February Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
The Removed by Brandon Hobson: Watch out for Brandon Hobson’s first novel since his National Book Award Finalist, Where the Dead Sit Talking. The novel convenes as a Cherokee family prepares for a bonfire to celebrate the Cherokee National Holiday and, dually, to commemorate the death of fifteen-year-old son Ray-Ray, who was killed by police. Steeped in memory and Cherokee myth, The Removed is “spirited, droll, and as quietly devastating as rain lifting from earth to sky,” per Tommy Orange. (Anne)
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri: The first novel in nearly a decade from the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, the story is centered on a woman who moves through a year in her life. Veering from exuberance and dread to attachment and estrangement, she passes over bridges, through shops, pools, and bars, as one season moves into the next until one day at the sea her perspective changes forever. The novel was first written in Lahiri’s acquired language, Italian. (She describes writing in Italian like, “falling in love.”) Lahiri then translated the novel into English herself. (Claire)
Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler: By most accounts, literary critic and Tweeter extraordinaire Lauren Oyler’s debut novel Fake Accounts is set to hit high highbrow on the hypemeter for its “savage and shrewd” account of a young millennial’s mediation of life via the internet. It begins with her discovery, while snooping, that her boyfriend is a popular conspiracy theorist, and not so long after she flees to Berlin to embark on her own cycles of internet-fueled manipulation. Heidi Julavits calls the novel, “a dopamine experiment of social media realism” a genre that Oyler has pioneered, and careens forward while appropriating and skewering various forms, including fragmented novels and a Greek chorus of ex-boyfriends. (Anne)
This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith: The newest novel by Cross-Smith (who was recently longlisted for the 2021 Joyce Carol Oates Literary Prize) explores one life-changing weekend in the lives of two strangers. When divorced therapist Tallie Clark sees a man standing on the edge of a bridge, she talks him down—and brings him to her home where they slowly reveal their selves (and secrets) to each other. The Millions’ Lydia Kiesling writes, “This is a heartfelt and moving novel about grief, love, second chances, and the coincidences that change lives.” (Carolyn)
Milk, Blood, Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz: A debut collection that takes a look at the lives of Floridians who find themselves confronted by moments of personal reckoning, among them a woman recovering from a miscarriage, a teenager resisting her family’s church, and two estranged siblings taking a road-trip with their father’s ashes. The publisher describes the stories as, “Wise and subversive, spiritual and seductive.” Lauren Groff calls the collection “a gorgeous debut.” Danielle Evans says the “characters that drive them are like lightning—spectacular, beautiful, and carrying a hint of danger.” (Claire)
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: One of the most exciting writers these days is also one of the most Online, as longtime fans of Patricia Lockwood all agree. In her debut novel, written in a fragmented style as excerpted in the New Yorker, an unnamed narrator comes home to help her younger pregnant sister through complications. Like the internet itself, what follows is as ecstatically humorous as it is heartbreakingly sad. (Nick M.)
 
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel: I could praise Infinite Country and recommend it and then praise some more, but others have already done it, and better: R.O. Kwon says Infinite Country “is a wonder, and Patricia Engel is a magician”; Lauren Groff writes that the novel “speaks into the present moment with an oracle’s devastating coolness and clarity.” The fourth book from prize-winning Colombian-American author Patricia Engel, Infinite Country, is a story of immigration and diaspora that’s both brutal and hopeful, blending Andean myth with the lives of an undocumented family spread across two continents and fighting for reconnection. (Kaulie)
Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen: From the Wall Street Journal reporter whose first-hand observations of contemporary China converge into this stunning debut collection. In the ten stories, we can see how the recent economic boom has impacted and transformed people’s lives in China: the division of values among family members, the unchanging bureaucratic systems, and the request for recognition from marginalized groups. Chen’s fiction is a satisfying literary read as well as precise cultural criticism. (Jianan Qian)
Let’s Get Back to the Party by Zak Salih: Salih’s debut offers a thoughtful meditation on the evolving landscape of gay male life in America. When gay marriage is legalized in 2015, high school teacher Sebastian Mote finds the occasion unexpectedly bittersweet, since he just broke up with his boyfriend of three years. He pours his energy into nurturing his students, particularly Arthur, a 17-year-old whose openness about his own sexuality is a source of envy for Sebastian. Then he runs into a childhood friend at a wedding—and learns that he’s not alone in his ambivalence towards the new rules of dating. (Thom)
The Delivery by Peter Mendelsund: Like a millennial Franz Kafka, writer and graphic designer Peter Mendelsund plumbs the absurdities of our society, but rather than focusing on the incipient authoritarianism of crumbling central Europe, he examines the existential despair (and bleak funniness) of the gig economy. The Delivery takes place in an unnamed city where refugees must earn their right to sanctuary as workers delivering food to the ruling class through an app with shades of Uber Eats. Evoking J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, if it was about GrubHub rather than colonialism, The Delivery understands that there is no such thing as a free lunch. (Ed S.)
Cowboy Graves by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Natasha Wimmer): A trio of novellas by the late Chilean poet and novelist depict socialist upheaval, underground magical realism abroad, and love in the face of fascist violence. (Nick M.)
 
 
We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman: In Silverman’s debut novel, aspiring playright Cass has just received her big break when a series of mortifying incidents makes her a social parriah. After fleeing to Los Angeles, she meets a charming filmmaker named Caroline who making a film about an eccentric group of teenaged girls. With humor and grace, the novel meditates on the allure (and cost) of ambition and fame. (Carolyn)
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones: Trained as an attorney, Jones sets this tale of social class clashes and interconnections in a resort town in her native Barbados. Hailed as “Most Anticipated of 2021” and a “searing debut” by O Magazine; “hard hitting and unflinching” and “unforgettable” say her blurbers Bernardine Evaristo and Naomi Jackson. (Sonya)

The Blizzard Party by Jack Livings: The author of award-winning collection, The Dog, returns with his panoramic debut novel. Set in New York City during the blizzard of February 1978, Hazel Saltwater (then six years old) sits at the center of a story swirling with characters, history, and memories (real, altered, and recreated). Garnering two starred reviews, Publishers Weekly called the novel “brilliant” and “one to savor,” and Kirkus called it “a detour de force: sprawling, discursive, loose-limbed (and impressive).” (Carolyn)

American Delirium by Betina González (translated by Heather Cleary): In her English language debut, award-winning author Betina González interweaves the lives of three characters in a mid-Western city that is unraveling. Deer are attacking people, a squad of retirees trains to hunt them down, and protestors decide to abandon society, including their own children, and live in the woods. Anjali Sachdeva notes, “As González’s characters navigate a world where plants inspire revolution and animals are possessed by homicidal rage, they ask us to consider whether human beings are perhaps the least natural creatures this planet has to offer.” (Zoë)
Annie and the Wolves by Andromeda Romano-Lax: Romano-Lax’s (Plum Rains) newest novel blends the historical and speculative as Ruth McClintock, a failed doctoral candidate, falls deeper into her all-consuming obsession with Annie Oakley. When Ruth she discovers an artifact from Oakley’s past, she begins to have out-of-body experiences which leave her wondering if the past is as permanent as she once believed. Eowyn Ivey calls the novel a “morally complex, genre-shattering thriller.” (Carolyn)
The Weak Spot by Lucie Elven: A young, unnamed narrator takes an pharmacy apprenticeship in a remote European mountain town in Elven’s debut novel. While working under her charismatic boss, the woman realizes that things (and people) aren’t as they seem. Catherine Lacey says, “In prose reminiscent of Fleur Jaeggy, The Weak Spot is a prismatic fable spiked with dozens of elegant revelations.” (Carolyn)

Girls of a Certain Age by Maria Adelmann: In Adelmann’s short story collection explores a wide array of women, girls, and non-binary people navigating and enduring loss, fear, and hardship. Jean Kyoung Frazier says, “Harsh and tender, Adelmann’s collection is both an unblinking testament to modern womanhood and a fearless debut.” (Carolyn)

Wild Swims by Dorthe Nors (translated by Misha Hoekstra): In her newest short story collection, International Booker Prize finalist Nors explores the lives and loves of people across the globe. Kirkus’ starred review calls the fourteen stories “a brainy collection perfectly constructed to put you on edge.” (Carolyn)

‘The Divines’: Featured Fiction from Ellie Eaton

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In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we’re happy to present an excerpt from Ellie Eaton’s debut novel, The Divines.
The book, which Publishers Weekly says “will keep readers riveted,” follows freelance writer Josephine as she reflects on her time at the (now defunct) St John the Divine—an elite English boarding school for girls—and the scandal that changed their community forever. Booklist writes, “At times both sharp and haunting, this novel embodies the awkwardness and regret of adolescence.”
***

I am Divine.

My mother was Divine and her mother before that, which isn’t uncommon. Though that was at a time when being Divine meant something; it had cachet, as my mother still likes to brag; it opened doors, got you places. Though it’s hard to see specifically where being Divine ever got her, other than married. Perhaps I’m missing the point.

I haven’t spoken to another Divine for fourteen years, maybe more, despite there being ample online opportunities these days to reconnect with my former peers should I so wish. I don’t. Every Christmas and Easter I fly back to England to visit my mother, who, in her sixties now, keeps backdated copies of our Old Girls’ newsletter for me in her downstairs loo, next to Country Living. Births, deaths, marriages, the rare athletic achievement, horses for sale, and, of course, reunions. Endless reunions. Not one of which I have attended. Until, as a newlywed, I take my husband on an impromptu detour from our honeymoon destination, veering off the dual carriageway so unexpectedly at the road sign that he thinks for a heart-stopping moment I might have morning sickness.

“Just to have a look,” I say. “It won’t take long.”

A trip down memory lane, then we’ll be on our way.

I crawl our rental car round the Oxfordshire town, circling closer to where I remember my former school once stood, folding forward over the steering wheel, trying to get my bearings. This is harder than I think it will be. Nothing is as I remember it. Most of the grounds have been flattened. The gym is gone, the maths block, the redbrick science labs, everything except those buildings deemed to hold significant historic value—the Old Hall and a couple of boarding houses, subdivided into flats for young professionals. I park outside the chapel, which is now, by the looks of things, a private dental practice. My husband of two days is bemused. Keen to get some miles under our belt on the long drive to Scotland, he hadn’t factored this pit stop into his calculations.

“This is it?”

“Give me half an hour,” I say, squeezing his hand.

I point him in the direction of the White Horse. When he is gone, I walk into the dentist’s, slipping past a young receptionist into the sanctuary-cum-waiting room, repainted a minty orthodontic green. I sit for some time listening to the ominous clinks and skirls and high metallic whines of the hygienist at work. Along the nave, cubicles have been fashioned from low movable walls decorated with huge toothy faces of smiling children. The wooden bench I am sitting on looks like, perhaps even is, the ex act pew that the robed altar servers slumped on during our Sun day service, obscured by puffs of incense. The organ pipes are still in situ, way back up in the balcony behind the choir stalls, which seem quite small, barely room for a handful of girls. On the immovable stone pulpit where Fat Fran, my headmistress of six years, made her daily proclamations, a series of dental brochures, women’s magazines, food and lifestyle glossies have been stacked, some of which, at one time or another over my career, I have contributed to. I rest my head against stone and look up at the arched ceiling. It is very surreal, the dental nurses padding in and out of the vestry in their soft-soled shoes like nuns. Everything so familiar yet nothing quite as it was.

Behind my head is a sequence of very narrow and long stained glass windows reaching all the way to the beams. What shocks me as I sit there is that—unless I actually sit up and twist my neck to look-I can’t remember what they depict, not even if you put a gun to my head. I spent the entirety of my adolescence facing those windows, staring at them every single morning for close to five years, Saturdays excepted, and don’t remember a single detail, not one saint or disciple or even the big man himself, which only goes to show the astonishing depths of teenage self-obsession. Or maybe, more accurately, it says something about me back then. Or my memory of my school days, selective at best.

As I am sitting on the pew a patient comes out of a booth, her jaw clamped down on wadding, her hand holding her cheek. Unsteady on her high heels, dazed, she is guided to a spot next to me. A dental assistant goes to retrieve something important, a prescription perhaps, and the patient’s eyes roam around the arched ceiling and the fluted ironwork. It is an unnerving set ting for a dental practice—the angels and the pulpit and stained glass-perhaps she thinks she is hallucinating. Blood catenates slowly from her empty socket down the gauze in her hand. We are probably the same age. She could have been a King Edmund. She stares vacantly at the neon exit sign as if she is waiting to be collected. Above the vestry door is the Divine school motto carved into a rectangle of wood.
MEMOR AMICI
Remember friends.

“Ha,” I snort out loud.

The patient slowly turns towards me, medicated, her hand still firmly pressed against her cheek. She blinks.

I try to swallow it down, doubling over, in the grip of the kind of stifled laughter that catches you off guard, leaping up your throat during somber moments: funerals, sermons, your fiancé’s art show opening.

My shoulders shake and the pew judders. The patient stands up suddenly, her handbag falling to the floor, its contents spilling.

“Shit, I’m terribly sorry.” I see her lipstick rolling towards the lectern. “Sorry, sorry.”

I put a fist to my chest and thump it. Swallow.

“Sorry.”

I scramble to pick up her bag, holding it out to her.

“This used to be a school,” I blurt, just to say something. “St. John the Divine.”

The poor woman’s numbed head nods slightly, taking her purse. She looks down at a message illuminated on her phone and then over her shoulder at the door, checking for her lift. I assume she isn’t allowed to drive.

“The private school,” I keep going. “The one that shut down; it was in the papers a long time ago, remember? There was a scandal.”

She stares at my face as if I am slowly coming into focus. Enough years have passed for me not to sound completely Divine. I have lived abroad on and off, my accent is sometimes hard to identify, but still, she looks me up and down and her eyes flash. She knows.

“Yeah,” she says. As she talks her wadding unplugs momentarily, exposing ghoulish bloody gums. “And? My mum worked in the kitchen.” She thumbs behind us in the direction of the old refectory. “Sixteen years scrubbing fucking pans, if you must know.”

The right side of the woman’s lip is drooping; her speech has a drunken slur.

“Bunch of stuck-up fucking toffs.”

She plugs the gauze back in, clamps back down on it, waiting to see what I’ll say next. She’s right, of course. But what does she expect me to do, defend my honor, wrestle her to the floor?

I think about my husband, Jürgen, waiting for me in the pub. Jürgen knows how to let moments like this roll over him. He is a pacifist, not someone who can be easily provoked. Despite the fact he’s the artist in our relationship, things that make me flare up with rage don’t bother him at all. When we met I had just come out of a turbulent, itinerant period of life and, exhausted, I suppose you could say that I found his particular brand of considered quietude seductive. That was what I had fallen in love with. Lately I have been trying hard to adopt some of Jürgen’s sangfroid. Plus we are newlyweds. On our honeymoon. I don’t take the bait.

Thankfully a bald man sticks his head around the chapel door, whistles, and gestures at the woman with his thumb. She departs, her high heels clicking sharply on the tiled floor, marching down the nave, past the vestry, and through the arched door.
MEMOR AMICI
I wait a decent amount of time, hovering on a Communion step, then I leave as well. My husband—that word feels so exotic is waiting for me outside, hands in his pockets, resting on the hood of the rental car, chewing slowly. I feel a burst of relief to see him standing there, solid looking and straightforward, not in the least Divine. On our first date he rolled up his sleeves at the sight of the leaking pipe in my kitchen, requesting a wrench. He is a pragmatist, a maker of lists.

“All good?” he checks.

I nod. I turn my back and lean against Jürgen’s chest; he loops his arms around my waist, his chin on my head, and I try to put the incident in the chapel behind me. I should never have come back. I’m embarrassed to have brought him here, to have wasted even an hour of our honeymoon on something so inconsequential. A moment of nostalgia, now gone. We gaze up at the stone statue of King Edmund in the center of the town, close to the bus stop. Five pigeons spar for space on top of his helmet, bobbing and ducking, feather elbows. They flick their shabby gray tails and shit down Edmund’s cloak. An elderly woman tugging a tartan shopping trolley shuffles past us into the market square. Traders hold bananas aloft on hooked fingers, hollering deals. Three old boys in tweed jackets stand outside the bookies smoking. I am acutely aware of how particularly English all this must seem to him, my husband, an Austrian.

Jürgen pulls a piece of fudge from a paper bag and puts it into my mouth.

“Okay. Big drive. Let’s go.”

He checks the fastenings on his bike that is tethered to the boot of our rental car, and as he tugs the frame tight a bald man driving a red Mazda swerves across the road towards us and stops abruptly, blocking traffic. A window hums down, and the woman from the dentist’s leans across the bald man, actually crawling across his lap, the lower half of her face distorted, stiff with pain.

“Hallo there,” my husband says jovially, squatting slightly, “can we help?”

Austrians, particularly country bumpkins like him, are pathologically nice. I’ve seen him dig a car out of the snow for a stranger and drag each of our neighbor’s bins out every week without a word of thanks.

The woman in the Mazda gives him the finger.

She glares at me, her real target, and pokes her swollen head farther out of the window as if there is something urgent she for got to tell me back there in the chapel, her tongue fat and lisping.

“Cunth.”

“Ha.” I laugh nervously. “Ha ha ha.”

Then she spits at me, her gob landing at my feet, and they speed off.

So, this is the way it is. Fourteen years and nothing has changed. She is a townie. I am Divine.

“My god,” my husband says, “Sephine, who was that?”

Hands on his hips, he looks up the road after the Mazda.

“Was that some kind of joke, my god?”

“Forget it,” I say, humiliated, “let’s go.”

I give him a gentle shove towards the car in case the banshee decides to come back. I don’t want her to jinx our honeymoon Two days ago we were exchanging vows at the town hall, grin ning at each other like imbeciles, euphoric

“But I don’t understand; do you know her?”

“No, nothing like that.”

I slip my hands down his hip, taking the keys from his pocket. I unlock the rental car quickly and get behind the wheel. Jürgen sits in the passenger seat, shaking his head.

“Was she from your school then, an old friend?”

I start the car.

“I don’t have any school friends.”

He frowns, as if he’s only just found this out about me.

“You don’t? Why not?”

