RIF’s Favorites of July 2017

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

Faves of July

We hope July was a good month for you all. The news is nonstop ridiculousness these days, which makes us want to retreat into the land of words and literature even more, but let’s not forget that the land of words and literature is both affected by and has a very real effect on the real world we’re so eager to escape. Instead of shutting our eyes, we’re trying to be galvanized by all the powerful literature out there, and we hope you’re in the same boat. But if not, we also know that literature is a great form of escapism and, well, as long as people are reading, we really don’t care why they’re doing it. Here are our favorite books published in July.

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn JacksonJoshilyn Jackson’s newest addition to her oeuvre feels super relevant this month, what with her protagonist being a popular graphic novel writer and this month playing host to San Diego ComicCon. After a similar comics convention, Leia Birch Briggs has a one-night-stand with a handsome black guy dressed as Batman and later finds herself pregnant with his baby. And hers isn’t the only news threatening to upend her conservative Southern family. Her step-sister’s marriage has gone kablooey, and Leia’s grandmother, has been slipping into dementia and hiding it with the help of her girlhood best friend. Going back to Alabama to help her grandmother would be the perfect time to tell everyone about her pregnancy, but Leia finds some skeletons in her grandmother’s closet that call into question everything Leia thinks she knows. (William Morrow)

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle BrownNo one knows where Billie Flanagan has disappeared to, but she’s believed to be dead; her last known whereabouts are California’s Desolation Wilderness on a solo hike, where her cell phone, shattered, and a lone boot are recovered after she never returns home. Leaving behind a doting, grieving husband and an increasingly sullen teenage daughter, Olive, Billie is clearly missed. Olive starts having realistic visions of her mother—still alive—beckoning her, and Jonathan, Billie’s husband, starts finding out things he never knew about his wife, which interfere with the writing of his loving memoir about their marriage. Who was Billie, really? Father and daughter set out to discover the truth, and you’ll want to gather close and journey with them through this emotional and psychological roller coaster. (Spiegel & Grau)

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel KhongRuth Young is newly single and newly pathetic—or that’s at least how she sees it, what with the whole moving-back-home-to-live-with-her-parents thing. But she has good reason to move home (besides being dumped by ex-fiance Joel); Ruth’s father, an esteemed history professor, has Alzheimer’s, and it’s worsening by the day. Over a year of her life, we watch Ruth’s heart break for her parents as she learns more about them, as well as about herself. Kind, funny, irascible yet sincere, Ruth Young will be a narrator you won’t soon forget. (Henry Holt)

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Beautiful Animals by Lawrence OsborneNaomi is beautiful, bored, and wealthy. Sam is younger, eager, and awestruck. That a friendship is struck up between the two is not so surprising, since Naomi needs someone to hang out with while living in her dad’s villa on a Greek island and Sam needs someone to hang out with while on vacation with her folks. When they discover a man sleeping in the middle of a trail, they’re both stunned but moved to help. The man is Faoud, mysterious about his background but maybe a Syrian refugee washed up on the shores of the Greek island, and Naomi concocts a dangerous plan to help get him money. When it goes wrong, and all hell breaks loose, we get to follow Faoud’s story and Naomi and Sam’s as they try to figure things out. (Hogarth)

What We Lose by Zinzi ClemmonsZinzi Clemmons’ debut novel is a gorgeous piece of fiction that plunges into the depths of grief. The narrator, unnamed for much of the novel, is half South African, half African-American, and she moves through the world in a state of in-between—light skinned, but still black, American yet also South African. In this liminal space, her grief becomes the largest thing about her, as she witnesses her mother, a volatile and vibrant woman, slowly die of cancer. Her mother’s loss becomes the narrator’s defining moment, shaping the way she thinks and approaches the world. A beautiful book told in vignettes, this is one you don’t want to miss. (Viking)

American Fire by Monica HesseIn American Fire, Monica Hesse takes a look at a county besieged by a strange crime. A string of arsons, over 80 total, plagued Accomack County on the Virginia Shore over a period of five months. Hesse starts out reporting on the trial of the man who ‘fessed up to the arson, but then she circles back, and in this book she looks at the duo believed to have committed the crime together, as well as how the arson affects the community at large. This engaging nonfiction read is a reflection on the economic state of the United States, a look at a particular county in crisis during a very strange time, and a true crime narrative all rolled into one. (Liveright)

Who is Rich? by Matthew KlamWho is Rich? Well, Rich is a has-been cartoonist and comics writer who still illustrates for a magazine (that’s going under) and still teaches at a hoity-toity artists’ retreat (that doesn’t pay him enough) somewhere on the coast of New England. In humorous and satiric fashion, Matthew Klam exposes a whole host of complex issues, from the evolving media landscape to the self-seriousness of art and artists to the seemingly ever-present issue of infidelity. With illustrator John Cuneo’s caricatures adding even more flavor, this novel tackles common themes with a fresh eye and biting wit, allowing us to follow Rich’s fumbling amongst the truly rich and his constant attempts at explaining away his bad behavior. A fun summer romp. (Random House)

