New page-turners heat up our summer reading: "Blacktop Wasteland," "The Only Good Indians" and more

Get ready to read "F*ckface" and "The Son of Good Fortune," plus more recommended fiction for July

Published July 8, 2020 6:40PM (EDT)

July Reading List (Salon/Henry Holt and Co./Dial Press Trade/Flatiron Books/Ecco/Gallery/Saga Press)
July Reading List (Salon/Henry Holt and Co./Dial Press Trade/Flatiron Books/Ecco/Gallery/Saga Press)

"Can we change the world in turbulent times, or does the world change us?" asks David Michell's upcoming novel "Utopia Avenue" (Random House, July 14), which centers on "the strangest British band you've never heard of" and their meteoric rise and eventual decline in a psychedelic '60s multiverse. It's a question that is timely and timeless, whether you're a member of an idealistic rock group from a bygone era or a Black Lives Matter protester out in the streets today. 

Inherent to that query is a desire to enact change, but also to be changed — something that good fiction does for all of us. It broadens our worldview, introduces us to characters whose experiences are vastly different from our own or, perhaps, who serve as a mirror for our own choices and insecurities. 

There are several good novels debuting this month that plunge headfirst into issues of class, poverty and socioeconomic status; there's Lynne Streger Strong's novel "Want" and S.A. Cosby's "Blacktop Wasteland," both discussed in more detail below, but also "The Party Upstairs" (Penguin Press, July 7), Lee Connell's gripping story of a young woman who makes it to a prestigious college after being raised by her superintendent father in the basement of the high-rise he manages, only to end up living in that same basement again years later. 

"Mother Daughter Widow Wife" (Scriber, July 7) by Robin Wasserman is a book completely centered on identity and what happens when that part of our being is literally lost. "Wendy Doe" is a woman who was found on a Peter Pan Bus to Philadelphia with no money, no identification and no memory. Doctors diagnose her as having dissociative fugue, a kind of amnesia that could lift at any moment – or never at all. Her strange state becomes intertwined with the lives of those around her, like Dr. Strauss and his protege Lizzie Epstein, as well as those she left in her wake, including her daughter Alice. 

For crime and horror fans, July is a terrific month, too. "The Only Good Indians" (out July 14, reviewed below), the latest from Bram Stoker Award-winning author Stephen Graham Jones, follows four Blackfeet men caught up in a revenge tale about the cost of breaking from tradition.

You know that feeling — sweaty palms, stomach in a compact ball — right before you tip over the highest drop on an old wooden roller coaster? Alex North's "The Shadows" (Celadon Books, July 7), which details teenager Charlie Crabtree's first murder—a shocking, ritualistic act that attracted the attention of the nation—invokes that sensation. Charlie disappears. Paul, who was friends with both Charlie and the victim, remembers it all too well. The memories only become more vivid 25 years later when he feels like someone is watching him. 

In "Mexican Gothic," (Del Rey Books, July 1) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, readers will find a twist on the genre when Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside, after receiving a mysterious note from her newly-married cousin asking her to save her from certain doom.

In addition to these books, Salon's writers also highlighted six more must-read new books coming out this month below.

"One to Watch," by Kate Stayman-London (Dial Press, July 7)

Stayman-London's debut is a smart, pop culture-aware update to the romance novel. It centers on Bea Schumacher, a plus-size blogger who has been ghosted by her best friend-turned-unrequited love, Ray. She consoles herself with a few drinks and watching "Main Squeeze," a dating competition where 25 contestants out-flirt each other for the hand of the eligible bachelor or bachelorette, and ends up writing a post criticizing the show's lack of body diversity.

The post goes viral, and Bea's life is changed overnight as she is swept onto the set of "Main Squeeze" as the next star. She sees this as a way to supercharge her career — and maybe up her Instagram following. Under no circumstances, she says, does she plan to fall in love; she's just there to "subvert harmful beauty standards, inspire women across America, and get a free hot air balloon ride. That's it." 

But once on the show, her priorities shift a little. After all, who doesn't want to star in their own love story? With that vulnerability comes some of the rejection she's feared her whole life (and which echoes her experience with Ray), but she also meets a handful of good men whom she could see herself loving, though it remains to be seen if they actually love her — or just the idea of staying on the show for another week. 

Told through a smattering of text messages, saucy tabloid story excerpts, social media statuses and blog posts, "One to Watch" is a novel that succeeds in finding a tone light enough to qualify it as an exceptional summer read, while also imparting a message substantial enough that you'll want to take it into the next season. – Ashlie D. Stevens

* * *

"Want: A Novel" by Lynne Streger Strong (Henry Holt & Co., July 7)

When you think of stories that explore acts of survival, Odyssean journeys, harsh, wild winters, and dystopian landscapes probably come to mind. But Lynne Streger Strong's "Want" is a distinctly modern day-to-day survival novel centered on weathering financial fragility.