I have friends, of course, but the oldest and truest friendships I have are the ones I forged at university or soon after, when an element of choice was introduced to the selection process. Plus my husband’s friends, such as they are, though generally not their wives for some reason. Thanks to his extreme niceness, genial blue Austrian eyes, his obvious likability, Jürgen has always been the social one in our relationship. Though these days he’s just as happy to spend an evening at home, working in his studio or tinkering with his bikes. Occasionally we go to a gallery opening or drive visitors around whatever city we are living in, or meet an old editor of mine for brunch. I can count nearly all these friends on one hand. But not one of them is Divine.

“I don’t know,” I tell him with a shrug and turn the key in the ignition. “I just don’t.”

We break the journey in Yorkshire, spending the night in a bed-and-breakfast where we barely leave our four-poster bed. In the morning we scramble into clothes, unwashed, stumbling into the dining room moments before the end of service. The land lady, a stern matronly looking woman, reminiscent of a former housemistress of mine, stands with her hands on her hips, scowl ing at the clock. We slip sheepishly into our seats, trying not to laugh. Across the room two women, dressed in shorts and walk ing boots, barely glance up from their maps. A middle-aged man butters his mother’s toast. Next to us an elderly couple smile and raise their glasses of orange juice.

“Congratulations,” the wife says, leaning over and patting Jürgen on the back of his hand.

“Is it that obvious?”

The couple smile knowingly at each other.

Jürgen’s T-shirt is inside out, my hair unkempt. As we brush against each other under the table, there’s a stench between my thighs, musky and sour, like overripe fruit. I cringe, thinking of our attic room, the paper-thin walls and creaking bed frame, and bury my head in Jürgen’s shoulder. The landlady slams a teapot on the table in front of us.

Jürgen asks the couple how long they’ve been married.

“Forever,” the old man groans

His wife flaps her napkin at him.

“Fifty-four years this September,” she says.

I can feel Jürgen’s fingers as they weave through mine, how his wedding band grates over my knuckles as he squeezes, causing me to wince.

“Any advice?” Jürgen asks.

The elderly pair gather their room key and newspaper and spectacles from the table. The husband gets up and pulls back his wife’s chair so she can stand.

“Be kind,” the wife says.

They nod at us.

“Good luck.”

During checkout Jürgen stops in front of the landlady and kisses me, a hand slipping down the back of my trousers, and then we pack up the car and are back on the road. I begin to think that the unpleasant incident at St. John’s is forgotten, that the whole ugly scene is behind us. But then, unexpectedly…

“No school friends,” Jürgen says, sliding his hand up and down my thigh as I join the motorway. “That’s interesting, you know?”

I can see that my new husband finds this baffling. I wish I’d never mentioned the word Divine. He can’t let it alone. He taps one finger against the glass as we cross the border into Scotland, staring out at the uneventful landscape, green fields with yellow pocket handkerchiefs of oilseed rape, culs-de-sac, warehouses and roadside cafés, food trucks parked in rest stops. We have another four hours of driving ahead of us to get to Skye, not to mention the ferry.

“Not one?” Jürgen checks, uncharacteristically pushy.

“No.”

“How come?”

The four men that are his best friends all come from the same Salzburg village where he grew up. Andreas, Hansi, Thomas B, Thomas F. Two of them were christened together, they went to the same school, shared their first cigarette in Hansi’s woodshed, stole their grandparents’ schnapps, chased their first girlfriends on Krampusnacht, pretending to be the Christmas devil, masked and growling, nipping their sweethearts’ ankles with leather whips, threatening to carry them to the underworld. They have shed blood together, hunted together, drunk wept at each other’s weddings, actually staggering around the dance floor like bears. They are his family, closer than his actual brothers (one older, one younger, who I have to remind Jürgen to call on their respective birthdays). He is loyal to the core and would do anything for these four men, including jumping on a plane at the drop of a hat, or loaning them money without any expectation of return. A private annoyance of mine.

“Were you bullied?” Jürgen wants to know as we pull over to fill up with petrol.

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Unpopular then?” He pokes me. “Eine Streberin. How do you say, a geek?”

“No.”

I grip the pump handle, my knuckles blanching.

“So you loved school?”

“Who loves school? It was fine,” I snap, instantly regretting my tone. “I mean, I don’t remember. Can we just drop it?”

Back behind the wheel he curls his hand around the nape of my neck to soothe me, rubbing his thumb up and down below my ear. He has calluses, little circular pads on the base of each finger from cycling that are rough as pumice.

“You don’t know if you liked school or not? You must remember something.”

“Not really,” I say, wriggling out of Jürgen’s grip, flustered, trying to concentrate on the road.

“Try,” he says.

I don’t answer.

Why won’t I talk to him? Is it just that I’m embarrassed? The boarding school education, the implication of wealth and privilege, the Old Girls’ network. When I met Jürgen (a sculptor I was sent to interview for a Sunday supplement, a rising star), he was still sleeping in a tent in his studio, washing in a sink, subsisting on grants and sporadic commissions. A self-made man, the de scendant of mountain people, literal peasants-cattle herders and cheese makers—he described to me during the course of that first meeting how he’d paid his way through art school felling trees and slaughtering goats.

Jürgen turns his whole body to face me.

“Seriously, you’re kidding, right? You won’t tell me this?”

Ashamed, I say nothing.

He can see that I’m not going to budge.

This does it. Silently thunderous, Jürgen takes out his guide book and reads the history of Skye. His stare bores down into one page then the next. We’re not the kind of couple who bicker. I sit behind the wheel, gnawing on the inside of my cheek, trying not to cry.

On the ferry to Armadale we stand apart, his hood up, my scarf wrapped around my head against the spray. He has his cam era around his neck but doesn’t take one photo. When we get to the island, there are midges, huge biblical clouds of gnats. We cover our mouths with our T-shirts and run into the croft house we have rented, cornered together inside the tiny kitchen.

“Oh my god,” I say, looking out at the bugs creeping all over the window frame, trying to find a way in. I try to make a joke about it but it falls flat. Jürgen is still furious with me, his new wife, for keeping secrets. He sits with the map spread on the floor, his precious road bike propped up against the wall. I open the bottle of single malt I bought on the mainland. I may have taken a few swigs already on the crossing. Dutch courage.

My throat warm, I place the whisky dead in the middle of his map. Jürgen barely looks up. I take off my clothes—it is our honeymoon, after all—and straddle Loch Hourn. Legs spread shamelessly. Afterwards, we lie on the floor and drink the rest of the bottle, picking midges from each other’s skin.

“Please, Sephine,” Jürgen begs. “Remember something. For me.”

“Why are you so interested all of a sudden?”

“That woman, she hated you. She called you a cunt.”

“So?”

“I want to know. I want to know about you back then.”

“No, you don’t.”

I curl under his armpit, press against his warm ribs.

“Liebchen”—he circles the birthmark on my shoulder “please.”

I think of the elderly couple at the bed-and-breakfast. Be kind.

“Fine,” I mutter. I believe, or so I tell myself, in the apotropaic power of marriage. That witch hasn’t jinxed us, we are invincible. Golden even. What harm can it do?

“Memor amici,” I begin.

Remember friends.

Excerpted from the book THE DIVINES: A Novel by Ellie Eaton. Copyright © 2021 by Ellie Eaton. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

Most Anticipated: The Great First-Half 2021 Book Preview

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Folks, we made it to 2021—and, frankly, it looks a lot like last year. We’re still dealing with the pandemic, on-going civil unrest, and general malaise, but thankfully there are books. So many books. In fact, at 152 titles, this is the longest, most indulgent Millions preview ever. We could say we’re sorry but we all need some joy right now. Our list includes debut novels from Robert Jones, Jr., Gabriela Garcia, and Patricia Lockwood. New novels from literary powerhouses like Viet Thanh Nguyen, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Richard Flanagan. New books by two Millions staffers: Ed Simon and Nick Ripatrazone. And short stories, memoirs, and essay collections too. No matter what you’re in the mood for, we think you’ll find a book or two to usher in the new year. As usual, we will continue with our monthly previews, beginning in February. Let us know in the comments what we missed, and look out for the second-half Preview in July!

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January

Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu: Owusu’s childhood was marked by a series of departures, as her father, a United Nations official, moved the family from Europe to Africa and back. Her debut memoir is both a personal account of family upheaval and loss—her mother was an inconstant, flickering presence; her father died when Owusu was thirteen—and a meditation on race, identity, and the promise and pitfalls of growing up in multiple cultures; an experience, she writes, that “deepened my ability to hold multiple truths at once, to practice and nurture empathy. But it has also meant that I have no resting place. I have perpetually been a them rather than an us.” (Emily M.)

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders: In his new collection, modern America’s foremost short story writer shares a master class on the Russian short story with the reader. This delightful book of criticism and craft pairs short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, with seven essays on how short fiction works and why it remains a vital art form for asking the big questions about life. As Saunders puts it in his introduction, “How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” (Adam Price)

The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata by Gina Apostol: The nineteenth-century Filipino writer José Rizal denounced the cruelties of Spanish colonialism, and for that the colonial government put him to death in 1896. Now Filipina-American novelist Gina Apostol explores the father of Filipino literature and the movement for independence which he embodied in her darkly comic new novel. Apostol’s novel is written in the form of a memoir by the titular fictional character, a fellow revolutionary and devoted reader of Rizal. With shades of Roberto Bolaño and Vladimir Nabokov, she writes that her novel was “planned as a puzzle: traps for the reader, dead end jokes, textual games, unexplained sleights of the tongue.” (Ed S.)

The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.: Isaiah and Samuel, two enslaved men on a plantation, find solace as each other’s’ beloveds as they resist the brutality which they endure, until their uncomplicated love is challenged by an older enslaved man who arrives and begins to preach the master’s Christianity. Jones excavates the tangled histories of race and gender which mark a profoundly resonant narrative, where the oppressors “stepped on people’s throats with all their might and asked why the people couldn’t breathe.” (Ed S.)

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry: Audiences and readers have long thrilled to the lilt of a brogue, the so-called gift of the gab, and an often constructed illusion of Irishness. For the real thing, readers can turn to the eleven short stories that make up Irish writer Kevin Barry’s new collection. Eschewing both unearned romance and maudlin sentimentality, Barry roots his collection in the barren soil of western Ireland, where the “winter bleeds us out here,” where people are defined by “the clay of the place.” (Ed S.)

Outlawed by Anna North: A feminist western set in an alternative nineteenth-century America, Outlawed has been billed as True Grit meets The Crucible. Sign me up! The novel’s heroine is 17-year-old Ada, newly married and an apprentice to her midwife mother. After a year passes without a pregnancy, she gets involved with the Hole in the Wall Gang, and Kid, its charismatic leader. North, who is also a senior reporter at Vox, has received praise from Esmé Weijun Wang, who calls Outlawed a “grand, unforgettable tale,” and from Alexis Coe, who writes, “Fans of Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy finally get the Western they deserve.” (Edan)

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies: The endorsements for Peter Ho Davies’ latest novel—his fifth work of fiction, and his follow-up to The Fortunes—are pretty dazzling. Sigrid Nunez calls it “achingly honest, searingly comic,” and Elizabeth McCracken writes: “Peter Ho Davies has written a brilliant book about modern marriage and parenthood.” From what I can gather, the novel is about a couple’s decision to terminate a pregnancy and their experience with parenthood after that decision. In its starred review, Kirkus writes that this short, spare novel is “perfectly observed and tremendously moving. This will strike a resonant chord with parents everywhere.” (Edan)

Hades, Argentina by Daniel Lodel: In 1978, Daniel Loedel’s half-sister was disappeared by the military dictatorship in Argentina. His first novel, Hades, Argentina, was inspired by this unspeakable event. In the novel, a young student is drawn into Argentina’s deadly politics; years later, having established himself in New York City, he’s pulled back to Buenos Aires and forced to confront literal and figurative ghosts of his past. Publishers Weekly is calling it “a revelatory new chapter to South American Cold War literature.” (Emily M.)

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: “I love trans women,” Torrey Peters once told an interviewer, “but they drive me fucking crazy. Trans women are fucked up and flawed, and I’m very interested in the ways in which trans women are fucked up and flawed.” In Torrey’s debut novel, a trio of New Yorkers—Reese, a trans woman; Ames, a man who used to live as a woman but decided to return to living as a man, and in so doing broke Reese’s heart; Katrina, Ames’s lover and boss—grapple with the decision of how and whether to raise a baby together. (Emily M.)

The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard: Beginning in 1914, Hubbard’s latest (following The Talented Ribkins) tells the story of August Sitwell, a Black groundskeeper who works for a wealthy white Southern family. After taking an interest in three apprentices of the house cook, Miss Mamie Price, Sitwell learns that the family’s patriarch, Mr. Barclay, intends to use his likeness to sell Miss Price’s coveted meat sauce. As time goes on and Sitwell sees none of the profits from Barclay’s sales, he grows resentful of his employer, leading to a shocking retaliation. (Thom)

In the Land of the Cyclops by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Martin Aitken): Knausgaard has set aside making toast and hunting for a lost set of keys for the moment to present us with startling proof that art and the everyday are of the same lineage. Essays on “art, literature, culture, and philosophy” including probing takes on Ingmar Bergman and the Northern Lights, and color reproductions of some worthy contemporary art. (Il’ja)

Pedro’s Theory by Marcos Gonsalez: Scholar and essayist (read this piece, or this one) Gonsalez now publishes a work of memoir and cultural analysis that explores the lives of the many “Pedros” of America (taken from the character of the same name from the movie Napoleon Dynamite) as well as his own life as the child of immigrants, asking “what of the little queer and fat and feminine and neurodivergent child of color”? ” In a starred review, Kirkus calls this “a searching memoir . . . A subtle, expertly written repudiation of the American dream in favor of something more inclusive and more realistic.” (Lydia)

The Divines by Ellie Eaton: In Eaton’s Dark-Academia-meets-serious-questions-of-selfhood debut, St John the Divine, an elite English boarding school for girls, has been closed for fifteen years following a hushed-up scandal. Josephine, a newly married writer with a promising career, hasn’t spoken to her former friends and classmates — former “Divines” — since. But after revisiting the school, Josephine begins to remember more and more about what happened in the weeks before it shuttered — the Divines’ snobbery, her own cruelty, the violent events that brought the school low — and her growing obsession with the past threatens to derail her adult life and self. (Kaulie)

Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing versus Workshopping by Matthew Salesses: The MFA workshop experience is famously awful, to the point where it can crush enthusiasm and derail careers. This new craft book by novelist and teacher Salesses is a critical addition to the pedagogical canon, laying out how the traditional workshop form and many ideas about “craft” have been envisioned largely by and for white male writers. The book includes exercises and advice for revision and editing and guiding teachers through reimagining what it is to teach and encourage writers. (Lydia)

Summerwater by Sarah Moss: Moss’s Ghost Wall was a sinister, boggy tale of overzealous Iron Age reenactors, and Moss’s latest looks to tap into a similar eeriness. Here, the story involves a community of vacationers in a Scottish resort observing one another warily. Mountains, ceaseless rain, and an ominous loch set the scene for elemental violence. “I was thinking of it almost as a relay race—that each time there’s an interaction across households, the narrative baton passes on,” says Moss in an interview about this dark, choral work. (Matt S.)

Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts: In this wonderful first novel, a young woman endures a “splendid conflagration of emergency” in the midst of a boiling Australian summer. Recently graduated, she takes a job as a dispatcher at an emergency call center, jotting down snippets in her notebook as she is “dropped into emergencies and pulled out, hearing only pieces of whatever the story was, up to fifty times an hour.” The novel revolves around catastrophes of various scales, personal and global but also historical: the narrator’s ancestor, John Oxley, was a “feckless imperialist” who sought to locate an inland sea deep within the “drought-ridden ancientness” which British colonizers had “stolen and didn’t understand.” (Matt S.)

Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour: Black Buck begins with an address that lays out the implicit contract between writer and reader: “You’re likely asking yourself why you should trust me. The good thing is that you already bought this book, so you trusted me enough to part with $26. I won’t let you down.” In the satirical novel that follows, which is sprinkled throughout with pithy tips for closing deals, a charismatic Black man, Darren, is recruited to join the sales team of a noxious, mostly white startup in Manhattan. “He reeked of privilege, Rohypnol, and tax breaks,” says Darren of one of his new colleagues. Sold! (Matt S.)

Life Among the Terranauts by Caitlin Horrocks: Caitlin Horrocks’s newest short story collection will please those who like sci-fi, surrealism, and the strange. Claire Vaye Watkins writes that “It’s been a very long time since I’ve come across stories as brilliant, bold, odd, and incandescent as these.” The language dazzles as it entices readers into unfamiliar worlds. Marie-Helene Bertino praises, “I marvel at the language…which expands, varies, and never slips.” (Zoë)

The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura: Nimura’s biography explores the relationship between two sisters, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, and their journey into medicine in the nineteenth century. Elizabeth became the first women in America to receive an M.D., and together these determined and forward-thinking sisters founded the first hospital staffed entirely by women. Their story is a must-read for those who practice medicine and for readers interested in making connections between America’s past and present. As Pulitzer Prize winner Megan Marshall argues, “That the Blackwells arrived in the United States during a cholera epidemic and made it their mission to provide medical care to the underserved, while also promoting the twin causes of women’s rights and abolition, brings this narrative hurtling into the twenty-first century, demanding our attention today.” (Zoë)

The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey: Following up on the triumph of his historical novel Little, Edward Carey’s latest novel The Swallowed Man brings a similarly fabulist perspective to the Italian legend of Pinocchio. The author makes clear Pinocchio’s connection to concerns both universal and contemporary, in a story that’s as much about creation and fatherhood as it is about a conscious marionette who wishes that he was a real boy. “I am writing this account, in another man’s book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish,” writes that marionette and Carey proves once again how there is a magic in that archetypal familiarity of the perennial fairy tale. (Ed S.)