When the English Fall by David WilliamsThe English is what Amish people call all non-Amish folks, so most of us reading David Williams’ novel would likely count as the English. In this disquieting book, Williams takes us into a post-apocalyptic future seen from an oft-overlooked minority: the Amish. When modern conveniences fail after a solar storm that leaves the skies dark, the Amish—who lack said modern conveniences—are able to get along just fine. Or they would, if only they were still left alone. But with their stocked larders and various ways of getting around, the Amish have some of the most sought-after accoutrements humanity needs in the face of catastrophic climate change. As violence enters their midst, the peaceful Amish must adapt, die, or flee. An eerie tale and a fresh take on dystopia. (Algonquin)

The Goddesses by Swan HuntleyNancy Murphy is ready for a fresh start. Married to a man who cheated on her (with his Costco co-worker) and mother of teenage twin boys who are getting more unruly by the day, she’s tired of being unhappy. When the family moves to Hawaii, it’s the perfect refresh for Nancy, and she resolves to be a better, happier woman, starting with daily yoga. It’s there she meets yoga teacher Ana, who is charismatic and carefree—everything Nancy yearns to be. While their realities are different, they are drawn to one another and become fast friends. So close, in fact, that Nancy finds herself skimping on family time in order to hang with Ana. What happens when Ana demands more and more of Nancy’s time and emotional energy? Swan Huntley’s beautiful depiction of friendships and complex psychologies is gripping. (Doubleday)

Conversations with Friends by Sally RooneyFrances is a poet, a communist, a best friend, a daughter—she is all these things and more, but, like many 21-year-old women, she struggles with self-acceptance and repeats unhealthy patterns. Relying on Bobbi, her best friend and ex-lover, to be the gregarious one of the pair, Frances is nevertheless drawn into a new world when a photographer and writer, Melissa, approaches them with warmth and an interesting offer. While Bobbi is spellbound by Melissa, Frances finds herself drawn to everything around Melissa that is successful, including Melissa’s charismatic, depressed actor husband, Nick. As the web between these four tangles further, Frances finds herself torn between past loves and present predicaments. Sally Rooney has captured an essential part of girlhood, womanhood, and the complex desires that lead us astray. (Hogarth)

Refuge by Dina NayeriNiloo’s mother takes her and her brother out of Iran when they are children, leaving behind their father, who is unwilling to uproot his life and his opium addiction. Growing up in the U.S. thereafter, Niloo adapts and assimilates. She marries a Frenchman, and they move to Amsterdam, where she meets a community of Iranian refugees, fleeing from the unrest in their home country and struggling to attain legal documentation in the Netherlands. Unable to feel at home anywhere—while her life is cosmopolitan and sophisticated, she feels alienated from it, but she is also unfamiliar with the kind of terror and struggle of the refugees she befriends—Niloo’s story, and her complex relationship with her father, expose a narrative of immigration that is necessary and nuanced. (Riverhead Books)

Spoonbenders by Daryl GregoryThe Amazing Telemachus family has fallen from their once-amazing status. At one point, they traveled the country and performed unbelievable feats, both real, like Maureen’s actual abilities as a medium, or fake, like Maureen’s husband Teddy’s sleight of hand. But now, even though the CIA still has the Telemachuses on their radar (and are nosing around), Maureen and Teddy’s kids are all living somewhat screwed up lives, full of normal problems (and some magical ones too). Taking readers through the various members of the Telemachus family and spanning the decades of their evolution, Daryl Gregory succeeds in creating a warmth-filled novel about how families interact, with or without magic in their midst. (Knopf)

Made for Love by Alissa NuttingIn Alissa Nutting’s newest book, we get to see a whole host of amazing weirdos: whether that’s Hazel, who’s left her husband, or Byron, Hazel’s husband who is obsessed with technology and helps run his family’s huge company Gogol Industries, or Hazel’s father, who is now living with his dream woman—a sex doll. As Hazel flees her husband and ends up living in a trailer park with her father, we get glimpses of her courtship with Byron, of her life before him, of where her life went wrong after him. Then there is Jasper, a con artist with an interesting post traumatic stress reaction to being almost raped by a male dolphin. Nutting’s situations are wonderfully absurd, and whether you’re new to the author’s work or already a fan, we suggest you pick up her latest. (Ecco)

Gather the Daughters by Jennie MelamedThis summer, don’t miss Gather the Daughters, a novel from a new talent, Jennie Melamed, which has a mood reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, but with a plot and style all its own. Women and girls begin to breed early on the island—the island that is at some distance from the mainland—the mainland where only the wanderers go in order to gather supplies. The mainland and the surrounding world have been destroyed, and the people on the island are all descendants of the original ten ancestors who colonized the island. Follow four daughters, Vanessa, Amanda, Caitlin, and Janey, who are being groomed to become wives, as they slowly break the seal keeping the secrets of their ancestors from them and begin to discover terrifying truths. A truly vivid and incredibly debut. (Little, Brown)

