RIF’s Favorite Reads of September

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

Favorite Reads of September

This month, we’re bidding farewell to summer vacation and inviting responsibilities, work, and school back in to our routines. There’s also a promise of autumn in the air, with the leaves browning but not quite turning red and nights bringing cooler breezes through our windows. Sometimes fall feels like the new year more than January does, and with that in mind we rededicate ourselves (as we do each month) to reading the best and most exciting new books out there. Of course, as always, this list isn’t comprehensive and it’s admittedly biased, but regardless, these were the books we loved reading in September, and we hope you enjoy them as well.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Favorite Reads of September

Colson Whitehead’s new novel has been making headlines—and for good reason. The Underground Railroad of which he writes is both the historic network of abolitionists who helped slaves find freedom and an actual railroad built by them in secret that runs beneath state lines. And moreover, it is also a metaphorical railroad leading Cora, the protagonist and runaway slave, from the antebellum South to present day USA. Escaping through the railroad and risking her life over and over again, she is akin to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. A witness to the fights that have been fought, those won and lost, we see through Cora’s eyes just how long a road is still ahead. (Doubleday)

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The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

Favorite Reads of September

In this historical novel set in 1920s Ceylon—modern-day Sri Lanka—nineteen-year-old Gwendolyn Hooper leaves her home in London to marry Laurence Hooper, a widower and descendent of the early English settlers of the region. He owns a tea plantation and carries baggage—a wife dead of a mysterious illness and a matching grave for his son. He refuses to speak of them, and the secrets and lies between Gwen and her husband slowly grow, eventually threatening to engulf their marriage. And it doesn’t help that the Singhalese man Gwen finds herself inexplicably drawn to is constantly in sight. The complexities of Gwen, the plantation, and the slowly crumbling British Empire make for a rich tapestry. (Crown)

Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein

Favorite Reads of September

It is the new world. The future has arrived. And it is just as human as we are. But humanity creaks and cracks under new strains, whether they are the unexpected feelings that arise for an AI companion after it malfunctions or the decision to dig deep into the frozen water to find the things long since buried under an ice age. From virtual reality and grief to altered and fabricated memories, Alexander Weinstein’s debut collection of short stories is a gorgeously empathic addition to our obsession with dystopia. (Picador)

Loner by Teddy Wayne

Favorite Reads of September

There is a familiar theme to Teddy Wayne’s new novel: wanting what you can’t have. But while this ache for something out of reach defines so much of the conflict in literature, and indeed in life, it is devastatingly and uniquely rendered in this book. The novel’s main character is an insecure and unlikeable Harvard student, and his obsession with his girlfriend’s roommate—the unattainable Veronica—becomes as disturbing as Veronica does by the book’s end. Reinventing yourself doesn’t always go well, and the process of trying can destroy more than it gives. (Simon & Schuster)

Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman

Favorite Reads of September

Alexandra Kleeman’s collection of short stories is vastly different than the novel she published last summer, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. In these stories, narrators find themselves lost in houses full of nurse uniforms and fake blood or trapped inside a role as Stepford wife to an unfamiliar man. In one story, the end of the world occurs in disappearing chunks, while another explores a seemingly simple meeting between two people at a coffee shop. With sharp language that veers from matter-of-fact to luscious, these stories will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading them. (Harper)

Mischling by Affinity Konar

Favorite Reads of September

Stasha and Pearl are twins during the worst time in memory for such siblings. Identical, sharing their personalities and a secret language, the girls are brought to the infamous Dr. Mengele, the Nazi scientist bent on unlocking the mysteries of twin-ness to benefit the evolution of his race. Though the girls get privileges that others at Auschwitz don’t, their lives increasingly spiral towards worse and worse horrors until the worst, for them, occurs. They are separated. And soon after the Third Reich comes tumbling down, leaving Stasha determined to search for and find her sister. This novel is a terrifyingly dark yet beautiful story of the depths and heights of humanity. (Lee Boudreaux Books)