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez (translated by Megan McDowell): Mariana Enríquez returns with a collection of stories that have been likened to Shirley Jackson and Jorge Luis Borges. Kirsty Logan states that “each of these stories is a luscious, bewitching nightmare.” There are ghosts, bones, the disappeared who return home, and witches in this literary horror collection of stories that are sure to disturb as well as provoke questions about politics and society. Lauren Groff promises that ­­­­“after you’ve lived in Mariana Enríquez’s marvelous brain for the time it takes to read The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, the known world feels ratcheted a few degrees off-center.” (Zoë)

The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen (translated by Tiina Nunnally): A resurgence on par with the stories of Clarice Lispector or Lucia Berlin, these searing books from the 1960s — available individually in paper or as a hardcover omnibus — are milestones in the development of the life writing we’ve come to call (sigh) “autofiction.” Tracing the author’s struggles with drugs, family, men, and writing — not necessarily in that order — they’ve been brought into English by Tiina Nunnally, one of the most gifted translators at work today. (Garth)

Consent by Annabel Lyon: From the author of The Golden Mean, which won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, Consent is about Sara who, after forcing an annulment of what Sara sees as a hasty marriage to a man targeting an inheritance, becomes a caregiver to her intellectually challenged sister, Mattie. After a tragedy, their lives converge with the second set of sisters. Saskia has put her life on hold to be caregiver for her twin, Jenny, who has been severely injured in an accident. The intersection of the stories, says Steven Beattie in the Quill and Quire, “comes as a shock.” (Claire)

The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus by Allan Gurganus: A new collection of previously unpublished work by the author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and a writer Ann Patchett called “one of the best writers of our time.” (Lydia)

February

The Removed by Brandon Hobson: Watch out for Brandon Hobson’s first novel since his National Book Award Finalist, Where the Dead Sit Talking. The novel convenes as a Cherokee family prepares for a bonfire to celebrate the Cherokee National Holiday and, dually, to commemorate the death of fifteen-year-old son Ray-Ray, who was killed by police. Steeped in memory and Cherokee myth, The Removed is “spirited, droll, and as quietly devastating as rain lifting from earth to sky,” per Tommy Orange. (Anne)

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri: The first novel in nearly a decade from the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, the story is centered on a woman who moves through a year in her life. Veering from exuberance and dread to attachment and estrangement, she passes over bridges, through shops, pools, and bars, as one season moves into the next until one day at the sea her perspective changes forever. The novel was first written in Lahiri’s acquired language, Italian. (She describes writing in Italian like, “falling in love.”) Lahiri then translated the novel into English herself. (Claire)

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler: By most accounts, literary critic and Tweeter extraordinaire Lauren Oyler’s debut novel Fake Accounts is set to hit high highbrow on the hypemeter for its “savage and shrewd” account of a young millennial’s mediation of life via the internet. It begins with her discovery, while snooping, that her boyfriend is a popular conspiracy theorist, and not so long after she flees to Berlin to embark on her own cycles of internet-fueled manipulation. Heidi Julavits calls the novel, “a dopamine experiment of social media realism” a genre that Oyler has pioneered, and careens forward while appropriating and skewering various forms, including fragmented novels and a Greek chorus of ex-boyfriends. (Anne)

This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith: The newest novel by Cross-Smith (who was recently longlisted for the 2021 Joyce Carol Oates Literary Prize) explores one life-changing weekend in the lives of two strangers. When divorced therapist Tallie Clark sees a man standing on the edge of a bridge, she talks him down—and brings him to her home where they slowly reveal their selves (and secrets) to each other. The Millions’ Lydia Kiesling writes, “This is a heartfelt and moving novel about grief, love, second chances, and the coincidences that change lives.” (Carolyn)

Milk, Blood, Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz: A debut collection that takes a look at the lives of Floridians who find themselves confronted by moments of personal reckoning, among them a woman recovering from a miscarriage, a teenager resisting her family’s church, and two estranged siblings taking a road-trip with their father’s ashes. The publisher describes the stories as, “Wise and subversive, spiritual and seductive.” Lauren Groff calls the collection “a gorgeous debut.” Danielle Evans says the “characters that drive them are like lightning—spectacular, beautiful, and carrying a hint of danger.” (Claire)

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: One of the most exciting writers these days is also one of the most Online, as longtime fans of Patricia Lockwood all agree. In her debut novel, written in a fragmented style as excerpted in the New Yorker, an unnamed narrator comes home to help her younger pregnant sister through complications. Like the internet itself, what follows is as ecstatically humorous as it is heartbreakingly sad. (Nick M.)

100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell: American literature has been a bit too polite for the past few decades. Gone are the thrilling and seedy transgressions of a William S. Burroughs or a “J.T. LeRoy.” Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends rectifies that in its tales about nymphomaniac men looking for transcendence in a fuck. Recalling Samuel Delany’s queer classic Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, the writer, musician, dancer, and director Purnell presents a jaundiced yet often hopeful vision about sex and meaning, asking “What else is a boyfriend for but to share in mutual epiphany?” (Ed S.)

My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee: Tiller, the main character, is an ordinary American college student who has little ambitions. But after Pong Lou, an adventurous Chinese American businessman, takes Tiller as his mentee and brings him on a wild trip around Asia. Tiller blossoms into a young talent. From the award-winning author of Native Speaker, My Year Abroad promises to widen our horizons of a range of contemporary issues—cultural stereotypes, globalization, mental health—by introducing us to kaleidoscopic, surprising, and transformative life experiences. (Jianan Qian)

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder: I’ll never forget the steamy and emotionally complex sex scenes in Broder’s first novel, The Pisces—and not only because they co-starred a dreamy merman. Broder’s latest novel, about a calorie-counting twenty-something who cuts communication from her diet-obsessed mother for ninety days, only to become obsessed with a large-breasted Orthodox Jewish woman who peddles frozen yogurt, sounds wonderful and wonderfully weird. Carmen Maria Machado calls it “luscious” and “heartbreaking,” and Samantha Irby says it’s “deeply hilarious and embarrassingly relatable.” (Edan)

Infinite Country by Patricia Engel: I could praise Infinite Country and recommend it and then praise some more, but others have already done it, and better: R.O. Kwon says Infinite Country “is a wonder, and Patricia Engel is a magician”; Lauren Groff writes that the novel “speaks into the present moment with an oracle’s devastating coolness and clarity.” The fourth book from prize-winning Colombian-American author Patricia Engel, Infinite Country, is a story of immigration and diaspora that’s both brutal and hopeful, blending Andean myth with the lives of an undocumented family spread across two continents and fighting for reconnection. (Kaulie)

Rabbit Island by Elvira Navarro (translated by Christina MacSweeney): Elvira Navarro’s dark, weird fabulist tales have garnered comparisons to Lynch and Lispector, Walser, and Leonora Carrington alike. Her short stories collected in Rabbit Island—if one can even summarize—take “alien landscapes and turn them into eerily apt mirrors of our most secret realities,” per Maryse Meijer. Perhaps this is why Enrique Villa Matas called Navarro the “true avant-gardist of her generation.” This latest collection gathers psychogeographies of dingy hotel rooms, shape-shifting cities, and graveyards. The overall effect? It’s “like spending a week at an abandoned hotel with rooms inhabited by haunted bunnies and levitating grandmothers,” says Sandra Newman. I say, sign me up! (Anne)

The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood: In this sparkling debut novel, Anvar Farvis wants out of 1990s Karachi, where gangs of fundamentalist zealots prowl the streets. Meanwhile, more than a thousand miles away in war-torn Baghdad, a girl named Safwa is being suffocated by life with her grief-stricken father. Anvar’s and Safwa’s very different paths converge in San Francisco in 2016, where their very different personalities intertwine in ways that will rock the city’s immigrant community. Gary Shteyngart has called this “one of the bravest and most eye-opening novels of the year, a future classic.” (Bill)

U UP? by Catie Disabato: In Disabato’s sophomore novel, social-media-loving slacker Eve is still mourning her friend Miggy when her best friend Ezra goes missing. Over the course of one weekend bender, Eve searches for clues to Ezra’s disappearance, fends off ghosts, and discovers that everything is not as it seems. Our own Edan Lepucki says, “Disabato’s writing is at once so smooth and sharp that you don’t immediately realize it’s cut you—and deeply.” (Carolyn)

Kink, edited by Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon: An anthology of fifteen stories edited by two celebrated authors who promise to “take kink seriously.” The list of contributors includes Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado, and Brandon Taylor, and stories are about love, desire, BDSM, and other kinks. “The true power of these stories lies,” says the publisher blurb,” in their beautiful, moving dispatches from across the sexual spectrum of interest and desires.” (Claire)

The Delivery by Peter Mendelsund: Like a millennial Franz Kafka, writer and graphic designer Peter Mendelsund plumbs the absurdities of our society, but rather than focusing on the incipient authoritarianism of crumbling central Europe, he examines the existential despair (and bleak funniness) of the gig economy. The Delivery takes place in an unnamed city where refugees must earn their right to sanctuary as workers delivering food to the ruling class through an app with shades of Uber Eats. Evoking J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, if it was about GrubHub rather than colonialism, The Delivery understands that there is no such thing as a free lunch. (Ed S.)

Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar: For all of this nation’s stated belief in welcoming outsiders, America is often cruel to any demographic that is not white, Christian, straight, and male. As such, when the queer, Arab American Muslim writer Randa Jarrar sets off on a road-trip across the United States in her travelogue Love is an Ex-Country, the resulting narrative is simultaneously a dirge and an encomium. A survivor of both domestic abuse and doxxing, Jarrar’s book is not a simplistic paeon to an imaginary America, but nor does it entirely stop searching for the possibility of some sort of better, hidden country. (Ed S.)

The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson: In this debut novel set in Chicago’s South Side and blue-collar Indiana following President Obama’s election, a woman with a settled upper-middle-class existence confronts her difficult past, discovering that the issues of race, class, and identity in America rarely fall along neatly defined parameters; complexity abounds in the makeup of our nation, our families, and ourselves. (Il’ja)

My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim (translated by Chi-Young Kim): Areum, the main character, suffers from an accelerated-aging disorder. Only at sixteen, he looks like an 80-year-old. Even though the family faces his imminent death, they still try to stay positive and live life to its fullest. My Brilliant Life is a breath-taking, heart-felt exploration of the possibility of joy even in the hardest moments of life. (Jianan Qian)

We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida: In pre-tech boom San Francisco, teenagers Eulabee and Maria Fabiola are inseparable. They know every house, every cliff, every tide surrounding their wealthy neighborhood, until there’s a car and a man they don’t recognize. Then Maria Fabiola disappears. Publishers Weekly describes the novel as “channel[ing] the girlish effervescence of Nora Johnson’s The World of Henry Orient while updating Cyra McFadden’s classic satire The Serial;” Kirkus calls it “a novel of youth and not-quite-innocence,” a story of female friendship with all its strengths, betrayals, confusion, and changes. (Kaulie)

Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen: From the Wall Street Journal reporter whose first-hand observations of contemporary China converge into this stunning debut collection. In the ten stories, we can see how the recent economic boom has impacted and transformed people’s lives in China: the division of values among family members, the unchanging bureaucratic systems, and the request for recognition from marginalized groups. Chen’s fiction is a satisfying literary read as well as precise cultural criticism. (Jianan Qian)

Zorrie by Laird Hunt: Hunt’s eighth novel tells the life story of a woman in rural Indiana, from her early days as an orphan who takes a job in a factory to marriage, widowhood, and a hardscrabble farm life. Hernán Diaz raves of the novel, “This is not a just book you are holding in your hands; it is a life. Laird Hunt gives us here the portrait of a woman painted with the finest brush imaginable, while also rendering great historical shifts with bold single strokes. A poignant, unforgettable novel.” (Lydia)

Blood Grove by Walter Mosely: The breathtakingly prolific Mosely brings back Easy Rawlins, his most famous literary creation, for a moody mystery set in late-sixties Los Angeles beset by protest and the after-effects of an unpopular war. Rawlins, whose small private detective agency finally has opened its own office, must solve the mystery of a white Vietnam vet who lost his lover and his dog in a violent attack in a citrus grove at the city’s outskirts. But, really, who cares about the plot? It’s Easy Rawlins, so it will be smart, funny, and impossible to put down. (Michael)

Cowboy Graves by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Natasha Wimmer): A trio of novellas by the late Chilean poet and novelist depict socialist upheaval, underground magical realism abroad, and love in the face of fascist violence. (Nick M.)

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones: Trained as an attorney, Jones sets this tale of social class clashes and interconnections in a resort town in her native Barbados. Hailed as “Most Anticipated of 2021” and a “searing debut” by O Magazine; “hard hitting and unflinching” and “unforgettable” say her blurbers Bernardine Evaristo and Naomi Jackson. (Sonya)

In the Quick by Kate Hope Day: In the latest by the author of If, Then, a young girl named June finds out that her uncle, an aerospace engineer, developed a faulty fuel cell intended for use on a space mission, causing a shuttle to lose power near Saturn and strand the crew indefinitely. Obsessed with finding a way to rescue the far-flung crew, June enrolls in astronaut training, where she performs well enough to earn a placement aboard a space station. Eventually, she fixes the fuel cell, which gives her and her team the ability to stage a rescue mission. (Thom)

Let’s Get Back to the Party by Zak Salih: Salih’s debut offers a thoughtful meditation on the evolving landscape of gay male life in America. When gay marriage is legalized in 2015, high school teacher Sebastian Mote finds the occasion unexpectedly bittersweet, since he just broke up with his boyfriend of three years. He pours his energy into nurturing his students, particularly Arthur, a 17-year-old whose openness about his own sexuality is a source of envy for Sebastian. Then he runs into a childhood friend at a wedding—and learns that he’s not alone in his ambivalence towards the new rules of dating. (Thom)

American Delirium by Betina González (translated by Heather Cleary): In her English language debut, award-winning author Betina González interweaves the lives of three characters in a mid-Western city that is unraveling. Deer are attacking people, a squad of retirees trains to hunt them down, and protestors decide to abandon society, including their own children, and live in the woods. Anjali Sachdeva notes, “As González’s characters navigate a world where plants inspire revolution and animals are possessed by homicidal rage, they ask us to consider whether human beings are perhaps the least natural creatures this planet has to offer.” (Zoë)

The Upstairs House by Julia Fine: This high-concept novel involves the ghost of Margaret Wise Brown, the renowned children’s author of the classic bedtime story, Good Night Moon. New mother and Phd student Megan Weiler discovers that the famous author is haunting her house, waiting, apparently, for her estranged lover, the actress Michael Strange. As Megan becomes more drawn into ghostly interpersonal drama, she feels herself losing her grip on reality. Meanwhile, there’s a dissertation to finish and a newborn to care for. Publishers Weekly calls this sophomore effort “a white-knuckle description of the essential scariness of new motherhood.” (Hannah)

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba: In this compilation of essays and interviews, Mariame Kaba reflects on abolition and struggle and explores justice, freedom, and hope. Eve Ewing notes, “This is a classic in the vein of Sister Outsider, a book that will spark countless radical imaginations.” Inspirational and practical, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us offers insights on grassroots movements and collective strategies, and examines the prison industrial complex. Alisa Bierria writes, “This remarkable collection is a powerful map for anyone who longs for a future built on safety, community, and joy, and an intellectual home for those who are creating new pathways to get us there.” (Zoë)

March

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro: The citation for the 2017 Novel Prize in Literature says Ishiguro has “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” This new novel, his first published since the win, follows Klara, who is an Artificial Friend. While she’s an older model, she also has exceptional observational qualities. The storyline, according to the publisher, asks a fundamental question, “What does it mean to love?” The result sounds like the perfect blend of Ishiguro’s much loved books, Never Let Me Go and the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day. (Claire)

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen: The much anticipated sequel to The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, entertains as much as it offers cultural analysis. Set in 1980s Paris, the main character of The Sympathizer sells drugs, attends dinner parties with left-wing intellectuals, and turns his attention towards French culture, considering capitalism and colonization. Paul Beatty says, “Think of The Committed as the declaration of the 20th ½ Arrondissement. A squatter’s paradise for those with one foot in the grave and the other shoved halfway up Western civilization’s ass.” Sharply and humorously written, Ocean Vuong notes that the sequel asks: “How do we live in the wake of seismic loss and betrayal? And, perhaps even more critically, How do we laugh?” (Zoë)

Red Island House by Andrea Lee: It’s been almost fifteen years since Andrea Lee published a book (Lost Hearts in Italy) and I’ve been sitting here waiting for it. Her fiction and memoirs often center on Black characters living abroad, and she writes with such lush and observant precision that you feel you are traveling with her. Her newest novel is set in a small village in Madagascar, where Shay, a Black professor of literature, and her wealthy Italian husband Senna, build a lavish vacation home. Unfolding over two decades, Lee’s new novel explores themes of race, class, and gender, as Shay reluctantly takes on the role of matriarch, learning to manage a household staff and estate. Kirkus calls it “a highly critical vision of how the one percent live in neocolonial paradise.” (Hannah)

The Fourth Child by Jessica Winter: Winter follows her well-received debut (2016’s Break in Case of Emergency) with a multi-generational story of love, family, obligation, and guilt. The novel follows Jane from a miserable 1970s adolescence to an unexpected high school pregnancy and marriage, through the sweetness of early parenthood to the fraught complications of ideology, adoption, and life with a teenaged daughter. (Emily M.)

