RIF’s Favorite Reads of November 2016

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

RIF's Favorites of November

Life has been difficult recently. Whatever your thoughts on politics, there’s no doubt that this has been one of the most divisive elections seasons yet, with results that maybe none of us quite understand the true meaning of yet. Time will tell, and the world keeps turning, as it must. Meanwhile, it is the month of Thanksgiving, a holiday whose origins may be as fraught as the recent happenings in our country, but whose spirit involves unity, family, and lots of food. November has not been easy for many of us, so we hope that you can find satisfaction in breaking bread with the ones you love. As we do every month, we are sharing our favorite new books with our Read it Forward community (click on the images to shop our picks!). We urge you continue to find joy, solace, and understanding inside the pages of books.

Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Watching ’80s Movies by Jason Diamond

RIF's Faves of November

With a lot of heart and wonderful humor, Jason Diamond, founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn, explores an obsession. John Hughes, the famed filmmaker who brought us movies like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and Home Alone, seemed to convey something fundamental to Diamond through his movies. It was a lifeline Diamond needed, coming from a difficult family life that made him restless and, at times, homeless. Hughes’ films used Chicago as their backdrop, which was the scenery of Diamond’s life until, with hubris that many young creatives rely on, he moved to New York with the idea that he would write John Hughes biography. What he ended up with was an understanding that he was and is a writer, and a very different book came out of the experience. This one. (William Morrow)

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Swing Time by Zadie Smith

RIF's Favorites of November

The unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s latest tour-de-force unspools the story of her life thus far, jumping back and forth in time, swinging like a pendulum. As a child, she’s glued at the hip to Tracey, another girl like her—mixed race, darker than the other little girls lining up at ballet class. But as the two girls grow up side-by-side, their paths begin diverging from their original parallel. As Tracey enters the professional dance world, the narrator hangs out with the goths in Camden; as Tracey is posting conspiracy theories on forums, the narrator is working at a music TV station; and as Tracey is doing who-knows-what, the narrator is working for the biggest superstar in the world and trying to help her build a school for girls in a West African nation. As the narrator tries to discover her roots, she is reminded again and again that they lie not in Africa, but rather in the body of a childhood best friend. (Penguin Press)

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

RIF's Favorites of November

Michael Chabon is a character in his own novel, which is a pretend memoir that tells a semi-real autobiographical history of “my grandfather,” based on Chabon’s actual grandfather’s deathbed stories told to the author when he was younger. The narrator’s grandfather shares moments of his life both dramatic—hunting for Nazis, strangling a co-worker with a phone cord—and tender, such as falling in love with the narrator’s grandmother. Taking the reader through decades in the lives of this couple, before and after they met, we enter a gorgeous family saga that allows Michael Chabon to use the full breadth of his excellent writing, from descriptive to metaphoric to plot-driven. (Harper)

Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao

RIF's Favorites of November

This lyrical poem of a debut novel (or debut novel full of poetic prose) is a gorgeous, difficult book about the loss of children and the ways grief unhinges our minds. Vi Khi Nao manages to use the absurd, the abstract, and the mythical to convey the heartbreakingly strange thoughts that grief can bring, while also allowing an actual plot to take place from the beginning of the book to its end. The effectively named Catholic and Ethos are a couple who’ve lost their twins, and they begin to plan an elaborate aquarium with which to fill their time and to replace the tasks of child-rearing. The addition of Charleen, Ethos’s mother, into the household brings a further layer of emotional complexity. (Coffee House)

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

RIF's Favorites of November

This exciting new addition to Alice Hoffman’s already impressive oeuvre is surprisingly contemporary. Shelby is a Long Island girl who got lucky: in an accident that left her best friend bed-bound and unresponsive, Shelby escaped unscathed. While pilgrims line up to be cured by the mute beauty that is the former shell of Shelby’s best friend, Shelby herself tries to soothe away the pain of survivor’s guilt and move forward in her life, whatever that may mean for her. Shaving her head, moving in with her weed dealer, and trying to find herself, Shelby is not a self-pitying damsel in distress. She’s a moving portrait of what grief and loss looks like without a romantic sheen. She makes mistakes, gets hurt, hurts herself—but all along, there is something within tethering her to the future, not allowing her to let go of life entirely. Her mother plays a significant role in this, and the relationship between her and Shelby is particularly moving. (Simon and Schuster)

