before; Summer is coming in August), we continue to follow his journey as a new and renewed father of a baby girl. There is an emotional mystery at the heart of this book, which takes place over a single, tense day, with musings on the past and present, life and death. The mystery involves the girl’s mother, and Knausgaard’s need to have a meeting with child protective services. Here he also tells his daughter the story of some of what went on during her mother’s pregnancy. Touching on the themes that have long haunted his work—rage, depression, suicidality, the difficulty of human connections—this fine addition to Knausgaard’s work proves once again his ability to make the minutiae sacred, to revere the tiniest of moments, and to imbue a deep existentialism to the daily act of living. (Penguin Press)

The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet

The House Swap

Caroline and Francis are holding it together, but barely. Their marriage is on the rocks, with Caroline having been unfaithful (more than once), while Francis still cares for her. In an attempt to revitalize something between them, they decide to agree to a house swap and end up in a pretty London suburb. But the swapper seems to be someone intimately familiar with Caroline, and intent on torturing her with an old affair she had with a younger coworker: there are flowers that look like the ones he gave her, music that seems relevant to their time together. Something eerie is certainly going on, and Caroline begins to be suspicious of everything, including the neighbor who seems to take too much of an interest in her and Francis. Who’s behind the house swap, and are they trying to break Caroline’s marriage or punish her? A domestic noir that will keep you guessing throughout. (Pamela Dorman Books)

How to Walk Away by Katherine Center

How To Walk Away

Margaret’s dream comes true: her boyfriend, Chip, proposes while taking her on a plane flight—one she’s pretty afraid of, but still. She’s about to start a great job, and now she has a fiancé she adores. Except that Margaret’s nightmare comes true the same day: the plane crashes. While Chip isn’t hurt at all, Margaret is severely burned and has to learn to walk again, which she may not be able to do. Chip can’t handle the guilt of hurting her nor causing her injury, and Margaret finds herself only supported by her family, including her estranged sister who’s just returned to town. In their regrowing bond, magic and painful truths appear in equal measure. Margaret’s physical therapist is a tough Scottish man who won’t let her feel sorry for herself for long, and something more begins to happen during her journey to healing—whether or not she heals isn’t the point, he’d tell her, because it’s the trying that counts anyway. A story of love, resilience, and discovering one’s untapped strength. (St. Martin’s Press)

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy 

The Perfect Mother

When a baby goes missing, a parents’ group friendship and determination are tested. The group, the May Mothers, who all had babies in May, is made up of a token stay-at-home dad and four moms, including Winnie, a single mom. Devoted to her son, Midas, she’s reluctant to go for a night on the town on July 4th with the others, but with a recommended babysitter, she finally agrees. Except that while the babysitter napped, Midas was snatched from his crib. A high-profile kind of case, it becomes immediately sensationalized by the media, and the friends circle around Winnie to try to help discover who took Midas and where to, and fight to get him back. With a revolving viewpoint between the mothers (and token dad), the thirteen days during which the novel takes place bring forward plenty of critiques of the way mothers are judged and what’s expected of them, as well as fierce and funny characters who have each other’s backs. (Harper)

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

Love And Ruin

In her novel The Paris Wife, Paula McLain explores Hadley Richardson’s relationship with Ernest Hemingway; in her newest book, McLain turns to Hemingway’s third wife, the journalist Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn meets Hemingway early in her career, and when he goes to Spain to cover the civil war erupting there, she follows. But not as a woman pursuing a man—he’s still married to his second wife and she is reluctant to have an affair with another married man, having been hurt by the dynamic before. Rather, Gellhorn discovers her voice as a journalist in Spain and her career takes off alongside Hemingway’s own developing fame. When the two do finally get together, Gellhorn begins to realize that though her lover and later husband is a true intellectual giant, he is also self-involved, difficult, and unable to share the spotlight. A fascinating look at a difficult relationship, McLain’s newest novel further deepens her historical fiction cachet. (Ballantine Books)

The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts by Tessa Fontaine

The Electric Woman

Though it may not be as common a fantasy as it once was, I think everyone has wondered what it would be like to run away with the circus. Well, Tessa Fontaine sort of did that. After three years of watching her mother struggle through the loss of speech and various motor skills due to a series of strokes, Fontaine was ultimately inspired by her mother’s ability to face her fears. When Fontaine’s mother, despite her debilitation, set off for a trip to Italy with her husband, Fontaine decided it was time for an adventure of her own. She joined the last American traveling sideshow, the World of Wonders. There, she meets a host of wonderful and weird folks escaping or having adventures of their own, and learns an array of fascinating skills, like fire-eating (the trick to it, she says, is that there is no trick. You simply do it). As Fontaine recalls her mother’s strength and their relationship both before and after the strokes, she finds a voice of her own in the traveling carnival life. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The Dante Chamber by Matthew Pearl 

The Dante Chamber

A follow-up to Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club, this book begins five years after the conclusion of that one, which involved a series of Dante-inspired murders in Boston. The setting now is London, and once again, there is something sinister at work—that much is clear when a stone device etched with a line from Dante’s Divine Comedy is found on the crushed neck of an English politician. Christina Rossetti, poet and sister to the missing poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (not the Dante who wrote the Divine Comedy!) is concerned when she hears about this murder and the ones that follow it. Enlisting the help of several other poets and writers in London of the 19th century, Christina is determined to unlock the secrets to Dante’s work and find the killer. A beautiful blend of fact and fiction and an epic adventure, this is a wonderfully atmospheric book. (Penguin Press)

The Honey Farm by Harriet Alida Lye 

The Honey Farm

In Harriet Alida Lye’s wonderful debut, an idyllic scene becomes nightmarish. Cynthia is the owner of a beautiful farm that has been beset with a variety of plague-like events, from too many frogs to lice infestations to livestock falling ill. In an attempt to save the farm and get some free labor, she turns it into an artist’s retreat where work is exchanged for space and time. Silvia and Ibrahim are two of the artists who arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to begin. But as other artists drift away due to the difficult work and the often-eerie conditions, Silvia and Ibrahim grow closer to each other and begin to untangle the secrets behind the farm and its enigmatic owner. In beautiful prose that is lyrical yet fast-paced, Lye’s debut is one you’ll want to race through. (Liveright)

Night Beast by Ruth Joffre

Night Beast

Ruth Joffre’s debut short story collection is full of characters searching for, though rarely finding, comfort. The women peopling these stories are often in pain, but it isn’t of their own doing. In the title story, a woman has been carrying on an affair with her brother’s fiancée, but the fiancée has no memory of it because she’s only come to their encounters as a sleepwalker. In another story, two actors begin to forget where their characters stop and their real lives begin. Another looks at what it means to have a soul mate that is ready for you when you’re not yet ready for them. At times lyrical, often profound, and exploring the boundaries of self and sexuality, Joffre’s dark fairy-tale-ish stories will leave you feeling enriched amidst the sadness. (Grove Press, Black Cat)


Featured Images: Matt McCarty

About Ilana Masad

Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Printer’s Row, The Toast, The Butter, The Rumpus, Hypertext Magazine, and more. She is the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast for new, emerging, and struggling writers. She is (way too) active on Twitter @ilanaslightly.