Mona by Pola Oloixarac (translated by Adam Morris): Mona, Pola Oloixarac’s third novel, seems a fitting book for all of us to read while looking back on 2020: the eponymous narrator is a drug-addled and sardonic, albeit much admired and Peruvian writer based in California. After she’s nominated for Europe’s most important literary prize, Mona flees to a small town near the Arctic Circle to escape her demons in a way that seems not unlike David Bowie’s fleeing LA for bombed-out Berlin. She soon finds she hasn’t escaped hers as much as she’s locked herself up with them. According to Andrew Martin, Mona “reads as though Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy was thrown in a blender with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, and then lightly seasoned with the bitter flavor of Horacio Castellanos Moya.” (Anne)

Girlhood by Melissa Febos: Fusing memoir, cultural commentary, and research, critically-acclaimed writer Febos explores the beauty and discomfort of girlhood (and womanhood) in her newest essay collection. With her signature lyricism and haunting honesty, the essays explore the ways girls inherit, create, interrogate, and rewrite the narratives of their lives. Kirkus’ starred review calls the collection “consistently illuminating, unabashedly ferocious writing.” (Carolyn)

The Recent East by Thomas Grattan: Macmillan describes this debut novel as a “spellbinding…multigenerational epic that illuminates what it means to leave home, and what it means to return.” In a combination that works for me, this story of “a family upended by displacement and loss” also has an old family manse, neo-Nazis, and a setting in the wilds of what was once East Germany. (Il’ja)

The Arsonist’s City by Hala Alyan: Alyan’s varied talents never cease to amaze. The award-winning author of four collections of poetry and one novel, Alyan also works as a clinical psychologist. Her newest novel touches on themes and locales familiar to those who’ve read her work including family, war, Brooklyn, and the Middle East. The Nasr family has spread across the world, but remains rooted in their ancestral home in Beirut. When the family’s new patriarch decides to sell, all must reunite to save the house and confront their secrets in a city still reeling from the impact of its past and ongoing tensions. (Jacqueline)

Abundance by Jakob Guanzon: This debut novel centers around a struggling Filipino-American father and son, Henry and Junior. Evicted from their trailer, they now live in their truck and are trying to scramble a life back together. The book’s formal innovation lies in its structure, which is organized around money: each chapter tallies the duo’s debit and credit, in a gesture toward the profound anxieties and inequalities around debt, work, and addiction in contemporary America. (Jacqueline)

What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster: From the author of the acclaimed novel Halsey Street (finalist for a Kirkus Prize) comes a story of family, race, and friendship. Opening in the 1990s and extending to the present, the book follows two families in Piedmont, NC, one white, one Black. Living on separate sides of town, they live separate lives until the local school’s integration efforts set off a chain of events that will bond the families to each other in profound and unexpected ways. (Jacqueline)

The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson: After her father doesn’t return from checking his traps near their home, Rosalie Iron Wing, a Dakota girl who’s grown up surrounded by the woods and stories of plants, is sent to live with a foster family. Decades later, widowed and grieving, she returns to her childhood home to confront the past and find identity and community — and a cache of seeds, passed down from one generation of women to the next. The first novel from Dakota writer Diane Wilson, “The Seed Keeper invokes the strength that women, land, and plants have shared with one another through the generations,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer. (Kaulie)

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia: The debut novel from Garcia, Of Women and Salt, follows three generations of Cuban women from 19th-century cigar factories to contemporary ICE detention centers and meditates on the difficult choices and legacies of mothers. In present-day Miami, Jeanette is struggling with addiction but wants to learn more about her family from her secretive mother, Carmen, who’s still processing her difficult relationship with her own mother back in Cuba. Then Jeanette decides to visit her grandmother for herself. “Gabriela Garcia captures the lives of Cuban women in a world to which they refuse to surrender,” writes Roxane Gay, “and she does so with precision and generosity and beauty.” (Kaulie)

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue: In a follow-up to Mbue’s celebrated Behold the Dreamers, winner of the 2017 PEN/Faulkner award, How Beautiful We Were tells a story of environmental exploitation and a fictional African village’s fight to save itself. An American oil company’s leaking pipelines are poisoning the land and children of Kosawa, and in the face of government inaction the villagers strike back, sparking a series of small revolutions with outsized impact. Kosawa’s story is told by the family of Thula, a village girl who grows into a charismatic revolutionary and who Sigrid Nunez calls “a heroine for our time.” (Kaulie)

Sarahland by Sam Cohen: Cohen’s debut short story collection centers around a unique premise: almost all the protagonists are named Sarah. Whether it’s a Buffy-loving Sarah, a lonely college student Sarah, or a Sarah-turned-tree, the playful yet serious stories explore identity, transformation, and queerness. “Sam Cohen’s stories re-wire the brain,” writes Andrea Lawlor. “Sarahland is satisfyingly queer, dirty, insightful, disarmingly generous, astonishing in its craftsmanship and so funny.” (Carolyn)

Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimmerman: From the editor in chief of Electric Literature, this cultural analysis re-examines eleven female monsters from Greek mythology, including Medusa and the Sphinx. By taking a critical look at the current social construction of monsters, Zimmerman suggests that the traits we’ve been told make us dangerous and undesirable might actually be our greatest strengths. Scaachi Koul says of the book, “I ate it up, and it felt a little like it devoured me right back.” (Claire)

Eat the Mouth that Feeds You by Carribean Fragoza: Fragoza’s surreal and gothic stories, focused on Latinx, Chicanx, and immigrant women’s voices, are sure to surprise and move readers. Natalia Sylvester states, “Like the Chicanx women whose voices she centers, Carribean Fragoza’s writing doesn’t flinch. It is sharp and dream-like, tender-hearted and brutal, carved from the violence and resilience of generations past and present.” Eat the Mouth That Feeds You explores themes of lineage, motherhood, violence, and much more. Héctor Tobar writes that this short story collection “establishes Fragoza as an essential and important new voice in American fiction.” (Zoë)

The Disordered Cosmos by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Anyone who has spent any time with the startling beauty that is theoretical physics, all of those quarks and neutrinos, quasars and singularities, knows that there is a poetry threaded through the fabric of our strange reality. Cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein conveys the sublimity of physics in The Disordered Cosmos. Science, Prescod-Weinstein emphasizes, can never be totally dispassionate or separate from what makes us human. One of fewer than a hundred Black women with a PhD in physics in the United States, she doesn’t just explain the Standard Model of Particle Physics, but also how institutional racism limits who works in the discipline. (Ed S.)

The Scapegoat by Sarah Davis: California is a place that’s been written over and rewritten over, the sunny environs belying the dark histories of colonialism which define the place. Sarah Davis’ debut novel The Scapegoat dramatizes such issues of memory, both personal and historical, in its post-modern noir account of a university professor simply named N who must investigate his own father’s death, related as it seems to the former’s own historical study of California’s past. The result is a surreal, experimental, hallucinatory, and lyrical meditation on how the past constitutes the present. (Ed S.)

Spilt Milk by Courtney Zoffness: In this debut essay collection by the 2018 winner of the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize, Zoffness explores subjects as diverse (and overlapping) as faith and belief, parenthood, justice, notions of safety and risk, and who our mothers were before we came along. Zoffness writes with such charm and sincerity, and I zipped through these smart essays in a day, delighting in Zoffness’s honesty and wry intelligence. Mary Gaitskill clearly agrees; she writes: “Gentle, playful and laced with subtle wit, these essays are a welcome balm in an insane and un-gentle time.” (Edan)

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (translated by Frank Wynne): A newly translated work by the French novelist and winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. The novel follows a French woman as she explores the Algerian roots of her grandparents, her family’s secrets, and the legacies of colonialism. (Lydia)

The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood: Smallwood is a book and culture critic for The New York Times Magazine and Harper’s, and her first novel is an academic bildungsroman about an adjunct professor with as many shrinks as degrees. This being an academic novel, acerbic satire, existential crises, and self-loathing abound. Here, the professor’s recent miscarriage occasions reflections on the body’s role in the life of the mind. Publishers Weekly called this debut “the glorious lovechild of Otessa Moshfegh and Sally Rooney.” (Matt S.)

The Vietri Project by Nicola DeRobertis-Theye: In a LitHub essay, DeRobertis-Theye wrote about novels of “biographical detection” (like Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy) in which “a person, usually only tangentially related to the subject…becomes engrossed in the discovery of this person’s life.” She herself contributes to the genre with her first novel, in which a Berkeley bookseller becomes fascinated with a Roman customer with rather recherché tastes. Some time later, the narrator is living in Italy, where she has extended family, and decides to track the customer down. (This is the kind of personalized service Amazon can’t provide.) A sinuous bibliophilic mystery of self-discovery. (Matt S.)

Foregone by Russell Banks: Banks, author of Affliction and the epic Cloudsplitter, is now 80 and appears to be slowing down from the breakneck pace of his earlier career. Foregone, his first novel in a decade, follows a famous filmmaker dying of cancer who turns the camera on himself to tell the tale of his misspent youth. But since a side-effect of his medications is “confabulation,” only some of his final confessions may be true. Publishers Weekly calls the book “uneven,” but says that, despite some windy digressions, “Banks keeps the audience rapt.” (Michael)

Brood by Jackie Polzin: One year, four chickens, isolation, and advance praise from Joy Williams: what pleasant alchemy is this novel? Polzin’s debut conjures humors and sadness in Minnesota, where the narrator ponders the potential of motherhood, a pending move, and the strangeness of raising animals who force us to consider the world in a new, slower, sideways perspective (which leads us to wonder: maybe the strangeness is us?). (Nick R.)

Festival Days by Jo Ann Beard: Nine pieces from one of our finest essayists, who has once said that “one loss always brings up another”—a sentiment that perfectly captures her style, down to her syntax. She writes of the loss of her dog, how they had become close as a stay against absence: “We were used to being alone.” Essays like “Maybe It Happened” capture the porous nature of her genre; how memories that shape our lives might be created or crafted by our hearts: “Maybe on those hot summer afternoons, when coffee made women languid, when the scent of trellis roses mixed with the scent of ammonia, when girls pretended they were mothers while mother pretended something else entirely, perhaps anything could happen.” (Nick R.)

Body of Stars by Laura Maylene Walter: A dystopian novel about fortune-telling and rape culture set in a world where women’s fates are inscribed on their bodies. Of the novel Anne Valente writes, “Through the lens of dystopia, this incandescent debut novel holds a critical mirror up to our world’s limitations on gender and the violence of those restraints, while it also forges a bold vision for agency, self-determination and freedom. Through and through, this is a powerful and luminous book.” (Lydia)

There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura (translated by Polly Barton): Tsumura’s novel begins with an unnamed narrator constantly watching someone. It is her job, and she’d been given a rule “not to fast-forward the footage,” except if her target is sleeping. She ponders how much money she spends on eye drops from having to keep her gaze fixed. “It was weird,” she thinks, “because I worked such long hours, and yet, even while working, I was basically doing nothing. I’d come to the conclusion that there were very few jobs in the world that ate up as much time and as little brainpower as watching over the life of a novelist who lived alone and worked from home.” A nearly hypnotic book that shifts between despair and transcendence. (Nick R.)

Brother Sister Mother Explorer by Jamie Figueroa: Set in the fictional tourist town of Ciudad de Tres Hermanas, a reckless brother and his concerned sister who’ve just lost their mother make a bet: if the brother loses, he has to buy a plane ticket, leave the place, and get his life together. Ghosts, angels, and other hauntings infuse this debut which reviewers are describing as “utterly original” and “utterly new.” (Sonya)

Silence is a Sense by Layla AlAmmar: Kuwaiti writer AlAmmar explores trauma and voicelessness through fragmented narrative form and a mute protagonist who has survived the war in Syria and is now living in isolation in the UK. She begins writing under a pseudonym to express herself, but must decide eventually whether to rejoin the human community as an embodied participant. “Fierce, beguiling, visceral,” writes Booker finalist Fiona Mozley. (Sonya)

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan: Nolan, a columnist and writer for The New Statesman, Vice, and other places, depicts a young couple’s dysfunctional relationship and its aftermath in her debut. In 2012, the unnamed narrator becomes infatuated with an art critic named Ciaran, who seems “undeniably whole” in contrast to the people around him. The two begin dating, and things quickly become toxic, with Ciaran insulting the narrator’s friends and peppering her with cruel remarks. Throughout, we see glimpses of the narrator in 2019, when she’s reflecting on her past and working to move on from Ciaran. (Thom)

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes: Schanoes debuts a dreamy short story collection that plays with genre, combining literary fiction, fairy tales, and fantasy. Catherynne M. Valente writes, “Her work effortlessly blends the modern with the archetypal. It is constantly surprising, endlessly rich, and terribly needed.” Her haunting tales of revenge and anger and her fierce protagonists will enthrall readers. Karen Joy Fowler describes Burning Girls as a “beautifully written, sharply imaginative collection.” (Zoë)

April

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge: Inspired by the true story of one of the first Black female doctors in America, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new novel tells the story of Libertie Sampson coming of age in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn. Libertie’s mother, a physician, wants her daughter to attend medical school and practice alongside her but, unlike her mother who can pass, Libertie has skin that is too dark. After accepting an offer of marriage from a young Haitian man promising equality on the island, Libertie finds she is still considered inferior to her husband, and all men. In the words of Brandon Taylor, author of Booker short-listed Real Life, “In this singular novel, Kaitlyn Greenidge confronts the anonymizing forces of history with her formidable gifts. Libertie is a glorious, piercing song for the ages—fierce, brilliant, and utterly free.” (Adam Price)

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi: Following 2019’s “Hansel and Gretel”-inspired Gingerbread, Oyeyemi brings her readers on a surreal, inspired journey, beginning with hypnotist Otto Shin going off on a “non-honeymoon honeymoon” with his longtime boyfriend, Xavier. A train trip, their honeymoon takes an odd turn Ava Kapoor, the train’s owner, reveals that she’s set to receive a large inheritance. And when a mysterious passenger threatens that inheritance—and a young man named Yuri begins intervening in their lives—Otto and Xavier find their trip becoming more and more stressful. (Thom)

An Alternative History of Pittsburgh by Ed Simon: Pittsburgh native Ed Simon, erudite staff writer at The Millions, has written an idiosyncratic and predictably brainy book about his hometown, to be published by the inspiring independent house, Belt Publishing. Pennsylvania is Simon’s clay, as witnessed by this passage from a post-election essay that appeared in Belt Magazine: “Far more capable tyrants than Trump have been felled by Pennsylvania. This vanquishing feels like George Meade turning back Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. It makes me want to ring the Liberty Bell until its crack breaks the whole thing apart and the light can get in.” The light got in. This book will help you understand how and why. (Bill)

Subdivision by J Robert Lennon: J Robert Lennon, one of our most reliably interesting and adventurous novelists, returns in 2021 with Subdivision, an offering both darker and more whimsical than his critically lauded 2017 foray into crime fiction, Broken River. Subdivision continues Lennon’s fascinating career-long exploration of perception and memory, as an unnamed narrator finds herself in, well, the Subdivision, a mysterious locale where the unsettling and inexplicable routinely occur. Accompanied by an Alexa-like digital assistant named Cylvia, the narrator explores the maze-like neighborhood, and as the jigsaw puzzle in the guest house where the narrator is staying nears completion, the Subdivision’s true character begins to emerge. (Adam Price)

The Apprenticeship, or the Book of Pleasures by Clarice Lispector (translated by Stefan Tobler): It seems that New Directions releases a new translation of Lispector’s work at least every few years, and thank goodness, I can never get enough of her writing. This latest volume is a translation of what has been called Lispector’s “most accessible” book. A surprise when considering that this is the work that follows The Passion According to GH, and need I remind you, much of that wondrous novel consists of the narrator crossing a room to kill and consume a cockroach (and well, so much more). When Lispector was asked why she wrote something so straightforward, she replied, “I humanized myself.” (Anne)

You Made Me Love You by John Edgar Wideman: This collection of 35 stories from the four-decade career of an American master is also a summation of his literary mission: “To deconstruct the given formulas of African American culture and life.” Ranging from the Homewood neighborhood of his native Pittsburgh to small Wyoming towns to historic Philadelphia, spanning time from the ancient world to the present day, these collected stories will cement Wideman’s status as one of the great writers at work in America today. (Bill)

The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade: “This year Amadeo Padilla is Jesus.” Someone has been hearing my prayers: Quade has taken one of the finest short stories from her debut collection, Night at the Fiestas, and revisited the tale to create a masterful novel of family, faith, doubt. Quade’s storytelling gift is her ability to capture the mysterious pulse of belief and ground them in visceral ritual on the page. She begins with Amadeo’s dream role for Holy Week—no silky-haired, rosy-cheeked, honey-eyed Jesus. Amadeo pines for meaning his life: “His performance wasn’t just a performance, but a true crucifixion. How many people can say they’ve done that for God?” Yet his plans are strained when his daughter reveals her secret. It turns out that the Lord and great storytellers work in mysterious ways. (Nick R.)