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Favorite Reads of September

From celebrated writer Ann Patchett, whose every novel is an entirely new beast, comes a family drama with a hint of metafiction at its heart. After all, within Commonwealth, a bestselling older man has written a book with the same title and is in a relationship with Fanny, the daughter whose christening party is the site of her mother’s decision to divorce and remarry. And the fictional Commonwealth is based on Fanny’s family, on whom Patchett’s novel is also focused. The five generations of the family explored here make for a riveting plot and vivid characters. (Harper)

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

Favorite Reads of September

His first novel in 11 years, there’s no doubt that Foer has outdone himself with Here I Am. Focusing on a four-week period in the Bloch family’s life, the plot of this novel contains both the personal and political. Asking what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be American, what it means to be both, Here I Am centers not only on the marital problems of Julia and Jacob, or their family conflicts with their kids, but takes a wider lens too. Over the course of the novel a catastrophic earthquake ripples its way from the Dead Sea, wreaking havoc on Israel and it’s neighbors, causing an uproar all across the Middle East. It’s not quite the apocalypse but it may feel that way as tensions ramp up. A heartfelt but funny book, it’s been worth the wait. (FSG)

Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Favorite Reads of September

Translated by Anne McLean, Vasquez’s novel is a brilliant addition to our shelves. Protagonist Javier is a famous political cartoonist with the power to ruin reputations at his fingertips, quite literally. He is much celebrated and beloved, but his conscience is piqued when Samanta, a long-ago friend of his daughter’s arrives on his doorstep. Over two decades prior, Javier had insinuated that a particular politician was a pedophile—it was a kind of release of anxiety on his end, come about after worrying for his daughter and her friend who got drunk, at age 7, off the wine left in cups at a party. But the man did nothing to the girls, who never claimed he had, and now Samanta and Javier begin looking at the ruin of the former politician as a result of Javier’s work. As flawed as the men he has eviscerated with his pen, Javier’s investigation leads him to painful moments of reckoning. (Riverhead)

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Favorite Reads of September

If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s possible to narrate a novel from the womb… wonder no more. Ian McEwan’s latest book is narrated by a baby in utero, already nine months old and ready to get out of the confines of his mother’s tummy. Well-educated, having been listening to the world around him for quite some time, the fetus is the sole witness to much of what is happening to his mother and her lover. They’ve killed the fetus’s father, who is his mother Trudy’s husband and the brother of her lover, Claude. If the names aren’t obvious, there’s a definite nod to Hamlet here (maybe that will be the baby’s name?), or rather to the love affair between Hamlet’s mother and murderous uncle. McEwan is able to pull of this quirky narrator’s voice and makes a supremely enjoyable book out of it. (Nan A. Talese)

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Favorite Reads of September

Considering himself a Former Person, Count Alexander Rostov ironically discovers far more of his personhood within the confines of his house arrest in the attic room of a hotel, where he is being held by the Bolshevik government who see his unapologetic aristocracy as a crime. It is 1922 when we get started, and from within his hotel—which he roams and explores and turns into a world entire—Count Alexander treads the length and breadth of human experience and emotion. Outside the walls of his fashionable prison four decades of Russian and world history occur, but their presence is like the sun rising and falling outside the windows—felt, relevant, but ultimately uncontrollable and almost irrelevant to life inside. (Riverhead)

The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

Favorite Reads of September

In Peter Ho Davies’ new novel, four characters’ stories span over a century of American history. Starting in the mid-19th century, Davies explores what it means to be Chinese in the United States, what it means to be Chinese-American, and what it means, in the end, to be American. From the industrial railroad boom to the present day, the characters experience American-ness in all its forms, from the immigrant experience to the assimilated experience, wending their ways through racial discrimination both systemic and personal. The first three stories are inspired by real life people, such as the first Chinese-American Hollywood star and the victim of a hate-crime in the 1980s, and the last is a meditation on the biracial experience with a rich plot to match. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The Orphan Mother by Robert Hicks

Favorite Reads of September

Robert Hicks picks up characters from his novel The Widow of the South. In The Orphan Mother, Mariah, who was a slave of Carrie McGavock (the Southern widow of Hicks’ earlier novel) and who is now a free woman following the Civil War, is building herself a nice life. She owns property, serves as the go-to-midwife for women in Franklin, Tennessee, and is still in touch with her former mistress. But when Mariah’s son is murdered, she needs to figure out who would want to kill him, why, and what the new stranger in town is doing there (and why is he helping her?). A fascinating continuation to the saga, The Orphan Mother is a historical beauty. (Grand Central)