You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris

RIF's Favorites of November

“For as long as he lives, this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom.” The little boy is Melvil, seventeen months old when his mother, Hélène, is killed in the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. Antoine Leiris, Melvil’s father and Hélène’s husband, wrote the above sentence in a Facebook post directly after the attacks, determined not to let death and destruction rule or define his or his son’s lives. In his memoir, Leiris shares the intimate moments of the struggle to live through the days and weeks after the death of his wife with a toddler who would never see his mother again and with the ache of grief weighing him down. Open, vulnerable, and absolutely heartbreaking, this memoir is a vital reminder of the importance of living on even when what seems like the worst has happened. (Penguin Press)

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

RIF's Favorites of November

Elizabeth may have been the first of the well-known and long-reigning queens of England, but lest we forget the inimitable Victoria, Daisy Goodwin brings her spirit to life in this new novel. Within a day, everything changes for Alexandrina—she goes from being a sheltered princess, to being made queen when her uncle, William IV, dies. Deciding that she doesn’t like her first name, Alexandrina—from now on, Queen Victoria—decides to go by her second, and it is this chosen name by which she is remembered. As the early days of her rule unfold, we discover the spine and verve of this queen who would go on to rule for several decades. Fans of the Netflix series The Crown will eat this novel up. (St. Martins)

The Fate of the Tearling by Erica Johansen

RIF's Favorites of November

Fans of Erica Johansen’s previous books in the series—Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearling—this book will bring about a satisfying conclusion (with maybe a tiny hint of more to come?). Kelsea Glynn is the queen of the Tearling, but she’s been given no choice but to sacrifice herself and her powers to her enemy in order to keep her people safe. The regent she left in her place, though, is no slouch, and he is not going to let her languish in a foreign prison for long. With its witty writing and smart-alecky characters, this is a fun, fast-paced, riveting read for any fantasy lover. (Harper)

You in Five Acts by Una La Marche

RIF's Favorites of November

In a prestigious performing arts high school in New York City, five teenagers tell the story of their senior year, each addressing their chapter to a different “you.” From the black ballerina Joy to the Latino ballerino Diego to the famous white Dave to the white immigrant’s son Dave to the Puerto Rican party girl Liv, each of these characters has much to impart to the readers about the white arts and entertainment establishment that they’re either trying to break into or are already in. These five friends are trying to deal with their final days of high school without losing their cool (they inevitably do) or embarrassing themselves with the wrong confession of love. Both a wonderful romp and an intelligent social commentary, this young adult novel of friendship will leave you with strong impressions of (and crushes on) these electrifying characters. (Razorbill)

The Chemist by Stephanie Meyer

RIF's Favorites of November

Whatever your thoughts are about the Twilight series, there’s no doubt that Stephanie Meyer knows how to keep a reader reading until the very end. In her newest adult thriller, she excellently weaves together the spy and romance genre. An ex-agent for the U.S. government, the alias-full protagonist (she goes by myriad names, depending on the situation) is a specialist at chemically-induced torture, and ends up taking a job from her ex-employers who’ve been, she believes, chasing her down this whole time. The man she kidnaps is intensely attractive, and as she brutalizes his naked body with chemicals in her bunker, she finds herself dangerously attracted to him, even as she’s causing him extreme pain (some shades of Fifty Shades perhaps?). When his twin brother arrives to save him, they all decide to hide together, and on goes the taut, tense, sexy, fast-paced book to its end. (Little, Brown)

The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens

RIF's Favorites of November

An appropriate book for Thanksgiving, dealing as it does with the white invasion into Native lands during Western settlement and the wars that followed. After the Civil War, as the U.S. expanded into new territory, Native tribes were backed into a corner, forced to choose whether to go along with the government—which sometimes proved to be helpful in protecting them from other tribes—or fight back against the white man. The situation was complex, with members of all sides of the struggle acknowledging the rock and hard place the Natives were stuck between, and Peter Cozzens does a good job at portraying this complexity, not letting the popular narrative that those Natives who agreed to sell or give up their land were sellouts hold sway. With care and precision, he tackles this difficult, immense topic. (Knopf)