White Magic by Elissa Washuta: From Tin House, Washuta’s third book is a “collection of intertwined essays … about land, heartbreak, and colonization, about life without the escape hatch of intoxication, and about how she became a powerful witch.” At 432 pages, this one promises to be an innovative and deeply felt work to sink into. (Sonya)

The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken: There’s good reason a new Elizabeth McCracken book is cause for celebration: everything she writes—her short stories, her novels, and, hey, also a memoir—is consistently brilliant. Her work is the perfect amount of odd, witty, tender, and deceptively heart-splitting. This latest is a short story collection that Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls “sly” and “emotionally complex.” There are twelve stories in all, including one about a mother who gorges on challah because she longs for her kids, and another about an actress who plays a villain on a children’s show and her loser brother. I can’t wait. (Edan)

The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright: A Black man is picked up randomly by the police after a brutal murder in a Chicago neighborhood and taken to the local precinct, where he is tortured until he confesses to a crime he didn’t commit. After signing a confession, he escapes from the precinct and takes up residence in the sewers beneath the streets of the city. Sound familiar? No, this didn’t happen last week. It’s the premise of the previously unpublished novel from the 1940s, The Man Who Lived Underground, by the immortal Richard Wright, author of Native Son and Black Boy. This novel cut close to the author’s heart. As he put it: “I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from pure inspiration.” (Bill)

First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel): The eight stories in this new collection by Murakami are all told in the first person singular voice. This narrator shares a lot of passions with the author: nostalgia of young love and sex, ruminations on Jazz music, and the enthusiasm in baseball. Like Murakami’s previous stories, the charm of magical realism is always sustained by a philosophical meditation on love, loneliness, and memory. (Jianan Qian)

Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley: Set in present-day London, Mozley’s anticipated follow-up to Elmet—her Booker Prize shortlisted debut—follows the struggle between the haves and the have-nots over a building. Agatha, a young millionaire, wants to turn the building into luxury condos, while brothel workers Precious and Tabitha want to save the place where they live and work. Mozley’s newest novel explores themes like wealth, gentrification, power, and gender dynamics. (Carolyn)

Paradise, Nevada by Dario Diofebi: “Vegas has been right there forever, waiting for a great novelist,” says Darin Strauss. This debut centers around a bomb that detonates in a luxury hotel. Six months prior, the story follows four transplants, a professional poker player, a clinically depressed cocktail waitress, a tourist from Italy, and a Mormon journalist, who are trying to navigate the self-reinventing city of Las Vegas. Diofebi’s brilliant comic voice and deep compassion make for a debut from a voice that, says David Lipsky, “is going to be around for a long time.” (Claire)

My Good Son by Yang Huang: The winner of the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize, My Good Son is about a tailor named Mr. Cai in post-Tiananmen China and the dreams he holds for his only son, Feng. Mr. Cai schemes with one of his clients, Jude, a gay American expat, to get his son to the States, and the novel, about parental expectations, social class, and sexuality, highlights both the similarities and differences between Chinese and American cultures. Huang, who has previously published a novel and a collection of linked stories, grew up in China and moved to the states to study computer science—only to also pursue writing. She says, “In writing I can let down my walls, suspend my moral judgment, and pour my deepest compassion into the written words.” (Edan)

Astrid Sees All by Natalie Standiford: If New York’s bad old ‘70s are at this point well-mined novelistic territory, the salad days of the ‘80s have received comparatively little scrutiny…at least since the heyday of a certain Jay. Here Natalie Standiford attempts to correct the oversight, guiding readers on a descent into clubland…with the gusto of a certain Musto. (Garth)

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson: Two young, struggling artists are looking to live, love, and create in a time and place that seems set on allowing them anything but that. From Penguin: “Caleb Aumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.” (Il’ja)

A Natural History of Transition by Callum Angus: From Metonymy Press, a gripping collection of short stories flush with alternative histories, horror, and magic realism set in the kinds of towns we all think we know well, a collection that, according to the publisher, “disrupts the notion that trans people can only have one transformation.” (Il’ja)

Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki (various translators): According to Penguin Random House: “At turns nonchalantly hip and charmingly deranged.” I’m about two-thirds of the way through these short stories and according to me: “that sounds about right.” If you’re into Kōbō Abe and prefer Ryū Murakami to Haruki you’ll not (as the title of this inaugural translation of Suzuki into English suggests), be bored. (Il’ja)

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features an ambitious literary structure that is rarely seen in contemporary writing. On the surface, it is a complex oral history conducted by a music journalist about her beloved rock ‘n’ roll duo. But as the interview touches deeper, we see more unexpected layers of the story that will threaten to reverse any established narratives. The unique storytelling matches the depth of the theme that the novel aspires to explore: Black women who dare to tell the truth but whose voices are too often repressed. (Jianan Qian)

The Secret Talker by Geling Yan (translated by Jeremy Tiang): Hongmei lives a happy, peaceful life in Northern California with her husband Glen, a university professor, until an anonymous person starts to stalk her, threatening to reveal her dark past in China. Desperate and helpless, Hongmei tries to switch her role in the predator-prey game by debunking the stalker’s secret past. The Secret Talker is a suspenseful, intriguing tale of a woman in her psychological crisis. (Jianan Qian)

Lightseekers by Femi Kayode: A Nigerian crime drama with wide-ranging sociological and political implications, Lightseekers introduces the unusual detective Philip Taiwo, an investigative psychologist more interested in why than how. After an angry mob beats and then burns three undergraduate students in a Nigerian border town and the killings are widely shared on social media, the powerful father of one victim hires Taiwo to figure out what really happened. The police can’t find a motive for the murders, but Taiwo (with the help of his streetwise driver, Chika) faces a dangerous conspiracy to reveal the private violence behind the public attack. (Kaulie)

Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian: A comic surreal novel about a young man growing up in the Atlanta burbs, a scheme of his neighbor’s that goes awry, and his adulthood as a history grad student surrounded by the new gold rush of Silicon Valley. Celeste Ng says of the novel “In a perfect alchemical blend of familiar and un-, Gold Diggers takes a wincingly hilarious coming-of-age story, laces it with magical realism and a trace of satire, and creates a world that’s both achingly familiar and marvelously inventive. Written with such assurance it’s hard to believe it’s Sanjena Sathian’s debut, this is a dizzyingly original, fiercely funny, deeply wise novel about the seductive powers—and dangers—of borrowed ambition.” (Lydia)

Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins: The bestselling essayist’s debut novel centers on a woman named Laila, whose efforts to conceive a child have ended in frustration. In desperation, Laila turns to a well-known Harlem family, the Melancons, for help—the Melancons are known for their “caul,” an epidermal layer that blesses their family with healing powers. After trying to get a caul for herself, Laila delivers a stillborn child, which leaves her emotionally devastated. But then her niece, Amara, delivers a baby with a caul, and Laila becomes embroiled in the Melancons’ long-running power struggle. (Thom)

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer: The master of ecological surrealism—which paradoxically imparts lessons on our unfolding reality—takes a stab at a tightly wound thriller. It starts when a security consultant receives an envelope of clues. Then things get weird. Some of the most riveting portions of Annihilation were the uncanny depictions of office paranoia, so it’ll be exciting to see VanderMeer run farther in that direction. (Nick M.)

Southbound by Anjali Enjeti: For generations, portraits of race relations in the American South have been painted only in Black and white. But as more Asian and Latinx people settle south of the Mason-Dixon line, that picture has grown more complex – and more interesting. In her debut essay collection, Enjeti, an election activist and former attorney, tackles a wide range of topics spanning from voter suppression to the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the South and the whitewashing of Southern literature. (Michael)

Lorna Mott Comes Home by Diane Johnson: The latest in the novelist’s fascinating career—in addition to novels like Le Divorce, she co-wrote the script for The Shining with Stanley Kubrick (“Kubrick and I would work in the morning, face to face across a table in a big workroom.”). Here, Lorna Mott Dumas ends her 20-year marriage and leaves France for San Francisco—to reinvent herself in a place that she once called home. (Nick R.)

Popisho by Leone Ross: Leone Ross “lives in London, but intends to retire near water.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, her fourth novel takes place on a fictional, magical archipelago called Popisho, “a place of stunning beauty and incorrigible mischief, destiny and mystery.” The publisher described the novel as “uproarious and sensual,” and “inflected with rhythms and textures of an amalgam of languages,” comparing it to the work of Garcia-Marquez and Arundhati Roy. I’m in. (Sonya)

Leaving isn’t the Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough: Lauren Hough had a memorable super-viral essay about her experience working as a cable guy, and this memoir details not only her experiences of life in the working class, but her peripatetic upbringing as a childhood member of a cult called Children of God. Elizabeth McCracken raves about this debut, “Lauren Hough’s Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing is so brilliant, so humane and pissed off and hysterically funny and thought-provoking, and so beautifully written it’s hard to describe except to say that it’s a book that is going to mean a lot to a lot of people, and it might cause some fights, and you better read it so you can have the pleasure of reading it and the pleasure of talking about it with everyone.” (Lydia)

Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal: The French author’s latest, a bildungsroman about a young painter, follows the apprenticeship of Paula Karst, a student at the prestigious Institute de Peinture in Brussels. Unlike her peers, Paula is more interested in material craftsmanship than abstraction, and the novel depicts her all-night work sessions painstaking detail and care. After she graduates, Paula moves on to Paris, Moscow, and Italy, where she continues making her art. Eventually, she lands a job working on Lascaux IV, a reproduction of the world’s most famous prehistoric cave art. (Thom)

May

Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: At the outset of this marvelous novel, Flora Mancini finds her husband’s wedding ring—the one he told her he lost over a decade ago—and the discovery leads her to re-examine everything she thought she knew about their life together. I read Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s follow-up to her bestselling debut The Nest in two breathless days, eager to find out what would happen next in this elegantly depicted story about marriage, friendship, loyalty, and the intersections of art and commerce, love and secrets. When I was finished, I was plunged into the kind of sweet melancholy that only the end of a good book brings. (Edan)

Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness by Nick Ripatrazone: This is the second book by my fellow contributing editor Ripatrazone, whose first book, Longing for An Absent God, investigated Catholicism in American fiction and its influence on storytelling. Wild Belief continues Nick’s scholarship on spirituality—this time, considering how the spiritual tradition sees nature as a site for renewal and wonder. He synthesizes the work of philosophers, poets, and even saints, to understand why we are drawn to nature even as we fear it, and how it enriches our lives. (Edan)

Second Place by Rachel Cusk: Now that her Outline trilogy is complete, we get to see where Cusk, winner of the Whitbread Award and one of Granta’s 2003 Best of Young British Novelists, travels next. When a woman invites a famous artist to visit the remote coastal region where she lives, she hopes that his gaze will penetrate the mysteries of the landscape and of her life. The publisher describes it as a novel that examines, “the possibility that art can both save and destroy us.” (Claire)

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon: Who was it that said dystopian science fiction couldn’t be gothic? They forgot to tell Rivers Solomon who has given the mythology of American rugged individualism a twist that its staunchest devotees might not see coming. Early readers have called it “searing,” “challenging,” and “hopeful.” (Il’ja)

Pop Songs by Larissa Pham: Larissa Pham has been writing about love and loss for a long time, starting at least with her blogging days. Now, the artist and writer’s debut work of nonfiction brings together a series of meditations on distance, discussing Anne Carson and Frank Ocean, travels to New Mexico and Shanghai, and past experiences with sex, drugs, and art. Esmé Weijun Wang calls it an “endlessly inventive, intimate, and provocative memoir-in-essays that celebrates the strange and exquisite state of falling in love — whether with a painting or a person.” (Jacqueline)

The Atmospherians by Alex McElroy: Pundits always feel the need to draw upon past masters like Franz Kafka or George Orwell to explain our dystopian present, but in the future it may very well be Alex McElroy and their debut novel The Atmospherians which best elucidates our panopticon-surveyed, late capitalist hellscape epoch. In the novel, doxxed influencer Sasha Marcus must reconstitute her brand after her woman’s wellness venture was destroyed by men’s rights activists, and so she founds a rehabilitation institute to cure men of their toxic masculinity. A trenchant picture of our world right now, The Atmospherians is equal parts perceptive and prescient. (Ed S.)

Cheat Day by Liv Stratman: In Stratman’s funny and sharp debut, college sweethearts Kit and David are still together—but their relationship is falling apart. As the couple embarks on an intense fad diet together, Kit finds herself beginning an affair with someone she met at work. As Kit gives into her carnal desire, she begins to diet more severely. Jami Attenberg writes, “Sexy, witty and down-to-earth, Cheat Day tackles the truths about our modern occupations with wellness, relationships and what it means to be happy.” (Carolyn)

In the Event of Contact by Ethel Rohan: Social distancing marked the lonely horror that was this year; paradoxically a demonstration of how affection and empathy for our fellow humans required us to retreat into ourselves, connection now defined by the absence of contact. Ethel Rohan’s book of short stories examines something similar in his evocation of what lack of connection can do to us. With a diversity of characters ranging from a childless immigrant daughter justifying her decision to her parents, a grumpy crossing guard honoring the time he got hit by a truck, a demented priest looking for redemption, and a plucky teen detective, In the Event of Contact is a loving homage to humanity in all of its complexity. (Ed S.)

The Republic of False Truths by Alaa Al Aswany (translated by S.R. Fellowes): The celebrated author of The Yacoubian Building tackles the events of the Arab Spring — and of Tahrir Square in particular — offering a cyclotron of storylines ranging from military circles to revolutionary ones to the various lives pulled inexorably in one direction or the other. (Garth)

Vernon Subutex 3 by Virginie Despentes: It’s hard to know why the Vernon Subutex trilogy, an unlikely cocktail of Wolfish satire, Houellebecqesque pessimism, and Ferrantean range and rage, hasn’t kicked up more of a fuss here in the U.S. (though maybe I just answered my own question). Still, it’s easy to see why Nell Zink’s a fan. This third installment concludes the adventures of our titular hero, a peripatetic and intermittently visionary ex-record store owner cut loose on the streets of Paris. (Garth)

The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado: A debut short story collection with elements of the fantastic, surreal, and speculative—flying children, strange creatures on the roof—that the publisher compares to work from Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. (Lydia)

Phase Six by Jim Shepard: This uncomfortably timely novel imagines our next pandemic, unleashed by thawing permafrost. Set in Greenland, it follows 11-year-old Aleq, who unwittingly brings back a virus from an open mining site and survives a devastating outbreak. CDC epidemiologists are then dispatched to study the virus and prevent a global pandemic. They take Aleq into their care, and the novel follows multiple points of view as the catastrophe unfolds. (Hannah)

Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber: Silber’s ninth work of fiction is the story of a young New York lawyer who discovers that his father has a secret family in Queens: a Thai wife and two young children. Ethan’s mother leaves the country in the wake of the revelation, while Ethan becomes involved in a love triangle of his own. This complex, intergenerational novel spans three continents as it reveals the connection between the two families, no longer secret to each other. (Hannah)

Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng: A young girl in China hears from her long-emigrated parents that they will collect her soon and bring her to America. While she fights to stay in the place she knows, her parents are working through their own crises as they navigate the past and the future. Of the novel Garth Greenwell raves, “Everything in this gorgeously orchestrated novel surprises, everything outraces expectation. Swimming Back to Trout River is one of the most beautiful debuts I have read in years.” (Lydia)

A Lonely Man by Chris Power: In this first novel from Power, who writes a keen column on short stories for the Guardian and published the well-received collection Mothers, two professional fabulists circle each other in Berlin. Both are writers, one who claims to have been ghostwriting the autobiography of a murdered Russian oligarch, the other a stuck novelist tempted to energize his own work by cannibalizing his new friend’s tale. This is a slippery tale of writer-on-writer crime set against the backdrop of international conspiracy. (Matt S.)

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (translated by Robin Moger): “Sometimes art imposes its form,” said the Egyptian poet, journalist, and novelist Kheir in an interview, and his latest takes the shape of a journalist’s enchanted tour of Egypt. His guide is a “source” who provides unusual scoops, shepherding the journalist to various sites where the mundane is infused with magic (for example, a “cinema of private visions” projected onto a cave wall). This hallucinatory portrait of modern Egypt, translated by Robin Moger, is Kheir first full-length work to appear in English. (Matt S.)

The Parted Earth by Anjali Enjeti: In August 1947, as talk of Partition swirls on the streets of New Delhi, 16-year-old Deepa trades messages encoded in intricate origami with her boyfriend Amir. Seventy years later, in Atlanta, Georgia, Deepa’s granddaughter, reeling from marital troubles and the recent loss of a pregnancy, begins to search for her estranged grandmother and in the process piece together the history of her family shattered by the violent separation of India and Pakistan. Vanessa Hua, author of A River of Stars, calls The Parted Earth, the second of two books by Enjeti out this spring, “a devastating portrayal of Partition and the trauma it wreaked in the generations that followed.” (Michael)

The Living See of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Everything is vanishing, or so it appears to Anna, the protagonist in Flanagan’s new novel that is “one part elegy, one part dream, one part hope.” Hailed as the Booker Prize winner’s greatest novel yet, the new work tackles climate change, family ties, and resilience in the Anthropocene. (Nick M.)

Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen: A debut novel about a Vietnamese immigrant family in New Orleans — a mother coping with what becomes permanent separation from her husband back in Vietnam, and two fatherless boys who make their way in different “lanes.” Then the hurricane hits. Havoc, we presume, ensues; but also that human spirit thing that all tragedies, real and fictional, evoke and stir. (Sonya)

June

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor: In this series of linked stories, young creative people in the Midwest navigate loneliness, intimacy, and violence. In many ways, the book is a continuation of Taylor’s highly acclaimed debut novel, Real Life, which follows Wallace, a Black queer biochemistry PhD student in the Midwest, as he explores failure, grief, and confusing straight men. In other ways, it is a departure — and offers a glimpse into Taylor’s true literary love, the short story form. (Jacqueline)

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris: Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella is the only Black woman at her publishing company until another Black woman is hired and quickly becomes a favorite in the office–just as Nella starts receiving threatening notes at work. Attica Locke raves, “Zakiya Dalila Harris has pulled back the curtain on the publishing industry, but in doing so, she has also perfectly captured a social dynamic that exists in job cultures as varied as tech, finance, academia, or hell, even retail and fast food. Oh, beware of the “OBGs”—Other Black Girls—y’all. As we should all be aware of the psychic cost to Black women of making ourselves palatable to institutions that use our cultural cache for their own ends while disregarding any part of our hearts and minds that they either can’t or won’t understand.” (Lydia)

Bewilderness by Karen Tucker: The stress of Covid-19 has, according to the CDC, escalated opioid usage, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl continue to drive OD fatalities, which are 10% higher than 12 months ago. In her debut novel, Bewilderness, Karen Tucker puts a human face on this ongoing public health catastrophe, as she tells the story of Irene and Luce, pill-addicts and best friends. More than merely evoking the desperation of opioid abuse, Bewilderness provides a funny and touching story of female friendship—as Rufi Thorpe says, “Karen Tucker has the chaotic truth-telling energy of a sage and a lack of sentimentality that would give Hunter S. Thompson stomach cramps. This is the novel the opiate epidemic needs.” (Adam Price)

Walking on Cowrie Shells by Nana Nkweti: In her genre-bending debut story collection, the Cameroonian-American writer and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Nana Nkweti mixes realism with clever inversions of numerous genres, including horror, mystery, myth, young adult, and science fiction. You’ll meet linguistic anthropologists, comic book enthusiasts, a PR pro trying to spin a zombie outbreak in West Africa, a graphic novelist, a pregnant pastor’s wife, a mermaid. This dazzler of a debut shines a spotlight on lives that bridge the divide between the cultures of Cameroon and America. Nkweti has said she hopes her stories entertain readers while also offering them a counterpoint to prevalent “heart of darkness” writing that too often depicts a singular African experience. (Bill)

Imposter Syndrome by Kathy Wang: If you follow a certain subset of millennial professionals on Twitter, then you’ve come to understand that few maladies bedevil that overeducated cohort like “imposter syndrome” – the sneaking suspicion that despite your academic credentials you’re still woefully out of your depth. Kathy Wang dramatizes this condition, along with a dollop of cyber paranoia, in her satire Imposter Syndrome, which recounts the travails of Julia Lerner, accomplished computer scientist, COO of Tangerin (one of Silicon Valley’s most promising tech corporations), and Russian intelligence operative. Julia’s position is threatened when Alice, a first-generation Chinese American programmer at Tangerine, begins to discover how deep the company’s disloyalties lay. Like John le Carré filtered through Tom Wolfe, Imposter Syndrome encapsulates our Facebook anxieties perfectly. (Ed S.)