Every Kind of Wanting by Gina Frangello

Favorite Reads of September

White and privileged Chad and Latino broken-homed Miguel are incredibly different but incredibly devoted to one another. Their search for an egg donor and then a surrogate lead them to connecting with siblings and old friends. But the baby they’re trying to conceive becomes the catalyst for drama after drama as everyone seems to begin falling apart around them. From Miguel’s sister Lina who is freshly out of a relationship and jumping into an affair to Chad’s egg-donating sister Gretchen to Miguel’s old friend Emily (married to the man Lina has an affair with), the friendships, blood-relations, and chosen-family involved in this attempt to have a baby begin to slough away from one another. (Counterpoint Press)

Fates and Traitors by Jennifer Chiaverini

Favorite Reads of September

Fates and Traitors is a fascinating look at one of our history’s most famous political criminals: John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. And it is, indeed, a look at him—we don’t get Booth’s perspective, which only increases the fascination of this novel. Rather than delving into his head directly, we journey through his life with four women who were close to him in various ways. From his mother to his sister to a girlfriend to the woman who ran the boarding house where he plotted Lincoln’s demise, we see Booth through the eyes of others, watch his interactions with them, and view him in a plethora of situations, all of which inform his thoughts regarding the Union and Confederacy and to his fateful decision to take matters into his own hands at Ford’s Theater. (Dutton)

Shelter in Place by Alexander Maksik

Favorite Reads of September

Joe March is the son of Anne-Marie March, a woman who becomes notorious for murdering a man with a hammer—a man she’s never met before, but whom she witnessed in an act of domestic violence in a parking lot. Joe, who’d been on the verge of growing into his future as an adult after graduating from college, is sucked back into his family drama as he and his father move to the town where his mother is imprisoned. They, along with Tess, Joe’s girlfriend who’s moved with them, visit her daily and Anne-Marie begins to weave a spell over her visitors. She is gaining admiration for the murder she committed, which is being seen as an act of protest. As if that all weren’t enough, Joe is also beginning to experience the symptoms of bipolar disorder. A masterfully-woven book, Maksik’s sense of place, and its lack of shelter, is remarkable. (Europa)

The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter

Favorite Reads of September

A bloody crime scene blooms on the construction site belonging to a famous athlete, an unconvicted rapist with a top notch lawyer. The murdered man found there is an ex-cop, and not only that, the blood he’s drenched in is not his own. It belongs to a woman, who’s now missing, losing a lot of blood, and possibly still alive. Will Trent is investigating the case, while his lover Sara Linton is investigating the body. Trent is the same man who tried to convict the athlete before, which only further muddies the already muddied waters: after all, whose gun shows up on the crime scene but Trent’s ex-wife’s? This is a mess from which our heroes need to extricate themselves, while also finding the murderer and the bloody woman… (William Morrow)

Nine Island by Jane Alison

Favorite Reads of September

This autobiographical novel from Jane Alison is about something that so many of us come back to again and again: love and its loss. J is trying to decide whether it’s time to simply leave love behind her, to give it up completely. From her condo in a glass construction in Miami, she watches the loves of her neighbors and befriends one of them. She begins translating Ovid, takes care of her old cat and equally aged mother, and continues going out on dates. But she muses about her past—her marriage and her exes—and the nature of desire. A cerebral exploration of self, the novel explores oneness and whether it is, or isn’t, an acceptable ending. (Catapult)

Little Nothing by Marisa Silver

Favorite Reads of September

The much anticipated Little Nothing by Marisa Silver is an alternative fairy tale of sorts. Pavla is born a dwarf, and while she is beautiful, she is nevertheless shunned and persecuted. Her peasant parents try to cure her of her “condition” through the help of a quack doctor, but to no avail. As she grows up, her story is interwoven with that of a man who wants only to protect her. As Pavla transforms—in ways both realistic and not—across her difficult lifetime, Marisa Silver uses fairy-tale tropes we’re familiar with to great effect. (Blue Rider)

Photography: Ryan Deshon; Styling: Abbe Wright

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.

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