Valiant Gentlemen by Sabina Murray

RIF's Favorites of November

The musical Hamilton is about the deeply flawed friendship and rivalry of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr; Sabina Murray’s newest novel has a similar trajectory but in a vastly different space and time (but still, comparing anything to Hamilton, it should be clear, is a compliment). The “gentlemen” from the title are Roger Casement, an Irish patriot and humanitarian and his best friend Herbert Ward. Both men spent their youth in the Congo, and as they grew up, their politics leaned different ways. Ward married an Argentinian-American heiress, and Casement was closeted and nomadic. The two survived their political differences until World War I, when Casement sided with Germany in order to free Ireland from under England’s thumb, while his best friend went off to fight for that very nation. A moving historical novel that will have you excited about a period in history you may not be familiar with. (Grove)

Testimony by Robbie Robertson

RIF's Favorites of November

It’s appropriate that in the year that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his contribution to the American songbook, Robbie Robertson—who collaborated with Dylan and joined him in the controversial early days of electric guitars replacing acoustic ones on stage—is publishing his memoir Testimony. From his childhood, which was split between Toronto and the Six Nations Indian Reserve, to his early days with music legends The Band, to the heyday of rock n’ roll, Robertson lyrically tells his story and that of the musicians he made history with. A moving, beautiful book brought by a masterful storyteller, this five-years-in-the-making memoir is a worthy addition to the music autobiography shelf.  (Crown Archetype)

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

RIF's Favorites of November

Nicola Yoon returns with a gorgeous, lush, and deeply hopeful novel. Which is not to say it’s sappy—even though this is a romance, sappy doesn’t enter into the equation. Natasha is into the facts. She’s into the figures. She’s into knowing exactly what’s going to happen, when, and what the consequences will be. What’s going to happen next: her family is being deported back to their homeland of Jamaica. When: very soon, like, seriously soon, like, in a few hours soon. The consequences: up until now there were a whole bunch (leaving her home, school, and friends), but one more was just added. Daniel. Korean-American Daniel is a romantic with a penchant for poetry, and when he inadvertently meets Natasha on her last day in the country, he’s primed and ready to fall in love. Moreover, he’s determined that he can make her fall in love with him too. Will these lovers be star-crossed, lucky, or somewhere in between? Read to find out. (Delacorte Press)

The Great American Songbook by Sam Allingham

RIF's Favorites of November

In this debut short story collection, the writing is cadenced and beautiful and Sam Allingham succeeds in making the reader feel, think and listen in each one. From a woman who’s escaped an abusive relationship to musician Artie Shaw who struggles to find his notes to a pair of songwriters whose differences tear them apart, the stories cover wide ground. They all take their themes from music, and their rhythm is deeply satisfying to any music lover. Track the pop culture references that flirt with you and enjoy falling into the gorgeous prose and forgetting yourself. This collection truly has the range of the American songbook. (A Strange Object)

Besties by Leah Reena Goren

RIF's Favorites of November

If you need something to make you smile—and to make you feel all the feels—this is the book for you. There’s something remarkably poignant about recognizing the unspoken rules between friends that end up in this beautifully illustrated and colored book. For example: “If you don’t like how you look in a photo, I will never ever show anyone. (But I can keep it forever if I look really good in it.)” This seems to hold a kind of universal truth in so many friendships between women. That’s just one gem in a book full of them. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll want to hug the book—and your best friend—when you’re finished. And a holiday hint: this book is also the perfect size for gifting to your bestie. (Clarkson Potter)

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

RIF's Favorites of November

In her newest book, Carol Birch novelizes Julia Pastrana, whose modern-day kickass counterpart could be Harnaam Kaur, a real-life bearded dame, body confidence expert, and model. But in Victorian England, there were no outlets discussing how cool Pastrana was, and she was treated as a freak—a star, but an oddity nonetheless. Her talents—she sings, knows several languages, is a horsewoman and dancer—are sought after because of her bearded face and hairy body, which make her seem half-beast, half-woman. Birch’s novel follows her rising star, as her new manager, Theodore Lent, takes her around the world. Sparks might be flying between the two of them, but does Theo actually care for Julia, or is Julia only full of wishful thinking and a desire for romance? This beautiful novel renders all the carnival performers and “freaks” as human and real, not merely things to be gawked at. (Doubleday)

Canine model: Hamlet the Tiny (Instagram); Photography by Ryan Deshon; Styling by 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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