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen: For the title alone, I’m in, no matter who wrote it. But then it’s also Rivka Galchen? Trying her hand at historical fiction? I’m hitting preorder. Based in 1618 Germany at the start of the 30 Years War it tells the story of Katherina Kepler, an illiterate woman known for her herbal remedies. When a neighbor accuses Katherina of poisoning her, Katherina’s brilliant son, an Imperial Mathematician, must defend her. Galchen, known for her fiction and journalism, drew on real historical documents to write her tale of a family threatened by superstitious fears. (Hannah)

Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn: A little knowledge, they say, can be a dangerous thing. But is there such a thing as too much knowledge? Of the world we live in? Of the people we live with? In St. Aubyn’s seventh novel the sacred and the profane, the rough and the refined are set against each other as the passionate and the rational play out in the lives of three close friends. No one comes out unscathed, or unenlightened. (Il’ja)

All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running by Elias Rodriques: Life is change, and nowhere is that more potently illustrated than in a life confronted by its past. When Daniel Henriquez travels from New York to his old stomping grounds in the American South for the funeral of a girl he once loved, he is confronted by the tension, the true challenge, of owning our identities and owning up to them with those who know us well. On friendship, love, and the rough bite of life on the margins. (Il’ja)

The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee: The publisher has laid some tripwires in describing this latest novel from the author of High Dive: “New York…turn of the twentieth century…fortune…murder.” A private man deeply invested in the public welfare of one of the world’s great cities has his privacy shredded even as his life is ended, in a novel Katy Simpson Smith compares to Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and John Williams’ Stoner. (Il’ja)

Everything Now by Rosecrans Baldwin: Baldwin’s new book charts Los Angeles’s literary canon, its landscapes, spiritual practices, history, and cuisines, and ultimately makes the argument that Los Angeles is best understood—“functionally, aesthetically, mythologically, even technologically”—as a city-state. (Emily M.)

Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung: Following the death of her father, a young woman is haunted by the unspoken history of her family and looks to put a voice to it. A daunting task “if your family doesn’t talk about feelings.” A valuable addition to the growing canon of work providing fresh views on the North American immigrant experience. (Il’ja)

Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford: In this memoir, writer, podcaster, and educator Ashley Ford tells the story of her upbringing. Amid struggles with poverty, rape, and her father’s incarceration, Ford describes the process through which she ultimately came to better understand herself, her surroundings, and her family. Glennon Doyle writes, “The gravity and urgency of Somebody’s Daughter anchored me to my chair and slowed my heartbeat—like no book has since Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” (Jacqueline)

Objects of Desire by Clare Sestanovich: The debut collection of Clare Sestanovich invites us to a fictional world where women’s most intimate fear, needs, and wants are told. A wife confronts the disturbing fact that everything in her marriage is laid bare. An office lady tries to escape a world of ambitious and demanding men surrounding her. Sestanovich’s writing shines with dark humor and sharp observations. It is a joyful read. (Jianan Qian)

The Natural Mother of the Child by Krys Malcolm Belc: This is a beautiful memoir of parenthood and selfhood that promises to expand the canon of literary writing on caregiving and identity. Belc is a nonbinary, transmasculine parent whose family story is here interwoven with revelations of the bureaucratic processes that are inharmoniously bound up with people’s real lives. (Lydia)

Revival Season by Monica West: A spectacular coming-of-age novel. Miriam’s father, one of the most famous preachers in the South, uses his healing powers to cure people of their diseases. But one summer, the fifteen-year-old Miriam starts to doubt her father’s powers and her faith after witnessing an incident. In the following year and through her painful exploration, Miriam has to confront and resolve the tension between feminism and faith. Revival Season is not only an inner journey of the becoming of a young lady in the South, but also a precise geological picture of the Bible Belt and how faith shapes the community and the family. (Jianan Qian)

Site Fidelity by Claire Boyles: A collection of stories about the rural American west, from Nevada to Colorado, from the 70s to the near future, covering the environmental degradation that in the West, like everywhere, marries ecology, governance, and ideology. (Lydia)

Future Feeling by Joss Lake: With perhaps the most perfect marketing copy of all time, this debut novel brings the saga of “an embittered dog walker obsessed with a social media influencer inadvertently puts a curse on a young man–and must adventure into mysterious dimension in order to save him–in this wildly inventive, delightfully subversive, genre-nonconforming debut novel about illusion, magic, technology, kinship, and the emergent future.” Ben Marcus says of the author, “like every ambitious literary visionary, Lake uses his delirious imagination and potent narrative gifts to sharpen the mirror on how we live and feel now.” (Lydia)

How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith: The power of an itinerant narrator—Smith journeys to Monticello, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, and downtown Manhattan—is that it reveals slavery’s expansive, geographical legacy. Smith tells his stories with the soul of a poet and the heart of an educator. Smith’s ambitious book is fueled by a humble sense of duty: he sought the wisdom of those who tell of slavery’s legacy “outside traditional classrooms and beyond the pages of textbooks”; public historians who “have dedicated their lives to sharing this history with others.” Smith channels the spirit of Toni Morrison here; the writer as one to pass on the word so that it is never forgotten. (Nick R.)

Last Comes the Raven by Italo Calvino (translated by Ann Goldstein): Calvino’s early stories shine here, as with the titular tale, originally published in The Paris Review in 1954: “The stream was a net of limpid, delicate ripples, with the water running through the mesh. From time to time, like a fluttering of silver wings, the dorsum of a trout flashed on the surface, the fish at once plunging zigzag down into the water.” Readers of Calvino know his mercurial ability to move from mimesis to mystery, his syntax full of glorious surprises. (Nick R.)

Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James: I’m a sucker for both “late-blooming” life stories and plucky protagonists. Elizabeth Gonzalez James’s official bio tells us that she “was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer” before sitting down to write, and her jacket copy describes the Millennial protagonist of her debut novel as “the sort who says exactly the right thing at absolutely the wrong moments, seeing the world through a cynic’s eyes.” Also she’s been both a Pushcart and Glimmer Train story nominee, which to my mind is still mad cred. I’m sold. (Sonya)

Animal by Lisa Taddeo: Following her bestselling Three Women, Lisa Taddeo has written a story of female rage, a novel that illustrates one woman’s evolution from prey to predator. When Joan, the protagonist, sees a man commit violence in front of her, she flees her New York City home, searching for the only person who can help her understand her past. As she unravels the traumatic events of her childhood that shaped her adult life, she starts developing the power to exact revenge. (Thom)

December Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

The Freezer Door by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: In The Freezer Door, award-winning author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore meditates on connection, loneliness, sex, social conformity, trauma, and more. Wayne Koestenbaum describes this new work as “a book that defies borders and uses language to dive directly into mystery.” And, Maggie Nelson declares, “I really love Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The Freezer Door…I stand deeply inspired and instructed by its great wit, candor, inventiveness, and majesty.” (Zoë)

Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley: The “Perestroika” in Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley’s new novel refers not to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Soviet liberalization, but rather a spunky French racehorse who is the center of a group of animal friends in her beast fable. Author of the King Lear adaptation A Thousand Acres and of the immaculate campus novel Moo, Smiley has always had a talent for animal representations both charming and truthful (perhaps reflecting those years spent at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop). Perestroika in Paris features not just the titular equine, but also the horse’s friend, a German shorthaired pointer named Frieda, while recounting their lives in the City of Light. (Ed Simon)

Rest and Be Thankful by Emma Glass: Written in a lyrical, dreamy style, Glass’ sophomore novel—which follows up her Dylan Thomas Prize longlisted debut Peach—explores the life of Laura, a pediatric nurse whose life seems to be falling apart before her eyes. Her days are filled with the immense stress of caring for (and grieving for) children; living with a man who no longer loves her; and grappling with hallucinations that she fears is death itself. Kirkus’ starred review calls the sophomore novel “a heart-wrenching and poetic look at a profession that deserves more literary attention.” (Carolyn)

Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo: In her second book, Oluo (So You Want to Talk About Race) examines the last 150 years of American history—ranging from the legacy of the Wild West to racism in the NFL—and the dangerous consequences of society’s centering of white men. About the book, Ashley C. Ford says: “This book goes beyond how we got here, and digs into where we are, what we’re going to do about it, and what’s at stake if the people with the most power refuse to do better.” (Carolyn)

A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers: In Summers’ gory, campy, and satirical debut, James Beard Award-winning food critic Dorothy Daniels recounts her life from prison—where she is serving a life sentence (and then some) for cannibalism and murder. Megan Abbott calls the culinary crime novel “mordantly funny and lushly baroque” as if ” American Psycho as rewritten by Angela Carter.” (Carolyn)

Proustian Uncertainties by Saul Friedländer: Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Friedländer examines the mastery of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (“one of the most important novels ever written”) in this book-length scholarly essay. In what Kirkus calls an “intimate literary investigation,” Friedländer explores the sometimes puzzling similarities and differences between Proust and his narrator. (Carolyn)

A Year in Reading: 2020

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We were worried that no one would want or be able to participate in this, the 16th annual Year in Reading at The Millions. What is there to say about this pandemic year, a year so strange and horrible that its very appellation has become a bitter joke? People are mourning their dead, homeschooling their children, juggling responsibilities, worrying about money, worrying about politics, worrying about people, stultifying with loneliness or despair.

And yet this Year in Reading is one of the best we’ve had. Entries poured forth from readers–readers who are mourning, homeschooling, juggling, worrying, stultifying. This series becomes part of the historical record of an experience that is collective even though its effects are unevenly and unfairly felt. This is a record of how a few people managed and what they read and what moved them during difficult days. We are grateful to have it. And we are grateful for you, and we are hoping for better things for all of us in the months to come.

The names of our 2020 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published–starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning, and ending on December 24. Bookmark this post, load up the main pagesubscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run three or four every day.

Stephen Dodson, proprietor of Languagehat.Maisy Card, author of These Ghosts Are Family.Elaine Castillo, author of America Is Not the Heart.Salar Abdoh, author of Out of MesopotamiaCarvell Wallace, co-author of The Sixth Man.Mira Assaf Kafantaris, Senior Lecturer in the English Department at the Ohio State University.Lynn Steger Strong, author of Want.Andrew Valencia, author of Lord of California.Paul Tremblay, author of Survivor Song.Katherine D. Morgan, assistant features editor for The Rumpus.Zak Salih, author of the forthcoming novel Get Back to the Party. Emily Adrian, author of Everything Here Is Under Control.Kathy Wang, author of the forthcoming novel Impostor Syndrome. Anneliese Mackintosh, author of Bright and Dangerous Objects.Greg Afinogenov, author of Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power.Jon Mooallem, author of This is Chance!.Edan Lepucki, staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions, author of Woman No. 17.Nick Ripatrazone, contributing editor for The Millions, author of Longing for an Absent God.Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Loved Ones.Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.Jianan Qian, staff writer for The Millions.Ed Simon, staff writer for The Millions, author of America and Other Fictions.Carolyn Quimby, associate editor for The Millions.K-Ming Chang, author of Bestiary.Brontez Purnell, author of Since I Laid My Burden Down.Diane Cook, author of The New Wilderness.Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, author of House of Stone.Natalie Bakopoulos, author of Scorpionfish.Lillian Li, author of Number One Chinese Restaurant.Margot Livesey, author of The Boy in the FieldChristopher Gonzalez, author of the forthcoming collection I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat. Kevin Young, editor of African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & SongDavid Heska Wanbli Weiden, author of Winter Counts.Mohamed Asem, author of Stranger in the Pen.Jesse Paddock, writer, filmmaker, and co-host of the Fans Notes podcast.Rachel Yoder, author of the forthcoming novel Nightbitch.Caroline Kim, author of The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories.Marie-Helene Bertino, author of Parakeet.Sunisa Manning, author of A Good True Thai.Destiny O. Birdsong, author of Negotiations.Jennifer Acker, author of The Limits of the World.J. Howard Rosier, National Book Critics Circle board member.Shruti Swamy, author of A House Is a Body: Stories.Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Last Neanderthal.Zoë Ruiz, staff writer for The Millions.Hannah Gersen, author ofHome FieldKaulie Lewis, staff writer for The Millions.Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.Lysley Tenorio, author of The Son of Good Fortune.Adam Dalva, author of Olivia Twist.Jenny Bhatt, author of Each of Us Killers, translator of Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu.Aatif Rashid, author of Portrait of Sebastian Khan.Miranda Popkey, author of Topics of Conversation.Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.Nadia Owusu, author of the forthcoming memoir Aftershocks.Sabrina Orah Mark, author of Wild Milk.Sara Fan, a writer in California.Lauren Oyler, author of the forthcoming novel Fake Accounts.Farooq Ahmed, author of Kansastan.Megan Giddings, author of Lakewood.Ayad Akhtar, author of Homeland Elegies.Willa Paskin, TV critic at Slate and the host of the Decoder Ring podcast.Blair McClendon, writer, film editor and filmmaker.Jean Chen Ho, author of the forthcoming collection Fiona and Jane.Michael Zapata, author of The Lost Book of Adana Moreau.Sarah Thankam Mathews, a writer featured in Best American Short Stories 2020.Angela Chen, author of Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of SexKevin Barry, author of That Old Country Music.     Kate Gavino, social media editor for The Millions and author of Sanpaku.Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions and contributing editor for Poets & Writers.Thomas Beckwith, staff writer for The Millions.Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.Lydia Kiesling, contributing editor for The Millions, author of The Golden StateJacqueline Krass, staff writer for The Millions.Mahogany L. Browne, author of Woke: A Young Poets Call to Justice.Adam Wilson, author of Sensation Machines.Chelsea Bieker, author of Godshot.Eloisa Amezcua, author of From the Inside Quietly.Katherine Hill, author of A Short Move.Joseph Lee, 2020 Margins Fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Silvia Killingsworth, series editor of Best American Food WritingSejal Shah, author of This is One Way to Dance.Vanessa Veselka, author of The Great Offshore Grounds.Iľja Rákoš, staff writer for The Millions.Davey Davis, author of the forthcoming novel X.Mamta Chaudhry, author of Haunting ParisMartha Anne Toll, author of the forthcoming Three Muses.Anthony Veasna So, author of Afterparties.

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

‘The Orchard’: Featured Fiction from David Hopen

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In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own  Carolyn Quimby—we’re happy to present an excerpt from David Hopen’s debut novel, The Orchard.

The book—a coming-of-age tale about a devout Jewish high school student—received praise from the likes of Susan Choi and Shteyngart, as well as starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, with the latter calling the novel “brilliantly conceived and crafted” and “Unforgettable.”
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We were sitting in our living room that evening, after a makeshift dinner of scrambled eggs and several hours unloading boxes, moving furniture, transferring miscellaneous items from one side of the room to the other and back. I was reviewing a page of Talmud with my father when our landline rang. My mother answered; I heard her give loud, exaggerated laughs. Foreign sounds to me.

“Our neighbors,” my mother said, bustling in from the kitchen. “From the house across the street. Cynthia and Eddie Harris—they sound lovely.”

My father stared blankly. “What’d they want?”

“They’ve invited us to a barbecue tomorrow.”

My father’s finger held our place in the Gemara. Damages caused by oxen or by mav’eh are caused by a living spirit. Fire has no living spirit. “And what’d you tell them?”

She looked rosy-cheeked. “That we’d be delighted, of course.”

He nodded slightly, returning his attention to the Talmud. Without another word, we resumed learning.

The barbecue was on a sun-dazzled afternoon. Even in the oppressive Florida heat we dressed as we always did: my father and I in black and white, my mother tzniut in her long sleeves, though I noticed she donned a new floral dress for the occasion.

Timidly, we rang the doorbell and waited for several minutes, admiring the flagstone steps and double-hinged oak doors, my mother elated at the prospect of a social life, my father looking as if he’d prefer to be anywhere else. Eventually, when no one answered, we made our way around the side of the mansion, following the sound of laughter. We opened an iron gate and let ourselves into the party. 

Horror washed over my father’s face as he surveyed the backyard. Wives in short, colorful sundresses, Chardonnay in hand. Men in Burberry polos, gripping beers. Teenage boys and girls thrashing together in the pool, a cardinal sin in our former lives. Dazzlingly alien sights: wealth, charm, hysteria. My stomach turned uneasily.

“Hello, there,” a hearty voice boomed behind us. A thick man in a crisp white polo clapped my father on the back, startling him. “You must be the Edens!” Ever so slightly, my father stole a look at the top of the man’s gelled hair. No yarmulke. The man extended a beefy hand. “Our new neighbors! You guys know how excited we’ve been to meet you? Wasn’t too much love lost with the people who used to own your house. I mean, nice people, I guess, but kept to themselves too

much. We needed new friends.” He squinted, his eyes sweeping the backyard—incidentally the most impressive backyard I’d ever seen: an enormous pool, a marble bathhouse, a Jacuzzi and bar, a fence bordering a picturesque golf course—and shrugged. “I don’t know where Cynthia went off, she must be inside. Come, I’ll bring you in to meet her. Eddie Harris, by the way. Real pleasure.”

My father gave a thin smile, his hand comically small in Eddie’s. “Yaakov Eden.”

“Thanks for coming, Yaakov,” Eddie said, before offering his hand to my mother.

An awful moment followed, my mother staring blankly, caught between the social necessity of extending her hand and our strict custom of refraining from touching non-family members of the opposite gender. I winced, but Eddie realized his mistake quickly and holstered his handshake. “Shit, my apologies!” he barked. “I didn’t realize, excuse my idiocy . . .”

“No, no,” my mother soothed, red-cheeked with embarrassment. “Please, not to worry.” My father assumed the face one might adopt when passing a kidney stone, but Eddie and my mother both gave awkward smiles. “I’m Leah.”