Dirt Road by James KelmanIn James Kelman’s new novel, the celebrated Scottish author turns his gaze towards the American South. Murdo is a nearly 17-year-old young man and an accordion player, and he and his father are visiting Murdo’s aunt and uncle in America from their home in Scotland. Murdo’s mother recently died of cancer, and his sister died some years ago from the same disease, yet grief is not something that Murdo and his father manage to share. Instead, Murdo’s loneliness and isolation find space to stretch in his enjoyment of music, and his chance encounter with a zydeco-playing African-American family at a bus depot. As Murdo’s mind shifts into dreaming of a future right where he’s at, his father is planning for their future back in Scotland. A stirring coming-of-age story, Dirt Road is an examination of family bonds, loss and the power of music. (Catapult)

Final Girls by Riley SagerThe “final girl” is the one who escapes the bloody massacre in the cabin in the woods, or the killer’s knife at the motel, or gets out of body-strewn sorority house alive—the final girl is the one lives, the one who’s charged with telling the story, and the one left with the psychological scars. A popular horror movie trope, Quincy’s living it in real life and is determined to keep the past in the past. Yes, she survived a murderous slaughter and her friends did not, but she is perfectly well-adjusted, thank you very much, with a boyfriend and a baking blog and an apartment in Manhattan. But now, another real-life final girl is found dead, apparently from suicide, and a third, Sam, shows up on Quincy’s doorstep demanding to become part of her life. As the media tries to reach Quincy for a reaction and Sam attempts to make her relive the past, Quincy finds that running away is far harder in real life than it is inside her repressing mind. The twists keep coming, and your heart will pound to find out what happens next in this exciting new thriller.

Reading with Patrick by Michelle KuoIn this moving memoir, Michelle Kuo, daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, describes the two years she spent with Teach for America in Arkansas. Determined to prove her ideals through action, she enters the TFA program despite her parents wanting a more lucrative next step for her career. Teaching at a middle school in Arkansas has its challenges, including being one of the first or only Asian people many of her students had ever seen. She develops a mentorship with Patrick, a black student in one of her classes, and watches as he grows a love for reading and writing, which blossoms before her eyes. Eventually, however, she succumbs to the ambitions her parents have for her and moves north to attend Harvard Law. When she finds out that Patrick has been arrested and charged with murder, she makes her way back to Arkansas, determined to continue teaching Patrick while he awaits trial in jail. Examining the complexities of race, of literature, of idealism, of class, and more, Kuo’s memoir is a must-read. (Random House)

Fitness Junkie by Lucy Sykes and Jo PiazzaAn extra thirty pounds may not seem like the end of the world, but they are to Janey, whose business partner Beau has just told her to lose the weight or lose her job. Janey and Beau run a couture wedding dress company, and Beau can’t have Janey ruining their rep by wearing clothes bigger than the dresses they sell (size 4 is the max). In Janey’s search for the perfect diet and workout routine, she goes to new highs (literally, on ayahuasca) and lows (in Downward Dog at naked yoga). A total send-up of the fitness and wellness industries, there’s a lot of outrageousness here, from the bruffin (the lovechild of brioche + muffin) to secret workout studios (where starlets lose 15 pounds fast), this book is self-aware, hilarious, and reflects a reality many of us wish were far behind us already. (Doubleday)

Hollow by Owen EgertonOliver used to be a professor. He used to be a husband. He used to be a father. After his toddler son tragically dies, Oliver is blamed and endures unending legal examination for his son’s death. The process capsizes his life: Oliver’s wife kicks him out and he becomes a wretch, living in a shack behind a nail salon, and frequenting the soup kitchen he used to volunteer in. It’s only after he befriends Lyle, and discovers the Hollow Earth Society—a group who believes that the core of the earth contains an alternate realm—that he begins to live again. He becomes convinced it will be his redemption, if not saving him, it will at least provide him answers and a mission. Surrounded by characters in various states of mourning, this narrative is a raw and beautiful exploration of grief and guilt. (Soft Skull Press)

Hello, Sunshine by Laura DaveSunshine is a YouTube star and soon-to-be Food Network sensation when it all goes wrong. Taking imposter syndrome to a whole new level, Sunshine is outed by a hacker: she can’t actually cook and that her show is all a facade, down to her personal biography that was put together by a producer who liked her face. Moving back home (the real one, not the Southern farm she claims to come from), she is faced with her estranged sister, her niece, and a whole host of real world problems. Fighting for redemption, she finds friendship, a connection with her niece, and a place in a real kitchen. Will she fight all the way back to the top? You’ll have to get this delicious read to find out.


Photography by Elsa Jenna

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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