"The first time I got pregnant it was an accident. ... I knew we were too broke to have her; I was still in grad school," says Elizabeth, our narrator. "I had an emergency C-section and my student health insurance didn't cover C-sections — or, it covered C-sections, but only partially. We owed the hospital thirty thousand dollars, and then I was up all night nursing and walking the baby." 

To stay awake, she'd eat handfuls of chocolate chips — a sweet, short jolt of energy —but in the haze of sleepless nights, she would always forget to brush her teeth. Two root canals, one abcessed tooth and a manmade tooth replacement later, she and her husband (a former financial advisor turned artisan furniture maker with $100,000 in student loans) were staring down massive, crippling debt.

"My whole body single-handedly bankrupted us," she says. "It also, with a little bit of help, made and then sustained the two best things in our lives." 

By all accounts and appearances, Elizabeth and her husband are middle class.They are both college-educated and have the familial backgrounds to feel that they should want (and deserve) more out of their lives. Elizabeth is a charter school teacher in Brooklyn who spends one night a week uptown adjuncting at a prestigious university; that night serves as both a window into the life she thought — and still hopes — she'd have, and a reminder that her dream version of herself is fading fast. 

That said, Elizabeth,  "a thirty-four-year J.Cew-cardigan-clad white woman with an Ivy League Ph.D," is distinctly aware of her own privilege. Instead of worrying about not being able to afford the grocery bill, she and her husband fret about spending too much on takeout. They have families they could maybe ask for money, if they wanted. Elizabeth is one of the only white teachers at her charter school which works with underserved children.

"They don't know that we pay extra rent to live in a neighborhood we can't afford so that our kids can go to a school that's said to be better than the one my co-homeroom teacher's kid will go to," she says. 

Written in a series of short, punchy scenes — punctuated by Elizabeth's daily, brutal dawn runs — "Want" is a story of how the American dream shifts and changes to simply wanting to be able to make rent and take care of your kids. – A.D.S.

* * *

"The Son of Good Fortune" by Lysley Tenorio (Harper Collins, July 7)

As a follow-up to his short story collection "Monstress," Tenorio continues to illuminate the plight of the Filipino immigrant, caught in a state of otherness and often loneliness. It's a reminder that many experiences comprise the definition of what makes a person American.

When Excel turned 10, his mother Maxima explained to him that they are TNT, tago ng tago or "hiding and hiding." They're undocumented, and therefore while they live in the tiny town of Colma, California, to the government they're not actually there. 

Excel grows up realizing that he can't risk getting arrested or making headlines or even filling out paperwork for a W-2, and neither can his mother. Instead, Maxima – who once was a B-movie action star in the Philippines – now scams men online.

As an adult, Excel has the opportunity to start anew after taking a road trip with his girlfriend Sab to Hello City, a town that draws drifters, ex-techies, retirees and hippies. It's a place where everyone's accepted, no questions asked, and one can dream of a certain of freedom, if not exactly success. 

Tenorio skillfully sketches out what an all-American boy like Excel experiences in his in-betweenness. He's raised on anime and affordable Subway footlongs, can ace spelling bees but can't speak Tagalog. And he always, always must explain his name is "like the spreadsheet."

Like many second-generation refugees, Excel didn't choose to be undocumented, but he must nevertheless learn to live in a country that doesn't want him. It's a life lived in the background, learning to shrink and take up less space, to draw less attention, to be less. 

"Son of Good Fortune" recalls Souvankham Thammavongsa's short story series "How to Pronounce Knife" in its critical and whimsical observations of American life, but wasting little time on sentimentality. It's a damning yet clear-eyed acknowledgement that for many, the American dream is merely survival. – Hanh Nguyen

* * *

"Blacktop Wasteland" by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron Books, July 14)

This new Southern noir begins with a drag race, detours through the backroads of Virginia, and finishes at breakneck speed. I don't care at all about car culture, but goddammit, S.A. Cosby had me heavily invested in engine sizes and road handling throughout this thrilling yet heartbreaking heist adventure.

The elegantly named Beauregard Montage, known to his pals as Bug, is an upstanding mechanic in Virginia trying to keep his auto repair shop solvent while also providing the essentials his family needs. When money is tight, he'll score a few hundred by pitting his '71 Plymouth Duster against easy marks in drag races. But when faced with a financial crisis, Bug makes the fateful decision to revisit his criminal past. 