This would have been considerably more painful, perhaps unsalvageable, with someone else. Yet Eddie released a sonic laugh, diffusing any tension. “Don’t mind me, I’m just a shmuck. Most people here aren’t terribly strict about, er, what do you call it? Shomer negiah, right, that kind of thing. Between us, maybe they ought to be, I’ll show you one couple in particular over there, plenty of rumors, though who am I to judge? So, yeah, that whole no-touching thing isn’t really on my radar. But Cynthia’ll kill me when she hears.” After his laughter, Eddie rested his eyes on me. “And your name, sport?” He had quite the handshake.

“Aryeh.”

“No kidding. That was my old man’s name.”

“Oh yeah?”

“A bona fide tzadik.” He paused, sending thoughts heavenward. “I think you would’ve liked him,” he mumbled to my father.

My father nodded courteously, unconvinced.

He turned back to me. “And how old are you, bud?”

“Seventeen.”

“Seventeen? So you’re a junior or senior?”

“Senior.”

“Nice. And you’ll be at the yeshiva in Sunny Isles, I assume? They’re pretty serious folks, let me tell you. I hear they hold mishmar three times a week.”

“I’ll be at Kol Neshama, actually.”

“That other place was much too far of a drive,” my mother said. “Plus, we’re told Kol Neshama is, well, a superior education.”

“Wow, you’re going to the old Voice of the Soul Academy? Who would’ve thought?” He grinned boyishly. “You’ve really got to meet my son, you’re in the same class.” He turned animatedly to my parents. “How great is this?”

They returned his grin politely.

“Noah Harris!” he hollered toward the pool. “Where the heck are you, kid?”

From the water emerged a tall boy with green eyes, long blond locks, an exact replica of his father’s smile and an almost excessive collection of shoulder and abdominal muscles. It was obvious he was an athlete. “Nice to meet you all,” he said, slinging a towel over his shoulders. “I’d shake your hands but I’m sopping.”

“Easy on the shaking,” Eddie said, winking at my mother. “Noah, Ari here will be in your grade at the Academy.”

“No kidding.”

“Yaakov, Leah, what do you say we fix you both stiff drinks, yes? These two don’t need us breathing down their necks.” Eddie slapped my back playfully. “Yaak, you like cigars? No? Well, you do kind of look like a man I could turn into a lover of single malt. I’ve got the perfect thing for you to try. Noah, grab Ari a beer, will you, or a hot dog if he wants? Don’t worry, everything’s kosher.” With that, his large hands took hold of my father, while carefully avoiding contact with my mother, and steered them away.

Noah watched them leave. His arms appeared to flex involuntarily, despite the fact that they hung at ease at his sides. I wondered what it would be like to have such a problem. “Say your name was Ari?”

“Aryeh,” I said. Then, kicking myself: “Ari for short.”

“And you moved from—?”

“Brooklyn.”

“Dope. I have friends on Long Island. Know anybody there?”

“Some,” I said noncommittally, certain we’d have zero mutual friends.

“I went to camp with Benji Wertheimer. Know him?” he asked, hopeful for conversation. “No? Fantastic point guard.”

I shook my head.

“What about Efrem Stern? Okay, Naomi Spitz? Shira Haar? She’s from Kings Point. Everyone knows her, throws Hamptons parties, she’s super pretty?” He laughed. “Don’t tell my girlfriend I said that,” he said confidentially, pointing back toward the pool.

“No, I, uh—I won’t.”

“Where’d you go to school?”

“Torah Temimah.”

“Torah Temimah?”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling small.

“Never heard of it. New school?”

“No. Not really.”

“One of those frum places, then. The shtetl. We talking black hats?”

Just how out of place I was dawned on me. To Noah, whose life, I suspected, involved athletic glory, beach houses, summer parties, I was some staid rabbinical student who had wandered comically into the wrong world, or at least the wrong backyard. And I was not unaccustomed to living as a stranger. I was a stranger in my previous existence, but one who understood that the rules governing each detail of life—how to marry, how to think, how to tie my shoes—were prescribed, always, by an aspirational morality. Standing before Noah, I was a different breed of stranger, someone attempting to hide in plain sight without any understanding of the overarching rules. Camouflaging here, I realized then, would be harder even than in Brooklyn. “Yes,” I said, itching to leave. “Pretty much.”

From The Orchard by David Hopen. Copyright ©2020 by David Hopen. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 

November Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

November

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans: Following the success of her 2010 story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Evans returns with this funny collection whose stories play on the absurdities of race in America. In one story, a white college student is forced to reinvent her entire identity after an embarrassing photo of her sporting a Confederate flag-themed bikini makes the rounds. In the title story, a D.C.-based professor discovers a conspiracy of Pynchonesque proportions, one that threatens to derail her entire life and to destabilize her understanding of history. These are absurd stories for absurd times. (Ismail)

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem: Something’s happened between apocalypse and inconvenience, and that something is The Arrest. Put simply, business as usual has stopped working. Guns don’t fire, computers don’t work, and cars don’t drive. For everyone, this poses problems. For Sandy Duplessis, a Hollywood screenwriter, it necessitated change, so he’s moved to rural Maine to try to make a new life for himself with his sister—that is, until the day his former associate shows up with a nuclear-powered supercar capable of smashing its way across the continental U.S. Hijinks ensue. (Nick M.)

To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss: How many men can a woman’s life hold? By weaving stories about aging parents, generations gaps, newborn babies, and coming of age, Krauss’s new collection looks the lives of women at the point where the forces of sex, power and violence come together—in a couple. Krauss is a National Book Award finalist and New York Times–bestselling author of The History of Love and Great House, among others. The stories in this book mirror each other and provide a balance that makes the collection, as the publisher says, “feels like a novel.” (Claire)

Eartheater by Dolores Reyes (translated by Julia Sanches): This debut from an Argentinian teacher and activist tells the story of a young girl with a strange desire to eat dirt. Her compulsion leads to a powerful clairvoyant gift: eating earth allows her to find the bodies of people who have gone missing, and to know the circumstances of their murders. Her first taste of dirt teaches her the truth about her mother’s death. She tries to keep her visions secret but when people hear of her gift, they beg for help in finding their own loved ones. (Hannah)

Khalil by Yasmina Khadra (translated by John Cullen): In this first-person thriller by Khadra, the pseudonym of former Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul, Khalil, a young Belgian man of Moroccan descent, tries to detonate a suicide vest outside the Stade de France in Paris—and fails. Fraternel Solidarity, an ISIS affiliate, has other plans for Khalil. He returns to Belgium, but must hide the truth both from the authorities and his own family, anticipating all the time his next mission. What follows is the story of a man struggling with questions of religion, politics, and family. (Jacqueline)

The Sun Collective by Charles Baxter: It’s been a while since we’ve seen a novel from Baxter—though the past decade has brought two short story collections; he’s one of those writers who can do both, superbly. Now, in his sixth novel, he tells the story of intersecting lives in Minneapolis: a missing actor, the actor’s desperate mother, a young woman addicted to a drug that gives a feeling of “blessedness,” and a quasi-religious community group, The Sun Collective. (Hannah)

Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan: Crossan’s first novel for adult readers opens on a now three-year-old heady affair between two people, Ana and Connor. When Connor dies, Ana finds herself trapped in a grief she cannot share, for someone whose connection to her is unknown to anyone else in the world. Rather than vilifying Connor’s wife, Rebecca, the “shadowy figure who has always stood just beyond her reach,” Ana seeks her out. A gripping exploration of obsession, risk, and loss. (Jacqueline)

Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han: Han’s literary debut introduces us to the Cheng family of Dallas, living successful personal and professional lives while helping to support extended relatives in China. Nights When Nothing Happened received high praise from Lorrie Moore, who called it a “tender, spiky family saga about love in all its mysterious incarnations.” Han’s novel explores what belonging means, both in terms of a family and a nation, as Nights When Nothing Happened brings texture, nuance, and subtlety to the reductionist condescension of the “model minority” trope. (Ed)

The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar: By the author of The Map of Salt and Stars, a novel about three generations of Syrians linked by a particular species of bird. R.O. Kwon says of the book, “Zeyn Joukhadar’s new book is a vivid exploration of loss, art, queer and trans communities, and the persistence of history. Often tender, always engrossing, The Thirty Names of Night is a feat.” (Lydia)

Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino by Julián Herbert (translated by Christina MacSweeney): Who could resist a story collection with a title like this? In the deliriously pulpy title story, a Mexican drug lord who could pass for Quentin Tarantino’s twin kidnaps a film critic so he can discuss Tarantino’s films while he sends a squad of goons to kill the doppelgänger who has colonized his consciousness. The collection’s other stories, ranging from antic to dire, dissect the violence and corruption that plague Mexico today. The raffish cast includes a cokehead, a ghost, a personal memories coach, and a man who discovers music in his teeth. Collectively, they ask the question: How much violence can a person, and a country, take? (Bill)

The Age of Skin by Dubravka Ugrešić (translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac): A new book from Ugrešić, one of Europe’s foremost critics and most influential writers, is always worthy of celebration. Exiled from her native Croatia after the fall of Yugoslavia, Ugrešić brings a wisdom and vision and dark humor that’s particularly pertinent in our turbulent times. In The Age of Skin she touches on vast and varied cultural references, “from La La Land and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to tattoos and body modification, World Cup chants, and the preservation of Lenin’s corpse—takes on the dreams, hopes, and fears of modern life.” (Anne)

Lord the One You Love Is Sick by Kasey Thornton: This debut novel in the form of linked stories is an unflinching look at the dark truths that dwell just beneath the sunny surface of small southern towns. The fictional Bethany, set somewhere in the author’s native North Carolina, is “like a nice Persian rug that had been stapled into place over a damp floor for a hundred years. Peel up a corner and see what you find.” What we find in the collection’s opening story is a young man dying from a drug overdose, which has rippling fallout for his mother, his gay agoraphobic brother, his best friend, his best friend’s wife—in the end, just about everybody in Bethany. The writing is assured, understated, yet propulsive. Kasey Thornton is a writer to watch. (Bill)

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon: First published in 2013, the expanded reissue of Laymon’s first nonfiction collection features six new essays that explore the intersection of the interior—family, history, memory—and the exterior—white supremacy, bigotry, violence. The book explores race, identity, and familial bonds. Kirkus calls the collection, “A timely and disquieting contribution to urgent conversations about race.” (Carolyn)

One Night Two Souls Went Walking by Ellen Cooney: In Cooney’s 10th novel, which Alyson Hagy called “radiant, humane, splendidly joyous,” an unnamed, 30-something hospital chaplain spends one night performing rounds: comforting patients, offering them grace, and finding connection and healing in the face of great suffering. Now, more than ever, we need to be reminded that hope prevails—and this novel does exactly that. (Carolyn)

White Ivy by Susie Yang: Longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, Yang’s debut is a coming-of-age tale about privilege, class, and identity. Ivy, a Chinese-American teenager, is raised by her immigrant grandmother to emulate the traditional suburban life by any means necessary. When she meets Gideon Speyer, the prized son of a powerful political family, her life is upended. Years later, the two are reunited and Ivy will stop at nothing to have the life she’s always dreamed of. About the novel, Neel Patel says, “Bold, daring, and sexy, White Ivy is the immigrant story we’ve been dying to hear.” (Carolyn)

Somewhere in the Unknown World by Kao Kalia Yang: With nativism and xenophobia on the rise, Yang—an award-winning author and Hmong refugee—gathers the powerful and deeply human stories of 14 refugees living in Minnesota. “In a time when the term ‘refugee’ is so often flat and faceless, this is an essential book of poetic beauty and social witness,” says author Sarah Smarsh. (Carolyn)

The Orchard by David Hopen: With comparisons to The Secret History and Old School, Hopen’s debut follows Ari Eden when he’s uprooted from his ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and dropped into the secular Miami suburbs. When he becomes enmeshed with a group of charismatic classmates, he and the others begin testing their faith in increasingly dangerous ways. About the novel, Nathan Hill says: “It’s a story of profound intelligence, a story of tragic grandeur, and a story unlike any other I’ve ever read.” (Carolyn)

The Harpy by Megan Hunter: When Lucy, a wife and mother, learns of her husband Jake’s infidelity, her world is thrown completely off-kilter. Rather than separate, Lucy and Jake decide to make things work—with one caveat: Lucy gets to hurt him three times. From there, they (and their relationship) becomes unrecognizable. Author Jessica Andrews says Hunter “confronts the fear of female anger and asks us what happens when pain that has been swallowed through generations begins to rush to the surface.” (Carolyn)

The Best of Brevity, edited by Zoe Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore: I discovered Brevity when my creative nonfiction professor assigned Anna Vodicka’s “Girl/Thing” for class. By the end of the very brief essay (featured in this anthology), I had fallen in love with not only the literary magazine, but flash nonfiction as a genre. This collection, which includes 84 essays from the website’s 20-plus years, features writers like Roxane Gay, Jaquira Díaz, and Kristen Radtke. There’s beauty in brevity, and this anthology proves it. (Carolyn)

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (translated by Geoffrey Trousselot): Already an international-bestseller, Kawaguchi’s English-language debut is set in a small Tokyo coffee shop where time travel is possible—but for only as long as a cup of coffee can stay warm. In interconnected stories, four customers go back in time: to apologize, reminisce, and heal. “Kawaguchi’s tender look at the beauty of passing things, adapted from one of his plays, makes for an affecting, deeply immersive journey into the desire to hold onto the past,” says Publishers Weekly. (Carolyn)

October Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam: “Step into our beautiful house and leave the world behind,” reads the Airbnb posting for the charming Hamptons house rented by a Brooklyn family for a one-week vacation. The world has other ideas. Shortly into their stay, the East Coast power grid goes down, New York City is plunged into darkness, warplanes roar across the sky—the sonic boom “a rend in heaven right above their little house”—and, worse, the rental home’s owners appear at the front door. An exquisitely tense novel of manners in the midst of a catastrophe from which there is no safe haven, however well-furnished. (Matt)

Memorial by Bryan Washington: In the follow-up to his 2019 story collection, Lot, Washington introduces us to Mike and Benson. They’re a couple, and though they haven’t been together forever, their relationship has lasted long enough for them to both become vaguely dissatisfied. Their rather boring comfort gets shaken up by the arrival of Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, from Japan: she reveals that his father is dying, and while Mike travels to Osaka to, Mitsuko stays behind with Benson. The result is not only an exploration of a kaleidoscopically diverse America—Mike is a Japanese American man who works at a Mexican restaurant and dates a Black man—but a moving portrait of two young men who are figuring out exactly who they are in this world. Anyone who enjoyed Washington’s dreamlike yet textured meditations on life in Houston in Lot will be enchanted with Memorial. (Ismail)

The Silence by Don DeLillo: The prerelease literature for DeLillo’s The Silence takes pains to note that DeLillo completed his new novel mere weeks before the advent of Covid-19. One understands why when one reads the plot summary: Five people on Super Bowl Sunday in the near future, trapped together in a Manhattan apartment in the midst of an ongoing catastrophe. In The Silence, DeLillo trains his postmodern meditative powers on what happens when our connection to technology is severed, and asks what ultimately makes us human. As Joshua Ferris writes in The New York Times Book Review: “DeLillo offers consolation simply by enacting so well the mystery and awe of the real world.” (Adam Price)

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd): Fans of Oyamada’s The Factory— a curious and delightfully eccentric novel that follows four workers through their jobs at a Kafkaesque labyrinthine factory—will be delighted to know that New Directions is publishing the English translation of Oyamada’s follow-up novel, The Hole. Work figures into this book too: when a couple relocates to a rural area for the husband’s job, the wife is left with an abundance of time. She explores the countryside, finding various unlikely creatures, and particularly a hole that seems to be made just for her, in this novel that is “by turns reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, David Lynch, and My Neighbor Totoro.” (Anne)

Bright and Dangerous Objects by Anneliese Mackintosh: A beautiful novel about an undersea welder who juggles her desire to join a mission to Mars with the reality of her pregnancy. This is a lovely and fascinating book about the kind of work that is usually invisible, and a kind of maternal ambivalence that reaches for the literal stars, told from the perspective of a singular, well-drawn protagonist. (Lydia)

The Searcher by Tana French: French, who made her name writing six bestselling mysteries starring detectives from the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, has branched out into stand-alone books. In this one, a retired Chicago cop buys a house in a rural town in Ireland’s Lonesome West, hoping to put police work behind him. But of course trouble finds him in the form of a local boy from a dysfunctional family who needs help finding his missing brother. If you are a French obsessive, you don’t need to know the rest. Just pre-order and call in sick for a couple days after Oct. 6 when the book comes out. (Michael)

Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña París (translated by Christina MacSweeney): A young man works through the aftermath of his mother’s abandonment when he was a young child, from the author of the critically acclaimed Among Strange Victims. (Lydia)

Just Like You by Nick Hornby: The much-loved author of High Fidelity, About a Boy, and other hits is out with another unlikely romance—this one between Lucy, a nearly divorced 41-year-old schoolteacher with two sons, and Joseph, a part-time butcher half her age who’s still living at home with his mom. When they meet, Lucy’s looking for a babysitter but winds up with something more. In this age of lockdowns and social distancing, the novel asks timely questions about how people manage to connect when confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Sometimes, this brutally funny novel suggests, the perfect match might be the person who’s utterly unlike you. (Bill)

Missionaries by Phil Klay: Despite soul-sapping fatigue, a soldier-medic adept at patching up the war wounded and a journalist equally adept at covering American war find the chance to enter yet another conflict zone irresistible. A calling of sorts. But whence the call? From its appeal to ego—the belief that one is among the favored few tasked with making things right in the world? As acolytes to violence, if not by preference then by necessity? With Missionaries, Klay, winner of the National Book Award in 2014, has dropped a novel on us of a muscular veracity as terrifying and important as it is rare in contemporary writing. (Il’ja)

Cuyahoga by Pete Beatty: Debut novel Cuyahoga by Pete Beatty ‘defies all modest description” according to Brian Phillips. The novel’s a mix of tragedy and farce that evokes the kitchen sink of classics (high and low): the Greek classics and the Bible alongside nods to Looney Tunes, Charles Portis, and Flannery O’Connor. Set in 1837 Ohio, Medium Son narrates the tale of Big Son, who looks for a steady wage and in doing so stumbles into a series of misadventures that involve (but are not limited to) elderly terrorists, infrastructure collapse, steamboat races, wild pigs, and multiple ruined weddings. A boisterous adventure, Cuyahoga at its essence, per Phillips, is “a ramshackle joy from start to finish.” (Anne)

The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross: In Gross’s debut novel, a disintegrating marriage inadvertently reveals a larger secret: the existence of a tiny Jewish village in Poland called Kreskol. Isolated (in equal measure) from the horrors, advancements, and culture of the 20th century, its residents must come to terms with their new reality—and long-hidden origin story. A starred review from Publishers Weekly says: “Gross’s entertaining, sometimes disquieting tale delivers laugh-out-loud moments and deep insight on human foolishness, resilience, and faith.” (Carolyn)

White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad: Born out of her viral Guardian article from 2018 ( “How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Color”), Hamad’s first book explores the ways white feminism has been used to uphold white supremacy and oppress Black and Indigenous women, and women of color. Blending history, research, and cultural criticism, Zeba Talkhani calls the book “an essential guide for those who want to be truly intersectional in their feminism.” (Carolyn)

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth: Danforth’s debut adult novel weaves together stories (and stories within stories) centered around Brookhants School for Girls, a shuttered and haunted New England boarding school. Deeply metafictional, mysterious, and queer, the novel explores the ways the past and the present converge in horrifying and spectacular ways. “Brimming from start to finish with sly humor and gothic mischief, Plain Bad Heroines is a brilliant piece of exuberant storytelling by a terrifically talented author,” says Sarah Waters. (Carolyn)

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori): In a follow-up to her wildly successful English-language debut, Convenience Store Woman, Murata’s newest novel follows Natsuki, a girl who believes she’s an alien. Ignored, abused, and painfully lonely, she grows up but never fits into society; she dreams of escaping the “factory” (modern Japanese society) for her true home: space. Elif Bautman calls the novel “A radical, hilarious, heartbreaking look at the crap we have all internalized in order to fit in and survive.” (Carolyn)

A Woman, A Plan, An Outline of a Man by Sarah Kasbeer: Winner of Zone 3 Press’s 2019 Creative Nonfiction Award, Kasbeer’s debut essay collection explores girlhood, sexuality, trauma, shame, and hope. “An astonishing collection not for the faint of heart,” says Chloe Caldwell. “Kasbeer speaks the unspoken and dares to be vulnerable in a world of facades.” (Carolyn)

Tiny Nightmares edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto: In their second “tiny” anthology, editors Michel and Nieto gather 40 established and emerging writers— including Samantha Hunt, Jac Jemc, and Hilary Leichter—to spin small tales of terror. About the little horrors, Carmen Maria Machado says: “I could gorge myself all day and night on these macabre, hellish little literary bonbons…Tiny Nightmares is an absolute treat.” (Carolyn)

‘The End of the Day’: Featured Fiction from Bill Clegg

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In today’s edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Bill Clegg’s second novel, The End of the Day.

The book was called “a thoughtful, well-observed story of a patrician New York City family and its Mexican servants” by Publishers Weekly in a starred review that hailed Clegg’s “splendid prose and orchestrated maneuvering.” And Kirkus dubbed the novel “A moody, atmospheric domestic drama with a mystery novel somewhere in its family tree.

This is not the house she knew. While it still stands exactly where it always has—between the steep pine woods and the top of the short, wide lawn that slopes to the river’s edge—there is something different about Edgeweather. Something missing or altered, something significant, but from the lowered car window it’s nothing Dana can identify.

As she scans the surfaces of the house—the copper drains, the mullioned windows, the vast expanse of old brick—she considers the possibility that it is simply the decades that have passed since she was last here that have made the house seem so unfamiliar. The main entrance, with its old oak door, shallow portico, and white columns, had since college reminded Dana of the boys’ dorms at Penn where she and her friends from Bryn Mawr snuck in on weekends. But it now seems more like the front door to an abandoned asylum.

Here?, Philip asks as he slows the car near the bottom of the portico stairs. Dana is still staring up at the house, surprised to see that much of the glass above and alongside the door has splintered, the paint on the sills fissured and split. Philip tentatively asks where they are. Edgeweather, she says, more to herself than in response to the question, imagining what her great-great-grandfather would think to see the place looking so shabby and neglected. George Willing had built the house for his bride, Olivia, just after they married. From their portrait, which hung above the dining room fireplace, Dana had decided when she was twelve that the people were horribly mismatched—an intelligent beauty from a lesser family and a wimpy rich kid. They had a son not long after they married and then the young husband left to fight in the Civil War. He died at the Battle of Hoke’s Run, in Virginia. Of course he did, Dana thought when she first heard the story. Despite learning in high school that Hoke’s Run was considered by historians more of a tactical blunder that led to terrible defeats weeks later, she’d heard her mother tell people that George Willing had died in the first battle of the Civil War. A battle the Union won, she’d noted in the same proud tone she used when describing the house’s grandeur—the six columns that lined the river side of the house, the too-large ballroom, the ceiling which was the house’s greatest extravagance, a loose replica of one designed by Robert Adam that George’s mother had seen in an English country house and described to her son as the most beautiful in the world. It was an enormous production of meticulous plasterwork, detailed with ribbons, urns, and rosettes decorating ovals and octagons painted in pastel pink and green and blue. Many of the ovals and roundels framed paintings—all classical depictions of wedding celebrations. 

The ballroom furniture and mirrors were either original Chippendale pieces designed by Adam or the closest possible approximation. The four large oval mirrors had been salvaged from a destroyed castle in Wales and repaired in London before being carried by boat to Connecticut. These were apparently a point of dispute between the architect and George, who insisted they appear at each end of the ballroom, on either side of the great fireplaces. George, of course, won. But to Dana’s eye, the house lost. Highly ornamented with carved swags and festoons, the mirrors had always struck Dana, like the rest of the room where they hung and indeed the whole house, as gilded evidence of an insecure husband’s fears of inadequacy. Even its name, Edgeweather, seemed off to her—a straining, willful amalgam of the names of more celebrated houses.

And still it stands, she thinks, looking at it now, both annoyed and relieved. Filled with most of the same furniture and decorations, covered in sheets, in rooms darkened by closed interior shutters and drawn curtains. All of it, along with the house in Palm Beach, the apartment in New York and nearly two centuries of cautiously invested family windfalls, became Dana’s when her mother died in the mid-eighties. She sold everything but Edgeweather, which she had not visited since she was thirty-six years old. Real estate agents and even the wife of a famous Wall Street billionaire had reached out to Dana to see if she were interested in selling. As easy as it was to get rid of everything else, it had surprised her to realize that she couldn’t let go of the old house. It still did.

Edgeweather’s only resident now was a local named Kenny who occupied the apartment where the Lopezes had once lived. He kept the pipes from freezing in the winter, the lawn mowed in the summer, and hauled away the giant pines when they collapsed across the driveway. Or at least this is what his emails, that Marcella printed up and placed on Dana’s desk once a month, described. Eyeing the roofline where it meets the top of the nearest column, it occurs to Dana that Kenny could have made everything up and for all she knew turned the place into a casino, which, as she imagines the locals getting drunk and spinning roulette wheels in the ridiculous ballroom, only the smallest, pettiest part of her is bothered by. The part that hates being taken for a fool, or worse, being left out. But mainly the idea amuses her, especially when she imagines how her mother would react. The possibilities so engross Dana that when Philip turns the car engine off and politely excuses himself to find somewhere to go to the bathroom, she does not notice. When he returns, she snaps out of her trance and tells him to drive the car around to the side of the house that faces the river. He hesitates. Don’t worry about the lawn, she says and as the words leave her an old caution enters, slows her breath. Joe Lopez, whose dominion included the grounds around the house, spent many hours seeding, mowing, and weeding the lawn. Dana had seen him explode more than a few times when service trucks backed up onto the grass or when Lupita played there. She once saw him yank her so hard by the arm it looked like it would come right off of her body. Lupita had been holding one of Dana’s bicycles in the middle of the back lawn, eyes closed and counting because Jackie and Dana had told her that once she reached one hundred she should come find them. They never planned on being found. The point was to ditch Lupita, run to Jackie’s, and play in her bedroom where she could not find them. Dana remembers telling herself, and Jackie, that her mother was strict about her not playing with the children of people who worked for them. And she was. But she also remembers calling out to Lupita to ask her to play hide and seek, rolling the bicycle toward her and instructing her to hold on to it while they hid. What surprises her now is that there had been so little motive involved, the cruel impulse so fleeting and arbitrary, so strangely impersonal. She can’t remember if she felt guilty or upset when she watched Joe Lopez drag his daughter back to the garage, but she remembers being struck by how totally compliant Lupita was, how silent.

On the lawn? Are you sure it’s ok? Philip asks nervously, as if he, too, knew the wrath of Edgeweather’s former, now long-dead, caretaker.

Yes, she says plainly, trying to stifle her need to use the bathroom by focusing on the house as Philip steers the car onto the grass. From this angle, parts of the house match her memory—the six preposterously large white columns still evoking the Antebellum South; the slate roof the same high cold lid it always was— but the effect is altogether different, less convincing. Mainly, she has the impression, which she’d never had before, that the house does not belong where it is. That it’s no longer in harmony with the woods, river, and hills around it, and as a result appears less inevitable. And it was that inevitability, its hulking permanence— seeming to have forever been right where it was—which had always been its power.

Late morning sun flames every window it faces. At first the light animates the house with what looks like life, an amused shimmer that could almost be mistaken for a warm welcome. But Dana knows that even before the sun inches past three o’clock and begins to hide behind the hills, the friendly glow will vanish and the house will return to its most enduring air: indifference.

Dana gets out of the car and walks several tentative steps toward the river. Unlike the house, which seems altogether less than she remembered, the river appears wider and more robust. She closes her eyes and listens to the sound of rushing water. She imagines where it goes after it passes Edgeweather, along Undermountain Road, down past Cornwall and Kent toward one of those terrible lakes choked with vacation houses and motorboats. How she knows about these lakes she cannot remember, but she shakes the vision of oil-slicked water and sunburned families and opens her eyes.

She walks to the rocky edge of the lawn where there had once been a small beach made from bags of sand Dana’s mother had Joe haul from a delivery truck parked in the driveway. The beach is long gone and in its place a chaos of river rubble—sticks and beer cans, a sun-bleached grocery store circular, half-buried rocks. She and Jackie spent so many evenings here, obsessively curating collections of river stones, sorting them by color and shape, pretending they were rare jewels from a fairy’s treasure. They’d embellished an old story Dana’s grandmother had liked to tell them about an enchanted family who lived in the woods called the Knees who’d cast a spell that disguised their jewels as stones and hid them in the river for safekeeping. Dana cannot remember the origins of the treasure, nor how it had come to the Knees for protection. Neither can she remember what had happened to all those stones—if they’d stored them each year between summers or thrown them back into the river—only that she and Jackie had been committed to the project and it went on for years.

A smooth fist-sized rock bisected by a dull vein of quartz lies at her feet and she stoops to pick it up. It fits her palm perfectly, chilling her hand as she folds her fingers around its dark gray surface. She imagines her old friend stubbornly hiding behind her metal blinds. She wonders if she’s opened her front door yet, discovered what she’d left there.

Dana squeezes the rock in her hand. It feels good to hold something sturdy and real and from the natural world. With her free hand she rubs a spot of dirt from the quartz vein but it still does not shine. The failed effort makes her both long for and pity the two girls who used to toil at the river’s edge and make up stories about fairies and enchanted treasure. She turns back to the house, looks up at the wide pediment atop the columns. Here, on the third floor of the house, is where she and Jackie spent the most time. It was what Jackie referred to as the “normal” part of the house, because the floors were covered in simple carpets and decorated with soft couches and chairs with modern fabrics. The white-carpeted, periwinkle-curtained room they’d decorated and then slept in most Saturday nights looked like one they might see on a television show set in a middle-class suburb. There were no delicate antiques to tiptoe around as there were on the first two floors, including in Dana’s bedroom which had a canopy bed that her mother claimed had been the bed of George Washington’s daughter. Who died of epilepsy, her grandmother liked to add. Dana’s parents never went up to the normal part of the house.

Dana eyes the crescent window above the middle column.    A memory of being shoved hard against the glass there begins to surface, but before she allows herself to remember more she notices tiny bits of dead vine still clinging to the painted wood beneath the window sash. And then, finally, she sees what is not there. The ivy. The entire house had been stripped clean of its old garment, vines and leaves that once swarmed the gutters and windows, frocked the brick with green in summer and red in fall. How had she not noticed right away?

Of course it looked out of place. Of course it seemed less sure of itself. It’s naked!, she blurts out loudly and pictures an old Park Avenue matron stripped, hosed down, and sent into The Colony Club at tea time. Dana looks more closely at the house and sees many of the bricks are cracked and loose, chunks of mortar fallen to the lawn. She starts to laugh. The sound she makes is triumphant, cruel. She sees the house but at the same time she sees her mother without hair or jewelry or makeup. A vain woman without armor, three stories high. More than two hundred years old, powerless to hide her age or obscure her wrinkles, all the old tricks taken away or no longer effective.

She is breathless, cackling, and it feels exactly right. She has come back for the first time in more than thirty years to stand before this house that is hers but not home—all the brick and glass and wood that a smitten rich kid could assemble in the middle of the nineteenth century—and with the same contempt it had shown everyone who had ever looked at it, she laughs, with such abandon and force that Philip approaches to see if she is all right. She waves him off without being able to make words but catches his eye and points to the house as if its disgrace were obvious. Look, she finally manages, and when he gazes on the place with palpable awe she turns her back on him. His reverence momentarily breaks the spell and she begins to breathe normally. She crosses the lawn and climbs the steps to the long wide terrace behind the columns. In the summers when she was young, there had been white canvas awnings that stretched over wicker sofas and chairs covered with green cushions and arranged around glass-topped tables set with fresh cut flowers. Now there is nothing but paint peeling from the moldings, the columns, and the steps. She sees a thick curl jutting out from the center left column and, slowly, she pulls the long sheet back and down until it reaches the column’s base. She yanks it free and drops it at her feet. She thinks of Joe Lopez again, almost wishes he was still alive to see how Edgeweather had decayed on her watch.

She stifles a wicked giggle as she steps off the terrace and heads toward the side of the house furthest away from the car. She rounds the last column where a library had been added in the 1920s. It was built in the same late Georgian style of the main house and invisible on the approach from the road, but Dana’s mother always thought it looked ridiculous. Her complaint was that its proportions were wrong, suburban was her exact word.

It is here, in the middle of the short glass hallway that connects the house to the library, where she sees the paint. Red letters, outlined in black, covering dozens of small glass panes and the white wood that frames them. The paint streaks beyond the glass windows onto the old brick where the hallway meets the house. Dana stops walking. She remembers her mother in the hospital during her last weeks, Maria Lopez painting her nails with red polish that looked garish against the white sheets and bedclothes, the top of the heart monitor lined with tubes of lipstick and powder. It was a scene so ghoulish and macabre, so far from resembling any recollection involving her mother in her prime, it had, to Maria’s horror, caused Dana to laugh. She is laughing now, though not from the memory of her mother, but in response to the riot of spray-painted profanity. From the other side of the house it sounds like choking and Philip comes running.

When Dana sees him appear, she doubles over with what began as laughter but devolves to a soundless panting. She gestures at the vandalism behind her. But Philip does not look where she points, and it is not the graffiti that spells “assholes” that is responsible for the alarmed look on his face.

Ma’am . . . I . . .

Yet again he is spoiling her fun, but she cannot quite form the words to ask what is wrong. Dana follows his gaze which returns reluctantly somewhere in front of and below her. When she sees what is there she stops laughing. The entire crotch and front of her brown suede pants are dark, soaked through with the reason she had left Jackie’s driveway. In the abrupt vertigo of shock and embarrassment, she stumbles backward, her left heel lands hard on the toe-end of her right boot and in steadying herself she completely loses the thread of where she is, what is happening, who is standing in front of her. Overwhelmed, she squeezes her eyes shut, crosses her arms against her chest, and stands very still.

After a minute, Dana looks up and sees Philip, the shiny black car parked in the grass behind him, and as if she’d vacated her body and suddenly returned, she remembers where she is and how she got here. Philip . . . Jackie . . . Wells. She turns to the house. Edgeweather, she mumbles, recalling her laughter just moments before. Her other heretofore immobilized senses follow and suddenly she’s aware of the wet suede chilling miserably against her thighs, the faint but specific and awful smell there reaching her nose. She does not look back at the paint-splattered windows behind her, but she feels acutely that the house has done this to her, ingeniously retaliated for her heckling contempt. She starts moving toward the car. She keeps her face down as she passes Philip since the only thing that could make the situation worse would be to see the pitying look on his face again. He calls to her from behind, Ma’am, I . . . should we see if someone is home to help?

She stops abruptly. She doesn’t need help, she asserts childishly to herself, fleeing to the car now feeling like a declaration of failure. A cloud that had briefly obscured the sun moves on and light blazes again from every window. Even splattered with graffiti, the house suddenly looks pleased with itself, spectacular. Freshly provoked, Dana tightens her fists and in her right hand rediscovers the stone she had picked up before. Its cool surface, its weight, and the hard quartz crystals her fingers press into give it the feel of a divine weapon.

It is only luck, not strategy or accuracy, that sends the rock into the crescent window above the terrace. If it had landed where she’d aimed, it would have hit the center ballroom window between the columns. But Dana hasn’t thrown anything more than a towel or a crumpled receipt since she was a teenaged girl and so her hand unclenches long before her arm has completed its movement and the rock flies up instead of straight, but with enough momentum to shatter the surface it hits. The bright, cracking sound on impact and the after-clatter of glass falling to the porch steps below is glorious. That she has inadvertently smashed Edgeweather’s highest window is victory enough to restore Dana’s equilibrium, and with it the welcome feeling that she is once again strong and in control. 

Unlock the house, Philip, she says, looking directly at him now.

Or do I have to break more glass to get inside?

Copyright © 2020 by Bill Clegg. From The End of the Day by Bill Clegg, published by Scout Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

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