You see, Bug used to be an expert wheelman, the best getaway driver East of the Mississippi ever since his father left. Now there's an opportunity for a huge payday, if only his accomplices will heed his meticulously planned scheme. Chess is one of Cosby's favorite pastimes, and it's clear that Bug also shares that ability to strategize and plan several moves ahead, making for a ripping good yarn that rarely lifts its foot from the gas.

Every chapter, every page contains a line worth highlighting and quoting, beautifully wrought and worthy of envy. This deft phrasing comes laden with emotion, often wry or poignant, but occasionally snort-out-loud hilarious. 

Beyond the brisk storytelling and wordsmithery, however, lies bittersweet insight into rural Black America and the challenges of clawing one's way out of the rigged system held over from a former Confederate state. 

Cosby revitalizes the tried-and-true "one last job" story with specificity that is effortless and as dense as the local kudzu, showing how talent can be wasted for want of opportunity, how code-switching can make or break survival, how a past often spells one's destiny. Call shotgun, and then buckle up. "Blacktop Wasteland" is a ride that will stick with you long after the engine has cooled. – H.N.

* * *

"F*ckface and Other Stories" by Leah Hampton (Henry Holt & Co., July 14)

The title character of Leah Hampton's debut short fiction collection is not the star of his own-named narrative. Fuckface is just the manager of a grocery store in a little North Carolina town where "the mountains hung low and mean in every direction." He's scorned by the store's crew, including Pretty, a young queer woman who yearns for her sparkling co-worker Jamie, or maybe just Jamie's life, currently on an upswing in the form of an impending move toward the hip promises of Asheville's craft brewery scene. And yet in Hampton's hands, the kind of pitiful guy whose own staff nicknames out in the open like that also gets the chance to be a hero of sorts, and not only because he ends up solving Pretty's problem in the collection's opening line: "Nothing'll ever fix what's broken in this town, but it would be nice if they'd at least get the dead bear out of the parking lot at Food Country."

Hampton's openers are all knuckle-crackers like that, sending memorable characters like Pretty around or through the dead bears, real and metaphorical, blocking their paths out of, back to, or toward reconciliation with the rural Appalachian communities from which they hail. In "Queen," it takes the form of a woman's dead mother's bee colony; in "Meat," a factory hog farm intern's passel of sows that burn up in a fire. Many of the stories focus on women who live on the outskirts of the traditional family context—they're childless, or queer, or single, or divorced—which marks them as both insider and outsider at once. The book closes with "Sparkle," a tale of unbearable romantic yearning set in that most hallowed of grounds, Dollywood. A woman tries to bare herself to her husband's research partner, whom she loves, by taking him to her favorite place on earth, Dolly Parton's amusement park in the Smoky Mountains. To her crushing disappointment he gets it, and her, all wrong. In this story of stifled desire, Hampton has also crafted a metaphor about the risks of inviting guests into a sacred place, a fitting end to this gem of a collection.— Erin Keane

* * *

"The Only Good Indians" by Stephen Graham Jones (Gallery / Saga Press, July 14)

Award-winning horror master Stephen Graham Jones ("Mapping the Interior," "Mongrels") has crafted a meticulously tense and gruesome vengeance tale in "The Only Good Indians," a haunting story about what happens when the past catches up to four best friends who violated traditional laws when they slaughtered a herd of elk on a part of the Blackfeet Reservation where only their elders are allowed to hunt. Ten years later, Ricky, Lewis, Cassidy and Gabe are the hunted. One of the elk killed that day, a young pregnant cow, has returned to settle the score. 

She begins by terrorizing the two who have left: Ricky dies fast, framed by rogue elk hellbent on destroying trucks in the parking lot of a North Dakota honkytonk, setting a mob of drunken white roughnecks upon him. Fantasy fan Lewis—married to a white woman named Peta and working for the U.S. Postal Service in nearby Great Falls, Montana—starts to unravel, no longer sure of the bounds of reality. His new co-worker, a Crow woman named Shaney, is shadowing him in more ways than one. His dog's acting strangely. And he can't be sure he's not seeing that young mother elk again, though she's 10 years dead, her hide still waiting in his freezer to become a pair of gloves.

Back home on the reservation, Cassidy has gotten his life together, getting ready to propose to his girlfriend, while Gabe's on a slow downward spiral, barred from his daughter's ballgames with a restraining order issued for disruptive behavior, including fighting and public intoxication, but always looking for a shot to tighten their bond. Cassidy and Gabe don't know what's coming for them the night they set up a sweat for a friend's teenage son, who's in danger of going wayward himself. Graham's dark sense of humor cuts the tension somewhat — a horror story set in a basketball-obsessed community must include a finals girl, of course — but the Elk Head Woman's righteous fury is relentless, making the story's quiet ending, one of reconciliation and reclamation, all the more powerful. — E.K.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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